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High-Level Play
Legends & Lore
Mike Mearls

A t one point in the process of designing D&D Next, we took a long, hard look at capping the game at 10th level. Most people don't play at high levels. Campaigns sputter out, people want to try new characters, and the game has traditionally become much more complex as each new level adds on more and more stuff.

In my experience, designers don't like writing high-level adventures and DMs don't like running them. Tracking everything the party can do becomes overwhelming, and very few DMs' plans last long when the characters can draw upon dozens of spells, magic items, and special abilities.

Keep in mind that I'm writing an article that begins with the thought about stopping at 10th rather than ending with that thought. So, high-level play is still a thing we're doing. When it comes to high-level roleplaying, we can do a few things that we think can make things work smoothly.

To start with, we're moving away from a steady, linear progression of bonuses. A fighter's attack bonus might equal his level, while a cleric's is two-thirds of her level. These progressions work fine at low levels, but they quickly fall apart at high levels. Numerical bonuses are now lower and progress at a slower rate.

We're also moving away from giving you a lot of stuff at each level. In most cases, you get a spell or a class feature. This means casters get fewer spells—more on that later—and that most characters have about five to ten things to manage at 10th level. Beyond 10th, we're cutting back the rate at which you get even more stuff. Characters are simpler and easier to play, and DMs should have a much easier time tracking what the party can get away with.

As an aside about magic, the total spells per day a caster can use is reduced significantly, but we hope that at-will spells and signature spells help pick up the slack. On top of that, I'd like to find a way to implement rituals so that they don't have a gold piece cost and can be used as often as you want. Such a direction makes rituals look quite a bit different. For instance, you can use a ritual only if you have prepared the spell, giving you room to prep spells to blast monsters and to aid in exploration and interaction. More interestingly, this approach forces a more direct comparison between rituals, skills, and specialties, which are all effectively at-will elements in the game. Comparing damage is easy between at-will and limited use spells, but getting the scope of noncombat options is trickier.

Finally, collapsing abilities at high levels makes those individual abilities more powerful. Characters should grow stronger, and if we're delivering power in fewer class features or spell slots, those specific abilities can afford to be quite powerful. We can deliver the promise of a high-level character in a manner that is easier for players to understand and for DMs to plan around.

Of course, the mechanical skeleton of high-level play is just one part of the equation. What does high-level play actually involve? Our base assumption is that high-level characters engage in much the same type of adventures they did at lower level. You fight more powerful creatures and maybe visit a different plane, but you continue to adventure.

That's just the base assumption, though. We want a game where you can continue looting dungeons to level 20 if that's what you want. If you want the game to change, you can implement options we're calling the legacy system. Under this system, a rogue can found a thieves' guild, a cleric can establish a temple, a fighter can gain a stronghold and followers, and a wizard can research new spells. The legacy system speaks to your characters' place in the world and, in a literal sense, the legacy he or she will leave behind.

Our approach is drawn from AD&D, where characters gain followers and political power as they venture into double-digit levels. These examples are just that: examples. Other legacies might include becoming a divine saint, striving to the immortality offered by lichdom, or countering the influence an archdevil or demon prince claims over the material world. Your legacy reflects the tales and legends that will be told about your character years after his or her death.

On top of this, we see the legacy system as a way to help address some of the common issues that arise with high-level play. A little sick of your current character or campaign? Play your high-level character's apprentice or heir, with the campaign shifting back and forth as the story demands. Maybe your fighter wants to spend three years building a keep on the edge of the Shrouded Forest. A goblin tribe poses a minor threat to construction, so you decide to hire a group of neophyte adventurers to drive them from the forest. Where NPCs once gave you quests, now your high-level PCs hand tasks and adventures to your new set of characters.

In some ways, the legacy system represents a transition state for players and DMs. The characters are now major movers and shakers in the world, joining the ranks of the NPCs that the DM normally portrays. With this system, the players take a bigger, more strategic look at the setting. The DM simply shifts gears and provides new types of challenges—political rivals, economic challenges, pesky trouble better suited for low-level characters—mixed with world-shaking events that call for the intervention of your group's original, powerful characters.

If we build the system correctly, our goal is to make fans of high-level play happier than they ever have been while giving DMs who normally shy away from high levels a good reason to try them out.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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