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Worlds of Design: Tough Times at the Top

I’ve always thought that combat-oriented Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop role-playing games become less fun to play as characters reach double-figure levels of power. Here’s why, and how to fix it.

toughtimesatthetop.jpg


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The “Who Shoots First” Problem​

A major reason is the “who shoots first” problem. Analysis of tank battles in World War II shows that whoever shot first tended to win the tank battle. You can see why that might be likely, because the defenders can conceal themselves, not needing to move. The attackers turn up and are likely to get nailed by initial shots. On the other hand, if the attackers detect the defenders from a distance or even just suspect, they can call in air strikes and artillery barrages (if they have the capability) and likely that's going to reveal the defenders and also damage or destroy some of them—the attackers shoot first.

This is not so bad at lower levels in RPGs, but as characters get stronger and stronger, the first shot becomes more devastating. They have such great offense in the form of magical “artillery” (area effect spells) or other kinds of spells and occasionally non-spell offense, that they can devastate the other side before that side gets a chance to do anything. In effect, time moves faster because high level characters can do so much in a small slice of time. That is true even if there is no punishing surprise rule such as the rule in AD&D 1e (surprised 33% of the time, surprised cannot do anything for what seems like forever). A designer could greatly strengthen defense as characters reach higher levels, but that can get ridiculous; worse, you may end up with very long battles when no one gets the drop on the other side.

Moreover, super-powerful characters (such as high levels) don't fit the standard fantasy or science fiction stories where the hero, at least at first, is a relatively normal not-so-powerful character. In other words, people can’t identify with those very strong characters; although you can counter that by saying people can identify with superheroes in superhero gaming, so why not in fantasy or science fiction? But superhero stories (comics) are quite different from fantasy and science fiction stories. (In particular, there’s a tendency to have lots of one-on-one matchups in superhero fighting, by design.)

Is there any solution? I can think of several.

Stop While You’re Ahead​

You could stop playing when the characters get too powerful, and start a new campaign, or start new characters and only use the super-powerful characters in a really extraordinary situation. I’ve always preferred that each player have several characters available to play, so that an appropriate party can be gathered for any prospective adventure.

That's not so much a solution as a palliative, but it's the nature of the game; and I would say that if you have any kind of combat game, not just a role-playing game, where you have a strong progression of capability, you can have these problems of shooting first and overwhelming offense. On the other hand, if people are playing for the story and are not actually worried about losing, they may not take advantage of these two problems.

This is why, at the start, I specified a combat RPG. Another kind of RPG may not suffer this problem. Or the designer may have insured that the adventurers are always “human not superhuman." (See Human vs Superhuman: Functional vs Emotional Modeling)

Take Time to Get There​

Another solution is to make sure it takes a huge number of adventures to reach the rarified air of great combat power. That’s my preference, but it may not be for everybody: with each iteration of D&D, advancement has sped up so that there’s an expectation that characters level up quickly. Unless you’re using milestone leveling or some other system not tied to gaining experience points from combat, players will expect a steady progression. Slowing things down requires a conversation with players beforehand so they understand that they will level up at a slower pace than they might expect.

It’s Not the Destination, It’s the Journey​

Another solution would be to make sure everyone understands that their characters will almost certainly die before reaching the super-powerful levels. If it takes a telescope (so to speak) to look up to the next level, then players may pay attention to the journey more than the destination. So enjoy life and heroism while you can!

Your Turn: How do you manage high level characters in your campaign?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Horwath

Hero
3.5e had a solution in E6 variant.
That is, you can level up only to 6th level and get feats from that point.

for 5e as spells have been toned down a little, E9 could be a good solution to limit.

9th level gives +4 proficiency(nice scaling of +0, +2, +4, +8 bonuses, for non-proficiency, half proficiency features, proficiency and expertise).

Any "levels" you gain after will only give you ASI or Feat or class level in a 2nd class(that you can only raise to 9th level max)

9th level gives nice features for many (sub)classes and single 5th level slot for full casters and 3rd level spells with 2 slots for half casters.

Now as you do not gain any more HPs(outside increases of Con or feats) and no higher level features or higher proficiency bonus, these "new levels" are weaker than normal.
You might calculate them as 1 CR more for these 2 "levels" for 1st few increases, and then 3 or 4 "levels" for extra CR as you get into diminishing returns category.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
It’s definitely a “thing” that high level games tend to be more problematic and less enjoyable. I’ve played D&D since 1976 and have only played or DM-ed a handful of games over level 13.
I agree with all the reasons Lew states and might even add a couple more, both in-game and out-of-game.
1 Book keeping complexity; keeping track of spells, magic items, abilities, buffs etc becomes a chore. This is even more so in rule sets that become bloated, as 2E and Pathfinder both did.
2 Real life gets in the way; people move, have kids, change jobs, get married or whatever, and that can end campaigns. Because most campaigns start at level one, or at least low level, we get to play that bit, then tend to start a new campaign at low levels.
3 Opinions on where the “sweet spot” in D&D occurs can vary, but most people would put it somewhere between level 3 and 10. It’s just more fun to be able to do stuff but still be a bit vulnerable.
4 There are less high level adventures available to buy Han there are low and medium level.

Solutions:
This is the tricky part.
1E topped out dice for hit points at a certain level and just added 3 (for fighters) or less points per level. I guess that partly solved it.

Speaking personally, I’ve never been particularly motivated to think of solutions as I prefer playing at low or medium levels, but I’m interested in what others may come up with.
 

AlwaysMerlin

Villager
Pathfinder 2e’s high level play is much more balanced than D&D 5e. A lot of that is probably attributed to martial’s still being incredibly relevant and casters still being powerful but not out of the stratosphere like 5e ones.
It is also very easy for the GM to create encounters for it, as monster level actually matters. So challenging a level 18 party is just as easy as a level 5.
As a GM I much prefer it.

For 5e I would prefer to plan to end the campaign around level 13.
 

Raith5

Adventurer
I didnt feel that 4e had this problem because the monsters scaled in terms of not just maths (like the the PCs) but terms of the flexibility, breadth and impact of their abilities. I played a 4e campaign to 30th level and while I think 4e had some problems, it really worked in regards to challenges for all levels.

So I think one alternative to this problem is to design the game (both PCs and monsters) with the full range of levels in mind.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I've run games up to 20th level in 5E and intend to do it again with my current campaign. I don't have much of a problem running them as with few modifications, about the only house rule I have is that banishment doesn't work but that has more to do with how my cosmology works than power balance.

I do lean into attrition and multiple encounters between rests along with multiple waves of enemies, illusions, terrain and so on. Yes, casters have incredible spells at their fingertips. On the other hand, meteor storm is worthless if the big fight is taking place in the middle of a crowded city. Use your big spells on that BBEG? Oops, either legendary resistance kicks in or it was really a stand-in.

Of course, sometimes the group will stomp all over your carefully planned encounter and crumple up your big bad like a used tissue and toss him aside. That's great! They should feel awesome now and then, because they are. The trick is that if every fight has no challenge the ones the players dominate don't feel special.

My main guidelines don't really differ that much for high level play as for mid-level play.
  • Solos don't work very well in straight-up fights so you have to be a bit creative. A dragon will use terrain to fly off behind total cover while waiting for their breath weapon to recharge, they'll try to separate the group or even just swoop in and carry off one individual. While they're not in combat they'll send in minions to distract the group.
  • Enemies don't attack in fireball formation. Attack from all directions, including from above or below.
  • Use subterfuge and misdirection. Illusions and patsies are a pretty common thing to throw at the group. Just don't overdo it, as this can be frustrating.
  • Switch the goals. You're opposed by a literal demon army, instead of killing everything you need to get the McGuffin to safety or push the big red button.
  • Run away! Sometimes the goal for the PCs is just to escape, other times the BBEG runs away when the going gets tough. Just don't assume or require that the BBEG gets away. If the wizard counterspells the BBEG's teleport, so be it.
  • Use terrain and environmental features. Dense fog or impenetrable darkness can add a different feel to a combat, especially if individuals become separated.
  • Customize monsters, especially grunts. If the situation calls for a decent number of opponents I'll take relatively low level monsters, give them advantage and/or a big plus on attacks and saves, double or triple damage but keep the HP the same. They're "specially blessed" or magically "juiced" for the fight.
  • Don't be afraid to target their weaknesses. At these levels the PCs are well known, their reputations and tactics probably precede them especially for intelligent foes.
  • Consider fudging a bit for genius level monsters. While I don't fudge dice, I do sometimes switch up spells, capabilities or resources. Just because the monster has a 25 intelligence and should be thinking 10 moves ahead doesn't mean that as a DM I can. Just be careful to not abuse this.
  • Switch things up mid combat. It turns out what you thought was a straight fight was a trap, you have to stop one of the opponents from ringing the alarm bell, the NPC you thought was dead is really a captive you now have to rescue and so on.
  • If the fight is a foregone conclusion and the PCs are just mopping up, consider just calling it.
Most of all, remember to try to keep the fights dynamic and flowing. The goal is to have fun, not to make fights hopeless. After all as a DM I have infinite dragons, I can always wipe out any party of any level if I really want to do so. High level campaigns can be difficult and there are times fights can drag on if they just become slug-fests, but I've enjoyed playing and DMing them.

So those are just some of my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. Don't be afraid of high level games, they can be a lot of fun for player and DM alike. Feel free to throw the kitchen sink and a mob of balrogs at the party if it makes sense and embrace the gonzo nature of high level play.
 


Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
I’ve always thought that combat-oriented Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop role-playing games become less fun to play as characters reach double-figure levels

Your Turn: How do you manage high level characters in your campaign?

So basically, the solution you propose to the problem amount to : (a) not play the high level characters but their henchmens after some time (b) not play the high level characters because they die before getting there (c) not play the high level characters for long because the game is skewed so it takes so much time that real life (and will to play something else) will put a stop to the character progression before they reach it.

I'd say your solutions (or more exactly, side-steps) are spot-on to the problem you diagnose. If you think D&D is not fun after level 10, by all means don't play it. I don't think eating green beans is fun so I don't eat them. I don't try to find convoluted ways to making eating them fun for me and I order fries instead.

In order to provide solutions, the problem must be narrowed down better than "it's not fun": analysis paralysis, discrepancies in power between martial and magic classe that might need GM adjudication to evolve as higher levels are reached, whole parts of the game that can be skipped (travelling is skipped by teleportation... the solution 5e did was to make teleportation higher level but they didn't include a chapter on how to change your storytelling and adventure building for this, just delaying the apparition of kewl powers, which wasn't the best way to handle this if they wanted to have people actually playing at high level...

The explicit problems you mentions are the ability to nova and a lack of ability to identify. To counter the first... play with it. The characters are no longers Frodos and Gimlis, they are Sarumans and Feanors at this point. They deserve to be able to shine when nova'ing. Adapt your fights setup so big fights include reinforcements, summoned help and so on. Use the example of Auril's avatar in RotFM and others (including the excellent book on monster design by Giffyglyph to have several "forms" of the boss, so novaing will defeat its first form only to have it to switch to the second... and if you nova'ed too much, you might be in trouble. It also makes those boss interesting to fight and suprising and I find it better than Legendary resistances which only make cool abilities fizzles... which is not coool.

I also like to have them face superhumanly intelligent opponents at this level. The ones that would make plans to ensure their self-preservation. Let the players try scry-and-die on one of them... only to have him contingently flee. He can afford to let the heroes loose in his throne room while his army of guards reaches it, led by his second in command. A handy demiplane is useful, same with being a lich, a contingent dimension door... Nova-ing will let the players feel powerful, but not achieve much for the characters if they teleport back home after that without finishing the task...

While at it, don't forget to let the players wipe the floor with mid-level enemies when they are high leve, sometimes. Gandalf doesn't fear wolves, he tackles balrogs and part of the pleasure of high level play is having this sense of achievement. Look at Jango Fett in the prequel trilogy. He's a deadly bounty hunter, model for all the clone troopers and presented as a high level threat. On Geonosis, it's reinforced by him defeating one of the beast in the arena with ease... Then, he shoots at Windu, who runs at him and fight him... for less than six seconds. It takes one round (Jango gets the initiative, make 5 ranged attacks, then Windu takes a move action, a first attack to Disarm and a second attack to kill).


That's the level of competency the high level characters should have, and sometime enjoy it, when they reach high level. They are no longer the farmboy recently going out to explore the galaxy... And they need to feel they reached that level after their trials clearing basements of rats.


With regard to identification, I don't know really as I don't share this difficulty (on the contrary). As you stated people can identify with Superman... the key is to have players sharing the expectations of the campaign beforehand and manage the switch in power-level by adapting the storytelling to it. WotC paved the way by creating "tiers" but maybe they could have done a better job to showing how to scale the ante with each tier. Having campaign pausing (with time elapsing) between the tier also makes the gain in power more believable if that's what breaks at your table. If 5 years in game time pass between you reached level 16 and you start the next adventure at level 17, the step-up will be more manageable (but have something for martials at this point... they shouldn't be neglected. They are the Hercules and Achilles of the world, as well.

I also start campaign with a set-up where they are bossed around at first, with a quest giver able to order them around, then move to a set-up where they can have much more leeway at mid-level (the thread is identified, the means to resolve them are left to them, because they are at Knights-of-the-Round-Table level... they are tasked to seek the Grail, not send in town X through path Y, then fight foe Z while there like a simple militiamen... and at the very high-level, I move to a sandbox setup. The players are familiar with the world, so they can be more proactive in what they decide to do when they identify a cosmic threat.
 
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Sunsword

Adventurer
I've run games up to 20th level in 5E and intend to do it again with my current campaign. I don't have much of a problem running them as with few modifications, about the only house rule I have is that banishment doesn't work but that has more to do with how my cosmology works than power balance.

I do lean into attrition and multiple encounters between rests along with multiple waves of enemies, illusions, terrain and so on. Yes, casters have incredible spells at their fingertips. On the other hand, meteor storm is worthless if the big fight is taking place in the middle of a crowded city. Use your big spells on that BBEG? Oops, either legendary resistance kicks in or it was really a stand-in.

Of course, sometimes the group will stomp all over your carefully planned encounter and crumple up your big bad like a used tissue and toss him aside. That's great! They should feel awesome now and then, because they are. The trick is that if every fight has no challenge the ones the players dominate don't feel special.

My main guidelines don't really differ that much for high level play as for mid-level play.
  • Solos don't work very well in straight-up fights so you have to be a bit creative. A dragon will use terrain to fly off behind total cover while waiting for their breath weapon to recharge, they'll try to separate the group or even just swoop in and carry off one individual. While they're not in combat they'll send in minions to distract the group.
  • Enemies don't attack in fireball formation. Attack from all directions, including from above or below.
  • Use subterfuge and misdirection. Illusions and patsies are a pretty common thing to throw at the group. Just don't overdo it, as this can be frustrating.
  • Switch the goals. You're opposed by a literal demon army, instead of killing everything you need to get the McGuffin to safety or push the big red button.
  • Run away! Sometimes the goal for the PCs is just to escape, other times the BBEG runs away when the going gets tough. Just don't assume or require that the BBEG gets away. If the wizard counterspells the BBEG's teleport, so be it.
  • Use terrain and environmental features. Dense fog or impenetrable darkness can add a different feel to a combat, especially if individuals become separated.
  • Customize monsters, especially grunts. If the situation calls for a decent number of opponents I'll take relatively low level monsters, give them advantage and/or a big plus on attacks and saves, double or triple damage but keep the HP the same. They're "specially blessed" or magically "juiced" for the fight.
  • Don't be afraid to target their weaknesses. At these levels the PCs are well known, their reputations and tactics probably precede them especially for intelligent foes.
  • Consider fudging a bit for genius level monsters. While I don't fudge dice, I do sometimes switch up spells, capabilities or resources. Just because the monster has a 25 intelligence and should be thinking 10 moves ahead doesn't mean that as a DM I can. Just be careful to not abuse this.
  • Switch things up mid combat. It turns out what you thought was a straight fight was a trap, you have to stop one of the opponents from ringing the alarm bell, the NPC you thought was dead is really a captive you now have to rescue and so on.
  • If the fight is a foregone conclusion and the PCs are just mopping up, consider just calling it.
Most of all, remember to try to keep the fights dynamic and flowing. The goal is to have fun, not to make fights hopeless. After all as a DM I have infinite dragons, I can always wipe out any party of any level if I really want to do so. High level campaigns can be difficult and there are times fights can drag on if they just become slug-fests, but I've enjoyed playing and DMing them.

So those are just some of my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. Don't be afraid of high level games, they can be a lot of fun for player and DM alike. Feel free to throw the kitchen sink and a mob of balrogs at the party if it makes sense and embrace the gonzo nature of high level play.

Thank you, this is what I was hoping to find when I clicked the link.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
In D&D specifically it just becomes a game of "look what I can do" as players take turns whipping out the fruits of their long planned builds. This is fine but clearly not everyone's taste. I think what is missing at higher levels are skill challenges, investigations and role play because these scenarios can be solved by magic. This takes away a major component of the game and requires the GM to think a lot harder to come up with challenges.

I've played in plenty of games where high level play was compelling but they were always official modules of some kind. Professionally written material in this vein usually works much better than a non-professionals attempt, which makes since. It takes a lot more work to prepare high level material and not everyone has that kind of time.

If you want something with much less of a power curve there is CoC, WoD, WFRP, and obviously, infinitely more. D20 is far from the only game that has this kind of power curve though. In Travaller, once you have the money to buy bananas power armor you can just murder your way through any problem. I seem to remember Shadowrun getting wacky as well but it has been a long time. I just think if you want D&D to play differently than it does, maybe you should just play a different game.
 


Mortus

Explorer
I’ve never experienced this problem in the almost 40 years of playing D&D. I don’t ‘balance’ combat encounters. I use variant rules to make combat ‘war’. With 5E, I’m using most of the gritty/lethal variants in the DMG. That has worked well at high level. With the conversion for Bloodstone Pass for 5E for 20th level PCs, the players needed multiple 20th level PCs to finish the last adventure with an approximately 50% PC mortality rate. Combat can be as challenging as the DM wants at any level.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
These problems were less in 4e, but not entirely absent. And they were less because 4e had that mid-level feel for longer.

At some point encounter design did get harder. Everyone has a big nova in 4e, especially at higher levels. That high level solo--plus environment and some softening--might or might not challenge the party.

But an army of Githayanki, or mutants, would work. (That was a good campaign).
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Best solution is to not play level based rpgs where hit points go up as you level and are considered abstract in nature. Play a skill based system with little to no real hit point/health increases and where hits are more devastating. Something like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying RPG (RuneQuest, Mythras, Delta Green etc) etc.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Best solution is to not play level based rpgs where hit points go up as you level and are considered abstract in nature. Play a skill based system with little to no real hit point/health increases and where hits are more devastating. Something like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying RPG (RuneQuest, Mythras, Delta Green etc) etc.
So the best solution to the perceived* issue with high level D&D is to ... not play D&D? I mean, I get that the game is not everyone's cup of tea but it's always odd to me when people go out of their way to find a D&D dedicated forum to post "D&D sux". 🤷‍♂️

*And yes, I do believe it is a perceived issue. I've had a lot of fun playing and DMing high level games, we get to tell different stories than low level.
 

jgsugden

Legend
I just don't get this whole complaint. It isn't that the game doesn't work, it is that people try to play the game wrong at those levels. They get frustrated when they can't run a murder mystery at high level without someone defeating it with a spell. PCs have powerful abilities at those levels, and they're intended to be used - and they will trivialize some challenges. Evolve your game. You can absolutely have a blast running a high level game if you consider the resources that everyone has and play them out sensibly. Heck in a great high level game, where you built up the story and the PCs are invested in the world, the combats are not the primary driver of a great game anymore. They're connective tissue, not the meat.

'Who shot first' isn't a problem in most parties. The way the game plays out, you tend to have the PCs and monsters mixed in their initiative. If you're doing group initiative, and all of one side goes before the other side ... well, that isn't a problem with high level play - that is a decision you made.
 

It really depends on the edition and the DM. High level BECMI and AD&D wasn't all that bad, but the DM did need to be aware of a handful of spells the players might have up their sleeve. I didn't DM 4E, but I played a level 1-30 game that worked pretty well, even in the epic tier. My first 5E campaign ended at level 18, and since I'm going to pull them back for an epic adventure, I obviously had no issues.

Honestly the only time I've seen issue with high level play was in 3E, where the martial/magic divide became ridiculous. I also had issues with certain DMs that had particular notions of how the game "should" be played, then became irate when the edition in question didn't work that way after a certain level. This last part is where things go wrong for most people, since the game is normally meant to change at a certain point, and if you don't adjust for that as a DM the wheels can fall off of the campaign. While not my cup of tea, I think the E6 is a great solution to this problem.
 

MarkB

Legend
I didnt feel that 4e had this problem because the monsters scaled in terms of not just maths (like the the PCs) but terms of the flexibility, breadth and impact of their abilities. I played a 4e campaign to 30th level and while I think 4e had some problems, it really worked in regards to challenges for all levels.

So I think one alternative to this problem is to design the game (both PCs and monsters) with the full range of levels in mind.
In 4e it felt like, more often than not, mid to high level combat was all about the stunlock. Monsters had ways to mess with the PCs' action economies and vice-versa, and the key to staying on top of a combat was to be able to counter what they were throwing at you while still dishing out some of your own.

Then again, I did play a Bravura Warlord in our only high-level campaign, so my viewpoint may be skewed.
 

Argyle King

Legend
I believe that game design and encounter design would benefit from having some understanding of real-world war and combat.

"But it's fantasy!"

Yes, yes it is, and there certainly are differences. At the same time, I believe there are things added to the game and design-approaches to the game which add problematic elements because there is a lack of understand why/how an option influences the outcome of an encounter.

Example: High mobility is (as per the encounter guidelines and design views built into the game) viewed as having zero value -even when the mobility includes covering space/distance in a way which violates normal expectations.

At lower levels, this is not noticed much. As the levels and numbers of the game grow, the influences of small pieces become larger.

I also think that contemporary D&D's reliance on increasing HP as one of the primary ways of making a challenge tougher can sometimes be unfun. The outcome of the fight doesn't change, but the amount of time it takes to achieve that outcome does.

As far as the "who shoots first problem;" I agree that it can be a problem, but I think that somewhat circles back around to having an understanding of war and combat. Understanding how a conflict plays out, how, and why is useful to building a compelling and fun combat within in a game; and useful for designing a game which approaches combat in a better way -even in a fantasy game.
 

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