Improving High Level Play
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High level play is a hot-button topic for 5E as well as previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Few groups experience high level play. Most complain that the game falls apart at higher levels. Others lament the “lack of support” for high level play. While true, these might not be the core problem(s) with high level play—merely the symptoms of how we approach it. I’d argue that with small changes to our mental models around high level play, we can solve the most painful problems that arise and focus on what shines in high level play: the story that develops at the table.
A Different Game
High level play is a different game. The intricacies of mechanics and the representation of characters through mechanics need to fade away and make room for larger narrative problems with complex resolutions. Frank Mentzer, early TSR employee and one-time creative advisor to co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax, believes that, “to do high level play, the GM can’t think in terms of impediments.”1 Given the wide range of fantastic and high-powered abilities of these characters (plane shifting, flying, invisibility, etc), little should impede them throughout most of an adventure. These abilities are best showcased in overcoming challenges/impediments in the mid-tiers of 5E.
to do high level play, the GM can’t think in terms of impediments.
High level play should be focused on complex problems with world-shaking repercussions, moral quandaries with no right answers, and epic battles that are more about the story and the experience than the mechanics and baskets of hit points.
The Journey, Not a Destination
Given that it’s a different game, the goal shouldn’t be to reach high level play. I surmise that this is why so few groups actually play it.2 It takes enough coordination and a dose of luck to see a single adventure through to its conclusion—let alone play consistently enough to see characters grow from levels 1-3 up to 15+. In the event that you have done that (I have been lucky enough to see a few campaigns reach this milestone), it often feels a bit odd. Without some forethought, you might notice that only a few weeks or months passed in the game world while your characters went from farmhands to killing Orcus.
If you want to play high level 5E, start there. Create high level characters and run a high level adventure.
If you find yourself wading through mechanical headaches, take a step back. Those shouldn’t be your focus here. Mechanics do not create epic stories suited for high level play. You and your players do.
“Frank Mentzer’s Surprise Reveal”, a YouTube video by Runehammer, 2024 January 7 ↩
“Nobody Is Playing High Level Characters”, an EN World post by Morrus, 2019 December 28 ↩