DM can't get the hang of high-level play
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  1. #1

    DM can't get the hang of high-level play

    Expert advice urgently needed!

    I'm in a gaming group that's had a 3E campaign running continuously for about a year and a half now, and we're up to the following levels:

    Barbarian 2/Wizard 10
    Psychic Warrior 8/Slayer 4
    Cleric 10 (was 11 last session, but...)

    So the average party level is about 12th, with some of us nearing 13th. Our DM, an old-school roleplayer with many years of experience, is starting to run into serious problems with keeping the campaign going at these levels, and we can't quite put our fingers on how to fix it.

    The main problem is that we're having a serious problem with player mortality as we go up in levels. Weird, right? You'd think that things are more dangerous when you've only got 6 HP and lousy AC. But in higher-CR encounters, you tend to live or die just on the outcome of a single die roll.

    The wizard's latest death: Peeking over the edge of a well, accidentally meeting the gaze of a medusa we didn't know was there. Failed two fort saves, dead. The psychic warrior failed a save for an assassin's death attack. The cleric had a low initiative roll when we were surprised by an angry carnivorous plant: surprise round, full attack, chomp chomp chomp. In all three cases, death came from an instant and entirely unexpected source, and was decided largely on the basis of one or two bad rolls.

    Now, our DM isn't terribly fond of the whole "revolving door" Raise Dead thing, and he's not really interested in running the campaign if we're going to be dying and coming back at the rate of one character per session. He feels it kills the flavour of the game, and frankly, as a player, I have to agree. Aside from the optimistic advice of "never let yourself be surprised by anything again", what can we do to improve the game's survivability at high levels? The DM is good about playing monsters fairly -- everything gets sensible motivations, he does almost all rolls out in the open, he's not "out to get us" or anything like that, we don't do modules or big dungeon crawls, et cetera. But it seems like one bad roll is all that stands between a character and a messy demise most of the time, and death (and the subsequent level loss) is becoming disturbingly frequent recently.

    Now, don't get the wrong idea -- we're not playing with the safety on or anything. The DM is quite consistent about playing bad situations to the hilt if we just bumble in without thinking, and we all know that death is a very real possibility in this campaign. It's just that when we die, it tends to be an instant, "Roll a Fortitude save. You missed? OK, you're dead again!" that leaves everyone frustrated and annoyed. Fights at this level tend to be very all-or-nothing so far: did I save against the monster's instant-kill attack? If not, we lose. Next round, I cast Hold Monster. Did it save? If not, it loses. It makes high-level combat seem very... well... non-heroic.

    So for any DMs out there with experience in high-level play, we would be seriously grateful for some advice. How do you play high-level characters to avoid dying? How do you construct encounters and plots for high-level characters that will be challenging without ruining two years' worth of story with an inglorious TPK? We're getting a little worried here.

  2. #2
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    One ad-hoc fix that comes to mind, if you REALLY don't want to just have the cleric cast raise dead: All instakill effects reduce the character to -1 hit points, instead of killing outright. This gives the others a chance to rescue them before they cark it.

    However, this doesn't deal with the other problem, which is that a lot of CR 10+ monsters can easily dish out enough damage with a full attack to kill you. The best solution to that is not to have lots of CR 10+ monsters, and instead fight big hordes of lesser critters. Save the big monsters for the boss fights.

  3. #3
    One solution is to abandon save or die spells, abilities etc. - on both sides. In 3.5 E, at least hold person should get altered, as far as we know.

    IMC, we just play less lethally, without PC death, but that is no option for you it seems.

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    Actually, in my experience lethality grows if anything as you go up in level. What I've noticed with my group is some near death experiences because the bad guys can do so much more damage in a round, it's easy to die in one shot if you are not careful.

    What I tend to do is less one big bad guy and more numerous opponents. Save or death spells aren't much of a problem, since as GM I don't really use them.

  5. #5
    Another option: retire.

    No, seriously. It's worth considering.

    You can now start throwing stones at me (or whatever you'd like to do).

    If retirement is not an option (and somehow I think it ain't), my advice would be:
    Players: Start healing your fellow PCs early on, not just when they reach 10 hp or less.
    DM: Give the PCs some magic items that boost their saving throws (Sidenote: do the PCs have enough equipment?). Minimize the number of opponents with instant-death-abilities (or weapons with high crit-multipliers).

  6. #6

    Re: DM can't get the hang of high-level play

    Originally posted by Fimmtiu

    The wizard's latest death: Peeking over the edge of a well, accidentally meeting the gaze of a medusa we didn't know was there. Failed two fort saves, dead. The psychic warrior failed a save for an assassin's death attack. The cleric had a low initiative roll when we were surprised by an angry carnivorous plant: surprise round, full attack, chomp chomp chomp. In all three cases, death came from an instant and entirely unexpected source, and was decided largely on the basis of one or two bad rolls.
    ***
    Aside from the optimistic advice of "never let yourself be surprised by anything again", what can we do to improve the game's survivability at high levels?
    Simple: never let yourself be surprised by anything ever again.

    Heh, just kidding...but you need to take advantage of that lvl 10 Cleric. Use divinations. Use all of them. Use them as often as you can (i.e. as often as the DM will allow), so you have some idea of what's ahead without having to go poke it with a stick.

    About the wizard's death: was he/she poisoned, or turned to stone? Because once again, your cleric needs to be ready to either neutralize poison or break enchantment. The cleric needs to be memorizing a nice suite of those "specific-use" spells for when the group gets into trouble. Remember: at high levels, one commune is worth ten flame strikes.

    If you've used dininations, and you know something Evilbad is up ahead, use guile to draw the enemy to a place of your choosing, where the ambush is waiting. Only fight enemies on their own turf if there's no other option. Try parleying. Try bluffing. Always scout ahead. Know when to retreat.

    We've been having the same problem in the group I DM (lots of death lately), and the PCs are just now changing to a more cautious style of play. We'll see how it goes.

    The Gambler
    (Don Schlitz)

    On a warm summer's evenin' on a train bound for nowhere,
    I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.
    So we took turns a starin' out the window at the darkness
    'Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

    He said, "Son, I've made a life out of readin' people's faces,
    And knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
    And if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces.
    For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice."

    So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.
    Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light.
    And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.
    Said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

    You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
    Know when to walk away and know when to run.
    You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
    There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

    Ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
    Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
    'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,
    And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

    And when he'd finished speakin', he turned back towards the window,
    Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
    And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.
    But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

    You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
    Know when to walk away and know when to run.
    You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
    There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

  7. #7
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    Heh. Welcome to mid-levels. As a DM with a group that's worked it's way up to 20th level from 1st, I feel your pain. Insta-death spells and effects begin to be seen by CR8, and get progressively worse as level increase.

    So how to counter it, and how to suggest to the DM how to deal with it? Several thoughts:

    [list=1][*]Buff. Then Buff some more: Seriously. There are many spells and items to help counter the effects of many powers, such as death effects, gaze attacks, rays and drains. Use them. That cleric has a library of powerful defenses. Use them.[*]Be more cautious: This may seem redundant. Perhaps it is. But review your tactics, and make sure you aren't taking unnecessary risks. Prepare for the worst. Always save the last Dim Door for yourself. [*]Change the way death effects work: hong hit on this above. With high-level play, some things occur without a save or even SR to stop it. Anything WITH a save ultimately becomes a 'don't roll a 1' situation (i.e. always a 5% chance of failure). Perhaps either adapting the epic saves rule, or changing those specific effects are in order. Instadeath spells are very unsatisfying, when you're on the recieving end. Unfortunately, the game assumes their use.[*]Modify many of the monsters/threats that PCs encounter: A tough one. Standard D&D play assumes a certain amount of magic items, access to certain spells, and a certain level of tactical abstraction...in other words, death is an assumed part of play; that's why you have the Raise, Reincarnate and Resurrect spells available. The Bodak, for example, is terrifying if you face it early, but silly at higher levels, just like a ghast is, 5 levels earlier than that and a beholder will be 5 levels later. But understand that 'de-clawing' such creatures can lead to a lot of things spiralling out of control, and need to be considered for campaign balance.[*]Compromise: Remove certain spells and associated effects from the game, and retool it. Remove 'slay living' and 'finger of death', and make sure monsters like beholders can't do it, either. But understand that many monsters will need to be re-evaulated in terms of CR/EL when doing so.[/list=1]

    The problem, put simply, is that higher level play can turn things on their ear, and sometimes strectch credibility to the breaking point. Higher level play in D&D is neither better nor worse than lower level play, but it is DIFFERENT. Challenges need to move in other directions, particularly if you want to move away from many of the standard insta-death threats.

    Another thing to consider is how certain classes or characters may be devalued by the change in certain aspects of the game. Characters like the monk with good saves, for example, will lose something, if the saves are no longer as useful. Many spells will gain or lose in power and utility, depending on what you change.

    You might advise the DM to look ahead at what's coming, and decide what to do. Spells like Force Cube, Time Stop, Imprisonment and Maze are coming...and they're doozies. Never mind the high-level beasties to face. It's a razor's edge to walk, and you may consider retooling the game or starting fresh to reset certain rules from day one, to prevent the issues you're hitting now.

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    Re: Re: DM can't get the hang of high-level play

    Originally posted by Tom Cashel
    The cleric needs to be memorizing a nice suite of those "specific-use" spells for when the group gets into trouble. Remember: at high levels, one commune is worth ten flame strikes
    Good advice, though I'm not so sure that I'd go quite that far. Commune can give extremely unsatisfying answers (i.e. Yes/No questions) and that XP cost begins to chafe after too many uses. And the 10 minute casting time is sometimes a real problem.

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    Re: DM can't get the hang of high-level play

    Originally posted by Fimmtiu
    The main problem is that we're having a serious problem with player mortality as we go up in levels. Weird, right? You'd think that things are more dangerous when you've only got 6 HP and lousy AC. But in higher-CR encounters, you tend to live or die just on the outcome of a single die roll.
    Playing devil's advocate:

    You always have to adventure like you have only got 6 HP and lousy AC, because in the high level game that's what you have relatively speaking. Otherwise, you will die.

    The law of averages dictates that the longer you play with unfavorable odds of survival, the more likely you will die. Adventuring is supposed to be risky business. "Save or die" spells are a common scapegoat for the high mortality rate in D&D campaigns, but the truth is that the high-level game is just as lethal as the low-level game.

    If you're getting attached to your characters and don't want to risk dying, fight easier monsters. Don't nerf difficult monsters by softballing encounters with "save or suffer a paper cut or broken nail" spells and careless monster tactics.
    Last edited by JChung2003; Friday, 23rd May, 2003 at 01:53 PM.

  10. #10

    Re: Re: DM can't get the hang of high-level play

    Originally posted by Tom Cashel
    About the wizard's death: was he/she poisoned, or turned to stone? Because once again, your cleric needs to be ready to either neutralize poison or break enchantment. The cleric needs to be memorizing a nice suite of those "specific-use" spells for when the group gets into trouble.
    Better yet, the cleric should either have Scribe Scroll, or work with the wizard on making scrolls. That way you can have a bunch of 'special purpose' spells on-hand for when they're needed, yet not tying up valuable slots.

    Make sure that the cleric's not carrying all of them (just in case something happens to them - eggs, baskets, and all that) If you've got a rogue with Use Magic Device, they should have some. Other divine spellcasters (if there are any) should have copies of the scrolls they can use.

    J

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