D&D Experiment: A whole campaign at Level 3

I don’t like super-heroic gameplay. I prefer more “realistic” danger and challenges. As a real human, I understand the real danger of real things like the dark, and the cold, and hunger, and predators my own size. Dragons and angels and vampires are great in so many ways, as patrons and forces of nature and storytelling devices… but not as things you hit with a sword. You know?

I understand that this is all a matter of personal taste. It probably stems from growing up on sword-and-sorcery stories where the heroes seemed to be in real danger, and people died, and things went wrong a lot. Also, no matter how big and strong Conan was, he always felt like a real person who could be tricked or beaten (and often was!). 

Illustration of a scene in Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails”: this picture was first published in Weird Tales (July 1936, vol. 28, no. 1).

I’m just not enthused about heroes with lots of super-abilities and a sack full of magic, and the threats are all as super-human as the hero. It feels too unreal to me. It may look cool, but it doesn’t feel…well, it doesn’t feel like anything at all. A person or situation feels more heroic to me when the person is just a person, and they have to rely on human knowledge, skills, strength, and character to confront great challenges.

So, as my current campaign winds down, I’m thinking about ways to capture (and maintain) the sword-and-sorcery feel that I want without completely changing the system my table is playing. (We’re using D&D 5E, with DnDBeyond tools. And yes, I know, there are other games that might give me what I want, but just go with me on this.)

To get that S&S feeling, my idea is: Play the whole campaign at Level 3. 

Why Level 3?

Level 3 gives everyone their key abilities. They can feel like capable fighters and wizards. But they will never level up! Never increase their Hit Points, never auto-magically acquire new abilities or spells or spell slots. So in order to have their characters grow and evolve, they will need to adventure!

  • Find stuff! Wands, grimoires, potions
  • Take risks! Drink from or bathe in weird fountains, make deals with NPCs
  • Invest time! Work to upgrade a sword, earn a spirit’s blessing
  • Get messy! Harvest materials from monsters

My hope would be that every session would include 1-3 minor discoveries or upgrades to reward adventuring behavior. And hopefully the players would feel like they really earned their power-ups this way, instead of getting them automatically via XP and levels.

What do you think about this? Have you tried anything similar? Any suggestions or insights?

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