Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Expert Barrier

Remember the Sound Barrier and how people used to think a plane couldn't surpass it? Nowadays we have the Light Barrier, which seems just as unbreakable in 2006 as it was in 1906. Well, in my mind there is an Expert Barrier, such that no PC can surpass the 14th level without the physics of D&D breaking down. Back in the earliest days of Basic/Expert D&D the rules only went to level 14, with mere suggestions for post-14 play. Sure, OD&D and AD&D had rules for wizards of level 18+ and the '83 version of Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal D&D had rules for 36th level and PC godhood. But I started with the Moldvay & Cook version of D&D and its level 14 cap. To this day I have these this niggling little voices of doubt concerning levels 15 and above. These voices maintain that only munchkins and cheaters play characters with levels that high. The voices also say that the rules strain under that much PC power.

Although I've run some 10th level and higher level stuff (such as multilple forays Against the Giants), my real comfort zone in D&D is pretty low. Those first three Basic levels are golden for me. And the early Expert range of 4th to 8th are a lot of fun. But once PCs start to hit what used to be called Name Level I start getting a little freaked out. And that is with rulesets I feel I can handle! I pulled the plug on my 3.0 campaign largely because 6th level PCs making magic items seemed Just Plain Wrong. I'm doing better handling this mental baggage of a bygone era, but looking at my present campaign has me worried. We're coming to the end of the first huge-ass campaign arc (I don't even normally do huge-ass campaign arcs, but Dungeon Interludes makes that job a snap.) and it looks like we'll be done in perhaps as few as 2 more sessions. Assuming the Good Guys win most of the party will be 12th level or so by the time we're finished, maybe even 13th. That's dangerously close to the Expert Barrier. And I've only thrown fuel onto the fire by running a campaign using the Gestalt rules from Unearthed Arcana.

So here I am running a campaign that I enjoy and that my players seem to enjoy. But with each new session I'm more and more concerned that the game will collapse under its own weight and form a little black hole of suck right where my game room used to be. Even now I have trouble handling things like spellcasting NPCs or monsters with more than one or two special abilities. Experience running such freaks will not doubt help my confidence, but once Dungeon Interludes is done I'll lose the boost gained by having a clear structure to hang the campaign on. To help with that end I'm thinking the post-Interludes campaign needs to go in one or both of two directions. One path is to use more Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games. Right now they sell no less than four modules that would be of appropriate levels. And I really like the DCC line. The other route would be to spend mutliple sessions looting Castle Maure, the old Gygaxian adventure site updated for 3.5 in the pages of Dungeon. It might be possible to do both of these options. I've got a few other Dungeon adventures that might work as well. And I need to run at least one do-it-myself adventure. I've already started working on some notes for it. It's called Union of the Snake and features a whole slew of serpent-themed monsters and some evil outsiders. The party rangers will finally get to use their special anti-monster abilities!

I feel a sense of investment in my current campaign and I'm actively working towards making it function and grow. But I still can't shake the notion that I should also be doing some preliminary work on my next campaign. That's why sometimes in this blog you'll see me talking about running Low Life or Arcana Evolved or maybe Northern Crown. Part of me feels doomed by the Expert Barrier.