Friday, 11 August 2017

Sandboxing Example

Let me tell you what I did in a short session last night.

1. PCs decide to travel from Bratanis Village through the Ghinarian Hills to the Temple-Tomb of Belaras. Route takes them past the dungeons beneath Sky God Idol, where they have adventured before.
2. On the road I decide to roll an encounter - I roll & get an Elf Ranger Maegladher and his giant rat Galadan. Checking my notes, I decide he is a scout for King Kambdum Domnavrente of Diancecht, sent to investigate rumours of war in the north. I can see he therefore was trained at the Grove of the Rising Sun, I know the name of the priestess who initiated him, his Ranger captain et al.
3. PCs exchange pleasantries with the Elf (well, the Half-Orc threatens to eat his rat), he warns them Yusan's bandits have returned to the Sky God Idol dungeons, and PCs continue on west.
4. At the dungeon, the PCs see muddy tracks going in and decide to follow them, but are distracted by an old library (pre-keyed) where the Eldritch Knight is delighted to find a spell book, the Septimus Severian (pre-placed).
5. While PCs are nabbing the book I make my first dungeon wandering monster roll, get '6' -
encounter, roll - Dwarves - checking notes I see these are Bolfi's men, who the PCs fought alongside before against goblins. But these dwarves want money for 'their' books.
6. Failed PC Intimidate checks, a fight breaks out. The dwarves are wounded, one felled, the other asks for quarter and the PCs let him drag away his injured friend. The PCs are worried more dwarves will come, and decide to leave the dungeon.
7. Heading west again, the first (& only) non-rolled encounter of the evening. I decide that Yusan's Bandits raided (sneaked into) a pilgrim group camp last night and kidnapped Lady Lucretia Alamsor of Rallu, a pre-existing NPC with a record of being kidnapped... The PCs encounter Lucretia's assistant Brionny Fortin out looking for her, accompanied by two hammer-armed men who look like blacksmiths. Brionny has previously been encountered but by other PCs, the men are the Alces brothers from Selatine, lent by Lady Vex of Selatine (very long term NPC) to Lady Lucretia to guard her on her pilgrimage. The groups talk, and the PCs agree to help Brionny recover her missing mistress, telling Brionny they suspect Lucretia is being held in the Skygod Idol dungeon.

And we end there.

So, a mix of random rolls, preset locales, pre-existing and new NPCs, etc. Lucretia & Brionny were last seen (by other PCs) on their Ralluan merchant ship docked at Selatine, a couple weeks ago in-game. When I was looking for an encounter, it made sense to me that Lucretia would want to go on the famous pilgrimage to the Temple of Belaras. I knew she didn't trust her own men after an encounter with pirates on the way north, and so seemed likely she would take guards from Lady Vex at Selatine - but Vex is only just starting to rebuild the village (after overthrowing her brother Hytirus, who had been enspelled by an evil priest of Thanatos) and she wouldn't likely spare either of her two real warriors, Epicaste & Vuthrik. Hence the Alces brothers, the Alces family being loyal to Lady Vex.

The actual session log:
http://smons.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/level-3-3347-to-2pm-west-to-temple-of.html

Rob Conley's blog post from the same rpgsite thread - http://batintheattic.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/my-axioms-of-sandbox-campaigns.html

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Four different types of RPG

From http://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?37424-Why-the-hate-for-narrative-story-elements-in-a-RPG&p=980639&posted=1#post980639

"Trad RPG style" typically refers to OD&D style sandboxing. But I'm not clear if the other side is linear railroading (pre-set story) or story-creation game (story created in play by group on a meta level). Even within the 'trad' side some people think of it as about full sandboxing in an open world, some people (eg most on Dragonsfoot, IME) think of it in terms of running a series of site-based adventures like the mostly Tournament-based ones TSR published from the late '70s on. That's at least 4 distinct types of play to me, and they all have potential strengths & weaknesses.

Possible weaknesses:
1. Full Status Quo Sandbox - Players say "What do we do?" GM says "You're too short for this ride" or "Oops yer dead". Great for immersion though. With a bit of starting GM direction this is my favourite style these days, but can take more GM work than the other approaches.
2. Site based Adventure String - lack of feeling there's a world beyond the adventure. But decent for immersion & clearly something to do. Clear 'game' challenge.
3. Linear Railroad, scripted scenes - near-complete lack of player agency. Decent for immersion, plus players typically get to 'experience' a story much like with passive media or linear computer games - the prewritten story can be a lot more detailed & dramatic than in site-based play.
4. Storygame - Discards immersion as a goal - "not really an RPG". Agency shifts from PC to player. Can create stories that are a lot of fun in the moment, though probably make less sense than the prewritten linear type - in fact they likely make less sense than the stories that emerge naturally from pure sandbox play.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

My New Task Resolution System


Came up with this for my White Star game (OD&D in SPACE!!) after being told Level was more important than Attribute in OD&D. Also was influenced by Lindybeige's Youtube criticism of typical D&D task resolution. My system:

Character Competence = Attribute (eg STR, normally 3-18) + Level (1-10 in White Star)

Task Difficulty is rolled:
Easy - 3d6
Medium - 4d6
Hard - 5d6
Very Hard - 6d6

If Competency equals or exceeds Difficulty, the attempt is successful!

Edit: Following feedback, here is an extended table with Long Jump example. Current world record long jump  is 29'. I went with 1' = 1 point of Difficulty, so your DEX 3 Level 1 PC can jump ("step") a 4' gap. :D

Task Difficulty is rolled:
Very Easy - 2d6 - eg jump a 7' gap
Easy - 3d6 - eg jump a 10' gap
Medium - 4d6 - eg jump a 14' gap
Hard - 5d6 - eg jump a 17' gap
Very Hard - 6d6 - eg jump a 21' gap
Heroic - 7d6 - eg jump a 24' gap
Formidable - 8d6 - eg jump a 28' gap
Amazing - 9d6 - eg jump a 31' gap
King of the Impossible - 10d6 - eg jump a 35' gap

For White Star (or S&W White Box) a maxed-out PC with an 18 attribute & level 10 has a 28 on their check, same as the average result for Formidable, and on average can make a jump just under the current world record.

Monday, 19 June 2017

A Good City Adventure

I think it really needs to use the city, not just dungeons set in the city. Rival battling power groups are important - think Romeo & Juliet for a good model. You want duels in the street, roof-top assassins, bands of thugs lurking in dark alleys, that kind of thing. The city itself needs a starring role, so design with that in mind.

The first two books of "Curse of the Crimson Throne" do a good job of this, with lots happening in Korvosa itself.

Opposing groups can be:
Noble houses
Criminal gangs
Churches & cults
The City Guard
Rival sorcerers or mage guilds
Merchant guilds
Artisan guilds
Knightly orders
etc

Friday, 16 June 2017

Status Quo Sandboxing in 4e D&D

By default 4e is only really suitable for status-quo sandboxing within a demi-Tier. I am trying to stretch it to a Tier using Threats To The Nentir Vale, by Minionising many of the standard mook monsters in the level 4-7 range, eg level 6 brigand standard becomes a level 6 brigand minion, these are the most useable across the Tier. But a level 1 standard monster like an Iron Circle trooper needs to become a level 6 minion if he's to stay useable across Heroic Tier.

With giving minions 1/4 hp too, so far this seems to be working really well - I can use the same level 6, 18-21 hit point minion now with PCs at level 2-3, and at level 6, and even at level 10 with enough of them & keeping PC magic gear in the 1-10 range.
Level 11+ it'll break down though, so that's when I plan to transition to a mix of Domain Level play and high level questing, I have King of the Trollhaunt Warrens for that.

OD&D Quest Awards for 'Palaces & Princesses' Play

For the kind of "Palaces & Princesses" feel 2e AD&D was going for, I kinda think they would have been better off dropping monster & gold XP both and go for some kind of abstract Quest Award type XP system where you get say 1/10 of a typical level's advancement per significant achievement, or around 1/5 of a level per play session. At least as an option. They'd have needed a 9 or 10 level table of awards for achievements, much like the Monster Level I-X system, but I think it could have worked well for that edition. Something like:

Quest XP Awards per PC
Level      Major   Minor 
I                  250        50
II                500      100
III             1000      200
IV             2000      500
V              4000      800
VII           8000     1600
VIII        12000     2400
IX          16000     3200
X           20000     4000

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Best Online Tools for 5e

My main online tools are
http://rpgtinker.com/ - 5e NPCs
http://redkatart.com/dnd5tools/ - 5e Treasure Generator
http://donjon.bin.sh/fantasy/random/ - generates generic fantasy encounters, NPCs, worlds and planes - pretty much everything, really.

Together with http://www.5esrd.com/ that's pretty well enough to run a campaign!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

5e Primeval Thule Class System

While some study for years to master the arts of magic, the path of the Warlock is temptingly quick and easy...

Starting Classes
Barbarian
Fighter
Monk
Rogue
Rogue
Warlock - Infernal or Old One

Eldritch Knight & Arcane Trickster
In order to become an Eldritch Knight, Arcane Trickster or other caster subclass the PC must already have the Ritual Caster (Wizard) feat. The quickest way to do this is to be a Variant Human with the Feat at 1st level.
Exception: High Elves have magic in the blood. They may become an Eldritch Knight or Arcane Trickster even without the Ritual Caster feat.

Wizard
To become a true Wizard the PC must first have 3 levels in a caster subclass such as Eldritch Knight. This means the effective maximum 'true wizard' level is 15.

Example: Bob wants to become a Wizard.
At 1st level he is a Human Fighter with the Ritual Caster (Wizard) feat. He could also have been a High Elf.
At 3rd level he becomes an Eldritch Knight.
At 6th level he can multiclass and become a Fighter (EK)-5/Wizard-1.



Saturday, 10 June 2017

Is XP an Illusion?

From http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?555579-XP-is-a-major-weapon-in-the-DM-arsenal&p=7136463&viewfull=1#post7136463

I found running Classic D&D I could just hand out an amount of XP at the end of the session that felt right and that fitted roughly with the game's guidance of ca 5 sessions to level. I didn't need to do any calculating, just decide "This was a small/medium/big session" - and it seems to have all the positive benefits that use of XP gives over milestone/ad hoc levelling. Players get to write it down. They see how close they are to next level. They see a connection between achievement & reward.

This works equally well in 5e; the DMG even provides a handy table. Just hand out eg 1/5 or 2/5 the XP-to-Level for a typical session, then adjust up and down. Or go to a flat 20 XP to level and then give out 3, 5, 7 etc XP per typical session. 20 is a good number because you can give 1 XP per minor achievement & 2 XP per major achievement across the session, 1 XP per hour played, etc.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Resting in 5e

Looking at pacing, I'm looking at going over to the DMG 'gritty' rest variant where a Short Rest is overnight, and a Long Rest is 1 week. Not to screw with the players  :twisted: , but to give a better cadence to the passage of time, closer to real life (and game time pass at a rate closer to real time), so that eg typically a week passes between dungeon expeditions just as a week passes between game sessions. I think with having converted most Short Rest powers to x3 per Long Rest, this still allows 'nova-ing' within a single dungeon expedition or fight.
I would also have an overnight Short Rest recover 1 hp per level, and 1 level of Exhaustion in natural healing. Also a 7 day Long Rest would now recover all hit dice, not just half-rounded-down.

It does mean that LR abilities like Rages and high level Spell slots may be more at risk of running out if used liberally, eg using Rage just to get Advantage on an Athletics check may be a bad idea. My thinking is to trial this over the next few sessions and make sure it works ok and doesn't screw over any particular PCs.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

NPC Demographics

Adventurers - I rarely have this as a recognised profession IMCs, so no % of the population are recognised Adventurers.

Classed NPCs - in games which give NPCs classes, such as my Classic D&D Mystara campaign, I'll tend to use Gygax's standard that 1% of the population have classes and are capable of advancement. Other, static, NPCs are statted as appropriate, so eg in Classic trained soldiers are typically at least Fighter 1/1 hit dice, those being functionally identical concepts.

Spellcasters - In my Wilderlands game you typically see one Cleric type NPC per few hundred of the population, something under 0.5% but above 0.1%. Wizard type NPCs are much rarer, one in a thousand or less. A village of 400 might or might not have a priest with Clerical spellcasting, if not they probably have a ritualist priest with no combat casting.
My Golarion (Paizo's world) 5e campaign probably has a similar number of Clerical casters & somewhat higher numbers for arcanists.
Not sure about my Classic Mystara setting, but same sort of ballpark. Only the Alphatians field actual units of spellcasters, the (eg) Heldannic Knights field units of Fighters with Clerical support, at most roughly 1 Cleric per 10 Fighters in their case, & more like 1 per 100 for most armies.

Combatants - Wilderlands uses 25% combatant (2 hd+ in 5e, 1hd/Ftr-1 in Classic). When I ran Gygax's Yggsburgh setting in 1e AD&D I used his DMG numbers - 20% combatant, 10% in prime condition (hp 4+) and suitable as men-at-arms.

Ranking - My Yggsburgh game also used EGG's mercenary level distribution, with Ftr 2-3 lieutenants & Ftr 5-8 captains  as indicative of power level for mid-rank and powerful NPCs. Conversely my Mystara Classic game sees the Heldannic Knights field entire squadrons of elite Ftr-7 knights, and the King of Ostland's 20 'Brothers' were statted as Ftr-15 accompanying King Hord Darkeye Ftr-28 per the Northern Reaches GAZ, which says 1% of the population are Ftr-11+!

From http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=12309&p=1847970#p1847970

Sunday, 28 May 2017

High Level Play/too powerful PCs

I've taken two contrasting approaches to this issue:

1. In my Varisia/Golarion game the Epic (17-20) PCs will* likely spend most of their time on high level Epic threats from high level Pathfinder AP adventures, Books 5 & 6 of various AP lines. Stuff written for PF 13-18 can definitely handle 5e 17-20 I think. With just Books 5 & 6 of Rise of the Runelords and Shattered Star I have around 40 sessions of well-integrated epic level play, and it should be easy enough to add material from other APs. I suspect stuff like Tomb of Horrors will still be useable at 20th level also. Failing that I can always homebrew around Kill-the-BBEG type plots...

*Group is currently 11th-14th level after 50 sessions.

2. In my Wilderlands sandbox I have an 18th level barbarian, Hakeem the Exalted Champion of Bondor the sword god, but Hakeem is still doing mostly paragon/Tier III type stuff, questing around (often incognito) while gearing up to face his Nemesis/opposite number Kainos the Warbringer, the Empyreal son of the war god Bane, in single combat. I solved the overpowered high level party issue simply by ruling that new PCs started at 11th (non-caster) or 8th (caster) so they would essentially be his sidekicks. I have other lower level PC groups in the campaign where other players get to be the Hero of the Story, but I found that it simply worked best to accept that Hakeem was the leading character for his saga, and not try to shoehorn in a bunch of other 18th level PCs.

Long Campaigns

http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?552693-Do-you-favour-short-or-long-campaigns&p=7124283&viewfull=1#post7124283

Replying to Sword of Spirit:

I like these, but I generally prefer to go for 3 years not 4+. I finished a 5.5 year 4e 1-29 campaign last year (Loudwater) and in retrospect it was too long, should have gone for 1-20 over about 3.5 years.

I also have run several ca 2 year games of around 30-35 sessions (eg 3e Lost City of Barakus level 1-8, 3e Willow Vale level 1-8, PF Curse of the Crimson Throne level 1-14), which I think are large mini-campaigns in your metric. I would tend to regard these more as full campaigns, albeit on the short side, but not failures. I ran a 12 session level 1-4 Pathfinder Beginner Box Yggsburgh game, which was designed and completed as such. I would call that a true mini-campaign. I have also run a couple 4e campaigns (levels 1-8 and 3-10) that each lasted around 18-20 sessions and could be considered failed campaigns, having been conceived to potentially run longer.

My current campaigns are:

1. 5e Wilderlands - long running open world sandbox game since at least 2009, longest lasting current PC Hakeem the Barbarian-18 started Jan 2015 when we rebooted in 5e rules. No end point, but current major story arc will likely be another year or so.
2. 5e Varisia/Runelords of the Shattered Star - started November 2015, 50 sessions in, expect to run about 70-90 more sessions over about the next 1.5-2 years, so aiming for about 3.5 years total.
3. Just announced my Classic D&D Karameikos game has ended as a group tabletop game at least for now. In current form went from start of 2015, so 2.5 years, going from level 1 to about 19th.
4. 4e Nentir Vale, 6 sessions in, intended to run around 50 sessions fortnightly over about 2.5 years, go 1st to maybe 14th level.

So it sounds as if I prefer slightly shorter campaigns than you, but similar principle.

Speed of levelling in 5e is definitely a potential issue. My solutions are (1) to run at 20th with Epic Boons, plus Feat and ASI gains every 50K XP and (2) Individual PC XP, which has a surprisingly significant effect in slowing down group advancement. One high level PC in a mid level group basically has to play a mid-level game, totally unlike 5 or 6 high level PCs.

Edit: Definitely disagree that 4e XP levels PCs too fast. Default 4e advancement rate is glacial, especially from 11th level up. If you use the DMG2 systems, tons of minions, and generous quest awards, you can get it up
to about 1 level per 12 hours, but by default is nearer 1 level per 20 hours' play. With default XP my 4e level 1-29 campaign would have taken 8 or 9 years rather than 5.5.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Realm of Chaos, Realm of Law

LogicNinja: D&D 3.x/PF is the only game I've ever played where as the GM I have to do all of this work just to make society make sense

I did come up with a way to solve this, based on Gygax's intro to Keep on the Borderlands (he prob took it from Poul Anderson who took it from faerie myth):

The Realm of Man is narrow and constrained. Always the Forces of Chaos Press Upon Her Borders...

1. The vast bulk of Humanity lives in the Realm of Law/Realm of Law, where magic does not work, or very little (eg church rituals, holy water, possibly some spiritualism - what a typical 19th century lower middle class Victorian might believe in).

2. The 3e/PF ruleset describes the Realm of Chaos/Realm of Faerie, where magic works. This includes most big-D  Dungeons, the deep wilderness etc.

3. In between are the Borderlands, site of the conflict between Law and Chaos. Here brave Men do live on the frontier, and wield magic as they battle the forces of Chaos - or turn allegiance to Chaos and fight against Law. The Borderlands ebb and flow as Chaos then Law gain the upper hand. Here, magic works, but grows more limited as you head towards the Realm of Man - perhaps 6th level spells work on the Frontier (OD&D pre-Greyhawk style) but only 1st & 2nd level spells as you approach the Realm of Law.

So PCs still get all their toys in their normal, level-appropriate play environment, but human society can be as realistic as you like.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Giving XP

In a game like 5e D&D I tend to give out an "Easy" or "Medium" or "Hard" combat challenge XP award for the non-combat equivalent challenge or quest completion, using the PCs' average level. In 5e I cap these awards at the level 10 line since the XP chart gets wonky after that and I'd prefer the PCs not to level up too fast.

Another thing I do in my 5e Pathfinders game is give a flat 100 XP per PC for every 'discovery' such as a new dungeon level, weird room etc.

I occasionally abstract it to "one Easy XP award per hour of play" if the PCs are active but the session doesn't break into clear quests/encounters/etc. A good rule of thumb for me is that if the PCs are active they should get at least 10% of the XP needed to level up in a 3 hour session, or above 10th level/name level in 5e make it 10% of what a level 11 PC would need to advance (ie 1500 XP).

I deliberately avoid giving XP for time spent OOC planning, book keeping etc, I don't want to incentivise not playing the game. But I might give XP for in-character planning sessions esp where NPCs are involved, persuasion attempts are required, etc.

The 5e level 10 encounter XP line is:

Easy 600
Medium 1200
Hard 1900
Deadly 2800

If the level 10+ PCs spend the time not in combat I'll typically give 600 XP per hour of non-threatening active play, but a typical achievement gets them 1200 XP each. In practice my online text-chat group typically get around 1800 XP for a 3 hour session sans big combat whereas the tabletop group get more like 3600, mostly because tabletop play is faster and they get more done. I rarely use the Hard & Deadly lines for noncombat awards but I might give 2800 each for something really major.

For reference, level 10 5e PCs need 21,000 XP to level, level 11 need 15,000, and level 19 need 50,000 to reach 20.

http://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?36938-XP-for-skill-challenges-non-combat-situations&p=963275&viewfull=1#post963275

Monday, 15 May 2017

Future Campaign Ideas

5e Primeval Thule Sandbox with Stonehell & Xoth adventures. PCs are all non-casters, start at level 3. Can multiclass later.

5e Skull & Shackles AP

5e Jade Regent AP

5e Dwimmermount Sandbox/megadungeon. roll best 3 of 4d6 in order for starting PC, allow hiring of PC-class retainers (max retainers 2+CHA bonus) who use the same stat gen system, but no feats or multiclassing unless they become full PCs. Everyone starts at 1st; PCs roll for starting gold. Choose or roll for Background. Gritty rest variant.

Operation Whitebox  Achtung! Cthulu - Open Sandbox using D&DG Cthulu mythos + finale Assault on the Mountains of Madness campaign. PC hp 10 for 1st hit die +4/subsequent, exploding crits.

Gateway 1942
A recovered Nazi Cthulutech teleportation gate device, the Reise-Tor-Gerät, allows instant travel from home base in London to other TCs whose coordinates can be determined. The first decoded TC lies beneath Schloss Heiselburg - in January 1942, Allied agents uncover a Nazi Cthulutech Megadungeon in the German Alps. Who knows what dark secrets lie within, or what plans are afoot.
Meanwhile there are rumours that the Reise-Tor-Gerät may be able to access alternate worlds...

_____________________________________________________

PC-PC-NPC relationship maps? "X wants Y from Z"?

Grey Box Forgotten Realms sandbox - 5e or Labyrinth Lord +AEC? With WoTC 5e APs? Dyson's Delves & PF Battlemats for lots of dungeons?

'Metal Labyrinth' LL/Mutant Future sci-fantasy mashup w alternate classes set in Current Year.

Game of Thrones with divergent timeline. After the death of Robert Baratheon, the King's Hand Eddard Stark arrests Queen Cersei on charges of high treason. The young Princes Joffrey & Tommen are also imprisoned, but Princess Myrcella is smuggled to safety by Ser Jamie. The Lannisters rise in revolt. While Stannis moves from Dragonstone to take the throne, his brother Renly also revolts, claiming the kingship, and is supported by the Tyrells. In the north the Starks & Tullys mobilise against the Lannisters. The Vale stays neutral. In the East a Dragon Queen rises, a Dothraki army at her command. And in the North the White Walkers are on the move...
ASoiAF rules, or could use Pathfinder Beginner Box?

4e FR Undermountain with Grey Box FR + The Savage Frontier. Ancestors of the 'Loudwater' campaign PCs?

LL or 5e Stonehell with Black Pudding classes.  Wilderlands near CSIO?

Savage Rifts or just Savage Worlds, with Venger Satanis stuff - Isle of Purple Haunted Putrescence

Savage Deadlands in Leone's Dollarverse

FR - pcs in the army of Lashan of Scardale, assaulting the tower of the Tyrant-Sage of Shadowdale.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

My conversion from 3e/Pathfinder to 5e D&D system:


AC: Halve AC over 10.
Hit Points: Increase by 50%.
Attributes: Halve attributes over 20 (monster) or cap at 20 (NPC)
Damage: Increase by 50%.
Attack Bonus (weapon or spell) & Spell Save DC: Calculate based on CR-derived Proficiency + Attribute bonus
Good Saves: If it's a Good (2+1/2 level) save in 3e, the monster has Proficiency in it in 5e.
Will > WIS and possibly INT or CHA.  Ref > DEX. Fort > CON and possibly STR.

This is easy enough to do that I can convert during play. I rarely worry about the exact number of spell slots an npc caster has, they will be dead in 2-3 rounds anyway...

Read more: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?545337-Is-there-a-conversion-of-the-quot-Caverns-of-Thracia-quot-to-5e#ixzz4fukKzlQK

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

"Stuck in low level dungeon" - Classic D&D/ACKS

From http://www.therpgsite.com/showthread.php?36190-Stuck-in-low-level-dungeons-in-the-sandbox&p=948025#post948025 - 3rd level PC group reluctant to move on from 'starter dungeons'.

Level 4 is really where you hit 'mid level' in BX & its clones. 5th is where the MUs get Fireball and things change from gritty to wahoo. I tend to think that having an easier time at 3rd while being still afraid of the wilderness is a natural life stage for the BX sandbox. Maybe point out that Isle of Dread & Castle Amber both say "for 3rd to 6th level characters".

Normally my expectation would be that at 4th level the PCs would be willing to delve deeper and to make forays into the wilderness in search of more lucrative/higher level dungeons.

One point - if you don't like the advancement rate, consider giving more XP. Moldvay recommends that Basic PCs level up to 2nd in about 3 sessions of successful play, and BECM used a recommended rate of 5 sessions/level at higher level - assumption probably faster at low level. If ACKS does not naturally give out that sort of XP (I know BX/BECM often don't), then consider awarding more XP for eg exploration, for monsters, etc. That's what I do, while not increasing gp treasure drops, to get something like the recommended progression rates, and it works well. Whereas I have played with GMs who stuck rigidly to the RAW on XP awards and had PCs return from harrowing dungeon delves, defeating foes & gleaning bits of treasure, to receive double-digit XP - I rem we once defeated a bunch of skeletons & other stuff (losing the MU when he went into melee) and eventually returned to base to receive 22 XP each. That was pretty demotivating - it would take nearly a hundred such delves for a Fighter to hit 2nd level - and the campaign (on Dragonsfoot) soon died.

You don't have to go the 5e route of levelling them up every session, just look for a reasonable balance that sticks to the intent of the BX/ACKS system. Since your group has 10-12 I'd expect that if they were doing 1st level dungeon stuff they would indeed only earn around 200 XP/session, after all their risks are low. A 5-6 character group might get double that, 400 XP/session gets a Fighter to 2nd in 5 sessions, which seems reasonable. But if they are doing 3rd level appropriate stuff (eg Stonehell level 3) they should be getting around twice that I think, and on the 4th level, which a big group should be able to handle, maybe twice that again.