I can already tell I'm going to get in trouble for this post. Ah, well. No one reads blogs on Fridays, right?
As my group gears up for another campaign start (the players need to generate PCs after our last TPK, and I need to find yet more low-level scenarios for 1st level characters...*sigh*), some questions arise in Ye Ol' Brain. Questions like: What's the aim here? What's the direction? Where do I hope to see the campaign go? What do I hope to accomplish with this thing? Why do I want to run a game at all?
To which the answer almost always comes back the same: I just want to play D&D.
What's the aim? Direction? Um...I don't really care. Where do I want to see the campaign go? I have no destination in mind. Accomplishments? It's just D&D. My joy is in playing...and as a DM, "play" for me means creating a world and various scenarios/challenges for my players and then running those and seeing how they pan out. I am a mad god, with no ultimate divine plan...because, of course, I am not a TRUE God, and my life is as finite as any other human and will some day end. So I play to play. Because I enjoy it. My players seem to enjoy my game (and why would they not when it is D&D, a magical realm of fantastic possibility, perilous danger, amazing rewards/loot). And so I run the game, hoping to see it last and last and last.
The world building is, thus, of paramount importance. Why? Because for a game to last it must have far more possibility and potential than what can be explored and consumed within the lifetime of the DM. Fortunately, our own world is a wonderful example of just how big a world can be. How many "adventures" (and misadventures) of large and small variety have you had in your own town? Or in towns that you've visited? Or wilderness areas outside of towns? And how many THOUSANDS or TENS OF THOUSANDS of towns and cities and wilderness areas have you NOT visited in your lifetime? Heck, I've been to Europe four or five times, visited three times that many cities (at least) on the continent and had amazing experiences, and that has barely scratched the surface of the possibilities...and all without a single combat encounter or larcenous incident.
This is why I can take an area as small as the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia) and know that this TINY CORNER of planet Earth can provide all the "world" I need for the rest of my days. Throw in western Montana, parts of the California coastline, extraplanar adventures, and (possibly) some sort of "Underdark" like what you find in the classic "D" module series? There's far more than I could ever "finish;" far more than I'll ever probably need. My world map is set. Everything else is just keeping track of population points, resources, political factions (only if/as needed!) and "adventure sites" (i.e. dungeons).
"Um...JB? You mentioned 'high level play' in your post title?"
Right, sorry...getting to that. My current world...the one I've been using since I started playing AD&D again (a couple years back), has yet to see high level characters as I define them. The players I've been working with are, after all, kids who are still learning the ropes of the game...but mainly it's just that 1E isn't a cakewalk game to play. Characters die...and with SMALL parties (less than six or seven characters), any single loss can lead to cascade failure and disaster. Eventually, some combination of skill and luck will enable a number of player characters to reach the higher levels, and once they do the "PC EcoSystem" will become much more stable and secure. They just haven't got there yet.
But I have seen high level campaign play in the past...both as a DM and a player. And with much talk about high level play being bandied about in recent months (both here and elsewhere), I thought I'd share my experiences, so that people can understand my perspective on this somewhat mythical level of play.
BECAUSE...IF you share my joy of the game, and ARE committed to the long haul, and have a robust world that will LAST for the long haul, THEN with committed, determined players, you WILL eventually have high level PCs to deal with.
SO...there are two ways to end up with high level characters in your game: players "work them up" in standard fashion (aka The Hard Way), or they are "gifted" to players in the form of pre-gens or scenario specifics characters (which might be just one-offs or they might be allowed to linger in campaigns). I've run...and played...both types in past campaigns.
My first "campaign" lasted from circa 1982-1985 and mostly consisted of my friends and I learning to play the game (for the interested, I documented a rough history of my gaming history last June). I hesitate to even call it a proper campaign: much of it was dissociative, like a series of con-games...or FLAILSNAILS type adventures...with no common thread aside from the characters being used. Because our game started with B/X it was deadly but not punitive: resurrections didn't reduce CON for example, wishes did not age individuals and the DM (me) was fairly lenient with giving PCs means to reverse failures. However, there was NO world building to speak of, no real "town play" (just dungeons and wilderness), nothing for PCs to spend treasure on besides castles and specialist hirelings (B/X doesn't have upkeep and training costs). Towards the end of this period, we began incorporating AD&D books into our game: high level spells, artifacts and relics, demon princes and arch-devils, etc. But the game was generally a mess...as one might expect from a bunch of pre-teen kids with little knowledge of the "real world" (history, geography, politics, economics, etc.). Just low-level D&D with bigger, fancier toys.
Still. There were some beefy dungeons back then. And even uber-high level characters fear black puddings and rust monsters. No nerfing required.
In the fall of 1985, we decided to blow up the entire thing and start over from scratch using By The Book AD&D...as best we could. Characters started at 1st level and had to "work their way up." But, again, we didn't do much in the way of world building: a lot of "town adventures," but the towns were (mostly) nameless and unconnected other than by nameless roads. Mostly we were learning the AD&D rules, including the incorporation of the Unearthed Arcana. The campaign was short-lived...I would guesstimate my character earned a maximum of 300,000 x.p. over the course of the entire thing (and my PC was the most consistently played of all our group, now that we were sharing DM duties). That's only "mid-level" in my book...the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was one of the last adventure modules we ran, and the party ended up abandoning the quest sometime in the upper caves.
Sometime circa 1986ish (I'm guessing the summer, maybe fall), we started over a final time, and this time went hard. We used the World of Greyhawk map, but far less of its background/history, and our pantheon of gods were strictly Grecian (as had been the case since moving to AD&D). Characters initially had to be started at level one, although replacement PCs, brought in to fill out decimated parties, were allowed to start at higher levels as per Gygax's stipulations on page 12 of the DMG. Over the course of the next two+ years, these PCs DID reach high levels...my own character, started as a first level fighter, eventually became a bard in at least the high teens (16th+) range. That's well over a million x.p. earned, and while some of that was certainly acquired magically, he definitely lost levels to level drain as well.
In all honesty, it is my experience in that final, grand campaign that provided most of my concept of what "proper" AD&D adventuring should look like. This was not a sit-down, weekly session with the same six friends kind of thing: the campaign was always "on," always being played. Whenever the DM was with one or more players...and had his/her books, dice, etc....and an idea, the game was run. Records were tracked (time and location) to ensure continuity, but this was not otherwise an 'organized' affair. Hell, a lot of our games were conducted over (landline) telephone, and we had party lines and three-way calling to enable this kind of activity.
Sure: the campaign started off with 3-4 players and a DM with some introductory scenario, in some small town. After a few small successes, the characters would move onto the next adventure "lead" to another town. Many of the characters in the campaign were reiterations of past characters...I played the same half-elf bard in all three of these campaigns (I don't believe he even reached bard status in the second campaign)...and thus many had established "backgrounds" and personality quirks even if we did minor tweaks (alignment was OFTEN changed) between re-boots. Anyway, with "known" characters...and being experienced players...many of us had ideas and ambitions of what we wanted to accomplish in the game world, and set out to achieve those ambitions. First, of course, there was always the need to make a little coin and get some levels under the belt, then we'd move on to grander schemes...often causing the party to drift apart.
However, since the game was always "on," this separation allowed all of us to adventure independently while still maintaining the same world. Players would have secondary (or tertiary) characters that could join a group when their "main" PC was doing magical research or building their fortress or whatever. We would eventually have a total of eight players participate at one time or another, four of whom were "regulars," and two of whom acted as co-DMs of the world. That's EIGHT players...but the number of PLAYER CHARACTERS that showed up was more like three-four times (?) that. "Main PCs" (for lack of a better term), like my bard, were the major characters by dint of their high levels, which gave them access to considerable resources (hirelings and henchmen, magic items and money, hit points and spells, etc.)...of these, my PC was the closest thing to a high level "murder hobo" since, being a bard, he never settled down, never had henchmen, and was fairly self-sufficient with a wide range of abilities. But I was still DMing, too...usually with modules (I ran a pair of 12th level PCs through D1: Descent Yadda-Yadda, though they never made it to the Grand Cavern before chickening out).
Because AD&D scales so well, the game never devolved into cartoony, superhero D&D. Any character can fail a poison save. Any character can fall off a cliff or be assassinated or get hit with an arrow of slaying. BTB wizards (who should ALL have INT 18) are still extremely limited in the spells they know, unless they are actively pursuing spell books/scrolls OR spending a tremendous amount of treasure on research...and all the best spells have serious restrictions (expensive components or side effects like aging/system shock). Because it's a bit of a grey area we only reduced CON for raise dead and resurrection, but PCs wished back to life had no such loss...even so, that knocked out a lot of wishing rings and luck swords and we still had characters with CON drain (my PC must have been brought back to life seven or eight times).
Even at high level, you STILL didn't traipse lightly into the Abyss to see what kind of treasure Jubilex (or whoever) had in his hoard...nether planar creatures will F you up in a Very Bad Way very quickly. Adventures tended to be less "wahoo" gonzo and more grounded: rival baron with army is causing problems in your domain, or an unsullied Really Bad Dungeon so dangerous that any explorer under 10th level gets vaporized looking at it. You don't really need to nerf PCs when a dragon can strafe everyone in the party for 88 points of damage...that's a deterrent for dumb-dumb play right there. So is grappling by hordes of 2HD humanoids (bullywugs are a good choice). So is energy drain. Hit points (and spells) always run out eventually. Yes, the fighter's armor class may be so low as to be un-hittable in melee...but there's no to hit roll needed for falling damage. And traps saved for half-damage will still whittle you down.
What you DO get with high level characters is the ability of PCs to operate far more independently of one another. No longer do you NEED to huddle together in groups of five to seven, pooling your resources and abilities. One high level PC...solo or accompanied by a pair of trusted henchmen...can make their own forays into forbidden cairns and tombs. And often they'll WANT to go solo: acting first to acquire some rare magic item or coveted spell scroll before another PC can acquire the same. As PCs become high level movers and shakers, it's not unusual to see more inter-player conflict as rivalries develop...which can work, sometimes, but isn't conducive for the long-term health of one's campaign.
[which is why I play with a strict, no-PVP policy these days]
But even with the ability to operate as independent agents, high level PCs can do MORE working together than apart. Yeah, invading the Demonweb Pits is probably a bad idea anyway, but it's a lot easier when you've got five or six stalwarts and as many lieutenants at your back. I've never run megadungeons myself, but I'd imagine you want as many spell batteries as possible when your group is pushing into the 6th (and deeper) levels below ground.
Regardless, in running a campaign that includes high level characters, it is important for the DM to provide carrots for the players to keep them engaged. GENERALLY SPEAKING, the world building by itself is the most important thing, because for long-term satisfaction, players must feel like they are having substantive impact on the imaginary environment and that is ONLY possible with a solid foundational setting.
"Can I start a thieves guild?" Sure. "Can I run a tavern/brothel?" Yep. "Can I marry the prince, have him secretly killed and become Queen of the country?" Why not? All these things and more should be on the table for the enterprising player...and how they accomplish these goals IS the thing that becomes the adventure. High level characters have more grandiose dreams: my character, for example, wanted to become a deity and usurp Hades spot as the God of Death and the Underworld. It never happened for him (duh), but it was fun trying to figure out how one might go about doing it. As a DM of a long-running campaign with players who have put in the time and effort and earned their high levels you should expect...and be prepared!...for players to want to do more than look for the next 20-chamber labyrinth.
Because they'll want more. They always do.
This is why the vast majority of the (very few) "high level" adventure modules fall into the range of fairly bad to nigh unplayable. High level characters are not only defined by their increased abilities and extraordinary gear, but by the relationship they've built over time with the campaign world. The constant interactions...necessary to achieve a high character level...over time embeds the character and builds them a place in the world's structure. I'm not just talking about strongholds and hideouts, but the relationships they build with the fantasy people (NPCs) of the world.
For example: the characters, mid-level (5th - 7th or thereabouts) get beat up pretty badly in some poorly thought-out venture. They have at least one or two beloved characters in need of resurrection, but they are far from the nearest city that might have a fundable patriarch (too far to arrive within the time limit of a raise dead spell). However, it just so happens that there is a rather seriously powerful druid (L13+ nearby) who is friendly to adventurers that are "forest helpers" (or non-orcs or whatever) who can give 'em some healing.
And so they build a relationship with the archdruid (or whatever) and this EXTENDS their operating range as they can now push deeper into the wilderness, and...
Damn. Just got a call from my aunt. My 93 year old grandmother appears to be on her way to joining my mother in the Great Beyond. Ugh.
Sorry to cut the post short. The family and I are driving to Montana. I'll check in later.