All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Data from D&D Beyond suggests that 90% of Dungeons & Dragons games stop by level 10. That means players are missing out because at high levels D&D can prove the most fun of all. Sure, in older editions when characters rose above level 10, the math of the game crumbled. Also back then, everyone playing alongside a high-level wizard started feeling like Jimmy Olsen alongside Superman. But fifth edition solves the linear-fighter/exponential-wizard problem and the math mostly holds up, so dive into high-level play. The game plays (mostly) fine.

I wrote “mostly” because high-level games pose unique challenges. Don’t expect much help from the game’s designers. They focus on the low levels that dominate actual play and on making the game welcoming for the new players driving the D&D’s growth. The designers figure those of us interested in high-level play have the smarts to make the game work. We can. Here’s how.

Trouble: Characters have abilities that erase obstacles

Low-level D&D challenges players with physical obstacles: dungeon walls and doors, chasms, towers, and portcullises. As characters grow in level, they gain abilities that surmount all those deterrents. Dungeon masters lose all the barriers that can test players and channel characters through adventures. High-level characters can bypass other obstacles too. A suggestion spell makes a hostile witness tell all. A scrying spell reveals the location of captives. Teleport takes you directly to their location. Even the dead may tell their tales.

How can a DM cope?Sometimes DMs and adventure designers resort to blocking troublesome abilities. During a recent weekend of D&D, two of the three published, high-level adventures that I played nullified teleportation.

As a way to vary challenges and encourage new, ingenious solutions, you can block characters’ powers, but I suggest avoiding that technique. Instead, as a DM who is a fan of the characters, embrace their power and savor the freedom it gives you. As DM for a high-level group, you can invent nearly insurmountable obstacles, traps that verge on the unfair, and heap complications on the characters without sparing a moment worrying the that the party will become stuck or overmatched. High-level characters bring answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities. High-level D&D offers an invitation to set your wicked imagination loose. You will love it.

Vary the challenges. Despite the fun of using super-powered abilities, players still enjoy obstacles that test their problem solving. High-level characters will find easy answers to some obstacles and foes, so if you want some hurtles to remain, look to vary the challenges.

This means that high-level adventures invite problems when all the monsters share a theme along with similar strengths and weaknesses. When I ran a high-level epic themed around a green dragon and its poison-spewing allies, the moment the party cast heroes’ feast and gained resistance to all poison, a 4-hour session turned into an overlong joke.

Recently, I created tier 4 encounter that started with a wave of iron golems, but iron golems suffer from a -5 Charisma modifier. A typical high-level spellcaster with a DC20-plus saving throw can cast a 8th-level banishment and clear a battlefield of 5 iron golems with a single spell that the golems have zero chance of resisting. For the next wave of foes I aimed for high Charisma and perhaps enough attacks to break concentration. Say hello to a pair of mariliths. If my approach seems unfair, remember that tier 4 parties have answers for everything. You can dare players to win and then feel confident they will. The players will solve the mariliths too, but with a different solution.

Players love an ingenious trick that wins an encounter, but they grow bored if the same method keeps working. If the same trick threatens to work more than once, consider improvising complications or devising a different sort of barrier. If the same trick could work a third time, you can invent reasons to nullify it. I’ll sign your permission slip.

Separate the keys to success. If you ever wonder why the Empire of Star Wars keeps building weapons with single Achilles heels, this advice should resonate. When you devise high-level adventures, divide the keys to victory.

Often the keys to solving an adventure include the identity and locations of the objects to retrieve, of the lairs to invade, and of the evil to smite. Typically, a lack of information rates as the only obstacle likely to block high-level adventurers from ending your adventure too soon. To protect a scenario’s challenge, protect the information.

  • In investigations, assume every non-player character, living or dead, is an open book. This means that when you decide what NPCs know, make sure that no one has all the answers the players need to skip to the adventure’s end.
  • Until the end of a scenario, make sure that persuading or killing a single non-player character can’t bring the party success in all their goals.

Expect players to skip to the end of locations. Top-level play can make dungeon crawls as toothless as flying makes pit traps. Characters bring too many ways to skip the walls, doors and traps. And 1-6 pit fiends hardly make sense as wandering monsters. For high levels, focus on smaller locations with one or two challenging encounters.

D&D used to be game that emphasized building groups with characters who could fill unique roles, including a fighter able to protect more fragile characters and especially a cleric able to heal. The design of today’s D&D lets parties operate without healers and makes every character fairly durable. But at high levels one character type can reshape what a party can accomplish. Wizards and other spellcasters with teleport and plane shift unlock the sort of world-spanning, cosmic adventures that work best at high levels. Groups that lack such capabilities have to rely on portals or patrons who provide the transportation. For me, the hardest part of designing a high-level adventure for an unfamiliar group of characters comes from rewarding the wizard’s capabilities, but not requiring them.

Next: Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

4 thoughts on “All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

  1. Rasmus Nord Jørgensen

    I agree very much with your advice. I will differ on the point about blocking high level options like teleport: it is fun one time, or in one location, after the players have come to rely on them. At least my tier 4 players enjoyed a challenge where even low lvl spells like Misty step and Dimension Door couldn’t get them out of trouble and doors were obstacles.

    And then it is about applying pressure over a long period of time until they overcome the climax and can finally relax.

    My players enjoyed using all their high lvl abilities to lay the smack down on a high ranking members of an evil mages guild, and I let them go nuts and he died in round 1, but they did not enjoy the political and judicial ramifications, when the guild sues for 150,000 gp in damages and they are called before a Royal tribunal.

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  2. Beoric

    There is much less of a problem with players skipping to the end of the dungeon if it is not clear to them who, what or where constitutes the end. You can’t practice scry and die if you don’t know what to scry. So dungeon and adventure design can make a big difference.

    It is also worthwhile to learn the spells of your edition really well, because they often don’t work the way players would like to think they do, and there are often mundane tactics to counter them.

    You can also counter problematic spells by giving players lots of opportunities to use them, so that they burn through spell slots or need to find other solutions. If your edition includes rituals, ritual spamming is best met with a wandering monster mechanic.

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  3. Another David

    “For high levels, focus on smaller locations with one or two challenging encounters.”

    I word of caution that this approach will only make the DM’s job of challenging the PCs more difficult overall if they go into a location fully rested and can expect a long rest afterward.

    D&D is designed around PC resource management, and many of 5E’s “problems” are solved by sticking to 3 or more encounters between long rests. This is especially true at higher levels, where powerful abilities and high level spells can short circuit a single encounter. Requiring them to complete several encounters between long rests lets characters do their cool thing (like use an 8th lvl slot to banish 5 iron golems) at a cost (get through several more encounters without that 8th level spell slot). Similarly, any abilities or spells used to easily bypass non-combat obstacles aren’t available for other encounters, and once players know that their resources must last through several challenges they will search for creative solutions that save their “big guns” for when they need them most.

    D&D 5E’s default resting rules work well for adventuring at Tier 1, but by Tier 3 and 4 the game works much better using the Gritty Realism variant or something similar which forces the PCs to stretch their resources through more and more obstacles before they can get to a long rest.

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