D&D 5E Level 20 Gameplay

tglassy

Adventurer
This last year or so, I've been experimenting with high level gameplay. Specifically, running high level games. I've hit on a few things that worked, and a lot that didn't, once you get to this level, and after experiencing some moderate level of success, I thought I'd let people know what I've discovered, in case anyone else was interested.

Wish: I have one player who always abuses Wish every time he has the chance (or his plan is always "Let's just figure out how to get a Wish spell and I'll make the perfect wish to end this threat"). Drives me crazy. What also drives me crazy is every time there's a world ending catastrophe coming in one of the games, he says "I'll just hire a Wizard to cast Plane Shift for me and my family and we'll just leave this place." Really frustrating. Like, why are you playing? So I made a rule regarding Wish: If your Lvl 20 character can get access to Wish naturally, you can have it. But you've already made your Wish, and you've already lost the ability to cast it again. So just tell me what your Wish was, and you can have it, but can never cast Wish again. I did this so they couldn't just spam Wish to end every encounter. I also Planarly Locked the realm they were in. They could go to outer and inner realms, but not to other Material Planes. No escaping.

Magic Items: I made Magic Items hella expensive and rare in this setting. They each got 10 points to spend. Uncommon items were 1 point, Rare were 3, Very Rare were 5, and Legendary were 7. If they really wanted that Vorpal Sword, they could have it, but then they get fewer items. That's actually worked pretty well. It is possible to buy magic items, but that brings me to the next point.

Wealth and Influence. This took a month or two of playing before I got it fleshed out. Essentially, I replaced Gold with a Wealth and Influence Ability Score. Your Wealth Score determines your spendable income. The higher the score, the more you are able to purchase without thinking. Having a Wealth Score at all means you are independently wealthy. A 10 in Wealth means you can purchase anything up to 10,000 gold without blinking. If you want to buy something above that, you have to make a Wealth Check, using your Wealth Score. If you succeed, you're good. If you fail, you can still buy it, but it will cost one Wealth Point, which lowers your score. The higher your Wealth Score, the larger your budget where you don't have to roll. You can gain Wealth points in various ways, usually by finding a large influx of cash or by investing. If you ever get to a 20 Wealth, you don't have to make Wealth Checks anymore. You can pretty much buy Kingdoms if you wanted to. The only exception is Magic Items, which cost Wealth Points (equal to the point cost at character creation), and cannot be purchased with a roll.

Influence is similar, but for followers, as well as whether you can be the leader of a group of people. Like a City. A 14 Influence gets you a city to run, complete with an Army. An 18 lets you have vassal states, and if you have more than one you can call yourself Emperor. The size of your loyal population grows with your Influence score, and if your Influence ever falls too low, your population can revolt.

These two things have done wonders for this campaign, because the most powerful people in the world (the party) no longer has to worry about money, and can know exactly how big their city (or in one case, commune) is. And if they don't care about governing (which some don't), they can just ignore Influence and focus on Wealth.

So that's some of the mechanics I ran. But what's really been interesting is the quests. I put a whole End of the World quest in front of the party, and literally no one bit on it. They still wanted to play, they just had absolutely no interest in the campaign. They wanted to do their own things. They wanted to run their cities. One of them wanted to become a Lich. Another wants to conquer other cities and expand his empire. Another wants to become the Champion of his god. Not a one cares one Iota that Tiamat has escaped the realm and the Tarrasque is on the other side of the world threatening to destroy it. None at all. They just want to do their own things.

And so...I let them. I put the Tiamat stuff in the background. And we focus on their personal quests. It's just whatever they want to do. One of them used his initial Wish to make it so "every time I kill someone with a Necromancy Spell, they rise again as a Wight under my permanent control". Basically, Finger of Death, only they become Wights. I said ok. So he had a Wight army. But none of that came up during sessions, because during a Quest it was something he had to take care of himself. But in between sessions? He had a blast.

Another is paranoid, so his city is in the mountains somewhere. He's a conquest paladin, and he and the newly minted Lich (took him a bit, but he figured out how to do it) have kinda been going at each other in a cold war. Each of them is making preparations in case the other attacks. The Paladin could one shot the Lich, though unless he finds the Phylactery he'll just come back, but the Lich, a Sorcerer, can cast Meteor Swarm, which can destroy cities. So they constantly eye each other from across the room, and I'm the only one who knows the depths they each have gone through to protect themselves from the other.

So here's what I've learned: At high levels, it's about letting the players have what they want. All those long term plans your characters always have but never get to? They can do it. They can become a Lich. They can conquer cities. They can stand before Kings and make demands. Because they're awesome. They aren't the ONLY awesome people in the world, but they are among the most powerful. Now, they can't get everything immediately. They have to quest for it. I don't give anything for free. But if they say "I want a gauntlet that lets me make things rust away like a Rust Monster", I say "Ok, we'll get to that next session." And then I make a new quest where they have to go fight Rust Monsters. Rather than it being some side thing I have to figure out how to incorporate into the Main Quest, that IS the Main Quest. It's whatever they want it to be. And it's interesting how enemies kind of reappear, and larger questline show up during the course of this.

A few benefits of running a lvl 20 game: I don't have to hold back. I can use any creature in the Monster Manual. I've hit them with Loup Garou, Star Spawn, Orcus, Death Knights, Liches, Vampires, Assassins, Greatwyrms, Slaad, and a few creatures of my own making. Yes, at the beginning of the game, they bowled through whatever I sent them, but I'm getting smarter, and in the last session, they had to run away and lock the enemy in the Astral Plane because it was getting too close for comfort. I think they could have taken the bad guy out, but it would have been REALLY close. Not because I sent too many enemies at them, but because the enemies played smart.

But yeah, that's been my experience with a lvl 20 game. Give them what they want, but make them work for it. The Wealth Mechanic really helps make them feel like they have money. The Influence Mechanic helps with the few who want to deal with ruling a city of their own without getting too crazy. It keeps things fair, and is mostly in the background, but my players have been loving it. The game is all about them, and what they want to do, and they say it's so freeing to not worry about leveling up or builds or starting from scratch and working up to lvl 20. They can just...play.

Oh, and one more thing. Want to watch a bunch of badda** lvl 20 characters pee their pants and run away from a fight like little girls? Sick 6 Rust Monsters on them while they're sleeping and alter it so they can affect Magic Items. The week before, the Paladin had taken on a Narzugon, alone, with it's Nightmare and double HP and I gave him 2 Feats (Sentinel and Mounted Combat), just to boost him a bit more, and the Paladin chewed through all 200+ hp, a 100 hp heal, and the Nightmare's HP, in 4 rounds. By himself. When the Rust Monsters showed up, this same Paladin summoned his Nightmare (which he won from the Narzugon) immediately and blinked into the Ethereal Plane and didn't come back until the fight was done. All because he wore Adamantine Plate (one of his starter items, so he would never have to worry about getting critted). Oh, and they killed the Rust Monsters with a frickin Tsunami spell. Rust Monsters are CR 1/2. And there were only six of them.

Their next challenge will be to find some important McGuffin which is hidden in a secret catacombs infested with Rust Monsters. Because you should never let the DM see what makes you sweat.
 

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Mort

Legend
Supporter
Oh, and one more thing. Want to watch a bunch of badda** lvl 20 characters pee their pants and run away from a fight like little girls? Sick 6 Rust Monsters on them while they're sleeping and alter it so they can affect Magic Items.

Did exactly this, and I have never seen the players look so panicked!

Threaten their PCs lives? Eh that's what we signed up for!

Threaten their hard won stuff, especially hard won rare stuff (Cache of Adamantine in the above case)? Then you see them sweat!
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Wish: I have one player who always abuses Wish every time he has the chance (or his plan is always "Let's just figure out how to get a Wish spell and I'll make the perfect wish to end this threat"). Drives me crazy. What also drives me crazy is every time there's a world ending catastrophe coming in one of the games, he says "I'll just hire a Wizard to cast Plane Shift for me and my family and we'll just leave this place." Really frustrating. Like, why are you playing? So I made a rule regarding Wish: If your Lvl 20 character can get access to Wish naturally, you can have it. But you've already made your Wish, and you've already lost the ability to cast it again. So just tell me what your Wish was, and you can have it, but can never cast Wish again. I did this so they couldn't just spam Wish to end every encounter.

Wish

The only safe way to use Wish is to duplicate a lower slot spell.

If a player is using Wish in an impromptu way, then you as a DM have rules-as-written to make the precise wording go horribly wrong for the player.

That should stop the abuse of Wish.



Even with that, I feel Wish needs to be a new slot-10 spell, available at level 19 for any fullcaster.
 


Yaarel

Mind Mage
Magic Items: I made Magic Items hella expensive and rare in this setting. They each got 10 points to spend. Uncommon items were 1 point, Rare were 3, Very Rare were 5, and Legendary were 7. If they really wanted that Vorpal Sword, they could have it, but then they get fewer items. That's actually worked pretty well. It is possible to buy magic items, but that brings me to the next point.
I like this. It is moreorless a variant of magic item "attunement". Powerful items require more attention.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
They wanted to do their own things. They wanted to run their cities. One of them wanted to become a Lich. Another wants to conquer other cities and expand his empire. Another wants to become the Champion of his god. Not a one cares one Iota that Tiamat has escaped the realm and the Tarrasque is on the other side of the world threatening to destroy it. None at all. They just want to do their own things.
This is awesome. Narrative immersion.
 




GreyLord

Legend
D&D BECMI Master Set/Rules Cyclopedia; on the one hand it gave it to both Clerics and Magic-Users, but specifically stated that you had to be 36th level MU*/36th level Cleric and have Int/Wis 18+ to cast the thing.

* 33rd-36th level in the Master Set.

Of course. For some reason I was thinking of AD&D or 3e and beyond and trying to figure when they did that.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Hell just make it the capstone for a level 20 wizard, that's what they did way back in the day. It was a 9th level spell, but you had to be a max level wizard to get it....so basically a level 10 spell.
Wizard − and also other fullcasters.

Psion − Wish is mind over matter, the ability to will reality into existence. It is the purest form of psionics.

Cleric − Wish is miracle.

Bard − Wish is the songs of creation that brought the multiverse into existence.

Druid − Wish is shaping the essence of nature itself.

And so on.

Any class whose spells can actually reach slot 10, can find Wish on its spell list.
 

tglassy

Adventurer
The only thing about Wish is that screwing with player’s Wish seems cheap to me. “Oh, just fast forward then to a time when the bad guy is dead, ahyuk.” Gigax spent so much time in 2e in the description of Wish explaining ways to screw it up it’s unreal.

If that’s going to be the case, why even bother having it in the game? Let it be a Wish. Just, you know, you have to roll a d6 afterwards. Rolled a 1 or 2? Can’t do it anymore.

But what I did worked great, cause it lets them have their Wish. One character is a Dragon Sorcerer, so her Wish was to be a full Dragon. So I gave her the ability to cast True Polymorph once a day to only become an Adult Blue Dragon. She is allowed to keep all her class abilities as a Blue Dragon.

Do I worry she’s overpowered? Not really. One character is a Swords Bard. His Wish was the ability to declare one roll a day to be a nat 20. After I said ok, he took a Vorpal Sword as his main magic item.

They’re all overpowered. They’re all godlike. And that’s the point. At this level, LET them be overpowered and godlike. There are plenty of creatures that can scare them. Including the bard with the Vorpal Sword, who jumped on his broom of flying and took off THE MOMENT the rust monsters showed up. There’s always ways to make it interesting.

The original rule for Wish was that they already cast it and can’t cast it again. That was when the game was supposed to be a one shot. My new rule is that they can only benefit from one Wish per source of Wish. So if they get a Ring of Three Wishes, each person can only use it once. Some beings, like Genie Lords, count as their own Source and can cast it on someone’s behalf once per person, but a PC that gets Wish as a spell can only cast it one time.

It’s made Wish into something to be respected. If you can cast it every day to duplicate a spell of 8th lvl or lower without material components, you’re basically a god, and I didn’t want to deal with that. Seriously, the spells you can abuse that way.

My second rule is that if you wish for something too outrageous, instead of getting it handed to you, you gain the knowledge needed to make it happen. Wanna become a Lich? Great. You now know the process. Lots of ingredients, lots of quests, and then you can be a Lich. Want to kill Tiamat for good? Great. You now know of a sacred sword made from the heart of a dying god, deep in an endless dungeon with the power to absorb the divine spark of a deity. Put your helmet on, cause it’ll be rough getting there.
 

jgsugden

Legend
My suggestion is to not change the game, but to run it as designed ... and expect the heroes to be awesome. They're supposed t be They're supposed to beat threats, overcome challenges, and feel mighty. They do not need to feel like there are threats to their health at every turn ... the threats they have to beat can be to the things they care about and want to protect. They can be racing the clock rather than trying to survive. They can be trying to change a situation rather than the final objective just being to kill enemies. They can use wish, as described, to do cool things ... and then go on because they only get to do those wishes so many times. Built to a crescendo and then retire with them feeling the PCs were awesome, over the top friggin heroes.

It works.
 

tglassy

Adventurer
My suggestion is to not change the game, but to run it as designed ... and expect the heroes to be awesome. They're supposed t be They're supposed to beat threats, overcome challenges, and feel mighty. They do not need to feel like there are threats to their health at every turn ... the threats they have to beat can be to the things they care about and want to protect. They can be racing the clock rather than trying to survive. They can be trying to change a situation rather than the final objective just being to kill enemies. They can use wish, as described, to do cool things ... and then go on because they only get to do those wishes so many times. Built to a crescendo and then retire with them feeling the PCs were awesome, over the top friggin heroes.

It works.
The only things I changed were to make it run more smoothly. Like Gold. I got rid of Gold in place or a Wealth Ability Score. Because who wants to deal with expenses? If your Wealth is high enough, you can just buy it. Otherwise, it’ll cost a Wealth Point, and then you’re not as wealthy.

I changed Wish because I have a player who would take a class that gets Wish and abuse the hell out of it. Every time he or another party member gets it, he ruins entire adventures with it. Drives me crazy. It’s creative, but i hate it. This way, they get their Wish, it’s just rare and meaningful.
 

Oofta

Legend
I've run games up to 20th level (and plan to get there again). Always interesting to hear other people's experiences, because my games generally all that gonzo. Maybe it's because we got there by playing and I've slowly introduced the threat(s) and I'm pretty clear when recruiting that I want to run a heroic fantasy game.

I do limit things like plane shift (and teleport) in part because I don't want "get out of jail free" cards. When it comes to wish, if I thought someone was abusing it I'd have a chat with the player. There's clear rules and examples of overstepping with penalties including a 33% chance of never being able to cast it again.

When it comes to influence, I just kind of play that by ear and what makes sense. I don't want metagame influence points. 🤷‍♂️ As far as GP, I'm just a tightwad DM that doesn't give out much.

But I'm glad you're finding things that work for you, high level play can be a lot of fun.
 

pogre

Legend
I have run three campaigns to 20th or near 20th level in the same campaign world. Every so often for a gaming session I will tell the players to bring back one of their favorite retired characters for an epic game. My experience is a little different from the OP's in that the PCs are invested in the world - flat out fleeing really isn't on the table for them. These games require a lot of prep time, but the players enjoy them and get to do some amazing things in the campaign world.

The most satisfying adventures for my group are when they are working to help or save someone else. Many of the 20th level PCs are almost untouchable as targets, but trying to save someone/something else changes the stakes in a fun way.

I have done a few adventures one-on-one or with two players and that is a ton of fun for epic level PCs. Those adventures are usually instigated by a PC wanting to pursue a personal agenda.

It certainly is a different kind of game, but we really enjoy some high level adventures.
 

Stalker0

Legend
The most satisfying adventures for my group are when they are working to help or save someone else.
I think this is a great point. One of the easiest ways to challenge invincible players is with really vulnerable side characters.

One thing I did in my last campaign (that was like 13th level when we finished), was there was this time when reality got "nuts". One of the players actually became the "McGuffin" to help fix everything, and so was fine, but all the other characters started switching out into alternate reality versions. We had a lot of fun with it, either alternate version of their characters, completely different characters, one played a dancing talking swords for a little bit....was great.

The bad guy knew about the mcguffin and so focused all of his resources on taking that one character out. So the rest of the party didn't really care about death, if they died, they just got replaced with another alternate character, no big deal. But....one character was extremely vulnerable, and if they died....it was game over. So it became a very unique challenge to overcome.
 

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