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.

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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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Trying out a new character and pushing on to higher levels can happen side-along: just roll up a new character and continue with the same campaign.

Put another way, the currently-in-vogue paradigm of one-character-one-campaign is a self-limiting box. Why not break out of it?
 

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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? :)

There's at least one OSR game that does that. "The Blackest of Deaths". But in general I think people don't like the idea that their character is defined solely by their stuff.

On the other hand, I suspect one of the reasons players get bored is that their characters are not really defined enough by what they actually do in the game. This was a particular part of the story of early editions of D&D. I want to bring my character over from Geoff's game because he has a vorpal sword that I took off that Death Knight which almost caused a total party kill. (If I make a new character I won't have that - plus being old school I will have probably have to start again at level 1 regardless of the levels of other characters).

Once we had WBL this aspect of things got lost. There was nothing that really separated my character mechanically that I had been playing for 6 months from a new one that I just made up with level appropriate gear, so there wasn't a huge incentive to hang on to it.

I think it would be nice to have some kind of elements that needed to be developed or found through play. The Goblin Laws of Gaming has a neat little mechanic where a fighter can increase their crit range after they have killed a hundred creatures in game. The Chaosium mechanic for increasing skills is another way to do this (although how you would make this work with bounded accuracy I have no idea).

I also thought there were missed opportunities in 4th Edition. The boons rules were effectively magic items that were part of the character, and I remember thinking that there really should be a story behind how a Barbarian learnt their rages. Prestige classes in 3E could also have worked along these lines if their requirements for entry were things you had to actually do in a game rather than mechanical preconditions.

But this is one thing that I find does lead to boredom in D&D. The fact that character progression is mostly on a fixed rail that is independent on what actually happens to the PC in the game.
 
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UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Trying out a new character and pushing on to higher levels can happen side-along: just roll up a new character and continue with the same campaign.

Put another way, the currently-in-vogue paradigm of one-character-one-campaign is a self-limiting box. Why not break out of it?
I suspect that nobody has the time to run multicharacter campaigns. I also suspect that most people are not homebrewing also. Again mostly due to personal time constraints.
 

pemerton

Legend
I suspect that nobody has the time to run multicharacter campaigns. I also suspect that most people are not homebrewing also. Again mostly due to personal time constraints.
I would add (as my own conjecture) - and due to lack of interest.

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?
This sounds like Classic Traveller. I can say from experience that my players do miss the PC improvement aspect. (And I think this was a known issue back in the late 70s/early 80s.)
 

Anoth

Adventurer
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.
That has never made sense to me or my group of long term players. It is an example of how sometimes you can’t fathom the minds of other people. As long as they are having a good time, that’s all that’s important.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
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?
I think there's a problem only if there's a contingent of players that want the tropes of high level play (planeswalking, fighting powerful demons, liches, and dragons) without the attendant mechanical complexity.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think there's a problem only if there's a contingent of players that want the tropes of high level play (planeswalking, fighting powerful demons, liches, and dragons) without the attendant mechanical complexity.
I think there may well be some such players (hard to know, but they are cool tropes). But I think (in proportionate terms) there are not that many GMs. I think the tropes of that sort of play can be hard to reconcile with typical approaches to GMing D&D.
 

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?
Coincidentally, that's about how - through the power of total ignorance - my first D&D group did it.

"Level? I don't know, just roll it..."

And, it did end up all about collecting magic items.
 

I find the idea that there isn't a way to determine what characters are active. There is certainly a way but it would require keeping update statistics on them. A character that is leveled up with time jumps between level ups and intermittent modifications in between is probably a "real" played character.

If DDB wanted to know this information, they could. It would not be foolproof, but it would be sufficient for analysis.
 

One thing that occurred to me, is that if people aren't playing high level characters because a campaign dies off prematurely (ie, before intended) that is not the same thing as if a character was only intended to be played up to a certain level.

So the question is, are people not playing high level characters because even though they intend to, they start at level 1 and the campaign dies first? Or are people not playing high level characters because they don't want to (or their DM doesn't want to run games for them)?

The first case is more difficult to deal with, but as far as getting more use out of those levels, I'm a strong proponent of playing adventures and campaigns at the level that makes sense, rather than insisting on starting a character at level 1.

Three examples I ran early in 5e:
-A theme adventure (10 sessions I believe) for a party of four 10th-level questing knights in shining armor. (One Devotion Paladin, one Battle Master Fighter, one War Cleric, one Hunter Ranger.)
-A "Savage Kings" theme adventure (about 15 sessions) where the players each played a giant ruler (all the true giant types except stone) in the ancient times when dragons and giants ruled the world. I had to make up some sort of makeshift ECL thing to do it, so the Storm Giant ended up 6 class levels (bard) while the Hill Giant ended up with 15 class levels (barbarian) and I estimated the characters were all about equivalent to 20th level.
-A 20th-level one shot (that took 2 or 3 sessions) where one of the characters was a resurrected PC from our Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign that ended in almost a TPK (survival tip--don't chase the dragon down for a rematch when it knows you're coming and has time to prepare for you), and the rest of them were brand new 20th level characters that the players just wanted to play with.

Playing from 1-20 in a single campaign is a great ideal (and I'm going to do it with my current campaign, even if it takes literally 20 years (and it probably will)), but since it isn't practical for most people in a normal play style, there need to be other options on people's minds.

Here's a really simple method: career snapshots. Let's say you have a campaign you want to play in a year or something and want to get all the way to 20th (or whatever) level. Instead of the crazy forced super-fast XP of 5e, and/or expecting more sessions than you'll actually do, just have the campaign focus on certain parts of the characters's adventuring career, and say that there are months and years in-between those. Skip to the levels that you want to play. So maybe you play four sessions at 1st level, then advance the clock a couple of years and play eight sessions at 5th level, then six at 10th, eight at 15th where you hit the adventure climax, and then two or three at 20th for a brief follow-up to see what happened in the aftermath and play with 20th level toys. Now you've run a 1-20 campaign in less than 30 sessions (and without having to level up after each session). And you could do a lot less sessions and completely different level ranges.

All of this stuff needs to become more common. Starting at 1st level should be a choice, not an expectation.

If people want to play higher levels, but aren't getting to, that's a problem, and that's why I recommend solutions. If people just don't want to play at higher levels, that may be a problem (if the game is making those level less enjoyable) or it may just be a preference for a playstyle that doesn't scale well into higher level.

High level play needs to be different. If playing at high level is the same basic experience as playing at low level, just with bigger numbers and more stuff, then I find it quite likely that you will be bored before you get there. "Another fight against a bunch of goblins led by a goblin boss? Demons led by a balor, whatever, same diff." High level play should involve changes in expectations. Different sorts of challenges that can't be solved by straight up combat. Perhaps political intrigue, leading armies in battle, traveling the multiverse attempting to unravel divination-resistant mysteries, etc. But a 6-8 encounter adventuring day just isn't believable at high level very often (if you are fighting in the Blood War, where it makes perfect sense to run into fights with dozens of high CR opponents that are a challenge even for a 20th level party, that's one of the few times this does work--and perhaps more products supporting setting believable high-level combat challenges like that would be nice). You need to change the play style to something else. Again, if the reason that isn't happening is people few people enjoy those variant play styles, then that's just preference and cool.

I think I had more to say but I lost my train of thought. The point is, I don't think we should just shrug and say, "Oh well, I guess we should just forget about high-level, since no one is using it". There are so many more interesting ways to bring high-level play to our tables and enhance our D&D experiences by thinking outside of the "start at 1st-level, play until you get bored" box.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Put another way, the currently-in-vogue paradigm of one-character-one-campaign is a self-limiting box. Why not break out of it?
I played a lot of "ensemble cast" kind of D&D over the years. IMO this is often a lot better than the zero-to-hero one character per campaign approach. It can be very hard to sustain interest in a character over that long of a stretch, although rebuilding can help as can having the DM focus on a lot of story awards rather than just power boost. In addition, it's can often really push against the secondary reality that the same group of characters would stick together the whole time. In the "ensemble cast" approach, each player has a stable of some PCs but in general the rule is you only have one PC at a time, possibly bolstered by the presence of some allies (often of markedly lower power). This works really well for the right group of players IMO.
 

Put another way, the currently-in-vogue paradigm of one-character-one-campaign is a self-limiting box. Why not break out of it?
Because it's more work than people are willing to go to, or groups aren't willing to run two different campaigns concurrently, or people can only find one group to join, or...

You act as though gaming and free time are infinitely-deep wells from which one may draw.
 

ChaosOS

Legend
As someone who helps run a West Marches discord server (set in Eberron), attention spans are what I see cause character swaps. We actually removed the character change and rebuild penalties just because there was a consensus that it didn't really create value to force people to stick to characters they were done with.
 

jayoungr

Legend
On the other hand, I suspect one of the reasons players get bored is that their characters are not really defined enough by what they actually do in the game.
Do you mean mechanically? As in, "I can make 100 Stealth checks, but my Stealth score never goes up even though I'm practicing like crazy"?

But this is one thing that I find does lead to boredom in D&D. The fact that character progression is mostly on a fixed rail that is independent on what actually happens to the PC in the game.
I'll be honest: the idea of that making or breaking a player's interest, rather than the story your character engages with, is completely foreign to me. Character progression for me is just incidental bookkeeping, not the focus of the game.
 
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Anoth

Adventurer
I played a lot of "ensemble cast" kind of D&D over the years. IMO this is often a lot better than the zero-to-hero one character per campaign approach. It can be very hard to sustain interest in a character over that long of a stretch, although rebuilding can help as can having the DM focus on a lot of story awards rather than just power boost. In addition, it's can often really push against the secondary reality that the same group of characters would stick together the whole time. In the "ensemble cast" approach, each player has a stable of some PCs but in general the rule is you only have one PC at a time, possibly bolstered by the presence of some allies (often of markedly lower power). This works really well for the right group of players IMO.
That’s a good way of doing it. Personally I liked retainers or henchman. I even had one that had a very high intelligence that became his leader in all but name because he was coming up with the plans. And it’s really fun if there is a chance that one may turn on you.
 

Do you mean mechanically? As in, "I can make 100 Stealth checks, but my Stealth score never goes up even though I'm practicing like crazy"?


Gotta be honest: the idea of that making or breaking a player's interest, rather than the story your character engages with, is completely foreign to me. Character progression for me is just incidental bookkeeping, not the focus of the game.
I find in most of the long non-D&D games I've played and run over time, characters have spread and morphed and adjusted to the changing direction of the game. In my Deadlands game the gunslinger decided he was sick of just being a one note character and made the decision that he was going to get religion and start picking up blessed abilities - sort of like the development of the man with no name to the preacher in Pale Rider. In short he multi-classed as cleric but in a system where that was easier to do to the degree that he wanted and didn't penalise hiim for not planning to do that from the start.

In fact this is a common thing in many games, pcs get established in the setting and start morphing themselves around organisations that interest them and taking abilities that reflect them. They join priesthoods or knighthoods and the like. Prestige classes were meant to fill this role in 3E (this IIRC was explicitly stated as one the goals in the 3.0 DMG) but they were desgined badly with restrictive mechanical requirements that needed to be planned for. (And they became generic splats that didn't tie characters to settings.)

I find this is the case in 5E as well. In most games I see players start to get to around level 5 or 6 and they begin flicking through books and thinking about multiclassing. They get to the point where the character is basically established and they start looking for ways to grow or branch out, to learn new tricks and take their character in a slightly different direction.
 

Ogre Mage

Adventurer
So the question is, are people not playing high level characters because even though they intend to, they start at level 1 and the campaign dies first? Or are people not playing high level characters because they don't want to (or their DM doesn't want to run games for them)?

The first case is more difficult to deal with, but as far as getting more use out of those levels, I'm a strong proponent of playing adventures and campaigns at the level that makes sense, rather than insisting on starting a character at level 1.

In our case DM burnout has generally been the demise of our campaigns. And I think the difficulty of balancing encounters for high level characters is part of that. The characters are getting really powerful just as burnout from running a long campaign is becoming significant. In my experience, the large majority of DMs can provide a well-balanced and well-crafted challenge for 5th level PCs. But 15th level PCs? In my experience not many can.

I agree that it should not be a given that a campaign start at level 1. My group generally starts at levels 3-5. I think that is one reason why our campaigns usually last till levels 13-16, while the data would suggest most campaigns fall apart by 11.
 
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OldeTalamar

Villager
I am just getting into 5e but I had a level 1 through level 20 Battle Arena made to teach my sons' math on 3e so playing whatever level really is just a state of mind. I plan on making something the same for 5e. Top notch rewards cost millions by the time they were done but they made Billions. Numbers are just a point value followed by however many zeros make your players smile. Level 1 or level 20 combat can be exciting and unique or boring and repetitive depending on players and DM. Now it's hard to make stuff balanced universally at high levels because no 20th level wizard or fighter is the same every 1st level wizard has variation times that by 20 levels. Each DM has to customize to his players if they want that epic feel that's is appropriate to there actual Challenge Rating. That custom variation at low levels isn't so necesary as abilities and unique magical items aren't as varied at low levels as at high levels. Hard to make a balanced published campaign at those epic and legendary levels. Best to make to suit for epic level characters by a DM willing to put the time in.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
That’s a good way of doing it. Personally I liked retainers or henchman. I even had one that had a very high intelligence that became his leader in all but name because he was coming up with the plans. And it’s really fun if there is a chance that one may turn on you.
The other cool thing is that retainers can become PCs if someone finds them compelling enough. One of my favorite PCs, the halfling fighter Buckminster "Bucky" Burrmaster II, started that way. He had a fairly short career from level 5 to level 7 (this was in 2E Greyhawk), having rebelled against the halfling system to be a mercenary and not "respectable." He smoked, drank, wenched, and tore it up like a beast. However, when another retainer who was his friend was one-shotted by a demon, he decided to cash out and get married! Two different PCs were introduced at the wedding and I played his grandson Buckminster Burrmaster IV later on in a different campaign. I love ensemble cast for a more sandbox-style game, but it really demands a lot of the players and I suspect it wouldn't work for folks I play with now.

Another model that works nicely is "A Team/B Team". This is where there's some bigger story going on and players have two characters. However, only one is focused on at a time. They don't even need to be of the same level or know each other, just engaging in related stories.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Trying out a new character and pushing on to higher levels can happen side-along: just roll up a new character and continue with the same campaign.

Put another way, the currently-in-vogue paradigm of one-character-one-campaign is a self-limiting box. Why not break out of it?

In the same session? I think most of us would find the split attention to lessen the experience of play. YMMV.

In different sessions? How much time do you have to play RPGs, that you can play multiple characters in the same campaign and have either of them get any where in reasonable time?
 

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