02 January 2014

The value proposition of low-level heroes

A lonely outpost on the edge of civilization is being harassed by a rabble of unruly goblinoids. The forces at the outpost turn to your party of novice heroes to save them.

Sound familiar?

It is the premise of many first level fantasy RPG adventures. As a plot mechanic, it works well to get players quickly into an adventure and be in a position to look like heroes. As a module writer, I am supremely thankful for this canard. However, even a cursory review of combat tables in D&D and retro-clones will show you that first level heroes have a mere %5 to hit advantage over non-adventurer humans. What is worse is that when looking at the stats for Men in the Monsters section of Labyrinth Lord or B/X D&D, even merchants have 1 hit die. This seems to reduce the premium of novice heroes quite a bit. When you look at more "trained" class like thieves, clerics and magic-users, the hit die situation worsens.

Why doesn't the town/outpost/keep just round up 10 or so of their own people to slay the kobolds/rats/vampire roses?

Player Characters as mercenaries offer their clients a few advantages:

  • The locals do not risk their own necks
  • When there are not enough "spare" locals of fighting age to solve the problem, outsourcing to remote heroes is necessary
  • When the quest giver cannot trust anyone local, out of town heroes are desirable
  • When the quest giver is looking to feed an unspeakable evil, out of town heroes are particularly desirable
  • Heroes bring specialized skills that locals will not have (i.e. magic, thieving, detecting secret doors, etc.)
  • If the heroes succeed, they will become stronger and possibly famous. Locals can bask in the reflected glory of being a past client

Low-level adventures have a bit of a stigma in that they are necessarily used to introduce players new to RPG to adventuring. However, low-level adventures are also where experienced players start with new heroes. In the world of Old School RPG, there are many well-seasoned players. We should be crafting low level adventures expecting expert players.

With some obvious modifications, it should be possible to scale down even the classic Tomb of Horrors to something first level characters could survive (at least survive at the same rate as high level characters do when running through the original adventure).

This is the sort of challenge I am looking to overcome when I release my own adventures. There is another issue of the hero career path, but that is a longer post.