Dungeons & Dragons (and most of its successful iterations) play on a rigid 1st through 20th level system of power progression. At level one, you are roughly as weak as a common monster and progress in power until you are a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, capable of handling world-shaking problems in need of adventurers that often play like superheroes.
New data released from Wizards of the Coast recently showed that that vast majority of characters made on D&D Beyond were third to fifth level and the game sharply dropped in numbers thereafter. So let’s break that down shall we?
I think some people are shocked, and want to point out flaws in the new Dungeons & Dragons 5E rules set, as though this somehow validates their beliefs. It doesn’t. Every D&D-esque game system with 20 levels suffered the same sort of phenomenon.
It’s certainly true that homebrew games can swing either direction. They either go on for eons (somewhere a grognard is shining his 30 year veteran campaign badge) or last for like five sessions and fizzle out like that gaseous emanation you walked through in the hallowed halls of Gen Con. I mean, let’s face it. It’s hard to play as an adult these days and keep people together. It’s hard as a youth, when there’s a lot more distracting things to do as well.
We all have jobs, and obligations and there’s a reason why short, simple games get run and are enjoyable. There’s still plenty of high level opportunity for play. Paizo puts out full adventure paths, six in total, generally spanning Pathfinder characters from first level through as much as 18th or 20th level. Wizards of the Coast is no different, now offering massive tome for adventures (long gone are the 32 page softcover adventures we all adulated upon as kids).
But doesn’t the data say that’s exactly what people want? Short, sweet 2-3 session adventures? Yes and no. You can’t make everyone happy all the time. Ask Star Wars fans.
WHY DO WE WANT TO LEVEL?
Why do we want to level up our characters? Part of it is our desire for greater power. Don’t let D&D players fool you, there’s some real psychological stuff going on there in roleplaying and the transference of power. But that’s another topic for another day. But let’s face it, we like to blow shit up. We like to indiscriminately kill goblins that stand in our way. We can’t do that in real life.
And when we level… we just get better at it.
But that’s not to say that there’s not a large segment of the gamer population that doesn’t enjoy seeing a character concept (don’t you dare say build…) grow to fruition. We like to see the logical growth of these imaginary figments given life.
There’s also simply the satisfaction of leveling. It’s a reward for your effort. It’s the raise you didn’t get at work. All that gold is that savings account you don’t have built up yet. Those followers are all the nay-sayers in your life that now march when your sword points to the enemies’ ranks.
WHY THE NUMBERS ARE SKEWED TO LOWER LEVEL PLAY
So is lower level actually more fun? In my opinion, yes. But I’m fully biased. I love my gritty fantasy. I want Game of Thrones, Conan, and Thieves’ World. The Forgotten Realms with its 30th level wizards that are all cooler than you and gonzo nations bores me to fucking death.
Low level means there’s much more risk involved in play. The story means more, and even the minor cool things you do become amazing. Whereas in high-level play, another day, another Tarrasque and another meteor swarm. So it makes sense for people to enjoy lower-level play more.
DMs also have to do a lot more work at higher level gameplay to challenge players. This was especially true in previous editions (like Pathfinder). In 5E ironically, higher level characters can still be easily challenged by lower level creatures in great number.
A 10th level character in Pathfinder might see a warband of gnolls rise over a hill and just know it will take a good amount of rounds to mow them down, but in 5E D&D, they will have to really decide whether or not it’s a wise move to take on that many adversaries. The mechanics of success and lower armor classes means those gnolls (even CR ¼) ones, might chew up an adventuring party.
As it should be.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU WANT MORE HIGH LEVEL GAMES
There’s no law that says you can’t simply start your games at a higher level tier of play. You have to do what’s right for the story. So if your DM wants to do something at higher level, just make up some 10th level characters. Start out as regional heroes with your own minor territory and troops. Have some fun with that.
There are some great alternatives too. Check out Rob Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord. In that system, the players gain a level after each game session! There’s only ten levels of play, and stories are generally, short, sweet, and memorable fun.
But D&D is a very flexible game. I’m running the Curse of Strahd for my players right now (sorry suckas!).
It’s been a brutal slugfest, as I’m making them earn everything and not skimping on the “random” encounters. But I could have just as easily started the characters at 5th level of play and given them a level every time they achieved a milestone. I could have amped up some of the major encounters and I’d still have been fine with others (looking at you hags…).
It’s a flexible system that allows the GM to ad hoc a lot on the fly, so don’t be afraid to do so.
So don’t fall into any predetermined notions about gameplay. It’s your game, own that shit. Make it yours. Play whatever levels you want, you don’t have to earn them unless that’s the game your group wants. I urge you to mix it up and try new level ranges. Get out of your comfort zone.
But most of all, just have fun. Stats on a page don’t tell a story, you do.