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D&D General Why does D&D still have 16th to 20th level?

Yora

Legend
D&D was not always a game with character levels going from 1st to 20th level. The original game only covered the first ten levels or so, and oldtimers from back in the day tell stories of characters retiring as rulers of their own domains rarely advancing much beyond that. In BECMI, characters other than humans can't go above 12th level, and in AD&D most characters other than humans and/or thieves cap out at 12th or 16th level.
I believe the codification that all characters go up to 20th level started with 3rd edition, because the game engine was called the d20 system and there's an opportunity to have another 20 show up.

But from everything I've heard in the two decades that I've been playing D&D, people playing above 15th level almost never seems to happen. Published modules and adventures also barely ever covered levels above that. Pathfinder Adventure Paths usually go from 1st to 15th level, and even the original Dragonlance series went only up to about 14th level, I've been told. In the days of 3rd edition, there was a lot of complaining from people digging deep into the math that things just start to break down completely once you go past those levels.

One problem seems to be that by 15th level, a group of 4 to 6 well prepared characters can take on a single one of the traditional top dog monsters. You can of course face off against groups of high power enemies after that, but that really stretches the narrative consistency of the game world. The best thing I've heard about high level play is "the same as always, but with bigger numbers".

Of course, the lure of 9th level spells has always been tempting. But given the overwhelming anecdotal evidence, is it really worth to still keep putting high level content in the regular Player's Handbook? If there really might be a market for material at higher levels, there's the option for a kind of Epic Level Handbook that covers level 15 to 25. (Remember the Epic Level Handbook? Yeah, I remember how people fawned over it when it came out, and then nobody ever using any of it.)
I think the PHB would actually become a better book if it goes only up to 15th level and doesn't bother 8th and 9th level spells. Not only does it become more compact and makes learning the game easier, it also creates more realistic expectations for players.
 

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Fanaelialae

Legend
D&D was not always a game with character levels going from 1st to 20th level. The original game only covered the first ten levels or so, and oldtimers from back in the day tell stories of characters retiring as rulers of their own domains rarely advancing much beyond that. In BECMI, characters other than humans can't go above 12th level, and in AD&D most characters other than humans and/or thieves cap out at 12th or 16th level.
I believe the codification that all characters go up to 20th level started with 3rd edition, because the game engine was called the d20 system and there's an opportunity to have another 20 show up.

But from everything I've heard in the two decades that I've been playing D&D, people playing above 15th level almost never seems to happen. Published modules and adventures also barely ever covered levels above that. Pathfinder Adventure Paths usually go from 1st to 15th level, and even the original Dragonlance series went only up to about 14th level, I've been told. In the days of 3rd edition, there was a lot of complaining from people digging deep into the math that things just start to break down completely once you go past those levels.

One problem seems to be that by 15th level, a group of 4 to 6 well prepared characters can take on a single one of the traditional top dog monsters. You can of course face off against groups of high power enemies after that, but that really stretches the narrative consistency of the game world. The best thing I've heard about high level play is "the same as always, but with bigger numbers".

Of course, the lure of 9th level spells has always been tempting. But given the overwhelming anecdotal evidence, is it really worth to still keep putting high level content in the regular Player's Handbook? If there really might be a market for material at higher levels, there's the option for a kind of Epic Level Handbook that covers level 15 to 25. (Remember the Epic Level Handbook? Yeah, I remember how people fawned over it when it came out, and then nobody ever using any of it.)
I think the PHB would actually become a better book if it goes only up to 15th level and doesn't bother 8th and 9th level spells. Not only does it become more compact and makes learning the game easier, it also creates more realistic expectations for players.
My group has played multiple campaigns to those levels. Yeah, things get kind of wahoo in a high level campaign. I've still found ways to challenge the players, but you can't use the same types of challenges you would at 1st level. It's fine and it's fun and it's fairly short. A way to (hopefully) end the campaign on a really high note.
 



Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
4E went up to 30th level!

Dungeon of the Mad Mage went up into tier 4, but you're right in that tier 4 support is much less than lower tiers. There is a market for high level content, but it is smaller than for low level material.

DoMM claims to go up to 20, but in reality it gets to level seventeen and throws up its hands and says, “Eh, you might go up three levels in this last chapter. I don’t know. Who knows? See what happens.”
 

Asisreo

Patron Badass
The goal of D&D, or most TTRPGs, is not to reach max level. Its usually to complete epic quests with your friends.

If your DM can't or doesn't want to work at levels as high as 20 (which is absolutely fair considering the challenge!), then he's not likely to run a campaign at those levels.

But some DM's (such as I) enjoy levels 15+ immensely. It might be because I'm a sucker for characters that realize their full power potential but I love getting to have my players realize their killing the Avatars of gods when our first session was them barely surviving an Ogre encounter.
 

Dungeon of the Mad Mage went up into tier 4, but you're right in that tier 4 support is much less than lower tiers. There is a market for high level content, but it is smaller than for low level material.
I think the boring-ness of the 16-20 levels for most classes, together with the "GAME ENDS HERE" feeling to level 20 in 5E reallly makes the "smaller market" thing self-fulfilling. The other big factor is that people are very resistant to starting at higher levels. If 5E had a suggestion that it was, say, fine to start at level 10, and maybe good actual rules (rather than frankly shoddy "I guess you could..."-style "guidelines") for doing that (maybe random-generating a previous adventuring career, could be fun), and it was considered normal and okay, then I think those levels would see more play. Add in some actual 20-30 rules and they'd see a ton more.

4E was interesting because it fully planned for 1-30, and really leaned into it. If it wasn't for the fact that the proliferation of powers eventually bogged combat down to a crawl, it would have been awesome for it.
 



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