This turned into a rather long rant. Here's to hoping it makes some sense:
- A boring dice roll isn't worth the trouble. Replace/remove/ignore boring rolls
- Deputize/offload work to your players
- Learn to improvise and riff(as a DM especially)
- Think of the process of levelling up as moulding the game to you and your groups interests
- Make a clearer distinction between social time, and play time, and allow them both to co-exist at the table.
I find the materials aimed at making large scale battles easier to handle are a good source of techniques, ideas and general mindset to use when handling high-level play (see Combat rules for large battles).
I assume that, generally, if you're getting to high level play, you're already using technology to help reduce the complexity of the game. Use digital versions of books (so you can quickly search through them for references), electronic dice-rollers, and answers to other questions on here.
In order to make high-level play in DnD workable, I try following these principles:
- High level role-playing goes beyond having high-level characters. It requires high level players, and dungeon-masters.
- With higher power, comes higher responsibility
- If something doesn't actually matter, ignore it
- Understand what makes playing fun, and only do the fun parts
Note 1: This is a collection of ideas that I've seen, or tried, or have heard in discussion with other people. They're presented through the eyes of a DM, and originate in 2nd edition DnD, but I tried to write them so they can be understood and applied to 3.5, and as broadly as possible beyond that.
Note 2: These aren't rules. Don't take them as such. I expect the reader to intelligently take and apply what they find useful, and discard the rest. Experiment, and see what works for you. I take no responsibility if you're blindingly following my advice.
Preamble - What makes playing fun?
You might intuitively know what makes your sessions fun, but not be able to put it into words. You might have been following instructions literally and without much thought to their design, while playing low level game, and enjoyed the effect. Levelling up as a DM, however, requires more than that. Eventually, it gets useful to start to understand how the game was designed, what makes sessions fun, and purposefully manipulate the rules to reach specific results. This is especially important if you want to become efficient at high level play, where you'll be making a tradeoff between game complexity and entertainment. Check out some of the theory behind role playing games for ideas. As a summary:
Different players enjoy different parts of the game. High level play is a refinement of making the game match your players' interests. You'll be focusing energy on fleshing out the game components and details that matter most to your group, and glossing over the rest. DnD has the right components to address many kinds of fun, but keeping them all going is not usually worth it. Some standard categories I'll give ideas for (there are others):
- Rule management/breaking/optimizing. Some players enjoy looking for original ways to mess with the rules. They may like twinking out their characters, or may enjoy trying to find the most original way to kill a Kobold, or scour the books to find fun hacks to try out on you
- Setting/Background. Some players are there to hear you describe the world, its inhabitants. They'll want to explore the world, see wonders, have interesting conversations
- Role playing/drama/acting. Fairly self evident; some players come to the table to act, usually trying to act differently than they do in real life
- Simulation. Some players enjoy simulations - whether of reality, or of a fantastic system. They value self-consistent, predictable interactions. This is closely related to rule-management, since players here might look to try complex interactions with the world, to test their and your ability to simulate it properly
- Socializing. Some players are there primarily to hang out with their friends. They'll like to add beer and general banter to the play, and interweave OOC conversations with game play
Generally, I like to measure the effectiveness of a method to remove complexity by two scales:
- the number of dice rolls it removes.
- the ammount of off-line work it transfers from DM to players
Dice rolls, in order from most important to remove to least important:
on-line roll < off-line roll < pre-determined result, online < pre-determined result, offline < irrelevant to ongoing activity. The ideal dice-roll is one where all players are highly interested in seeing the results - if only one player, or just the DM, cares about it, eliminate it altogether. 1d6? Make it always a 3. 1d20? Always a 10. Attack hits 25% of the time? Have it hit every 4th round automatically.
Transferring work to players can often be natural. Even when it isn't, you can probably talk players into doing work that's directly beneficial to their characters: "The castle you're getting is rather demolished. The architect in charge of repairing it provided you with this rough outline and has a budget of 800k gold to fix it. Please draw in the contents as you would like them, and he'll use that as a guideline when finishing it up". Don't be afraid to even go so far as deputizing players, or even rotating the DM.
DnD powers are framed as legitimate exceptions to rules. As the game reaches higher and higher levels, players accumulate exceptions. Figuring out how to remove the complexity, while keeping the rule-managing types happy, can be an artform, and may sound hard to do.
Some ideas to help with this process, while keeping the rule-mongers happy:
- Institute a time limit on decision making while online. If anyone takes more than 30 seconds to decide on their next action(s), force a default action and move on. Take the time while others are making decisions to plan for your next action, instead of starting to think about it when it's your turn.
- Switch to using your phone to roll, say, 40d6. If rolling actuall dice, roll 1d6 and multiply by 40 instead of rolling 40d6 and trying to add. Force an actual 40d6 die roll where it really makes a difference (everyone at 10% hp and dragon about to breathe fire, for example)
- Encourage players to invent and validate combos offline. Request that the combo be written out on a piece of paper, with step-by-step instructions for all the rolls required.
- Use laptop(s) and tablets to keep track of characters and their inventory. No character levelling up or other updates during play, unless automated. This includes putting on new magical items.
- Figure out buff packs in advance. Cast buffs as a package or not at all. Have the players write out the effects of the package on little slips of paper to hand to those affected by the package.
- Have default numbers to use instead of rolls for rolls which don't matter.
- Skip over the boring parts. Start fights with everyone at 1/2 hp, for example
- Trust your players. Let them keep track of what powers they've used, when, when they've recharged. Tolerate mistakes - correct them offline, not in the middle of play. As the players level up on the rules for their characters and followers, have them take responsibility for the related maintenance work. Expose the DMing side of things if it helps you not do the work yourself, and expect the players to play as if they didn't know it if they have to.
- High level players are supposed to be super-powerful. Or not. Err on the side of letting them succeed/fail, if it helps you not try to spend to much time figuring out the result of an action. Fake it if you have to (roll some dice, sit and look at them for a while, then announce the result).
- Group henchmen, hirelings, pets, and other npcs, into groups. Ranger has a menagerie of animals following him? Have them all hit as a group, with only one attack and damage roll. Figre out good numbers for it in advance.
- Rely on prebuilt settings wherever it makes sense. If a setting is inspired by a book, ask players to read the book before coming. Find video clips of the movie adaptation on Youtube and play those when appropriate in the session.
- Build out the important components in advance ("The village is small-ish, and is proud of its wine") and encourage your players to improvise the details with you on the fly. There's no need for a bar if the players don't go into one. The mayor's name is irrelevant if no one talks to him. Some automated tools can help with the improvisation, as well as "stock" components, such as pre-figured out bars, mayors, and other characters. In older times, these could fit in a rollodex or set of index cards, to be pulled out at random. Nowadays, use a computer
- Encourage your players to build out portions of the background and setting for you. At lower levels, this is a matter of choosing character backgrounds (is he a noble? Have him describe his family and its history). Apply some basic improv skills to your reactions (always try to be positive and reinforcing. For example, if a character is trying to look through the window of an improvised bar, instead of saying "it has no window" or "you see nothing" respond with "the barman is asleep on the bar" or "the bar-maid seems to be trying to pick a locked back-door")
- Learn to improvise and riff; take some improv classes, even. Higher level players are much more autonomous and can travel farther/do more than your low level ruffians. Three days of writing up details of a part of the world could go to waste if your players figure out how to teleport into the evil lair, steal the dragon, and then fighting him on an alternate plane of existence. Being able to improvise the description of the alternate plane on the spot can save you the planning.
- As players start to, in game, gain stewardship of portions of the world, transfer the game-management parts of the work to them too. Druid is in charge of maintaining a forrest? Give him a map of the forrest and have him figure out exactly what the forrest is going to look like under his stewardship. Even go so far as having the player DM encounters that occur in the forrest and with its inhabitants, if appropriate.
This can be the most difficult job for a DM to prepare for, and handle without bogging down a running game. There's a limit to the number of characters a human being can role-play without getting bored/boring. So:
- Recycle. Most bar-tenders sound the same to someone who has been in dozens of bars - you won't lose much if you role-play them all the same way, with small varations maybe
- Reward one-sided role-playing. If a player out-does you when role-playing his part, give in-game rewards (whether in xp, gold, or desirable/favorable reactions from NPCs)
- Encourage inter-player role-playing.
- Take role-playing offline if there isn't enough in-group interest. Have the role-player write up the story of their role-play after the session (or in advance, if it makes sense), and have them email it to everyone or read it at the next session. Reward them for the work in game, for example by allowing freedom in role-playing NPCs. Trade off work you might be expected to do with creative freedom for the writer
- Use pre-created characters for inspiration, from movies/books/modules/adventures/auto-generation online tools
- Role-play offline activities in 1-on-1 sessions. Have the role-player be in charge of buying supplies when getting to a town, and do a chat role-play session for the shopping trip and resulting haggle. Outsource the role-play session if possible. Draft a player as your assistant, running the shop, for example.
- Ideally, everyone is engaged with every dice roll. That also means each die roll has a greater effect - put more effort into describing the results. A single kobold might hit and do 1d6 of damage. 40 kobolds might storm, kick, bite, trip, yell and produce a disgusting smell as they do their 1d6*40 damage. An elephant stepping on a player might be 2d8 damage, while 15 elephants would be an earth shaking stampede of 2d8*15
As levels and complexity increases, decrease the granularity of the simulation. Go up in levels of abstraction, and move to generic rules.
- Group things together. 15 kobolds attacking? Roll one attack roll for all of them and use their median damage, spread evenly between their targets. Have all attacks hit one common hp pool, and decrease the damage they cause as a % of the hp they have left.
- Check out the rule-management advice.
- Grant powers and devices which remove boring simulation. Maybe the food supply mattered at level 1 in your campaign - by level 12, have the players wear rings that keep them nourished at all times. Players are at the head of a small army? Only worry about simulating the food-supply-chain when they're crossing the desert, and then abstract it to "you have 4 days of food left" and "completing this encounter will add 2 days of food".
- Pre-determine results of upcoming complex situations. Is the armada of ships going to be caught in a storm? Figure out what effect the storm will have on the armada in advance. Determine if the players can do anything, and what range of effects their actions can take. Spend the session deciding whether they succeed or fail at actions where you know the effect in either case, in advance.
- Only simulate relevant actions. Player bought a caravan and sent it out without accompanying it? You don't have to simulate the trip and market conditions to get a believable result, especially if it's a long trip. If the player is out-simulating you, either use his results, or be ready to improvise exceptions that he didn't account for (the caravan was robbed on the way, the caravan leader is skimming of the top, weather conditions killed 20% of the camels, etc...)
At high levels, the risk to the socializer comes from spending large chunks of time at the table, but not engaged with the other players. This risk exists at lower levels, but is exascerbated as the game gets more complex. Either the socializer himself is not engaged, and getting bored, or someone else is not engaged, and the socializer starts pulling everyone towards playing xbox games. Many of the pointers so far help here; the advice below is generic, and good at all levels, but is worth re-mentioning in the context of higher levels:
- Find an outlet for the social side of things. Plan for intense and focused sessions, and allow for socializing breaks, or plan for before/after time together. Maybe plan for 2 hours of play, giving 1 hour of hanging out before starting, or plan to go out for beers at 10.
- Increase the frequency of role-play sessions and reduce their scope. Do one round of combat at lunch every day at school, rather than a 1 hour session on Saturday.
- More complex play requires higher focus from players. Introduce shorter, more frequent, breaks, into the play. Maybe stop for a breather after every round. Ideally, everyone was watching each die roll, and the tension level at the table increased - a break would feel welcome.
- High-5 all involved when they land a complex cross-class combo. If an action wasn't worth removing or abstracting, from the game, then it's worth hamming up when it happens.
- Plan for social portions of the session around components of the encounter. Bring out chips and dip when the players get to the boss, for example.
- Role-play relevant social situations in game. Go as far as LARP, or some emulation of it. For example, plan for the encounter to end with the party attending a royal ball, and, coincidentally, have everyone going out dancing at the local dive after the game.
Overall DMing guidelines
- Involve your players in the game-management. At lower levels, you were probably the one best versed in the game, and were teaching the players as well as deciding how rules are applied. Plan for this in advance - as players learn the rules more, give them more autonomy in applying the rules as they see fit. Express this in the world, giving them more and more control over what happens at a larger scale, without interference from you. Encourage creativity, improvisation and role-playing as methods for modifying the world and its contents. The ideal level 20 player is one who knows the game and rules well enough to be trusted to DM encounters with low-level ("non-named NPC" types) in his own kingdom. The mage with a dungeon of doom under his tower, should be able to design and run the dungeon with little interference from the DM. If you have to police your players to the point where you watch their dice throws, they're not ready for high-level adventures
- Cheat only in the right places! Deciding on a dice roll without rolling it is fine and standard. Is your world full of level 15 creatures, though? Most encounters for a level 15 group will be with creatures that are much lower in level. There may not be a need to play out their victory over these encounters according to the rules, but they can still represent a good portion of the time at the table. "You storm the castle. The guards before the bridge take some time to dispatch, and you take (roll d10) 2% damage there." .. etc... "You easily fight your way through the rabble on the last stairwell. You've reached Dracula mostly unharmed. Total damage to you is 11% of your hp off for the lucky strikes along the way, except for Mike who is resistant to crits and only gets 5% off". Allow your players to steam-roll regularly - take a lower level adventure and have them play it solo or in a small team. Let players pair off, with one of them DMing for the other. Adjust rewards if you must (no XP if it's so easy that it's not actually role-played, scale around that to full XP for a full challenge)
- High level opponents should be equal to the players in power and complexity. If your players are kings, they won't normally be wasting time fighting peasants (they have guards and armies to take care of that for them). A level 60 kitten is only fun once.
- Reduce frequency of full group together. Instead, meet with and role play sub-groups for sub-actions. The king might go to get reinforcements for his army with his queen, while the high priest is out visiting with his deity's emissary to repay a favor.
- Incorporate lower-level play into the campaign if relevant. The king might send out his excitable son and friends to get the goblet of ruin, since they need to learn important lessons along the way. Allow players to have multiple, related, characters (that can only be played one at a time). I think Dark Sun used to have a system for doing this.
- Reward players if they take actions that reduce complexity. For example, the mage might get a night-time visit from a demon, offering to prevent access to all water-based powers and get a 10% increase to fire damage/resistance. The warrior might end up with a god powered shield fused to his left hand, taking away some of his powers in exchange for a bonus to attack and the occasional snake lashing out of the shield to hit an enemy. The Ranger may get a permanent bonus to his dexterity and strength in exchange for losing some members of his menagerie of animals. Look at what your players spend the session doing; if a player is spending an hour looking through his character sheets to cause an in-game effect, find a way to get the same in-game effect without having to go through his sheets, and offer the tradeoff as an in-game god-device.