Across the many games I’ve gotten to play – and mind, mostly in D&D 5th Ed. – the most common wistful complaint I’ve heard is that you never get to play the game up to or beyond level 20; in the 4 years I’ve been aware of or played in 5th Ed., I’ve seen level 20 exactly once, to be sure. That was a wild time, but a fun one.
Anyway, I think (and talk) about this sort of thing often enough that I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts and, as ever, you are welcome along!
We talked about this before, but it bears some repeating: D&D as a game has a particular set of things it does well. Those things are generally battle-related and that has some relevance here as your levels scale.
At your earlier levels, you just… don’t wanna die. Your earlier levels up to around 5 are filled with all manner of things that, you aren’t careful, will kill you. Your abilities and spells, if cleverly used, will keep you alive in most encounters, but again you have to be careful to varying degrees dependent on your DM.
Having power isn’t just a matter of what extraplanar things one might see or experience, but also the things that happen once you, the shining stars of the game, continue to go out and do things that no mere mortal has ever been able to do in your world.Me, because of course that’s something I said.
Around levels 5 to about 9, you have an odd space where a number of creatures either kill you or are a cakewalk depending on how the rolls go. You also start seeing creatures with unique traits that require some reconnaissance to suss out. It’s interesting and could be a good intro to more tactical means of handling enemies depending.
From level 9 on, your character traits and abilities are at a point you are able to deal with most things with only moderate levels of difficulty unless your DM is expressly out to kill you. Around this point, you start seeing creatures with significantly higher CRs to keep things interesting.
By the time you get to levels 17-20… what else is there to throw at the party? Resurrection is a thing by this point as are spells like Wish. I mean, a good puzzle might delay the inevitable solution, but ultimately, it’s just “OK, so you have to unlock the door, before you start punching things.”
Beyond the Battle
If your earlier levels are more trying to survive the world, then your later levels are more about what motivates you to keep adventuring. As you become more powerful, an aim for that power should be considered. In the best case scenario, it should be tied to the goings-on of the world.
Sure, there are probably ways to create stat blocks for various lesser gods and quasi-deities and the powers they might have, the challenges they might present, and so on, but I think battle and puzzles might be a bit too narrow of a focus for an “epic level” campaign.
Your players/characters had a background for the places they came from. They have achieved power and renown. Are they going back to those places? Are they changing things for the better (or maybe worse, but I hope not) where they go? Are they taking what they learned and giving power for others to build better lives with their own hands?
Consider: you go out into the world and become powerful and now people are doing things for good or ill in your name. Does that reputation precede you? If you don’t like that reputation, do you go forth to correct it? What does that adventure look like? If you Wish that away, what consequences does that have?
In other words, at higher levels, players should have things in-game to care for outside of themselves or the party. Not caring should have consequences.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
The possibilities are endless for sure, but it’s not battle that gets us there. It’s a care for the world and the moments that force us to consider consequences for actions. Having power isn’t just a matter of what extraplanar things one might see or experience, but also the things that happen once you, the shining stars of the game, continue to go out and do things that no mere mortal has ever been able to do in your world.
May we always bear in mind that the world around us need not be one that is unchanging unless in our sight, but that what we do can leave things behind that also change things even while we adventure elsewhere.