The Pacing of 3E D&D

Module Length, Character Advancement, Aging and Related Issues in 3E

This is perhaps not a burning issue on everyone's mind but it is something I've given a bit of consideration to.  Character advancement is too fast in 3E - that's my opinion so get your own.  I started thinking about this after exchanging a few posts about characters not aging in a campaign yet gaining levels quite rapidly.  It was something I'd studiously avoided thinking about in my own campaign.

It didn't take long for me to decide that the WotC Adventure Path modules were way too long and I'd been saying so for a while prior to that.  I saw the characters advancing two and three levels in the course of one module and that really didn't seem right.  I let it ride because it wasn't actually important to the ongoing campaign and I wanted to SEE and UNDERSTAND the dynamics of 3E at work before trying to change them.  Now, the player characters having begun as nobodies at first level were over 10th level.  They were hobnobbing with the rich and powerful (because THEY are relatively rich and powerful) - but no more than half a year of game time had passed.  That is something I would never have been able to predict after 25 years experience of how _I_ experienced and ran the pacing of the first two editions.

"So what," I hear you say, "3E is not 2E or 1E, and so it's going to be different."  Too true, and that's why it took so long to make it an issue for me.  I had to see 3E rules over a long term and in this regard they seem to have missed something.

In this particular campaign I was running it simply turned out to have a structure of adventures that heavily relied on a constant, unrelenting unfolding of events in which the characters were directly involved.  There was little opportunity for extended downtime between adventures and modules and when there was, the characters fully expected it to be brief and undertook no long-term activities, though they made some plans.  In the game there was a conspiracy that placed the kingdom in immediate and constant jeopardy while the PC's uncovered it.  The ongoing campaign events simply took precedence over any thoughts of slower pacing.  Now that's fine for one particular campaign but when I began to consider that these characters were entirely likely to reach 20th level within only a game-year of first beginning the campaign I knew there was more at work here.

I wouldn't want to go back to the snails pace of character advancement of AD&D (1st & 2nd Ed.), at least not as I had experienced it, and there is a certain undeniable satisfaction to frequent levelling-up for characters, but it feels wrong to me to be this fast.

As evidenced by the ease with which time crawled and character levels flew in my campaign it is clear to me that the 3E design has new implications for campaign structure and they still aren't being considered.  It may well be (and it is my understanding) that WotC research indicated that frequent leveling was the norm and/or was greatly desired by players.  But I sincerely doubt it showed that people also wanted a single module to cover one fifth much less all of a characters advancement from 1st to 20th.  That's not an adventure module - that's a campaign setting.  In 2E a "module" like Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE) would certainly be a memorable chunk of campaign and the PC's would undoubtedly gain a few levels in going through it.  Now RToEE consumes the span of an ENTIRE campaign to 20th level.

No, those modules really don't help matters of pacing at all.  Originally, I'd thought that the modules alone were entirely to blame here - and they do get at least half credit - but the XP rules and PC advancement structure for 3E are the first problem.  Modules need to be written to work with the implications of pacing that 3E puts forth but it seems nobody who writes modules has given that any thought.  They continue to write modules according to paradigms that are now outdated and it's showing.

Experience in 3E is given out at a highly consistent rate.  13 encounters or thereabouts and characters will level.  You might make adjustments to that, but that just affects the rate and not the consistency.  Over the course of levels 1-20 the characters are going to level quite consistently.  That means that a dungeon with 13 rooms (give or take) worth of encounters is going to bump a character a level.  In previous editions you could play a character through 10 times that many encounters without leveling and did.  I played AD&D (1E/2E) characters in a long campaign over the course of 10-15 years real time, 8-12 hours every week reliably, and still did not see them break 20th level.  That was too slow - this is WAY too fast.  Certainly you could once upon a time run a character through a 50-room/encounter module and not even think about leveling - even at low levels.  But the length of modules, the number of rooms/encounters they have, has not changed while the xp awards and thus pacing of levelling has.

This is a serious paradigm shift!  Modules, IMO, are now too long by half, almost literally given the xp charts.  The saddest part is that the great length of a module is no longer necessary.  It used to be that room after room of cannon fodder monsters was fairly necessary - characters needed to keep wading through lots of monsters if they wanted to accumulate the vast amounts of XP they would need in order to level up.  Now that leveling is consistent and geared quite predictably to a number of encounters those repetitious rooms that accounted for much of the length of older modules is not only unnecessary - it's damned tedious.

Modules, to state the obvious, are written to be played out, start to finish.  They don't necessarily aim to exclude other issues that may be happening in a campaign but they are very self-contained and studiously ignore the possibility of such influences.  That's why modules often need a lot of adaptation to fit well into an ongoing campaign.  Names, places, and events need to be changed to conform to what has already happened as well as where the DM wants things to go.  Now, when a module eats up 3 and even 4 levels worth of a characters career that's a major chunk of campaign!  If 20th level can be considered something of a pinnacle then that kind of spread represents 15% - 20% of a characters life (as it were).

There's a reason why _I_ never used to build 80 room mega-modules, and now am less likely to do so than ever before.  After kicking open your fourth room in a row that's full of Girallons you gotta ask what the hell the point is.  Girallons in training, girallons eating, girallons sleeping, girallons worshipping, oversized leader girallons with a few PC levels in a weak attempt at interest and variety - that's the AD&D method.  It was necessary then.  Now it's just gawdawfully boring and repetitive.

I don't necessarily want to pick exclusively on WotC here (although it may be that I should since that girallon thing came from one of theirs), it's just that the Adventure Path modules were virtually the only ones I'd been using.  Pulled one from Dungeon magazine and did a few wilderness encounters and small miscellaneous bits of my own.  Since I hadn't yet had need of other stuff I hadn't bought or read a lot of D20 publisher modules, but I have every confidence they're doing the same thing.  Is there anyone out there who doesn't write modules geared to occupying 1/4 to ALL of a PC's adventuring life before he reaches "retirement level" at 20th?  Are there settings out there that DO deal with pacing issues (although that might be tough to do since it is forbidden under the d20 license to describe the process of leveling up.)

Modules have just got to be shorter.  I'm not saying they need to be pamphlet-sized here, but I'm seriously more inclined to think that the 16 page length of the AEG pamphplet-sized "Adventure Boosters" is a FAR better length than another 3 lb. UBER-module that will take 20 levels worth of gaming to complete.  In addition to facilitating better pacing they are more easily integrated into an ongoing campaign because they naturally have less information that needs to be altered to fit.  In the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms it would have been laughable to expect a lot of campaigns to begin, evolve, and end with Undermountain with the characters visiting Waterdeep up above it only for brief periods of rest.  That rather makes the creation of the vast remainder of the Realms a pointless endeavor.  Why create a WORLD when the characters will reach 20th level by exploring the confines of 6 to 10 dungeons placed in it?  If the concept of a module requires a great length it ought to be physically subdivided to take place in more than one dungeon, building, or region of a campaign.  It then effectively becomes a series of shorter modules, not a single ubermodule that never leaves the same dungeon.

Shorter modules also would be less logically problematic.  Here I'm referring to a phenomenon I noticed with the very first 3E module I ran.  An added paradigm shift that 3E introduced is the frequency with which the PC's need to rest and recuperate.  In previous editions players could expect their characters to make it through at least half, if not all of a published module consisting of (continuing this example) 50 rooms/encounters.  Under the 3E structure, in a module of the same length the characters could be expected to have to make 8 or more separate forays because of the need to fall back (or hole up), rest, and recuperate - AND level up 3 times.  So previously, clearing out the dungeon might be done all in one fell swoop leaving the inhabitants no time to come to grips with the invaders.  Maybe if things were tough the PC's would have to hole up for several hours so that spellcasters could renew their spells.  The way things are now, the dungeon inhabitants have repeated opportunities to invalidate all the work that went into writing up a room key and organize a defense for the next assault by the characters that they MUST know will be coming.  The static picture suggested in a room key for a dungeon becomes a lot of wasted effort if logic demands that the living, thinking inhabitants of a dungeon recognize their danger and react to it before the PC's have gotten through more than 1/4 of it.  Part of a well-written 3E module (if it consists of contained areas that would require multiple assaults for the PC's to defeat) would be situational adjustments and guidelines for the organization of improved defenses after one or more invasions.  Then again, it would be better to just shorten it to a more sensible length where it's not a consideration in the first place.

In short there needs to be one of three approaches.

  1. The PC's are able to clear a location in a single sweep, no need to repeatedly rest and recover, or if there is they can do so without the remaining portions of the location knowing, preparing, or simply leaving.
  2. The PC's need to make multiple forays due to the sheer volume of the location to be cleared.  This is written into the module with the reactions of the inhabitants planned and room keys altered to account for the manner of the assault.
  3. The adventure does not rely on a single location so that although part of the same adventure the PC's can attack, rest, and then attack a NEW location rather than making repeated assaults on the same location.
The aging of characters is another factor that goes hand in hand with the speed of character advancement.  Although PC's are generally understood to be exceptional individuals and might not necessarily fit a normal mold, level does tend to equate to age and life experience for NPC's.  It therefore grates to see characters who are barely 2 years older than they were when rolled up already looking to retire at 20th level.  They've exceeded the level and skills of generals, merchant princes and emperors.  Unless you intend to send the PC's on the road to living-godhood via the Epic Level Handbook the campaign (at least with those characters) will pretty much end there with the characters having "won the game".  Their careers will have consisted of perhaps 6 or 7 adventures and a forgettable assortment of random individual encounters in travelling.  That phenomenon will be repeated throughout this and all subsequent campaigns until the DM takes steps to deal with the dynamics that are involved.

Getting characters to actually grow older (aside from detrimental magical side effects) requires the passage of game time.  Duh.  Fitting in a reasonable passage of game time requires that there be more than overnight rests while PC's level 3 times "on the fly" deep in a dungeon.  [Okay, that begins to address my current campaign.]  Spreading the dungeoneering thinner and building in downtime between adventures is not difficult, but it really barely scratches the surface of the problem

Say, for example, that there are 2 weeks between adventures, and the dungeons/adventures consume another 2 weeks each on average.  Even if there are 10 separate adventures and the PC's only level up twice in each that makes 20 weeks on the adventures, 20 weeks off the adventures and the PC's are still making 20th level well before a single year has passed since they started at 1st level.  DOUBLE all those durations and the time that passes is still less than 2 years.  QUADRUPLE them and the time that passes in-game between 1st and 20th level barely makes 3 years of aging!  At the rate that PC's advance in level in 3E the amount that they naturally age in a campaign is going to be insignificant barring drastic, severe setting or campaign specific factors.

Now it's not as if there's something innately wrong with that, but since that is not at all what I was accustomed to in previous editions of the game I question whether that isn't something that a lot of DM's might want to directly address.  I was surprised to have read amongst tidbits of WotC's pre-3E research what was revealed about the frequency with which people started new campaigns.  Now that 3E seems to be extremely accommodating of that frequency I wonder how many people are really happy with that aspect of it.

I would hazard that most campaigns don't push the envelope of the game system so it stands to reason that people aren't giving this dynamic much thought.  Hey, if it doesn't bother them, Hoo Rah.  But now that I've started to think on it it's bothering me.  I'm interested in seeing characters age at a rate that more closely matches the rate at which they level.  There is an inherent suggestion of a relationship between character level and that characters age & experience.  It certainly applies to NPC's.  PC's don't necessarily have to follow suit but as it stands now it's almost impossible to make them do so.  The degree to which character age and the length of the campaign relates to the level of the PC's is a matter of personal taste.  I have any number of ideas of how to go about accomplishing it although it never hurts to hear from others how they handle it or might do if they want to.

The phrase that occurred to me that best fits this situation is that it's not the destination (being high level ASAP) but the journey (character development through many adventures) that I look forward to.

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