You and your friends have reached the pinnacle of adventuring!
You are legendary heroes that have probably saved the world multiple times, tales of your glory and triumphs are shared in tavern halls by many bards.
You have slain a powerful evil force, but what’s this?
Another terrible, world-shattering evil approaches?
Suit up! It’s time to face to kill another “dark god.”
Remember the very time you ever opened your Player’s Handbook (regardless of edition) and saw the long expanse of potential character levels you could take? For me, I remember seeing the twenty levels of each character class in the 3.0 Edition handbook, I was bewildered by the sheer complexity and depth within the game’s potential. Reaching the pinnacle of your class’s abilities and doing godly things that often can be world-shattering or reality defining. Envisioning the long journey to reach such a state seemed daunting and yet exciting until I was told that my very first D&D campaign was going to be an epic-tier campaign and that we were not only going to be starting at 20th-level, we were going to go beyond that and step into the realm of gods. I will share my stories about those adventures one day, maybe. Anywho, the majestic and insanity of literally having all those options presented to me as a teenager back in the middle of the 2000s was something I would never forget. As a 20th-level Cleric of Kelemvor, I could perform divine rites that mere mortals could barely even fathom.
When I started the Team BAJA campaign with my best friends years later, I was regaled by their excitement when they first opened that Player’s Handbook and saw the potential journey that laid ahead of them. The drive to reach those high and mighty levels that were in the late teens and especially at 20th-level, where the powerful and captivating abilities awaited them. Their reward for their perseverance, resilience, determination, luck, and survival. My players to this day, now almost three years later, still dream and envision their characters reaching those upper teens in levels. Granted, at the start of Season 3, they were at 10th-level, I’m sure we’ll make some strides toward that end goal. For many campaigns, the story of our heroes increasingly grows dire, and often times some of these stories come to an abrupt end. Even at these godly tiers of play, the enemies are virtually god-like or actually divine in nature, meaning that the likelihood of death continues to increase. That is how stakes are made, why they are important, and why players who have invested into this game gain an experience that will live with them forever.
I know I sound like a romanticist when it comes to my vision of the game, but if you honestly think to yourself of the many memorable moments in your games; you’ll realize that it’s difficult to forget them. The only problem? Make those epic moments, even more, epic, or what I would like to call: “Escalation of Events.”
Escalation of Events are as follows:
- Players defeat a BBG or threat, rewarded, upgraded, and resolve any loose story threads
- A new BBG emerges, stronger than the last
- Players undergo trials to reach the new BBG
- Players confront the new BBG
- Success or failure determined by skill and luck
When you reach these higher tiers of play, as a storyteller, there comes an inevitable notion of focusing on the individual character arcs that develop. Granted there are some that transpire in the early levels as well, but often times a greater emphasis is placed around this point to showcase the overall growth and development of a character.
To quote the Player’s Handbook pg. 15:
In the second tier (levels 5-10), characters come into their own. These characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms.
Many D&D modules, whether you look at Wizards of the Coast or other 3rd party companies, all share this basic narrative design focused around on ending at this tier of play or even a step above at levels 11 to 16. Paizo’s Adventure Paths, if followed to their conclusions, respectively take many characters to 16th-level.
The third tier of play according to the PHB:
In the third tier (levels 11-16), characters have reached a level of power that sets them high above the ordinary populace and makes them special even among adventurers. These mighty adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents.
If you’re a follower of Critical Role, (spoilers ahead) Vox Machina had dealt with the Briarwoods, and subsequently, the overall narrative arc switched to the Chroma Conclave and possibly their most terrifying foe: Thordak, the Cinder King. By the end of that story, the party, for the most part, finished around 16th level. Following along with the narrative and their levels, the story shifted more to completing any character arcs that had gone unresolved while building new arcs as well. My point is that character arcs play a greater role to mitigate the Escalation of Events, breaking the formula while still facilitating ever increasing challenges.
Inventory of the Situation
Dungeon Masters that peruse through the Monster Manual universally understand that the tome contains multitudes of monsters with high Challenge Ratings, but ultimately, dangerous creatures and monsters are not the only threats that endanger entire worlds. For the purposes of this analysis, I will focus on the 4th-tier of D&D player (levels 17 to 20) and include the transitionary level of 16 as well.
Let’s take a look at what characters possess within these levels.
At 17th-level, spellcasters gain access to 9th-level spell slots which includes all-powerful spells like wish and true resurrection. Martial characters, for the most part, have acquired the last feature on their subclasses (except for the Paladin and the Fighter). Rogues in particular deal an additional 9d6 damage on their Sneak Attacks. Paladins and Rangers gain their 5th-level spell slots.
On top of all these features, characters at this stage in the game should have several magic items in their possession. It’s assumed that the group by this point has at least very rare and lower quality magic items. They may even have one or two legendary items. (You can read up on the quirks of Magic Item distribution here).
Between spells, abilities, and magic items, the adventuring group should be reasonably capable of contending with threats both great and minor. The best advice with dealing with such a well-equipped group is present challenges that meet all of these criteria of play. Things like skills, puzzles, and combat can test players even at such higher tiers of play.
Presenting a Challenge – Not all Challenges are combat, and not are combat are challenges
Combat is a significant cornerstone of the game design within Dungeons & Dragons. The other pillars of adventure being exploration and social interactions. Most of DM’s prep time is tied to narrative elements and combat encounters. Some social encounters may take some measure of preparation, along with designs for dungeons and areas to explore. But combat still remains king of the DM’s prep time.
When we reach these higher tiers of player (levels 15-20), there comes the point where spells can solve issues and problems that were previously difficult to overcome in the earlier stages of play. Death seems less remote with access to spells like revivify, raise dead, and resurrection. Traveling even becomes inconsequential with teleport and teleportation circle. So, how does a DM still present a challenge to the party without them steamrolling through every problem or obstacle in their way?
One of the key things to always keep in mind is the expenditure of resources. Make your players use resources, whether it magic item usage, spell slots, features, and abilities, or even favors. The principle point of doing it this way is to provide meaningful interactions and thought to your players. Having the players resolve a difficult situation with everything at their disposal and narrowly reaching their goal provides excitement and urgency. Consider the items and abilities at the party’s disposal whenever you craft challenges whether it be in a dungeon, in combat, or even in social/skill interactions. Do not look for a single solution for your challenge, a good challenge can be solved in multiple different angles with some taking less effort and others more. The best is when the players take the steep path knowing there is an easier one before them. For example, the party has made any allies and rivals with NPCs in the city but now need some help to defend it against an opposing army. Some of their rivals have proven to be powerful adversaries and even trouble for the group at times, but let’s say the Rogue character decided to return back to their thieves guild to recruit aid. The rogue’s relationship with the guild is tenuous and often times resentful, the group can easily avoid interacting with the guild. But the player and the character understand the presented challenge ahead and decide to initiate a possibly complicated social interaction to lessen the grave threat approaching them.
A second key thing to remember is that not all challenges need to be difficult. A story and a game should have peaks and valleys when regarding difficulty of encounters. The variation mitigates escalation, keeps your players attentive, and keeps the workload reasonable for a DM. For example, if you look at the narrative of Critical Role, there are light-hearted moments that still felt challenging but compared to the more dire plot points, the challenges felt insurmountable.
The third thing to remember is that puzzles can always be reliably difficulty regardless of level. You do not always have to craft a trap or puzzle by yourself, there are dozens of trap and puzzle blogs online that can be googled in an instant. Find a video on old toys and puzzles and implement them into a game. There was a time when I was a player, and the DM for that particular group decided to use a Chess board as an elaborate puzzle. To solve the problem, the players had only one move to put White into checkmate. The group came to a consensus and solved it. If we had failed, the room would’ve been filled with acid. Great stuff. Puzzles and traps are not for every group, you will need to determine their temperament ahead of time. But a few puzzles sparingly used, even if the solutions are minor or small in scope, if presented well, can fool even a clever party.
Story Arcs – Character and their Stories
To quote the Eleventh Doctor from Doctor Who: “We’re all stories in the end.”
In a campaign, a DM should never forget a character and their backstory. The backstory is often times your inspiration for your larger plot points or even smaller ones.
Spoilers ahead for Critical Role fans. You have been warned.
For example, in Critical Role, Marisha Ray’s Keyleth has her pilgrimage to the four Ashari tribes to be their next spiritual leader. This pilgrimage is the overlapping story arc for the majority of the campaign with Vox Machina. We do cut into story arcs for some of the other characters, like Percy and the Briarwoods. In between these large story arcs, there were plenty of individual character arcs added by the players or spurred by their DM, Matthew Mercer. The Chroma Conclave arc was a reasonably lengthy section due to the acquisition of the Vestiges of Divergence, artifacts from a bygone age. But in between these large story arc, many character arcs were added, and some were resolved by the arc’s end. Namely, the half-elf rogue Vex and his internal struggles with becoming the Raven Queen’s chosen; or the half-elf twins finding their father and dealing with their past. There were some great character arcs for Keyleth as well, learning more about her mother. Scanlan discovers he had a daughter, along with the gnome bard’s relationship with Pike progressed further. Grog acquired the sentient greatsword Craven Edge and dealt with the implications of the vile weapon.
Some of these narrative points were either done based on character choices, others were facets brought from character backstories, and others were things crafted possibly to see how they would react. Choice and even its illusion are an important aspect to consider when executing these secondary plot points. Imagine a fantasy novel, there is the general plot of the entire book itself, but there are subplots sparse throughout its pages to help give breaks in the narrative. Treat these backstory arcs as such.
How does this relate to higher tiers of play?
Let’s assume you play an adventure module, most finish around 10th-level, but the harder question arises – Now what?
Say your playgroup wants to continue adventuring as these characters, where can you take the story now? There are currently products by Wizards of the Coast that progress further into these tiers of adventure, let alone any that start at a higher level. Ignoring any speculations as to why, let’s assume that perhaps that from a narrative point of view, we would have to write a story that nearly dooms an entire continent or the world itself. But sometimes, the adventure just ends, and perhaps it’s time for these heroes to return back to their old lives. You can quickly resolve any character backstories that may not have gone unresolved before the adventure module. The ending of one story is just a beginning for another one. Focus on the characters and their stories, don’t just present another. Granted, it would be great to tie in another story is set as the larger arc. This how you build investment in the characters for your players, not just simply because they’ve reached a high level but because they became their characters and lived through them.
There is a difference in telling a compelling story and narrating an adventure. Both are viable methods of gameplay, but my primary focus is narrative authenticity versus running a dungeon. The adventure modules Wizards have crafted from Horde of the Dragon Queen to Storm King’s Thunder not only provide great locales and challenges but serve as great examples of crafting campaign narratives but keeping them within a concise context.
Upgrading your Adventure Modules
So had an interesting discussion about modifying the existing adventure modules from Wizards, especially when it came to higher tiers of play. Besides the obvious changes that would need to be made to the combat encounter math, you will have to consider the addition of more features and items that the adventure previously expected from the party. Variation will be needed, the second change will be the DCs for skill challenges and even adjustments to rewards and treasure. Interactions with NPCs may be drastically changed, especially if they are presented to a party of nearly godly beings, that can definitely change the diplomatic landscape. The party can do amazing things, maybe these NPCs come with amazing requests that require these powers.
Just like the rules in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, an adventure module serves as a guideline for crafting a story. Not every adventure needs to be run the same way, no two adventure modules are every the same across two tables. This does not include player choices, but rather, from the DM’s adjustment to the story.
Let’s say we have a level 17 Paladin in Curse of Strahd, the townspeople of Barovia would treat this character as a divine being fighting against the unholy powers of their brutal overseer. They beg for miracles, they plea for salvation and freedom from the fog. Perhaps Strahd sees this individual as a possible worthy replacement for himself. Certainly, Strahd would be numerically stronger than his original published incarnation, some of the threats in the module would indeed receive similar treatment. The stakes grow higher if this Paladin fails in their mission, or other potential threats emerge that are originally in the module. Perhaps mixing in full-fledged Vampires along with their vampire spawn servants, making Strahd this great and powerful elder Vampire Lord. Starting to feel very Castlevania-esque? Stakes and its perception should never change in a narrative sense. Challenges and new ones can be crafted or amended to provide satisfaction in play by your players. Having more options means that a DM can craft more dangerous situations and trials that perhaps were not present in the published materials, that’s okay.
Repeat with me: It’s okay to amend Adventure Modules. Adventure Modules are narrative guidelines.
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