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In my campaign, my players each have several different characters at the home base. Every session, they pick which one they want to play. However, some players always use the same one and so have more powerful characters, while others have three or four characters they use. Also, players regularly create new characters (which are at level 1). The system is AD&D 2e.

Is there a way to shape dungeons, wildernesses and random encounters so they are more applicable to a range of levels? I know that using a lot of weak enemies means everyone can contribute different amounts, but I don't really have any other ideas apart from that. Mostly, I want to be able to set up the sessions so that most of the players are active and at least feel useful. In previous games I've participated in with level disparities, the stronger characters consistently outdid the weaker ones (as you'd expect), but the players of the weaker characters were fairly bored - they knew that they weren't going to affect the encounters or obstacles as much as the stronger players, so they were less engaged.

I mostly need a way to set up combat so that the high-level characters get enough XP that they can level up after a few sessions, while the lower levels are able to catch up after 3-4 sessions. A Dwarven Level 5/4 Cleric/Fighter is the strongest so far, but down the line the disparity could go up to 12 levels or more, depending on how successful the campaign is.

I specifically want to avoid any suggestions about changing the levels of starting players, or giving different players different amounts of XP.

To summarise: How do I set up encounters/dungeons so that lower and higher level players can be active and achieve?

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5 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Outside of Combat

If the characters have different skill-sets (i.e., there's one mage, one cleric, one thief, and one fighter in the group), then you can tailor your non-combat encounters to scale to the skills that are in play. Somebody brought a master thief? Then the locks and traps are suddenly masterwork. Only a first-level thief? Then the locks and traps are suddenly much simpler. Similarly, the hit dice of undead beings, or the spells required to heal a mortally-wounded NPC that has information, can scale up and down depending on the cleric's power. (If the cleric is low-level, Cure Minor Wounds will do; a high-level cleric will find someone who dies just after giving some tantalizing clues, and must be raised or have speak with dead cast to get the rest of the information.)

This is much harder to handle if you have two characters with overlapping skills: a 1st level thief and a 10th level thief that focus on the same skills, or similar situations. There are two routes you can take: an obstacle requires two people with those skills at the same time; for instance, a locked door must be unlocked with two keys simultaneously, or can be overcome by two thieves working together. Alternatively, focus on plot and relationships to NPCs: the low-level character has worked with a particular NPC before, and is the face man for talking with that NPC. This makes them important to the session even if they are completely outclassed by the rest of the party. (You can do this even if the low-level character has never been played before; make it part of his backstory.)

Inside Combat

This is harder, and I have fewer suggestions here.

You mentioned the first one already: if all of the enemies are weak, then your stronger characters will do the lion's share of the work, but the weaker characters will still be able to contribute.

You can also have some large creatures and some small creatures; the strong characters take on the big guys to protect the rest of the party. This requires two things: 1) you don't go out of your way to wail on the weak characters with your bruisers, and 2) the strong characters are willing to go to bat against the big monsters.

Finally, you can set up complicated combats that are more than just we-kill-them-before-they-kill-us. Have the players attack a castle by surprise: they take the gatehouse, but now somebody needs to sabotage the gate-closing mechanism while the rest of the party holds off the guards. Add some extra events that happen to the mechanism to keep that character interested and contributing, even if they're not in the main melee: a drunk guard in the corner finally wakes up and attacks that character, or the mechanism is badly worn and keeps trying to slip and close the portcullis while the character is working. Complicated situations and trying-to-do-something-else-while-somebody-is-trying-to-kill-me can make some of the most memorable combats.

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You said it, but I want to highlight what I think is the most important part of this: TEAMWORK. Situations that require a team to get past them will get everyone involved. If the party works as a team, not just a group, then they will split the combat encounters according to ability, and make your life easy. If the high-level wizard is an XP-whore, he'll kill everything in the room except the big guy before the low-level fighter can blink, and then take his time with the guy only he can hurt. But if this is your party, you're going to have a HARD time making it work. –  Ryno Nov 30 '12 at 10:20
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In addition to what Paul Marshall wrote:

Challenge the players

Include puzzles that challenge the players' brains, and it doesn't matter who is how excellent or weak.

Also, investigation and other social-based adventures means that player's abilities make the main difference. ADnD 2e don't have very strict rules on social interactions, so it's possible to make it all drama-based (charisma, class and level should play some role, but don't need to be as important as in hack&slash). Consider going out of dungeons and moving some of your adventures to a city. Or inhabit your dunguons with someone who is not supposed to fight the party, so that diplomacy is necessary or at least useful.

Prepare dynamically

When going to dungeons, prepare situations like "someone must stay here to open the door", or otherwise force the party to split between few positions. Prepare two or three possibilities for every position, or just prepare monsters and assign them dynamically to positions as you need. Is there a level 1 thief? Single orc will appear. Is there a high level fighter or mage? Some big monster attacks him.

Off course, you can't do this too often. But tyou can compensate for fights where strong PCs had too big spotlight. One useful technique for this is to divide wandering monsters between attacking weak/strong PCs (those attacking weak will be much more common), and then use them with respect to party formation. If there's a high level fighter in front and a low-level one in the rear, the high-level one will hardly kill the low-level monster attacking from rear in a narrow passage. If there's an outstanding mage, use "no mana" and "low mana" areas, where spellcasting is prohibited or hindered (such as "50% chance of spell failure"). If there are both high- and low-level magi, use wards against specific schools of magic to hinder favourite spells of the stronger mage. If you didn't predict what spells will the PCs prepare, don't be afraid of removing a ward against spells prepared by the weaker mage (changing the wards to hinder high level mage with an enexpected build is not so good, though).

Off course, if the party is a team it's easier and you don't have to split the party too often.

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+1 for dynamic challenges and splitting the group to keep things interesting for all parties –  Phil Nov 30 '12 at 14:06
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Overlap Quests

In addition to the above, give the players multiple missions that take place at the same time. After all, even in a world of magic, not every quest can be completed (travel time and all) in one day. Odds are you can simply say that it's two weeks travel by mundane means, and if they want to pop their components just to overpower two quests at once then that's their issue. If your group has a mercenary guild of their own, more than one client will be coming their way. So make pesky goblins harass a village to the south, and a den mother green dragon make issues for some wood elves to the northeast while a temple to the west wants some extra muscle for a big ritual.

The players then have to do a little HR and even if the quests happen at the same time in game, you can spread out the quests over different sessions. Don't be afraid to let a red herring or two through - that escort duty might go without a hitch. Not everything has to be a problem so you can avoid too much micromanagement. This way the players will want to weight their dispatches to the threat level for the payout.

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It's not as huge a deal though as in 3rd edition, since lower level characters level a lot faster then higher level ones. And monsters generally have set stats/HD rather then scaling. 2nd edition is a bit more flexible in designing encounters for mixed level parties, especially since 2nd ed levels don't have nearly as much umph! as 3rd edition levels do (extra feats, a ton of skill points rather then a few proficiency points, same HD progression forever, etc). As long as they have a few HD worth of HP, they're fine.

Depending on the class involved. If there's a really good warrior, send HD monster's appropriate for the others, but add a few more, since a higher level warrior could easily clear them out. If it's a high level thief, use traps. If it's a caster, add a challenge appropriate for their abilties, but otherwise keep things within the abilities of the weaker members. Basically, though you need to know how your players play their characters to really design challenges around them. You could also add in some better gear...like the group of low level enemies they first encounter had stolen a crate off a caravan with some decently powerful weapons in them (less then or equal to what the highest level character has), since ultimately, gear and tactics are what win battles, levels are mostly just increased options. The other stuff can simply be talked through ad hoc, if necessary.

Basically, just keep things fun for everyone, within the limits for bending the rules you've decided to to allow.

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Though I agree with this wholeheartedly, it doesn't directly answer the question. If you framed it differently ("you can try, but here's why the game takes care of level disparity for you") it might be improved. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 23 '12 at 23:39
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Paul's answer is great, but let me add a couple.

Avoid the issues: Ok, this doesn't directly answer your question, but one option is to assume that the character's left at home base are being productive. They won't level or gain gear as fast as the actively played ones, but they will level and gain gear even when left alone. In that fashion, you can keep it so that the characters aren't more than 1 or two levels apart and with reasonable gear, making the issue trivial.

Distractions and other supporting roles Ok, this is really tacking onto Paul's, but even substantially lower level characters can serve in combat as distractions, and a well used diversion can mean the difference between victory and death.

Interactions between the characters This requires the right kind of relationships between the PCs, but if you fully acknowledge the level difference in character then it could create interesting dynamics when two character's skill sets overlap, and that can be fun in and of itself. A mighty warrior may have a squire or shield bearer assisting, an experienced cleric might have a novice learning at his side. This of course shines a lot of the light on the senior member, but the junior won't always be overshadowed and it would be quite appropriate to hand out XP bonuses to both if they play it well (teaching is a good form of learning, and you can learn faster with a good teacher).

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I can't really avoid the issue by letting characters at home level up slowly, because new characters will still be very low-leveled. However, the inter-character roleplaying is a good idea. –  Dakeyras Dec 27 '12 at 11:44
Why do new characters have to be low-leveled? As the average level of the group increases, bring in new characters at progressively higher levels, and give them better starting gear (including magic items). Those "new" characters had stories before they joined the group, so let them have the levels that go with their off-screen experiences. –  Paul Marshall Jan 23 '13 at 18:31
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