• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

D&D 5E The challenges of high level adventure design.

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
It seems to be an accepted fact that creating pre-designed adventures for high (15+) level characters is difficult.

I would like to accept that argument but with the caveats that a) "difficult" does not mean "impossible" and b) that difficulty is a technical problem that can be solved and is not a systemic problem.

As such I would like to discuss in a serious way what those technical challenges are and how they can be addressed. What I don't want to do is argue about whether the basic premise is true. Nor do I want to discuss the issues of "fluff" around high level adventures -- that is we won't be talking about whether the 18th level characters would be better off doing something else that adventuring.

Remember, the primary goals are to identify problems and discuss potential solutions.

The first thing to came to my mind is a problem that is true for all published adventures but definitely exacerbated at high levels: the designer does not know the composition of the party.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Even moreso than with other adventures, high level adventures need to be playtested. A lot. With diverse groups.

And the notion of tightly scripted campaigns needs to be replaced at high levels with generalized outlines with NPC goals and the understanding that things will change on the fly as the NPCs collide with the PCs. Instead of trying to script out every beat, just acknowledge that the NPCs (and DM) will have to adapt on the fly.
 
Last edited:

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Even moreso than with other adventures, high level adventures need to be playtested. A lot. With diverse groups.
Agreed.
And the notion of tightly scripted campaigns needs to be replaced at high levels with generalized outlines with NPC goals and the understanding that things will change on the fly as the NPC collide with the PCs. Instead of trying to script out every beat, just acknowledge that the NPCs (and DM) will have to adapt on the fly.
I think all adventures should be designed this way.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Specifically on the subject of not knowing what the party looks like:

High level spell casters definitely change the game. If you have a party that is a monk, a barbarian, a bard and a rogue, that is going to present entirely different design challenges than a party that has a wizard, a cleric, a ranger and a warlock.

I think the design solution for this is to rely on situations and problems with multiple routes to success for the players, rather than specific "puzzles" that need specific solutions (in the form of spells or whatever).

For example, if Act 1 of the adventure culminates with the PCs having to get permission from a powerful fey ruler to use a portal in their domain in the Feywild, the module should not prescribe A solution to that problem. It should present the scenario in such a way that upon reading it, the GM has a good idea of what the fey ruler's motivation is and what sorts of things would get the PCs on their side. It could certainly list some possible checks and DCs or useful spells, but not as definite methods.
 




Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
It's less that it's difficult as much as high level D&D is different.

You can't use the same types of challenges to high level characters as they have enough resources to
  1. use slightly powerful abilities nearly at will
  2. use moderately powerful abilities often
  3. use incredibly powerful abilities at all
You can't do resource attrition grinds and simple obstacles at high levels.
 

J-H

Hero
I'm wrapping up a high level (13-20+) hexcrawl adventure right now. It's ready to go on the DM's Guild as soon as I finish about another 120 pages of editing (bestiary, hex entries, items, page spacing, etc. Bleh).

It has gone pretty well.
-The 5-8 encounter adventuring day DEFINITELY breaks down. I'm seeing one big fight every couple of in-game weeks. Those in-game fights are big and involve multiple enemies with 7th-9th level spells, and time pressure where the party has 6-8 rounds before reinforcements flood the area. Power Word Kill, Finger of Death, Prismatic Wall, Earthquake, etc. are all on the table. Usually I get 1-3 PCs down to 0hp during these fights, but they don't die.
-Strategic initiative matters. Scrying, attacking the PCs when they aren't ready, and evading enemy patrols to avoid 500 enemies jumping the party are all big things.
-Having a pre-populated area with multiple viable goals at any given time means the players can choose "whatever" and all I have to do is look up the right page(s).
-Not every random encounter has to challenge the party. The 19th level monk has made notes of a giant honey tree (lots of bees) for a return trip. As a combat encounter, it'd be challenging for maybe...2nd level players?
-In fact, most things aren't going to seriously exercise the players and put their characters in danger. Instead of "is what's around the corner going to kill me?" it has become "How do we provide evidence to get the Giants on-side so that when we go up against a god's avatar, we're bringing two polities, a kraken, and a nascent god-sword to the fight?" along with "Do we want to try to trap these CR 5 carnivores and try to let 100 of them loose in the enemy city? If so, how?"

Here's the text I have written up on the topic in my "How to run the campaign" chapter:

High level D&D characters, particularly spellcasters, have the ability to survive almost anything, deal massive amounts of damage, and reshape the battlefield in a round or two. At 5th level, a Fireball at the wrong time can cause a TPK. At 15th level, a DEX-heavy party can shrug off 3 Fireballs and a Prismatic Spray with no ill effects.

In combat, this means that the DM is free to throw lots of firepower at the PCs, and trust that they will be able to dismantle it in a few rounds. Reviewing the included Campaign Log will show a typical party handle an invisible ancient dragon with ease, teleport to an enemy airship and wipe out its crew, drop into an enemy temple and kill the high priest, desecrate the altar, then leave, or even split up to conduct hit-and-run raids with a Hasted Monk who can literally outrun the enemy. This may seem like a challenge to DM, but the DM’s job is not to conduct the party’s strategy or tactics – simply to make a good effort at defeating them with the resources on hand. Sometimes, the enemy will scare the PCs or chase them off. Sometimes, the players will get good rolls and will cut through 60 CR worth of opponents like a +3 Flaming Dagger versus warm butter.

Out of combat, high level players have access to extreme strategic mobility, including Scrying, Teleport, and Transport Via Plants. This may seem hard to plan for, but that’s the advantage of a large, pre-populated map. The Aarocokra also have the benefit of a Scrying chamber at every temple, and can be assumed to have good, but not perfect, ability to track the party unless or until Scrying is blocked. The players again do most of the work; the DM simply decides when the players should be attacked, what reasonable steps the enemy is taking in the background, and what additional reinforcements have been dispatched to temples.

The hardest part, in the author’s experience, is choosing quickly what actions enemy should take in large battles (10+ foes vs. the party). Spell selections presented in the Bestiary are typically abbreviated and categorized to help; beyond this – pick a few default actions and use those. Low-level divine casters can’t go wrong with Sacred Flame or Guiding Bolt, and high level casters are likely to use their high-level spells first.

The players do not see what happens behind the screen. Sometimes the DM will forget a creature’s special abilities or make sub-optimal choices. Most of the time, the players will never even know, and that’s okay.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
It's less that it's difficult as much as high level D&D is different.

You can't use the same types of challenges to high level characters as they have enough resources to
  1. use slightly powerful abilities nearly at will
  2. use moderately powerful abilities often
  3. use incredibly powerful abilities at all
You can't do resource attrition grinds and simple obstacles at high levels.
So what is the solution to this particular design problem?

One simple solution is to not bother and assume that the party will expend their most powerful abilities in any given encounter (with stakes). @J-H seems to support this in their post. It makes some sense: lots of GMs don't worry about attrition no matter the level.

Alternatively, if the players know that the climax of the adventure will require their most powerful abilities and they also know that they will not be afforded a rest, they will have to strategically deploy their abilities. This is a singular solution, though -- you can't use it as a general solution to high level adventures.
 

Remove ads

Top