D&D General So what is high level play like?

Vael

Legend
... And how often have you played at higher levels?

Because TBH, while I have played DnD since 3.5, it was only 4e that got to upper levels, as I had a campaign get to mid-Paragon Tier, and we played a few Epic One-shots. And even there, since I did a lot of Organized play in 4e ... I'd say the vast majority of my time playing DnD 4e was below 5th level.

I never got to play past level 6 in 3.5, and I've gotten to 9th or 10th level in 5e twice (Curse of Strahd and Descent into Avernus) before those campaigns wrapped up.

And I wouldn't call myself an irregular player, I've had a stable RPG group that's managed to play mostly weekly for over 5 years now. But between changing campaigns/DMs/Systems ... high level play is something I've not done.

So, first ... is this a common experience? Do you play primarily at low or high levels? How is higher level play different?
 

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S'mon

Legend
IME, the best high level DMs don't try to control everything, but instead let their imaginations run amuck. High level is gonzo, and the game works far better if you lean into this and embrace it, rather than trying to fight against it. If you have plans, expect that the players will derail them in unexpected ways. The best approach I've found is actually to plan as little as possible. Create challenges, not solutions, and trust that the players will figure out a solution (because odds are, they will, and seeing what they come up with is part of the fun). And don't get upset if they figure out a way to easily overcome a challenge. The challenge essentially exists to be overcome and you effectively have infinite challenges at your disposal.

That's good advice. Of course it also needs players willing to step up to the challenge!
 

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Fanaelialae

Legend
That's good advice. Of course it also needs players willing to step up to the challenge!
IME, the players will step up. It gives them a chance to show off all the cool things their character can do, which is the sort of thing that (IME) virtually every player enjoys. Some groups may debate the particulars for most of the session (my newbie group was like this, but they were having a blast so it wasn't an issue) but I've never met a group of high level players that simply wouldn't step up to challenges.
 

pogre

Legend
I have run a lot of high level D&D - particularly in 3rd and 5th edition. Most of my 5e campaigns go to tier 4 (4 out of the last 5). The game changes in fun ways for us - they very much become super heroes.

I agree with what has been said to a point - the game in terms of motivations and direction is generally very player character driven - it actually reduces my prep.

However, when we are headed for a big fight in the campaign at levels 17+ I throw CRs out the window. For my group, which are a bunch of guys who are fairly tactical, I design encounters to kill them. Not overwhelmingly destroy them by DM fiat, but a ridiculously challenging encounter. They usually mop the floor with the enemy - close calls are particularly tense and exciting.

High Level Adventures
We played through Dungeon of the Mad Mage. We enjoyed it. The lowest levels are not particularly challenging.

If you don't mind 3rd party, I have gotten some mileage out of Uncaged Goddesses. I also thought Finders/Keepers was a good module.
 

nevin

Hero
I've played and DM'd a number of high level (19+) campaigns in 5e (and 3e).

The biggest problem I've seen is when the DM needs to always feel in control. For example, it's much harder to railroad a high level party; it requires a much heavier hand than a low level party, and effectively removes any real ability for such a DM to claim plausible neutrality.

IME, the best high level DMs don't try to control everything, but instead let their imaginations run amuck. High level is gonzo, and the game works far better if you lean into this and embrace it, rather than trying to fight against it. If you have plans, expect that the players will derail them in unexpected ways. The best approach I've found is actually to plan as little as possible. Create challenges, not solutions, and trust that the players will figure out a solution (because odds are, they will, and seeing what they come up with is part of the fun). And don't get upset if they figure out a way to easily overcome a challenge. The challenge essentially exists to be overcome and you effectively have infinite challenges at your disposal.

I wouldn't want to run/play high levels exclusively, but I genuinely enjoy it when I do.

This.... With high level play the DM is herding cats while controlling crises and trying to keep track of which gods care about what, which kingdoms care about what etc etc etc. If you want to control what the players are doing you will be miserable. You also have to remember things like, when the high level fighter raises their banner armies form, other hero's follow them, at that point politics, how the world perceives the hero's all of those things and more come into play. If you just throw high level monsters around it's a sad sad shadow of what high level should be.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Easy to play, hard to DM.

I've made it to level 20 as a player a few times now. And yeah, it's kinda gonzo.

The PCs in my Mad Mage game just hit level 15. That's the highest I've DMed for so far in 5e. (Previous record was level 14 at the end of Tyranny of Dragons. Otherwise my campaigns usually end around levels 10-12 if not lower.) One of my players is keen to make it to level 20 at least once, and Mad Mage is the easiest adventure in which to do it. I don't know that I'll DM much beyond levels 10-12 again after this. It gets really hard to challenge the PCs because they have so many "I win" buttons and "get out of jail free" cards.
It's very important for the DM to shift gears at high level and reduce the importance of combat. Combats can still happen and be enjoyable, but if combat is too large a component of the adventure, those "I win" buttons will dominate.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
For many years, I made the mistake of thinking that D&D adventures need to challenge the players. I would carefully look at the average numbers of the party, keep track of powerful abilities, and make sure that certain things were always true (not a comprehensive list):

*Anyone who has any business making attack rolls can hit enemies a reasonable percentage of the time (at least 25%, but usually more like 40%). This means AC numbers could only rise above this threshold for major threats.
*Encounters cannot be instantly won by the use of a single ability.
*Encounters only occasionally directly challenge the weak points of a player. Examples: a player is a monk or dual-wielding, and their damage is basically "death of a thousand cuts", only rarely should they have to face enemies that deal damage to them for having the nerve to attack or have 3e/PF1e style DR that they cannot bypass. A caster with mostly fire spells shouldn't often have to face fire immune enemies.
*Enemies should always have one saving throw that casters can reliably count on to fail (again, probably about 60% chance or better to get a spell off).

And so on. I spent hours on encounter and enemy design, tweaking numbers and making sure I had done my due diligence to be tough, but fair. And what always happened was, right around level 12 or so, everything fell apart. The only way I could challenge player characters was by being decidedly unfair. AC's would keep rising to the point that secondary combatants might as well not even roll dice, immunities and resistances were all over the place, and the game became a slog. And often, despite my best efforts, encounters would either be easily defeated or risk a TPK, it was impossible to find a sweet spot. So I'd get frustrated, rant about it, ask my players what I should do, get no real help from them, lol, and finally stop running.

What I've finally come to realize is that, at a certain point, it's not about challenging the players. They've gained power and abilities in good measure, they can take on everything. So at high levels, it's not about that. It's about entertaining them with fantastical adventures, and letting them have their wish fulfillment of taking on demon princes and dragon kings. Time to stop applying the brakes and make the game more about the story than any attempt to keep running the game the way you did at lower levels.

A high level Fighter should be able to take on armies. So let them; the time that they can be challenged by 1-5 other randos is over.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
For many years, I made the mistake of thinking that D&D adventures need to challenge the players. I would carefully look at the average numbers of the party, keep track of powerful abilities, and make sure that certain things were always true (not a comprehensive list):

*Anyone who has any business making attack rolls can hit enemies a reasonable percentage of the time (at least 25%, but usually more like 40%). This means AC numbers could only rise above this threshold for major threats.
*Encounters cannot be instantly won by the use of a single ability.
*Encounters only occasionally directly challenge the weak points of a player. Examples: a player is a monk or dual-wielding, and their damage is basically "death of a thousand cuts", only rarely should they have to face enemies that deal damage to them for having the nerve to attack or have 3e/PF1e style DR that they cannot bypass. A caster with mostly fire spells shouldn't often have to face fire immune enemies.
*Enemies should always have one saving throw that casters can reliably count on to fail (again, probably about 60% chance or better to get a spell off).

And so on. I spent hours on encounter and enemy design, tweaking numbers and making sure I had done my due diligence to be tough, but fair. And what always happened was, right around level 12 or so, everything fell apart. The only way I could challenge player characters was by being decidedly unfair. AC's would keep rising to the point that secondary combatants might as well not even roll dice, immunities and resistances were all over the place, and the game became a slog. And often, despite my best efforts, encounters would either be easily defeated or risk a TPK, it was impossible to find a sweet spot. So I'd get frustrated, rant about it, ask my players what I should do, get no real help from them, lol, and finally stop running.

What I've finally come to realize is that, at a certain point, it's not about challenging the players. They've gained power and abilities in good measure, they can take on everything. So at high levels, it's not about that. It's about entertaining them with fantastical adventures, and letting them have their wish fulfillment of taking on demon princes and dragon kings. Time to stop applying the brakes and make the game more about the story than any attempt to keep running the game the way you did at lower levels.

A high level Fighter should be able to take on armies. So let them; the time that they can be challenged by 1-5 other randos is over.
Is that fun for you, as the DM? Just enabling the fantasies of the players?
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Is that fun for you, as the DM? Just enabling the fantasies of the players?
Well not just theirs; I love telling wild fantasy stories, it's why I started to DM in the first place. But yeah, I mean, what else is there? Get into an arms race with my players? Constantly counter the things they think are fun in order to preserve some semblance of challenge when they have abilities to do end runs around just about anything I can think of?

At high levels, characters should be able to pick and choose the challenges they want to tackle, and plan accordingly, not the other way around; they certainly have the tools to do so.

Even in 4e, which was probably the best version of D&D for me to run, where encounter design was a breeze, by level 21, the DM should just sit back and let the players take a victory lap. When I played in the Scales of War adventure path, by level 22, the DM couldn't stop us from winning. We once did a boss fight missing two party members. Not only that, but the boss was very powerful, and you had to perform skill checks to weaken it. Lacking the right skills, we failed all of them. And we still ended up winning! That was our last session, as the DM threw in the towel after that.

The session before, we had to go up against a powerful ghost vampire that was incorporeal, and my Ranger spent his first turn turn making her stunned, dazed, slowed, prone, and removing her incorporeal status with my Ghost-Grinding Powder, and, having wrapped the boss up in a bow, proceeded to tell my party to do their worst.

They did, and I didn't get a second turn. The DM admitted he'd forgotten I'd even had that magic item.

So yeah, it's either tear out what little hair I have left, or sit back and enjoy the ride until the movie ends.
 

Oofta

Legend
For many years, I made the mistake of thinking that D&D adventures need to challenge the players. I would carefully look at the average numbers of the party, keep track of powerful abilities, and make sure that certain things were always true (not a comprehensive list):

*Anyone who has any business making attack rolls can hit enemies a reasonable percentage of the time (at least 25%, but usually more like 40%). This means AC numbers could only rise above this threshold for major threats.
*Encounters cannot be instantly won by the use of a single ability.
*Encounters only occasionally directly challenge the weak points of a player. Examples: a player is a monk or dual-wielding, and their damage is basically "death of a thousand cuts", only rarely should they have to face enemies that deal damage to them for having the nerve to attack or have 3e/PF1e style DR that they cannot bypass. A caster with mostly fire spells shouldn't often have to face fire immune enemies.
*Enemies should always have one saving throw that casters can reliably count on to fail (again, probably about 60% chance or better to get a spell off).

And so on. I spent hours on encounter and enemy design, tweaking numbers and making sure I had done my due diligence to be tough, but fair. And what always happened was, right around level 12 or so, everything fell apart. The only way I could challenge player characters was by being decidedly unfair. AC's would keep rising to the point that secondary combatants might as well not even roll dice, immunities and resistances were all over the place, and the game became a slog. And often, despite my best efforts, encounters would either be easily defeated or risk a TPK, it was impossible to find a sweet spot. So I'd get frustrated, rant about it, ask my players what I should do, get no real help from them, lol, and finally stop running.

What I've finally come to realize is that, at a certain point, it's not about challenging the players. They've gained power and abilities in good measure, they can take on everything. So at high levels, it's not about that. It's about entertaining them with fantastical adventures, and letting them have their wish fulfillment of taking on demon princes and dragon kings. Time to stop applying the brakes and make the game more about the story than any attempt to keep running the game the way you did at lower levels.

A high level Fighter should be able to take on armies. So let them; the time that they can be challenged by 1-5 other randos is over.

Funny thing is, I've never stopped challenging the PCs. They're 19th now, and in the last fight I had 2 unconscious at one point and could have killed them except I played the monster stupid because they had int 1, wis 5. Sometimes they stomp on my fights, just like they occasionally did back once they hit low-to-mid level. I cheer right along with them when they do.

I don't do things to specifically counter them, but I do frequently set things to be in favor of the bad guys especially if the PCs are attacking them on their home turf. So, yes, that lich had prep time for the PCs and had some spells precast, not to mention a handful of glyphs and had a permanent Private Sanctum (no scrying, no teleport, etc.). She also had backup, had consumed a potion of flying, I picked out spells that made sense. If I really wanted to be mean, I would have had a couple of subordinates who did nothing but cast improved invisibility on themselves and then did nothing but counterspell. Fortunately I kind of have détente on counterspell with my players. Or may it's just mutually assured destruction annoyance.

You don't have to build challenging combats for the PCs of course if that's not your thing. I just disagree with the idea that you can't. I don't usually spend a ton of time on building combats (the lich being high intelligence was a bit different) and never work too hard to balance out encounters, I just grab or upgrade monsters that make sense for the scene and use the same old encounter calculator I've always used.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Funny thing is, I've never stopped challenging the PCs. They're 19th now, and in the last fight I had 2 unconscious at one point and could have killed them except I played the monster stupid because they had int 1, wis 5. Sometimes they stomp on my fights, just like they occasionally did back once they hit low-to-mid level. I cheer right along with them when they do.

I don't do things to specifically counter them, but I do frequently set things to be in favor of the bad guys especially if the PCs are attacking them on their home turf. So, yes, that lich had prep time for the PCs and had some spells precast, not to mention a handful of glyphs and had a permanent Private Sanctum (no scrying, no teleport, etc.). She also had backup, had consumed a potion of flying, I picked out spells that made sense. If I really wanted to be mean, I would have had a couple of subordinates who did nothing but cast improved invisibility on themselves and then did nothing but counterspell. Fortunately I kind of have détente on counterspell with my players. Or may it's just mutually assured destruction annoyance.

You don't have to build challenging combats for the PCs of course if that's not your thing. I just disagree with the idea that you can't. I don't usually spend a ton of time on building combats (the lich being high intelligence was a bit different) and never work too hard to balance out encounters, I just grab or upgrade monsters that make sense for the scene and use the same old encounter calculator I've always used.
The last campaign I ran, I spent several hours for a week to create 5 encounters for what I presumed would be a "weekend in Hell"; the players were going to what amounted to a suburb of the Iron City of Dis. There were zombified hound archons, devilish weaponsmiths, cultists who had been transformed into infernal golems, I thought it was appropriately epic.

I carefully went over the numbers, each encounter was considered deadly by the rules. The only fight that was challenging was one I regret now, because it was unfair; flying invisible archer devils with a large-sized bow that fired arrows that did force damage and could knock the target hit prone. While the players had the ability to deal with this threat in theory, in practice, it required too much action juggling and coordination for the party to realistically deal with the threat. Also, the Fighter died due to RNG while the Cleric was temporarily entombed in a Wall of Ice.

They won, and the Fighter was Revivified, but not only did the players not have fun in that encounter, I felt I had gone a bit too overboard. And they still won. The rest of the session was basically a cakewalk, and that's when I stopped and realized that the juice (week of planning) wasn't worth the squeeze (vainly attempting to challenge the party, and only marginally succeeding with foes that literally require magical support to fight).

So sure, maybe I can challenge high level players. Maybe I'm just not a good enough DM to do so. I can own up to that. But it really feels like the effort and what I have to do to accomplish that goal, are simply not worth the result. So if there's a next time, when the game approaches high level, I'm just going to have fun adventures and not stress myself over a goal that the game seems (to me, at least) to actively discourage.
 

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