D&D 5E Nobody Is Playing High Level Characters

According to stats from D&D Beyond, above 5th level characters start to drop off sharply, and above 10th level, the figures are very low. The exception is level 20, which looks like it's probably people creating experimental 20th-level builds.

Screen Shot 2019-12-28 at 2.16.41 PM.png


Some of them say 0%; this isn't strictly accurate, but levels 16-19 are used by an insignificant number of players. Interestingly, there are more 3rd-5th level characters than there are 1st-2nd level.

D&D Beyond has said before that under 10% of games make it past 10th level, but these figures show the break point as being bit lower than that. DDB used over 30 million characters to compile these stats.
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


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ChaosOS

Legend
I think at this point there's every reason to believe that most people don't play higher levels. The exact values are probably wrong in the random kind of way, but the general shape would hold. The more interesting question is why - the chicken/egg lack of support vs lack of market, poor balance vs poor visionwork, etc.
 


Short version: PC levels are hard-capped at 6th, but xp gained allows continued acquisition of feats. In particular this cuts 4th level and higher spells which are THE element that begins to spin what balance the game had out of control. It seems draconian but solves a great many problems people have with the game.
 


Short version: PC levels are hard-capped at 6th, but xp gained allows continued acquisition of feats. In particular this cuts 4th level and higher spells which are THE element that begins to spin what balance the game had out of control. It seems draconian but solves a great many problems people have with the game.
And if you also start at 6th Level you've reverse engineered something that's a lot closer to most of the other 90s games that were around at the time 3E was being developed.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
]
I think at this point there's every reason to believe that most people don't play higher levels. The exact values are probably wrong in the random kind of way, but the general shape would hold. The more interesting question is why - the chicken/egg lack of support vs lack of market, poor balance vs poor visionwork, etc.

I think that it's safe to say that the problem lies more in system breakdown. I've seen more than one variant ruleset for level zero/rookie characters that don't start out at first level but then take some of their experience with them in the form of skill/equipment proficiencies, cantrips, health, etc allowing some of the flavor that comes with leveling before getting to the point where too much of that flavor combines into breakdown. The end result is that the interesting levels are extended.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I think at this point there's every reason to believe that most people don't play higher levels. The exact values are probably wrong in the random kind of way, but the general shape would hold. The more interesting question is why - the chicken/egg lack of support vs lack of market, poor balance vs poor visionwork, etc.
Higher levels would see more usage if they were better designed and supported but as they don't see much usage they don't get the effort or the support. A bit circular but it is what it is.
I think that it's safe to say that the problem lies more in system breakdown.
I don't think it's lack of support or system breakdown. I think it's lack of interest.

D&D is a list-based game. PCs are built from lists. Monsters are built from lists and then chosen from lists. The point of gaining levels is to change the lists and increase the number of bits chosen from the lists. Higher level PCs have more moving parts. So (everything else being equal) do higher level monsters.

Even if the lists are nicely designed (on the whole) and work well together, for a lot of players there is simply not that much interest in having more complex game elements that choose more bits from more esoteric lists. This was evident in 4e - my own experience is that upper level 4e doesn't break down in any very serious way (or to put it in other terms, anyone willing to deal with the list complexity of high level 4e is going to be able to cope with the maths necessary to make it work in mechanical terms). But it was obvious that there simply weren't that many people who are interested in that level of complexity.

I've seen more than one variant ruleset for level zero/rookie characters that don't start out at first level but then take some of their experience with them in the form of skill/equipment proficiencies, cantrips, health, etc allowing some of the flavor that comes with leveling before getting to the point where too much of that flavor combines into breakdown. The end result is that the interesting levels are extended.
Too much of this, though, and then the question arises - why bother having levels at all?

If level gain isn't going to make a significant mechanical difference to the play of the game, what's it for?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't find it strange at all. Broadly speaking - you cannot please everyone.
Perhaps not, but you can at least listen to everyone.
That means companies typically have to pick the market they are going to go after. They had reasons they don't talk about in the study for that choice. We can speculate on why they made that choice, but it would be speculation.

But, overall, making a choice like this is normal.
If they'd already picked the market they were after then why do a survey one of whose goals, one would think, is to determine where and what and who the market is?

Further, just because something is normal doesn't make it right.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I don't think it's lack of support or system breakdown. I think it's lack of interest.

D&D is a list-based game. PCs are built from lists. Monsters are built from lists and then chosen from lists. The point of gaining levels is to change the lists and increase the number of bits chosen from the lists. Higher level PCs have more moving parts. So (everything else being equal) do higher level monsters.

Even if the lists are nicely designed (on the whole) and work well together, for a lot of players there is simply not that much interest in having more complex game elements that choose more bits from more esoteric lists. This was evident in 4e - my own experience is that upper level 4e doesn't break down in any very serious way (or to put it in other terms, anyone willing to deal with the list complexity of high level 4e is going to be able to cope with the maths necessary to make it work in mechanical terms). But it was obvious that there simply weren't that many people who are interested in that level of complexity.

Too much of this, though, and then the question arises - why bother having levels at all?

If level gain isn't going to make a significant mechanical difference to the play of the game, what's it for?
On your last point, this is what you get going from level zero to level one in one of the more developed level zero systems I've seen
1577666180748.png

It took them 2-3 months of weekly sessions to reach first level & while that level zero experience gave them some build options that would normally require much more powerful feats & multiclassing it didn't really weight the scales too much even if you figure the equipment & wealth they built over those months of play. It makes mechanical differences but those differences are mostly lateral ones that can't happen under normal rules. That party just reached 6th or 7th before thanksgiving put things on hold for the holidays & my players are already theorizing unanswered plot threads/talking about looking forward to picking thing back up after new years. I ran fate for years & run a very narrative game even when running d&d, but eventually the power curve of PCs reaches points where mechanics just obliterate anything shy of plot armor standing in their way. Back in 3.5 that happened somewhere in/around the mid teens ime but more around 8-12ish in 5e.
 

I think at this point there's every reason to believe that most people don't play higher levels. The exact values are probably wrong in the random kind of way, but the general shape would hold. The more interesting question is why - the chicken/egg lack of support vs lack of market, poor balance vs poor visionwork, etc.
I think it's also worth asking whether, in general, there is even a problem?

Do people (in general - I don't mean specific anecdotes) want to be playing at a higher level? Do they feel that something (whether mechanical or something else) is keeping them playing at those levels which they'd like to reach?

Or are people, in general, playing for an amount of time that they're happy with, with at a level of power and mechanical complexity that they're also happy with?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I also said the supporting data had not been released to the public, not that the data wouldn't be released to the public. We have not done so to this point because the general audience for a Dev Update stream are not data scientists, and therefore that additional data content would be confusing to consume. Also releasing a gigantic amount of raw data while ensuring it is appropriately understood is a time-intensive process, and we would rather use our limited resources to make things.
If such a breakdown is ever done, I for one wouldn't mind seeing a summary including a) more finely-tuned numbers by level (say, to two decimal places instead of none so levels 15-19 aren't just a string of zeroes); and b) the same thing repeated except for each character class, to allow us to see whether any particular class(es) are more or less popular at any particular level or level range.

Of course cloud-yellers out there will not believe me when I say it since I don't have access to the source data, but historically, we have seen that all our major data points on DDB align with all the other feedback channels that WotC shares with us. In other words, DDB has thus far proven to be representative of the game's audience as a whole. Popular races, classes, etc. all line up.
Unfortunately, what we don't and can't know is how well (if at all) this data - both yours and WotC's - lines up with the segment that doesn't use DDB or any other online resource or feedback channel.
 
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I think that it's safe to say that the problem lies more in system breakdown. I've seen more than one variant ruleset for level zero/rookie characters that don't start out at first level but then take some of their experience with them in the form of skill/equipment proficiencies, cantrips, health, etc allowing some of the flavor that comes with leveling before getting to the point where too much of that flavor combines into breakdown. The end result is that the interesting levels are extended.
You can also go the other way. Start Level 1 at effectively a higher point (Like in 13th Age where PCs begin with 3hd making them effectively level 3 characters)

That's what I would do if I wanted to make a D&D hack that focuses on the upper levels of D&D well.
I'd make Level 11 into level 1, so character creation is easy and I would build from there. (Maybe use some kind of life path system so it feels like your PC comes with a history).
 


Anoth

Adventurer
You can also go the other way. Start Level 1 at effectively a higher point (Like in 13th Age where PCs begin with 3hd making them effectively level 3 characters)

That's what I would do if I wanted to make a D&D hack that focuses on the upper levels of D&D well.
I'd make Level 11 into level 1, so character creation is easy and I would build from there. (Maybe use some kind of life path system so it feels like your PC comes with a history).
Wouldn’t it just be easier to play 13th age. It is a great game. Seems silly to make d&d into something that is already out there.
 

pemerton

Legend
On your last point, this is what you get going from level zero to level one in one of the more developed level zero systems I've seen
View attachment 117091
It took them 2-3 months of weekly sessions to reach first level & while that level zero experience gave them some build options that would normally require much more powerful feats & multiclassing it didn't really weight the scales too much even if you figure the equipment & wealth they built over those months of play. It makes mechanical differences but those differences are mostly lateral ones that can't happen under normal rules. That party just reached 6th or 7th before thanksgiving put things on hold for the holidays & my players are already theorizing unanswered plot threads/talking about looking forward to picking thing back up after new years. I ran fate for years & run a very narrative game even when running d&d, but eventually the power curve of PCs reaches points where mechanics just obliterate anything shy of plot armor standing in their way. Back in 3.5 that happened somewhere in/around the mid teens ime but more around 8-12ish in 5e.
Thanks for the reply - for me at least it clarified your earlier post that I responded to and perhaps hadn't properly understood!
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
All the data I've seen shows:

1) People like to level FASTER, not slower; they don't want to spend months at level 0, they want to spend just 1 or 2 sessions at level one and rip through levels 1-3 quickly.
2) People get bored with their PCs and want to switch them to another PC after around 3 months of playing, whatever level that puts them at.

In reaction to these data points, Adventurer's League tried to move the first levels along quickly, and also wanted to make sure seasons lasted only a few months before switching.
 

Wouldn’t it just be easier to play 13th age. It is a great game. Seems silly to make d&d into something that is already out there.
Always, provided you can convince people to try it.

But the point was that it's an example. I wouldn't want to start 13th Age at level 8 due to the numbers and complexity inflation.

If I wanted to run a high level game, it would work better in a game specifically hacked to worked optimally at that particular power level.
 

I think it's also worth asking whether, in general, there is even a problem?
WotC's a corporation, don't say 'problem,' say 'opportunity,' or, if you must, 'issue.'
;)

Do people (in general - I don't mean specific anecdotes) want to be playing at a higher level? Do they feel that something (whether mechanical or something else) is keeping them playing at those levels which they'd like to reach?

Or are people, in general, playing for an amount of time that they're happy with, with at a level of power and mechanical complexity that they're also happy with?
Seriously, though, that's the whole chicke/egg thing. For decades D&D didn't offer accessible, playable, balanced, and/or adequately supported play. Long-time & returning players may have wanted to play at higher levels, but've long since learned better than to try - you can mod the game if you want that, or you can adapt lower levels to higher level themes, (the playtest resorted to that in MiBG - I may have mentioned that already, sorry, it was memorable) - or feel high-level play to be stigmatized by Monty-Haul and 20-level build shenanigans. When new players learn from old - or even from an edition, like 5e, that's so good at evoking the classic game, they pick up the same expectations.

At this point, enabling high level play would mean more than just making the game work at high levels, like 4e did, or putting out some non-trivial support for it, like 3.x & the 'I' in BECMI, did - it'd require a major "educational" campaign to un-do some 40 years of past performance & expectations. It's an uphill battle saying "we know our product has always sucked at this, but, for our 50th anniversary, we're just gonna fix it." I mean, you'll have some customers going "cool, better late than never" but others just being cynical and/or ticked about it ("what makes you think you can fix it after failing for 50 years?" "if you coulda just fixed it all along, why didn't you? "what're you really trying to change?" "this has gotta be a trick, or a conspiracy..." etc...)
 

pemerton

Legend
I think it's also worth asking whether, in general, there is even a problem?

Do people (in general - I don't mean specific anecdotes) want to be playing at a higher level? Do they feel that something (whether mechanical or something else) is keeping them playing at those levels which they'd like to reach?

Or are people, in general, playing for an amount of time that they're happy with, with at a level of power and mechanical complexity that they're also happy with?
My gut feeling is that the answers are "there's no problem", "people don't want to be playing at a higher level", "they don't feel that there's something keeping them from levels they'd like to reach", "people are in general playing in ways and with a degree of complexity that they're happy with".

For most people I think the function of the higher levels is like the extra options on the stereo or washing machine - it makes them feel good about the product, but it's not something they actually get around to using.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If level gain isn't going to make a significant mechanical difference to the play of the game, what's it for?
Ya know, when in a mood to wander down some off-the-farm rabbit holes, this might be a good one in which to find a rabbit or two. :) So, be vewwy vewwy qwiet...

What if, instead of trying to limit wealth by level and magic items carried and so forth, one went whole-hog the other way and made it that wealth and items acquired through adventuring become the primary if not only source of character power increase, with levelling tossed in the bin?

Certainly puts an end to most of the meat-vs-fatigue hit point debates, as a character wouldn't have to have very many hit points and once set those h.p. would never (or very rarely) increase from there. Starting h.p. wouldn't be determined by class any more, or not nearly as much as now, though character race would have a say: smaller races wouldn't get quite as many h.p. on average as larger. Also, h.p. could and would all be at least partly 'meat', based on the assumption that your h.p. do in fact reflect your ability to withstand injury and-or your pain thrshold. One could also fairly easily set whatever recovery rate one desired; and the need at high level for gobs of curing spells/devices or unrealistic recovery rates would largely disappear.

Level drain goes away, replaced by loss of wealth in the Bad Thing category.

Class could remain, in some form, with some items only working for - or working much better for - some particular classes. (1e D&D kind of waved at this with a few items but didn't go very far with it)

Then to control both the power level and the campaign length, all a DM has to do is control the amount of available wealth and the specifics of available magic items.

Probably 'out there' enough to not be D&D any more, but what if? :)
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
My gut feeling is that the answers are "there's no problem", "people don't want to be playing at a higher level", "they don't feel that there's something keeping them from levels they'd like to reach", "people are in general playing in ways and with a degree of complexity that they're happy with".

For most people I think the function of the higher levels is like the extra options on the stereo or washing machine - it makes them feel good about the product, but it's not something they actually get around to using.
I agree with this and I also suspect that after completing an AP or getting to what ever level, most people would prefer to try out a new character than to push on to higher levels.
 

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