16 October 2010

Low-Level Play

What I am about to say will not shock anybody who's gamed with me over the past, what, ten years? But I must press on.

I love low level play in Dungeons and Dragons. There! I said it!


Not for me are the bizarre tales of level 32 Fighters dual-wielding the Hammer of Thunderbolts and a +5 Sword of Dragon Slaying, tackling a squadron of githyanki pirates riding spider eaters, nor of level 25 Wizards reshaping the world as they see fit. There's nothing wrong with that game, of course, but it doesn't do it for me.

What I like are the tales of the little men. I have a copy of The Decameron, an interesting hodgepodge of stories told by a group of tale-spinners from the year 1348, full of tales of clever rogues, vengeance, and humor. The stories involve common men and women who find themselves in unusual situations and (generally) get the better of a more dull-witted rival through deception and cunning. It's a fascinating read, and extremely enjoyable. I recommend that you take a peek. It's worth every penny of the $7.95 I paid for it at Borders. Seriously. It's awesome.

It's the same way in roleplaying games. The story of how Napoleon conquered a good chunk of Europe is pretty interesting, and similarly with Alexander and Genghis Khan. Masterful conquerors, valiant warriors, and interesting people every one of them. But they're not interesting because they were powerful- what's interesting is what makes them tick.

For example, knowing that Alexander had an awful temper and was prone to hot-headedness is interesting- you can imagine what it'd be like to meet this warrior-king. We've all met fiery, passionate, driven people before, and we can relate. His megalomania and paranoia are interesting. Who hasn't felt like they ought to be the ruler of the known world? Who hasn't wondered if there aren't secret conspiracies amongst us? The fact that he conquered so much of the world is interesting, and the accounts of his battles are interesting, filled as they are with brilliant strategies and incredible insights.

But you'll notice that this is all historical. This actually happened, with regular people. Interesting, larger-than-life people, yes. But regular people nonetheless. Genghis Khan didn't have to have a magical sword, enchanted greaves, or a wand of fireballs to ravage the world with his hordes. He did it by being smarter, meaner, and tougher than anybody around him.

And that's how D&D should play. You can be the roughest, toughest, meanest motherslapper in town. Cool. But you're still going to need to be smart to get ahead. You can't lean on your magical weapons, armor, scrolls, potions, and staves to carry you through. You can't plow through an army of level 1 soldiers, because they're "merely" wearing plate mail, mounted on mundane horses, and wielding "boring" lances. That's insane, and that's just not right.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't get tougher, or that you should always face the same enemies in your games. I'm not saying you shouldn't progress, or that if you're playing a different way then you're wrong. I'm just saying that there's no reason that "mundane" is boring. There absolutely isn't. Nothing could be more exciting.


  1. I feel you on the love for low level play. One of my favorite fantasy yarns is Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld, whose protagonist is a clever rogue, probably a low-level thief in D&D/Labyrinth Lord terms, who can only memorize two spells at a time (yup, that's Jack Vance as in "Vancian" magic.) He gets by more by outwitting lazy or overconfident enemies more than fighting. I'd like my D&D games to be more like that.

    On a similar theme, might I suggest David Alexander's excellent essay, "D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations". I love an article in which the author suggests that Conan the Barbarian and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings were fifth level D&D characters, at best. You can read it at: http://www.thealexandrian.net/creations/misc/d&d-calibrating.html

  2. I am fond of low level play as well. One caveat: when the spell casting PCs start to level up a bit, then they can outstrip in power the mundane classes –like the Fighter– unless the sword-jockey has some of his own magic (+X swords and armor, potions, misc. magic, etc.).

  3. I'm a low level lover as well. It's much more challenging and dangerous and I like that dark death floats heavily in the game.

  4. I have to agree with you on this. Better to survive by wits and cunning than a magic item or an awesome weapon. Great post.

  5. I'm another fan of the low-level play. Where characters are more or less equal in equipment and the battle is one of wits (or numbers). The 'boss' at the end of the level (to use a dungeon scenario analogy) might be dangerous because of the masses of minions or a real suit of plate armour.

  6. @L. Beau: I've read that, actually, but have had suspicions in that direction for a long time. After all, when you look at Hit Dice and realize that a 4th level guy is straight four times better at everything than a 1st level guy, that kind of sets your "heroic expectations" scale right around that level.

    For a good example, Gilgamesh was said to be as strong as ten men. He could probably me modelled in D&D as a level 5 guy with a +2 strength bonus- tougher and stronger than anybody else in his entire empire, probably.

    @bighara: That's actually one of the reasons I wrote the Aremorican Addendum. The Addendum gives the Fighter extra hit points and a couple of extra goodies, like always getting to go first in combat.

    It's also one of the reasons I don't really like Vancian magic even though I like Vance; but that's a serious digression.

    @Dungeonmum: Thank you. It's a basic statement of intent, but it's always good to cover the basics. :)

    @runjikol: I like the general idea of a battle of the wits anyways. Leaning on your granted abilities is so boring- I hate rolling combat dice!

  7. In my new PbP game, the fighter has a strength of 18... and 2 hit points. I'm really looking forward to seeing where it's going. You'll never get that in higher level play!


D&D is a game about resources

Sometimes it pretends to be a game about stories, or adventures, but it isn’t. It’s a game about what you have- hit points, weapons, armor,...