How the Game Changes
I realized today that I don’t think any of the d20-rpg publishers have done a really good job of explaining how the nature of the game (“the game” being every version of D&D/d20 System/Pathfinder and it’s spinoffs) changes as players get to higher levels. The type of plots that work at 1st-8th or so won’t play as well at 9th-1th, and it takes a totally different set of plots to keep things moving and fun at 17+.
This is actually a place where 4th edition D&D *started* to do something really cool, with the three named tiers of play, but I don’t feel they really followed through on the idea.
Not only is such guidance not explicitly laid out in detail, but published adventures tend not to run that high, so even good examples are rare. In many ways, my own ideas about it were heavily influenced by the Against the Giants series morphing into the Drow series of adventures and ending with Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
I have both run in and played some spectacularly high-level long-running campaigns using various editions of this game, from campaigns that used Player Option books to begin at 15th level or so and go from there, to one that ran from 1st to 25th level under the Epic Level rules, to campaigns blending gestalt and mythic rules in the mid-to-high teens.
For all of those, they worked because the KINDS of threats, plots, foes, and goals we faced changed over the course of the campaign. At 1st level, a group of hobgoblin bandits is a serious threat. At 17th level, you can’t just use a group of storm giant bandits… unless the campaign has been set up to explain where these bandits were back when you were 5th level, it doesn’t make any sense – and even if you do, they aren’t a viable long-term challenge to players at that level.
My last long-running home campaign included multiple “background” elements that didn’t matter for anything but flavor when the PCs were 2nd level.
*The Rune Peaks, the largest mountain range in the world filled with enormous glowing runes supposedly crafted by the gods to imprison the things they could not destroy in the First War, before most mortal races existed.
*The War for the Fourfold Throne, where powerful elemental-themed beings vied to claim rulership over one elemental plane or, if they dared to reach for godlike status, all four elemental planes.
*Suerbak Kak Delbaz, the Bridge City which exists in some form in every reality.
*Sutek, the God-Pharoah of Ankhara, the only True God left to walk the world in physical form after the First War, an evil deity worshiped by curse-throwing Tormentors, but tolerated by other deities because he is also guardian of the last things the gods could not destroy after the war.
*The Solstice Courts, fey- and similar-related realities that fight over the four seasons, each with a set of chess-themed positions available (one King, one Queen, two Knights, and so on).
*The Dragon Dream, a growing power encouraging all dragonkind to gather in one place and obey one progenator dragon.
I’m sure there were others. The point is at 1st level if the PCs ran into a goblin warband in the Rune Peaks, it didn’t really matter if the goblins were sent by their tribe’s shaman to drive out local human and dwarf traders so the shaman could search the area for a lost scepter of the Solstice Court. PCs encounter the goblins, deal with them, discover there’s an uppity shaman, deal with him, and become local heroes. A fine 1st-3rd level adventure.
Later, when they go back to the area to recover from some other adventure, they discover thousands of hobgoblins and bugbears moving in, along with some evil fey. The quest for the scepter has spread. Then dragonkin begin to appear in the area, seeking tombs of dragon progenators buried under the Rune Peaks, Is this related, or a new problem?
As the PCs deal with forging alliances and saving specific strongholds in the Rune Peaks, they discover that the powers that can be used to claim one of the Solstice Courts can also be used to make a claim on the Fourfold Throne. They begin to get treasure that may mark them as contestants in one or both struggle, and wonder if the two inter-planar conflicts are really reflections of the same thing.
Answers require the map room of Suerbak Kak Delbaz, launching a plane-hopping adventure. That reveals that, amongst other things, whoever claims the Fourfold Throne might be able to destroy Sutek… but that could release greater evil onto the world.
And so on. Adventures are had, victories won, but as the PCs gain power and reality-warping options, they learn there is a bigger conflict being fought at each tier of power, and they have heard of those events and major movers and shaker, but now they can interact with them – maybe change the campaign world forever. The game goes from killing brigands to forging nations to exploring other planes to wondering if they can challenge a god. If the PCs decide to tackle tasks beneath them that’s fine, they CAN use scrying and teleport to annihilate as many bugbear camps as they want. But just as the PCs gain strongholds that are secure from enemy scrying or teleportation, they learn the foes pushing the bugbears to attack in the first place are similarly protected, and it takes more advanced adventures to attempt to win over them.
It’s a formula of stacked adventures and causes I developed after a few early campaigns broke down at higher levels, when I *did* essentially try to just have bigger dungeons with more dangerous monsters, only to discover the PCs would command earth elementals, charm dragons, and teleport to the last room. I realized the trick is not to just keep upping the stakes, but to change the type of challenge. If you’ve run a siege against goblins, don’t just make the next siege against bugbears. Instead, make the point of the bugbear siege not just to kill more bugbears, but to get two powerful forces that are both being besieged by the bugbears to forge an alliance with one another. Killing bigger badder foes is a crucial part of that, to buy time and earn respect of both sides, but it’s not the *point*, and suddenly new skills and options are needed, even as PCs focused on mayhem maintain a role in the adventure.
If I had more time, I’d try to boil all this down to specific advice applicable to a wider range of styles.