Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons 5E at High Level - Weirdly Fun and Familiar (and challenging my sense of tradition!)

A year or so ago I started a high level D&D 5th edition campaign with each PC starting at level 10, and we ran it right up to everyone hitting level 14. That campaign was put on hold for a while but recently I returned to that setting with a mix of the old and new players gained since then, and the game has been progressing from 14 to 15 at a reasonable pace.

One of the fun things about high level play in D&D is just how easy it is, but there are some other notable bits worth deliberating, too: key among these observations is just how different high level play in D&D 5E feels compared to high level gaming in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. In the older editions, it was almost inevitable that once you reached some point between level 10 and 14 that the DM would (barring being one of those special DMs who loves that high level play and has lots of free prep time) burn out, badly. The time and effort necessary to prepare challenging or meaningful encounters in 3.5/PF is a major issue, and the only way around it for time-strapped DMs is to purchase as many pre-made stat blocks as you can, or use online tools to auto-generate high level foes. You then run in to an "investment" problem with pre-made stat blocks, high levels there is a LOT of information on those stat blocks and the DM who has limited prep time often has limited time to think about how to best use the information for a tactically interesting challenge.

Anyway, with 5E the experience is completely different: you will spend about the same amount of time prepping for a high level game as you do a low level game. Monster stat blocks for high level foes do have more information to absorb, but here's the thing: it's right there, and the mechanical effects are almost all spelled out --except for spells, ahem. Those you as DM will just need to get used to either memorizing or referencing. My tendency is to jot down a couple notes on a copy of the sat block about the spells I anticipate will come in to play, for example.

Beyond that, high level play in 5E mainly requires the DM to think about what their characters can do: that is to say, keep in mind if you've got spell casters with teleport circles, or banishment, or plane shift. Make sure your planned adventures and encounters will function regardless of whether or not such spells are used. There are fewer "adventure bypass" spells as I like to call them in 5E, which makes consideration of such effects much easier in 5E than in PF and 3.5, too. Many of those spells still exist in some capacity, but they require components or conditions that the PCs need to pursue first, which means that you can't accidentally prep for a lot of content and then watch all of it get bypassed by the PCs in two seconds like can accidentally happen in PF/3.5. Sure, you can try to account for all variables in those editions, too....but it's hard. Besides the fact that there was a lot more material being out out for 3.5 (and still being out out for PF!) the variety and range of racial and class options for PCs meant that keeping up with it all for most DMs was a losing battle. 5E has fixed that by tightening up how much content is out there, and that means as DM you can remain pretty much familiar with all of the official resources you like, and cherry pick the dmsguild resources to your heart's desire.

5E has also managed to somehow find a sweet spot with "powerful but still vulnerable PCs." One of my players observed that she was impressed that in one encounter when the PCs were breaking free of a slaver ship, she could legitimately consider razing the entire vessel with fire as a parting act of vengeance, but at the same time the PCs felt a need to get out of there because they knew 100 seasoned pirate slavers were going to be an overwhelming fight for them. Even if the slavers were mostly lower CR creatures (say 3-7) that would still be an intense and likely losing battle for at least some of the PCs given the circumstances.

Another player of mine summed it up like this: when the PCs are coordinated and focus-firing on their foe, they are deadly and unstoppable. But when they are caught in separate, smaller groups even lower challenge groups of monsters can quickly overwhelm them. Thus as a group they could disintegrate a gorgimera in like two rounds, but three of the party were separately ambushed by six drow elite warriors and two of the PCs almost died.

He's not wrong at all! Our favorite rogue player who regularly wanders off into dangerous scenarios on his own loses a PC almost every other session.

That gets to the last interesting bit I've noticed with high level play in 5E: character mortality is still a thing to keep in mind. Death comes slightly less quickly to high level PCs than it does to the fragile level 1-5 crowd, but it is still always on the table. In the time I've run the high level game, since going from level 10 to 15 the group has lost at least two PCs and almost lost two more last night. Death is still a viable threat in high level 5E gaming, which means that the game still carries a sense of high stakes urgency when fights start.

The main difference is that higher level PCs have more resources to intervene before an ally near death encounters in which an ally is pulled from the brink are not uncommon and often a lot of tense fun. This is an element similar to 4E design, which many liked; 5E has that "risk element" baked in, and a coordinated group can pull their asses out of the fire with some good teamwork. You also see this in PF and 3.5, to be fair; but the main difference is that you'll feel "at risk" more often in 5E, where challenges are more like actual encounters should be. In PF/3.5 similar situations usually felt more like gimmicks..."let's see what's on our character sheets that are effectively Get Out Of Jail Free cards for this encounter," type moments, if you will.

My experience with 3.5/PF went something like this: even the most monumental foes were easily defeated,  most of the time, so long as the PCs had ample defense and attacks that exploited or countered the enemy. In such cases they were essentially unstoppable. But once in a while some foe would show up with some attack or feature that the PCs had no prep for, and usually that followed an unexpected near-death moment or instakill. My PF players usually were more annoyed and felt slighted by such could they not have been prepared for it? Their characters were like walking tanks, so to run in to the rare creature that was tougher than them felt almost like the GM was hitting below the belt, and throwing too high a CR foe their way. This was always an annoying element of grappling with challenging encounter designs.

5E, to contrast, lets DMs manage to take foes from CR 5 on up to CR 20 and construct encounters that a level 14-15 group will find challenging. A single CR 15 foe might be scary but still fall faster than a gang of CR 7s, for example. It's really interesting seeing how threats at high level can remain both exotic and more conventional, with minimal effort by the DM to need to carefully balance it to avoid either a cakewalk or certain doom.

My goal here isn't just to praise 5E and trash PF/3.5 though. It's to talk about why I like 5E and provide some context for why the same levels of play in prior editions were problematic for me. I know of a number of great and dedicated PF/3.5 GMs for whom high level play is an exciting challenge. But in my defense, those guys were REALLY dedicated to mechanical mastery, and the simple truth is: for me, I'm in it for the story, the adventure....and I want the rules to support that, but otherwise fade in to the background as much as possible.

We have one player who spent about 15 minutes on a combat round, highly atypical of 5E combat pacing (if you spend more than 5 minutes on a 5E combat round you're probably doing it wrong, or you may not be very familiar with the game or your PC). We were joking that he had moved in to Pathfinder standard round pacing. There's a lot of truth to this: the extra levels of complexity in prior editions can be overwhelming with variables. Last night's game had four major encounters and three notable exploration/role-play events. We accomplished in one session what would likely have taken two-three games in Pathfinder, simply due to the extra level of complexity (and also likely need for maps and minis to navigate combat effectively).

I'd still happily run Pathfinder, don't get me wrong. I just see it as a game that works best from levels 1-10, after which the net gain of fun vs. the loss of enjoyment due to needless layered complexity starts to grow disproportionately relative to one another. Think of me as an "E10" kind of guy with Pathfinder.

Anyway, we're all in this campaign for the long haul, to reach level 20. Once we get there, I may just have to take a look at the Epic Level books currently on offer at to see if we want to keep going! I can safely say this is the first time in many years that high level play has felt like fun, and less like a drag.


  1. At higher levels, D & D becomes a superhero game with a Tolkeiny backdrop.

    1. I think 5E avoids a bit of that (slightly). But I like to use that scene from The Hobbit as an example of what high level D&D gaming looks like when Galadriel opens a can of whup-ass up....also like how I characterize the third film "Battle of Five Armies" as the best Warhammer Fantasy Miniatures movie ever to be made.

  2. How do we contact you? There is no email contact info listed.

    1. you can email me at toribergquist at gmail dot com.

  3. My game has hit 8th level going through Storm King's Thunder, and will probably be somewhere around 12th or so when it ends, and I'm looking at where to take the game then. This post has been one of the few I've found that really talks about the impacts of a high-level game, so thank you!