Too High Level, or: 5e has a hard mode

In one 5e game, we, the great heroes, decided to travel to the local capital to get a license of ownership for a castle and explain why we had killed a sheriff and his gang. (he was corrupt and worked as a bandit on the side)
So far, so normal.

On the way to that city we killed (among other encounters)

  • two adult dragons (one of them within one round, so he had no time to even retaliate),
  • a wood hag, and
  • a legendary werewolf.
  • We lifted the curses off the whole werewolf pack.
  • We dined with an Elf Queen
  • and we destroyed a widely feared bandit gang.

Any one of those all a valid quest-goal fit for the finale of a campaign. To us they just fell by the wayside.

We were all between levels 10 and 13. Giants among men. Titans in the world.

I had the feeling that it was getting too much and wondered low key about that, but I did not yet realize how grave the issue was. But then…

After sorting out the paperwork in the capital, we took on a job to cleanse two temples overrun by evil cults. Again, we never stopped to worry if that might be too tall an order for us. We never doubted for a second that we would succeed.

So we set out to that place, up the road. But then it happened: The moment it dropped into half-gonzo.

On the way we were made aware that not far from a bridge held by a detachment of soldiers was an encampment of 700 Gnolls. So on a moment’s notice we branched off our way to make a “quick detour”, turned ourselves into a couple of flying, hastened T-Rexes with extra XP and pixie magic support, and attacked.

Massacre of multitudes

For real: Three flying T-Rexes, with haste spells, and one angry cleric with a killing aura stomping at the gate slowly and invincibly.

We killed about half of them, including all the leadership, spellcasters or otherwise, save for one, then when they started fleeing we boxed them in between spirit guardians and a Wall of Fire, Meteor strikes, fireballs, etc. and so the last leader called out and surrendered.

“Keep killing them!” shouted one of us, afraid of the aftermath nitty-gritty if we were to lose the flow of mindless mass murder. But to his frustration the rest of us accepted the surrender and the fighting ended.

Then, just as expected, we started arguing among ourselves what to do next.

The point, though, is not the arguing. The point is Power Creep.

What can threaten us, five guys, storming a 700 strong armed group head on and winning with a wild storm of spells and steel, suffering hardly any scratches?

If we can attack 700, why not 1000, why not 1500?
Who can bring us down a notch or two?
What can even make us ponder the wisdom of a decision?
What can a GM do to challenge us still, apart from the cheap and dirty move of skewing the power level of the whole continent to match ours?

We attacked the encampment without even trying to get a picture of what was going on there. And while I rolled the dice trying to determine if my fireball killed 18 or 24 enemies I wistfully thought about good old OSR, where we would be vulnerable and have to creep down a corridor fearful of what might await behind the next corner.

And yet, leaving 5e and going Old School is not the only way to escape the check mate of power creep.

Even 5e would, in theory, have the tools to teach us some respect.

How to 5e on hard mode

Even though we have a couple dozen spells, hundreds of hit points, and a small army’s worth of weapons to cycle through to mow down platoon after platoon of Gnolls. Even though we walk through any trap, ambush, or opposition with an impassive shrug because we know we can take any comer and survive any effects….

The GM still has an arrow in the quiver that can give him back the power, a tool that can save the game world from a party of unstoppable homicidal maniacs who respect nothing and no-one.

5e has long rests, which reset a character to full strength and full magical ability. All a PC needs to do is sleep well for a night, and no matter how battered of bloodied, the next day brings full hit points and replenished spell slots.

And it has Exhaustion Levels, which hardly anybody uses … but they are a handy tool to put some respect back into a player’s heart.

Just imagine: You have a player character with 176 hit points … virtually unkillable. But he has not slept or eaten for a full day, has spent most of his spells against various small fry, and now, in the night … he just cannot sleep. Noises, small animals, ominous sounds, all that keeps him awake, and he wakes up the next day only to gain, in place of fresh vitality and full spells, one more exhaustion level!

Indeed, just because it has the reputation, 5e does not at all HAVE to be the roleplaying with training wheels experience.

If the party gets way to strong,
hit it with those exhaustion levels.


Image: Exhaustion: Eduardo Flores on Unsplash. Chess: Gladson Xavier on Pexels.

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