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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Low-Level Modules

James Maliszewski at Grognardia raised the question: Why so many low-level modules? And a lot of people are suggesting answers, so I might as well take a break to toss in my rather simple answer that everyone already secretly knows: because in old school play, dungeon depth equates to challenge level. The deeper you go in the dungeon, the more dangerous it becomes. This has a couple consequences:
  • A GM can easily expand a low-level dungeon by adding a secret door to a lower level, or having creatures tunnel up from below, thus allowing the dungeon to scale to the party's level as needed.
  • Unless they publish a dungeon level with a note "add this below Level X of your current dungeon", the unspoken feeling among module designers is that they would need to design levels 1 through 9 of a dungeon before doing a 1oth level, which means more work for higher-level modules.
The second point, of course, doesn't have to be true, but designers seem to act like it is. You could have the first level of a dungeon be equivalent to Dungeon Level 9, as long as you have sufficient warnings for the players about how dangerous it is. The usual method for protecting low-level adventurers from dungeons they aren't ready for is to place it somewhere in the far wilderness; wilderness encounters are not scaled to any kind of "dungeon level", so long wilderness journeys tend to be pretty dangerous. You can also refer to high-level adventure locations with terms that have obvious overtones of danger, like "the giant's keep" or "the dragon's lair". The really, really dangerous adventures aren't even in a humanly-accessible location, but are in undersea kingdoms or on other planes, making adventures there impossible without certain spells.


  1. I wouldn't be surprised if the real reason is more of a callous marketing position. Everyone* plays through the low to mid levels, not everyone plays the high level stuff.

    Also, on the practical side, lower level PCs can die a lot, so having lots of adventures for the players to attempt before they finally get some higher level characters is a good thing, IMO.

    *yeah, some people start higher than 1st, but we've all at least played those low levels a time or three.

  2. Low level modules can be more generic and of localized significance so they are easier to fit into a campaign setting. Higher level modules have more significant foes with a lot of campaign relevant baggage and aren't so easy to drop into a campaign setting.

    B1 & B2 can fit virtually anywhere in D&D land but the D1, D2 and D3 bring along a whole bunch of campaign defining elements. The Ravenloft modules are even more campaign defining so much so they had to move the modules to their own little plane.
    The S series modules are high level modules that don't have to change the whole campaign to accommodate them but there are still some concessions that need to be made here and there (one has an crashed starship as adventure site).

    Low level modules are easy to hammer in place or simply not worry about a few minor inconsistencies.

  3. @Lord Gwydion: marketing actually seems to be a oft-quoted reason for this, especially since WotC did a survey that suggested that high-level play was pretty rare.

    @JD: of course, high-level module designers could design just lower dungeon levels without worrying about the stuff around/above the levels, giving GMs the option to add access points below the appropriate level of an existing dungeon or a direct access point that requires higher character class levels to negotiate.