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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Teemu

Hero
One thing 4e can do really well in the epic levels is amazing power fantasy that works pretty smoothly, without getting too bogged down by complex or time consuming rules. I actually had a 4e group of level 21 PCs fight an actual army of people and dragons, and it all worked perfectly without hiccups or overly complex mechanics. It was pretty amazing to be honest, and so far 4e has been the only version of the game that has allowed something like that.

It's been a while, but if I remember correctly, it was a wave encounter where regular soldiers were represented as one-hit kill swarm minions. If you're wondering why, 4e technically has an objective power level in its rules for creatures, but it's not level, it's the XP. You can translate the same creature from a standard to a minion by looking at how much XP a creature of a particular level is worth. Regular mortal people tend to be standard creatures of low to mid heroic tier (around levels 1-5), so a single soldier can be translated as a high-heroic or low-paragon minion creature (levels 9-13 or so) -- but minion is the least powerful version of creature allowed in the rules, and in the epic levels a single regular mortal like that is not a threat at all (maybe an environmental hazard!).

But, with a bit of rules familiarity, you can combine regular mortal soldier minions into a swarm and make it a standard creature, but even that is not enough to threaten epic tier heroes because it's a paragon tier obstacle. Thus, I made minion creatures but with the swarm subtype: archer formations, spear formations, mage formations. Gargantuan creatures consisting of dozens of people, but because we're facing epic PCs, even a single successful attack lays waste to them, dissolving the formation! They had extra defenses against single target attacks to account for the custom minion swarm rules -- normally swarms take half damage from such attacks, but minions die in one hit.

I also had wings of young dragons attacking from the skies. Only in 4e. They were minions, as heroic-tier solos translate into level 21-23 minions, give or take a level. Accompanied by adult dragons (paragon solos translated as epic elite creatures), and of course a solo ancient dragon leading the army (the last wave of the fight). Again, only 4e D&D can pull off a fight like this in high level play. Sure, you could do it in 3.5 at very, very high levels, but it would be nearly impossible to gauge the difficulty, and it would take forever to resolve it. It was honestly pretty smooth going as a 4e combat encounter.
 

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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.
I was using orcs in the example and for a Level 20 warrior I figure AC 25+ from plate+2 & Shield+2 and some other item or even +4 armor, whatever.

do they have to nova? I mean 1 or 2 AoE is going to take out huge amounts of the low level monsters.

Huge is relative. My math presumed fireball would cause 30 fatalities (10 x spell level). While a 20ft radius can hit 52 targets, it only happens IF they are shoulder to shoulder, 8 across and 8 rows deep. Unless you face a highly organized force in phalanx formation, not gonna happen. There will be a few rows up at the front and the rest will be more loosely dispersed. You get even less with cavalry.

Some of it is simple lack of discipline, fighting style, or a perfectly sane defense in a world with fireball. It makes sense to not form up until the last possible moment to cut down the damage a caster can inflict.

My simple approximation assumes 90 fatalities from a 9th level spell, 80 from an 8th level, etc. Could you get more kills with meteor swarm? Oh, definitely. Could you get less? Also sure. You could do zero damage if it was Counterspelled. Mirage Arcana is a theoretical army killer by turning a square mile into a lake so the enemy drowns. Except dispel magic could take it out before anyone drowns. Hence simple approximation.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
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.
DW is a  very different game than the D&D style that just about everyone here is assuming, to be fair, with very different assumptions and a very different idea of what "high level play" even is.
 

S'mon

Legend
One thing 4e can do really well in the epic levels is amazing power fantasy that works pretty smoothly, without getting too bogged down by complex or time consuming rules. I actually had a 4e group of level 21 PCs fight an actual army of people and dragons, and it all worked perfectly without hiccups or overly complex mechanics. It was pretty amazing to be honest, and so far 4e has been the only version of the game that has allowed something like that.

It's been a while, but if I remember correctly, it was a wave encounter where regular soldiers were represented as one-hit kill swarm minions. If you're wondering why, 4e technically has an objective power level in its rules for creatures, but it's not level, it's the XP. You can translate the same creature from a standard to a minion by looking at how much XP a creature of a particular level is worth. Regular mortal people tend to be standard creatures of low to mid heroic tier (around levels 1-5), so a single soldier can be translated as a high-heroic or low-paragon minion creature (levels 9-13 or so) -- but minion is the least powerful version of creature allowed in the rules, and in the epic levels a single regular mortal like that is not a threat at all (maybe an environmental hazard!).

But, with a bit of rules familiarity, you can combine regular mortal soldier minions into a swarm and make it a standard creature, but even that is not enough to threaten epic tier heroes because it's a paragon tier obstacle. Thus, I made minion creatures but with the swarm subtype: archer formations, spear formations, mage formations. Gargantuan creatures consisting of dozens of people, but because we're facing epic PCs, even a single successful attack lays waste to them, dissolving the formation! They had extra defenses against single target attacks to account for the custom minion swarm rules -- normally swarms take half damage from such attacks, but minions die in one hit.

I also had wings of young dragons attacking from the skies. Only in 4e. They were minions, as heroic-tier solos translate into level 21-23 minions, give or take a level. Accompanied by adult dragons (paragon solos translated as epic elite creatures), and of course a solo ancient dragon leading the army (the last wave of the fight). Again, only 4e D&D can pull off a fight like this in high level play. Sure, you could do it in 3.5 at very, very high levels, but it would be nearly impossible to gauge the difficulty, and it would take forever to resolve it. It was honestly pretty smooth going as a 4e combat encounter.

Nice. I ran a 4e campaign from 1st to 29th, I did find it didn't work so well from 24th level up; it slowed down a lot, and adventures could drag on for months. It was still playable though.
 

Nice. I ran a 4e campaign from 1st to 29th, I did find it didn't work so well from 24th level up; it slowed down a lot, and adventures could drag on for months. It was still playable though.
have DMed one campaign of 4e from level 1 to 30, and at level 11 we applied the following house rule:

All Monsters have half hit points, but they deal double damage.

While being a simple rule, I do realize it's a massive change. But the game worked MUCH better after that.
 

Teemu

Hero
Nice. I ran a 4e campaign from 1st to 29th, I did find it didn't work so well from 24th level up; it slowed down a lot, and adventures could drag on for months. It was still playable though.
Oh I agree that it slows down and overall becomes less fun. It’s been the same with all WotC editions of the game at high levels. Everything is slower, takes more time and effort. But 4e did allow for this particular power fantasy in a way that the other editions, 3.5 and 5e, can’t.
 


Oofta

Legend
I thought +3 was the highest it went?
Yes, and +3 armor is considered Legendary rarity. According to the DMG, Legendary items can no longer be made, the secret to how they were created was lost long ago. Of course, you don't have to follow that rule, it's just that by default they are incredibly rare antiques from a forgotten age.

In one of my campaigns (level 19) one PC has AC is 22 because they have +1 plate and a cloak of protection. Probably one of the reasons I don't see some of the issues is that I don't give out magic items like candy. Meanwhile I'm more generous with weapons (and wands/staves) at very high levels because I want the PCs to feel like bad-asses. I just want to also be able to hurt them to add tension to the game.
 

In one of my campaigns (level 19) one PC has AC is 22 because they have +1 plate and a cloak of protection. Probably one of the reasons I don't see some of the issues is that I don't give out magic items like candy. Meanwhile I'm more generous with weapons (and wands/staves) at very high levels because I want the PCs to feel like bad-asses. I just want to also be able to hurt them to add tension to the game.
oh I have seen absord ACs the armor artificer in full plate with def fighting style a ring a cloak and the armor being +2 was 23 before shield spell just not often is it a fighter. To be honest I dont see high level fighters often at all anyway.
 

So what is high level play like?

... And how often have you played at higher levels?
<personal examples clipped>
So, first ... is this a common experience? Do you play primarily at low or high levels? How is higher level play different?
Thread title moved into quote and OP's personal experience clipped.

I played multiple campaigns up to relatively high level in the TSR era. Heck, we played BECMI up to the Immortal (post level-36) part of the game (admittedly, we were 11-12, so I don't think we really earned every level, so to speak). Here is my take on what it is like:

Mechanically, most situations fell into the categories of
  1. The PCs have so many spells and magic items (and maybe armies or pet dragons or the like) that resolving them is trivial (but occasionally still glacial in the resolution).
  2. The scenario is one outside the scope of the mechanics of character abilities (outside of Control Weather, most effect sizes are such that they may be big for a skirmish-sized battlefield, but very much not able to prevent a flood or lava flow from reaching a town, or the like), and they must resort to wishes, bargaining with gawds, finding the Macguffin of Consequence, etc.
  3. The PCs are up against, effectively, 'high-level' opponents (usually elder dragons or things from other planes, etc.) and then it becomes somewhat similar to lower-level play (perhaps with more rocket-tag instances, as save-or-dies vs saves of 2+ abound).
As far as gameplay actually ends up being, I think #2 above becomes the order of the day. Sure, there are fetch quests to foreign realms or other planes to acquire object X or make contact Y, and those can end up being like open-constraint dungeon crawls. However, a whole lot of time is spent talking to this king about defeating that evil sorcerer (maybe through sending an army, very unlikely by actually using any wargame mechanics), researching the magical formulation of that new magical item, or other more freeform play that often leaves the character mechanics alone for sessions at a time.

For that reason, I wouldn't say that it (continuing to play into the upper levels) was rare, but I can say that it was something we only did every once in a while with a campaign when we had the urge.
 

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