This week I answer reader email!
I was hoping you could help me with some of these OSR era modules and their level recommendations.
What is the criteria for determining a module’s recommended party member and level listing? If encounters are not balanced is this a subjective thing?
Sometimes we want to run games at a higher level or play an old TSR module. Whether choosing someone else’s module or writing my own how I can determine a reasonable character level and party size?
Any help or recommended reading would be greatly appreciated.
Good question, Michael.
I pinged a designer who worked at TSR back in the olden times and he told me that it was mostly the designer’s intuition. The other gauge that he used was caster levels. If a certain spell or package of spells was needed for the adventurers to tackle a certain location or monster, having a spell caster of the right level will be a good proxy for party level.
I will speculate that most OSR modules are given recommended levels in much the same way. I can usually look at a module and know what level a party would have to be to beat it. I’ve been running games long enough that I have a feel for it based on experience.
That’s not a particularly helpful answer for someone new to the game.
You mention balance in your question. Balance is one of those things that means something different depending on who you ask. You are correct to surmise that because a lot of OSR referees are not fans of balanced combat encounters that there is something vague about level recommendations.
A Scientific Wild Ass Guess
Level recommendations in OSR games are something of a Scientific Wild Ass Guess. (SWAG)
When you see “appropriate for 3-6 character of levels 5-8” That’s a SWAG but usually a fairly accurate one.
Why are level recommendations a SWAG?
- The permeability of old school games.
- Every group, campaign, and referee is different.
- Improbable, but possible dice rolls.
- Unexpected series of player choices (effective or ineffective).
- Classes with variable XP requirements.
- OSR referees tend not to fudge dice or or give PCs plot armor.
Encounters you thought would be easily overcome can wipe out a party because of some player mistakes combined with unlucky dice rolls.
Encounters you thought would be difficult can be pushovers because of imaginative play and lucky dice rolls.
If you are creating your own adventure locations and scenarios, you can gauge the level of challenge and get in a range. It may be a broad range but you can get close. Here are some tools.
The number one factor in determining the level requirements for an adventure is magic. The more magic a party has, the more challenging monsters, environments, and obstacles they can take on.
That suggests two questions. What does the party have? What does the party need?
What magic does the party have?
Take a look at the spell levels table for each spell caster class and the spells available to each class. A first level magic user has 1 spell slot and 4 starting spells, two of which are probably read magic and detect magic. Obviously, a higher level magic user has many more spells at their disposal and that expands the range of monsters and challenges they can attack with magic.
With that in mind, you can look at each encounter the players will face in the adventure and make an educated guess if they have the requisite spells.
The quantity and power of magic weapons, armor, misc magic items, and single use magic items a typical party will have varies from campaign to campaign. There is no hard and fast rule.
My best guess of what “average” might be is 1 magic item per character for every 2 levels. 2nd level characters will each have 1 magic item. Using that rule of thumb, a 10th level fighter will probably have a magic shield, armor, a weapon and a couple of misc. magic items. This SWAG doesn’t take into account the potency of those items. A higher level character is more likely to have a +5 Defender or Staff of the Magi than a 3rd level character is.
Some referees make more magic available and some less, depending on the context of their milieu. This also makes determining a range of character levels and numbers difficult. Many experienced referees will tell you to be stingy with magic items and spells. Once the players have them, they will figure out ways to use combinations of spells that have synergistic effects with the item that can have a multiplicative effect on the power of a party. Others don’t mind it so much and make more magic available.
Depending on the campaign and the group, players may have their characters spend some time making potions, scribing scrolls, reading magical tomes, and researching new spells. These activities can enhance a party’s capabilities.
High level magic users are power multipliers. A few high level fighters with magic armor, weapons and two or three magic devices each can demolish dozens of low level foes. A high level wizard with adequate protection and time to cast spells can vanquish armies of low level monsters and people.
What magic does the party need?
Certain problems will require a certain level of magic power.
Foes outnumbering the player characters can be dealt with via area of effect damage spells like the trusty fireball, avoided with invisibility, confused by an illusion or slaughtered in great numbers with a spell like meteor swarm or creeping doom.
Some foes can’t be defeated without magic weapons, or spells. If PCs don’t have the necessary items, they must use guile, flee, surrender or negotiate.
Undead that can’t be damaged without a magic weapon present a particular problem to low level characters. They deserve special attention. I have had total party kills when using just one or two undead that have special immunities or powers. At least with a lycanthrope (another monster unharmed by normal weapons) you can attack it with silver, maybe bargain with it or throw a spare leg of lamb while you run away.
Consider what magic will be necessary for characters to travel and function in challenging adventuring environments. My high level adventure locations are impossible to get to, infiltrate, escape and operate in without using magic. I’ll have more to say about this below.
Determining whether a monster encounter is a fair fight for a typical group of adventurers is devilishly difficult to calculate.
The closest that anyone has come to doing a precise and accurate mathematical evaluation of a monster’s ability to slaughter a party is Dan at Delta’s D&D Blog. He has used his powerful math brain and coding skills to create a system of Equivalent Hit Dice which simulates how many fighting men of a certain level it takes to have a 50% chance of defeating a particular monster.
You can download his monster stat blocks, monster matrix and other useful tools at his site here.
It becomes impossible to simulate how a battle might turn out when you have lots of magic abilities, spells, magical immunities on each side. The interactions between spells, abilities and magic devices can be very complex.
Don’t forget the open system!
Dan’s simulations will tell you an ogre is the equivalent of two 1st level fighters BUT what if the fighters have time to dig a pit, camouflage the pit, and trick the ogre to fall into it. How many 1st level fighters is that worth?
What if the adversaries have an illusion ability that they can use to surprise and overwhelm the party before the party wizard can bring out their own magic? How many 3rd level fighters do you need to overcome that?
There are many environmental factors and situations that can skew the numbers one way or another.
The big considerations here are:
- Magic (again and always) – defenses, attacks, enhancements, immunities, illusions etc.
- The environment. Monsters have the home field advantage and know the terrain.
- How clever you play the monster. Do they use traps? Dirty tricks?
The location of the encounter, and how clever you play the monsters can be a force multiplier. If the monsters are dumb and go straight at the characters, then Equivalent Hit Dice is a good measure. If the monsters are smart, use the terrain to their advantage, ambush characters, use traps and tricks then the calculation becomes more difficult.
The Adventuring Environment
Where the adventure takes place is going to be a major factor in determining the levels required.
If the adventure is a five room dungeon in a temperate hilly forest, half a day’s trip from the safety of a keep and a cleric that can heal injured characters, that’s a low level environment.
If the adventure is on top of an 8,000 meter peak with the closest people being impoverished herders living in caves at the foot of the mountain, that’s a much more demanding environment.
Cleric and druid magic lists and items are good to look at for environmental challenges. Those spell lists include spells like speak with animals, create food & water, protection from fire, and water breathing. Magic user spells like fly, dimension door and levitate can make getting up sheer mountain face or vertical shaft in an abandoned mine more safe.
Various items make travel and accessibility of adventure locations easier or just possible. Potions, scrolls of protection, rope of climbing, flying carpet, and items that provide sustenance can keep a party moving through hostile terrain.
In my high level campaigns, the most powerful monsters are found in places that are hard to get to, give the monster an advantage in a fight, and are difficult to negotiate if the players don’t bring the right mix of items and spells.
The dangers presented by an inability to get aid, no access to a safe haven, dangerous weather, cruel and unusual geography, magical storms, magical alterations to the laws of nature (gravity, time) all require more magic in both quantity and potency.
Most groups run with 3-5 players. That’s going to be the base assumption for player numbers.
If you want to create adventures for 1 player or 12 players, you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
These are rough estimations not definite rules. Other referees will differ.
Magic is the key underlying presumption!
These guidelines assume there is at least one magic user in the party and an average of 1 magic item per 2 levels of experience.
The quantity and potency of magic in your party is the most important factor in party capability.
Grumpy Wizard’s OSR Challenge Level Suggestions
Characters at levels 1-4
- Can defeat most Individual monsters 4 HD or fewer if the monster can be hit with normal weapons.
- Can defeat groups of 1HD monsters that are roughly equal in number with party and henchmen.
- Can survive natural environments a real life competent camper, hiker or hunter could handle.
- Can handle traps, tricks, and obstacles that do not require any sort of magic to detect or disarm.
Characters at levels 5-8
- Can defeat most individual monsters with 10HD or fewer and no special immunities.
- Can defeat most individual monsters with 5HD or fewer and requiring magic to hit.
- Can defeat of groups of low level monsters/adversaries at least twice their number.
- Can defeat level draining undead with 5 HD or less.
- Can comfortably adventure in extreme natural environments a world class explorer could barely survive (Think Shackleton)
- Can overcome some obstacles requiring short periods of flight, swimming, or other minor magical conveyance.
- Can defeat minor magic traps and obstacles that can be defeated with knock or dispel magic
Characters at levels 9-14
- Can defeat most individual monsters with 16 or fewer HD.
- Groups of adversaries with <3HD numbering in the hundreds depending on the level of party spell casters.
- All undead are defeatable and few pose a danger at all.
- All but the most extreme natural environments can be overcome by magic.
- Magical means of travel is accessible and make long distance travel much faster.
- Flight, underwater adventures, extraplanar adventures, time travel all possible.
- Ancient dragons, and demons are challenging foes.
Characters at levels 15+
- Can defeat nearly any foe.
- Armies numbering in the the thousands can be slain if they lack magical protection.
- Travel is trivial.
- Characters can adventure in nearly any environment or location, including deep underwater, active volcanoes, the outer planes.
- Characters can communicate across vast distances.
A simple heuristic.
Here’s a rough and ready heuristic.
Determine the required level of a spell caster for the magic needed by players to overcome foes, operate safely in an adventuring location, and travel safely to, from and within the location. Then add 2 levels to your range. This gives you an estimate of the range of levels you need for a party of 3-5 PCs.
If you need a 5th level wizard who can cast dispel magic, fireball, or lightning bolt, then your adventure is appropriate for characters of 5-7th level.
Once you have some time refereeing under your belt and experience how this works first hand, you’ll quickly be able to judge for yourself an adventures’ degree of challenge and make adjustments to suit your campaign.
*Note for monthly email newsletter subscribers. I made a one page reference sheet with the guidelines. It is available in the subscriber drive location.
5 thoughts on “Ask the Grumpy Wizard: What’s the deal with level recommendations in modules?”
“Encounters you thought would be easily overcome can wipe out a party because of some player mistakes combined with unlucky dice rolls.”
“Encounters you thought would be difficult can be pushovers because of imaginative play and lucky dice rolls.”
Both of these outcomes are actually good to have, for these make for great stories to be told to one and all for many years after. Of course =)
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Those surprising but inevitable outcomes are my favorite part.
I swear I’ve seen it someplace where the recommended “levels” were given as XP… something like saying that the party should have 1,000,000 XP or something. Was this a dream? I can’t find any adventure saying this right now, but I don’t believe I made this up.
Plus I think a lot of adventures actually told you (at least the B/X series) what would be the ideal total number of levels (24-30) or so. These things – the total number of levels and the total XP especially – always gave me some pause…
I must tell you the idea of where the level recommendation comes from and the ending level suggestions and the heuristic part were alone well worth reading. Thanks for the tips.
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I think I remember seeing recommendations like that. They probably weren’t too far off.
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