D&D 5E Running 5e at high Levels

I'll say that the long combats at high levels don't feel like the combats at low levels. If you build the combat well, you have lots of engaging, changling elements throughout; you're basically doing a string of encounters contained within one bigger, greater encounter.

Frame it like this: at low levels, you need to clear the dungeon out over several encounters. At high levels, you clear the ENTIRE dungeon (not megadungeons) in one big encounter blast through.

log in or register to remove this ad

One thing that drags on combats, is too many creatures, all taking their turns. High level party of 3-4 pc vs 1-2 opponent takes just slightly more time at level 15-20 than on lower levels. It runs even faster if players know their characters well and have decent system mastery.
Takes me about 45 minutes to do a solo boss, about an hour for two boss-like creatures, at higher levels. So about 15 minutes longer at higher levels which, IMO, is fine; the combats with the bosses are much more involved and engaging.

So yes, this is also true.


I don't play 5e anymore but GMed two long 1-20 campaigns. And looking back, I wish I had switched to a dedicated supers system after level 14ish. Neither monster abilities (boring at the best of times) nor the rules or combat system really work at the highest levels when the players become true superheroes. And I don't blame anyone - a game system that is pretty good for farmers punching goblins and the lvl 3-12 sweet spot range doesn't have to work for supers play. But I think a superhero system way of building both characters and opposition would be better for tier 4 play.


Our 3 player lv15 party took down CR18 boss in aprox 10 minutes. Ok, our characters are meat grinders optimized for dishing out punishment ( and my totem barbarian is damage sponge with decent ac and resistance to all damage). I never had encounter run longer than 20-30 minutes.


So the WotC’s first high level campaign book comes out at the same time as I’m just finishing the Age of Worms 1-20 campaign that Paizo published for D&D 3e in the pages of Dungeon Magazine.

I’ve been lucky to have a really good online group of four players who have the balance between roleplay and combat efficiency. They get into character, they explore, they have a little knowledge about the settings but haven’t played stuff before. It’s a great combination.

The campaign was an absolute blast from levels 1-12 some of the best gaming I’ve experienced. It’s a great, original and fascinating adventure path. Unfortunately it breaks down with the 7th installment for level 13-15 PCs, which essentially involves a set of combats followed by visions. There are options for roleplay solutions but those solutions require setting evil creatures free so aren’t really an option. So the entire adventure turns into a combat fest.

That was followed up with a playful chapter involving a feast and some RP challenges which was a lot of fun, surrounded by a load of filler combats which weren’t so fun. The following chapter involved five combat challenges that led to a vision. By this point at 17th level these combat are taking so long to resolve that in a 2 to 2 1/2 hour session a single combat is taking up half to two thirds of it even on VTT. Where we would normally get through 2-3 in the same time at early levels. That’s a problem - particularly for a group likes a mix.

Second issue is that challenge becomes extremely difficult because the difference between TPK and barely denting the PCs fees very close. A CR 17 creature is definitely not a challenge for a party of four level 17 PCs unless it is tailored to their destruction. So I’m running CR 20+ creatures against them.

Third issue as we enter Tier 4 and everything gets more fantastical there is a lot more jumping about. Knowledge of the area, politics, special circumstances etc becomes reduced therefore there is less opportunity to find satisfying RP solutions. Also the presence of existential evil alongside this is more likely to lead to combat solutions.

All in all it’s a quandary and it it meant I decided to skip 10th and 11th chapters and head straight to the finale which we are all meeting up to run in person in two weeks time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a blast, but one which has definitely run its course. My main aim now is to finish it as well as I can. Remove about 3/4 of the combat encounters and end with a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

Anyone else found these problems in any D&D adjacent system? Or their own games. Any solutions or experiences of your own, you want to share? I’m really interested as a player to see how Vecna works with me as a player. I hope they can avoid some of these pitfalls. Please don’t add Vecna spoilers for specific details though.
I skipped the adventure in the pyramid with the visions and I'm just about to start the giant adventure at the rift just as soon as they have freed Geoff from the yolk of the giant invasion (we flip flop on plot threads). It is quite hard to balance, especially as one of the PCs is a barbarian with toughness so his actual hp thanks to raging are roughly 4 times the other PCs. I can't put him at risk without killing everyone else. I think 5.5e might help fix the issue by removing resistance to all damage while raging. Not sure if that will be enough. That said, I just tweaked the adventure finale to the Wells of Darkness for a fight with a CR19 star spawn and that proved to be a challenge for everyone.

Our 3 player lv15 party took down CR18 boss in aprox 10 minutes. Ok, our characters are meat grinders optimized for dishing out punishment ( and my totem barbarian is damage sponge with decent ac and resistance to all damage). I never had encounter run longer than 20-30 minutes.
Mine run a bit longer by design. Usually about 5 rounds, I Have strategic objectives, the solo makes multiple turns, usually have two health bars. If yours takes 30 minutes for a typical boss CR 18, it makes since that the ones I trick out take 15-30 minutes more.


We have the Travel Rest which recovers 1/2 HD but then we have abilities that can be sourced by HD and Exhaustion levels (the latter in desperate situations).

I was thinking more along the lines of recovery for things like spells and other abilities as well not just HP. I understand why we have things that recharge on a short rest, others on a long rest I just wish we had something in-between.


No, solo bosses are around 10-15. Usually by round 3 they are dead. Combats with multiple oponents on the other hand last longer. That's why i switched from packs of lover CR oponents to only one or two with higher. I try to optimize combats to be short and sweet. We all have PTSD from 1.5+ hour long encouters in 3.x/PF1.

But if you aim for 5 rounds, that 45 min sounds about right.


I'm curious for those of you running quite a bit of high-level 5e D&D (@wedgeski @Oofta @TheSword and others), what do you notice being the main contributor to longer combat time at high level specifically?

Is it mainly monster HP bloat outpacing PC damage? Or is there more going on that's a larger factor?

HP bloat can be countered by more damage potential on both sides. It adds to the math a bit, so if you aren't good at doing math in your head that can be an issue. We had one guy that was a lot of fun but simply had issues with math, eventually we made him a spreadsheet so he could just look at what he rolled and see what AC he hit. Then we let him use average damage (he was playing a fighter) with a couple of columns based on what type of attack he was doing.

Other sources of slowdown
  • Too many options for some players, especially those that are worried about doing the optimal thing every turn.
  • Multiple attacks and people that insist on rolling one die at a time.
  • The DM having more monster abilities and things to track from legendary resistances to reactions and recharge abilities.
  • Spells and other abilities that interrupt turns.
  • The combat tends to be more dynamic and fluid making it more difficult for people to plan ahead.
Those are the kind of things I can think of off the top of my head. On the other hand, I don't see that much difference in speed of encounters from, say 5-10 being that much different from 15-20. From the DM side of things I have to spend a bit more time reviewing a monster's abilities. To speed things up I frequently write down quick notes like what the monster is likely to use first and a quick note on what they can do, especially for casters. For example I may write a 1 line note about an ability or reminder of what a specific spell does. I may also give a bit of thought to basic tactics that I add to my encounter notes. Monsters always do average damage.

On either side of the DM screen it can really speed up the game if you roll multiple dice at once. Also an excuse to have more dice so you can color code them for the win. :)

There is an alternative if the higher levels are an issue. A lot of the balance issues at high levels have to do with the actual levels. Such as spells and abilities the players have access to.

You can actually dodge a lot of these issues and still have the same "plot lines" and enemies. You can do this by subbing in magic items for levels. The math in 5e is predictable and elegant with almost everything based on proficiency bonus and ability modifiers.

Knowledge of this same math, how everything from DC to "to hit," is based on the same 6 numbers, also benefits encounter design and balance.

So what I've started doing is just not playing at high levels per say. But raising the power of the magic items I give to compensate. Watching a entertaining combat between level 12s and a CR 24 is weird in some ways. But those level 12s are level 20 in power due to the items I gave them.

I hope this is a helpful Idea for someone :D. I've found it's almost a game changer for me.

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads