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I like the idea of characters that are extremely powerful but unassuming. Assuming the DM agrees, how might I play basically a high level character in a low level party? Where I play it's mostly one-shot pick-up games, and I am thinking down the line when I could be playing such a high-level character that encounters have logistical problems if I played them at full capability. I imagine it like a seasoned adventurer leading a group of new heroes.

I don't want to take away from the other players' enjoying the game, and I know I can lead without pushing anyone down.

Could I just decline doing extra attacks and maybe not use all damage dice or bonuses? (Of course, I would go all out if the party was at risk.) I'm not tied to being a front line damage dealer, but the same problems appear for support classes and casters.

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Be A Diva

You are essentially looking for some way to handicap your pure-kill potential, and you're looking for some way to act that will generate that. There are an unlimited number of ways to do this, here are some that are famous and/or have worked for me:

  • Lazy Hercules Syndrome: I once rolled up a 2e character that was hell on wheels compared to the others in my party (19 STR gladiator). So one of the things I did was inspired by one of the Hercules movies I saw on MST3K, where Hercules is always lazing about - Antaeus stopped his wagon where he was snoozing in the back, hassled his wife and friend, but he wouldn't rouse himself to fight the guy until he came around the back and started directly messing with him. D&D combats often don't last that many rounds, and simply not being in the initial rush to contact is a decent handicap. Or a wizard who's paranoid about being without his top level spells ever in case his enemies find him, so while he can cast a couple third level spells he never ever does and relies on lower ones instead.
  • Weapon Master Wants A Challenge Syndrome: You've seen this in many forms. Inigo Montoya fighting with his left hand in The Princess Bride. Top samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi choosing to fight with a wooden sword because he was kicking everyone's ass too much with a metal one. Derived from that, Ruroni Kenshin's backwards sword. With that same character since he was a gladiator, once he killed someone with a weapon in a fight he left the weapon in them and went to another weapon, going from larger to smaller down to cesti and head-butts. These are just examples, do something that either gives you disadvantage to hit, or does low damage, or loses you actions.
  • Cursed Badass Syndrome: You have a curse, or a handicap (missing arm, gimpy leg, a curse that makes you sneeze when spellcasting) that lets you have high potential while seldom living up to it. This requires more GM collaboration, but should be easy enough. Or just some code of ethics or phobia (in my newfound respect for human life, and near-death immolation experience, I'm not going to use all these fire spells in my book any more). I often use this device when putting a high level NPC with a party to restrain them from dominating play.
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There are a multitude of things you can do, but make sure your DM is prepared to allow for the pulling of punches. I think a seasoned guide is a great way to look at it.

First off, there's no rule that specifies that you can deal less damage than you rolled or that you can use less dice than indicated, other than to leave things alive when you down them. This can obviously be home-brewed, but it sounds like you don't want that.

Lower Level Spell Slots and Spells

Mechanically, level 1 spell slots are the same strength from character level 1 through 20. Using lower level spell slots is one way in which you can be active in the group without obliterating everything. However, your extended number of lower level slots does make you more powerful in that you can keep using them when everyone else is out, while simultaneously keeping your "uh oh" spells in your pocket if things get dicey.

Physical Combat

More can be done (though often isn't) in physical combat than just attacking. Grappling, pushing, improvised weapons, physical contests, etc can help you control creatures without actually dealing damage. Your extra health and AC should help you take a few extra hits while you sort of play around with your target. Get creative! Don't just attack that guy, try to steal his weapon! Try to trip him! Shove that guy in a closet, block a door way, make yourself annoying, use the help action for give another player advantage on an attack! There's a lot you can do besides making an attack. Think of how you "fight" a toddler. You aren't throwing punches, you're holding their arms or pushing them away. Do the same with lower level creatures. Control the fight to the intensity you find appropriate. Maybe let your party take a few hits if you want.

Optional Actions

Obviously, you aren't required to use any action or bonus action or reaction if you don't want to. You aren't required to make additional attacks if you have the extra attack feature. If you're dual wielding, try forfeiting your off-hand attack. While boring, if you find a fight is totally beneath you, try not doing anything (or doing something outside of combat, like searching a room or getting innocents to safety). Better yet, ready an action to help keep your team safe.

Objectives That Aren't Easy for Anyone (AKA Use Plot)

This all comes down to how your DM handles you and the encounters he sets up and the campaign he runs. If your only objective is to kill, then you're gonna have a hard time not being great at that. But, if your objective is to, say, convince a king to sign a treaty, you will feel real challenge. Being level 20 makes you strong, but doesn't necessarily make you a better role-player. Level 1's can have max ability scores too. By contrast, your ability checks are far less eclipsing to the rest of the party than your combat abilities are. So try to find conflict that isn't about dealing and taking damage.

Complex stories and plots can make even the unlikeliest characters important. Just look at Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: he was just a lowly hobbit that couldn't fight, but his part in the story was arguably more important than a Maiar or a Dúnedain even though they were far more powerful. A story like that could put you on equal footing with the rest of the party, while still allowing you to use your strengths when needed. Gandalf could probably kill any of the characters he had conflict with, but his challenge came in dialoguing with them.

Stupidity

Arguably the most fun option is to play a stupid character. Be a barbarian with 22 constitution, 20 agility, and 5 intelligence. Be a burden at the royal ball, but a blessing in the goblin cave. Role-play someone that makes poor decisions but makes up for it with sheer ability. As Dumpcats points out, you need to make sure your party is okay with this, since a dumb character can take the spotlight frequently and accidentally. My experience confirms this as well. But, you can be dumb and not a disaster, so keep that in mind.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I recommend "ready action" as an additional to your "optional actions" as it allows you to cover/protect a given party member or position without having to go into whoopass mode. Helps the party survive, keeps you from dominating. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 6 '16 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Overall a great answer. I feel that this truly gets to the point. I do agree with other offers of intentionally providing yourself with disadvantage as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jan 6 '16 at 16:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast noted, great catch \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jan 6 '16 at 22:03
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Level is a direct measurement of power.

I'm not sure how else to say that. A high level character will always be more powerful in D&D, even though 5th edition has somewhat mitigated that. What are the reasons that you want to play a higher level character and play in the kiddie pool?

In setting, there are tons of reasons for this, but as a player it's difficult to pull off, especially since a lot of the benefits of levels make certain things unfeasible: you'll get access to abilities nobody else gets for a long time explicitly because they're powerful, and voluntarily not using them still leaves you with much more HP, even if you're allowed to sacrifice extra attacks, AC, and the like.

Pitfalls of the Level Mechanics

One of the things that we see happen a lot during fiction is that some characters who want to hide their identity, like epic heroes and such, will intentionally pull punches while still revealing their power level to a skilled observer.

The question for you is whether or not your character is willing to admit that they're holding themselves back. I don't know that there's any real set of rules regarding going lower, but if the GM is willing to let you play a much higher level character than everyone else they might be willing to let you selectively adjust things like AC, accuracy, or damage just so that you fight like a mortal.

Now, if your character is a known hero, you're going to have a hard time not stealing the limelight. For instance, you could say "I'm going to fight off all these guys with one arm tied behind my back!" and just use a dagger when everyone else has a longsword, or say "I'm just going to cast cantrips to finish you off!", but the truth of the matter is that you're still playing a better character, and that will steal the show from anyone else.

Odysseus disguised as a beggar is still Odysseus, and nobody ever asks "Hmm, are these suitors going to string the bow, shoot it through the axe-heads, and get Penelope?". Odysseus will always win against an average Joe, just as a level 15 adventurer will always outshine a level 5 adventurer, except perhaps in fringe areas that they just can't do (like magic for a Fighter).

Now, if you're talking about alternate pathways to not outshine others, that's still difficult. First, if you're just going to play a support class and sit back, you're going to keep anyone else from having moments of glory if they're playing something similar. Second, unless you're a truly worthless worm outside of your field, D&D scales in such a way that a level 15 Cleric will out-fight a Level 5 Fighter almost all the time, barring intentional idiot builds. 5th Edition makes this worse in some ways, since all classes apply their Proficiency bonus to combat.

Using Narrative, not Mechanics

This is going to be a bit of a disappointment, but what if I told you that the solution is simply playing a character at level?

It sounds like you have some idea of a character archetype: a returning hero, a grizzled veteran, a rusty wizard. There's nothing that says that your character can't be an old hero trying to go back and relive their glory days, and simply have the same level as everyone else.

I mean, honestly, if I were the GM, it'd be pretty darn difficult to get a significant level advance on any other player. I might give someone a level or two if they make every game and everyone else misses a couple, or if they roleplay particularly well, but part of the thing about giving players different power levels is that it's really hard to do without overt favoritism. If your character was in, say, the last campaign and returns for this campaign, I might be persuaded with some limitations, but really it's a GM minefield to do anything like that, because of allegations of favoritism.

If I'm understanding your question correctly, you want to play a character who plays like a low level character, but has access to a handful of high level abilities for when things get rough. That's something that's much more doable, but I'd caution you that it would be very difficult as a GM to give a character such a thing and just give them the get dangerous trigger themselves. There is room for something interesting in a campaign where one character happens to be a special font of arcane power, for instance, but if you are playing a character with such a special relationship to the plot expect to have the GM give you some consequences; at the very least I wouldn't let the magic fix-all-things dude be able to walk away from problems and just let them be fixed by the town guard, and at worst they're targets of kidnapping, assassination attempts, or political intrigue.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wish I could +100 for 'Use Narrative not Mechanics'. Roleplaying it without actually having the stronger mechanical advantage (which you aren't actually going to use anyway) seems by far the most elegant solution to all this. Why mess around with intricacies to hamstring aspects of your character you were never planning to use? \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jan 6 '16 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this misunderstands the question's purpose. The reason for the high-level character is explained by the nature of play: pick-up play is the local norm. Play in pick-up games for long enough with the same character and you'll inevitably have a high-level character in a pick-up game with low-level characters at some point. The point isn't to make a high-level PC in a low-level game. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 6 '16 at 18:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I assumed there was a transfer from old campaign to new campaign or something like that going on. The thing is that D&D (and, for that matter, almost any roleplaying game) is designed for characters of similar level, and end-game mechanics don't transfer well back into killing goblins. 5e does this better, but it's still a big shift. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Willey Jan 6 '16 at 19:35
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How others do it

There are dozens of good examples in our popular fantasy stories where a more powerful character is travelling with a less powerful party and it's still a challenge. Frodo, owning the One Ring. Luke using the Force. Wil Ohmsford in possession of the elf stones. While their power is absolute, the difference to your typical D&D character is that their power has constraints.

Is this already included in D&D?

D&D 5 does not have a system of constraints like some other RPGs do. If you gain an ability, there is no downside to using it. A higher level character has no mechanical reason to not use his powers to their full extend.

How you could do it

If you want to have a fair and challenging game that includes a character that is of a higher level than the rest of the party, you will need to introduce constraints for him. And as D&D does not provide them out of the box, you will need to invent them.

Frodo rarely used the One Ring, Luke rarely uses the Force and Wil rarely used the elf stones all for the same reason: if they did, the book would be a boring 10-page leaflet how the character totally owned the world.

In their narrative, they all had a reason to not use the power. If they used the power, the big bad evil would find them and kill them. That's a constraint. They could use their full power, but it came at a cost. The ever-present question "is it worth using the power right now" is a great element of all those stories.

If you pick a constraint to counter your power based on your level, you can keep the game challenging and fun for all.

Whatever your constraint looks like, it must be real. A real danger. Not just a phony rule-constraint. If Luke's constraint of using the Force had been chastity instead of turning to the dark side, how would that have affected Star Wars? With such a fake constraint, it would not have worked. He could have just force-gripped everyone to death by page 5. Using your power must hurt you. Really. Not just on paper.

Example

As an example we once had a character that was level 20. The story was that he was our level (3-7 at the time) but possessed by a really powerful entity of level 20. Every time he used a power the character would not have had at our level, the entity would be drained of life and both entity and character lose a level. Permanently. I did not play this character, but I can attest that he would not use his powers without regret. The cost made him think every time and made it more of a challenge and actually a loss more than a happy ex-machina solution.

Another, less mechanical and more roleplaying example would be the character that on top of being a character of equal level was also a werewolf. That made him pretty powerful, but every time he actually used his power, his girlfriend found out he was a "freak" and left him.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Other rpgs do have constraints for power. Vampire and it's humanity stat for example. Cyberpunk and Empathy. Early D&D paladins & alignment. D&D5 does not. If you can do something, you can do it without side-effects. That's all I wanted to say. Maybe another wording is better? I would not want to remove this fact completely. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Jan 6 '16 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I changed it to be less confrontational. I still think the fact should be mentioned. That something does not work mechanically is still valid information. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Jan 6 '16 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Added another example. This wasn't exactly D&D, but I guess it would work in D&D just as well. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Jan 6 '16 at 18:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I found it helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 6 '16 at 18:35

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