Most old school DM’s and players, in my experience, have not been a part of games with high level characters. The lethality of old school play can keep you from getting a character much over 6th or 7th level. A lot of campaigns fizzle out before characters hit 9th or 10th level. Often this is because life happens, the DM gets burned out, or the group decides they want to try something different before the characters achieve higher levels. I have also noticed a lot of old school fans feel the sweet spot of old school D&D falling somewhere in the neighborhood of 5th through 8th levels. Characters at those levels have some interesting capacities but they are still have some vulnerabilities. I am learning that the higher levels can be great fun if you design your adventure locations and adversaries properly.
Characters above 11th and 12th level in original or basic D&D have some serious time under their belts. It can take a long time to get an old school character to those kind of levels. Old school characters at that level have massive amounts of loot, magic items, powerful spells, henchmen and may have established kingdoms with an army. They are a power reckon with. As a result, these characters can be a DMing challenge.
My current Swords and Wizardry campaign has characters in the 11+ level range. After several months of running games for these characters and perusing some of the threads on various message boards; I have some observations about what works when running high level old school games.
Don’t be afraid to stretch and compress time.
High level characters are more likely to be involved in downtime activities. Magic users in particular may spend months doing magical research, preparing to cast a major spell or creating a magic item. Fighters who have become lords or kings may have visits with his vassals, inspection of the defenses, minor monster lairs to root out or to supervise the construction of a fortification. There are a variety of free and published systems which allow you to abstract some of these activities. I have had good success with, “You spend the winter planning for the spring campaign season, the weather was harsh over the winter and you had to go out and kill some winter wolves that had come down out of the north (1000xp). ” And then we move on.
Because high level characters require massive amounts of treasure and XP to level up, you have to make it worth their time to want to go out on an adventure. You need a bigger quarry and so they need to have something that really threatens them. But if you have giants and dragons roaming the lands every week, things get a little silly. You may need to have dangers that are far off or only come around not so often.
Make the stakes bigger.
When you’re a 1st level fighter with a wooden shield and a spear, the stakes of your failures are that you die. A few levels later, a TPK means the zombies over run the village and the woodcutters have to flee to the closest lord’s keep. At just below “name” levels, perhaps a dragon shuts down trade on a major thoroughfare if you aren’t on your game. At level 12+ kingdoms shudder at your name. Demons seek your death in revenge for their dismissal. Start creeping toward 20th level and you get characters who may be the world’s only hope or gods are sending you on a mission.
Don’t nerf character abilities. Challenge them.
I have noticed a tendency to create adventures where magic doesn’t work or the fighter’s ability to stab damn near anything are no longer relevant. There are reasons to do some of that but in specific ways and I’ll get to that in a bit. However, give your players the opportunity to use those spells, magic items and abilities they’ve gained after keeping the same character alive over 100 sessions. They’ve earned it and its fun.
That wizard has a 13D6 fireball. If an army of goblins shows up on the door step, don’t make the buggers fireproof with “magic” or whatever. Let the wizard nuke the little bastards. A 10th level fighter can make 10 attacks a round against monsters of 1HD or less. When the army of goblins shows up, there ought to be a pile of corpses around him like a Frazetta painting. This sort of mayhem is fun.
Instead of making their magic ineffective, make them use it to progress through the challenges. I’ve recently been creating dungeons that PC’s can’t get into or navigate without a fly or levitate spell. Oh, there’s a lake of lava, how do we get over that? The treasure is in that sunken ship 500 feet down? You have magic, figure it out. The paranoid lich has spent the last ten years casting symbol spells and animating dead around his lair. How are you going to get in?
Design situations where the ability to kill everything is not beneficial.
Just because they can kill everything you throw at them doesn’t mean that you have to make that a good thing. Create situations where negotiation and compromise will produce better outcomes. If the players decide to murderize their opponents, you create bigger problems for them. More problems than they can handle at once. They kill one tribal warlord and his warband… well all of the warbands are now pissed off and decide they’ve had enough of the city folk. So next spring all the warbands on the steppe have united under a charismatic leader and they have a massive horde sweeping across the land. Five different cities are under siege and all the trade routes are cut off. Refugees, bandits and carrion monsters wander the lands. Which problem are you going to deal with first?
You kill the king of the next door kingdom because he won’t bend the knee? Well, he didn’t have an heir and now there is a succession crises. Three other claimants in neighboring kingdoms start making plans to take the throne and now there are armies, mercenaries, and brigands threatening the entire continent as everyone is fighting to get the biggest piece of the pie. Oh and the monsters out in the wilderness are starting to multiply because that guy you just killed was doing a great job of cleaning them out on a regular basis.
Give your powerful monsters/NPC’s lots of resources and play them ruthlessly.
Combat is part of the game and high level combat is wild. A high level fighter that consumes a potion of haste, has strength cast on him in combination with a magic weapon, and a couple magic rings is going to be able to deal out a lot of damage and avoid damage if you don’t use some serious countermeasures.
You have an ancient dragon sitting on a pile of treasure? Give him a tribe of lizard men who worship him as a god and will die to the last to protect him.
Liches will have a bunch of resources, not just spells but undead servants, summoned monsters, bound demons and the like. They can make their lairs particularly difficult to get into since they have magic. They don’t breath or eat so they can exist in places where the living cannot.
A powerful monster with lots of magic and loot knows that sooner or later some do-gooders are going to show up with bad intentions. Play the monsters hard core. They have lots of treasure, so maybe they spend some of it to hire a tribe of humanoids as mercenary guardians. They have charm spells? They use them to charm humans as spies or saboteurs to make problems for would be heroes. If your players have figured out an interesting way to use a particular spell, it isn’t far fetched that an undead wizard whose been around for 200 years hasn’t figured it out as well. Nasty combinations of terrain, flora/fauna and magic are also likely for a thoughtful monster.
It is OK to use monsters that nullify a PC’s power, just don’t go crazy.
I do use monsters and NPC’s with potent magic resistance, immunity to attacks the party can bring to bear or special abilities that the PC’s have little or no defense against. I don’t do it a lot. It can go very wrong if the characters don’t have any sort of cold based magical attacks and that is the only way the players can kill this thing and they can’t run away or it is the only way forward in the adventure. Creating a problem the players need to be creative to solve is one thing. Making a problem they can’t solve at all is another.
This takes some sensitivity to your players and what they will tolerate. I can’t give you a ratio of monsters with these sorts of characteristics vs straight monsters that can be killed any old way you want. I do this often enough that my players are cautious when they encounter something new or different. That seems like a point where the situation is challenging without being frustrating.
You can combine this method or use it to create a situation where violence is not going to solve the problem you have presented to the players. If they can’t kill the monster/NPC or are extremely vulnerable to the monster/NPC then they have a good reason to talk to it.
Do Weird Stuff
One of the great things about having high level characters is that you can create insane situations and the PC’s have the abilities, magic and hit points to handle it. You can do space/time travel. Send them to different dimensions, planes of existence and planets. Bring denizens of other planes to threaten their home world. Perhaps there are strange magical anomalies that they were unable to explore or deal with when they were lower level. Aliens! If you need ideas, pick up any of the weird short stories from the Appendix N authors and you’ll find something bizarre to throw into your games.
That’s about all I have to say about that and it was plenty. If you have your own ideas about how to run high level, old school games; I’d love to hear them!