A figure clad in heavy full plate overlooks a cliff. Below, the plague of orcs swarms toward yet another defenseless city. The figure’s companion, a thin young man sporting a bow on his back, walks up to the knight. “We should probably find a secluded way down. Don’t want the whole army to see us.”
The figure remains fixed on the army. “You’re wrong. That’s exactly what we want.” He then proceeds to leap off the cliff, leaving a crater where he lands. A few unfortunate orcs below are crushed by the knight’s weight. The remaining orcs in the vicinity let out cries of surprise as a streak of metal rushes from the spot their friends used to be…
About an hour later, the figure is taking off his helmet, walking towards the city he just saved from the orc onslaught. His friend finally catches up to him. The hunter smirks, “Showoff.”
The knight merely shrugs “Hey. If you’re going to be a hero, why not be heroic?”
` ` `
What do you think? A memorable scene of heroism, displaying an epic hero in his prime? A ridiculous farce that laughs in the face of logic? Something in between?
Your answer likely depends on your taste in heroic fantasy. Roleplaying games also tend to have “tastes” of their own. I don’t mean that roleplaying groups have tastes. That goes without saying. I mean that the systems themselves have expectations for the characters involved in the story, which they try to portray through the game’s mechanics. A Riddle of Steel tries to portray realistic, gritty swordplay. 7th Sea attempts to portray swashbucklers doing heroic things while remaining within the bounds of physics. Exalted attempts to portray deific beings having adventures on a cosmic scale.
Some systems, however, shift the genre that the mechanics portray as characters level up. Dungeons and Dragons is probably the ideal example of this phenomenon, at least in editions 3.0 and on. At low levels, characters are relatively down to earth. Certainly, they can take on dangers that the typical commoner would consider certain death. However, it still takes them weeks to travel a continent, they have to walk through dungeons by torch (or cantrip) light, and they often need to ask favors to accomplish serious change in a city. At high levels, these challenges mean nothing to the heroes. Travel is instantaneous with teleportation. Dungeons can be drilled through with magic lasers or dirt removal. Societal change can be as simple as a Skill roll or a spell.
At this point, I have seen GMs panic, and seek to curtail the player characters’ power. This instinct is understandable, especially for newer GMs. It requires a different set of skills to run games for higher levels in D&D. High level characters can really wreak havoc on a world. But isn’t that the point of RPGs? Isn’t the goal to let players guide characters through a world and a story, and let those characters influence the story through their decisions? I would say that it is one of the main reasons to play an RPG over, say, a board game: that ability for a player to influence a story and leave their mark on the campaign.
When a character reaches higher levels, they finally have the abilities necessary to really shape the world. They can defeat the evil king, and in the same day, be on the other side of the world to stop his Lich pen pal from resurrecting him. Rather than balking away from these grand storylines, a GM has a chance to embrace them. Instead of trying to keep characters in a low-level box, start thinking big! By ratcheting up the scale of a campaign, a GM can make the larger-than-life abilities of PCs make more “sense”. If they are going up against a Fantasy Cthulhu, they better be able to call down meteor swarms, climb snowflakes, or fall from orbit without a scratch if they want to stand any sort of chance.
D&D certainly has some tools built into the game to help scale things up. Class features naturally become more extravagant as a class approaches level 20. Spells become more powerful, martial characters do more damage. Most systems, however, neglect to expand upon non-combat related abilities at the same rate as how hard a character can hit something. Fighters, for example, get more attacks in D&D 3.5, 4e, and 5e. They become far more impressive in combat as they level up. Out of combat, however, they stagnate, as do most non-spellcasting classes. Sure, they get slightly more skill points as they level, but nearly all of their abilities focus on combat. This can make some fighter players feel a little lost when it comes to social interactions, exploration, or other adventuring tasks. Meanwhile, spellcasters of all kinds get new toys for in-combat use and out-of-combat utility.
Now, I’m not saying that all classes should have the same level of capability in all areas. The whole point of classes is to offer a form of specialization that sets a character apart. However, at low levels, characters are typically on a more even playing ground, due to the way skills typically work. Skills are meant to be the catch-all out of combat abilities that a character has. Diplomacy is for being nice to people, Athletics is used to traverse the environment, Stealth is for avoiding notice. At low levels, this system works well, because most DMs can easily conceive of ways to let players use skills in various situations. Climb a brick wall? It may be difficult, but sure. Climb upside down on a cavern ceiling with no clear handholds? No way, that’s absurd.
Although there are many ways to “let heroes be heroes,” expanding the skill system might be one of the best ways to run at high levels. By allowing characters to do the impossible, a GM can give all characters some access to some high-level interactions with the world. D&D 3.5 has some epic uses of skills listed already, such as balancing on clouds, or reading thoughts with the use of Sense Motive. I would advise being open to similar ideas from the players.
Say the barbarian wants to swim up a waterfall. The wizard could basically do the same with a 2nd level levitate spell back at 3rd level. Why not let the barbarian feel awesome when it’s 15 levels later? An easy shorthand for high level uses of skills is to look at some lower level spell abilities in the game, and to expand it to a skill use at an appropriately high difficulty.
5th edition is out now, and many players have moved on. The same thought process can be applied to that game, as well. The game already offers a handy chart of typical skill DCs already. They offer a DC 30 as a task that is nearly impossible. Considering the mathematics of 5e, this makes sense. A typical character at level 20 will have a +11 to their best skills, which means that only the absolute best of the best reaches that level. For characters with expertise, however, that DC 30 is much more attainable. In fact, having a +17 with expertise may suggest that the truly impossible should be attainable at, say, 35.
Alternatively, one could shift their expectations on that chart according to the character’s level. An “easy” task for a level 1 character could be jumping across a 5 foot pit. Meanwhile, an “easy” task for a level 20 character could be jumping across a 50 foot pit. The lack of definition in the DC chart makes is easy for a DM to shift the difficulty of everyday tasks lower without changing the actual numbers that the system uses.
Here are some other potential high-level uses of skills in 5e. Some have been taken from systems that have taken this idea to heart, like Legend or Epic 3.5, while others are simply taking each skill to an absolute extreme.
- Acrobatics: Squeeze through a crack under a door, balance on clouds, catch a ride on an air current to fly for a round or two
- Animal Handling: Tame dangerous monsters, snap an animal out of a druid’s control
- Arcana: Perform cantrips without an actual class feature for cantrips, uncover the specific ley line that leads to the location of a lich’s transformation ritual.
- Athletics: Climb snowflakes, break out of the bottom of an avalanche, swim up a waterfall
- Deception: Convince a sorcerer that he will inevitably lose control of his magic, convince a general that the government is trying to make him lose a war
- History: Personally know the first dwarf in existence, understand the creation of the universe, know the source of owlbears
- Insight: Detect a person’s alignment, know their deepest hopes and fears, see what a person will do before that person thinks of doing it
- Intimidation: Break the morale of an army, force nonsentient creatures (or objects) to bend to your will
- Investigation: Be Sherlock Holmes, use some missing dust on a shelf to ascertain the culprit, find a person’s home through smell
- Medicine: Bring a person back to life, cure curses, replace limbs
- Nature: Predict a magically induced storm of catastrophic proportions, track a creature through disturbed air currents, use a tree’s trunk circles to determine the day it will die
- Perception: See into the past and future, hear the other side of the world, detect the vibrations through earth and air
- Performance: Draw a deity to a roast of his religion (and make them laugh), capture the attention of an army, fascinate a crowd without actual magic
- Persuasion: Make a celestial fall to evil, make a devil see the light of good, act effectively a suggestion spell
- Religion: Understand the method through which deities maintain their power, convert people by the hundreds, make steps toward apotheosis
- Sleight of Hand: Swipe a person’s shirt, pants, and everything they have in seconds flat, Make an elephant seem to disappear into thin air
- Stealth: Go unnoticed in the middle of a street, Escape notice from a scrying effect, avoid leaving footprints
- Survival: Find sustenance in the Elemental Plane of Air, find shelter from a catastrophic meteor storm
If all of this seems just as ridiculous as the opening story, then it’s possible that your tastes simply lie outside of high-level play. There’s a reason most campaigns don’t jump directly to level 15. As a final plea, however, I would ask that you low-level fans out there make it clear to your players which levels you prefer, and plan for the campaign to end before such extreme measures need to be taken. If you plan to contain your story to a lower scale, try to make sure the system you’re working with doesn’t start working against you.
Overall, I expect that having characters perform incredible feats inspired by high-level abilities will make high-level play more satisfying, memorable, and most importantly, fun. Remember that a class feature in the book shouldn’t be required to do amazing things; characters improvising and thinking outside the box when using their abilities should be encouraged. After all, they’re heroic, right? Why not let heroes be heroes?