The level of your characters in D&D has a big impact on your adventure. High level characters have access to incredible spells that let them easily solve anything but the most legendary of challenges, while low level characters will be challenged by a pack of roving goblins. Many groups start at level 1, and plan to play until level 20, but in reality few campaigns last the 50+ adventures required to do so. Its challenging to keep organizing games over months and years, and many stories are happily resolved in less than 50 adventures. Instead of defaulting to starting at level 1, it’s better to plan what level range you want your campaigns to take place over: what level should characters start at, how many adventures will the campaign last, and what level should the party to end at? If you don’t take player’s levels into consideration when designing a campaign’s story you may find players are much too powerful or weak to face the challenges you’ve created. The most fun adventures occur when the party’s level gives them spells and powers that aid in their mission, but can’t be abused to automatically solve the problem. If the goal of the campaign is to slay the evil ogre emperor, level 11 characters could simply fly over to the palace and disintegrate him with a laser, while level 2 characters could die to a single sword strike from the most incompotent palace guard. Level 8 characters, on the other hand, must use their spells and powers to carefully infiltrate the palace or methodically hack and slash their way to the emperor, creating a dramatic story. There are three distinct level ranges in D&D, which each excel at telling different types of stories. These exact level ranges are for D&D 5th edition, but all editions of D&D have these 3 tiers of power:
|Level Range||Features||Best stories…|
|1-2||Very low health, can die from a one or two attacks. Few class features or spells.||Rags to riches, show how the adventurers went from common rabble to powerful heroes.|
|3-10||Interesting abilities and spells, ample spell slots and hit dice to spend over multiple encounters.||Fighting interesting monsters, taking on hordes of common soldiers. Dismantling evil organizations, from small cults to sprawling empires.|
|11-20||Reality-breaking 6+ level spells. Exponential power from extra actions and other class features. Easier access to resurrection.||Saving the world by slaying titanic monsters, travelling to new dimensions, meddling in the affairs of demigods and deities.|
During levels 1-2 the adventurers have few interesting powers and can easily die to single hits, so many groups decide to start their campaigns at level 3. If you envision the party to be real “heroes” at the start of the campaign, start at level 3. Only start at level 1 if the story begins with a rag-tag group of common swordsmen and apprentice spell casters. Groups with new players benefit from starting at level 1 to reduce the overwhelming number of features given to them.
Because of the power of level 11-20 characters, many DMs try to create stories that will end before then. It becomes difficult to create relatable challenges (such as “cross the mountain”, “kill the emperor” or “get to the bottom of the dungeon”) because high powered spells let players fly over great heights, shoot disintegrating lasers from afar, and dig up tons of dirt and stone.
Because of the problematic weakness of low level characters and the strength of high level characters, the level range 3-10 is often considered the best to tell “normal” D&D stories. The makers of the game were aware of this too, as xp curves are designed to keep players in this level range the longest. This doesn’t mean your group should never play adventures outside that level range, it just means you need to tailor adventures to accommodate other ranges. Emphasize the weakness of 1-2 level characters by making them tackle very small problems, and play up the strength of levels 11-20 by throwing mundane problems in favor of fantastical lands and titanic monsters.
Ultimately, any level of D&D can be fun in different ways, and planning the partie’s starting and ending level within the story can help create fun, challenging adventures throughout the whole campaign.
P.S: What levels are your favorite to play as or run games for? Have you ever had problems when characters were too high or low level? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it!