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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Clint_L

Hero
In my experience high level combat runs best when the party is faced with a ticking clock so that they know they will likely have to survive a number of combat encounters without a rest. That forces them to strategize and harbour resources so they have enough to face the BBEG at the end.

Matt Mercer is the master of pacing high level play, IMO.
 

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Simon Miles

Creator of the World of Barnaynia FRPG setting
We did it back int he day, when we were teenagers in the early-mid eighties. We called it Mega D&D and it got very silly but was also fun. As has been said, it's easy to play, hard to DM. We gave up in the end, but then Pad wrote a story about it - search on The Eternal Victim by Patrick Knight-Bridges.
 

A couple of attempts were made for high level campaigns in 3E. I ran a 20th level one shot, just to test out the system. Our regular DM got us up to higher levels twice before the campaigns ended. In every case it was a nightmare. Casters ruled the day, particularly Codzilla. It wasn't fun to run, nor was it particularly fun to play (unless you were the Codzilla, I guess).

I was the CoDzilla in 3.X several times. As someone with moderate powergaming tendencies, it felt like a crack high. Deep down, I knew it wasn't good for the game. I should have scrawled on my character sheet "STOP ME BEFORE I PLAY MORE I CANNOT CONTROL MYSELF."
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I was the CoDzilla in 3.X several times. As someone with moderate powergaming tendencies, it felt like a crack high. Deep down, I knew it wasn't good for the game. I should have scrawled on my character sheet "STOP ME BEFORE I PLAY MORE I CANNOT CONTROL MYSELF."
It really only "works"--in the sense of every PC getting to have fun gameplay--if everyone is pushing the envelope at least a bit (and probably more than a bit.)

I joined a mid-teens gestalt game that then upgraded to Epic (intending to freshen things up...it didn't go as well as the participants would have liked.) Basically they'd had a guy for a long time but he had to leave the game, so they looked for a replacement, and went with me. Rules defaulted to PF1e standards, but with specific 3.5e rules elements, and all (non-Dragon) 3.5e content was implicitly approved, plus some pre-approved homebrew stuff. We had, off the top of my head...
  • First player was doing an unusual rogue-based thing initially, I don't think I ever fully understood what was going on with it. When we went Epic, he flipped to a "good undead" Sarenrae...paladin-bard-hybrid thing. Both were quite powerful, but pretty specialized.
  • Second was a classic "Omniscificer," artificer cheesed out the wazoo. Wasn't too bad at the teen levels, but when we went Epic he became nearly omnipotent, having a near-unlimited supply of free resources for spontaneously creating magic items and the ability to craft a custom magic item in, I'm not joking, seconds as opposed to the weeks of work normally required. Probably the most powerful character present.
  • Third was copper dragon Sorcerer/Incantatrix, with Bard and Paladin for support effects.
And, to be clear, I wasn't a slouch either. Gestalt Druid/Planar Shepherd (Syrenia, fluffed as Celestia)||Wizard/Geomancer/Archmage. With the Pathfinder rules, I had like seven different ways of boosting my caster on demand, and 3.5e added several other continuous passive buffs and more cumbersome (read: "for morning buff phase only") options. Because of Geomancer and the obscure 3.5e feat Academic Priest, all of the characteristics of my Druid spellcasting worked off of Intelligence rather than Wisdom, so I was able to hyperfocus on Int and Cha and leave most everything else out. Shapeshift forms attended to any physical stat needs, as those were based on 3.5e rules, and I had enough spells to rout armies and feed large towns. Fluff and flavor built off more or less the Circle of Stars concept, albeit before that released--character was a scholar of the planes, raised by an adoptive dragon mother and human father, the former taught him wizardry, the latter druidry, which he fused together into something greater.

We could demolish whatever the DM threw at us. They even got real tricksy once, and created an illusionist (or perhaps shadowcaster? not sure) opponent, whose illusions were more than 100% real and which became MORE real if you succeeded on your save against them! That was actually a bit tough, but we won the day within like four or five rounds nonetheless.

So, yeah, I've seen what happens when you play in a game where a fully SAD gestalt Planar Shepherd/Wizard isn't even the most powerful character, and it really does become a nightmare to DM. I felt so bad for them. It was very fun to play, though, as long as you remembered all the moving parts.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
It really only "works"--in the sense of every PC getting to have fun gameplay--if everyone is pushing the envelope at least a bit (and probably more than a bit.)

I joined a mid-teens gestalt game that then upgraded to Epic (intending to freshen things up...it didn't go as well as the participants would have liked.) Basically they'd had a guy for a long time but he had to leave the game, so they looked for a replacement, and went with me. Rules defaulted to PF1e standards, but with specific 3.5e rules elements, and all (non-Dragon) 3.5e content was implicitly approved, plus some pre-approved homebrew stuff. We had, off the top of my head...
  • First player was doing an unusual rogue-based thing initially, I don't think I ever fully understood what was going on with it. When we went Epic, he flipped to a "good undead" Sarenrae...paladin-bard-hybrid thing. Both were quite powerful, but pretty specialized.
  • Second was a classic "Omniscificer," artificer cheesed out the wazoo. Wasn't too bad at the teen levels, but when we went Epic he became nearly omnipotent, having a near-unlimited supply of free resources for spontaneously creating magic items and the ability to craft a custom magic item in, I'm not joking, seconds as opposed to the weeks of work normally required. Probably the most powerful character present.
  • Third was copper dragon Sorcerer/Incantatrix, with Bard and Paladin for support effects.
And, to be clear, I wasn't a slouch either. Gestalt Druid/Planar Shepherd (Syrenia, fluffed as Celestia)||Wizard/Geomancer/Archmage. With the Pathfinder rules, I had like seven different ways of boosting my caster on demand, and 3.5e added several other continuous passive buffs and more cumbersome (read: "for morning buff phase only") options. Because of Geomancer and the obscure 3.5e feat Academic Priest, all of the characteristics of my Druid spellcasting worked off of Intelligence rather than Wisdom, so I was able to hyperfocus on Int and Cha and leave most everything else out. Shapeshift forms attended to any physical stat needs, as those were based on 3.5e rules, and I had enough spells to rout armies and feed large towns. Fluff and flavor built off more or less the Circle of Stars concept, albeit before that released--character was a scholar of the planes, raised by an adoptive dragon mother and human father, the former taught him wizardry, the latter druidry, which he fused together into something greater.

We could demolish whatever the DM threw at us. They even got real tricksy once, and created an illusionist (or perhaps shadowcaster? not sure) opponent, whose illusions were more than 100% real and which became MORE real if you succeeded on your save against them! That was actually a bit tough, but we won the day within like four or five rounds nonetheless.

So, yeah, I've seen what happens when you play in a game where a fully SAD gestalt Planar Shepherd/Wizard isn't even the most powerful character, and it really does become a nightmare to DM. I felt so bad for them. It was very fun to play, though, as long as you remembered all the moving parts.
I do wonder, however, how fun it was for the DM living that nightmare you mentioned.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I do wonder, however, how fun it was for the DM living that nightmare you mentioned.
I mean, the move to the epic game was explicitly their proposal for refreshing the game experience after I joined up. Further, as stated, they got in on the gonzo character building as well, what with managing to finagle a setup where succeeding at a save against an illusion caused the illusion to become more real (and thus more hurtful) than if you'd failed. But, yes, it soured for them more quickly than it did for the players, and the game didn't last at epic levels for more than a couple months.
 

There are lots of variations but there are two basic approaches.

First, what you might call the World of Warcraft approach whereas you level up the numbers get bigger but the fundamentally the game play doesn't change. You at high levels might fight Orcus and his court, but fundamentally that would be little different than fighting a goblin chieftain and his bodygaurds just with bigger numbers. It would be entirely up to the GM to try to invoke the flavor of epic scale through description.

The second approach is that as you level up, the focus of the campaign gradually shifts. As the players ability to influence events widen, they more and more become involved in shaping their destiny and the destiny of the world around them, and are less and less worried about tactical combat because tactical problems that would trouble them become rarer and rarer in their lives. The game slows down, even to the point of becoming dynastic - PC's start families, build empires of various sorts, and take their place on a political stage. Adventures of great import occasionally come along, but the sort of matters that previously occupied their attention are now beneath them and are delegated to lower level characters. Very high-level characters might enter semi-retirement, and players take up playing their main PCs retainers and henchmen. If the campaign goes long enough, the material plane becomes too small of a field of endeavor for such mighty characters, and they may begin to influence not just their world's politics but even their world's cosmology - becoming mighty figures of legend and song.

In 5E I have played Tier 3 about six or seven times. All of them fell into the first approach described. Not every DM handled high-level play well but more often than not I enjoyed the game. Characters at this stage are superhuman but not gods. There were still opponents below the deity level that we worried about. I think this is the tier of play where DMs are forced to become much more improvisational. PCs have the power to veer far off the prepared material (plane shift, etc.). I am curious about a Tier 3 game which takes the second approach but none of my 5E DMs did that.

The very small handful of times I played in Tier 4 I did not enjoy it. I found myself getting confused as to my PC abilities. Part of the problem was that I have never leveled a character up naturally to that stage. We either did a multi-level jump or started the characters in Tier 4. Games sometimes got bogged down in discussion about supposed abuse of various 9th level spells.
 

When I ran 3e into the low 20s (from 1st level) I added ToB/Bo9S as prestige classes for the fighters and PsiHB for the monk. That provided a suitable power boost so they weren't over shadowed by the casters.
 

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