I have designed games professionally for 15 years and actively used lessons I learned from AD&D to create meaningful player experiences during my career. I am not interested in unpacking design philosophy but I do want to assure you that I'm not speculating about this stuff.
Making games is hard. You will never be right 100% of the time. But if you follow principals instead of rules, you will manage to succeed and impress players often enough.
As I dig into my group's second session (testing my upcoming module) I want to say a few things about low level adventures, not in terms of rules, but in terms of principles.
Orcs are hard (see #2)
There are three things that matter: Enemy AC, Enemy HP, Enemy dmg
Terrifying abilities should be ON the table at every level
We don't give a poop in the clouds about anything else.
Frenchie the FTR (LVL 1) with ringmail, shield and a 16 STR has a 35% chance of hitting an orc with a broadsword even if you are using all the rules that help a brother out. If Frenchie hits, he's got about a 50% chance of killing the orc assuming average swinish HP.
[Wait. Stop reading this. Reach over there and get your luckiest d20. Roll that sucker twenty times. On a piece of paper, make tick marks for each time that you roll a 14 or higher. I just did it too. My result? Six. Six times out of 20. 30%. I started out strong. Got four in a row. Then I hit that dry spell. The one we've all felt during a game. What that means is that for the next SIXTEEN ROUNDS OF COMBAT I MISSED FOURTEEN TIMES.]
I under-performed by 5%. But my die is not cursed. The game isn't broken. It's just that the DM doesn't understand that you shouldn't be in this position during a NORMAL encounter. A very tough encounter? OK. Fine. But for a normal encounter? Find a new DM.
Otis the Orc has a 40% chance of hitting Frenchie and ballpark-similar odds of ending him in one hit. Fair? Well, we're comparing the 1st level party's front-line hitter to a single orc. The magic-user, thief and cleric are going to fair much worse because of their hp.
To summarize, orcs are boring AND a sprinkle of them kills first-level parties while everyone is bored. Orcs are great, but IMO you either want them to fulfill the scrub role they were meant for (No. Appearing 30----300 isn't a typo, it's an invitation to make 8th level magic-users waste fireballs early) [OR] you can put a single orc as a dreaded leader in a level 1 dungeon.
Let's move on.
Next, the Three Things the Matter:
When you decide to leave the orcs behind, you need a replacement. And here's what it is:
Monsters with AC 8 or worse
Monsters with HP of 7 or less
Monsters that deal 1d3 dmg
I break all these admonitions in Zjelwyin Fall, but I also follow them in many places. To put it another way, you want glass cannons. You can up the dmg range and terrify players as long as the characters are likely to hit and kill when they win initiative.
Here's a fast, pale, spider-like monster from Zjelwyin Fall: AC 8 | HD 2 | DMG 25% of victim's max HP | Magic Weapons to hit
I'd wager this thing could terrify a 6th level magic-user. But if we send Frenchie in with his broadsword (enchanted by the M-U's Nystul's Magic Aura), Frenchie will hit 50% of the time (incl. to-hit-AC-type adj). His damage is 2d4+1 from STR, so he has a very good chance of killing it in two blows, whereas the other-planar horror (with equal to-hit odds) will probably need 3 or 4 hits to kill Frenchie.
The monster projects the illusion of being tremendously lethal, and that illusion is made strong because it's founded on some principals that can and will occasionally BE lethal.
Third: Embrace Terrifying Abilities
Me: "OK, 1st level cleric, save vs poison or die."
Astute Player: "I mean, I have a 50% chance of surviving this. That's better odds than having to fight two orcs alone after Frenchie dies."
AD&D is designed to kill characters. Why wait until high levels to do it with bling? Bring on the disintegration! Put it another way, whether you're 1st level or 20th level, that green face at the end of the hall in S1 has the same odds of ending you when you put your head in its mouth----especially since Detect Evil is 1st level magic.
Fourth, Surprise Them:
When you throw low-level characters against the unknown, you wind up with solid-gold gaming. Every HP matters and the players don't know what that thing on the wall is going to do to them. Buy this and read it as exhibit #1 supporting this argument.
Lets move on to the playtest after I make a couple concessions
All six players at my table are veteran game designers with 15+ years of experience. They are trained to zero in on tells, patterns and clues. Each one of them is like a dozen bloodhounds. Worse yet, all of them (with the exception of one) have been avid D&D players for nearly twice that length of time. Put simply, you are not going to get much past them and they are going to come prepared.
They made some lucky rolls AND some lucky choices, which I will disclose below.
[SPOILER ALERT: WHAT FOLLOWS REVEALS SIGNIFICANT PORTIONS OF THE ADVENTURE]
The surviving playtest characters are:
The party couldn't come up with an informed answer when the monodrones asked for a password near the sapphire door. Combat ensued.
First round initiative tied with 4's. The monodrones had spears so most of the party attacked first and the Fighter got to swing twice with his speed factor 3 short sword. One of the 7 hp monodrones when down immediately.
Although some dmg was dealt to the party, the other two modrons died as well. The group had obtained a wand and some other items from the entry point and now began experimenting with them. Since it was my design to make these items immediately usable to characters willing to grab them, I offered up the command words (which were etched upon them) or the labels in case of the potions. This is because choosing when and how to use limited resources in this module is far more interesting than not.
Thus, the magic-missile wand began to deal dmg.
The black bottles stuffing the deep shelves of the obsidian walls were given thorough search, turning up worrying remains within some of the vessels and a shrunken but living Gith warrior in another. The warrior was mute but certainly hostile and the bottle was packed away.
Meanwhile, the Incantrix and the Psionicist made a sketch of the door, its curious fixtures and eldritch knocker-plate. The knocker, looking like a shooting star was carefully lifted to examine the designs on the plate, but when it was set back against the plate after inspection, it must have counted as a "knock" for the handler vanished almost immediately.
Role playing and meta-knowledge of D&D collided briefly as the players mused whether the now-missing character had been disintegrated before quickly following suit, each character knocking in turn upon the plate and vanishing.
The order of knocking was recorded and they entered a new location in same chronology, one character per round, ranged around a gleaming silver ledge that ran the circumference of and overlooked an expansive pit of red sand some ten feet below. The dunes in this crimson pit transitioned to blue at the center and ultimately collapsed into a horrifying central funnel.
All of this was under a vast glass dome, which kept a churning but beautiful storm at bay.
Two more monodrones seeking a password had to be dealt with on the silver ledge, but the staggered arrival of the party made this somewhat frantic and dangerous. There was a body, marbled with alien red fungus and a back pack. A strange sigil and several other distractions.
One of the monodrones was killed and fell into the sand, which roused a far more harrowing thing of gaunt whiteness and evil intent. It rose out of the crimson dunes and shrieked, which caused terrible vibrations in the cleric's flesh.
Thankfully the wand helped end it while other characters were arriving. Some focus was then given to the remaining monodrone, after which the psionicist sensed the presence of psionic entities on the far side of the room, perhaps sleeping within the worrying cocoon-like shapes cemented there beneath the silver walkway.
A trove of labeled potions helped heal the group, provide semi-permanent (thanks to the Astral setting) flying and heroism, while a book of spells was also being examined.
The heroism was a BIG deal, with the fighter netting 3 levels and 17-ish extra HP.
In a pragmatic way, the group decided the spellbook was simply a scroll for the purposes of this adventure...and that they would read directly from it as necessary to increase survival odds.
The group departed the room by means I will not reveal and entered upon their next challenge, seen below:
For true lowbies, we use paper pawns instead of painted miniatures. It helps with separation-issues. You can see the incantrix who drank the Potion of flying. She's up on the wonderful Combat Tier (an aid I wish was easier to get hold of).
This is where they encountered the Pudding Oracle, selected an artifact (a colorful foot-long alien hummingbird taxidermy strung on a leather thong) and then departed after solving a puzzle. Choices here happened to be lucky.
Their departure took them to a marshy location under another glass dome. This place was not difficult because of the hummingbird artifact and they passed through with only minor injuries.
From there, they came to an immense low-gravity glass sphere where a ring of metal tumblers encircled a core of unknown metal. Countless crimson eggs were glued and strung among the tumblers, each 10-inches in diameter and cradling a black, squirming larva: a krill-like crustacean, spangled with eyes and innumerable legs.
Beyond the glass sphere, the PCs could see the Astral Plane and even glimpse color pools or islands of matter streaking by as the Fall hurtled on.
The core of the sphere emitted an array of ghostly filaments that extended between the inner and outer spheres exactly like a plasma globe. When these filaments played over the tumblers they hatched eggs and dealt dmg to nearby characters.
This is where a series of lucky rolls and decisive level-headed choices combined with the enhanced movement rates of PCs on the Astral Plane and led to a win in navigating the room without engagement...until they reached the evrabb'ithas blocking another sapphire door.
Raucous laughter erupted over the unintentionally pornographic description of the beast: a large protean slew of gelatinous flesh, silvery-white and nearly transparent. Black pigment outlined otherwise equally transparent organ structures deep inside the mass while a dorsal host of frond-like tentacles stood erect, dense with pink glandular fibers, each individually crowned with glistening dollops of mucilage-glue.
Yeah. I said all that. Aloud. It was great.
Several of the PCs were swiftly overwhelmed by the tentacles and others had to do the business of damage dealing. This was one of those encounters I mentioned in the intro, a glass cannon capable of projecting a massive threat, but also capable of being dispatched with good tactics by low level characters.
We ended the session without any deaths. I was surprised by this but...big but...the two deadliest rooms have yet to be dealt with----and must be dealt with to achieve success.
Next session I am fairly certain that the adventure in Zjelwyin Fall will come to a conclusion one way or another. While I may not reveal the exact method of that resolution, I will provide an update on whether or not the party succeeds and where the final body count stands at journey's end.
Based on our play-testing thus far, I think I can confidently say the module will easily fill two four-hour gaming sessions and maybe even three depending on player choices.
Thanks for reading and Happy Gaming!