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D&D: What's Actually Wrong With High-Level Play

This post is in reaction to the most recent Legends & Lore post by Monte Cook. This will be a serious test case for my rule against fulmination in this blog - but never mind that, go read Monte's post and come back.

I've run two D&D campaigns up to 13th level (one 3.0, one 4e) and I'm currently playing in AE at 14th level, and I can say with great certainty that the ideas and goals of high-end play don't enter into anyone's thinking when they say that gameplay breaks down at high level. Now, players and/or DMs may not prefer the power level in which they "create their own planes of existence and lay waste to planets," but that's just a matter of taste - the system doesn't push you to tell stories about those kinds of things at high level. Our AE game has discussed the concept of planar travel, but not as anything we'd ever for any reason want to do. It'll probably come up in that context a few more levels, and that's fine. The plot has gone from local to continental; we're solidly in the system's concept of "paragon" tier, if you will.

No, it's not the angels and devils that cause the problems of high-level play. No one would talk about "the game breaking down" because they're just uncomfortable with the change in style. When people say "the game breaks down," what they're talking about is that the rules aren't working. The rules break down for different reasons in each edition; it's not like designers haven't made a valiant attempt at improvement every decade-or-so. Not working may need more definition also: if odd corner-case tactics are your best bet, even though their chance of success is slim, the game is not working as designed, and characters aren't behaving according to any kind of archetypal guideline. Players can still have fun in these kinds of games, but I think everyone at the table is aware that things have gotten cheesy and walk away a little more dissatisfied.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition

This is the furthest back I can go with any experience of my own. My highest-level 2e campaigns each saw one character reach 9th level. Notable problems include:

Dungeons &Dragons, Third Edition

The problems of high-level play in 3.x are considerably better documented than those of 2e, for the simple reason that XP tables were rescaled to make high levels attainable within just a few years of regular play.
Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition

Once again, they made a lot of improvements. Problem adjusted!
The Spell Scaling Problem

As advertised, I want to explain what I see as the central problem of 2e and 3.x, and any game with a certain approach to scaling. 
The tl;dr version is that wizards are only mildly useful against opponents at the start of play, but they had to improve on that relative status eight times. By the third step of improvement (fourth-level spells) things are starting to get out of hand, but at least you get multiple saves. After that point, though, the game gradually pares down the target's possible defenses, because how else do you improve upon "one spell, one kill"?

Monster abilities scale upward to keep up with the things wizards can do. Maybe you see that the other way around, but I think monsters could stay about the same and just use bigger numbers if all they had to worry about were characters attacking their hit point totals.

And that is how, and why, D&D (and every other game) breaks down at high level. Judging by other games, we should just be glad D&D takes as many levels as it does to have these problems. The solution to all of this, as I see it, is to completely change the game's concept of spell levels six and up, if you're going with 3.x-style Vancian magic.

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