Scaling the Story to the Level of the Characters

by Mike Shea on 18 June 2018

In a recent discussion on Twitter, my friend Teos Abadia (Alphastream on Twitter) and I, along with a few others, talked about one of my #dnd tip tweets I posted. The tweet said:

Make sure the scope of the story matches the level of the characters. Rat swarms are suitable for level 1. Demon princes are suitable for level 20. The scope and scale of the characters' actions should increase proportionally.

This is one of those times when a tweet can't fully describe the topic, thus the discussion on Twitter and the writing of this article.

First, let me explain a bit further.

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons have levels, from 1 to 20. Beyond being bundles of new mechanics that characters earn, these levels can also describe the growth of the character in the world. Within the story, the characters get better and grow more powerful. The threats they face also grow in power.

Dragonslayers by Larry Elmore

In recent days, some D&D adventures have gone with the idea that even low level characters can face world-threatening situations. The general idea is that low level adventures are boring so let's throw some big awesome stuff at the characters and let them deal with it somehow.

We're not talking about a situation where the characters stumble into the lair of a black dragon all on their own and we DMs have to decide if the world is going to punish them for their stumble. This is a situation where we DMs build a big epic story and throw low level characters into it on purpose. That is certainly a style of storytelling in D&D but it isn't my preferred style.

In my opinion, facing a lich, a balor, a death knight, a beholder, or an ancient red dragon is something really special. It shouldn't happen all the time and it shouldn't happen at low levels. First off, these monsters are, thankfully, not that common. Second, though, being able to face such foes is one of the rewards of gaining levels. If the characters continually see these epic world-threatening forces at low levels, they lose their uniqueness.

Of course, like just about any rule, there are times where we can break this one.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing such threats can give low level characters a glimpse of the greater threats out in the world. In Curse of Strahd, it's awesome that Strahd comes to see the characters first hand and maybe even give them a glimpse of the vampire lord himself. Seeing Slarkrethal eating a boat off of the Sword Coast is a fun way to show the characters that something huge and awful has awoken in the deep. Dark visions of Acererak and his Soul Monger might bleed into the dreams of the characters as they first make their way into Chult. In Out of the Abyss, the characters can witness Demogorgon rising from the oily black waters of Darklake around level 4 or so.

Giving the characters the hints and ideas that there is something much bigger at stake here is a great way to keep the adventure tied together and show them the path they will take.

There's a big difference between dreaming about a lich, facing a lich, and defeating a lich.

Scaling the Threat

Many of the hardback adventures are based on world-shaking events. Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat foretell the coming of Tiamat. Out of the Abyss has the demon princes lounging around in the Underdark. Princes of the Apocalypse speak of, well, apocalyptic princes.

Sometimes, like in the case of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the characters are thrown right in. At level 1 or 2 they have to somehow negotiate with an ancient blue dragon and convince it not to kill everyone.

Some DMs and designers might try to find ways to take a high level threat and make it defeatable for low level characters. Reducing its hit points and removing some of its danger can accomplish this.

When we change these threats, however, we remove one of the joys of higher-level play, though. What fun is it to level if all of the monsters simply scale to the level of the characters anyway?

The Progression of the Threats in the Story

When we think about how characters progress throughout D&D, there is a clear ladder of dangers that has existed for forty years. Low level characters face rats, kobolds, goblins, skeletons, and orcs. Mid-level characters face hobgoblins, ogres, skeletal knights, and maybe a beholder. High level characters face demons, devils, giants, and dragons. It's the progression through these monsters that makes D&D feel real while the characters explore.

Making the Skeleton in the Basement Interesting

Returning to the central core of the topic, however, we're working on the assumption that low level adventures are inherently small and boring. I disagree. We DMs can bring life to that single skeleton lurking in the hidden crawl-space under the tavern. It's decaying flesh reeking. It's jagged nails cracked from decades of scratching at the walls. Death and vengeance radiating from its empty eye sockets. Even on it's defeat, we're left with the question of "why?". Why was it down there? Who made it? Where did it come from? By the gods, are there more of them?

Low level adventures take the lens of our focus and narrow it down to microscopic levels. A swarm of rats is as deadly as a balor when the characters are only level 1. Every screech of those rats, every slip in the muck of the sewers, every little beady black eye that screams for blood; every detail comes into horrible focus when we zoom that lens in on low-level threats.

We need not leap past them and get to epic stories when these small threats can be just as memorable. Don't throw away low level threats, embrace them.

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