Five years ago, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League administrators faced a dilemma. The campaign’s loyal players had characters that neared 17th level and tier 4 play, but the league lacked adventures for these characters. The campaign administrators wondered if they should add top-level adventures despite the smaller audience for these heights. D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast had not led with any top-level content. Some D&D enthusiasts even wondered if games at such levels would prove fun or manageable. (Spoiler: Yes.) If the league created scenarios for epic levels, then the campaign’s authors needed to experiment and learn for themselves how to make the adventures play well.
League administrator Alan Patrick learned as much as anyone. He has run more than 350 sessions at levels 17 through 20, most at conventions with tables of strangers bringing unfamiliar characters. He won experience by running for every available character type through a spectrum of play styles.
The product of Alan’s experience appears in a trilogy of high-level adventures each perfected by the author through more than a hundred runs. The trio includes DDAL00-01 Window to the Past, DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, and DDAL00-10 Trust and Understanding.
For Alan, top-level D&D play works best when its style circles back to some of the same elements that make tier 1 rewarding for players.
Circle back to the characters’ emotional roots
New characters feel close to their roots: things like their homes, schools, families, and heritage. Often their adventures connect back to these elements. In the middle levels of 5-16, as characters leave a place like the Village of Hommlet, they visit exotic locations while rising to superhuman power. At the end of a legendary career, tier 4 characters and their adventures may deliver wonders, but the scope can rob their adventures of any emotional connection.
To remedy this distance, reconnect the characters to their humble origins, to the friends they met and locations they visited, to their heritage and home. Tier 4 adventures mark the end of a character’s career, and players feel the nearing conclusion. Reconnecting with characters’ origin adds emotional resonance to their journeys. If the character’s home is an actual place, they can return as legends and see reminders of their start. They can mirror the path of the hobbits returning to scour the Shire or the Beatles giving one last concert on the roof of Abby Road.
During a long weekend of D&D, my group played the same characters with stops from new to level 20. DM Shane Morrison ran Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before to finish the series at level 20. In one scene, we witnessed the ruin to come if we failed our mission. Shane described the doom awaiting many of the locations and friends from our characters’ careers. This moment brilliantly rooted our battle to save the world to the story of our characters. Win or lose, I knew I fought my character’s final battle, and I felt like I was fighting for something that counted.
Even while high-level adventurers look back to their start, they will see reminders of their achievement. Their legendary reputations may lead non-player characters to react like star-struck fans. Except for the occasional secretive rogue, tier 4 characters would rank as the rock stars and celebrities of their world. Getting a meeting with the king might not pose a challenge, because he can’t wait to finally get a selfie. Sample PC dialog: “Ask the royal artist to paint faster. We have a multiverse to save.”
A return to the characters’ roots hardly means that legendary heroes should fight rats in the cellar. Tier 4 merits heavy use of our imagination’s unlimited special effects budget. The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers a vision for cosmic settings and foes. “Characters traverse otherworldly realms and explore demiplanes and other extraplanar locales, where they fight savage balor demons, titans, archdevils, lich archmages, and even avatars of the gods themselves.” High-level characters have the power to do all that and still visit home for snacks.
Tier 4 characters play like superheroes, flying, running on walls, teleporting, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. Imagine battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to make them sweat despite their fire resistance.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains that adventures at this tier have far-reaching consequences “possibly determining the fate of millions in the Material Plane and even places beyond.” Such grand stakes offer a cinematic flair, but not every adventure must aim to save the multiverse. “The breaking of home is a much more emotional experience, which keeps players dialed in to the game,” Alan explains.
Smaller stakes still work well when they feel personal, and they avoid an exhausting need to raise the stakes every week. Thor and Superman may rank among the mightiest heroes of their fictional universes, but half of Thor’s adventures amount to family drama and Superman saves Jimmy Olson as often as the world. Superman stays rooted in his found family at the Daily Planet.
Return to the early game’s swings of fortune and embrace them
At early levels, D&D games start with a certain swingyness where the characters’ fates rest on happenstance and on the dice. Characters die because of a single critical hit or because they happened to stand in the line of a lightning bolt. Players have less invested in characters at low levels, so the game’s designers rate character death as more tolerable. During the middle levels, the game’s uncertainty fades. Characters grow stout enough to survive a few bad rolls and monsters rarely have abilities potent enough to force a hero to save or die.
At top levels, some of those early twists of fortune return. Words kill without a save, and botched saves turn heroes to dust. But all these levels, bad turns count as mere setbacks. I recently ran a tier 4 adventure where two heroes were disintegrated. Neither lost more than a turn during the fight. Dealing with such setbacks brings much of the fun. High-level characters have answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities.
But most top-level monsters fail to deliver the same excitement.
When Alan first began running adventures for high-level characters, the obvious problem stemmed from challenging players with such super-powered characters. He explains that most D&D fans want adventures that challenge both players and their characters, but at top levels, the game’s advice and its monsters fall short.
In fifth edition D&D, characters gain hit points at a faster rate than damage dealt by comparable monsters. The foes matched against 1st-level characters make for dangerous encounters, but at level 8 or so, the game’s advice for building encounters leads to overmatched monsters. By the highest levels, the monsters can feel hopeless. (For a breakdown, see Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players by Teos “Alphastream” Abadia.)
Sure, DMs can add more foes, but that slows fights and players wind up spending too much idle time watching the DM run monsters. Alan aims to see more player dice rolls than monster rolls.
DMs can add tougher foes, but for heroes in their teen levels, the official monster books leave few options. At top levels, even the toughest monster of all, the challenge 30 Tarrasque, makes a disappointing solo foe. The adventure Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques resorts to multiple Tarrasques with added powers like a ranged attack, fly, or a breath weapon. After all, a level-appropriate party will often fly from claw/claw/bite, so even Godzilla needs nuclear breath.
To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. This recaptures some of the swings that makes low-level D&D exciting. In DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, the Aspect of Kyuss claws for 66 points of damage compared to the Tarrasque’s sad little tap of 28 points of claw damage.
Although such numbers may seem harsh, tier 4 characters have a far stronger ability to bounce back. That quality creates additional drama at the table. Alan’s ideal for a climactic tier 4 battle resembles a bout in a Rocky movie where the heroes’ adversaries push the characters to their limits. As players face likely defeat, they call on every resource to turn the tables and win the day. When I played DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before with a level 20 party, the showdown with Kyuss matched that ideal. I felt certain the monster would kill us all, but somehow, we slowly battled back to win. Compare that to most tier 4 battles where monsters deal insignificant damage, which players dutifully track out of respect for the game. When my party battled Kyuss, we cheered every time our foe missed.
High-level D&D characters bring enough hit points to make added damage a nearly essential ingredient to any credible foe. But the high damage numbers penalize support characters who rely on concentration to help the party. Nobody who suffers 66 points of damage makes a DC 33 save to keep concentration—even though a proportional amount of damage would result in a makeable DC 10 save at low levels. I once floated a “modest proposal”
for improving D&D that would avoid damage hacks, which penalize support characters. The suggestion revisited a rule that dates to the original little brown books. Back then high-level characters who earned a level only gained a hit point or two. However, even if Matt Mercer
and the ghosts of Dave and Gary all approved such a house rule, players would never go for it. So instead, we’re left with the damage thing.
Next: More on challenging high-level characters. Plus dealing with the cognitive demands of running high-level games. To avoiding missing the next post, follow me on Twitter at @dmdavidblog and sign up to receive posts via email.
Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them