Friday, December 6, 2019

(AD&D 2e) DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns

The paradox and the mystery of this book is best typified by the way it defends demihuman racial limits.
Demihuman characters are usually forced to retire or assume secondary roles in the campaign once human player characters begin to reach high levels and the demihuman characters reach their advancement limits. That is exactly what's supposed to happen. Many DMs are tempted to ignore demihuman advancement limits, especially when players are unwilling to retire their high-level demihuman characters.

Do not ignore demihuman advancement limits; they are the price players must pay for gaining demihuman advantages at lower levels. Ignoring the advancement limits unbalances play by placing high-level power in the hands of characters who already have extra abilities, and it is grossly unfair to players who have chosen human characters and have labored long and hard to get to the point where their choices begin to pay dividends in the form of unlimited advancement.
I don't usually like to do such long quotes, but this is a real masterpiece of missing the point. Each sentence is somehow more disconnected from reality than the one that came before. It makes me wonder if there was perhaps some kind of D&D authors' clique that exclusively played games with each other using RAW and had a set of cultural conventions that could make those rules work. Because this theory of career-arc balance, where a benefit gained at first level is paid for by a cost you won't see until 10th level? The only thing it could possibly accomplish is to make both 1st and 10th level unbalanced in the moment.

And your game mechanic seems to be that an acceptable price for character abilities is that at some point you're going to have to prematurely stop playing the game. A party of adventurers stuck together through thick and thin, the equivalent of 50 dungeons in the game and more than a year in real life, and then suddenly they reach the level cap and the humans get to keep going, but their loyal elf and dwarf companions have to retire. What are the players doing during all of this? I've just lost my 14th level elf mage in a game that's destined to reach level 30 - what am I playing as the human characters reach level 15?

The thing that astounds me most is that the book acknowledges there's a problem. But then it gets really defensive and suggests that the problem is actually a function of the rules working as intended. It says "human characters . . . have labored long and hard," but it doesn't question the absurdity of that construction. Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a game. Why are people laboring at all?

And that's DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns in a nutshell. It's full of ideas that are probably pretty radical for this hypothetical designer-clique AD&D, but which seem to brush only lightly against anything I'd recognize as actual play experiences. There are twenty pages devoted to an elaborate spell-dueling system that as near as I can tell is destined to be purely speculative because it can at most involve two PCs at a time, will much more likely involve the entire group sitting around waiting while one PC duels an NPC, and which most likely won't be very interesting because the huge list of special spell interactions serves only to underscore the profound unlikelihood of two mages having memorized and deployed appropriate counters at any given time.

This book opens with the surreal spectacle of being shocked at its own audacity.
Utter the words "high-level character" to just about group of AD&D fans and you are certain to get a strong reaction. Veteran players often shake their heads in disgust, but the are a few whose eyes gleam with fond memories. Referees often look pained or confused. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on high-level play.
But I can't help thinking, from my vantage point where I've played Exalted and I've run Nobilis, that the book is grossly misdiagnosing the problem here. It's not high-level play. It's AD&D. It doesn't really know what it is, and any time it works or fails to work, it's completely up to chance.

Ukss Contribution: Of the book's innovations, the one with the greatest setting implications is the 10th-level spell-casting system called "True Dweomers." Unfortunately, it's uniformly bad. Do you like doing algebra every time you cast a spell? Is your favorite part of normal D&D casting the material components (or at least, would it be if only those components weren't so easy to acquire and keep track of)? Do you not mind that it takes careful min-maxing of the system to avoid coming up with something strictly worse than your regular spells?

And with all those problems, it didn't even produce one example spell memorable enough to get an honorable mention.

I was therefor forced to stretch myself a little. One of the special abilities available to high-level priests is "Detect Deception," which would be pretty neat if it weren't filled with caveats and failure points. But it's pretty easy for me to imagine an esoteric order of Priests of Truth who have a version of the ability that's worthy of being a character power.


  1. I dunno, I like the idea of a discipline of magic that only works if you do algebra first.

    As for those Priests of Truth... have you read The Dragon's Path (Daniel Abraham)?


    1. I looked it up on wikipedia. It seems intimidating.

    2. I found it compelling and easy to slip into. Though I admit I've only read the first book so far.