High-level play within D&D 3rd Edition is hard. Whether you’re playing 3.0 or 3.5, the end result is the same: thousands of feats, hundreds of prestige classes and gods-only-know how many spells give rise to complicated game mechanics that slow play to a crawl. Iterative attacks, in which high-level martial classes like the fighter or ranger get four or five attacks every round add to the complexity as people calculate to hits and damage … and then have to do it all over again when they remember to factor in some party-buffing spell the cleric cast last round.
But is it unplayable? Or has everyone simply assumed it is?
Weaving the Myth
The myth of high-level play has been festering in my group for years, fed primarily by time-consuming expeditions into Maure Castle. The death-trap filled dungeon crawl saw lots of combat featuring 12th to 15th level characters, and consisted of the heroes spelling up, teleporting into the dungeon, battling some monster (or group of monsters) for three or four hours, looting the corpses and then fleeing back to their headquarters.
Combats took forever, some folks felt left out when their characters had no way of bypassing a given demon’s defenses, and the end result was a game that felt more frustrating than fun.
At the same time though, our 11-year-old campaign has spawned plenty of characters in the 13+ level range, as well as a goodly number in the 18-20th range. These are characters that everyone is eager to play … if we could just get high level combat under control. For a time at least some of us hoped that 4th Edition would be the answer, but I have doubt we’d be able to convert our high level characters to that edition and be happy with the end result.
This got me to thinking about how we could improve our game. I cast my mind back to other high level adventures we had run, outside of Maure Castle, and I came to the realization that we weren’t nearly as bad at high level adventuring as we though we were.
Indeed, almost every high level adventure we’d run in the last five years using the 3.x rules, be it a battle against frost giants in the Night of Storms, the assault on the white dragon Skel’s lair, the fight against an ancient mummy lord come to seek its revenge against the Blackrazor Guild, had gone off well. It wasn’t just that combat ran smoothly, it was that people enjoyed themselves, and we got to tell some memorable stories.
Identifying the Problem
The problem, I’ve come to believe, is three-fold.
First, we’ve let ourselves believe that high level play under 3rd edition is next to impossible, and thus we’ve avoided playing it in our weekly game. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; we think it’s impossible to play, so we don’t play it. Thus, it becomes, by definition, impossible for us to play … regardless of whether the rules are really problematic.
Second, high level play is harder. 3rd Edition characters can be tremendously complicated at high levels, but that’s what makes them so fun. The challenge lies in knowing your character’s capabilities, and being prepared to act on them. For martial classes, that means knowing your feats and doing the combat math ahead of time. For spell-casting classes, that means being familiar with the spells you’re likely to cast and prepping their durations, DCs, and damage dealt ahead of time.
For all players it means using your time at the table wisely. You need to pay attention to combat, and if a situation comes up that you’re not prepared for (perhaps because of an opportunity to use a spell that you’ve never cast before) then you need to read up on that description before your turn comes up.
It also means that you need to practice. High-level play opens up new opportunities and new challenges, the likes of which both players and DMs haven’t seen before. It’s a learning experience, and learning takes time, so we shouldn’t expect to run lightning-fast high-level sessions after only one or two engagements.
Third, game pacing is critical. Dungeon Masters need to keep things moving. Prior to the game they need to come up with rudimentary battle plans for the NPCs and monsters they plan to use during the session. Just like players, they need to make notes about spell and feat effects, damage dealt, and DCs. Everything they can look up outside of the game is one less thing they have to fumble with in-session … and one less thing that can slow down play.
When planning encounters, DMs need to make sure that everyone has something to do. If the Big Bad Demon has super-high spell resistance that is sure to stymie the mages, then provide some mooks that the wizard can blast away with chain lightning bolts. If the lich lord has ungodly damage reduction, make sure the fighter has some skeletons to cleave through. It’s not about throwing the players softballs; it’s about making sure that everyone has something to challenge and engage them.
Finally, DMs need to watch the pacing of the game. In our group, we call this the “fast combat” style of play, in which everyone is expected to make a decision in 10-30 seconds, with an understanding that play will move on if they can’t decide. Likewise, we ignore rules debates; if we’re not clear on a rule we ad hoc something that seems fair and debate the minutia after the fact. DMs also need to build breaks into their high-level sessions, especially before and after a big fight. Before a fight players may need a little time to study up on their characters abilities. After the fact, everyone needs to blow off steam and geek out about what happened before.
These natural breaks in the flow of the game keep everyone loose and relaxed, and help prevent frustration with the rules (and let’s admit it, with each other as well) from spiraling out of control.
Forging a Solution
My group has spent countless hours debating 3rd Edition vs. 4th Edition. One of the recurring threads thats emerged from those discussions is that none of us want to give up our high level characters. We may never play them, but damn it, we don’t want to give them up.
Rather than spend the next 10 years complaining about what could have been, I resolved to do something about it. Thus I’ve proposed the Asgard Project, in which a small number of volunteers from my group will meet to play one-shot high level adventures. These adventures will serve as playtests to identify problem areas with high level play in 3rd edition, come up with possible solutions, and then bring those back to the larger group. In addition to identifying the areas where we run in to problems, this project will also serve to teach us how to run high-level adventures.
When the project concludes, we’ll know where the pain points are, and hopefully learned a lot more about how to run these kinds of high-level adventures. That in turn will hopefully lead to a renaissance of high-level play, allowing players to dust off some of our campaign’s signature characters for a new round of epic adventures.
Naturally, I’ll be blogging about all of this on Nuketown, so look for more posts about the Asgard project as we roll into the fall.