Saturday, July 12, 2014

Low level characters, and the effects on play

I like low level campaigns, as a GM for over 30 years now, I have ran only a handful of campaigns where the characters rose above the seventh level. I also prefer low magic campaigns. With this post, I give some words and explanations on my reasoning.

I often see the question of defining the OSR come across my online radar. The old "rulings, not rules" is a good one, and while I totally agree with this, another aspect of my games comes to mind. Low level characters have always been a staple of my games. I think the lower levels are more fun than higher levels. Why? I am not sure, but I think it has to do with the fact that those low level characters are like you and I. They are not flinging a world shattering spell every breath, nor are they wielding a Sword of the Godslayer +15. They are terrified, they are about to enter the dark maw of a dungeon where everything is there to kill them.

Think about that for a moment. 

Having been in situations where people are there for one purpose, to end your life, I can tell you this causes you to become either terribly focused or numb. It changes the way you look at things and certainly would change the characters as they sneak down dark, damp steps, going yet farther into danger.

But enough of that, you guys don't want to read about me comparing combat to dungeon delving fools.

So with the idea that fear (or insanity) is a part of life for these adventurers in mind we shall continue. The other day I came across an excellent post by +Rick Stump, before proceeding, if you have not read his piece, you should:

Pretty enlightening, is it not? Consider the sheer shortage of high powered characters - compare that to the monsters that exist in your campaign world - and things get interesting. 

Consider your party of five characters of 5th level. There are 5 of you....and using his example of a kingdom of 780,000...there are ONLY TWENTY-THREE of you in the ENTIRE KINGDOM! Your party is ONE-FIFTH of some pretty powerful dudes in the entire kingdom!

This drastically changes the way I, as a GM, think about our characters. People would know who they are. They know something about them when they stroll into town. People would know they were powerful, and likely wealthy. And, HOLY SHIT, bad guys would know of them for sure...they will want the characters dead if they pose a threat.

With this in mind, certain things are effected, here are a few that I came up with:

Mentors, as noted in his article, would be very hard to come by. Odds are they will be very expensive and very picky with whom they choose to be their pupils.

Magic items...remember those magic shops we used to have in our teenage campaigns....they would now become extremely rare. If you were one of the 20 people in the kingdom that could use that wand, what sort of resell value would it have? Almost nil, except to that elite crowd, and you probably already have them on speed dial on your crystal ball.

Clerics floating around that could heal, or even, resurrect your buddy that gotten eaten by the owlbear? Yeah, right. One, maybe two guys in the ENTIRE KINGDOM could even cast a resurrect spell. Imagine what he could charge!

Imagine that fighter that comes across Chainmail +3, you think he is going to part with that? Sure, sure it is worth allot and would help him against the next monster, but consider the advantage this gives him over other fighters in the realm. As humans (or, likely any other race) we all want to the best and even a fighter's end state is to rise to be the lord of a stronghold. If another fighter comes along to be a rival in the later stages of a campaign, that +3 is seriously going to give him an advantage over the few other fighters in the kingdom.

Look at magic-users. At fifth level you can assume there are only four in the kingdom (I rounded up). Four! Likely one is in the party! This alone makes me wonder about those who want to cast magic missile with every breath. This scarcity of magic falls directly in line with my thoughts on magic and its rarity in the campaign world. 

Spells would be very rare, what are the chances that one would of the 110 magic-users who lived in the last 100 years wrote down spells on random scrolls? Did they do this to sell them to people? Was there a big market for that? Would not these be extremely valuable and cherished items?

Anywho, this article has really had me thinking about the world we game in and the 'reality' of that world. 


  1. Another thing is the capability of the kingdom mentioned to deal with lower-mid hit dice but having a high intelligence, solid spell like ability's, immunity to non magical weapons, or even worse the infectious creatures that grant such ability's. In LL ogre mage encounters are rolled on a d6. Six of them alone would be a major problem for the entire nation. Its something of a trope but a nest of wererats in the slums of the city are considered a low level threat in most mid to high magic games or low magic with a higher population or higher frequency of classed NCP's. But in the described setting any lycanthrope or infectious undead would be a major problem for the entire kingdom.

    1. Good point. Even some of the typical 'lower risk' monsters could beyond the capability for a region to handle...I suppose this explains the need for heroes to root out these problems and remove them.