D&D at High Levels
Crunchy thoughts about high-level play in 5e
I wrote a bit last year about the myth of balance. Today, I want to ramble a bit about high-level play in 5th Edition D&D. First, let me acknowledge as in the link above that the CR number attached to monsters, after about CR5, becomes irrelevant. I’m not going to talk about that anymore. And second, let me say that as far as I can see, “high-level” happens around Level 15, when single-class characters get hold of 7th level spells.
Throwing Irregular Shapes is a newsletter about games, mostly D&D, and gaming culture, if you wanted to be fancy about it. It’s written by Drew Shiel, who has other more serious newsletters as well; this one is pure hobby. You probably know people who would like it.
(A magical item from Heliomar; the Herbalist’s Pack)
I’m running two campiagns; Heliomar and Utterbaum. Heliomar has up to eight players at the moment (we peaked at ten), if everyone is there. Utterbaum has two. Heliomar’s characters vary in level from 11 to 16, although most at at 15, and Utterbaum’s are both at level 15. Heliomar has occasional support NPCs, most of whom are really there for plot, or to give me a voice in the bits where the party are away from civilised places for a long time. Utterbaum has a lot of NPCs in the party, which occasionally gives rise to book-keeping issues that’re solved by having the two players run some of them in combat.
Combat is interesting at this level, in a number of different ways. Most notably, the sheer damage that a party can hand out means that single-creature encounters can be over in one round. That’s true even if the creature has legendary actions - when there are eight sources of damage, and some of them are handing out 50+ points of damage a round, a 250 hit point creature just goes down; it’s like kids going up against a piñata with flamethrowers. At the same time, certain opponents can wreak absolute havoc if they get off a power area-of-effect spell early in the initiative order. The Utterbaum player characters - accompanied by one NPC - came up against a very powerful elemental a couple of weeks ago, which opened with a power mechanically identical to a meteor swarm. One of the PCs went straight down, and had to be revived with a potion, but once that big gun had been fired, the creature took only four rounds for the three characters to dispose of.
So it’s necessary to complicate combat a bit. I’m trying a few different approaches on that. One of the first ones is to use NPCs as enemy combatants. This works very well - assuming they’re built the same way as player characters - since they have a wide variety of capabilities and tricks. Rogue types who can move in, strike, and then use the bonus action to get out of range again are a lot of fun. Enemies with stun capability are likewise very powerful, but I’m not intending to use those a lot; taking a player’s character out of action for a round isn’t much fun after the surprise of it happening the first time or two. The thing with fully-classed NPCs is that I have to remember all the class capabilities, and mostly I don’t.
I am very cautiously experimenting with undead that do experience point damage. These were a thing in previous editions of D&D; they don’t seem to have had an reappearance in 5th edition, as far as I’ve been able to make out. So far the players hate them in the right way; moderately viscerally, but not in a way that reduces fun. And they’ll know what to look out if they see particularly large spectres, or armies of smaller ones. Indeed, the effectiveness of a whole lot of less powerful enemies is also an interesting tactic, and one I haven’t done much with yet. It’s hard to overwhelm the barbarian with numbers - although possibly she can’t move much if she’s surrounded two squares deep - but the spellcasters are a different matter.
Then there are the various non-combat capabilities. A high-level rogue means that there are a number of skill checks that just aren’t going to be failed anymore. High-level spellcaster open up communication, scrying, and transport options that weren’t there before either (teleport, travel via plants, wind walk, etc). The aforementioned high-level barbarian is basically immortal.
But these powers are, in 5th edition, very carefully worded. For instance, bards, clerics and druids get a spell called find the path. It “allows you to find the shortest, most direct physical route to a specific fixed location that you are familiar with on the same plane of existence.“ First, it goes to locations, not creatures or objects. Second, you need to be familiar with the place. Third, you have to be on the same plane of existence. You can jumpstart familiarity, sometimes, with scrying. But scrying has its own limitations: “You can see and hear a particular creature you choose that is on the same plane of existence as you”, and a saving throw. And I have a setting-specific foible (which applies to both current settings) in that granite makes teleportation, scrying, and sending spells a lot less reliable, so if you’re up among granite mountains, they’re somewhat more difficult, and if you’re down in granite caverns (many dwarfholds, say) they’re basically impossible. And, of course, many people in these worlds are aware of the capabilities of scrying, etc, and employ Amulets of Proof Against Detection and Location, which basically make them impossible to divine to (and also, I have ruled, impossible to target with sending). The party in Heliomar all wore these for a while, giving rise to the name by which they’re now known: The Blind Spots.
The same-plane-of-existence phrase is very interesting. It means that demiplanes become refuges, and being in Sigil or other inter-planar cities or locations is in many ways safer for people with powerful enemies. And, of course, using these powers takes up spell slots, so most casters aren’t going to want to try to keep an eye on more than a couple of people at a time, let alone try to catch up to them via teleportation.
So far, I’m enjoying the high-level play. It definitely requires the players to stay on top of the list of capabilities their characters have, and to pay close attention to spell loadouts, equipment, and so on. Some classes are complex enough that we’ve written up flow-charts for what they should be doing in combat - the Blood Hunter is particularly needful of that - and I’m gaining a healthy respect for the stuff that rogues, druids, and clerics can pull off.
Next issue, or more likely next two issues: what’s happening in the two campaigns at the moment.