Monday, April 4, 2011

A History of My Campaigns, Part II

Within a couple of years of D&D 3.0 coming out, I decided that I really wanted to run it. So I gathered some friends, and told them the campaign would end at level 20. Then I took them through a 2nd edition mega-adventure (Night Below), with some add-ons. I figured that having a structured system like 3.0 would allow me to better provide challenges for PCs, and I would be able to use the challenge level system to provide an even playing field for the characters. I allowed any OGL resource to be used, pending my approval. I also specified that I would be using the Rules As Written (RAW).

By the time the campaign was over, certain players, who could readily absorb and manipulate the system, had characters for whom I could not provide a sufficient challenge (again). Other players, who didn’t care or didn’t bother to tinker with their builds, were waaaay behind on the power curve. So the inherent flexibility that the system provided proved to be more troublesome than the benefits of customized characters. In addition, the amount of time I spent on builds was growing exponentially with the power of the opposition. Since I played RAW, I didn’t cheat, guess or fudge, I used what I prepped, and if the players walked all over the opposition, so be it. I used the EL and Challenge level system religiously. By the same token, if they were outmatched, then someone died. This ‘all or nothing’ result also grew as the characters progressed, because using these detailed, high level stat blocks in play required that I have the system down, and be proficient using the rules in a way I was frankly unprepared for. There were many times that I made mistakes, or was simply unaware how much the correct use of spells and abilities contributed to being an effective threat.

I was aware of this principle since 2nd Edition days – I still vividly remember being told in a tournament playtest that the characters had been scaled back in level, and provided with very simple (yet powerful) magic items, because time and again players lost when playing high-level characters, yet were able to win with lower level characters against the same high level foes.

You can see this principle in action on the RPG message boards. Go to and listen to the high essence Exalted tactics, or to Enworld or the Paizo boards for discussions of high level characters. If you eyes don’t glaze over, it means you are probably young and sharp, or you are an engineer or some other science based professional. Which didn’t help me, the perpetual English major, at all.

The campaign ended, and I felt like I had succeeded in some of the goals I set for myself, and failed in others. I still hadn’t been able to properly provide consistent regular challenges to players. There was still too much discrepancy in power between the adept student of the rules and the casual player. In sticking to a scripted high level mega-campaign, I had not pleased some of the players, who grew tired of the endless combat slog of Night Below. New problems had also appeared. I spent way too much time on stat blocks. I was not proficient enough in the rules set to make it do what I wanted it to do.

Let me explain that last bit some more. During the late eighties and nineties I helped run Call of Cthulhu tournaments both locally and at GenCon. With the exception of a few disasters, I was fairly good at running Call of Cthulhu. To use some fairly sexist imagery, I could slap around the BRP system, make it my bitch, and get it to do what I wanted it to. The system, at its basic level, allowed me to accomplish what I needed to happen with very little work, and I knew when I could ignore the rules and when I had to stick to them (without the players noticing, usually).

Since everyone and their brother liked d20, the majority of my players wanted to continue play D&D. I had hopes that 3.5 would alleviate some of the problems I was experiencing, and I was eager to try my hand at a sandbox campaign. I had owned in the past the original Wilderlands campaign produced by Judges Guild and had recently purchased the revision from Necromancer Games. So I started another D&D campaign.

My players hated it.

There was too much freedom for them. They weren’t used to finding the adventure, and it was taking too long to gain levels, because they spent a lot game time travelling and exploring, especially compared to my previous campaign. Unspoken, but fairly clear to me, was that they were getting used to that level bump in power, like a MMORPG, and slower advancement was keeping them from getting their fix.

So after several sessions, I put that aside, but my players liked my GMing enough to want me run more D&D, so I did my best to accommodate them. There was a large, 20-level adventure path put out by Paizo in their pre-Pathfinder days, called Age of Worms. It name-checked enough old school Greyhawk stuff to make me want to play it. So I charged ahead into a 3.5 game, and mandated certain requirements: No 3rd party material, only WotC builder books. At that time, there were maybe three or four of those (the Complete series) and I could keep up with the rest of it, right?

Before long, I found myself in exactly the same situation as before, builder books and expansions proliferated, until they were too heavy for me to carry in a single large bag. Characters with an absurd amount of options, prestige classes and templates emerged, some of which were so powerful they ended combat before the fighters could land a blow. Rule interpretations provoked arguments, and since we were playing RAW, some (few, really) players thought they could argue and bluster their way out of nearly any situation, if only they could determine a precedent in their favor.

Stat block complexity multiplied, and hours could be spent on a minor NPC, trying to tweak them to be able to present a proper challenge or even just get a handle on what the stats could be used for during play.

I was miserable.

It wasn’t all bad, and I had a lot of good times with/because of the people I played with, but I dreaded all the rules related stuff I had to deal with. I made one, maybe more, rules related mistakes every time I played and I hated that. I’m in the climactic battle of the second to last scenario, and I am mostly relieved that it’s nearly over.

I tried Pathfinder, and have played in lots of other d20-based games. Pathfinder certainly cleans certain things up, I’ll give you that, but my complaints are too systemic (ahem). I thought D&D and I were basically through.

Then I found the OSR.


  1. Enjoying the blog, Doyle. Thanks for taking us along on the journey. I am eager to learn how this experiment turns out for you. As a player and a GM, I often find myself of two minds on this issue. As a player, there is no substitute for the kind of customization and thought that can go into a character in a system as mature as 3.5 (or 3.75 Pathfinder, if you will). When you're really into a character and want to deep-end on detail, there is something really satisfying about specialization, prestige classes, or even encumbrance (yes, I said it).
    As a GM, I completely agree with you that managing that growing rule-set is an unappealing and ultimately losing proposition. The simplicity and flexibility of the old school rules are refreshing and kind of liberating.
    But now you have a different set of issues inherent in a less codified system. Looking forward to hearing about your experience!

  2. I agree, there are reasons other than commercialism for 2/3/3.5/4. So you're correct, in that I will be trading some issue for others. I have an idea about customization that I will be discussing in a future blog, so hopefully I will have learned some things form previous editions that I can bring to my new table.

  3. As a player in several of the campaigns you've mentioned (and apologies for finding your blog so late after writing it!) one observation demands notice.

    You don't like high-level play, Doyle.

    The ruleset being whatever you deem, I'd bet money that once the campaign reaches that undefined mark of "high level" you'd find your frustration level up and your enjoyment level down.

    And there's nothing wrong with that at all.

    Many players (me included) absolutely enjoy low-level play. The victories are sweeter (because, after all, you don't have a backpack full of problem solvers!) I think you are cut from the same cloth.

    Perhaps as a test... an experiment into personal exploration, if you will... you should organize a campaign with a shorter goal. Perhaps a set of 3 or 4 modules... or an in-game goal of generating enough funds to buy back the family farm... something of that nature. Additionally, see if your "sandbox" model is greeted with greater enthusiasm, given the short-term goal of the campaign.

  4. Your remarks shows more insight than you realize, I think. In old-school play (OD&D, AD&D 1st Ed., Basic & Expert sets) players generally didn't advance much beyond 9th level. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between, so as to prove the rule that there was effectively very little high level play. That's because, in large measure, the game breaks down after 12th level or so, no matter what rule set you use.

    This being the case, you are correct, in that I like low level play, because the game gets broke after that point. But there are plenty of things I don't like about 2nd edition and up, which would keep me away from anything like Pathfinder for 'low-level' play in the future.