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D&D adventure design: Why can’t campaigns last to level 20 and beyond?

Content of the article: "D&D adventure design: Why can’t campaigns last to level 20 and beyond?"

Known fact: D&D games tend to die out long before PCs reach 20th level, and based on what I've seen and read, too often it's not because the PCs die but because the campaign just ceases to be fun for either the DM or the players. A common observation is that "game balance" stops working before 20th level, but I think the real problem is that people keep trying to apply "game balance" long after PCs have reached a point where managing difficulty should be the players' problem and not the DM's problem. Posit: campaigns fail because players and DMs attempt to run adventures for high-level (roughly 13th-20th level) PCs with the same mentality and techniques that they use for low-level PCs (roughly 3rd-8th), and they don't scale.

From a power perspective, I think it's healthy to view reaching level 11 as basically reaching PC maturity, in a sense: once you get to Tier 3 there's really no threat or adventure that you can't potentially handle, with the help of your fellow PCs and some creative thinking. Level 11 PCs, working together, generally have the tools they need to kill demon lords and flood river-valleys. In general level 11 PCs and level 20 PCs can go on 20th level-style adventures together and both have a chance to survive. The 20th level guys may be worth as much as two level 11 guys put together, sometimes less, sometimes more, but they're all playing in approximately the same ballpark unless the 20th level guys are abusing broken spells like Planar Binding, Simulacrum, True Polymorph etc.–and even then, the 11th level guys can abuse them to some extent as well.

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When it comes to adventures, I think it's worth designing them in basically four bands:

Novice Adventures <Levels 1-2>: Everyone is pretty fragile. Face low-level threats like zombies and goblins.

Veteran Adventures <Levels 3-4>: Twice as hard as Novice. Everyone is less fragile, but only moderately more powerful. You are competent at facing enemies like ghouls and werewolves, but hill giants are still an impressive enemy at this point.

Delta-Force Adventures <Levels 5-10>: At this point you're basically operating as special forces. Much harder than veteran tier. Players begin to have lots of strategic options. Start to face vampires, mind flayers, hobgoblin armies, dragons. Beholders are an impressive and rare threat.

Superhuman Adventures <Levels 11+>: DM takes the kid gloves off, everything is full Combat As War, "encounter balance" ceases to be a concern. At this point you're just dealing with a gameworld, and whatever makes sense to be there in that world. You may face one beholder, or you may face a crashed Tyrant Ship full of dozens of beholders and a whole colony of Stone Giants whose minds they've taken over, and it's up to you to find a way to deal with the consequences. You may face a lone Death Slaad, or an exponentially-multiplying swarm of thousands of Blue Slaads and Red Slaads taking over the southern half of the continent. You may face betrayal from trusted NPCs, you may play enemy factions off against each other, you may have enemies whose existence you aren't even aware of even though they regularly Scry on you and seek ways to return your old defeated nemeses to life. Spell research, founding and running a kingdom, setting up a merchant empire… you can try anything here. There is total freedom but also a total lack of plot armor (although random tables may still imply structure to the chaos–if you are alone for a few weeks doing spell research when a random encounter table yields a wandering Demon Lord who potentially kills you and loots all of your magic items off your body, that random encounter result is still rare, it's just not unfair).

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I'm still working on procedures for running Superhuman-level adventures, but I think it does make sense to smoosh them all together, conceptually, because that's the only way your campaign won't stall at high levels: you need to have been playing "at 20th level" all along, and actually reaching 20th level is just a reward for surviving repeated adventures which makes it less likely that you'll die in this week's adventure.

And if players want to stick to Delta-Force adventures with plot armor indefinitely, or even lower, there should be ways for them to signal the DM that they intend to do that, e.g. by remaining low-ranked within certain organizations instead of top-level operatives, or by not venturing into wildspace/Outer Planes/wherever the Superhuman stuff is mostly going on.

Source: reddit.com

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