Hey folks. There's been a lot of talk recently about how things break down at high level in D&D. This is no surprise to people who played previous editions (nor to those who've seen it pop up on occasion in this sub), but I think a lot of DMs can always use more resources to help.
I have DM'd every edition since 2e and have had campaigns go to 20th level in each, including 5e. You'd have to ask my players how good I am at high level play, but I've had many compliments over the years about how "epic" my games can feel, with "hard but not unfair" choices, so I feel like I must be doing something right. My favorite was a Gestalt 3.5e campaign that went from 1-20, where reincarnated heroes got to take down a Far Realms entity
who devoured their world and nearly the multiverse. It was also a huge PITA to DM.) First - why do things break down at high levels?
Well, it's mostly because as PCs increase in level they gain more "answers"
to the problems adventurers face, and those answers become more powerful and pervasive, especially when it comes to magic (and spells in particular). The DM's narrative options that continue to provide a challenge for the party become more and more narrow.
Now for some parties, this won't be much of a problem as there is a lot to 5e's ruleset and few have the desire, experience, or capability to explore it all. But with the advent of the internet, discovering "broken combos" is easier than ever (and for some people, myself included, it's fun
to theorycraft!), and players who like "optimizing" are especially drawn. So some groups may never encounter this issue, while others may encounter it all the time or even come up with busted interactions by accident, but in general: the more your party likes to optimize, the more issues you'll see. FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED
The following is a list of spells to watch, to consider their impact on encounters and campaigns you design as a DM, or to considering using as a player. I emphasize "watch
", because I would never recommend banning these spells - I don't think that leads to a satisfying solution for anyone and some of these are staples of D&D. I personally only ban things as a DM when I deem the effort required to fix them to be far more than I'm willing to do. I want
my players to play with the features and magic and other cool stuff they like, and you should too. But it is good to know these spells exist so you can be prepared with ways around them, worldbuilding to make them less important, or even enemies that use them to make the PCs take them seriously. Some tips for this:
LIST OF SPELLS/CONCEPTS TO WATCH
- Make the enemies you want them to remember genre-savvy. The smarter, more experienced badguys will know that things like Teleport, Scrying, and Fly exist and take precautions.
- Make houserules that reduce the crazy, but don't ban it altogether. For example, expanding the "1 foot of stone, 1 inch of metal, or sheet of lead" rule from certain divination spells to affect all divination spells is a fun explanation I've used for why D&D has so many dungeons!
- Come up with "old wives' tales" or folk magic that can counter some abuses. Maybe spraying phase spider blood over the scene of a crime disrupts divination magic. Maybe holding a voodoo doll wrapped with an item from your enemy prevents them from scrying you, or deals them psychic damage when they try. Maybe cultists have ingested a magical poison that triggers when they are charmed or subjected to Zone of Truth. Maybe the giant snake fight you've been building up to is legendary because it evolved in a null magic zone and its poison cannot be countered by spells. The important thing is telegraphing these punches to the PCs (and being ok with them potentially using it after you show them how!)
- Let them be legendary rule-breakers. Maybe your world has never seen resurrection magic before, the PC cleric's divine connection is just that strong (but they can't buy resurrections from anyone else). Or maybe it only works on PCs and certain NPCs because there's something unique and hardy about their souls that allows them to survive the process. Maybe teleportation is all but impossible, resulting in horrific accidents 99 of the time - but the PCs discover a special material/ritual/process that reduces the mishap to the standard table in the PHB...for a price. D&D heroes become living legends as they go up in level, and that can include making what they can do extremely rare or unheard of, without taking it away from them in particular, or even making the world unaware of it.
- In general: Don't take away their toys, make them use them creatively. Maybe the BBEG's entire palace is warded against Forbiddance...until they use Speak with Dead on the architect's corpse to discover one side-room that was missed.
- It's ok for them to turn the occasional encounter into a cakewalk - let them feel powerful. The thing to watch out for is if a certain spell turns the whole campaign into one.
TIPS FOR HIGH LEVEL PLAY
- Flying (Monsters without ranged attacks can be pot-shotted by this, and one of the most common impediments in both fantasy fiction and D&D modules are physical walls and chasms; Wind Walk has heavy limitations, but can still be nuts for downtime travel)
- Unrestricted Transport (Teleport, Plane Shift, Transport Via Plants, etc. - these can negate overland barriers and even bypass restrictions on resting you impose, unless it is a narrative time limit)
- Unbreakable Lockdown (Spells like Wall of Force, Forcecage, and Maze are a nightmare for creatures with no teleportation/low Int, and give the party plenty of time to stack the odds in their favor)
- Mind Control like Charm/Dominate Spells, Zone of Truth (For interrogation, but also when combined with illusions like Disguise Self can give the PC ridiculous social superiority)
- Detection Divinations (Detect Magic, Evil & Good, Detect Thoughts, Arcane Eye, Scrying, True Seeing)
- Predictive/Communicative Divinations (Commune, Divination, Sending, Contact Other Plane, Rary's Telepathic Bond, Telepathy)
- Speak with Dead/Animals/Plants (These spells can provide info from unexpected sources, so be ready to determine how you'll roleplay the response)
- Army-Makers (Awaken, Animate Dead, Create Undead, True Polymorph, Simulacrum, can all be force-magnifiers for a party, especially if used as more than cannon fodder or by a party with plenty of downtime)
- "Immunity" Buffs (Antimagic Field vs anything that relies on spells, Heroes' Feast vs anything that relies on Wisdom saves or poison, Freedom of Movement vs any grappling/restraining monster, etc. - some of these have built-in limiters like the expense of Heroes' Feast or FoM's single target, but for high-level parties these costs are less impactful)
- Leomund's Tiny Hut (Almost completely safe resting - if you're planning an enemy ambush play it realistically, but once the enemy knows what they're dealing with perhaps have them hide out of sight or find someone with Dispel Magic)
- Invisibility (Good for scouting or, at high levels, assassination as a party)
- Life-Restoration (Raise Dead, Reincarnate, Resurrection, True Resurrection, Revivify + Gentle Repose)
- Shapechange/True Polymorph (you can do crazy stuff with special monster abilities at your beck and call!)
- Simulacrum/Clone (Almost double your powebe nigh-immortal)
- Wall of Stone (With downtime you can make entire cities)
- Countermagic (Dispel Magic allows anyone a chance to remove any spell they suspect is there, no matter what form it takes, and Counterspell is an insanely efficient anti-caster tool that often causes an escalation of the DM needing the same spell for their villain casters or needing multiple of them; Bards and Abjurers can make this the ultimate no-button)
- Wish (Cagey players will avoid performing the "genie wish" version of this, due to the chance of losing it forever and debilitating side effects - instead they will use it to simulate lower level spells that they either don't have access to normally or aren't meant to be cast in a single action or without pricey components)
Now you might be wondering, "dude, with this many tactical options available to powerful PCs and especially casters, how am I supposed to keep my badguys threatening without just using these exact same things?" And that's a good question!
Some of these do have specific counters of their own, magical or not, and some may fit the particular foils you have prepared, or not. But unless you have a powerful organization with resources as or more vast than the PCs and access to equally powerful casters, your enemies likely cannot
prepare fully for the party to come bashing in with their big ol' toolbox and wrecking the place.
And that's ok! If you've given them at least some pause, forced them to expend at least some resources, that's half the battle right there. The other half is, as I said above, making it so a particular spell or feature doesn't take over the campaign, proving too useful no matter what
prep the enemies do, or requiring such specific counters it wrecks your narrative and makes it feel stale and antagonistic.
Some of this can be done with worldbuilding tips similar to the ones I included above - changing how those spells interact with your world in general, and making your enemies savvy to counters that are easier to find and employ than a particular spell. But when doing this, you should follow an important rule for DMs - telegraph your changes
. Don't just pop rulings on your players out of thin air when they try to do something you consider abusive - have it make sense in the world, and give them plenty of warning so they can consider whether they still want that spell or can come up with a way around it.
That requires a lot of work, though, so you'll want to telegraph something else to your players as well, for the ones you don't think of or don't have the time to refashion your world around - that at high level you will keep the players guessing
. Maybe they hear the legends of the ancient titans, or a secret organization, or a powerful council of archmagi, or interplanar secret police. Either your potential BBEG, or just to establish a history of "high level enemies are strange and don't rely on PC rules". Make it known that these entities have used strange magic or been immune to certain things in the past. That their lairs and strongholds tend to be powerfully warded or corrupted places.
And then, homebrew your butt off
. Yeah you read that right.
Because with an optimized, high level party, you simply cannot challenge them with boilerplate CR encounters, traps, and environments from the book. I know it sucks to hear, but 5e just isn't built to handle the true potential of its own spells and high level characters, when taken to extremes.
So. If they're going to take on the God of Darkness & Secrets, don't just toss out a Nightwalker with some cronies in a spooky castle and call it a day. Nah, they're gonna scry-teleport-assassinate his ass in two seconds, ignoring the rest of your carefully-crafted dungeon, and ask what you've got for the rest of the session.
You gotta get weird
One of the best bits of advice I ever saw for high level play was in the 2e High Level Campaigns handbook. It's been paraphrased in similar books since, but it basically boils down to: Don't worry about coming up with a solution for each scenario, or limiting your challenges to things you know the PCs can overcome. Put them in true death traps. Have them fight things you know are beyond them. And just be ready to say "yes" when they come up with a potential solution.
Now obviously this doesn't mean you should throw 80,000 Tarrasques into a room with the party where they can't escape and demand they fight. (Though I bet they could still figure a way out! Players are clever.) I only recommend not doing that because it's kinda boring. What you really want to do is force them to adapt to changing circumstances, especially ones they thought were sacrosanct.
A sidenote tip on downtime
in particular. A lot of caster shenanigans require significant downtime to get going (though maybe not as significant as you think, especially once they get Wish!) This tells you something - that especially if they're being optimized, casters don't need help coming up with downtime activities. In fact, you can make it harder
for them. Not by banning those shenanigans entirely (though that is an option), but by giving them unforeseen complications
. Xanathar's Guide has lots of ideas for complications during downtime, and these can matter for obtaining ingredients or casting lengthy spells as much as anything else! Even with the vast resources of a high level party, even with the ability to scry and teleport all over creation, there is only so much ruby dust/diamond dust/etc. easily obtainable, after all, and you have to know where to get it first. This can take time. Make time a resource
. (And remember - it only counts as a resource if there is some sort of time limit they're "spending" it on, like a BBEG's master plan. Don't have your enemies just twiddle their thumbs waiting for the PCs to come after 'em.)
On the flipside, give
your martials cool shit to do during downtime. When the casters are erecting their city-sized maze of Walls of Stone, ask the martials what they're doing. The Xanathars downtime activities aren't a bad start, but the casters are likely accomplishing things at a faster pace than the martials can personally
, so what then? Well, you expand their circle - give them followers, allies, foes-turned-allies, armories, loyal craftspeople, messages from cities, kings, and queens begging for an audience, armies to command (or at least generals whose ears they can bend).
The party may even need
some of this to succeed against the BBEG - if they can't easily scry/teleport/assassinate them, they're going to need one hell
of a distraction to make it through their undead citadel to the high temple/dungeon - like, oh say, an army of light to attack the whole city. And while it's true the casters could do this as well, keep in mind - the casters are currently doing things Beyond Mortal Ken, things that probably freak your fellow rulers the heck out! Martials, meanwhile, are the penultimate everyman, the demigods who became so through mastery of arms and sheer determination, not eldritch magics or a gods' reward. "Normal" people, even generals, look up to that sort of thing. (And don't make them make social checks to do this, unless you're making your casters do the same for their downtime tasks. Roleplay it!) This works best if it too has been telegraphed earlier - so don't forget to ensure your martials make friends or impress likable enemies who they can leverage later, when the fate of the world is at stake!
Of course, this is all only if your martial players seem receptive to developing these organizations (or using them as fodder). If they're a loner-type who's all about personal power and not followers or allies, you'll have to get even more creative. Perhaps they can use downtime to become so good at a particular optional rule (like disarm, flanking, climbing big creatures, etc.) that they can use it in your game even if no one else can - or if everyone can, maybe they get an additional bonus. Maybe they unlock mad new powers with their weapon of choice, or learn how to deflect magic with it if they ready an action (just like casting Counterspell, but with their Strength or Dex). This has to be tailored to your game
and your martials, because it probably steps on the toes of other casters/martials, but you don't have to worry about that if they're not currently playing in your game. Funnily enough, I've found it easier to do this with newbie players than veterans - the veterans assume they are limited to their features as a martial, while when I ask newbies what they want to do during downtime they more readily give me something to work with, like "uh...I guess I'd really like to learn how to reduce an enemy's AC by cutting chunks of their armor or hide off, or stab then while burrowing - that bulette swarm we fought was so hard to hit!"
To end this post, I'll cite a number of things I've done in campaigns over the years as inspiration.
None of this post should be taken as saying "5e works fine at high levels" or apologizing for WotC not giving it as much attention. That's not my goal here. I want to provide more resources, advice, and ideas for DMs and players in high level games that feel this frustration or are anticipating it. Do you have an idea of how to counter on one of the issues mentioned above? Do you know of a high level module, official or not, that handled them well? Do you have a story about a high level encounter, puzzle, trap, environment, etc. your players found really exciting and interesting? Please share it in the comments!
) EXAMPLES OF HIGH LEVEL PLAY
- I've made my players fight a "literally unkillable" monster multiple times, often designed by the BBEG as the ultimate soldier. One with infinite regeneration, they killed by drowning. Another by teleporting it into space. And a third they actually talked it out of working for said BBEG.
- When my party is at high level, they are often fighting demigods, elemental princes, avatars, part of a great old one extruded into reality, etc. - weird stuff. These things tend to have "salient abilities", an idea I stole from the 3.5e books Elder Evils and the Epic Level Handbook, which can be good resources. These can include being immune to any kind of deific interference, being undetectable to divination spells, permanent true seeing, immunity to having their form altered (like some golems), causing nightmares for miles around or maybe even globally (resting becomes tricky!), causing issues with resurrection (I don't recommend an outright ban, but mutations or madnesses are always fun!)
- Anything that's a linch-pin for your foes should probably have at least 1-3 Legendary Resistance.
- I've had my players fight a boss and kill it...only for it to come right back. They then remember the old story/poem/prophecy/etc. or discover something in its lair that hints they must find the McGuffin to truly destroy it (heart, phylactery, whatever), or kill it in some specific way (running/holy water, on a Thursday, again whatever makes sense or is most poetic with this ultimate enemy).
- When it comes to the big bads, give them an important timer so they can't abuse downtime too much - even if it's a long timer that gives them some downtime to work with, or a "soft" timer that scares them into acting without you having to nail down specific hours/days/etc. If when Azathoth is summoned it's not even a thing to be fought and is just gonna eat the sun, nothing they do after is gonna matter - they have to stop him first!
- In one game I created a poison called "godsblood" (guess what it was made of) that greatly increased your power, then killed you (no save). This allowed for formerly-cakewalk enemies to be a real threat to the high level PCs while making them wary of using it themselves.
- I had "core dust" in one game (the petrified and ground remains of a god of magic - it was a deity-heavy game ok!?), which acted like an Antimagic Field to whatever you threw it on. It could be easily washed or Gusted off, but until then the caster became a sitting duck!
- My actual mortal villain BBEGs tend to be paranoid and make liberal use of Forbiddance in their lairs, along with powerful guards that can either see invisible enemies or are paired with weaker beings who can or have Blindsight (a weakness the PCs can exploit!) My immortal BBEGs tend to chuckle when PCs try to scry or teleport to them, denying them entry to their domains or saying "come at me bro", confident in their home turf (justifiably, since the PCs didn't go around to take out their followers/support/magical gemstones tying them to this reality or w/e).
- You can't counterspell what you can't see, what isn't within 60 feet, or what isn't a spell.
- The high winds surrounding the BBEG's palace are basically mood lighting for villains - but also play havoc with PC flight or Wind Walk plans.
- Once, when my PCs tried the "make an army of dragons with True Polymorph" thing, the BBEG they were planning to fight got wind of it and instead of trying to attack or counter they directly, sought out the Orb of Dragonkind while their foes were distracted with downtime shenanigans. "Thanks for the army", they said.
- High level traps are hard to design in a way that they can't be immediately beaten with one or two spells. That is, unless you take a page from Avengers and drop them from a cloud castle inside a Wall of Force box spinning so rapidly they have to make concentration checks to even try to do anything.
- One foe of my party was a powerful fire giantess sorceress who had previously captured them, gloating from her throne of molten gold with a wall of flowing lava behind it. They tried to teleport-assassinate her...and you know what, I let them! You shouldn't tie the caster's hands all the time after all, even at high level. Especially when all the sorceress had to do was Disintegrate the invisible Wall of Force behind her that held back all that lava. Voila. Now the room's full of burning, semi-liquid stone, dealing metric tons of damage to the PCs rather quickly. Ah, but they had spell defenses! Until the fire giant sorceress cast Antimagic Field and grappled the fighter, drowning and searing him in the lava. That window dressing became the major factor in a fight they thought they'd already won. Play to your enemies' strengths!
- If you notice your casters seem to be outpacing the martials and your players are suffering, design enemies that require their interaction to beat. Those four crystals in the room that cast Invulnerability, Mind Blank, Freedom of Movement and Foresight on the BBEG, each have their own Antimagic Field! Your DM is mean but they're not going to crack themselves!
- Another idea for making non-casters matter (which IMO is very important): make them connect to the BBEG, both narratively and mechanically. Maybe their magic sword is a twin of the BBEG's and the only thing that can hurt them, or maybe it removes their regeneration/magic resistance for a turn when struck. Maybe they're getting Inspiration every turn because this asshole is why their face is all scarred and they grew up in an orphanage!
- Force the party to play against their own morality. For one party, this could mean the BBEG has tied their life force to bombs or innocents in their favorite city - now what? For another party, they might be having to sacrifice something more material or personal, or maybe this BBEG who won't leave them alone is located in the Domains of Dread, from which there is no return.
- Another good idea is to force them via time limit to choose between having to split up to do multiple things at once or make sacrifices, even enormous ones (PCs at this level are practically gods and certainly like unto kings and queens - make them act like it!) I tend to have an "Avengers Assemble" moment near the end of my campaigns where all the allies they've amassed in their long career come out of the woodwork to help...and the PCs must choose who to send where because they can't possibly stop all nine cults from breaking the last seal in time. Who lives and who dies? What personal resources do the PCs expend to try and improve their favorite NPCs' chances...and reduce their own?