High-level gameplay has long been one of the toughest parts of a D&D campaign, for a variety of reasons. In 5th Edition, the game-balance issues of many earlier editions are greatly reduced, if not entirely solved. The adventures WotC has published bring characters to the threshold of serious high-level play (other than Curse of Strahd, we’re talking about 15th level or so) and then stop – leaving DMs to go it alone or end the campaign. In this article, I discuss ideas for how to make high-level play as satisfying as earlier levels. If your players get to high levels and have goals of their own that they’re invested in, then don’t worry about any of this article – just look for ways to make pursuing their goals bloody and inconvenient, because they’ve done the rest of the work for you. Come back to this article once they have everything they want, but they’re still looking to you for the next story.
I’ve run a number of games from first level (or whatever the starting stats are) up to the threshold of high level – 9th level in 2e, 13th level in 3e, 13th level in 4e (not a good example… 21st is the true “high-level” for 4e), and 5 dots in a primary Arcanum in Mage: the Awakening. My common pattern is that low-level sessions are single-session or two-session adventures (for the obvious reason that the PCs don’t have the reserves of power to do more). Low-mid adventures start stretching out a bit more in scope, with mini-arcs of 3-6 sessions. This continues into “mid-level” adventures – yeah, I know the terminology is imprecise. All throughout these adventures, I’ve been seeding other things, usually far more than I could reasonably run; this means the PCs have plenty of choices of things to pursue, or not. Finally, I run a big storyline that takes a whole heap of sessions; in D&D that single goal might take three or more levels to complete.
When it’s done – and I’ve been lucky that games have lasted long enough to finish their “big” stories – I have a bit of a problem. The players have solved the major problem that they invested time and energy into resolving. The central questions of the campaign are answered, and I have built all that I readily can on the foundation that I’ve laid. That is, my problem is how to cross the bridge into high-level play.
What I need to do, but never seem to consider when I’m on the spot in a campaign, is flash the timeline forward six months or a year, so that the characters rest on their laurels a bit and enjoy the fruits of their victory, rather than trying to have them move to the next thing in-character. This makes sense to the English majors out there who think of Freytag’s pyramid. The adventure that ended mid-level play was a climax. I need to embrace the denouement and let the tension ease off for awhile. This doesn’t have to last long – even one whole session might be stretching it. Once the tension has tapered appropriately, I should start in with new exposition, either picking up on earlier threads or introducing new ones. Instead, I try to jump from the climax to a new rising action.
A campaign’s structure plays into this dynamic as well. For these purposes, I think there are four structure choices (if you can think of more, tell me):
- Serial Drama: This structure has fallen a bit out of favor in the online communities I frequent, where it’s seen as an invitation to railroading. It can be that, if the GM isn’t careful, but there’s still room for intricately-plotted games. In some of the best games, players gradually solve the GM’s intricate puzzles and hurl themselves against challenges that push both players and characters to their limits.
- A serial drama with a sufficiently robust sense of player agency is largely indistinguishable from a sandbox with proactive antagonists; Princes of the Apocalypse is designed for exactly this argument.
- Character Drama: This kind of game is driven by the drama of the primary characters rather than external conflict. Hillfolk and Smallville are notable cases of this kind. The GM may be little more than an impartial adjudicator of conflicts. There usually are still NPCs (in the tabletop implementation of this structure); their main point is to apply new pressures to the relationship dynamics between the main characters.
- Procedural Drama: Depending on how you look at it, a lot of dungeon crawls could just about slide into procedural structure, but GUMSHOE-family games like Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues are great examples of this. (If you’re noticing how much Pelgrane shows up in these categories of structure, then you’ve got a pretty good understanding of what makes Pelgrane tick: experimentation with structure is their bag.)
- There are a lot of good and useful advice about procedurals to be gained from just watching TV shows with an eye toward structure. You’re in luck, though: Leverage exists. Also, the show is phenomenal and John Rogers can teach you everything you need to know about building a reversal into every procedural story.
- Also, Shadowrun. SR, in its many incarnations, is one of the best-known and most popular examples of a game built from the ground up to embrace this structure.
- Sandbox: The OSR waxes eloquent about sandbox play, and other bloggers have excessively conflated sandbox with the West Marches style or huge wilderness hexcrawls. The only obligatory element of Sandbox structure – at least as I’m using the term here – is that the GM seeds plots rather than planning outcomes, and lets the currents of emergent play do whatsoever they will (with a judicious eye toward making sure things stay engaging and fun for all involved – Sandbox is not code for absentee GMing).
You don’t have to adhere to one structure for the whole campaign. It’s entirely possible to run a sandbox game with a procedural adventure as an interlude, or to fold elements of the serial drama into a procedural game. As I suggested quite a while back, every structure benefits from using character drama as a seasoning, even if you don’t like it as a main dish. Anyway, this is a massive digression, but it lets me talk about how each structure interacts with the transition to high-level play.
The transition is maybe the most direct for serial dramas and sandboxes. They’re the default formats for D&D and games of its lineage. In these games, high-level plot builds on the conflicts and themes of low and mid-level play. A lot of people don’t care about thematic consistency, but as a games-as-art kind of blogger, I’ll suggest that thematic dissonance does subtly damage the experience of the game for those involved. Using the previously-established conflicts is just being efficient, since the players already care.
Note: if you had a plotline or conflict fall flat, don’t bring that one back into focus unless you are sure that you have come up with a new development that will retroactively make their previous experiences more compelling. This is possible, but it takes careful thought. You don’t really want high-level play to feel like the typical Hollywood sequel.
The reason this sense of continuity is so important is that you aren’t in the initial phase of exposition anymore, and it’s just a little harder to build a lot of new emotional connections. Not using context that you’ve already developed is just leaving money on the table, up to the point that you’re completely stuck for ideas.
Serial dramas and sandbox games both expect high-level play to focus on being Bigger and Badder – each challenge should top the ones that came before it in some way. Evading this expectation is what makes procedural drama so interesting as a model. I should really write this up in a separate post at some point, but the point is that in procedurals, a mystery or heist doesn’t have to top the one before it, because the reversal is allowed to throw the characters and increase the challenge of just that one episode. Procedurals live and die by creative recombination rather than scaling, though I wonder if that stays true in tabletop procedurals – I haven’t actually played enough to know if my assertion holds up in use. Anyway.
Character dramas really want to avoid ever letting one character definitively “defeat” another – there always needs to be a way for a defeated party to withdraw and regroup so that the conflict can spark again in a later session or episode. Much like the purpose of NPCs, characters develop new powers and talents in character dramas just so they can come into conflict with one another in new and interesting ways. For example, imagine Ars Magica run as a character drama (something I think it does uncommonly well, given its troupe-style play). As lowly novices, the Wise clashed with one another in a shifting web of alliances, collectively struggling against the power of their cruel teacher. By the time they reach high level, they are masters of their respective specialties, each ruling their own networks of supporters and apprentices – or even assuming control of whole Houses. The conflict never stops, though – each time they come into conflict, someone wins and someone loses, but they never quite come around to killing one another. After all, no one else in all of Mythic Europe has enough power to be their peers. You never know when today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s ally, and vice versa. As long as the stakes and methods of the conflict keep changing, character drama stays fresh and interesting.
High-Level Plot Seeds
If you’re going to use any of these, start seeding the possibility of them over the course of mid-level play, so that they’re a logical conclusion rather than a sharp left turn.
In An Unusual Manor
As a reward for their heroics, or as an inheritance from a (cosmically) distant relation, one or more characters come into ownership of a luxurious new manor house, townhouse, castle, or the like. (This idea is partially cribbed from Fallen London, and partially from the Defenders of Daybreak and Tales of Wyre story hours on ENWorld.) It’s like shifting into domain-rulership play, but the real estate is somewhere weird. Maybe it’s a bit of a white elephant, but too awesome not to at least explore as an option. Make sure you bait the hook well, though – if your players decide to mothball the place and move on with their lives, you’re back to the drawing board.
Some great options for this are, in no particular order:
- A townhouse in the City of Brass (for which Fumaril and Afqithan from Sep’s Tales of Wyre are great prototypes)
- A bar in Sigil – but Colin has already said everything I would say about Planescape, more eloquently than I could.
- A pocket dimension: continuing the theme, but this time with an implied danger that the Demiplane of Dread might incorporate the pocket dimension if the players aren’t careful. Your players will never forget the time they slid into evil and became rulers in the Land of Mists.
- Nor will they forgive.
- If magical components are in high demand in your campaign, maybe the players gain a contract (a la the East India Trading Company) to claim and exploit an island where one or more high-value materials can be harvested. This can be an ideal seed for a political fight, if that’s your bag.
- Castle Black – the Brust one, not the GRRM one. In general, if it’s appropriate to Morrolan and Sethra, it’s going to be an amazing good time for high-level gaming. Also, if you’ve never said to yourself, “I could be a responsible owner of a floating castle,” then what rock have you been hiding under?
- Castle Black – the GRRM one, not the Brust one. Saddling your PCs with GRRM’s Castle Black is a suitable punishment for surviving to high level in SIFRP. Congratulations, you’re now the shield to guard the realms of men. I hope you packed your Valyrian steel.
- Haunted houses, of course. There’s no good time to discover that one’s relations experimented in the black art of necromancy and the power of blood-curses, but “while exploring your new digs” may hold the record for absolute worst.
There’s a deep instinct in a lot of GMs to shy away from the big, bloody consequences, because outcomes are hard to predict and you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. When we’re talking about high-level play, though, say to yourself: “The hell with it. What am I saving all of these awesome crises for, if not for this? If the new status quo sucks, we can either move on to something else in this campaign, or let this campaign go and start something new.” Anyway, the reason this works well is that having to fight a former friend is such a rich ground for roleplay.
In this vein, I would suggest looking for wedge issues that divide the players from their most powerful allies. These ideas are best suited to campaigns that share the theme of The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
- A seed of doubt: A political leader wonders if these people can be trusted with all of the influence and personal power they now enjoy. They’ve done right by him in the past, but maybe he created a monster.
- An insult from long ago: When the PCs were young and foolish (or old and foolish, whatever) did they say just the wrong thing to someone at court? Let that slight fester long enough, and it could divide the Round Table against itself.
- Mind control is an easy go-to, but it’s such a cliche that you need to do a lot of extra work to make it cool.
- The same goes for doppelgangers. Everyone has seen this done a hundred times – you’ve got to find something new to say. Anyway, there’s nothing explicitly high-level about mind control or shapeshifters.
- A revolutionary faction: If the PCs were close pals with the Queen, maybe her head winds up on the chopping block while the PCs aren’t around to help her. Since the PCs can’t forswear their ties to the Queen fast enough, they’re investigated for lacking revolutionary zeal. This is high-level content because it requires the players to have substantial personal influence and turns it against them. On the other hand, one possible result from victory is getting to ascend the throne…
- The curse of vampirism: Strangely, I can’t think of all that many times that a faction in a story did a face-heel turn because they were turned into vampires, one by one. (If you can think of a time that was done and done well, toss me a link and I’ll add it to the list of resources below. It doesn’t count if they were vampires from the start.)
‘Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World
A broader version of In an Unusual Manor is to have an area of the setting that is off-limits to the players up to that point. If that new area is wild and dangerous enough, they’re kind of going back to their roots in the action, while also raising the stakes and intensifying the dread (since they’ve heard for ages how dangerous this place is). The trick is making the barrier and its solution reasonable in-play things.
The problem that these ideas particularly solve is that they explain why all of this high-level content hasn’t been wreaking havoc in your setting all along. Some people are okay with ignoring how these high-level baddies were just busy with something else and not really disrupting the status quo. For other players, that’s a quick way to ruin their suspension of disbelief. If the off-limits condition works both ways, you’re set.
- The Planes: Plane shift is what it is, folks. It’s typically one of the most accessible ways to translate off of Prime. Or, in Mage: the Awakening, Astral Realms or even risking the cosmic forces of the Abyss or the Supernal Realms. The books make those places sound super off-limits – but if your Gnosis is creeping up on double digits, do the rules really apply to you anymore? I propose that they do not.
- Go read the Focus line of the linked spell description again. What it’s telling you, in its evasive way, is that this is a classic content gate – if you have to find out what the right type of metal is for the plane you want to get to, and then get enough of that metal to travel there, a GM can string that out for multiple levels if needed, to make sure the PCs are the level she wants them to be when they get to go to this new place.
- Magically impassable: In the Adventures of Abernathy’s Company, linked below, the heroes are confined to one continent on the world for quite a long while. Eventually, events transpire such that they lift the magical blockade between the two continents. Suddenly the PCs have the other half of the setting open to explore. This is a pretty grand scale of new exploration, but the GM was planning for an insanely long campaign.
- To do this on a smaller scale, maybe a mountain pass is magically impassable – a certain tunnel bored through the living rock is the only passage, and the Way Is Shut. The area that opens can be as large or as small as needed. This is an opening for classic Valley that Time Forgot/Savage Land content – everyone wants to fight magical dinosaurs, right?
- The Curse: A land that the PCs know quite well is transformed by the imposition or removal of a curse or time-shifting magic. The cool thing about this is that what’s old is new again. Seeing familiar things become unfamiliar, for better or worse, kind of can’t help but be interesting. Be prepared for an Old Home Week-style review of every interesting place or individual the PCs have met.
- Your World, Remade: So you went back in time and changed some stuff? When you get back to your own historical period, you’ve gone down another leg of the Trousers of Time, and maybe the world is changed to be full of high-level threats because of the changes you made.
But What Kind of Newer World?
So it’s great and all to speak in such generalities about new places to explore, but let’s get more specific. In a sense, the easiest way to come up with such a thing is to pick one or two features of a normal place and give them an outright bizarre level of more-ness. If you did a whole lot of this in series… congratulations, you turned your campaign into a fantasy version of Star Trek! (Nothing wrong with that.)
- Everyone’s a little bit magic: Maybe there’s something like an Imperial Orb that grants at least minor magical power to everyone in this region, and gives the land’s dedicated wizards a real edge on the interloping PCs.
- Well, this is obviously awesome as hell. What goes on in a newly-revealed petrified forest? I’m not sure, but things that could naturally burrow through sand such as elemental earth creatures, seem like a fine start. Or maybe they are petrified treants.
- Jotun-blood: It’s a lot like walking into the land of superheroes, but high-level PCs are probably like unto superheroes themselves, so it’s just leveling the playing field a bit. There may be some logical problems to look out for in a land where the average person has 20+ Strength, but if that’s the worst logical wobble you run into in a high-level game, I salute you.
- Astral presence: Perhaps because of centuries of contact with the githyanki or because of catastrophic rift in the Temenos (depending on whether we’re talking about D&D’s Astral Plane or M:tAw’s Astral Realm), everyone here has a secondary astral presence. When they fight the PCs, the astral and Prime/waking selves coordinate in some kind of way that makes the battles tough and interesting.
Partial List of Resources
In which I totally name-check a lot of the longest threads in ENWorld’s history, among other things. The fact that I list these alongside quite famous fantasy series and other things should not be taken to imply anything other than extraordinary usefulness.
- Sepulchrave’s Tales of Wyre
- Piratecat’s Defenders of Daybreak
- Sagiro’s Adventures of Abernathy’s Company – for intricate extreme long-arc puzzle plotting, this may be the gold standard.
- Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series – Issola is the most insanely high-powered of the series, but they’re all good examples of how to structure challenges so that world-shakingly powerful people still have to get out and do stuff. Brust is also all over the place on structure.
- Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber – these start out at cosmic levels of power and go up from there.
- Ultimate X-Men– the first eight graphic novels are just some damn fine very-high-power storytelling. For my money, they tapered off sharply thereafter. Other Marvel properties that struck me as high-level play were the films X-Men 2, Avengers, Avengers 2, Thor 2, and Captain America 3.
- Leverage, as linked above – the characters fill out their talents by dabbling in other characters’ abilities. In every episode, characters get to do both the thing they’re great at and some things they’re gradually-improving in.
- The Matrix series. Yes, even the bad ones. The story may collapse in on itself, but the action and character design, including their gonzo-powerful abilities, are great inspiration for an urban high-level game.
I hope this collection of ideas sparks something new and fun for you next time your campaign reaches high levels (whatever that means for your campaign) and you need a new challenge.