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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From experience, high level fighters can cut a swath through armies but suffer for it. Yes, they only take damage on nat 20s but that builds up over time. You don't need epic armies to challenge epic characters. Actual armies, leavened with a small number of lower level casters, are just fine.

Let's look at a high level fighter who teleports or uses stealth/invisibility to pop up at point blank range. Facing duel-weilding orcs who mostly have advantage via flanking and assuming 5 in range at any time, the PC get hit for an average 9.5hp every round and lets say they kill 4 foes a round. After a 30-round slog (3 minutes) they have killed 120 enemies each and have also suffered 285hp of damage.

That sounds amazing, and it is. Only this is an army, not a single unit. There are 5,000-15,000 troops. They take up acres of space, if not square miles of land. These arent even mythical armies. Ceasar had more than 30,000 actual soldiers in the field in Gaul, not counting the vast numbers of support troops. Alexander had similar sized forces under his command. Legendary armies (meaning both size and improbaibility) would be Xerxes army, which according to the hyperbolic histories had an army 800,000 - 4,000,000 strong

Yes, casters can kill more if they nova thanks to AoE spells. Let's say a caster can kill 10 common troops per spell level for spells 3rd level and up. That's still less than a thousand soldiers killed by a 20th level caster who lobs nearly 20 spells.

Yes, there are a handful of specific spells that can be very impactful over very large areas but but most of those are sustained and can be dispelled (Mirage Arcana, control weather, control water, earthquake etc)

I have seen this in play. In the 3e campaign I ran, a 19th-ish level monk ghosted into a goblin army, issue a verrry long winded threat to the goblin king that let the lieutenants form up the troops outside (the monk heard the war drums but ignored them). He dashed out at speed...and had several volleys of arrows and javelins lobbed by hundreds of goblins, all aimed just at him. 1/400 odds of success seems awesome except when 500+ attacks are made per round and every hit is a crit, because those are the only ones that can hit, the pain adds up. Add a few low level shamans throwing faerie fire at the monk and bless on the elite archers and those odds can get a lot closer to 1/20. (Or whatever the 3e equivalent was. There was a bardic drummer ot two giving boosts to the whole army)

He finally got out of range with 18hp. (no, I didnt roll a million dice, just a bit of envelope math and descriptions. "You get to run in the shade as the arrows blot out the sun.....") On the plus side, he put a dent in the army's confidence and arrow supply, but he also caused the high level shaman to prep spells like creeping doom and implosion.

In these scenarios the high level characters are not intended to defeat the army by main force, but through high level stratagem. Demoralizing troops, destroying supplies, creating delays, taking hostages, etc. Yes, they can defeat them by force over a week or three, but how much damage do they do in the interim? How many cities are burned? How much of the harvest will be lost, leading to starvation all winter?

This is often the basis of high level play. Singular opponents are distinctively rare, large groups of foes should be the norm.

When they do decide to hit an army head on, I recommend not using minis for minor troops and instead go with candy. M&Ms for armored troops, jelly beans for softer targets, add some pretzels for larger foes, etc. Make combats actually crunchy/salty/sweet. Let them enjoy cutting a swath of statistical cut scene mayhem before hitting the ring wraiths or giants or whatever that is the real threat.
 
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Oofta

Legend
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.

I don't expect every fight to be a knock-down-drag-out. But when it comes to techniques there's a lot of options. Increase HP for some monsters (i.e. the lich was a bit of a glass cannon) give some a big bonus to attack and damage but leave everything else the same (sort of fill the same roll as minions), change the goal of the fight are a few examples. Maybe my players are just inept, maybe I'm not not afraid to throw tougher monsters or take advantage of terrain. I don't know what the secret sauce is, all I know is that I just spin through a handful of monsters, find things that are appropriate and then throw things at my PCs. If it's too easy I throw more next time.

I spend more time on figuring how to spin an interesting story, intersperse RP and mysteries, and finding appropriate imagery than customizing monsters or setting up encounter details.
 


Is that fun for you, as the DM? Just enabling the fantasies of the players?
oh this sounds like a cool question. Is the DM there to give the players what they want, or is the DM there to do what they want and see how the players react?
THe best 2 DMs I have ever met in meat space all said that the job of the DM is to make the players feel challenged and amazed, and never let them see that you are rooting for them to win.
 

they only take damage on nat 20s but that builds up over time.
how high of an AC are we talking on a fighter? I don't see many fighters but most are wearing +1 or +2 plate and that is AC 20 21 or 22 (depending on shield) it's normally the casters I see get high like I saw a warmage have a 19 but could cast shield for 24 or use the class feature for a 21. I can't imagine not having something like shield spells and getting a "needs a nat 20 to hit" character.
Yes, casters can kill more if they nova thanks to AoE spells.
do they have to nova? I mean 1 or 2 AoE is going to take out huge amounts of the low level monsters.
 

I totally want the players to have fun and win, because if they aren't having fun I won't be either. It does go the other way though, and my multiverse is like my own PC with an identity, consistency, etc that needs to be respected for me to have fun (so that the players can have it in this reciprocal thing).

I don't like to do arbitrary things to create challenge at high level. I want things to make sense in the setting. A world isn't suddenly going to be facing multiple epic threats just because the PCs can handle them now. Neither will I artificially alter stat blocks. In this context I mean I might give a monster levels, or special abilities that have an in-world explanation, but I won't just change the math in their statblock to increase the challenge (unless it's a permanent well considered change, rather than a party customization, but YMMV).

For me, while you can have an occasional Material Plane epic combat, mostly, you want to shift to the Planes.

The example I always use of a completely non-contrived challenge that can be as hard as you want and still perfectly fit the setting is an army of fiends.

Because of the Blood War there are lots of those. Use one. The party has to fight an army of fiends. Of course, they might be able to find ways to achieve their objective without doing that, which is totally cool. Just make some (obvious to the players) benefit of fighting the army rather than overcoming the obstacle another way. Like some really nice loot the top commanders are wielding. If the players choose not to take the bait, I'm going to assume that they aren't interested in that sort of awesome fun challenge, and they are wrong, but what ya gonna do, lol. Let them decide.

You can decide how big of a force they have to deal with, but the important thing is to look up the lore and do it justice. You can find material in 5e and your previous edition of choice telling you how these armies should be composed.

CR 7 fiends as shock troops? Well that's supposed to be the first line charging in, so if you have an small force of 500, that's going to be dozens of those bad boys.

CR 11 fiends described as aerial artillery? You'll need several.

CR 10 lesser commanders? One per every 20 troops at least.

Etc. Your milling masses of lemures or manes, even if you count them in the numbers, shouldn't be more than half the troops. And don't count them when you are planning. They are just bubble wrap for rounds a PC has nothing better to do, or obstacles for a PC who lost his flight capabilities for that round, or doesn't want to fight a dozen CR 8-13 flying creatures on his way to his next major objective.

Really dig into that lore and make sure you have various levels of commanders. Your Pit Fiend or Balor may be top dog, but his bodyguards are no slouch and he has the whole descending hierarchy of his class of fiend below him filling those ranks as different kinds of troops and commanders.

If you just pick a half dozen types of friends, you aren't doing justice to what is supposed to be going on in the lore, and you are making it easier on your PCs because they will have a smaller list of special abilities and defenses to deal with. Don't do that! Make them face all of that stuff at once.

And remember that fiends also hire (or otherwise acquire) humanoids and other monsters as extra soldiers. Your basic canon fodder will just take the place of manes and lemures, but this is a good way to add some higher level NPC statblocks to add in casters or other threats you think might be missing in the army itself. Just make sure it makes sense why they are there, and realized that those high level NPCs will use their capabilities to flee to save their lives, since they don't just respawn on their home plane of they get put in the dead book.

And what's so great is how scalable it is. Sure, you probably aren't going to do this more than two or three times, but you should do it more than once so you can change the size of the force, the type of of fiends, and the objectives.

Don't just send them to assassinate Demogorgon (especially with the pathetic official stats) and have them go through a couple preliminary fights then face him and a couple CR 15 lieutenants. That isn't how it should go down. Until they are hip deep in fiendish ichor they have not faced a real force of fiends.
 

J-H

Hero
If you just pick a half dozen types of friends, you aren't doing justice to what is supposed to be going on in the lore, and you are making it easier on your PCs because they will have a smaller list of special abilities and defenses to deal with. Don't do that! Make them face all of that stuff at once.
As a DM who's run a number of high-level battles with 5+ enemy types including 3 types of spellcasters and multiple defenses, it is HARD to remember all the options for everything and keep it moving at a fast pace.
 

As a DM who's run a number of high-level battles with 5+ enemy types including 3 types of spellcasters and multiple defenses, it is HARD to remember all the options for everything and keep it moving at a fast pace.
Definitely. If you want to put your players through Baator, you're going to go through Baator doing it.

...but it's worth it once in a blue moon for a suitably epic brawl.

However I'm also of the school that thinks that (other than in 4e) high level play doesn't really work for the same sort of stuff as low-level play. 4e is the only one where you can just escalate the numbers and add a few more abilities but keep the same experience. 3e Epic Level Handbook made an ill-conceived attempt (loved the book, but it doesn't really work), but other editions I don't think really even try. 5e probably comes the closest to making it seem like it might be possible, but I'm not sure if the designers even really thought it was, as evidenced by the paucity of adventures that go above 15th level.

Although honestly, outside of an occasional epic battle, I don't really want to still be having the same experiences at 18th level as 8th. So for me, that's probably working as intended. Do other people want the same sort of play experiences from their high level play?
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Is that fun for you, as the DM? Just enabling the fantasies of the players?
Firstly: you say that so dismissively. I love enabling my players to do awesome things and feel awesome. That literally means I am making my friends giddy with excitement. Why wouldn't I want that?

Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, you say this as though it is some punch-clock, workaday drudgery, receive form 32-A "Request for Standard Wish Fulfillment Fantasy (Type I)," and so long as the form is filed correctly, the players may demand of you exactly thus-and-such fantasy fulfilled no matter how little it means to you nor what little effort they actually put into it. This couldn't be further from the truth, at least for my Dungeon World game (which technically has been max level for ages, but "max level" is quite low in DW.) I have woven quite a few pretty ploys over the years, and have offered tense, difficult, fraught choices, challenging the players' beliefs and cleverness, spurring them to find the solutions they believe are best and letting them set the terms for what is or isn't an awesome fantasy. And they have, time and again, proven they are eager to embrace that adventure, that challenge. That they do not merely want to be marveled at by others, but to do things and change things and protect what is beautiful or wholesome or noble.

So: Hell yes, I want to "just enable the fantasies of the players." Because doing so is awesome.
 

Oofta

Legend
Definitely. If you want to put your players through Baator, you're going to go through Baator doing it.

...but it's worth it once in a blue moon for a suitably epic brawl.

However I'm also of the school that thinks that (other than in 4e) high level play doesn't really work for the same sort of stuff as low-level play. 4e is the only one where you can just escalate the numbers and add a few more abilities but keep the same experience. 3e Epic Level Handbook made an ill-conceived attempt (loved the book, but it doesn't really work), but other editions I don't think really even try. 5e probably comes the closest to making it seem like it might be possible, but I'm not sure if the designers even really thought it was, as evidenced by the paucity of adventures that go above 15th level.

Although honestly, outside of an occasional epic battle, I don't really want to still be having the same experiences at 18th level as 8th. So for me, that's probably working as intended. Do other people want the same sort of play experiences from their high level play?

Yeah, I'm setting up a big battle soon-ish. The PCs are probably going to be facing some mobs of enemy soldiers and the like. Problem is it's going to be set in their home town so they can't just meteor storm the enemy into oblivion. Darn. :devilish:

But my campaign? The PCs have been jumping planes a bit, but my campaign doesn't really use standard cosmology. But for the most part they've been fighting for their home city, traveling to a different realm and then coming back and interacting with the same NPCs while fighting off escalating threats. Along the way they've ignored some possible threats and it's going to come back to bite them, others will just continue on and be fodder for the next campaign to deal with.

This campaign is now dealing with an enemy that is trying to take over their city. The main BBEG was first introduced several campaigns ago and supposedly defeated in a different edition. We'll see if they can finish him once and for all this time.

They aren't establishing kingdoms, although they have established businesses, orphanages and families. They're super important to the city, are heroes in another realm and one threat they stopped would have been really bad for the region. The current threat would be interesting in a "What if the Nazis had won WW II" way but not "the world is destroyed". I never assume the PCs are going to win, very bad things have happened because they didn't but the world kept turning.
 

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