Mastering Epic Levels Part 1

The most difficult time for a DM is dealing with characters level 9-20. The odds of them missing any attacks is now so rare that it hardly ever happens. Now, you cannot contain them, but that is okay because they can go anywhere in the world that they want to. BUT, how do you challenge them? Dungeons and Dragons is about danger, and mystery. How do you make a powerful character fear for their lives? Though this post, we will deal with different ways to challenge the most unchallenged heroes in the game.

The easy thing to do, is grant land and property. Serving others is the natural progression of the game, but this is not for everybody. It takes a very talented Dungeon Master, and very dedicated players to make the entire thing work! Many players openly express that they don’t want land, and they don’t want to be responsible for this aspect of the game. THEY WANT TO ADVENTURE!!!!!

Well, the best way to do this, is to use your head, but there are some tricks that will help you maintain the balance of the game, and best of all, WE DON’T NEED TO CHEAT!!! So how awesome is that?


As a DM, the dice are no longer your friend. This has to have consequences, in low levels, the characters were ignored and under estimated. Mid-level they are taken seriously and battered pretty heavy. Now, at high-level, they are definitely considered threats! Now the players are true heroes. They don’t miss in combat, they kill things very quickly, and possess magics that threaten the Gods themselves!

You have to change the way that you run the game. Don’t depend on the dice, but at the same time, you can threaten them with Save or Dies, they have very little odds of actually failing the roll, but do keep in mind that my rule of THE DM ISN’T ALLOWED TO KILL CHARACTERS still applies. It must be their decision, but don’t worry, the more powerful that they are, the more risks that they are going to take. Level Draining monsters are also available, however you want to drain the party down evenly. THEY CAN TAKE IT!!!!

However, for the most part, we want to avoid using the dice. We must come up with situations were combat isn’t the only option, in fact, there is nothing to gain from doing it! The very powerful masters of the world will be gunning for them now, and they will hide behind weaker minions, they will use the parties morals against them.

Increase your traps, traps are a good way to endanger a character. Thieves have the ability to find/remove traps, however that does not include all traps. A trap could be found, however it could be of a type that cannot be deactivated or defeated. Now they KNOW that a trap is present, and while the Thief might be able to sneak past it without setting it off, who is to say that the rest of the party will be able to do the same thing?

Apply Modifiers

One thing that a DM that I played under did to me at high-levels, is require that my thief uses tools to accomplish my goals, if while picking a lock, I fail then the tool is broken and I can’t pick again until I purchase or construct a new lock pick. Depending on the quality of the Trap, or lock, applies modifiers to a thief’s base of success. A well made lock will impose a -50% modifier to my lock picking ability. As a thief I would be able to see this at a glance, and it would be up to me to decide if I am going to try anyway, failure of course would destroy my lock pick. The lock itself may be trapped as well, which could only be detected by first checking for traps, if the trap is really well hidden, then this too could impose a negative modifier to my roll.

This applies to more then just thieves, you need to start thinking in percentages! The enemies of the characters will be the kind that are more aware of their skills, and will set up things to kill them, as well have better terrain where they set up their bases.

In the past, an ability check was not modified, but now they will be traveling in area’s that men aren’t meant to, for example the mountain road to a dark castle will be dangerous, else everybody would go there! Perhaps the bridge is rotten, requiring not just basic DEX checks, but so warn and crumbling that it imposes a -5 penalty every five feet. Thus, a bridge that spans 10 feet would require two checks, failure would mean that the player falls threw the bridge, a roll of a twenty could mean that the entire thing collapses.

Applying modifiers skillfully and in the right balance for your party does take some practice, but our goal here is to get the players to focus on intelligent methods of doing the things that they use to take for granted. For the example of the rotten bridge above, this problem could be solved by having the most dexterous character to do it alone with a rope which he could tie on the other side of the bridge, thus allowing their companions to safely traverse the bridge.

Logic is key here! There must be a reason why the ability has a negative modifier to it, you must be able to explain why this task is more difficult then what it should be, if you can’t do this, then you are cheating!

Using Plot

Combat at this stage can become dull, fighting in battles, while good for mid-level heroes, is now below them. They’re goals need to be different, and more up to par with what a true heroes should be! The characters need not be afraid of their lives, however you can build tension by adding elements that do scare them! Escorting children through a goblin infested forest, saving a princess from a time activated trap. Just because they have more hp then their enemies, doesn’t mean that their goal does! Failure must also have severe consequences for them. They are now epic heroes, they must have truly epic goals, which will come up in more detail later.

You don’t want to eliminate the dice completely, we just want to adjust the difficulty and increase the danger involved in failing it. Of course the enemies will change as well. They will deal with less minions, and more powerful monsters. Things that lesser parties can’t handle, epic heroes are rare!!!! They should be allowed to pick and chose what missions that they will take. They will have a bigger say in the world as well, with this respect comes a lot of responsibility. They aren’t obscure anymore, and if they kill somebody or something that may or may not deserve it, then now they are objects of public opinion!

For example, a fighter is magically controlled by an evil wizard with orders to take a city, if the epic heroes simply kill the fighter this could get them into huge trouble once the truth does come out! Fame comes with a huge price, and there will be no doubt about how famous your heroes will be.


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