one difference between low- and high-level play

In D&D in its purest form, what is the difference in play experience between a low- and high-level character?

There are a lot of play-experience differences that I don’t think are essential. For instance, in most editions, high-level combat has a tendency towards each round taking longer, each character having way more options, and more HP-ignoring attacks being made. But I’d be happy without those characteristics.

What else is there? High-level characters are more important in the story of the world? They have to deal with less logistical inconveniences?

Here’s an interesting statement from the 2e Dungeon Master’s Guide, in the section devoted to timekeeping:

At low levels, characters tend to go on short adventures. A few hours in the dungeon followed by a speedy return is about all they can survive. Therefore, it is easy to have a week’s interval within adventures, since the time passed does not impact on the characters’ activities. As characters reach higher levels, however, their ambitions grow and their adventures become longer.

This is a kind of interesting distinction between low- and high-level characters. In most editions, as characters level, each fight takes up a smaller and smaller proportion of the characters’ total HP. Therefore, higher-level characters can make it farther and farther into the wilderness before they need to return to home base.

As a level-based playstyle distinction, I don’t hate it.

It doesn’t 100% work, of course. At any level, a difficult fight might wipe out your HP and spells. Furthermore, characters quickly become self-sufficient. Characters who can generally recover their HP and spells in the wilderness have an effectively infinite range. Still, from level 1 to around level 5, there’s a nice increase in adventure scope.

If you wanted rules that pushed this further, what could you do? You might allow each character consecutive “roughing-it” nights equal to their level before they face difficulties from exposure and exhaustion. Thus, a first-level fighter can spend one night in a spooky haunted house, and then he needs to return to town. A thirtieth-level paladin can spend a full month in the Nine Hells, fighting to exhaustion every day, before she needs to return to the Prime Material Plane.

Alternatively, you can let economics take care of PCs’ increasing range. Besides being tougher, high-level characters are richer, and can afford horses and ships. If you’re faster than anything on the random encounter table, you can travel with ease.

8 Responses to “one difference between low- and high-level play”

  1. Jason says:

    I like it! I wish dnd divided “extended rests” into two types – field rests and camping, vs being in a bed with shelter. Each type could have variable healing/recuperation rates. Then players could make a conscious choice whether ro camp out in the safe haven they found, or to hoof it back to town.

    As far as difference between high/low, it seems like the major difference is the type of foes they face and the consequences of their actions.

  2. paul paul says:

    I agree. I wish that there were some motivation to rest in comfort, so that PCs wouldn’t always turn down my endless sinister roadside inns.

  3. Michael "Gronan" Mornard says:


    Just have the PCs hit a rainy spell for a few nights and let everything get soaked, spells can’t be recovered because you didn’t get enough rest, weapons and equipment are rusting, horses getting sick, etc. By the end of a week they’ll be so glad for a dry place to sleep that they’d willingly check into Bates Motel.

    Also, random monster encounters at night.

  4. Not sure where else to put this comment, but I have a suggestion for the Mearls. I like how you can separate it out and view it on its own, but when you do there’s no link back to the main blog. I think that would be helpful. Just a thought. Thanks for hosting this. I think it’s a really cool innovation, and I have told my gamer friends that they should be participating.

  5. Michael "Gronan" Mornard says:

    Another difference with higher level play… since characters may be gone for weeks on adventures at higher level, and since the original paradigm of the game was that there were more players than just one “party,” at high levels this increases the chances of players to take decisive actions in the time period when other players aren’t around. You return from Nowhereistan and go to the Temple of the Frog only to find out we’ve looted it while you were gone!

  6. And in higher level play, you should be responsible for more people. Like going from adventurer Conan to King Conan.

  7. paul says:

    Gronan, how does that work with scheduling games? Let’s say my character goes on a trip that takes a month, and in the meantime, you go on a bunch of dungeon adventures that take several sessions. Does Gary not call me to come over and play until my month is done? Or do I play one of my low-level characters?

    William, good idea! I’ll add that.

    HoP: Yes, come to think of it, ACKS has its own, quite complete, answer to this question.

  8. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:



    You would keep playing. Maybe you would play a low level character, or you would play your journey back home, but Gary would as much as possible keep track of time.

    Yes, it’s not perfect; the interface between “game time” and “real world time” is not seamless. We simply did it the best we could.

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