Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Open Letter To Monte Cook

In The Challenge of High Level Play, Monte Cook says:
As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I've never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there's some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes.
I'd like to clarify. When I say that high-level play breaks down, what I'm saying is that the math of combat and game rules no longer function. I am not focused on how the game "changes". In fact, in some editions the game doesn't really change at all.

Play breaks down for different reasons in different editions. I'm most familiar, off the cuff, with 4th edition. So what happens in 4e? The number of conditional bonuses and temporary modifiers become so numerous at high levels that it takes forever to complete one round of combat.

Further, the ability of characters to whittle away enemy hit points bogs down. 1d8+5 damage at level 2 could slay a monster with 32 hit points (Level 2 Elf Archer, Monster Manual, page 106) in four hits or about five rounds. At level 24, that same dragonborn warlord isn't even close to the same performance against an equal-level artillery threat (Great Flameskull, Monster Manual, page 109). Against the Great Flameskull, the warlord would need a +32 to hit bonus to equal his chance to hit the elf (which is probably 5 or more points higher than the dragonborn actually has). In order to kill the Great Flameskull in the same number of rounds, the hero would need to dish out over 58 hit points with each hit and that's probably double the damage actually done by a level 24 warlord.

Nothing has fundamentally changed but the game got slower and the hero is less able to take down threats than before.

Monte, Legends and Lore reads like you're dismissing other's observations as being in their heads. I may self-define myself as a person who doesn't care for high-level play but many who prefer epic level games also comment that play breaks down. It just doesn't work to lump everyone together and wave away the problems.



  1. The problem I think is that no one sees the average drahonborn warlord at epic level. My problem is that at my table I have PCs that can one shot orcus.

    1. Are you agreeing that play "changes" instead of breaking down or just that it breaks down differently than my example? :)

      I haven't seen a build where a lone 30th-level character can take Orcus from 1,525 hit points to zero in one shot. Are you saying a whole party? Does Orcus go to dead or does he just get stun-locked so they can mop up his hit points at their leisure? Further, can I assume that the party is piling on the daily attacks in order to achieve this one-shot? I was describing how more mundane combats play out as you use at-will attacks prior to reaching the Big Boss Battle.

  2. I like a lot of what Monte Cook has done for D&D, and a lot of what he is planning to do sounds great, but I also was confused by his assertion that it is just the changes to play style that people don't like about high level play.
    I played a lot of campaigns that made it into high levels in 3rd and 3.5, and I had no problem with moving into a style of play where the fate of entire worlds rested in our hands, and in the hands of the forces we commanded. I did have a problem with the fact that if you weren't a spellcaster, you became support for the spellcasters. The mechanics of the game simply didn't make your contributions to combat of anywhere near equal value, and good spell selection could extend that problem out of combat as well. (Hey rogue, can you sneak into that fortress and steal the crown jewels? Maybe, but the wizards could just turn invisible and ethereal and head straight in, using spells to avoid or remove traps better than I can, and then just teleport out with them.)
    In addition, more and more of the game revolved entirely around the badly scaling saving throw mechanic. Stacked on top of that was the difficulty of a selection of spells that spanned dozens of books (with no good online compendium), and varied wildly in power and utility.
    These flaws were not changes to play style, they were mechanics that didn't balance or play well. I feel that 4th edition made some pretty huge advances when it came to the viability to high level play, but it still has a lot of problems. I'd feel much more confident that Next will continue that advance if the designers were willing to recognize that those flaws exist.