The Next Level
I'm 15th level. . . now what?
I was 15 once, and I used to play D&D with the mindset of a 15 year old. I spent one afternoon making a dozen guys who would be my vanguard when I finally got around to invading the Lower Planes. In those days, I was always looking to the future. . . to the day when my characters would be tackling the likes of Orcus, Moloch, and Tiamat.
Of course, that's pretty hard to do when you're a first level guy. Thus I spent a lot of time just trying to get to the next level. This wasn't power gaming, per se. It was, I admit, a bit of a bad logic. My friends and I were operating under the poor assumption that high level gaming could only be fun if you were a bazillion leveled warrior and you set out to conquer as many dark powers as you could.
As the case often is, we got a little burned out somewhere along 9th level. In most rule sets, it becomes harder to advance after a certain point. You either need more XP or it costs more points to buy skills, etc. A lot of people give up on the quest.
Others skirt the issue and simply make high-level characters from the onset. There are even modules that encourage this. I own a few modules for high level characters, A Paladin in Hell and The Throne of Bloodstone, and both suggest one simply make a high-level character and dive into the game.
I've tried that approach and I've found it lacking.
Making a 15th level guy without working for those levels tends to demure the raw spirit of the character. A 15th level guy should have some sort of back-story. A history. When one makes a 15th level guy and explains his back-story involves a couple of wars and a period of service for the Merchant House of Amketch. . . it generally falls flat. It's not that the back-story is uninteresting. But, without having actually played the character for years and without having actually established the character's legacy, it becomes difficult for a player to convincingly incorporate the historic aspect of the character.
This is generally no fault of the player. I've seen players of various levels of skill attempt to bring life to a freshly created, high-level character. It just usually doesn't work very well. . . and that may be okay if you're only interested in hacking a dungeon.
I'm more interested in stories and building character history. In my experience I've found players tend to play better when they're working with a character they've built from the ground up. Not only do they establish a better feel for the character, the motivations, and the nuances, they also have a vested interest in making sure the character survives and moves on to the next level. If I made a 15th level barbarian today, it wouldn't matter to me so much if the GM killed him off in a game 3 weeks from now. Sure, I lost a 15th level guy, but it's not like I spent a lot of time developing him.
Character development, I think, is an essential part of gaming. And when we're talking about games in the vein of D&D, we're also talking about "going up a level".
So, I prefer the long-road approach to character development. I like to start at first level and work for my XP. I like to find the gold on my own. If I use a +3 dagger, it's because I found it in a cave on my 4th adventure. When I talk about fighting in the Goblin Wars of Southmark, I'm not talking about a contrived back-story to make my character interesting . . .I'm actually talking about an interesting scenario my character took part in. And when I reach 15th level, you can believe it. It doesn't feel cheap, manufactured, or accelerated. The character walks into the bar with the stride of one who has done business and knows how to handle himself.
But, that brings us back to my childhood problem. Getting to next level takes time and effort. And it's often hard to get to 15th level without becoming a power-gamer. In a setting like D&D, a 15th level character often has 250,000 gold deposited in some sort of bank (maybe in Leomund's Secret Chest). He has a +5 battle axe hanging over the mantle. He has a +15 adjustment to his armor class because of his magical armor and because he's read 3 tomes of dexterity over the years. He has gauntlets of swimming and climbing, so there are few places where he can't go. And, last year, he and his buds got together and slew Pazuzu, so now they all time-share the first layer of the Abyss.
Playing the same character in the same universe over a long period of time often exposes glitches within a game. While the example above is fictitious, it does show it may be pointless to keep striving for the next level. If characters become as powerful as demi-gods, what foes are left for them to fight? A party could set out to kill Orcus and succeed. Do they then set out to kill Tiamat? At what point does that become redundant? And how interesting is a character who is essentially an evil god slayer?
I've heard it said from more than one source that continuing a game into those echelons is boring and time consuming. I've heard one player state he'd rather play games at the 7th level or so. And, to his point, a high majority of published modules are tailored towards mid-level characters. The implication being that playing at low levels is too limiting and that playing at high levels is either too redundant or too boring.
So, is there a point in continuing to strive for the next level? Shouldn't the wizard just hang up his hat after a point?
I don't think so. There's too much fun to be had by taking your character to the next level.
I've been running a continuous D&D campaign for about 8 years now. By this point, most of the players have characters who are pretty high in level. Any of them are pretty powerful by themselves. When marshaled together, they have the ability to literally level cities of evil-doers . . .and they have.
It may sound like power-gaming, but it's not. We, as a group, agree to certain "house rules" that keep the game and characters fresh and unpredictable.
First, we agree there's no status quo. This may not sound important, but it is. High level characters tend to establish themselves in one locale; this mentality is encouraged by old D&D products, suggesting high-level characters should operate out of a tower or a manse or some such. But when you agree there is no home base, it becomes more difficult to become complacent and attached to a status quo. In their day, my players have owned a ship, presided over their own fortress, and had a bar that could have been thought of as "home base". They've also lost access to all of them.
There has also been at least 3 points in the story line where all of their possessions have been taken from them. This is important for two reasons. One, my players have learned not to get too attached to their possessions; this has a side benefit of planting the subtext of the character being more important than his inventory. Additionally, it keeps the players from amassing tons of magical items that make them super-powerful. Not long ago a 13th level wizard was forced to confront a situation with only his physical skills and mental wits – he didn't even have a spell book for a short period of time!
Having arch-villains is another house rule. This sounds simple, but it's more important than one might think. Most monster books have pretty high level villains waiting in the wings. Demons, devils, dragons, giants. . . any one of these could make for a great arch-villain. My logic is if they're in the monster book, they were meant to be used.
I've found that's its best to have more than one arch-rival. Moloch might make for a great villain, but you don't want your players to face him every time they hit the trail. I've also found it's best if the villains come from a variety of backgrounds and have a variety of powers. Moloch is a villain in my campaign, but so is Romani, a sea pirate. Ironically, my players have managed to foil Moloch more than once, but they have yet to get the upper hand on Romani, a "simple" sea pirate. Moloch serves to terrorize my players, but Romani serves to humble them. When Moloch bites the head off of their satyr companion, it gives the player's added motive to put Moloch down, once and for all. But when Romani outwits them yet again, it reminds them they, too, can be beaten by lower leveled foes.
Another aspect of the villain house rule is that they stay alive for as long as they're useful. There are lots of plot threads left to be explored between my players and Moloch. But, we killed off Guthrie, a captain-of-the-guard, when he literally outlived his usefulness.
A third house rule, a recent one in development, is that the focus shifts from player to player. I prefer to view my players as an ensemble cast. It shouldn't be about The Rune Reader and His Amazing Friends. It was recently revealed to my cast of players that each of their father-figures bears a hidden past and we have plans to explore those past lives. By shifting the focus from one player to the next over a period of time, you accomplish two things. One, obviously, is you keep the focus shifting, which keeps things from growing stagnant. For example, the father of one player seems to have journeyed into hell in his youth. Why did he do that and what did he accomplish? More importantly, what impact will that have on the son? Does this open up a new wave of powerful foes to content with (see how this kind of incorporates the first two house rules)? You also help ensure each player is important by giving them a shot in the spotlight. Not only does this make the character more important, but it creates a common bond between the players as well. It helps the group continue to move forward because they're interested in the fate of their pal in addition to the fate of their own character.
I could keep going on, but hopefully you get the idea. The gist of it is that you have to adjust the style of your game to accommodate for an increase of player level. You don't approach a 6th grade spelling test in the same manner you approach writing your master's thesis – well, some folks do, but that's not the point. The house rules above are things my group has done to keep the game fresh and on the move. Other groups may have to adjust these rules – some might not want to give up their well earned manse so easily. . . and that's okay. The point is you can continue to have fun playing at higher levels, but you will likely have to make some changes in order to be successful. I see no harm in that, for stagnation is usually a precursor to death.
I'm an advocate of high level gaming. It took me some time to figure out how to do it without falling into some of the typical pitfalls; in fact, it took me longer than it should have to figure it out. . . but it was worth the effort. While I enjoy playing at lower levels, playing at higher levels gives me and my players the chance to play some of the games I'd dreamt of when I was younger. Maybe we're not defeating one plane of the Abyss after another, but we are tackling new challenges and having fun along the way.