In the sprawling dungeons of the 70s, Dungeons & Dragons players enjoyed an agency they rarely see now. They could choose their difficulty level. Plus, the game world offered a logical reason for that freedom. By fourth edition, players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level, and they learned to ignore the impossible luck of it.
Through the years, D&D’s approach to pitting characters against monsters changed. Each change brought benefits, problems, and something to learn.
In the early D&D game, dungeon explorers chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level underground corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—by delving deeper.
This system gives players a choice that rarely get now, and it added a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. Because most experience came from gold, players needed to delve as far down as they dared to rise in level. For more, see When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.
The concept of the mythic underworld provides a game-world explanation for greater threats appearing at deeper levels.
For campaigns seeking maximum player agency, such designs still work, even outside a dungeon. For example, in 2009, the online Dungeon magazine launched a series of 31 adventures set in the Chaos Scar. The editors called the series a “sandbox setting” in the spirit of Keep on the Borderlands.
The series started with a compelling concept: Long ago, a meteor carrying some malignant force carved the long, wide valley called the Chaos Scar. “Over the centuries, creatures of evil spirit have been drawn to this beacon. The meteor’s dark sentience spurred competition among them so that they fought with one another. The weak were killed or pushed to the edges of the meteor’s influence, while the strong and cruel rose to the top of the pecking order.” The ingenious background explains why the Scar’s dangers increase closer to its center.
“This is a campaign designed from ground zero to be about player choice,” editor Chris Youngs wrote. “The players have the opportunity in this campaign, unlike many others, to really choose their fate. Do they go into a tough cave or an easier one?” The Chaos Scar let characters roam until 11th level.
For the megadungeon under Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax relied on terse notes and improvisation to capture a constantly changing underworld. The dungeon defied capture in print. So when he learned that dungeons would sell, he published the adventures he designed for tournaments. These smaller dungeons lacked space to cover a span of difficulty levels. Instead, the adventures aimed to challenge a roster of pregenerated characters. In print, they recommended a party level and size. DMs started selecting or constructing adventures to suit their players’ characters.
This led a trend where players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level. Lucky! Although this happenstance defies a game world explanation, we’ve learned to accept the artifice. Balanced encounters combine a fun challenge with a strong chance of success. As players turned from dungeons to missions launched by hooks and patrons, matching threats to the characters’ power became key.
Even in adventures aimed at a certain party level, Gary and other DMs included harder and easier encounters, but the practice became less common. By third edition, most players became used to always facing threats tailored to their characters. The Dungeon Master’s Guide advised DMs aiming for a natural mix of threats to warn players in advance.
Fourth edition perfected encounter balance. The edition had to because fights took significant preparation and hours at the table. No DM wanted to squander so much time playing out a romp. Players learned to expect balance. The instigators who rush around the dungeon, opening doors and attacking with slight provocation, thrived because encounter balance protected them from the natural consequences of their recklessness.
But some players missed a natural imbalance, and not just players who valued cautious or thoughtful play. Some players missed the highs and lows and surprises that D&D once provided.
Next: Fifth edition, wilderness adventures, and the 5-minute adventuring day