High-Level Play: Nightmare for DMs?
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  1. #1
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    High-Level Play: Nightmare for DMs?

    Our DM is somewhat getting annoyed at high-level play, particularily spells. Well, that is the feeling that I am getting.

    For example: my character is the party wizard (18th), and he recently acquired Shapechange. Very quickly, and in the middle of play, there was some argument about which forms the wizard knows enough to change into, if Knowledge (Arcana) was sufficient to "know" a creature (since the wizard has something like +31 Knowledge (Arcana), 10+HD is trivial), etc. My DM was very clearly uncomfortable with all the possibilities of the spell, and made some comment on "9th level spells and doing something about them".

    I do not want to rehash the arguments already discussed ad nauseam in the "which form can you change into" thread. That's not the point.

    The point is that the DM is uncomfortable with high-level magic, and myself am sometimes uncomfortable when choosing the spells for my character, because I see the potential for arguments at the gaming table, which I would like to avoid at all costs.

    I try to warn him when I am learning new spells of the potential problems, but it only seems to sink in at the table when the full impact of a spell is realized. I am after all the group rule lawyer, and I try to advise him as best I can about game balance.

    We usually play by-the-book, with a minimum number of house rules. There are enough rules to keep track of as it is. I have suggested to the DM that he ban spells he is not comfortable with. I have no problem with that at all. Changing the spell with a house rule in the middle of a game is however more annoying for all parties...

    BTW, there is no bad blood between us, we are longtime friends, and we are very much adult about it all (I'm in my late thirties, and I'm the youngest in the group...)

    I would however like to know how you handle high-level play in your campaigns, so that some ground rules may be established. For example, do you outright ban spells? What happens when one of your players uses a spell you were not familiar with, but that can break your game?

    Any advice for my DM and myself would be much appreciated.

    Andargor

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    It's hard for a DM to keep up with all of the possibilities that a high-level party can throw at him. If you don't already give him a copy of your character sheet so can take a look at it and the possible spells your PC can memorize. He may not have the time to sift through all the nuances of the spells, but he shouldn't be annoyed when you use them all to the best of your ability.

    For the shapechange I would have ruled it a Knowledge(nature) check for my game, but it was his call, and might have been caught off guard by finding a spell to solve a tough situation. But that's what spells are for, and the rest of the party should thank you for it when it happens. In the future I would try to write out anything that might cause a slow down in the game, such as druid wildshape forms, or summoned critter stats. You might also want to clear your other higher level spell uses with him between sessions too.

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    It's certainly not an easy task to DM high-level D&D. There are so many options to consider, and plots and challenges have to be highly sophisticated if they are not to be spoiled by some potent abilities all in a sudden.

    Spellcasting surely is the biggest "problem" of high-level D&D, as it gives the most unusual and powerful ablities.

    If a particular spell is highly abusive, we sometimes alter it, or outright ban it (with the consensus of the players, of course), but that doesn't happen very often. Some spells really are a bit over the top (Hide Life, for example, makes a whole lot of stuff completely pointless). But in general, the high-level spells simply are enormously powerful.

    If your DM is "scared" by high-level magic, then it might not be the best idea to DM at such high levels, really. Might be harsh, but that's really not a good base.

    High-level characters are capable of world-shaking stuff. Their abilities are far superior to 90+% of the creatures out there. Sure, there is always something bigger and badder out there, but I don't think that's the point of high level play. It's more fun at moderate levels, where the abilities are still somewhat in check.

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    Thanee

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    IMO, if a DM doesn't have the experience or ability to handle high-level magic (or high-level anything else), he has at least three options:

    1. Never play at high levels. End campaigns once the PCs reach a particular level of ability.
    2. Alter the way that certain spells and abilities function, preferably in advance.
    3. Learn how to. Run a few "practice" one-off high level encounters (possibly unrelated to the main campaign) to get a feel of what is possible. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, even in the main campaign - starting over is always an option if things are no longer fun. Change the tone of the adventures to account for the fact that the PCs are powerful individuals that can do incredible things. Set up challenges where the PCs have to make the use of high level abilities in order to succeed.

    Is my preference for option 3 that obvious?

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    Another point to consider is the fact that you HAVE been playing this character for 17+ levels to get that spell. It's not like the DM's putting you through a 1st-level adventure which goes awry as soon as you Shapechange into a dragon and scare all of the goblins away (at least, as far as I know- if that's the case, stop reading immediately). Kindly remind your DM that players naturally become more powerful as the game progresses, and he should have realized a long time ago that at higher levels, doors simply aren't as tough to get through, there's much more to do than simply kill all the orcs, and it no longer matters who's got the most HP. I'm sure we can all agree that gaining new powers and abilities HAS to happen- otherwise, the game isn't fun. There's very little to look forward to when you know you're just gonna be using the exact same tactics for every adventure because you're never going to be getting any new spells. If he simply can't cope with 9th-level spells, he shouldn't allow them. But if he does allow them, he should assume that they're going to be powerful. Why else would someone sit through 17 levels of a class to get them?

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    Nice posts from the other folks here!

    Here goes:

    1) For something you do anyway, and your DM might also: Read the boards. There is constant discussion here about abusive tactics, spells, items, classes, and so on. For truly scary discussions as to the abuse inherent in some rules, check out the WotC Char Optimization boards. A few minutes on those will give you a nice big list of difficult-to-adjudicate game factors, which will allow your DM to change as much as he wants preemptively and thus avoid midgame shifts.

    It's a very, very good idea for a DM to go through the high-level rules options with a fine-toothed comb, especially if he's unfamiliar with high-level play. IMHO, a DM should be completely comfortable with the following rules aspects if he isn't already:

    a) Polymorph effects. I'm sure that DMs of Pcat's stature can handle these out of the box, but IMHO they just shouldn't be played that way. Wildshape and Natural Spell are just too powerful, shapechange is subject to vast and scary abuse, and polymorph any object turns characters into epic monsters.

    b) Teleportation and divination. IMHO, these are the twin elements most likely to disrupt your campaign or to facilitate it, depending on how it's played. IMHO, the DM should get very, very comfortable with scenarios involving these two game elements, or should put the game on hold through countermeasures while he gets used to the impact that these capabilities have on an adventure. Suggest that he check out an adventure scenario that handles these well (the only one that comes immediately to mind is Demon God's Fane) in preparation.

    2) Play nice. It sounds like your DM is uncomfortable with some aspects of high-level play, and hasn't been around this block enough to be immune to surprising situations. Thus, your DM is going to get very leery of some tactics, and may ban them or restrict them. You should be prepared to deal with that, and likewise, he should be prepared to hear you out if you have objections. But accept that high-level play is hard, and that you're going to have to adapt. IOW, be somewhat receptive at first to midgame changes for a little while, because it's better to play with a friendly DM who's willing to learn than to not play at all!

    3) Players IMC are simply not allowed to use or develop spells or items that I haven't seen before until I've given them a severe once-over. If I let something through and then regret it and want to eliminate it later, I negotiate with the player; I find that players are always looking for something for their characters, so if I take away, I give in return. For instance, I have in the past allowed players to swap out a feat or a known spell or spells as compensation for a detrimental rules change.

    High-level play isn't for everyone, but it can be tremendously rewarding. Good luck!
    Last edited by ruleslawyer; Saturday, 31st July, 2004 at 07:30 AM. Reason: Refined post a bit

  7. #7
    I currently have a mid-level party (~11th) that is rapidly approaching the higher-levels, despite multiple, ahem, set-backs (i.e. deaths).

    While I've never run PCs this high before I did a considerable amount of research on how to run a good high-level game of D&D in preparation for it. You must realize as PCs grow greater in power the scope of the kind of stories that get told increases dramatically. No longer are the PCs searching for the magical dagger in a chest hidden somewhere in the keep, no longer are they hunting down orc bandits that have been harrassing local trade, rarely are they seen crawling through goblin warrens or dungeons with simple spike and pit traps.

    Instead, your PCs are not only amassing great wealth but (ideally) responsibilites as well, or avoiding them at all cost, either one makes for great story. No longer are our heroes saving the village on the border of their kingdom (low-level), neither are they defending the border keep against barbarian attack (mid-level). Instead our heroes are seeking out great and powerful enemies to the kingdom and throne, both external and internal threats! Scheming intrigues of the Noblese or powerful rise of an undead army to the north lead by a lich king. Adventures and quests at the higher-levels involve the PCs in great events that help shape and alter the course of possibly many kingdoms, through failure or triumph. Or conversely, the PCs are plotting the downfall of the evil kingdom and attempting to rally a rebellion. BIG things, the scope of change and events grows larger as PCs go from mid-level to high-level play.

    So it's easy to understand how some people don't care for roleplaying at this grander-sclae and scope of play, where half the time the 17th level Paladin is managing his keep and reading progress reports on his border towers and frost giant rumblings in the mountains to the east. The party wizard may be heading his order of arcane wielders on their continent, researching the creation of a great artifact that will help unite the three kingdoms, and the 18th level Rogue finds himself the unwitting guildmaster for a notoriously evil assassin's lodge bent on world domination. These things happen, not to mention the planar campaigns that can occur as armies march to do battle for supremacy between the lower planes!

    High-level/epic games are the stuff of legends and lore, the kind of things sages write about in ages to come. Low-level play is the stuff of youthful exploration where a single magical dagger is a prized possession and one must fight to stay alive against a single goblin and his rat-tooth comb that gleams menacingly in the torch-light. Both are great and wonderful experiences, just different in scope is all. Problems occur when one doesn't realize that the scope MUST naturally evolve to include much grander schemes and events, or else you get problems such as high-level spells foiling the DMs plans and such.

    The mystical key that unlocks an unknown portal doesn't hold as much grandeur as it once did once the party wizard shrugs and cast Legend Lore on it. Ahhh, but the worlds and elemental planes on the other side of the portal, that's where the high-level adventure awaits!

    Typically I don't even consider what my PCs abilities are, though I try to be generally aware fo them. I enjoy a bit of surprise in discovering what it is they do to accomplish the goals they set out for themselves. Generally when building story and villainous schemes I just make things appropriately big and nasty for the scope and let the PCs figure it out. As pirate cat is fond of doing, don't limit the spells and abilites during high-level play, require them!

    Cheers and best wishes, hgih-level play can be an awfully rewarding experience if done well!
    Last edited by Liquidsabre; Saturday, 31st July, 2004 at 01:17 AM.

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    Three-quarters of 9th level spells are plot devices masquerading as game mechanics, and I couldn't be arsed to go through them and pick out the ones that aren't. Just ban all these spells from your game, and life will be much easier. You can still use the slots for metamagiced lower-level spells.

  9. #9
    Having run my current campaign from pre-first level (starting when the PCs were children) up to 21st level (at the current day) and making plans for the future, I've experienced a shift in game play.

    D&D at low levels (1st to around 9th) is almost a totally different game than at mid-levels (say around 10th to 16th) - which is again different from high levels. A DM needs to understand how the dynamics of high level play differ from low levels (assuming the all of the core rules are kept intact). At high levels, the DM needs to have a firm understanding of what his players can do. Know every spell. Design your scenarios so that the PCs require those abilities. Not only will your players enjoy using their hard-earned powers, but you won't be caught off guard.

    Crossing over a 100ft wide chasm is a difficult challenge for a 2nd level party. It's trivial for an 18th level party. You can replace that chasm with a magical barrier than can only be passed by a dragon. And don't tell the players about the properties of the barrier. Let them thump against it for a while. Then smart players will seek the solution - but there's not really any information that can be found. Perhaps they'll use a divination to reveal the barrier. Next, they have to figure out how to get a dragon to fly them across - or find a spell to allow a PC to turn into a dragon...

    Also, CRs at higher levels can be a bit wonky, and unreliable. To compensate, I've implemented the Action Point system from UA. Basically, it gives the PCs a number of points per level to add additional dice to d20 rolls when things look grim. Then, I can use encounters that may be more powerful than the PCs usually might face - with the knowledge that the APs will be there to balance things out.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by hong
    Three-quarters of 9th level spells are plot devices masquerading as game mechanics, and I couldn't be arsed to go through them and pick out the ones that aren't. Just ban all these spells from your game, and life will be much easier. You can still use the slots for metamagiced lower-level spells.
    Knowing that your inscrutability often hides fonts of wisdom (for want of a better term) - how do you see 9th level spells (other than, perhaps wish and the imprisonment/freedom dyad) as 'plot devices'?

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