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High Level Play Part 2: Mechanics

Updated: Aug 29, 2019


While I'm working on that long promised blog post that kicks off a series on my campaign setting, I thought I'd take another, more detailed look at how to handle high-level adventures (for characters of 9th level and higher).

If you haven't read my other nitty-gritty AD&D posts about combat, this one might roll over your head, because I'm going to make assumptions that you already understand segments, speed factor and all the other "junk" that I've been using religiously for the past 5 years (our anniversary was July 27th----so we're into our 6th year now.)  Yes, I still have 6 players who come to games as faithfully as Mormons go to church.

Some DMs make records of what each PC is carrying and how much money they have. I don't do that. Firstly, because it's too much work and secondly because it's kind of insulting. I have trained my Players from level 0 (yeah, some of them started as zero-level humans) that I am serious about record keeping. I do this by routinely asking them spontaneous questions like: "How many arrows do you have left?" "How many fauns do you have left after buying dinner?" "How much does your pack weigh after picking up that gold bar?" And so on.

I combine this with open rolls and honesty and accountability on my own part. Players are thereby able to see clearly (though sometimes not until a battle is over) why results turned out the way they did. This format engenders respect and honesty such that I don't have to worry about character details.

Why is this important?

As characters reach high level they become complicated machines with many abilities, magical devices, and spells with powerful effects. Not only is it too much for me to track, but it's often too much for the average "casual" player to track! I have told my players many times that a high level character's number one cause of death isn't by monster or trap. It is because the player is going to forget some ability, device or spell that could have saved him or her and----in my campaign, as in chess----when your hand leaves the piece, no takesie backsies.

"Well, then I wouldn't have done that..."

"Can I take that back?"

"But I didn't know that would happen."

Sorry, friend. We play for keeps. Now you know what happens when you cast Fireball into a hallway! And yes, all those magical items that didn't make their save are destroyed, including the flying carpet your pal was carrying. All your comrades have their lips pursed right now, and they're looking at you...but they are also going easy on you because this is your first time playing in this kind of game. Don't worry, it's a memorable moment. And those are the reasons we play. You'll get the hang of it and there will be many more that resolve in your favor.

Accountability is essential in high-level play because the characters are so powerful that they WILL realize too late that they could have done something differently that would have saved them. While it is up to you, the DM, to judge when to make an allowance and when to stand firm, I follow a protocol whereby I ask each player in turn to declare intentions before initiative. I also routinely ask for confirmation prior to resolving declared actions. Because I do it all the time, asking for confirmation is not necessarily "a tell" that something bad is about to happen.

Again, the point is to project a theater of fairness where characters commit to a course of action and then wait for you to tell them how it resolves.

I have sat silently as a player in many games where the combat round is a cacophony of players calling out over the DM, amending actions, boasting and chortling amid the chaos. While laughter at the table is excellent----as are shouts of glee----order MUST be maintained and the round MUST resolve under the consistent order dictated by the rules: segments and the fair judgement of the DM. 

As always, I will tell you that if you are having fun, you're doing it right. But if the DM holds the players to account for their declarations, choices (and resulting victories) will hold a special sweetness AND high-level characters will no longer run amok, backtracking, amending, and thereby destroying the drama of high-stakes combat.

I've spent considerable time discussing this point, which may seem mysterious to those that haven't witnessed the chaos of a poorly-run high-level game. You must train them from the time they are small, so that when they are 9th level +, they are pensive about the next round, worried instead of blustering, choosing carefully from their available resources instead of ruling your game like rowdy children.

The natural way to discuss HOW you keep order is to recap the combat round I discussed in a much earlier blog post and showcase my current version of the combat round tracker.

New Round Tracker

Notice the new white space that underpins the segments of each round.  This allows me to pencil in declarations as they are announced and then draw arrows to the segment they will resolve on after initiative is rolled [or] after other extenuating circumstances (like movement prior to launching a spell).


Wizard: "I'm going to cast Fireball. After the spell I want to use my wand of lightning on the ogres throwing stones at us from the south so I'll probably have to move to line that up."

DM: "Ok.  Noted."

All the other players are going to make similar declarations. I usually make my declarations silently by jotting down what the monsters will do.  But if the monsters have ESP or similar powers, then I will react to the player declarations as if the monsters could read their minds. The same is true if the PCs have ESP. I will then declare the monster's declarations first and then let the players respond.

Very powerful beings such as gods will almost always have advance knowledge of PC declarations and I will, in some cases, make bluffing or lying impossible by holding the Players to their stated intentions while informing them that deception is currently impossible.

Such parameters occasionally change the balance of play and put even high-level characters on the defense.

As high-level play will see the fighter types getting multiple attacks, the DM overseeing such combat must recall that weapon speed factor is ONLY used in weapon vs weapon combat and that monsters (or monks) using hands, claws, or teeth will always win ties.  Thus in a 4 vs 4 initiative tie between the party and a dragon, combat would resolve like so:

  1. Psionics

  2. Swords of quickness, Crossbows of Speed

  3. Missiles first volley

  4. Spells w/ casting time shorter than 4 segments (the number on the tied dice)

  5. Dragon's first attack

  6. Fighter-types' first attack + other characters' attacks

  7. Dragon's second attack

  8. Fighter-types' second attack (if any)

  9. Dragon's third attack (if you truly break it down that far by the book) [or] magic item usage by the dragon.

  10. Missiles final volley and possible magic item use by the PCs

  11. Clean up w/ residual movement

Another option that classifies as BTB would be to simply lump steps 5 thru 9 into one simultaneous exchange of damage.

Furthermore, remember that the creature with the highest number of attacks per round always goes first (with at least a portion of their attack routine). Therefore, a Dragon (by the book) with 3 attacks per round, is ALWAYS going to swing first even against fighters with 2 attacks per round. See DMG p.63 for further explanation. While you may wonder why this is important, it is essentially ensuring that the monster gets to swing at LEAST once before going down under the blows of powerful fighters with Gauntlets of Ogre Power or Potions of Giant Strength.

If there are many special abilities, spells and weapon attacks----all resolving like dominoes during the round----a single round can last five or ten real minutes, which is why it's often a good habit to roll your damage dice at the same time you roll to-hit, so that if you hit, you immediately know the result.

High-level combat also often references devices and spells that both players and DMs are naturally less familiar with (because the frequency of use is less than for spells like Magic Missile). Therefore you should consider prepping accordingly: jot down the page numbers of the spells your NPCs are likely to use, tab up your reference books, and formulate a general battle strategy for your NPCs.

Example: Sam the evil sorcerer will typically

  1. Open with Mirror Image

  2. Cast Charm Person on One or Two Magic-using PCs

  3. Dimension Door to the safety of the ledge

  4. Cast lightning bolt on those PCs below and then switch to his wand.

Such an attack plan helps you in the spur of the moment, so that you can focus on the melee attacks and position Sam's underlings in such a way as to either indicate their intelligent coordination & support of Sam's tactics or [if they are chaotic and stupid] lack thereof.

Plans of this nature are simply outlines of likely conduct and must, of course, flex or change entirely if the battle dictates. Still, I find them highly useful as reminders of not only the monster's level of intelligence, but the surroundings and resources it has at its disposal. When the party is battling 20 drow and their pets, I suspect that you will feel the same.

So, to sum up, I believe the mechanisms for maintaining drama and balance at high level are simple:

  1. Adhere to the combat round's structure

  2. Maintain accurate notes of the battle

  3. Hold players to account for their declarations

  4. Have page numbers and references to likely items, spells and abilities at your fingertips

  5. Sketch out the most probable strategy for complex encounters before hand, including environmental resources and accounting for intelligence and coordination.

Doing these things has served and continues to serve me well even during complicated fights with complicated monsters. Remember, in AD&D high-level characters may seem god-like, but if you hew to the structures above, you will find them shockingly susceptible to the game's systems.

Special Abilities

This section is actually an answer to Allan's comment below that deserves its own space. Folks are often trying to parse what monster abilities are "at will". Because of the way the AD&D books were written (without codification of many of the terms we now think of as codified) it is my stance that ALL special abilities and powers are "at will". Thus, unlike memorized spells with casting times, they are unleashed at any point during the portion of the round when the monster has priority just as Allan describes: at the speed of thought. What this means, however, is that I apply the rule across the board, for simplicity, and therefore contradict some long-held perceptions as you will see below.

As you may know from my previous blog posts, my interpretation of the combat round is derived from DMG p.71, which implies strongly that it is up to DM fiat exactly how many actions can be conducted during the course of the 60 second round. I typically allow a PC or Monster to conduct all four of the actions below during a single melee round:

  1. Their full attack routine [or] 1 spell cast [or] reading 1 spell from a scroll

  2. Use one magical device

  3. Use one special ability

  4. Allotted movement for the round

These can only happen, however, during the portion of the round in which the entity has the initiative. Therefore, I believe I handle special abilities almost exactly as Allan does. What follows are examples special abilities used in a correct and legal way: and most of them are things that have happened at my table:

  • The Dragon loses the initiative roll, but still gets to bite first because it has 3 attacks per round. This is seen as a loophole, rather than the dragon actually owning the initiative. Therefore, even though it gets to bite, it cannot use its breath weapon until later in the round.

  • The Dragon wins the initiative roll. I allow it to claw, claw AND breathe before priority passes to the party. At round's end, if the dragon is still alive, I will conduct its bite attack. Note that this is an abbreviation of the attack routine and it could be divided further into three separate, staggered attacks over the course of the round, but I usually find no point in doing so. Yes, classifying dragon breath as a special ability goes a long way toward making dragons the formidable foes you always wanted them to be.

  • The Demon loses the initiative and is 90' away from the fighters. The fighters charge but only have 2 segments to act (based on the initiative rolls). As such, they do not reach the demon before initiative changes. (They still suffer their charge penalties the following round.) When the Demon's turn to act comes up at the beginning of segment 3, it Teleports Without Error directly behind the magic-user (instantly) and attacks with full bonuses for a rear attack.

  • The Demon wins initiative, opens a gate and attacks.

  • The party loses initiative, which allows the wight to hit the cleric on segment 1. Her Sanctuary spell is therefore spoiled and she is level drained. She cannot attack because her spell was ruined, however, when the party gets their turn I allow her to attempt to turn the undead (albeit at a lower level) because turning undead is a special ability that adheres to my interpretation stated above.

  • The party wins initiative, which allows the Paladin to touch the nearby fighter, healing him instantly. The paladin then moves 10' and attacks the ogre, all before priority switches to the monsters on the third segment of the round. Because I count Lay on Hands as a special ability, the players often save it for the most dire of circumstances since, as Allan says below, it cannot be countered or interrupted.

  • The Demon wins initiative. It is low on hp, frightened and enraged. It attacks the cleric one last time; hits and kills her. As it has 4 segments in which to act, it then uses its wand to blast the fighter with frost. With a ravening, gleeful howl it then Teleports out and is gone. No. The party cannot get a final attack on it as it escapes with its victory because its escape method was an instantaneous use of a special ability.

Although the party has not yet faced a Power of demi-god status or above, it is likely that I would allow such beings to use up to two special abilities per round in the same manner outlined above. Recall that we have been playing this way for 5 years. I can tell you it works wonderfully so long as you remember what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Always be fair, even when it means your precious boss-encounter goes down in a pile on round one.

[Final Note: I realize now that my round tracker might give the impression that I allow spell casters to cast a spell then move and unleash it. That is not the case. I allow spellcasters to move first and then begin casting the spell they declared prior to dicing for initiative, which then delays the spell for a number of segments equal to those spent moving.]

As always, if you have questions, let me know.

Peace and happy gaming.

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