Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Level Ranges of Classic Modules

The other day I was thinking back on the D&D adventure modules I used in my younger days and noticed a few things about the ranges of levels for which they were written:
  • All four Slave Lords modules (A1-4) share the same level range (4-7). Interestingly, the pre-generated PCs included in these modules are the same in all four modules. That is, none of them increases in level between their first appearance in A1 and their last in A4. This may be a function of the fact that these modules were written for tournament play but it's noteworthy nonetheless.
  • Every B-series module (with the exception of B10, which is intended to be a transitional module between Basic and Expert) carries the same level range (1-3).
  • Modules C1 and C2 were both written for levels 5-7. Like the A-series, these two modules were written for tournament play, which makes me wonder if the 4-7 range was considered ideal for that purpose.
  • D1 and D2 were written for levels 9-14, while, oddly, D3 was written for levels 10-14. These modules were, for the longest time, my canonical examples of what "high-level play" in AD&D consisted of.
  • EX1 and EX2 were for levels 9-12.
  • G1, G2, and G3 were intended for levsl 8-12. What you will no doubt have noticed by now is that Gary Gygax seemed especially fond of the 9-12 level range or thereabouts, as all the modules carrying his byline hover around it.
  • I1 is another tournament module, so, naturally, its level range is 4-7.
  • Module L1 is for levels 2-4.
  • Q1 is the conclusion to the G and D-series modules and so its level range is consistent with those, being 10-14.
  • The S-series of modules vary a bit in their level ranges: S1 is 10-14, S2 5-10, S3 8-12, and S4 6-10. Three of these four modules were written by Gary Gygax, two of which (S1 and S3) are, again, squarely within the 9-12 level range that he seemed to favor.
  • T1 is intended for level 1-3 characters.
  • WG4 was written for characters of levels 5-10, while WG5 is for levels 9-12.
  • X1 is for levels 3-7 and X2 is for levels 3-6.
I think it's fascinating to notice that the modules I remember using were disproportionately geared either for beginning (levels 1-3) or experienced (levels 9-12) characters. There are modules for the "middle" levels (4-8), certainly, but they're fewer in number and almost all have their origins in convention-based tournament play. The main exceptions are the X-series modules written to support the Expert Rules, which suggests to me that there was at least some awareness on the part of TSR that they needed to provided better support for the mid-range of levels.

I should also note that, until 1984, no official D&D module supported play above level 14, which only made sense to me, as, with one exception, no character in any of my campaigns had ever risen higher than that (and most were in the 10-12 range, even after years of obsessive play). 1983, though, saw the publication of Frank Mentzer's Companion Set, followed by the Master Set in 1984, and the Immortals Set in 1985. 1985 was also when Gygax's own Unearthed Arcana debuted. All of these releases substantially changed the perception of what high-level play meant, as exemplified by modules intended for characters of levels 15+, culminating in the ultimate absurdity of 1988's The Throne of Bloodstone, which is written for characters of levels 18-100. I catch a lot of flak for citing 1983 as the end of the Golden Age, but, when you look at the modules produced after 1983, it's hard to deny that something changed.


  1. James, I encourage you to watch your use of past tense. "D1 and D2 were written for levels 9-14" is fine, but "EX1 and EX2 -are- for levels 9-12."

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  3. The post level 3 scarcity might simply be a reflection of TSR thinking modules would mostly get used by beginning DMs (hence 1-3). After that perhaps they figured most DMs would be creating their own adventures if not world.

    Gary, of course, could write whatever he wanted; they could be pretty sure it would sell on his name alone. As you point out, he was most comfortable in the 9-12 range; possibly a reflection of the common level in his campaign at the time (or maybe just what he thought was the sweet spot for D&D)?

    The tournament level being 4-7 makes sense to me. The characters are more survivable, spellcasters have enough spells and variety to not be boring or one-shot wonders. But they still have to play smart; no character is so strong that the game turns into a "'grinding" situation that is solely about wearing down the characters. And so, after putting the work in to making these tournament adventures, they probably figured why not release them and make some money.

  4. The 1-3 level spread for the B modules is sometimes curious.

    B1 could be tweaked to work for level 1 to 9 as it absolutely requires DM input to put the module together.

    B2 works for characters from level 1-6 in my experience, it's not until a party has more then the occasional fireball that they aren't going to be challenged by the numbers of humanoids present.

    B4 works better with characters at 2nd or 3rd level going in (as there is no quick and ready resupply)and if the whole thing is experienced the party is coming out well over 3rd level.

    The C modules are some of the more lethal D&D modules outside of the S series. I think I've seen more TPK in them then I have outside the Tomb of Horrors.

    The A series works fine with PCs inside the range and the premades being the same in all four modules works out fine. If a party of 4's starts they are likely going to be 6's and 7's when they finish up.

  5. I started playing in 1978 and graduated High School in 1981. We did not play as much in college, and by then we just made all our adventures, so the modules I remember are from 1981 and before. Almost all of them are for level 9-12. We spent almost the whole time in levels 5-7, so there was no real module support. We always thought this was rather ridiculous. The Dragon magazine regularly talked about the dangers of Monte haul DMs, and how it should take years to reach 9 – 12 level. And yet in a game that was only a few years old had modules it would take a few years to get to. The only people using modules for 9-12 in 1978 should have been GG and DA.

  6. James, this post led me to explore the level-ranges of our Advanced Adventures line at my blog. I think it would be cool if other OSR publishers would do the same for their own products. We could get an overall look at the differences between the original type of module support and the OSR type.

    If you have interest, the link is

  7. I just did a little checking, modules produced at or before 1980 by TSR; There were 3 modules for levels 1-3, 4 modules for middle levels 4-7 (and they all came out in 1980) and 10 modules for high levels. Sorry to hijack your post, guess I'm still a little bitter about this.

  8. This level range has always suggested to me that T-A-G-D-Q is the "canonical" D&D campaign in a lot of ways, the basic template from which all subsequent "adventure paths" and many subsequent original campaigns follow.

  9. A great post, James. I linked to it from OD&D Discussion and think that it might generate some chatter there as well. :-)

    I do think that something changed along the line, when topping out in the level 10-14 range became cheap somehow. I always divided D&D into layers of 1-4 (heroic), 5-8 (superheroic), and 9-12 (mythic) and over the decades have hardly ever had characters go over 12th.

  10. @Rach's reflections: TSR suggested the same thing when the three supermodules "The Temple of Elemental Evil," "Scourge of the Slavelords," and "Queen of the Spiders" were released; if I remember right, these were structureed so that completing one readied your characters for the next.

  11. Hey, James -

    I took your list of 36 modules, calculated the average suggested level for each, and charted it to see what patterns emerge.

    I found that 12 of the modules fell into the average level 2-3 range, 12 of the modulres fell into the average level 4.5-8 range, adn 12 of the modules fell into the average level 10-12 range.

    Neat! :-)

  12. "Gary Gygax seemed especially fond of the 9-12 level range or thereabouts, as all the modules carrying his byline hover around it."

    Can't exactly say "all": T1 and B2 are counterexamples.

  13. Can't exactly say "all": T1 and B2 are counterexamples.

    True. I should probably correct that -- along with my atrocious mixing of tenses. How do I sleep at night?

  14. Funny you should mention that L1 is for levels 2-4. I started my current campaign with L1, though all my players were 1st level, and I found I quickly had to mix in some other elements to give them something to do to level up before really dealing with stuff out of L1. I suspect though that I would have had to do so even if we started with 2nd level characters, as the amount of content in the module is clearly not enough to get the players' levels up from one section to the next.

    Of course, that may point out that the intended use of the module is exactly how I used it -- sort of a boot-strap module on which to build a campaign. Running only the content in L1 would probably make for a pretty dull and disjointed feeling experience.

  15. If I remember correctly, 1st ed druids and assassins couldn't rise above 15th level, and demihumans were seriously limited (not many getting above 10th level).
    Maybe this influenced the range of published modules - maybe the TSR staff thought there weren't enough characters of sufficient levels to warrant any modules for 13-15th levels or higher?

  16. I started gaming 1984, so I missed the "golden age". However, the only modules I owned at the time was the B1-9 compilation. And we played the heck out of that one.

    I still have it and a copy of the rules cyclopedia and pull them out every once in a while. I ran B7 for a group of friends on my birthday. It's pretty rough on 1st level characters. They didn't find their way downstairs, but 2 escaped the carnage to try their luck another day.

  17. I just spent 45 minutes writing a post only to lose it. Ugh. Let me try to recreate it more succinctly.

    1. Few of the classic modules were "organically" grown. The G and D modules were originally tournaments too (recall Fonkin Hoddypeak and the tournament characters in the color editions). B1, B2, and T1 were written for breaking in newbies. So it's not as though the only mid-level modules were tournament pre-fabs -- the high level and low level ones were too. Only L1 I know for sure was directly from a home campaign (Len Lakofka told me so).

    2. The "recommended levels" were not originally a part of the standard cover layout. The monochrome modules, e.g., seldom mention them, and not generally as a numerical range. The monochrome G modules, e.g., all suggest "average level of 9th" (though holding the door open to characters as low as 6th!). The monochrome D modules all say "average level of 10th". The distinction between D1-2 and D3 that James mentions above are fairly arbitrary labels attached to the later full-color cover editions by later editors. S1, the fearsome Tomb of Horrors, is all over the place in its last two pages, which is the only place suggesting levels: on one end, four characters of levels 9-14; on the other, ten characters of levels 6-9.

    3. Level creep -- the gradual drift toward higher level play -- is not a post-1983 phenomenon. Don't forget Chainmail, where a "Hero" was a single person worth 4 units of ordinary orcs or men-at-arms, and a "Super-Hero" was a veritable one-man army worth double that, a Conan or Gandalf-like figure. Yet very quickly in D&D, a 4th level character came to be perceived as "low-level". D&D was originally designed to top out at "name level", which, not accidentally, came right after the 8 HD benchmark of the Super-Hero. You can see the traces of this power distribution survive into AD&D, where many of the top-drawer monsters are around 8 HD (the Type VI demon/Balrog, the vampire, the spectre/Ringwraith). As characters kept going past name level, though, they needed bigger and badder end bosses, so the likes of Snurre and Eclavdra creep over 12 HD and well beyond. And that was in 1978! As early as the 1981 Moldvay Expert Rules, there is half a page vaguely previewing game play from 15th to 25th level. (And Moldvay put a 25th level NPC in X2!) So I don't see 1983 as a sharp break, but a point in a larger continuum, stretching back to the origins of the game in the early 1970s. Remember that Gary also wrote "The Isle of the Ape", which is (almost) every bit as super-high-level as Throne of Bloodstone.

  18. I'm a different Michael than the fellow who posted earlier!

  19. "James, I encourage you to watch your use of past tense. "D1 and D2 were written for levels 9-14" is fine, but "EX1 and EX2 -are- for levels 9-12.""

    If this is James' original text, I don't see the problem. The writing did happen in the past, but the artifacts are still existing, and are still for whatever levels they were when written.

    "EX1 and EX2 were for levels 9-12" sounds like they have since changed, which is not true.

  20. The level range 4-7 has been noted before as possibly significant in light of the Chain Mail Fantasy Combat tables. You might find some of the details interesting from this thread.

  21. I realized it was because they simply didnt understand rules for estates. There isnt much point raiding a Dragon Lair at 14th level when Bob the Archmage with his 6&1/2 acre Vinyard can teleport his seven tuns of white wine off to a shortage Market in the City of Woopwoop and sell it for 129,422.22gp (400% market Price)...

  22. Further note on Gygax's WG6 Isle of the Ape: While the cover says it's for character levels 18+, the pre-generated PCs inside have an average level of just 16.

  23. For me it was Gods, Demigods & Heroes that finally set limits to what the game expected you to be able to play. When Vishnu is considered to have the fighting ability of only a 16th level fighter, it put paid to idea of having characters of above level 20.* [Before then we were quite profligate with experience.** But then this works quite well if the campaign was balanced that way.]

    Then again, our "adventurers" were almost always less than 10th level (or to be more precise, when they reached "named" level). The expectation was that by 10th level they would have settled down and created their domains, resulting in a quite different game (and something much more akin to a traditional wargaming campaign). But then since a domain always counted as an appropriate reason for spending gold to gain experience in our games, having a domain allowed the character a steady source of experience, rather than the patchy experience awards that came from adventuring. [There were other techniques for a domain to earn experience for the character, but they are beyond the scope of this comment.]

    [* Interestingly it appears that many early campaigns had similar ideas as to character levels. Take the Judges Guild campaigns for example. In the City State of the Invincible Overlord you had shopkeepers that were routinely between 5th to 10th level classed characters...]

    [** And the Greyhawk Deck of Many Things was a vital tool for increasing levels.]

  24. Levels on the modules is not a hard and fast rule. You also have to factor in the number of players.

    Take the DM notes for X2: Castle Amber

    "This module has been designed for a party of 6 to 10 characters, between the 3rd and 6th levels of experience. The total of the party's experience levels should be from 26 to 34, with a total of 30 being best. For example: a party might be made up of a 4th level fighter, a 6th level cleric, a 5th level magic-user, a 3rd level thief, a 5th level dwarf, a 4th level elf and a 3rd level halfling for a total of 30 - (4 + 6 + 5 + 3 + 5 + 4 + 3 = 30). If the party has a strength of less than 26 levels or more than 34, the DM may wish to adjust the strength of the monsters in this module - either making them smaller and less numerous or larger and more numerous. Each party should have at least 1 magic-user or elf and 1 cleric."

  25. The preponderance of high-level modules (and PC's who "mysteriously" attained high-level but hadn't even been playing very long) is due to the fact that one can dream up cooler scenarios for high-level players. You have a vastly more wide range of monsters to use (GMing for low-level PC's is tough - ANYthing you throw at them might kill them! Not very heroic), harsher and more varied terrains, etc. In short, high-level scenarios more closely simulate the epic scope of the fantasy literature that inspired the game.