Game Day: Higher Level Thinking

My gaming group, the Blackrazor Guild, formed in 1996. Over the last 20 years we’ve created hundreds of Dungeons & Dragons characters and at least a good two dozen of those reached the left heights of “high level” adventuring.

These characters spanned multiple editions of the game, but the most iconic started in 2nd Edition and were converted to 3rd. They clustered together into two groups: the A-Team (levels 18-22) and the B-Team (levels 14-17). Unfortunately, they’ve languished there for the better part of a decade because while we enjoy playing these characters, high-level play in D&D 3rd Edition and its successor, Pathfinder, was just too damn hard. The complexity of both systems is legendary and it gives rise to a five game-minute battle taking four real-world hours to complete. We retired the heroes and went on to play a variety of other lower level campaigns.

Until now.

We’ve been running D&D 5th Edition for over two years now and found it runs quickly at low and mid levels. That made us optimistic that it would run well at high level as well and we began putting together some 15th level adventures. We ran three 15th level adventures at Nuke(m)Con 2016, including two 4-5 player dungeoncrawls and one 9-10 player mega event. As a result of those events we’ve pushed ahead with high level play. We’ve now got a twice-a-month high-level campaign going called Tales from the Tower in which we try out our 15th and 16th level characters in a series of one-shot adventures. The goal is to get good enough at high level to take on some of the campaign’s greatest threats, including the biggest one of them all: the ancient black dragon Woryx and guardian of the long-lost sword Blackrazor.

Thematic Conversions

The single biggest challenge we have with converting characters is how incredibly powerful the high level 3rd Edition and Pathfinder characters are. We’re talking characters who adventured for something like 15 real-world years with enough magic items to equip an army. They have stats and special abilities granted by wishes, signature magic items that border on relics, and spellbooks that draw upon decades of published rules.

All of it needs to be reigned in for 5th Edition, which has far fewer options that 3e and utilizes bounded math to prevent the insane numbers we saw in the earlier edition. This means that we’re doing thematic conversions, rather than 1-to-1 conversions. The goal is to come up with a character that feels like your old character, and plays like your old character, but without the godlike arsenal to back them up.

It’s been difficult. D&D 3rd Edition was nothing if not flexible and that flexibility gave rise to a high level of customization (that customization in turn gave us the aforementioned 4-hour combats, which is why it all needed to be brought back down to earth).

Take magic swords for instance. In D&D 3rd Edition, you had your standard magic swords with a straight up magical bonus of +1 to +5. These could be augmented by another +5 worth of special abilities (e.g. making it flaming was the equivalent of another +1 bonus; making it speedy so you could get a second attack in each round was worth a +3 bonus).

D&D 5th Edition has very little of this. A flame tongue sword is a magical flaming sword … and that’s it. It has no bonus to hit; it just ignites into flame and does extra fire damage if you hit something with it. Even the legendary frostbrand sword, one of my personal favorites, doesn’t have any inherent +1 bonuses to attack and damage, though it retains its special cold-weather attributes.

Because of the bounded math of 5th Edition, which sets a ceiling on bonuses for ability and combat checks, magic swords are limited to a range of +1 to +3. A +1 sword is significantly better in 5e than in 3e, and it’s the sort of weapon your character will keep with her throughout her entire adventuring career.

Moreover, 5e has the concept of attunement for magic items. Attunement, in which the player character spends an hour aligning themselves with the item in order to use it, is meant to limit how many powerful magic items a player can use at one time. The default limit — which we use — is 3 attuned items. That’s is own special challenge, as our high level characters likely have way

I personally like 5e’s more focused nature, but it does require us to do a hell of a lot of editing.

Conversion Hurdles

At this point we’ve converted about a dozen characters to 5th Edition and probably played three quarters of them at the table. Here are the biggest conversion hurdles we’ve faced:

Wildly different ability scores: We’ve used a variety of methods for determining ability scores over the years including an 82 point allocation (divide 82 points among six abilities), random die rolls, 3.x edition point buys (of varying values), 4.x edition point buys (yes, we have converted one 4th edition character), and 5th edition point buys. This yielded a wide distribution of ability scores, with the highest values in the low to mid 20s, which is much higher than what’s allowable in 5e. We had to figure out a way to balance these scores without nerfing everyone’s characters … it’s something we’re continuing to struggle with.

Prestige classes: We made extensive use of prestige classes in 3.x and Pathfinder. Many were from official source books, a few were home grown. None have equivalents in 5th Edition. While there was an “Unearthed Arcana” column that talked about prestige classes and gave some examples, none of it has turned up in an official publication yet. 5e prefers to handle this sort of thing via archetypes, the class-specific variations that typically appear at 3rd level. We’re looking at those as a way to capture the flavor of the prestige classes.

Custom magic artifacts items: As I alluded to above many of our group’s magic items are so powerful that they’d be artifacts in the new edition. Editing signature items down to their essential core is almost as difficult as editing characters.

Attunement limit: 3.x and Pathfinder had some limits in place on magic items — e.g. you couldn’t have two magic items that provided the same defensive bonus, you could only wear two magic rings, etc. — but 5th edition is much more restrictive. The most powerful and most useful magic items in the game typically require attunement, and characters are limited to having three of them. Several of our characters — particularly the A Team ones — easily exceed this limit. As a player, it’s difficult to figure out which of these magic items to use and there’s a temptation to start making exceptions … but those exceptions could ruin the game’s balance.

Rule mismatches: There are some game concepts that simply don’t exist in 5th Edition and they usually relate to the game’s bounded math. For example, saving throw bonuses are typically pretty low so you don’t have to artificially inflate your wizards’ spell saving throw DCs in order to be effective. Similarly, spell resistance isn’t a thing, so you don’t need spell penetration feats to defeat it.

Divine domains: Clerics have always played a major role in our campaign. Whether their areas of influence were called spheres (2nd edition) or domains (3rd edition), the spells and special abilities that a cleric received from their diety was an important part of our campaign. With 3rd Edition we were lucky; the Forgotten Realms campaign guide for that edition was released early on and contained almost all the domains we needed. With 5e, we had a lot of the domains we needed but there were others — like say, “community” or “stone” — that don’t exist yet, and likely won’t. As such, we’ve had to build out domains of our own to fill the void.

The Good Stuff

These bumps in the road may make it sound like we’re having a lot of trouble with the conversions, but the truth is that converting to 5th Edition has actually been straightforward. It’s robust multiclassing options and array of feats allow us to recreate the characters themselves fairly easily. Merwyn (Wizard 14/Fighter 2), from our Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign was easy to convert into the evoker/swordsman that he ended the campaign as (along with his treasured ring of fire elemental command and the flametongue sword Cryobane).

The characters run well, so well we were able to resurrect high level play for our regular Sunday games. These Tales for the Tower campaign revolve around the plane-spanning wizards conclave known as the Obsidian Tower. It’s charged with protecting the various material worlds (including, of course, Greyhawk as the prime) from planar incursion. That set up has allowed us to bring in characters from other, non-Greyhawk campaign world’s like Pathfinder‘s Golarion or the Planetorn setting we created for D&D 4th Edition. We’re using this setup to run a series of one shots that familiarize ourselves with high level play and to get us ready for bringing back the truly high level legends of our campaign.

It may take us another year or so to get there, but we’re confident it will happen.

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