High Level Play Part 1: Theory
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
High-Level play is NOT necessarily the end goal of any campaign, nor is it inherently more or less fun than Low to Mid-Level play.
I function mostly in a local bubble principled on modules I bought in the 80's and don't really know what the meta thinks "High-Level" play is. It's not that I think I'm the ultimate authority. It's just that I don't need to consult anyone to run my local group in accordance with what I know of High-Level play from the 1980's (when I also ref'd High-Level characters) using modules like GDQ 1-7, WG 5 & even WG 6 at one crazy point.
Just to reassure you, WG 6 caused my group to flee en-masse much like Gygax's own anecdote relating to the island. People claim S1 is the deadliest module ever printed but run WG 6 and watch your Player's 18th level guy jaw-drop on the beach.
Because I say so, High-Level play is 9th level and above for the purposes of this article. This is because several of the core classes reach max HD at 9th level. Clerics can also finally Raise Dead (without a candle), and magic-users can Teleport, Pass Wall, Rock to Mud (and thus begin breaking normal dungeons in a variety of ways).
Very High-Level play is level 14 and up. Why 14? It's arbitrary, but also based on a few points of data, like the fact that at 14th level, Magic-Users can cast Limited Wish; Clerics are not only Raising Dead but Finding the Path; and nearly all fighter types are attacking twice per round.
So: Low 1-3, Mid 4-8, High 9-13, Very High 14+. Those are my definitions.
I have a general sense that most people don't play in regular games inhabiting the same campaign spanning 4+ years, don't play characters past 8th level, and don't really know much about High-Level play. So this post is going to be about my experiences doing all of those things from a DM perspective, leaning on personal experience both from the 1980's and today.
Let's start with how you get there.
I'm writing this because it's relevant to my own group. Come this July 27th, we'll have been playing for 5 years. And we are just now entering the level 10+ range. Why did it take so long?
Because we only play every other week, because there have been a couple of hiatuses lasting 2-3 months (when the DM was working overtime) and because there are a LOT of characters in the campaign stable.
Between the six regular Players, there are currently 18 living characters of levels 1 thru 10.
Over the past five years, a couple of Players have come and gone. One moved, one got married, and one decided he liked 5th better than AD&D. Between all nine Players there are something like 40 or 50 dead characters. We've honestly lost count.
So, I think it's possible to reach High-Level in much shorter order: 2 years or less if you're playing every week with fewer characters and you get lucky with survival. Velocity is mostly up to the DM.
The three big levers at the DM's disposal (when running BTB AD&D) are Frequency of Play; Campaign Lethality; and Treasure. Most games I've witnessed outside my own are run by DMs without a solid understanding of Treasure economy and XP. And many DMs seem to allot XP based on milestones rather than treasure.
Milestoning is fine, IMO, but it's not BTB. I toss a few bonus XP on the pile for milestones but I still believe it should be Treasure that gets you where you're going. I'm not going to break this down in detail, but 1 GP to 1 XP is solid canon.
From levels 1-8 your characters are dealing with things like how much they can carry in their pack, how many torches are left, how many day's of food to pack, whether they are getting stranded in the mountains, and so on. In fine, they are often thinking in grounded ways about expeditions: how to get there, how much time they have on-site, and how to get back to town alive. They are describing how they open a door, or chest and learning about the importance of resource management, forethought, and cooperation as it pertains to the consistency (RULES) of your campaign.
As characters level, they begin to bend those rules and in some cases break them. Therein lies the central notion of the High-Level problem. If Player Characters can break all the rules, how are they challenged? What makes High-Level Play fun? How do you maintain tension with so much magic at Players' disposal? How do you run complex encounters with numerous creatures capable of doing so many things? It's overwhelming, right?
Relax. Give yourself room to make mistakes. You'll forget ability X. You'll forget quite a few things over the course of running numerous encounters during the (hopefully) many years of your campaign. Low to Mid-Level adventuring, however, is not just for training Players. It's for training you as a DM. Those levels should bring you up in confidence and familiarity, increasing your ability to know by rote the foundations you need to underpin High and Very High-Level play.
Will you make errors? Well, you have a lot to keep track of. What I know for sure is the cause of High-Level character death is often because the Player forgets some trinket or power, forgets or doesn't think to use some ability or device in a creative way. Essentially, the Player is unable to keep track of his or her own character at those High-Levels, and so falls victim to a situation they might otherwise escape. If your Players have a hard time running one character efficiently at High-Level (plus followers!), how can you be expected to do the same for a host of High-Level NPCs and their powerful minions and pets?
Before we talk about that, let's discuss the frequency of High-Level games.
I'm going to assume that you are familiar with AD&D and that you are trying to run it RAW/BTB as much as possible. Therefore, as your Players begin to level up, you should notice how training eats up time (weeks) and money (lots of it). When the Magic-Users start making potions and scrolls, you should be rolling dice, marking off the failures, subtracting money and weeks of time. Fortresses should be under construction or, if already functional, demanding huge sums of money to keep running.
The amount of time that High-Level PCs can actually spend adventuring per campaign year, is likely 50% or less. Therefore, you can and should balance out the intensity of High-Level play with spurts of Low to Mid-Level play using followers and other characters in the campaign stable.
High-Level play should be high stakes. One expedition should often be enough to level those characters due to the vast treasure available. Said treasure will be eaten up in training, research, item manufacture, stronghold maintenance, armies, curse removal, resurrection, taxes and so on.
Even so, the High-Level party consists of millionaires, but the drain on the the treasury must also be relentless and swift. Economy is essential.
If you build your campaign to encompass the whole, you will find that the demands and intensity of High-Level Play can be broken up with sessions of equal fun wherein the Players inhabit lower level minions, doing the errands of their High-Level characters (while the High-Level characters are busy creating items, doing research, or just running the kingdom).
In this wise, not every game will be a high stakes delve into complex combats with a wild assortment of powers and items. Rather, you'll get some enjoyment out of lower level characters borrowing some of the items of their High-Level masters, doing things they couldn't otherwise, but also risking the loss of said items in the process.
And when it comes time to tee-up the High-Level adventure, you'll have prepped specially for it with the knowledge that this event will likely elevate the PCs involved an additional level or kill them outright. Thereby, the entire stable of characters continues to advance at a reasonable pace despite intermittent use and the incredible sums of XP necessary for High-Level individuals.
Players must be aware that playing their prized High-Level characters in high stakes adventures is a risk commensurate with the likely rewards. And it is your responsibility to have trained them into such thinking through the escalating dangers and character losses of previous adventures. These are topics I have covered in other blog posts.
If the Players are so trained, they will be LESS surprised when they embark on this epic adventure and you begin attacking their sheet from every angle at a frequency to which they are not accustomed.
THE BEAT DOWN
In Low to Mid-Level play, the party is fearful of zero HP because it means bed rest. They camp often so the spell casters can meditate. And they approach even a single ogre with trepidation.
The low granularity of AD&D HP, means that a few good blows from an ogre can waste even a Mid-Level fighter. This, in turn, can cause the DM to fall into the mindset of OBM: One Big Monster.
OBM persists in a useful context from level one to about level six. The monster just gets progressively bigger. You break this up with underlings. One HD guys make the fighter-types feel great because they get to attack once per round for every level they've attained. And of course you've got some traps and puzzles thrown in. Still, OBM dominates many Low to Mid-Level adventures, even those produced by TSR in the 80's. This can fool the novice DM into thinking this is how AD&D is meant to be played. Worse, OBM contributes to Newbie DM's sense of dissatisfaction when the party cleverly dispatches the big bad through luck/planning and therefore too easily wins the day.
By contrast, WG 4 is the module you want to be looking at as a template for designing High-Level and Very High-Level adventures. This is the go-to adventure that can teach you all about what to avoid and how do it right.
First, WG 4 doesn't nerf the party. It doesn't impose a set of special rules that disallow certain spells or items. Instead, WG 4 says, "Bring it," and then serves the ball hard.
Wave after wave of enemy emerges from the depths of the black temple, each more difficult than the last and each intent on destroying the Player Characters. If the party burns their fireballs on the gnolls and norkers, they are sure to be dismayed when the ogres
and trolls arrive.
Groorg, the Mountain Giant is the undisputed master of WG 4's dungeon, but he is NOT the OBM. Rather there is no OBM. This is a module of attrition. It is DESIGNED to be too difficult for a party of the requisite levels UNLESS they are both smart and liberal with their resources.
The High-Level adventure is NOT the OBM. Nor is it a set of parameters that neuter the Player Character's hard-won powers and items. Rather it is a crucible of attrition, a relentless demand upon said powers and items. It attacks every piece of gear, ability and spell at the party's disposal. It attacks everything the party owns or holds dear and it does so repeatedly.
The build up is generally unexpected because the initial shock troops are so effective. How can it get worse? think the Players. And then it does. Encounters in High-Level adventures do not hinge on a single entity that the party can easily identify, neutralize and mop up. Instead, the party must overcome a host of powerful monsters with a variety of complimentary skills and often a level of intelligence that forces Players to band together in order to protect their magic user (for instance) who is suddenly the only one getting shot.
Most importantly, High-Level adventures devour gear: potions and scrolls and wand charges for sure...but also shields and armor and more permanent objects as well. Sometimes amicable or neutral Powers will require magical items in exchange for access or cooperation. Other times the price of winning a battle drains a wand dry. And still in other cases, the battle itself is of such violence that every blow is destructive. Every hit from a giant or dragon should require gear to save vs Crushing Blow. Even if you're wearing magical plate, fighting a group of giants is going to be stressful, since a 1 always fails unless you're wearing artifact-status armor. Similarly, striking a Remorhaz has a chance of the weapon hitting the super-heated back. And so on.
Such gear losses are important surrogates for character death in terms of tension and risk. They also make room for the epic gear the party will no doubt accumulate as a result of the adventure they are on.
I know there are DMs that don't allow resurrection. Full stop. Fine. But keep in mind that AD&D doesn't allow for abuse of such rule-bending. Restorative spells take a toll on the caster. Further, each and every return from death, whether by Ring of Regeneration or Resurrection, requires a Resurrection Survival Roll AND subtracts one from the character's CON. Such CON loss cannot be restored, even by Wish. Character luck will eventually run out.
In the meantime, spells like Resurrection, Restoration, Limited Wish, and so on, can help drain the party's reserves while giving Player Characters a shot against the terrible things that WILL befall them in a High-Level game.
If you want to examine specific terrors of High-Level play, look no farther than GDQ 1-7's Gygaxian Death Lance, or the Demon Staff and Tentacle Rod of Eclavdra in the same adventure.
Sometimes there are saving throws. Other times you just lose a point of DEX permanently because you got hit six times. Point is that threats of this sort are not present in a single epic encounter that the Players can hoard all their resources to overcome. Rather, the threats are ubiquitous.
Consider module D2. I ask you this: How many Kuo Toa are present at the shrine? Did you know that some of the specials get six attacks per round? Do you think you have enough fireballs memorized to tackle this place, wave after wave?
Ah-ha! There it is again. Wave after wave. In a High-Level adventure, while the powers of the Player Characters should NOT be nerfed, the opportunities to rest are often diminished (as they are in WG 4 and WG 6). Resource management becomes interesting, similar to low levels, when spells can't be re-memorized. And if escape or flight means progress lost due to reinforcements and bolstered defenses, you have an excellent foundation for tension and drama so long as you nurture it correctly.
What you want to do is foreshadow the danger, get the Players thinking, "We need to get this right." And at first point of contact you want them thinking, "Huh...this is not good but I think we got this..." Shortly thereafter, their optimism should drop off. By the end, they will be scrounging, potions drained, scrolls burnt, contemplating whether to flee or press on.
The answer to High-Level characters is not a bigger OBM, but more: more attacks per round, more enemies than you can count, more negative effects from every successful blow and more treasure at the end than they dreamed was possible.
Ok, fine. Big terrible battles.
WG 4 is one thing. It is a meat-grinder but it doesn't have the complications of constant special ability / spell use. Casks of oil and a big net represent most of WG 4's complications.
But now you're running a squad of High-Level Drow, each with unique weapons, spells and body guards. The demon that they summon has a whole suite of abilities that complicate matters even further. How do you plan your round? How do you use all those complicated resources intelligently?
For the DM, this is certainly one of the hardest parts of High-Level adventuring. You must know the details of what your bad guys can do. You should also possibly even plan the rounds out in advance: So-and-so will likely start with Mirror Image followed by ESP etc. Make sure you know the duration, casting time, and so-on of each effect or at least, the page number where the info lives.
If you read the monster description for a Solar you suddenly realize all the things it can do and the fact that you don't know the details about most of them. Therefore, to run the Solar effectively, you not only have to look up each ability, but jot down additional notes/ideas about how those abilities might be used in creative ways.
It's a significant amount of work compared to a random encounter with 8 orcs. But it's also a lot of fun.
You can mitigate this prep by spacing out the complicated encounters (those with many magic items, spells and abilities) with those of simpler variety. If the party fights 10 demons that are gating and teleporting and using Fear, maybe the next battle is with something dangerous but simple, like dinosaurs...or Oonga.
An excellent combat round tracker and note-taking will be essential in High-Level games, a habit that you've hopefully developed during many sessions of lower level play. You'll have your own shorthand to rely on and the notes you make will impress Players who no-doubt will not have quite as good a grasp on the round's order of operations. Just make sure you're fair in how you plan your round.
Typically I plan the monster round before the Players declare actions unless the baddies have ESP or the like. I note monster intentions on the round tracker and then insert the Player Character actions after initiative is rolled.
These basic habits will go a long way toward organizing the craziness that can happen in a single round of High-Level play and, with even adequate skills, good notes, good habits, proper pacing and challenges, your group too may be able to reminisce, "Remember the time we beat Lolth?"