Why So Many Low-Level Modules?

James over at Grognardia asks, in the context of a module review, why there seem to be so many low-level adventure modules, compared to modules geared towards higher levels.

It’s certainly a legitimate question, but one which I think lends itself to a relatively easy answer. First and foremost, it’s the case that there are simply more low-level characters out there than higher-level ones. By their very nature, low-level characters tend to die, and thus there is a glut of lower-level adventurers out there needing low-level adventures.

Especially when a campaign is just getting off the ground, a game master using an off-the-shelf module makes a modicum of sense, especially when you don’t know whether this particular group of tyros is going to be the one that makes it to mid-level, and thence to a very higher probability of survival.

It is also the case that higher-level characters tend, by the nature, to be well-ensconced in the particular campaign in which they have been playing. Thus, as a secondary factor, it’s harder to design a “generic” module for higher-level play, given that higher-level characters are, by their nature, going to be more in tune with their surroundings, and thus their adventures are going to be, by and large, more setting-integrated.

That’s not to say that higher-level adventures are impossible, or even difficult, to design. I’ve got a real hum-dinger waiting in the wings myself. But in terms of what is, and is not, published, I think it makes sense that there are more lower-level modules out there. They’re simply more useful for what they are.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “Why So Many Low-Level Modules?

  1. I've been thinking about this a little bit lately. I can only speak for myself, but I think the reason I'm putting so much time into building a specifically low-level starting point for my own nascent campaign is simply because I like the idea of building my own Big Thing from the ground up. Starting low smacks of building something durable if not permanent. Don't know why that is, exactly, and I think if I pursued the thought I'd end up disappointing myself and lose some of the fun of the exercise..

    So I'm willing to let that be my reason.

  2. back in the day
    Goodman Games put out 15+ modules
    for 5 – 9 level characters for
    OGL compatible adventures

    kept my party going for almost a year on these gems

  3. personally, I find it more difficult to make interesting adventures for 1st level characters. There just aren't very many creatures, and the characters don't have as many tools at their disposal. After 2nd level or so, it's much easier.

    That said, I think you had it right the first time. Most games don't last that long, so there is always a need for starter adventures.

  4. "By their very nature, low-level characters tend to die, and thus there is a glut of lower-level adventurers out there needing low-level adventures."

    See, this reason makes no sense to me. If the characters die, that means there's no need to BUY (or create) a new "low-level" module…the module that killed the players is still a challenge waiting to be plumbed!

    Over the last several weeks, I've killed more than a dozen PCs and henchmen in the Caves of Chaos (module B2). The players keep coming back for more and the caves continue to beckon. Treasure from dead adventurers lies safely hoarded in the monsters' lairs, and more monsters come in to fill the empty caves…unless the caves are ever cleaned out, I need no other "low-level" modules…and once they ARE cleaned out, I'll need higher level modules for the brave heroes that managed it.

    This (the glut of low-level adventures) seems like a pretty silly phenomenon.

  5. I've been drawing up low-level module components, though admittedly with much more freedom to play fast and loose as they're all jigsaw parts of a larger plot, for a few weeks now. I've found the process actually easier than I remember it being. Either I'm just better and more equipped to do this than when I was fifteen or the return to first level has simplified things somewhat.

    Personally I think it's the latter. The 'glut' of low-level modules is also something of a testament to the simplicity of a more limited range of choices. Besides making the (mostly for colour) choices on traps and setting, you're left with a rather small array of critters to populate things with.

    So, besides the certainly clear and well thought-out points you raise, I think it's just an easier place for DMs to learn the core of the game and not be overwhelmed by choices which leads to being the first place most designers start in their own games, so naturally they're more familiar with the process and demands of such a level of play, too.

    The semi-meritocracy of the internet makes the cream of the modules, generally, rise up, but I'd think it only natural that the cream will be thicker at lower levels even if only through practice and nothing else.

  6. Exactly. You may as well ask why there are more grade school textbooks, compared to college textbooks, compared to grad school textbooks.

    @JB: The attrition may have more to do with players losing interest, than with the characters literally being killed.

  7. A sensible question. Just some thoughts:

    1. D&D (as a game) changes at high levels. Scarcity and Survival seem to dominate low level play. The 'ideal' seems to be mid level. There are many reasons for this. Upper level play can gravitate toward intellectual challenges and 'wargame'-like large combats. I think this touches upon the 'endgame' discussions.

    2. The cost (in time, especially) of writing a module from a business standpoint could mean that it's just better business to develop for more certain sales.

    3. I think you're spot on about higher level characters being more 'integrated' into the campaign content around them. The players are drawn into a world via the content and become part of it, perhaps?

    4. Do the expectations of the Fantasy genre get in the way? How many epic quests can a band of adventurers go on?

    5. As much as I love modules, do they have the quality of distracting from storylines related to character class? (i.e. is there an advantage to having class abilities tied to campaign interaction – a mage returning to a school, a fighter going to trainer, and so on?)

    6. I always equated certain kinds of adventures with high level play, namely visits to (or from) Outer Planes and such. From a 'top down design' approach, would the games be better (or at least high level module writing easier) with a strict cosmology? Did Deities and Demigods make high level adventure writing easier?

    Sorry for the long comment…

  8. A factor that has already been touched upon is that that mid-to-high level characters tend to be more integrated into their own little part of the game world. When running low-level adventures, it's easy enough to add another village or swamp or ruin to the DM's sandbox or world map, simply because the characters might not have been around enough to know of it yet.

    By higher levels, the vast majority of the sandbox has been explored. It's much harder to justify the sudden appearance of a 500 year old tomb that the party has only just now heard about. Especially if they have been visiting sages on exploring the wilderness all this time.

    Secondly, many campaigns shift to a more "political" arena by the mid to high levels. If the characters don't yet own a keep or stronghold at this point, many are actively preparing to acquire one. Political adventures at such a level are just as difficult to insert into the campaign because, not only has the map no room for more locations (such as the political villains power-base), the main political players in the campaign should already be well realised by this point in the campaign as well. Again, having another one simply turn up makes little sense. Not unless the players travel outside their established "theatre" to meet him. By this stage, they would need a pretty compelling reason to do so. The PC's simply might not care what's happening two Kingdoms away, they have their own local problems to sort out. What's the point of going "over there" if you lose your own castle in the three months it takes you to sort out the problem and return.
    All this means that, in my opinion, it's much, much harder to right a generic module that can be simply slotted into a higher level campaign. At least, not without the GM having to do quite a bit of work on it (and probably defeating the point of buying a commercial module in the first place).

  9. Kinda surprised you'd mention this Joe. Isn't you who makes it tough on players to get beyond the 6th level in your own games? 🙂

    As for my interpretations:

    1) Could be the "Oh Stuck Regovernance" movement's take on having beginning matter for all those "thousands" of new folks that are yearly being brought into the fold. 😉

    2) It could be that RPG is considered by many to be low end and moves like life often does in a work setting–that is, as slow as molasses in January.

    3) It might very well be that a lot of people who claim to have played back in the day really only "played with it" to a certain level only.

    4) It could be that with all the clones (and thus all the companies, this as I firmly alluded to/hinted at in by "Debate" post at LOTGD) that each and everyone feels that they have to perform niche autopsy at every level of adventure, thus over the wide and perceived "whole. Thus there is duplicated effort given to any separate category of publication. See, it's no longer a "Group" when you are "separate" companies who all have "singular" agendas. If singular output in this case (low level addies) is unrealistically viewed as a whole (as from the fabled grouped "Movement"), then this illusion would only surrender to the opposite impression of diversity.

    5) They like low level adventures.

    Word verification: "Dingence," meaning, 1) "Dingy-Gents," an 18th century term originating in England and later applied to those gents who secretly wrestled in the allies of London, Paris and Brussels. 2) The modern day equivalent of the FIGHT CLUB. 😉

  10. I don't see a problem. Most campaigns I've been in top out around level 10, and I don't think have *ever* gone above level 16, and there's a lot of ones that stop even lower. Fact is, I've spent more calendar time playing a character of levels 1-5 than any other set of levels, and that means more demand for adventures of that level.

    Also, for some combination of "characters are more integrated with the world" and "it's harder to plan for the variety of abilities PCs have at high levels," most high level modules have historically sucked. I remember when I played Basic D&D – the B series were good, the X series were excellent, and then the companion/master/immortal adventures were complete and utter crap.

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