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

Yora

Hero
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

Fiendish Attorney
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.
 



Li Shenron

Legend
The number of levels could be lower or higher as well, there is really no ultimate perfect number for a RPG. I think they went with 20 in 5e only because the current edition wanted to use 3e as a starting point for a few things at least, including class format and spellcasting. They certainly didn't want to leave Wish or Meteor Swarm out.

There are 2 separate but correlated aspects to consider: level spacing and top abilities.

Which top abilities are included in the game is what really determines the kind of game you can play. It doesn't matter if you have 10 or 100 levels, it matters instead for example if the top spell for travelling is Misty Step or Astral Projection: that really has an impact on problem solving and therefore what kind of adventures you'll be playing. The stronger the top abilities, the harder the DM's job, but what is better for a designer between not offering an option at all vs offering an option that puts the burden on the DM to work properly? Is it better to have a game that "breaks down" at some point unless you're really a good DM, or a game that doesn't even let you try?

Level spacing is another matter and should be used to deliver a wanted feeling of advancement. Fewer levels have the advantage that they make levelling up a major achievement to celebrate. More levels better suit games with micro improvements. 5e designers wanted character abilities to be significant rather than fiddly bits, but at the same time too few levels would mean either too few abilities per character or too big bunches of abilities per level.

To get an idea, you can think what would happen if you granted 2 levels at once to your 5e PCs, so that you'd effectively start the game at 2nd, then 4th, 6th... 20th level, but "renamed" those levels to half their values so that players would think their PCs are levels 1-10 (incidentally you would get the benefit that spell level would now match character level!). I think the game would work just fine, but levelling up would be a much bigger deal, and would require more care for players to make on average twice as many character choices when levelling up.
 


Aldarc

Legend
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.
It's not as if 4e needed to do what it did in 30 levels either. It could have halved it to 15 or said "Screw it! At level one, you are a baby adventurer, then heroic is level 2-4, paragon is 5-7, and epic is 8-10.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Because after 11-14 levels of adventuring through a set path, the DM and the Players have enough material and character stories to advance things without a specific and rigid narrative environment.

Or, at least, they should. Unless they just rushed from one pre-written encounter to the other without their characters really interacting with the world, or each other, outside of the prescribed materials in the official adventure.

It's what I do, when I use a pre-gen adventure. And I -often- use pre-gens to get the characters and stories started, then carry things beyond that.
 

Yora

Hero
I actually think D&D should end around level 10. The only reason it doesn't it because Gygax made the mistake of designing level 9 spells for wizards, deliberately as a way to give antagonists spells the PCs couldn't use.
Originally, spells were designed with 5thand 6th level being ultimate magical power. Raising the dead, speaking directly to your god, disintegration, flesh to stone, control weather, geas.
Then later came the decision to add three more levels on top, but how do you go beyond what was supposed to be ultimate magic power? Things start getting weird.
 

If I was in charge of 6e I would make the deliberate decision to end the PHB at either 12 or 14 (12 is a quite neat number actually as you can have 3 tiers of 4 levels each).

I would includ levels 13-20 in the epic level handbook (as you'd have to include them for Tradition's sake).
I would give everyone at those levels an epic destiny a la 4e. I'd probably give even Fighters some degree of magical capability at those levels (because let's face it we're well past the bounds of realistic human potential by the point we're mowing through giants). I'd also be clear that you don't need these levels to run a traditional fantasy campaign - level 12 is perfectly fine for your local setting Elminster style archmage, and that if you do use these levels you're more at the stage of plane hopping Jack Kirby style Thor adventures.

If you put a level 20 lich in your campaign, he's not one of many, he a singular force, a potentially world ending or conquering threat, an epic boss that a non-epic party probably can't beat in a straight up fight unless they first weaken him by learning his true name or stabbing him with the sword he used to end his own mortal life long ago or something of that nature.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
If I was in charge of 6e I would make the deliberate decision to end the PHB at either 12 or 14 (12 is a quite neat number actually as you can have 3 tiers of 4 levels each).

I would includ levels 13-20 in the epic level handbook (as you'd have to include them for Tradition's sake).
I would give everyone at those levels an epic destiny a la 4e. I'd probably give even Fighters some degree of magical capability at those levels (because let's face it we're well past the bounds of realistic human potential by the point we're mowing through giants). I'd also be clear that you don't need these levels to run a traditional fantasy campaign - level 12 is perfectly fine for your local setting Elminster style archmage, and that if you do use these levels you're more at the stage of plane hopping Jack Kirby style Thor adventures.

If you put a level 20 lich in your campaign, he's not one of many, he a singular force, a potentially world ending or conquering threat, an epic boss that a non-epic party probably can't beat in a straight up fight unless they first weaken him by learning his true name or stabbing him with the sword he used to end his own mortal life long ago or something of that nature.
I like where you're going with this idea... but.

I would still include 13-20 in the core handbook as the epic levels. It would, however, mean trying to cram all the "Good Stuff" into those first 12 levels and having the "Crazy Stuff" at 13+.

I think I'd be down for that.
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
A big tent high fantasy RPG like D&D needs to include a "we're incredibly powerful" point, where they can fight a flight of dragons and do other super-heroic things. Even if most games don't get up there. So if the axis is going from zero to super-hero, I'd rather have lots of levels so we have granularity in gaining abilities.

13th Age (a d20 that came out a bit before 5e) condensed that to 10 levels, but came up with Incremental Advances which were partial bonuses building towards your next level to provide the feeling of advancement and prevent a long wait between power increases.
 


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