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5E How viable is 5E to play at high levels?

Tobold

Explorer
Looking at the published WotC adventures to date I noticed that most of them start at level 1 (or the main story starts at level 3-5, with a small adventure provided to get there from 1) and end between level 10 to 15. I don't see any adventures starting at level 10 to 15 and ending at 20. I noticed that in the RPG club I am in, people usually discard their characters at the end of the campaign at level 10 to 15, and start a new campaign at level 1.

So I was wondering, how viable is the high level game of 5th edition D&D anyway? What kind of adventures do you reasonably play at that level without resorting to silly "you open the random dungeon door and encounter 3 adult dragons"? Are players still interested in their characters after having played them for 10 to 15 levels? Do a lot of people play at higher levels, or is restarting at low level fairly common?
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
All I can say is that the game clearly breaks down if you use the provided options in the PHB: multiclassing and feats. Also all the cool magic items in the DMG? Forget them if you want to use monsters as-is.

Sure all editions of D&D has become wonky at high levels, but after playing the game for twenty years it has never felt so... empty... like playing a game on easy mode.

Of course any good DM can rectify this. But that does not change the basic fact that the monsters of MM and the encounters of published adventures are very very easy, probably way too easy for any party that knows its stuff, which they presumably do given they have survived to reach high levels. In other words, yes you can fix it, but you still need to fix it (as opposed to being able to run encounters more or less as-is).

The monsters simply aren't equipped to cope with the player characters, that have more tricks than arguably ever. (Sure high-level wizards have been toned down, but how does that help when everybody in the party can toy with the opposition). They're far too naively designed, with very few built-in ways to work around or negate class abilities and spells.

One area is especially underserved: the classic BBEG, facing a whole party on his own. You either have to overlevel the BBEG to ridiculous amounts (like perhaps a CR ten steps higher than the APL, or even more!) or you have to add, well, adds.

The game (and now I mean "combat") works much better when there are at least as many bad guys in an encounter as heroes.

I can totally see why they focus on levels 1-10. They have simply gotten the feedback that their high-level efforts does not work. Like. At. All. So why bother, when every DM will need to pretty much redesign encounters from scratch?

---

I prefer to look it like this:

If we instead say 5th edition is Basic Dungeons & Dragons, perfectly suitable to welcome new players, and to play low- and medium-level content (where most people prefer to be anyway), it is an excellent edition. :)

All us grognards need now is an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with a bit more crunch-depth (meaning more ways to make your character mechanically richer than just mc & feats), but mostly with expert monster design in a completely new Monster Manual, so classic solo threats at every level (like a Hydra, or a Banshee, or the Gorgon, or a Marilith, or... you get the point, not just dragons)... actually challenge a party of five even if players are experiences gamers and use the provided crunchy bits and have feats, several classes, magic items and more :)

My ideal, then, is an AD&D edition that remains 1000% compatible with the existing game, but with a brand new PHB, DMG and MM:

AD&D PHB: this is the existing book that needs the least work. Move the Epic Boons stuff into the AD&D PHB, print the Revised Ranger, add a new class to supplement Sorcerer, and replace perhaps the weakest dozen of spells with a new batch and I would basically be happy. (Also, fire the old index guy and hire somebody who has seen a good index before, and let him or her add class info to each spell description entry)

AD&D DMG: replace all the world-building and gamesmastering and encounter/challenge stuff, since that's worthless to experienced DMs anyway, and fill up the freed space with many new magic items. Ideally, of course, complete with a optional variant utility-based pricing system to replace the Rarity-based ratings (that remain for backwars compatibility). One thing I would want is for D&D to finally embrace "partial results" so that a BBEG can fail a Banishment or Hold Monster or whatever, but still not be outright crippled. Legendary Saves, sure, but it's crude, simple and not especially satisfying. Much better if each party spellcaster needs three "strikes" before his or her spell "takes", giving progressive bonuses (and descriptions) along the way.

AD&D MM: okay, so each humanoid gets several variants all the way up to CR 5. The Bounded Accuracy claim was that you could use Orcs or Dwarves even at high level, just in greater numbers. This is balderdash in a game with spells that autokills mooks with less than 25 hp (Spirit Guardians). Everyone from goblins to grimlocks to wood elves get specific spellcaster entries, since you simply can't touch a party with muscle alone (unless said muscle is something like a Frost Giant, of course).

Then we add a new layer to the game: the Legendary Solo. This critter is designed to challenge a whole party on its own, no mooks expected or assumed. The hit point calculations of the monster design is woefully underpowered, and the designer of THIS book knows that even at medium level individual player characters can push out in excess of 100 damage per round, easy. Any CR 10-12 Legendary Solo thus needs to sport at least 500 hit points, assuming the "Let's just kill it" strategy isn't meant to be the straightforward solution. At the same time, unlike a severely overleveled bosscreature, its attacks wont singleshoot a PC, so the combat can actually work.
 
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hejtmane

Explorer
Depends on the group i detest the first three levels they are the most boring levels in D&D even back in pre ad&d. The groups i played with we ran until level caps or real close. The current group has been the same and they love it.

Then again i custom campaign and we always did back in my youth. I remember using grid paper and mapping out a dungeon with ruler and pencil.

My group is probably a minority in game play and maybe it is because we do not do an adventure and you are done mindset but have our open world.

Sent from my Pixel XL using Tapatalk
 

Mercule

Adventurer
I don't have an answer for you, but I'm going to chime in with a statement that I'd actually really like to see a slower advancement table. I don't actually care about playing past 11th level or so -- for most campaigns. Retiring at "name level" was a pretty good model. The game just isn't that interesting, IMO, when you can teleport casually, etc.

I'd also like to see a return to slower advancement. I ran the numbers, a couple days ago, and to recapture the 1E rate of advancement, even assuming you got twice as many XP from gold as from monsters, you'd have to reduce XP awards for monsters by a factor of 10 and still have to multiply the XP tables for leveling by 50 or even 100. There's just too much focus on the next toy. I don't mind zipping through the first couple levels, though.
 

Tormyr

Adventurer
I recently finished up a 5e Age of Worms campaign that went to level 20. The PCs were flush with magic items, used feats and multiclassing, the Champion had GWM and foresight, and they were challenged regularly.

The fights are more difficult, sure, but they need to fit with the story rather than just be a group of high level monsters.
[sblock]
In our campaign, the lieutenants of Kyuss were in his ziggurat playing defense while Kyuss finished emerging from his monolith. By ziggurat level, they started with the high priestess of Kyuss, a shapechanged, vampyric ancient silver dragon and her 4 erinyes bodyguards. The next level featured the magically compelled daughter of the lord of the city, a half-fiend CR20 assassin who used her speed to go up and down the various stairs and snipe from the shadows. In our game, the wizard fell and lost his staff of the magi before being resurrected. The high priestess of Kyuss gave her staff to the assassin who I turned into a thief to use the staff. She frustrated the players by regularly casting invisibility on herself. The third level had 2 CR15 monsters with blindsight and 15 ft. reach that would pull a PC into a 100 foot square room filled with obscuring fog. The second to last level featured a CR20 oathbreaker paladin of Kyuss with her knights before finishing up with Kyuss himself at the top.
[/sblock]
 
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Rhenny

Explorer
I agree with Mercule.

I have always liked levels 1-10 (and mostly 1-5), but on rare occasions I play higher level games mostly just for shorter campaigns or one-offs.

Most of it depends on the DM, honestly. It is much easier to run games at lower levels because there are less moving parts and pretty soon, a DM can internalize all the key numbers to pretty much plan and run encounters at the drop of a hat. At higher levels it is much harder to store data in the DM brain (and player brain too!).

Also, the way 5e was built makes it so that as PCs gain levels, magic, feats, magic items, they just plain old get better. There is less of a treadmill effect. (It is much less of a game where as PCs get better, monsters get better too so in effect although PCs gain stuff, it doesn't feel like they are more powerful relative to the monsters they face). To me, this is a good thing, but it makes higher level play different in that it has to become more about the story and the characters rather than just a hack and slash experience. This is another reason why it may be more of a challenge for some DMs while others relish the experience. (Same for players, I guess). If a DM enjoys DMing for higher level PCs and has more experience doing it, it will show.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
I agree with Mercule as well. However, to answer the OP, perfectly viable. It is assumed that by the time you reach level 20 or so, you know how to run an RPG, and you have a good idea of what kind of players you are playing with. That means the DM needs to put in the work to tailor the adventure around that group to keep things interesting. Some tables are optimizers and thus need encounters modified around that. Some tables are RPers with little combat, so that's not an issue, etc, etc. Expecting the books, RAW, to keep every table challenged and engaged is lazy DMing. The rules are the framework, not meant to do everything for you.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I think Capp pretty much nailed my experiences. If you are running a medium to high level game with more than 4 PC and using feats and magic items expect to pretty much redesign monsters on the fly, or subtract 5-10 from the listed CR when eyeballing a monster as a challenge. I'd love to see an Advanced rule set to make this game a bit more challenging, as it is I'm finding it kind easy. But if tough combats are not your group's thing I'm sure it will be fine. My group starts to get bored when they are just blowing though everything, which they pretty much are now. Well other than a demon prince but they nearly killed him too.
 
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Greg Benage

Explorer
Ran my last campaign from 3-20, with several sessions at 20. Worked great. I created some new monsters and NPCs (and buffed some others). I put more thought into environments and lairs than I had at lower levels. Really, with the right environmental challenges and lair effects, you can challenge 20th-level characters with monsters and NPCs straight from the book. Actually, the main thing I took away from it was that I want to put more thought into environments and lair effects at the lower levels, too. It's a great opportunity to exercise some creativity, and it makes encounters unique and memorable.
 
I'd also like to see a return to slower advancement. I ran the numbers, a couple days ago, and to recapture the 1E rate of advancement, even assuming you got twice as many XP from gold as from monsters, you'd have to reduce XP awards for monsters by a factor of 10 and still have to multiply the XP tables for leveling by 50 or even 100. There's just too much focus on the next toy. I don't mind zipping through the first couple levels, though.
In our current campaign I am leveling the PC's "at the DM's discretion". We have slowed things way down and everyone is loving it. There is more time for the players to get in tune with their characters and learn their abilities and develop personalities.
 

Seramus

Explorer
If you are the kind of DM who uses custom monsters, or just custom statistics for classic monsters, then the game remains completely viable all the way to Level 20. Even if you are running from modules to save time, as long as you use custom stats for monsters, then everything works great.

If you are the kind of DM who mostly uses monsters straight out of the books?
youre-going-to-have-a-bad-time.png
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
So I was wondering, how viable is the high level game of 5th edition D&D anyway?
At any level, the viability of 5e approaches that of the DM running it. ;)

Seriously, a good enough DM can run 5e at any level. 1st level and high levels are trickier than the middle of the sweet spot (maybe 5-9?), getting easier the closer you get to that ideal zone (2nd is easier to run than 1st, 3rd than 2nd; 15th is easier to run than 20th, 11th easier than 15th). At least 1st level goes by quickly (if no one dies or, if, as in AL, they get auto-raised every session until 4th), so you can often muddle through while the players are distracted getting to know their PCs. ;)

What kind of adventures do you reasonably play at that level without resorting to silly "you open the random dungeon door and encounter 3 adult dragons"?
What's silly about that? The arbitrary, ecologically-untenable, even randomly-generated-as-you-go mega-dungeon is a staple of D&D tradition! Most of EGG's pre-release campaign happened in one dungeon, under Castle Greyhawk (so I've gathered from whispered nth-hand legend, anyway).

Are players still interested in their characters after having played them for 10 to 15 levels?
Some players retain interest more than others, some classes offer more to be interested in.

Do a lot of people play at higher levels, or is restarting at low level fairly common?
Not really (depending on what you mean by 'a lot'), and yes, certainly.

I'm going to chime in with a statement that I'd actually really like to see a slower advancement table. I don't actually care about playing past 11th level or so -- for most campaigns. Retiring at "name level" was a pretty good model. The game just isn't that interesting, IMO, when you can teleport casually, etc.
Nod. The 5e exp table /does/ slow substantially after the first couple of levels, and speeds up again after 11th, extending the play-time in the more-functional 'sweet spot.' You could emphasize that further with a little tweaking. You could simply treat the entries on the exp table as 'additional exp for next level' rather than 'total exp for next level.' That should slow it down.

In our current campaign I am leveling the PC's "at the DM's discretion". We have slowed things way down and everyone is loving it. There is more time for the players to get in tune with their characters and learn their abilities and develop personalities.
Also a viable option, and one I'm hearing of more & more DMs using. (Really, it's been a trend ever since 3.0 put everyone on the same chart - hey, if we're all leveling at the same time, why track exp so obsessively - but it also fits 5e's DM Empowerment philosophy neatly.)
 

Saelorn

Explorer
The big problem with high levels is that there are no threatening monsters to fight. When you're level 5, you can fight a couple of level 8 monsters and it will be a tough but quick and dynamic encounter. When you're level 19, a tough encounter means fighting half a dozen level 15 monsters, which is a tedious slog through mountains of HP. Between that and the attrition model, it can get pretty boring after a while.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
Sure all editions of D&D has become wonky at high levels,
'Wonky' covers quite the range, apparently, from the dwarf fighter topping out at 7th level while the human fighter builds a castle and gets nothing more than +3 hps/level after a while and the wizard eventually hikes to Arch-mage & 9th level spells, all the way down to your attacks and defenses might be 3 points behind the curve if you don't take the right feats, and back up to ...
but after playing the game for twenty years it has never felt so... empty... like playing a game on easy mode.
... 'playing the game on easy mode.'

Though, y'know, just apply some time pressure and it'll be fine!

;>
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
One thing I would want is for D&D to finally embrace "partial results" so that a BBEG can fail a Banishment or Hold Monster or whatever, but still not be outright crippled. Legendary Saves, sure, but it's crude, simple and not especially satisfying. Much better if each party spellcaster needs three "strikes" before his or her spell "takes", giving progressive bonuses (and descriptions) along the way.
The idea is that any "legendary" (or epic, or solo, or whatever the label is) creature needs "three strikes" from a given spellcaster (that resets if the monster lives to take a short rest). Each time the monster fails a save against a sufficiently high-level spell, that counts as one strike. (For a low-level legendary, this might be as low as 3rd level. For monsters of the highest CR, it would be spells of 6th level or higher, the ones where you only get one per level, to reinforce the "specialness" of those).

Only spells with "strike" info counts. For instance, Fireball would not have strike info. You would not be able to cast two Fireballs against a Legendary Wyvern and then top it off with a single save or suck spell that does have strike info. This is because spells that primarily deal damage has that utility anyway.

For instance, let's invent some strike info for Forcecage:

Forcecage
7th level Bard, Warlock, Wizard Evocation strike spell
[regular info here]
1st strike: The monster visibly struggles against the invisible prison, rendering it effectively grappled.
2nd strike: The monster is losing the fight, barely being able to keep gaps in the prison open. It is restrained.
3rd strike: The spell works as described. (This part is always the same)

Strike info is ignored for regular versions of the monster.

This way, a single save-or-suck spell doesn't end a Solo encounter. Yet, it is hardly pointless to cast these spells anyway, since you do get benefits from every (successful) casting.

Since hit point totals are increased for Solo monsters (rather massively, I might add), the party can't just drop the idea to cast debilititating spells and "just kill it". The idea is that the monster should last long enough for a challenging combat, no matter the party's tactics (causing damage, causing it to "suck", or both).

And yes, the idea is for such an encounter to actually challenging on its own, right off the bat, no DM tweaking needed. No expectation is made on having any other encounters that adventuring day!!! (If there are more encounters, that makes the Solo "too difficult" rather than being a prerequisite for being dangerous at all).
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
I recently finished up a 5e Age of Worms campaign that went to level 20. The PCs were flush with magic items, used feats and multiclassing, the Champion had GWM and foresight, and they were challenged regularly.
I'm happy for you, though note the complaint has never been "I am unable to challenge the PCs even when I write my own material".

The complaint has always been "I can't challenge my PCs with the guidelines given, and/or by using printed supplement as is."
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
Expecting the books, RAW, to keep every table challenged and engaged is lazy DMing. The rules are the framework, not meant to do everything for you.
So if there are two games, one of which manages to challenge the players right out of the box, but the other not...

... the difference is that one DM is good, the other is lazy...?? Under no circumstances could it be that the first game is simply better, more thoughtfully designed, than the other one...?!

Stop blaming the DM, Sacrosanct. Admit WotC has failed to provide enough challenge out the box this time around. You don't need to tell yourself 5E is the best thing since sliced bread to use the game. It is okay to be able to criticize the games you love.
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
Ran my last campaign from 3-20, with several sessions at 20. Worked great. I created some new monsters and NPCs (and buffed some others). I put more thought into environments and lairs than I had at lower levels. Really, with the right environmental challenges and lair effects, you can challenge 20th-level characters with monsters and NPCs straight from the book. Actually, the main thing I took away from it was that I want to put more thought into environments and lair effects at the lower levels, too. It's a great opportunity to exercise some creativity, and it makes encounters unique and memorable.
Just gonna repeat myself:
I'm happy for you, though note the complaint has never been "I am unable to challenge the PCs even when I write my own material".

The complaint has always been "I can't challenge my PCs with the guidelines given, and/or by using printed supplement as is."
 

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