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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

Mistwell

Legend
3) Assume WoTC wants to corner the market on a supplement targeting players in the 10-20 level character range and selectively released misleading statistics to their third party competitors.

Edit: oh, I meant "partners."

Your theory fails the occam's razor test though as several people have already named more likely reasons and you have no evidence supporting your theory over theirs.
 

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The survey would have given WotC the shape of the distribution. From there, we... Assume that WotC could look at that distribution, and get basically the right idea.
The right basic idea is, obviously "our soon-to-be-customers don't play high level." Which had been a truism for some time.
It's the assertion that truism wasn't the result of the slow advancement, lack of challenge or ever-worsening balance, as you left the sweet spot, that I didn't find compelling.

WotC got rid of the vast exp targets after name level, and came out with an epic-level handbook, so there must've been something in their data to suggest some interest in such things.
OTOH, they contracted the sweet spot and made class balance the worst it'd ever be, spurring the community to come up with E6.

So, while we might infer what unrealesed data might have suggested based on the actions taken in response to it, it might be a mistake to assume infallibility on their part, when trying to do so, much as it might simplify the exercise.
 

Mistwell

Legend
Hanlon's Razor, and my theory didn't disagree with any of the reasons people brought up.

Don't cite the deep magic to me, witch. ;)


Yes but that doesn't make it a good theory. "Aliens used mind control to make WOTC/DMS Guild publish a false set of data for the nefarious purpose of not educating RPG players on how to slay high level monsters which come dangerously close to being similar to the aliens who are planning to invade earth" is also a theory which doesn't disagree with the reasons people brought up - but which is not a good or likely theory. So the likelihood of the theory remains a meaningful element here in evaluating the data. I just don't see why yours is in even the top ten of likelihood.
 

Tiggerunner

Explorer
Yes but that doesn't make it a good theory. "Aliens used mind control to make WOTC/DMS Guild publish a false set of data for the nefarious purpose of not educating RPG players on how to slay high level monsters which come dangerously close to being similar to the aliens who are planning to invade earth" is also a theory which doesn't disagree with the reasons people brought up - but which is not a good or likely theory. So the likelihood of the theory remains a meaningful element here in evaluating the data. I just don't see why yours is in even the top ten of likelihood.

Except in this case, the aliens appeared.
 





The right basic idea is, obviously "our soon-to-be-customers don't play high level." Which had been a truism for some time.
It's the assertion that truism wasn't the result of the slow advancement, lack of challenge or ever-worsening balance, as you left the sweet spot, that I didn't find compelling.

WotC got rid of the vast exp targets after name level, and came out with an epic-level handbook, so there must've been something in their data to suggest some interest in such things.
OTOH, they contracted the sweet spot and made class balance the worst it'd ever be, spurring the community to come up with E6.

So, while we might infer what unrealesed data might have suggested based on the actions taken in response to it, it might be a mistake to assume infallibility on their part, when trying to do so, much as it might simplify the exercise.
e6?
 

Tiggerunner

Explorer
I don't have the time or patience to dig for it. Would you link it?

I'll summarize, and then I'm out for the rest of the conversation.

Basically, I took issue with the non-representative sample, and was pointing out how the data was skewed, and myself, and a lot of other people listed reasons for the bias. Most of which, I agree with. I was ready to chalk it up to idiot market research, but then the head developer for the app chimed in out of the blue and started defending the spurious data set for reasons he had to know were bogus, and when pressed he cited data sets that are not released to the public. Which then changed my mind, the data is deliberately misleading because it's not only spurious, but it's being propagated by the company that knows it is.

So, I would have agreed with you, if you had commented before the alien showed up and tried to tell me there was nothing to see here.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Was it 40 million active players or 40 million players who ever played the game at some point?
I'm inclined to think – based on comparison to other numbers being reported in last couple years – that is 40 million who have ever played D&D. But I honestly don't know.

I remember there was a 2017 statement from Chris Cocks (President and CEO at WotC) during the Intel Buzz Workshop – here it is! – at the 27:28 mark – in which he says there are 9.5 million active tabletop 5e D&D players.
 

PMárk

Explorer
All this is saying to me is that very few people plays long-term campaigns with 5e. Which, considering its main target audience, isn't surprising. The game itself isn't really catered to that, even. Character costumization being front-loaded, with very little on mid-high levels. Not much in terms of opponents, hard cap on usable magic items, etc.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It's the assertion that truism wasn't the result of the slow advancement, lack of challenge or ever-worsening balance, as you left the sweet spot, that I didn't find compelling.

Well, now as we speculate, I think that's where that really low average number of sessions comes in. That number is so low, with respect to 1e and 2e advancement, that I don't think the items you list were the problem. I'm open to a well-reasoned analysis that says otherwise, but plain assertion doesn't do it for me.

WotC got rid of the vast exp targets after name level, and came out with an epic-level handbook, so there must've been something in their data to suggest some interest in such things.

Sure. For both 3e and 4e they do seem to have designed for folks to be able to experience the full breadth of levels in far fewer sessions than 1e or 2e.

OTOH, they contracted the sweet spot and made class balance the worst it'd ever be, spurring the community to come up with E6.

I think that has absolutely nothing to do with intent to short change upper level play, and more to do with how playtesting at appropriate scale wasn't a thing at the time.

So, while we might infer what unrealesed data might have suggested based on the actions taken in response to it, it might be a mistake to assume infallibility on their part, when trying to do so, much as it might simplify the exercise.

Consider: Name other games that actually pull off high level, or high power play in an awesome way, without having issues crop up. They aren't common. Most games break at the upper levels of their power curve.

Thus: Do not ascribe to an act of will that which can be explained to just not accomplishing a really difficult goal.
 

Sure. For both 3e and 4e they do seem to have designed for folks to be able to experience the full breadth of levels in far fewer sessions than 1e or 2e.
See, I'm wondering if this is the best idea.

The logic seems to be, campaigns don't last that long on average, so let's compress the range, so that people cover more in the time they have. But it's possible this just exacerbates issues.

Personally, I'd much prefer to just level up more slowly, but I'd want to get something in between levels, like 13th Ages incremental advances. (In 13th Age I can go 6 sessions between levels fairly comfortably if I give an incremental advance every second session, and that can be slowed down even more at Champion Tier due to the extra hit dice - which means a 10 level game can actually go longer than the 30 levels of 4E).

In any case I've played in several campaigns that covered a lot of ground and went on for more than a year. But the only really long D&D campaign I've played was Dark Sun back in 2nd Edition where it was to the mid teens (and levelling up was starting to take a long time). The others have all been in different game systems with flatter power curves.

My personal experience is that the swift progression of modern D&D enforces change at too rapid a rate. You get into a groove doing a certain kind of thing, with characters at a certain point and then everythings changes out from under you, before what you were doing has actually worn out it's welcome, and fatigue can set in.
 
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Well, now as we speculate, I think that's where that really low average number of sessions comes in. That number is so low, with respect to 1e and 2e advancement, that I don't think the items you list were the problem.
What you're speculating, here, is that if a problem were to crop up at high level, it'd have to do so prettymuch every time, before it stopped the campaign. That no campaign would ever re-set ahead of reaching known issues. That's what'd have to be going on in order for the average campaign length to map closely to the point problems begin. That and low-level TPKs would have to be offset by longer campaigns, to keep the average length from being pulled down by /those/.

And, it's a game that'd been out for over 20 years, but your explanation of the data acts as if each and every instance of a campaign ending were a first-time reaction to discovering things about the game as you go.

It's an unconvincing interpretation.

Finally: why?

If not the qualities of the game, why would campaigns consistently re-set before getting out of the sweet spot?

Sure. For both 3e and 4e they do seem to have designed for folks to be able to experience the full breadth of levels in far fewer sessions than 1e or 2e.
And 5e. 5e's exp table speeds through the first few levels, bringing you into the sweetspot, aproximtely doubles the exp to level relative to the standard value of at-level challenges through to 11th, then speeds up again.

Consider: Name other games that actually pull off high level, or high power play in an awesome way, without having issues crop up.
Games that start & end there, like supers, rather than going zero-to-hero. Most slower-exp games with incremental advancement don't break down in long campaigns. That'd include some not-exactly 'awesome' games, like Traveler, and some fairly awesome ones, like Hero.
Heck, even D&D, briefly (4e), managed to be playable at all levels, and epic got pretty awesome.

They aren't common. Most games break at the upper levels of their power curve.
Thus: Do not ascribe to an act of will that which can be explained to just not accomplishing a really difficult goal.
I don't know where you get 'act of will.'
The issue I have with the common wisdom that "people don't play high level" is the circular reasoning/self-fulfilling prophecy where that's used as a reason not to playtest those levels nor offer much nor good quality content for them, which unsurprisingly, leads to folks not playing those levels much. (Even when a version of D&D worked at high levels, it didn't offer DM guidance & resources for those levels - and didn't stick around long enough for many campaigns to organically reach them, either.)

Anyway, yes, the data you quoted do confirm the common wisdom. They are silent as to whether that was, at the time, due to the game being bad at high levels for the preceding 25 years, (and most of the succeeding nearly 20, for that matter), or due to some essential preference for fighting animated skeletons* and giant rats, baked into the human psyche since time immemorial, or simply due to the logistical difficulty of getting the same 6 people to show up every week for years... ;)









* animated skeletons were one of the things that sold me on D&D, BTW, since they evoked Harryhausen's famed skeleton sword-fights in 7th Voyage and Jason & the Argonauts. ;)
 
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Pethal

Villager
I have 70 characters on DnD Beyond. Six of those are active Adventure's league characters of 1st-4th level. Four of them are active Adventure's League characters of 5th-10th level. Three of them are active adventure's League characters of 11th-15th level. Two are active Adventure's League characters of 16th-18th level. One of them are a 17th level bard I use in a home game. Most of the others are all level 3-6 experimental builds.
 


Vael

Hero
This is data that matches my own experience. My own campaigns fizzled around level 6, the highest level I've played a PC at was 9th level (the conclusion of the Curse of Strahd). Most of my PCs have made it to 3rd level, maybe, rarely 5th.

I do want published adventures that go up to 17th level or higher, I do find it easier with an adventure. I keep looking at the old 3.5 Dungeon adventure paths, like Age of Worms or Savage Tide, I'd like something like that built for 5e.
 

BadEye

Chief Development Officer at Demiplane
I'll summarize, and then I'm out for the rest of the conversation.

Basically, I took issue with the non-representative sample, and was pointing out how the data was skewed, and myself, and a lot of other people listed reasons for the bias. Most of which, I agree with. I was ready to chalk it up to idiot market research, but then the head developer for the app chimed in out of the blue and started defending the spurious data set for reasons he had to know were bogus, and when pressed he cited data sets that are not released to the public. Which then changed my mind, the data is deliberately misleading because it's not only spurious, but it's being propagated by the company that knows it is.

So, I would have agreed with you, if you had commented before the alien showed up and tried to tell me there was nothing to see here.
I'm assuming you're calling me the "alien" in this response? A bit insulting, but that never really deters me so I'll bite:

The dataset isn't spurious - I have explained here and many times elsewhere that we scrub it for active players (to the best of our reasonable ability to do so), and no one (especially not I) ever said anything other than this is data from the D&D Beyond platform. Nothing about anything I said was bogus (or deserving of being called an alien).

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.

Nothing at all is deliberately misleading, because nothing I've said or shared is misleading. It is deliberately accurate for players with active characters on DDB.

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. You don't have to believe that if you don't want to, that's your choice, but it certainly does not lend any validity to the anecdotally biased assumptions you presented about the community and what it wants.
 

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