Friday, November 20, 2020

Adventure Planning à la Mentzer


I've been re-reading Frank Mentzer's 1984 D&D Companion Set, for which I have warm feelings, despite its flaws. While I was doing this primarily to refresh my memory of the rules for dominions and mass combat, in doing so I've come across some very fascinating little bits I hadn't remembered. For example, there's the section reproduced above offering advice on "adventure planning." The interesting bits, in my opinion, occur in the section titled "Rates of Progress."

In that section, Mentzer states that name level characters

should gain a new level of experience for every 3 to 8 successful adventures. More adventures can cause player frustration; fewer adventure can make the game too easy and eventually bore them.

So much to ponder in just a couple of sentences. First, there's the idea that level advancement should occur at a predictable rate. Does this idea exist in any other version of TSR era Dungeons & Dragons? Second, there's the idea that "player frustration" is both tied to a slow rate of advancement – "slow" being defined as more than nine adventures between levels – and to be avoided. To me, that's a strangely reductionist understanding of why people enjoy RPGs. Now, I understand that Mentzer's version of D&D goes all the way to Level 36, so there's probably an expectation of at least some people who play it that their characters might eventually reach that level, which will take time. Does that therefore mean they expect level advancement according to a schedule? I wouldn't think so, but then I share M.A.R. Barker's assertion that a roleplaying campaign is not a casual parlor pastime

Take a look, too, at the Adventure Planning Table. The leftmost column is for the number of characters in a campaign, which numbers from 1 to 10. Remember the Companion Rules came out in 1984, just a decade after the publication of OD&D. In my post the other day about large groups, the question of when the shift toward smaller groups became more common was posed. Looking at the chart, it would seem that, whether or not small groups were common by this point, they were at least envisaged as a possibility. A commenter suggested that the shift might have been the result of the game's being marketed more toward children than adults, which I think is plausible. Mind you, I've criticized BECMI as "kiddie D&D," so I might be more inclined toward this interpretation of events than is warranted. Regardless, this whole section is fascinating to me.


  1. I was going to say these are interesting suggestions for new DMs who might not have considered these aspects, but then this passage is in the Companion Rules, which suggests that the DM using them already has experience of PCs in their party leveling up. Nonetheless, it shows DMs the basic math, and if they and their group have a certain pace of play, the DM can adjust this to fit their style. I believe that most XP in the BECMI game comes from treasure (1 gp: 1 xp) and I've often used a ratio of 1/4 of xp from monsters, 3/4 from treasure. Of course this ratio is up to the DM so this passage could be seen as a guide to how much treasure the DM should leave for the PCs.

  2. Here is Gary's quote on rate of advancement from Strategic Review Vol. II #2:

    "It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level."

    So that's more or less one level every month in the first year, with advancement slowing down once name level is acquired, to once every three or four months, playing regularly once or twice a week (once every 1.5 weeks on average, from his numbers). Once name level is hit in OD&D and AD&D, you are looking at the Domain Game, which had far fewer opportunities for XP gain versus in-campaign gain.

    The guidelines for 5E are such that a character is expected to advance to 2nd level after the first session, 3rd level after the second session, and 4th level after the fourth session, then advance every two or three sessions thereafter (based on both XP and "Session-Based Advancement," DMG p. 261). And that is assuming an average of four or five players per group meeting for four-hour sessions. Which is much faster advancement, but my experience with groups is you are lucky to meet in person every other week (well, before the pandemic) for a four-hour session.

    Especially with games like 5E and 3E, where for many players the advancement of the level-based "character build" is as important, if not more so, than role-playing itself, regular advancement is very important for player enjoyment.

    That was also a factor with 1E and 2E, but not as much, at least, it was not in my experience. CRPG play really had a strong effect on player experience and perception of "what is fun" in a table-top RPG, and the character-build experience is definitely a major element of that.

  3. I think that other editions offer such an idea of advancement but with faster improvement rates, like 3 to 5 "adventures". Ad&D 2e, maybe?
    But there is a reaason I used quotation marks.
    In my experience, looking at the modules TSR produced in the 80s, what they actually meant was "sessions".
    Most of the adventures of the time are so rich in treasure (presumably generated according to the rules) that by their end (usually in 3 to 6 sessions) the PCs would have gained a level.
    Why the disconnect? No idea.
    I doubt it was a marketing strategy (let's sell monty haul adventures to keep players happy!)
    Would Mentzer use the wrong word? I doubt it, but I find hard to believe that the persons who wrote, or edited such adventures would also publish a a paragraph that suggests an advancement rate that is (on average) 5 times slower, when the treasure tables in the same ruleset contraddict those words.
    Maybe poor editing work?

  4. As a follow up, I checked a conversation I had a few months ago on the same subject. I had calculated the gp potential of some modules (B3, B4, X2).
    Castle Amber has a more or less a potential of 160,000 gp if the players manage to find all of the treasure.
    Even if they managed to liberate only a third of the total, it would still be a whopping 50,000 Gp, plus the XP for monsters.

  5. I am mostly struck by the casual” play[ing] twice or more each week” line. Even when I was playing all the time as a teen, we never played more than once. I’m jealous over the thought of so much gaming as a norm!

  6. AIR Rules Cyclopedia changes this to a recommended 5 sessions ("adventures") per level, about half the rate expected in 5e D&D, over nearly twice as many levels.

    Funnily enough, when I use the 5e XP system I get an advancement rate much closer to BECMI/RC norms, ca 20 hours of play per level rather than 5e's expected 10 hours/level. The same was true in 4e, which also expected 10 hours/level but ran far slower.

  7. That quote from Gary feels about right if maybe a little quicker than I would think for advancement. I don't know how you can get to 50 - 70 games a year if you're not a high school kid though! Of course to did down further - how many hours is a typical game in that scenarior. 4 hrs a session is pretty different than 6 and really different than 8. Artkid is right about the confusing way Mentzer uses adventure is it session, module, story arc, or exploration of a certain area. It's hard to tell.

  8. Post Scriptum: my personal experiences as DM or player align with what James said upthread, and my own number crunching.
    In ourlongest campaigns (30-40 sessions) we fresche at best 8th or 7th level.

  9. I think there were things like this which made many of us start to look down on D&D as a game that hindered role playing, in the thespian sense, as the chasing of points and levels became a more important aim than exploring a secondary world.

    We were so self important back in those days, deriding "levels" as if it was a four letter word. Oh my.

    Our hobby has always been a spectrum of those who wanted to put the emphasis on the R, and those who put the emphasis on the G, in RPG.

    I like to think we have grown to accept that there are more than one way to do it. Studying the older games have brought be back from the R emphasis to a more wider acceptance and enjoyment of the Game part, like shown here. Now I feel like breaking out my copy of the Companion set and re-read those bits quoted above.


  10. There's no rigid scheduled rate of advancement really as it all hinges on "3 to 8 successful adventures", if adventures are not successful the rate of advancement would surely be impacted. I always wonder if by "adventure" the author intends that to mean a module length adventure or simply play sessions.

  11. Second edition, page 49 has a Rate of Advancement paragraph stating: no more than one level per gaming session; average rate of advancement would be between 3 to 6 adventures per level, up to 10 adventures per level with a slow pace of advancement.

  12. In the B/X / Five Torches Deep mashup I've been running this year It looks like the average sessions per level has been a bit over three to a bit over four it looks like. I've been doing GP for XP, plus carousing, and also awarding more XP for monsters than B/X does- roughly 50 per HD, plus or minus a bit for special abilities or notable weaknesses.

    That's looking back at my session notes for 11 PCs (three of whom have died and been replaced). The most advanced PC is 7th level after 28 sessions (though hit L6 on the 26th), and the second most is 5th level after 23 sessions. Another PC is 5th after only 14 sessions, it looks like, but is a replacement PC accompanying the high level party, and so has shared in substantial spoils including a dragon's hoard.