An overdue update, with an unrelated discussion of campaign advancement…
So much for October, I guess.
Suffice to say that the last month has been one of weird obligation and unforeseen activity. As I have hinted on a couple of prior occasions, I’m in the process of looking for a new place to live, and many of those birds came home to roost in the previous several weeks. Nothing is precisely set into stone at the moment, but it bears noting that I am in the midst of packing up my library against the eventuality of having to get it shipped.
As such, there wasn’t any available time to sit down and hammer out the requisite number of words to satisfy my own loose definitions of blogging. In some ways, I’m glad that I had already cut back from my daily schedule of updates, as that would have been a rather abrupt shift. That doesn’t mean that I’m not vaguely mortified by my lack of maintenance, but at least there’s less comparative damage. In the interim, I’m hoping to be able to offer slightly more timely updates, if only for my own standards.
Right now, there are only two games that are being run in my immediate circle, and as I have come to expect, I’m running both of them. The first is the ever-present and close to finishing Carrion Crown campaign, which has been ongoing for about three years at this point. I have to assume that I’m approaching some sort of record, at this point, given that the entire campaign is structured to be finished within a six month timeframe. Yay, me.
There’s an odd tendency that I’m noting within Pathfinder (as a result of where we’re at in Carrion Crown), which I will have to pay closer attention to. Having run about half of Savage Tide, as well as played to a similar point within Rise of the Runelords, I’ve started to suspect that there is a tipping point around 12th level when modules start to ramp up the presence of casters as the primary foes in adventures. With Savage Tide, it happened with the kopru Cleric in Golismorga, which immediately followed up with a sorcerer in the early part of the next module. In Carrion Crown, the Witches of Barstoi that show up in Ashes at Dawn offer a similar threat. And Runelords had Sins of the Saviors, which offered a whole variety of casters to bedevil the player characters at that point.
The reason that I bring this up is that it seems to offer a sharp uptick of difficulty in the module series, one that I hadn’t been particularly expecting. Most of the foes in the modules were able to be dealt with in a more or less martial way in the lead-up modules, so springing a heavily tweaked caster on the party seems like a bit of a shift. As a player, I know that I hadn’t been ready for the tactical spellcraft that had been assumed to be in place for the fifth module of Runelords, and it’s fairly evident that none of my players, in either Carrion Crown or Savage Tide were up for the task.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I should feel about these narrative shifts. I mean, on one hand, it is logical that the foes should ramp up in difficulty as the modules progress, but by and large, it’s something of a sudden change. In the first ten levels, it doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of caster presence. A case could be made that lower level casters aren’t nearly as much of a threat, given the limited scope of spells and the relative lack of hit points and saves. But the few exceptions that I can bring to mind show me that they can be used effectively (the first thing that occurs to me is the main villain of The Varnhold Vanishing in Kingmaker), but otherwise they seem to be either absent or largely ineffective.
Looking back over the early parts of Carrion Crown, I see that my perceptions were out of whack. All the way along, there has been a proper representation of spellcasters, in one form or another. In Haunting of Harrowstone, there were a couple of foes within the ranks of the ghosts, but the spells were more utilitarian or basic damage than anything else. In Trial of the Beast, the main sorcerous adversaries were Vorkstag and Grine, the masters of the chymic works, and again, most of their base repertoire was defensive in nature. In the first half of Broken Moon, the master of the lodge offered the only mystical interference, and with the exception of Black Tentacles and Stinking Cloud, none of it was terribly remarkable. In the second half, the climactic battle with the necromancer only offers a challenge if he’s been given a number of rounds to prepare. Otherwise, his spells in combat are meant to keep him away from combat.
Continuing on, we find ourselves in Wake of the Watcher, where there are a sizable number of clerics wandering around, but most of them are multi-classed, which limits their repertoire. The cultists in town can only cast 2nd level spells, which limits their utility, and even the head cleric who shows up slightly later only has a couple of truly inconvenient spells at his disposal. The fungal oracle and the deep one cleric that show up in the final section have a better range of ability, but only the fungus is able to do anything interesting.
All right, so there is a fair representation of spellcasters through the module series. Given this, I have to assume that there were a fair selection of them in Savage Tide and the others. So it isn’t a problem of absence. That drops it over onto being a problem of not being an overt threat. And as such, something changes over somewhere around 10th level, the point where 1st Edition D&D suggested that the adventurers retired.
Back when I was living overseas, one of the resident GM’s there had noted that he hated running a campaign much past 10th level. At the time, it had taken me aback, given my general outlook. I assumed that most campaigns died around that time (as was my experience) due to player apathy, time constraints or similar ideas. Whenever I had run a proper D&D game, it flamed out somewhere in the 10th~12th level range just as a matter of course. To have someone want to intentionally kill the game at that point fascinated me.
Without deeper study (it’s late, and I’m running a fairly notable headache; in the same breath, if I don’t finish this in some manner, it will languish alongside the half-dozen other entries that I’ve been working on), I have to think this is the point where the game itself kicks over into more nuanced play styles. Sure, I’ve played some form of D&D for about 75% of my actual life, but it’s a complex enough system that I haven’t tried to take it apart to study the raw numbers.
So, as it stands, there’s more to consider in this whole bit, insofar as spell utility is concerned and how much of a threat a spellcaster of a given level ends up being. Alas, it’s not a question I can immediately answer in a single entry.