Tag Archives: high-level play

Challenging High-level Characters Without Breaking the Dungeon Master

A the highest levels, Dungeons & Dragons lets super-powered characters travel otherworldly realms and battle threats that approach the power of gods. That grand scale lets dungeon masters enjoy the fun of loosing our imaginations’ unlimited special effects budgets, and of pitting the characters against any threat we can dream while feeling confident the players will win. But to DMs new to running high-level games, that power level can also feel unmanageable. I‘m here to help.

My last post shared advice from Adventurers League administrator Alan Patrick for improving top-level games by circling back to recapture elements that make low-level games compelling. This new post offers more help for challenging high-level characters and their players in combat while dealing with the mental demands of running tables with so many powers and effects in play.

Give the characters more to do at once. A D&D character’s limit of 1 action, 1 bonus, and 1 reaction never lifts, so while high-level characters gain more options, they can only choose a few.

Much of the joy of playing games comes from weighing options and making crucial choices. The delight and challenge of playing high-level D&D comes from having all the answers, but only so much time—a dilemma that creates interesting decisions. Every round offers a choice of possibilities. Which will best win the day?

For high level characters, Alan Patrick seeks to build encounters around multiple, simultaneous problems or challenges to be resolved. Those include battlefield traps and hazards, secondary objectives, countdowns, and other elements that demand attention. He recommends avoiding situations that simply ask characters to work to avoid an obstacle. Instead, make players choose which of many possible outcomes they should spend their energy to reach.

The final showdown of Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before presses every player to make tough choices on every turn. The main foe drains health to regenerate, so it makes an obvious target, but the creature’s allies seem even more punishing. When I played the adventure, my group struggled to decide who we could most afford to ignore. Meanwhile, many of the monsters spewed worms that posed a deadly hazard we couldn’t ignore. I found my attention riveted as I wrestled over how best to use my power on my upcoming turn.

In that encounter, Alan hit his design target.

Make the party run a marathon. When high-level parties rest, they recover tremendous resources, including new helpings of the reality-remaking 9th-level spells that even 20th-level characters can only cast once per day. If you prefer not to let the party coast through adventures because they tackle encounters at full strength and then cut through every problem one wish at a time, then time pressure becomes essential. High-level characters feature enough resources to run a daily marathon. Make them. Tier 4 adventures work best when players must face obstacles in a race against time.

Give preferred targets maximum hit points. The moment a key foe takes the field, they become the favored target for attack. In fifth edition, the sort of masterminds behind an evil scheme or capable of attacks that threaten a group also suffer from too few hit points to flaunt their best tricks. The hit dice formulas in the monster books represent a range of possible values. For obvious targets, dial up health to the maximum value.

Give the headliner a warm-up act. In this analogy, the headliner is that primary foe who makes an obvious target. If a high-level party can start fights by targeting that lead foe and unloading all their attacks and powers, the heroes will beat every encounter in a hurry. So build encounters like live entertainment, with a warm-up act that starts the party before the headlining boss monster appears.

Managing high-level battles

The threats capable of challenging high-level characters also tax a DM’s skills. Every monster, power, and hazard adds more choices and more to manage at the table. If you’re like me, you sometimes struggle to handle it all. Some techniques can ease the load.

Seek uncomplicated monsters to fill groups of foes. D&D’s high-threat monsters almost always include menus of powers that add complexity. Such creatures play fine at lower levels where one demon makes a potent threat, but when these creatures gather in the groups needed at high levels, they slow the game. The Monster Manual offers very few high-challenge creatures that remain simple to run, so uncomplicated, hard-hitting foes such as giants and mariliths prove especially useful.

Bring monsters in waves. Challenging high-level characters often means more monsters and more complicated monsters, which can mean that players wind up spending too much idle time between their turns watching the DM run monsters. Instead, add creatures in waves that come as the the players thin the foes already in the battle. The delayed arrivals maintain tension without dragging down the DM with too much activity.

Favor traps and hazards that trigger on an initiative count. Battlefield traps and hazards help challenge mighty heroes, but effects that trigger during a characters’ turn add more to the DM’s memory load. Recently, when I ran an encounter in a fiery environment that inflicted damage to creatures at the end of their turns, I kept forgetting. When I changed to inflicting damage on initiative 0, I added the fire damage effect to my initiative tracker and remembered it. That made me and my iron golems happy.

Add legendary and lair actions to your initiative tracker. Add markers in your initiative tracker for any legendary actions. If you opt to change when legendary monsters use their extra actions, reposition these markers, but the reminders lift the burden of remembering the actions.

Use average damage. In the fourth edition days, I would sometimes attempt to speed high-level battles by using average damage for monsters like the edition’s designers recommended, but some convention players felt slighted by my shortcut. Now, D&D gives average damage as the standard for monsters, so players accept it and I welcome the option to skip damage rolls. Sometimes, if a blow threatens to drop a character, I roll that damage in view of the players. Perhaps a low roll spares the character. Instead of rolling handfuls of dice for things like spells, I use a die-rolling app on my phone.

Delegate. Instead of managing all the extra demands of high-level play, delegate some of the effort to the players. Let one player track initiative, another run allies, and a third handle the hazards. You can even have someone count the damage dealt to monsters. Spreading the work makes games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun. See How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less.

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

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

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

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