WotC Jeremy Crawford Interview: High level play. By Christian Hoffer

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I have yet to DM high level 5e but I want to. Most of our games naturally come to an end in the 10-12 level range. I thought about doing a one shot at higher levels. Probably run the Vecna one shot from Dndbeyond.
Honestly, I think people winding down there has little to do with mechanics or lack of product, and more to do withbnarrative fittingness. At 10-12, a lot of characters feel...done. Like their goals are accomplished, and they can rude off into the Sunset and legend.
 

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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Honestly, I think people winding down there has little to do with mechanics or lack of product, and more to do with narrative fittingness. At 10-12, a lot of characters feel...done. Like their goals are accomplished, and they can rude off into the Sunset and legend.
Depending on how fast the table levels up, you are absolutely correct.

The only way I could ever see myself running a Tier 4 game would be if I leveled players up after like every three sessions so that we'd get to Level 15 around the 45th session. But I also find that to be cutting off our noses to spite our faces, because we are basically blasting through class features so fast they might never experience some of them before they already gain new ones. Which to me is kind of missing the point of leveling up?

So I'd much rather have players remain at each of their levels for like 6, 7, 10 sessions so they actually experience everything they've gained... but I sure as heck are not going to run over 100 sessions just to get them to Level 15 (and then another 30 to 40 traipsing through Tier 4). That just seems like hell to me. :)
 

Stalker0

Legend
The point about high levels being "aspirational" I think is very true. I think a lot of us have the "power fantasy" of our characters making it to 20th level, and even if it doesn't happen it is part of the imaginative experience.

There were a few other things I found interesting in the notes:

  • Crawford's notes about focus groups: In other threads your seeing this belief start to propagate that surveys are literally the only market research WOTC does. Its not, as Crawford notes here, they use focus groups as part of their research.
  • That 4e games also end at 10th level, even though the level range is now 30 and I think 4e had some of the best high level support of the last 3 editions. I think that really does paint the picture that games end at 10th primarily for length reasons or narrative ones, games just end by the time your getting to those higher levels.

Ultimately I do think high levels have a place for that occasional one shot, and for the power fantasy noted earlier. However, does it really need to be 20 whole levels? I mean that's literally half of your levels as "dead weight" in most campaigns. Seems maybe like 15 levels could still give you a lot of the aspirational aspects, make it a bit more likely groups can get to the top, and then you don't have 10 levels you have to figure out stuff for, and so can make the higher levels more balanced and easier to design for.
 

darjr

I crit!
I also think it has a lot to do with scheduling, the natural predator of rpg gaming.

It can be hard to sustain a regular group anyway. Add in the other things about high level play and it’s no wonder we have a diminishing number of groups playing there.
 
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Echohawk

Shirokinukatsukami fan
I love high-level play! I'm a fairly conscientious planner, and I really enjoy seeding some plot elements early in a campaign that only pay off much later on. It's also satisfying for players to see the long-term consequences of something they did as low-level characters suddenly becoming relevant again months or years later. (A random merchant they casually saved from brigands back in game #3 ends up being a critical ally in efforts to persuade a city to fund troops for the war effort in game #36.) I guess that really means I prefer long campaigns more than high-level play specifically, but the two usually go together.

I ran a 1E/2E campaign to 16th level, a 3E campaign to 17th level and a 4E campaign all the way to 30th level. Of those three, 3E was the hardest to DM at high-level, mostly because keeping track of various anti-magic, spell resistance and dispelling combinations was annoying. 4E wasn't as hard to run, but it was increasingly hard to challenge the players. High-level 4E monsters were not well balanced against even somewhat optimised characters. The 1E/2E campaign was the easiest, but back then, high-level play was less about new spells/abilities and more about developing strongholds, kingdoms, and guilds, so less "rulesy".

I haven't (yet) taken a 5E campaign to high-levels, but I'm hoping my current Spelljammer campaign will get there. Spelljammer seems particularly well suited to high-level campaigns. My suspicion is that high-level 5E will be both easier to run and better balanced than either 3E or 4E.
 
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The 1E/2E campaign was the easiest, but back then, high-level play was less about new spells/abilities and more about developing strongholds, kingdoms, and guilds, so less "rulesy.”
Not to derail, but, as a Civ fanatic, this is my favorite version of high-level play, one which I never got to experience in my 2e days, as we never got high enough, and the other players in the group just wanted high story. The idea of moving from vagabond, to celebrated adventurer, to a person with great power and great responsibility, just really appeals to me, and adds a fitting conclusion to he hero’s journey. Not for nothing that many of the old fantasy-formative myths and stories have the protagonist end up a ruler of some sort (Odysseus, Beowulf, Arthur, etc.). Additionally, it adds a built-in method for players to begin directing the campaign’s direction even more, as what they do with their respective strongholds has ripple effects throughout the greater world.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Sorry that that's not looking like an option.

Yeah, if I were to play/DM a non-5e edition of D&D, it'd likely be a 1e/2e hybrid like I did as a teenager. Unfortunately, I don't still have all the house rules that we used back then.
At this point, the only D&D-adjacent games I'm willing to run are DCC, ACKS, Worlds Without Number, 1e, 2e, and Level Up. I've never played OSE but would be willing to give it a try. I'll play anything.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
The point about high levels being "aspirational" I think is very true. I think a lot of us have the "power fantasy" of our characters making it to 20th level, and even if it doesn't happen it is part of the imaginative experience.

There were a few other things I found interesting in the notes:

  • Crawford's notes about focus groups: In other threads your seeing this belief start to propagate that surveys are literally the only market research WOTC does. Its not, as Crawford notes here, they use focus groups as part of their research.
  • That 4e games also end at 10th level, even though the level range is now 30 and I think 4e had some of the best high level support of the last 3 editions. I think that really does paint the picture that games end at 10th primarily for length reasons or narrative ones, games just end by the time your getting to those higher levels.

Ultimately I do think high levels have a place for that occasional one shot, and for the power fantasy noted earlier. However, does it really need to be 20 whole levels? I mean that's literally half of your levels as "dead weight" in most campaigns. Seems maybe like 15 levels could still give you a lot of the aspirational aspects, make it a bit more likely groups can get to the top, and then you don't have 10 levels you have to figure out stuff for, and so can make the higher levels more balanced and easier to design for.
The problem I see is that if you never actually get to those levels, the aspirational benefit is just as false as games where you're told character death is on the table but no one ever actually dies.
 

CrashFiend82

Explorer
My group did a bunch of high level one-shots linked to form mini campaign. It was fun, you usually are just using the same basic things but dealing higher damage. I get that is a turn off for some, but it was the most enjoyable high level game I've played.

I also ran a short campaign starting at level 11, I think until 18. Yes, it gets weird and ridiculous. Yes it was pretty gonzo, fighter in power armor kinds of things. I loved it as a DM but I spent far more time in prep building major set piece encounters. Think fighting dozens of angels in a floating cathedral with a solar who had both legendary and lair actions. Battles could last an hour easily. I often would just spawn mooks CR 5+ to help the BBG and once the leader was defeated we'd narrate the clean up, unless someone was close to or on death saves. I would just combine various features from different high CR creatures. Almost had a TPK when they fought an Ancient Black Dragon Iron Golem, but we're smart and ran, after the first death. It's fun just throwing random stuff at the party without worrying about CR. The high level monsters math does break down fast, like many people noted. I just never cared enough to worry, and had players that enjoyed the ride.
 

delericho

Legend
In 35 years of gaming, I can count the number of campaigns to reach the teen-levels on the fingers of one hand. High level play is something I'd like to achieve more of, in theory, but in practice it just doesn't seem to work out.

That said, my most played edition in that time is 3e (or 3.5e), where high-level play wasn't well implemented, and WotC largely didn't support it. So 'nobody' played at high level because there was no support; and there was no support because 'nobody' played at high level. Not much really appears to have changed.
 

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