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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

Argyle King

Legend
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.

I think that's accurate.

It's possible for the players to make it so that the enemy doesn't even get a turn during an encounter.

(FWIW, I typically played the Inspiring Warlord; occasionally dipping into Paladin or Bard if there were a power or paragon path which I wanted to explore... later books improved it, but sometimes the Paladin options worked better for other classes than they worked for the stock standard PHB Paladin.)
 

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MarkB

Legend

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.
It's not just about being the first to start ticking down the opposition's damage counters, it's about seizing the initiative - about acting rather than reacting.

If you go first, you get to dictate the pace and direction of the battle. If the other side goes first, you're having to react to their tactics instead of initiating your own.

In D&D the classic example would be getting off an early Dominate spell. Once a heavy-hitter in the opposing team turns against them, not only are the odds shifted, but most of the next round's worth of actions for that team are likely to be focused upon either negating or mitigating this turn of events, rather than focusing their strengths against you.
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
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.
Apologies, wasn't trying to say that I thought DnD sucked. I was suggesting a fix to a perceived problem. As an aside I started playing DnD in the spring of 1978. While no longer my favorite system, I do enjoy DnD and in particular I think that 5e is the best overall version.

Regardless, thanks for the reminder on why seldom visit the site anymore and why I'd not posted in a couple months or logged in here. I'll excuse myself. Again I thought we were discussing Lews article.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I think if all your character wants is to have lots of fights then high level characters get boring (for me, at least!), fast. It becomes too easy.

At higher levels, to me, it’s all about the personal narrative.

For example, I had a Dragon Sorcerer who literally wanted to become a Dragon. As he went beyond 10th level he was eventually able to find the magical means (a Wish spell) to be able to do it. That was the completion of his story arc, so that was the motivation to get to 18th level at least. After then, I began with a new character.
 

I've played 5E up through 20th level. Actually, up through 20th level plus 6 epic boons. Basically, the PCs had nearly 500,000xp.

So how was it?

Well, the game doesn't break. The math is solid enough.

Monster design doesn't really keep up in Tier 3 and Tier 4. Monsters don't do enough damage so combats can get slow and grindy. PCs can be hard to threaten. But it is possible -- I killed a player character at 20th level. That was fun.

Another strange thing is that the condition immunities of monsters means that the most effective way to hurt them is hacking and slashing. This can get frustrating for certain types of spellcasters, like bards.

And paladins are straight up OP.

Also, it does not feel suitably epic to me at high levels to count a bunch of 5 foot squares, so I began to hand wave most movement.

Next time I play at higher levels, I'll be tweaking the monster math to make them hit harder, as well as keeping a close eye on all players to make sure they feel like they're contributing equally.
 

Hussar

Legend
I think probably the biggest issue with high level play is a combination of a serious lack of advice for high level play and a lack of examples of high level adventure design.

So many DM's figure that level 15 is just level 5 with bigger numbers. It really isn't. The game has radically changed by this point. Your characters have SO many resources available to them and, coupled with the fact that high level powers can often synergise with each other, you simply cannot run the same style of adventures. A bog standard dungeon crawl where you go down into the ground, with 10 foot ceilings and whatnot just doesn't work anymore. Your level 15 adventures shouldn't look anything like your 5th level ones and, if you look at a 15th level adventure that you wrote and think, well, this could be run for a 5th level party if I switched out the monsters, then that is a badly designed 15th level adventure.

Which brings me to the other issue - lack of examples. There are literally thousands of single digit level adventures for D&D. Many, many thousands. You can find examples and variations on pretty much anything you can think of if you look for a bit. But a 15th level adventure? That's a lot harder to find. Not impossible, just harder. And a lot of the adventures, because these levels aren't played as much, lack the benefit of thousands and thousands of play hours to make them really shine.

You want to run a "lost island" adventure? There's a bajillion examples going all the way from Isle of Dread to Tomb of Annihilation. But, you want to run a githyanki vs beholder adventure set on the Astral Plane? Well.... you're pretty much on your own. And, frankly, the D&D books aren't much help at this point either and nor is the gaming community.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
So many DM's figure that level 15 is just level 5 with bigger numbers. It really isn't. The game has radically changed by this point. Your characters have SO many resources available to them and, coupled with the fact that high level powers can often synergise with each other, you simply cannot run the same style of adventures.

That is something that running superhero games really helped me with high level D&- Not to run high level D&D like superheroes... but in how to handle challenges for very powerful characters. Think of street level supers as lower level D&D, you can't run the same kind of adventure with Batgirl that you do with Superman. You have to essentially change what you are doing.
 
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Northern Phoenix

Adventurer
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.

While i can absolutely respect the time you took to write this, ultimately i disagree completely. I don't think you can just divorce the "it's not fun" issue. In my mind, many of the "solutions" you present are to simply play (or "embrace") the aspects that make it not fun, and i don't think that is very helpful. If that is the only choice, I'd rather just keep not running high level games. My problem with high level games are all the many factors combined which ultimately turn the game into a Magic the Gathering style procession of "i counter your counter", which pulls me right out of the fantasy narrative and makes me feel like I'm pushing buttons to make mechanics happen. I value "genre emulation" a lot, so any solution that discourages playing in the genre of the game are ones i don't find very helpful.
 

Davinshe

Explorer
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.
Hey, neat, never even heard of someone other than me who went all the way through 4e to level 30. Nice! I did find that by epic tier most creatures couldn't deal with the amount of control that players brought. I found myself giving most creatures extra abilities based on their rolls, and adding "leader" style abilities to one creature to grant saving throws or a boost to hit.

The odd thing about very high level 4e combat was that so much of the action moved to other peoples turns. Between reaction abilities and leaders granting move or attack to other members of the party, half the time it felt like you did more on other people's turns than your own.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Hey, neat, never even heard of someone other than me who went all the way through 4e to level 30. Nice! I did find that by epic tier most creatures couldn't deal with the amount of control that players brought. I found myself giving most creatures extra abilities based on their rolls, and adding "leader" style abilities to one creature to grant saving throws or a boost to hit.

The odd thing about very high level 4e combat was that so much of the action moved to other peoples turns. Between reaction abilities and leaders granting move or attack to other members of the party, half the time it felt like you did more on other people's turns than your own.

For what it's worth, I ran a campaign to level 30 and played 2 different PCs to level 30 in LFR (long story).

Probably part of why I burned out on 4E - there were good and bad aspects to 4E and epic tier combats for me where not in the "good" column. It's also why I defend high level combat in 5E; while combat can bog down a bit at high levels just because of all the options it still holds together better at high levels for me than at least the previous couple of editions.

I think WOTC has kind of a chicken-and-the-egg issue. They don't provide much support for high level games because nobody plays them, nobody plays them because so little support is provided. I've pretty much never run published mods for my home campaign and have always created customized monsters in all editions when it makes sense so I enjoy DMing all levels.

So I get that high level combat isn't for everyone. It does take more work. It takes encounters customized to your groups strengths and weaknesses, it's not something that generic modules can be created, what works for my current group may not work for another.
 

Raith5

Adventurer
Hey, neat, never even heard of someone other than me who went all the way through 4e to level 30. Nice! I did find that by epic tier most creatures couldn't deal with the amount of control that players brought. I found myself giving most creatures extra abilities based on their rolls, and adding "leader" style abilities to one creature to grant saving throws or a boost to hit..

I was a player and one thing that I know our DM did was throw very hard fights at us that were 4 or 5 CR higher than our level (I remember a fight with Orcus and about 6 high level demons when we were about 28th level). One other was to really string out the long rests (and reset of healing surges). This made us think really carefully about going nova and made us think about the trade offs between saving healing surges vs using dailies to shorten the combat.
 

I think I'm going to concur this article seems to either be unaware of or have not seen some versions and offshoots of D&D. I found higher level 4e a little too busy (in that I had more options than I could easily keep track of) but it was not boring nor too easy. PF2e has some elements of being busy, but less severely so, and I've not found its higher levels any worse than lower, either. It also wasn't true with Shadow of the Demon Lord, and doesn't appear to be the case with 13th Age, though you can make a semantic argument about those not having high levels.
 

Hussar

Legend
Hey, neat, never even heard of someone other than me who went all the way through 4e to level 30. Nice! I did find that by epic tier most creatures couldn't deal with the amount of control that players brought. I found myself giving most creatures extra abilities based on their rolls, and adding "leader" style abilities to one creature to grant saving throws or a boost to hit.

The odd thing about very high level 4e combat was that so much of the action moved to other peoples turns. Between reaction abilities and leaders granting move or attack to other members of the party, half the time it felt like you did more on other people's turns than your own.
I do think that this was a problem with 4e's action system. The proliferation of off turn actions combined with the proliferation of status effects got insane towards the end. Like you said, it was almost as if you did more stuff on other poeple's turns than on your own. I do think 5e went a touch too far the other way and stripped away too many off turn actions, meaning that it can be a long time between turns in 5e - not as bad as 3e, but, that's damning with faint praise.

There really should be a happy medium.
 

I also have to note an issue one has to engage with:

At least to one degree or another, a lot of these games want there to be a difference between what a poor set of tactical player, a mediocre set and a good set do in a fight. This means that most encounters are scaled so at least the medium capability group can work their way through it.

The net effect is that, even in games that don't pile up the bricks that higher over time (which was absolutely an issue with D&D 3e and with PF 1e), over time the players will likely learn more about how to use the kind of tricks their characters have, over and above getting more tricks (not necessarily vastly better ones, at least proportionate to the opponents you expect to hit). This means its entirely probable that players will, indeed, do proportionately better at higher levels simply because they know what they're doing better.

(Of course you can run into issues that are not systemic, too; for example with 4e, one of the well known issues was that the first Monster Manual for 4e had some design problems, and it wouldn't surprise me that applied to some of the higher level monsters; if some of these made the monster involved too weak, its going to be seen as an aspect of the character's levels rather than the monster most likely).
 

MarkB

Legend
I also have to note an issue one has to engage with:

At least to one degree or another, a lot of these games want there to be a difference between what a poor set of tactical player, a mediocre set and a good set do in a fight. This means that most encounters are scaled so at least the medium capability group can work their way through it.

The net effect is that, even in games that don't pile up the bricks that higher over time (which was absolutely an issue with D&D 3e and with PF 1e), over time the players will likely learn more about how to use the kind of tricks their characters have, over and above getting more tricks (not necessarily vastly better ones, at least proportionate to the opponents you expect to hit). This means its entirely probable that players will, indeed, do proportionately better at higher levels simply because they know what they're doing better.
That's true enough if you've played all the way up from low levels. More so in 4e than 5e in my experience - in 4e the ways some classes' features could synergise with each other made it possible to wind up with a highly integrated team who would be far more effective than a set of characters that were each built in isolation.

That's less true in 5e, but still a factor.

When starting a game at mid-to-high level, on the other hand, characters begin with so many options (not even counting spells) that it may be weeks of play before the players even have a good grasp of their own characters' full capabilities, let alone each other's.
 

That's true enough if you've played all the way up from low levels. More so in 4e than 5e in my experience - in 4e the ways some classes' features could synergise with each other made it possible to wind up with a highly integrated team who would be far more effective than a set of characters that were each built in isolation.

That's less true in 5e, but still a factor.

When starting a game at mid-to-high level, on the other hand, characters begin with so many options (not even counting spells) that it may be weeks of play before the players even have a good grasp of their own characters' full capabilities, let alone each other's.

Absolutely true. I tend to assume playing from the ground up (just because its such a compulsion among people in the D&D-sphere) unless specifically indicated otherwise.
 


Stalker0

Legend
My few thoughts on the issues of high level (and I will use 15-20 as my mark for high level in this context".

The Plot
I would say that the vast majority of plots that DMs use for lower level PCs are no longer suitable for high level. So for most "organically grown" parties, there needs to be a tonal shift at some point. Aka they beat their original BBEG, they saved the world, etc etc... they finished the original plot, and have decided to go "high level" with a new plot.

Now that doesn't mean the original plot can't serve the high level plot. Perhaps the BBEG they fought to save the world actually worked for a person trying to control the entire multiverse.... no problem there. Or maybe the original BBEG was able to ascend to godhood and now is a universal threat. But the idea is.... the old plot baggage is left behind, and the scale of the game has clearly changed. High level people shouldn't be dealing with murder plots of kings, or villains threatening continents. Its world scale....probably more multiverse scale at that point....anything less just doesn't jive with the power those players have at their disposal.

I also think DMs need to think seriously if they want a second "high level plot" in their game. I think high level works best when you get that one big new world/multiversal danger, the PCs defeat it.... and the game ends. Introducing a second world/multiversal threat, and then a 3rd, etc etc starts to lose some of the epicness of the game at that point. Though it can be done, DMs should seriously ask if they really want it to be done.

Big Things under Time Pressure
All of my experience DMing high levels has taught me one thing above all others.... the best way to challenge high level players is time. Give the party a week, and they will find ways to subvert and trash anything you can throw at them. Give them only a few days, or heck even a single day (no long rests) and suddenly things get interesting again.

This is also a fun way to show off epicness and still use old plotlines....use a more midtier plot....but require the party to do it in a day. Example, maybe the party saved their own world from a BBEG....after months of work and planning. Have them go to a new world, with a new world ending badguy....and say "you have 1 day". Similar to throwing a softball encounter to make the party feel really strong, throwing out an old "campaign length plot" as "just all in a days work" can really highlight how powerful the party is nice.

Of course use that sparingly, I mean how many worlds need saving every day, but its a fun change of pace.

Temporary Nerfs are Fine
A lot of high level guides say things like "don't get in the habit of nerfing things just because it thwarts your plot". I think that's good advice but its incomplete. I think nerfing things is completely fine, as long as your mixing it up.

For example, teleports, one of the things high level DMs that aren't as experienced love to nerf. There is no issue with having an adventure where the party goes to a realm where teleports don't work..... just don't remove teleports ALL the time. The next time they face a bad guy with a lair repulsion effect against all metal (aka no metal armor and weapons). Then the next time they go to a fire plane where everything is highly resistant or immune to fire. The next place has a weird effect where all divinations only show you the past instead of the future (which can be fun roleplaying).

In each case I am nerfing some mechanic to shake up the adventure and have the party get creative, the key is just not to nerf the same stuff all the time.

Bring in the Referees
One issue that some DMs can have when they first get to high level is this notion that the players just can't be stopped. They can go where they want, alter reality, divine any secret you could come up with. This can give DMs a feeling of powerlessness if they don't learn how to control it.

One idea that can make for great roleplaying, is to call in the universal referees. The players are no longer just capable of shifting the sand around, they can actually break the sandbox....and some entities are not ok with that.

Perhaps a player decides "ok, I am going to finally figure out the world secret that we have heard about for like 12 levels!".... and then an agent of Vecna (or hell Vecna himself) arrives to go "yeah...no, we are not ok with that". Maybe the agent threatens, maybe they bribe the player with a grand thing (but with some permanent geas that prevents them from looking in on the secret).

This is the notion of "succeed sideways". The player didn't technically get what they were looking for, but they did get a cool encounter and maybe some other fun knowledge or treasure.

Like most things its all about degrees. As a once in a while reminder to the party that they are not all powerful, its fine. But if your doing it everytime a 9th level spell is cast then your going to have a problem.

One Note on Initiative
One thing I do agree with in the original guide is that initiative at high levels can be everything. It doesn't matter how awesome your BBEG is, if he goes last in the initiative....he may get wrecked before it even gets to go.

One houserule I have tried a few times is this: "Legendary Monsters can choose to take 10 on the initiative roll"

This means I'm giving up on the idea the monster goes first, but I'm ensuring the party at least goes generally in the middle, giving the party some chance to hit them first but ensuring the monster is never dead (and I do mean dead) last. This can add a bit of consistency especially when the party is going for the really big fight, and you truly don't want the fight to be ruined by one single bad initiative roll.
 

MarkB

Legend
The Plot
I would say that the vast majority of plots that DMs use for lower level PCs are no longer suitable for high level. So for most "organically grown" parties, there needs to be a tonal shift at some point. Aka they beat their original BBEG, they saved the world, etc etc... they finished the original plot, and have decided to go "high level" with a new plot.

Now that doesn't mean the original plot can't serve the high level plot. Perhaps the BBEG they fought to save the world actually worked for a person trying to control the entire multiverse.... no problem there. Or maybe the original BBEG was able to ascend to godhood and now is a universal threat. But the idea is.... the old plot baggage is left behind, and the scale of the game has clearly changed. High level people shouldn't be dealing with murder plots of kings, or villains threatening continents. Its world scale....probably more multiverse scale at that point....anything less just doesn't jive with the power those players have at their disposal.

I also think DMs need to think seriously if they want a second "high level plot" in their game. I think high level works best when you get that one big new world/multiversal danger, the PCs defeat it.... and the game ends. Introducing a second world/multiversal threat, and then a 3rd, etc etc starts to lose some of the epicness of the game at that point. Though it can be done, DMs should seriously ask if they really want it to be done.
Yeah, I had an Eberron campaign founder in the early-teens levels last year because I just couldn't make the pivot. The players had foiled the plot that had been running from the start of the campaign, and gone through investigating a secondary thread and found leads to a larger threat, but when it came to actually detailing those new foes and bringing it all together into a new scheme for the PCs to foil, I just hit a complete block.

Wound up putting the campaign on hold for a few weeks thinking I'd pull something together and carry on, before finally cancelling it after inspiration stubbornly failed to strike. A very unsatisfying end to an enjoyable campaign.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Yeah, I had an Eberron campaign founder in the early-teens levels last year because I just couldn't make the pivot. The players had foiled the plot that had been running from the start of the campaign, and gone through investigating a secondary thread and found leads to a larger threat, but when it came to actually detailing those new foes and bringing it all together into a new scheme for the PCs to foil, I just hit a complete block.

Wound up putting the campaign on hold for a few weeks thinking I'd pull something together and carry on, before finally cancelling it after inspiration stubbornly failed to strike. A very unsatisfying end to an enjoyable campaign.

Sometimes campaigns have a logical conclusion. One possibility which may or may not apply/help is to consider setting a new set of adventures years after the PCs "retired" from the previous campaign. Something happens - possibly completely unrelated to the original campaign - and it's time to bring the old group back together one last time. Another option is to tie in a completely unrelated threat that is affecting old allies or even old enemies.

Or not. Sometimes campaigns just end and if it ended on a whimper instead of a bang you try to plan a little better next time.
 

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