Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Quick Look at High Level Play

I once ran a 1st Edition D&D adventure where the player characters took a trip to the Abyss to steal the Wand of Orcus. Recommended level of play was for levels 18 to 100. Yeah, that’s right. 100th level characters. As most of you recognize, I’m referring to the module H4: Throne of Bloodstone. The three governing rules provided by the adventure for dealing with ultra-high level D&D characters were: 1) stomp on the power curve of expected character growth; 2) Strictly apply all the rules; and 3) actually, don’t apply the rules strictly--instead, weight results against the fortunes of the high level characters. They can take it.

I played in and DMed quite a few high level games during this time, using a varying mix of D&D, Rolemaster, and house rules for years, depending on the game . . . but I’ll resist the temptation to tell you about my college campaign. For now.

2nd Edition D&D brought us Skip WIlliam’s DM Option: High-Level Campaigns, which provided guidance on a variety of topics, including instructions for DM’s on how to handle potentially game-break situations and adventures,as well as new magic items, true dweomers (higher level spells than 9th level), and extended advancement charts to 30th.

3rd Edition D&D rolled out the Epic Level Handbook, an epicly sized tome by Andy Collins and moi that extended the style of play of lower levels into the stratosphere. The book also provided a bestiary of epic level monsters (including my favorites, the abominations) and a “roll-your-own” spell system that tried to provide a formulaic way for players to create spells that could do almost anything.

4th Edition brought high level play right into the core game, with expected progression from 1st to 30th described. The last ten levels of a character’s advancement includes that character’s epic destiny. Epic destinies were portrayed as if they could change the way players would interact with the game . . . but despite a lot of stirring verbiage, at the table the abilities provided by a character’s epic destiny where not too divorced from the same sort of things the character had been doing at earlier levels.

So, that’s the nickle tour of a few highlights of high level play from previous editions. If you believe some rumors, high level play is “broken” and many groups don’t enjoy it, regardless of level. I’ve probably already revealed my bias, but I’d like to find out what you think. For the sake of the question, let’s define high level play as games that occur within the last few levels of a given edition’s level cap, or games that occur within a given edition’s follow-on rulebook describing high level play.

QUESTION 1: What do you think of high level play?


I detest high level play.

I like high level play on occasion, but I prefer lower-level games.

I like them both equally.

I like lower-level games on occasion, but I prefer high level games.

I love high level play.

QUESTION 2: What is your favorite (actual or hoped-for) element of high level play?

Wide open narrative possibility, granting players a chance to treat with or defy emperors and gods, and more.

Ramped up usages of the skills, feats, spells, and other abilities that I’m already used to using.

New ways of playing the game with modified base mechanics, new ways to cast spells or use powers, and new ways to show forth martial might.

Choice 1 + 2 above

Choice 1 + 3 above

Choice 1 + 2 + 3 above

None of the above

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