How to make D&D challenging at higher levels

My Sunday group has been playing through Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage since May. A few weeks ago, they hit 11th level: Tier 3. According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, characters at this level are ‘true paragons in the world’ with ‘big flashy spells’ who ‘make their mark on the world in a variety of ways’. We are told that ‘the fate of a nation or even the world depends on momentous quests that such characters undertake.’

If you have played 5th edition D&D in Tier 3 or 4, you will know how difficult it is to challenge players at these levels. A well-optimized party can steamroller through encounters without breaking a sweat. So how do you stop the game getting stale?

Here are ten tips for balancing high-level play.

1. Run easier combats

Not a typo! Justin Alexander has a really good post about this. Essentially, the more you up the difficulty of each fight, the more likely your players are to burn through their resources and take a long rest. Before you know it, you’re suffering from the so-called ‘five-minute adventuring day’. Keep your encounters on the easy to average side. That way, when a hard encounter comes along, it will feel like more of a challenge.

2. Change the maths

The encounter-building rules in the DMG are not very helpful, frankly. I much prefer Sly Flourish’s method:

An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or half the sum total of character levels if the characters are above 4th level.

I would even go so far as to say that in Tier 3 the encounter is only likely to be deadly if the total challenge rating is three-quarters of the total character levels. Thus, four 12th-level characters can probably take on seven barlguras (CR 5) and survive, but six vrocks (CR 6) might be pushing it.  

3. Use hordes of enemies

A solo enemy in 5th edition D&D is always going to struggle against a party of competent adventurers. This is due to what experienced players call action economy. In essence, a single monster is going to have an action, a movement, and maybe a bonus action or a reaction. A party of five adventurers is going to have five actions, five movements . . . you get the picture. Always try to avoid running combats with single enemies. Three to twelve bad guys is usually the sweet spot.

4. Complicate the stakes

By default, a lot of D&D combats are about who can get the other side down to zero hit points first. This can get quite repetitive. So, mix it up a bit. What if a combat involves completing a ritual, protecting hostages, averting an alarm, or avoiding bloodshed? These can be fun, memorable combats, and the challenge becomes more tactical than ‘who can dish out the most damage’.

5. Play monsters intelligently

My go-to resource for this is Keith Ammann’s blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. It’s a must read. Played intelligently, even low-level enemies like goblins and grimlocks can be surprisingly challenging.

6. Use terrain

A featureless 30-ft-by-40-ft chamber is a boring battle, and most players will have no difficulty using their character’s features effectively. But what if the floor is lava? What if, instead of a chamber, there is a series of chokepoints and tunnels? What if the chamber is so vast that spell range becomes a factor? I have a whole post on this.  

7. Deploy time pressures

Perhaps the single biggest issue with high-level play is the ease with which parties can take a long rest. With spells like Leomund’s tiny hut or word of recall, there is very little reason why a high-level party would ever let their resources run low. So, use narrative reasons. ‘In three days, the Dragon Queen’s armies will be at the city gates in three days.’ Still want to rest? Or, ‘in three days, Acererak will finish building the Soulmonger.’ Or, ‘in three days, Mabar will be coterminous with Eberron.’ If the party starts sleeping on the job, the world should react to it.   

8. Be careful with magic items

How powerful is a suit of +1 armour? You might think it’s a relatively low-level item like a +1 weapon or a cloak of protection. If you check the random tables in the DMG, you might be surprised to see that +1 studded leather appears on the same table as a staff of power, and + plate armour is on the same table as the holy avenger. Magic armour in 5th edition can quickly make your characters indestructible – and this is just one example of how magic items can sway the balance of the game considerably.

9. Experiment with monster dials

I’m borrowing again from Sly Flourish here, and this is a good tip. As a DM, you have a couple of ‘dials’ on a monster’s stat block that you can play with during the game. One is hit points. The other is attack damage. Of course, you can roll both, but you are also totally free to bump up these numbers if you want to give your players more of a challenge – so long as you stay within the range on the stat block of course. (Thus, if a frost giant has 12d12 + 60 hit points, anywhere between 72 and 204 hp is about right.)

10. Let them enjoy it  

OK, perhaps this is a bit of a cop-out, but if your players are enjoying high-level play, you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong! It’s how lots of us like to play video games: we carefully optimize our characters until they feel successful and powerful in every situation. If your players have chosen to do this, it’s what they want from the game. And ultimately, if they’re having fun, relax. You’re doing a good job.

What tips do you have for high-level play? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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