What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign

E3: Prince of UndeathAs I write this I sit less than 12 hours away from the last adventure of a level 1 to 30 D&D 4e campaign and I’m feeling strangely emotional about it. I’m extremely lucky to have players willing and able to play nearly every week for two and a half years. I’ve had to come up with an interesting adventure for over 100 sessions that tied together a story spanning the entire level range of 4e D&D.

Over this time I probably spent an average of 10 to 20 hours a week working on my campaign. I built out the battle maps, outlined the story, generated the encounters, came up with props, and organized the events. While I followed the H1 through E3 published adventures, I ended up tweaking, converting, or discarding a lot of that material for my own.

I lived in that world for a long time. I put myself to sleep at night thinking through the eyes of my NPCs. It was a lot of work and I regret none of it, but I spent so much time on it that I don’t know exactly how I feel now that it’s over. I’m happy to have completed the longest single-story campaign I’ve ever run in my life. I’m also sad to see it end. Reading the body language of the players as I read the final paragraphs of flavor text, I think they felt much the same.

So what did I learn? How do I feel about 4th Edition now that I’m completely through it? What would I do differently if I could start over? All questions I will try to answer now.

On 4e

It’s pretty clear to me that the rules-heavy nature of 4th edition creates a very complicated game. With every power adding a new rule it is impossible for anyone to understand how all these things will act together. At last count there are 55 player classes, 3,000 feats, 7,400 powers, and 8,800 magic items. That combination of tweet-sized mini-rules is almost collapses in on itself.

I long gave up trying to figure out what abilities and combinations the PCs had or how they worked. Near the end, there wasn’t any bad roll that couldn’t be boosted up by five points using some combination of forgotten feats, situational bonuses, magic items, or triggered actions. People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. Another would say something “astral wintersgate” and then negate an entire monster’s round of damage. There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do.

I sound like I’m complaining but 3.5 was even worse for me. Chainwielding half-orcs and solid fog spells trivialized every monster I ever threw at them. High level D&D games pre-4e seemed to end up as coin tosses. Heads you kill them all, tails they kill you all. I had monsters who could cast burst attacks that killed anyone within the burst on a failed save versus a ridiculously high DC. Of course, with 4e, I miss having monsters even potentially that lethal.

The Catch-22 of Essentials

When I wrote about D&D Essentials, I noted that what we have is a rebalanced version of D&D. I love Essentials and I’d love to run an essentials-only high level campaign except for one thing: my players would hate it. Part of their hate would come from seeing all the other options they couldn’t choose. Part of it would be knowing how much more powerful they used to be when they could pick from any source. Part of it is that Essentials is potentially too simple to keep players interested for a full 30 levels of play.

Further, an Essentials-only campaign really doesn’t change much at the heroic tier, the level most games seem to focus on. Having an Essentials-only game matters most at the paragon and epic tier and that’s the tier where players most likely want a lot of options. Even writing this, I have no idea what the best solution is to this quandary.

I do know that, looking at the Red Box, the Dungeon Master’s Kit, the Monster Vault, and the Dungeon Tile Master Set, that D&D would have been a very different game for me if I was starting now. I wouldn’t have to scrounge for minis or use a hodgepodge of scattered dungeon tiles and dry-erase mats to play like I did back in Keep of the Shadowfell. Finally WotC learned how to package and sell a complete version of the game that needs very little else to play. I don’t know if I’d have the same tupperware boxes full of a thousand minis or the seventeen ziploc bags full of dungeon tiles if the game had been this complete when I bought it back then.

The Hardest Part About Running a High-Level 4e Campaign

Building an interesting story and setting up interesting environments for high-level 4e D&D games isn’t too hard. While the story needs to be over the top, it isn’t much different than coming up with interesting story at any other tier. The hardest part about running a high-level 4e game is keeping PCs challenged. PC power scales so high that it becomes nearly impossible to guess how they’re going to incapacitate your monsters.

This leads to one of my biggest rules for dungeon masters – never fall in love with your monsters. I failed at this time an time again. I spent a ton of time building out big and powerful monsters only to see them emasculated, tied up, beaten, dressed up in a tutu, and dragged around the battlefield in a cart while the PCs poked them with sticks and laughed. My response was to spend even more time on the next monster. And so on.

4e doesn’t do well with boss monsters above level 15. Even monsters designed after the Monster Manual 3 will still fall like a sack-full of rotten oranges against even a moderately well-tuned epic-tier party. I wish I had been more like celebrity DM god Chris Perkins and just let the dice fall how they may rather than worry so much about building up a great challenge. Sometimes you simply can’t challenge them so let them have fun mopping the floor with your illithid’s tentacles. Don’t fall in love with your monsters.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

Story-wise, I was very happy with the way things went. Some players got a little less story than they wanted but the story certainly kept the game tied together. Keeping the story as simple as possible brought even the tactical gamers into the fold. I quizzed my players regularly and cut it back if they clearly weren’t getting what was going on. As I ran it, I don’t think I would have done anything differently with the story or NPCs.

For some reason I don’t think I ever really remembered all the powers any monster had. To the last battle I often forgot many of the capabilities of the monsters I ran. I was simply careless and in my interest of keeping things moving fast, I’d end up forgetting a lot about the monsters triggered actions. One thing I’d do differently is pay more attention to monster abilities and take my time a little bit more with them.

The One House Rule I Wish I Had Used

If I could choose any single house rule that I wish I had implemented from the very beginning, it is this one. Under no circumstances except for perhaps an environmental effect should PCs be able to critically hit on anything but a natural 20. I saw no circumstance get more abused than extended critical hits combined with a great number of attacks combined with triggers that trigger off of critical hits. This mainly took place above level 25 but the damage boost due to higher crit ranges is visible as early as level 11. This is certainly not a change players will like so you likely can’t implement it after they started to enjoy critting three times a battle.

The problem is, critting goes from something really fun to a simple battle tactic. Tactical warlords know they’ll see at least a couple of crits a round so they can tune their character to offer free hits every time they crit. Players can choose weapons based on the bonus effects on crits knowing they will see them often. In the final battle of my game, we saw no fewer than eight critical hits in four rounds including four crits within four dice rolls on a single character. It’s an unpopular houserule, but one I believe adds the fun of crits back in instead of letting them become an institution.

If I still haven’t convinced you that crits are overpowered, listen to Mike Mearls in a Tome Show interview I did with him. Go to minute 17:00 mark.

Where Do I Go From Here?

I don’t think I’ll run another level 1 to 30 game again. From now on I think I’m going with the episodic adventure stylings recommended by our own Chatty DM. I’d like to run a few Gamma World games. I want to run a Dark Sun mini-campaign. I might like to play the adventure series of the DM Kit and Monster Vault after that. I can’t say if this is the way D&D was meant to be played, but I like the sound of it and I think it will fit in better with our group. I’ll always look back fondly on the Shieldbasher campaign; from the day they discovered an Orcus worshipping serial killer murdering women in Fall Crest to the day they faced Orcus, the God of Death, in the throne room of the Raven Queen. For the past two and a half years, it’s been one hell of a ride.


  1. Thanks for sharing! It’s great to see the insights and lessons you learned from running such a game, though I would say my group hasn’t had nearly the same issues with Crits but it also doesn’t contain any characters that focus on them and only 1 or 2 PCs have a crit range of 19-20 (and none are larger than that). My game is currently 38 adventures down and the PCs are mostly level 17, so I’m very excited to get to the same point with my own game!

    What were some of the things you did to hack the published adventures? I assume the biggest issue was how ridiculously combat heavy they are, but I’m interested to hear some more details on how you adapted them and made them your own!

  2. I am honored to have been apart of the campaign for a bit, Mike. You did an amazing job and this article is a nice wrap-up.

  3. @Bartoneus: Crits really become a problem above level 21. At that point nearly every class can crit on 19 to 20 and warlords gain a wide array of powers that trigger off of crits.

    Damage certainly scaled up during Paragon but it was epic where things went bad with extended crits.

  4. One thing I’d do differently is pay more attention to monster abilities and take my time a little bit more with them.

    Mike, I’ve been telling myself this since level 1-2, I’ve been running my campaign for nearly 2 years now and we’re up to lv 22. I find a lot of parallels in your post to my campaign but this one particularly I’ve come to the conclusion that I just can’t handle the complexity of triggered attacks and auras. There is enough for the GM to track anyway, but something about having to remember that THIS monster gets THIS thing that happens in THIS scenario is a blindspot I’ve never been able to overcome to date.

    I’m intrigued by your point on crits. I’ve not seen this at all in my party, but then we lack a Warlord and I’m assuming this is something specific that happens with them in the party? Only 3 of our 5 party are even able to take expanded crit ranges and even then they can only get to 19+. I’m interested to see how things progress, 2 of our party members feel at lv 22 that (barring getting +6 items) they have reached their maximum damage output and are in fear that monsters are going to start outpacing them from about lv 25 onwards. We shall see how things progress!

    One random extra point…is there any chance you can post the build of your party including magic items etc? Apart from the Daggermaster I’m struggling to see how crits escalated that heavily from 11th level?

  5. I’m with Phil completely on this one, even with all my experience running, it’s too easy to forget those aspects. I just change or ignore them and move on. I think there has to be a game design/presentation answer… just trying harder isn’t going to cut it. It’s almost certainly more of an elegance/flow issue than a complexity one.

  6. TheMainEvent says:

    @Mike: Do you think the ‘fun factor’ changed in epic tier? Dave is poised to move his game that way very soon and I have to admit, I’m a bit leery about playing 4E epic tier. As one of his players that abuses critical rules and hates the dazed/stunned/dominated triad, I just could foresee fights having players being forced to sit out a lot.

  7. This is way easier to say than do, but I try to keep my monsters from being the most interesting thing in an encounter. Instead, my goal is to have the encounter as a whole be what I treasure as a DM. The intersection of monsters and terrain and especially story is really rewarding, because you end up celebrating the PCs’ victory. This is because their victory necessitates the parts you designed playing out. You win as they win. Taking the example of your pimped Orcus, the encounter seems far less to me about Orcus than it is about this great evil sucking energy from a dying goddess and the four altars with impaled servants. My first thought is to change the altars to hold NPCs with which the PCs have interacted. They aren’t just turning off the altars with skill checks but also saving those NPCs. And, when the ghouls come up from his aura, I would have those ghouls be NPCs (even foes) that died during the campaign. Now the encounter isn’t just a challenge but also an emotional one. The reward to me as DM is to watch that play out, and more rewarding than to see Orcus be really strong.

  8. It’s a little scary, though unsurprising, that even running published modules, you still spent 10-20 hours preparing for each session. That’s always the case with D20 games, though, so it’s to be expected. I never really use published adventures, and I guess I’d always hoped it would cut down prep time 🙂

  9. WOW. Kudos to you, sir, for pulling that off. I know I couldn’t. It’s quite a read, and I imagine it would’ve been quite the experience for you, as well. I’ve also determined that Chatty’s style of short-running mini-campaigns is a good idea. A balance between one-shots and epic campaigns. It’s a bit more long-running than a one-shot, a bit shorter-running (and easier to manage) than an epic campaign.

  10. Here was a note I got from one of my players. I’m posting with his permission. I thought it had an interesting take on what he remembered most fondly from the campaign:


    It would be an interesting exercise to compare the players’ list of most memorable moments, and biggest headaches, with your highlights. A few of mine:

    Hobgoblin torturer into the fire pit, our original bucket-on-the head back at L3 or so
    Thundertusk Boar Strike, it really huuuuurts!
    Pyramid of Shadows — the best overall adventure of the 9, with the Varellis/Wes storyline
    The store and ongoing events in 7-pillared hall; also happenings around the 3 Wishes
    Nightbringer and Nightbringer 2: The Rebringening
    Epic weapon story and tailored encounters
    Thrash’s moment of treachery
    Vampire party in Sigil
    Watching from above while Envy and the Banananaga duked it out in a pit
    Whupping the dracolich’s ass on the side of the mountain
    Standing on the pillar in Thanatos fighting off endless waves of zombies
    Getting one-hit dropped by Orcus the first time we fought him
    Fausto getting zapped by pretty much every skill challenge involving an inanimate object

    I think my biggest headaches were similar to yours. In the heroic tier I pretty much knew what the other characters would be doing and we could take actions based on that. As we got higher, our powers were optimized to build on each other but there were so many choices that I think we often ended up doing our own thing and assuming that there would be some synergy. Keeping track of 4 different buffs and not knowing which actually stacked because of power/item/etc. was a real pain.

    Thanks for all of the thought and effort you put into the game, it was a ton of fun and I’m proud to have been part of a complete 1-30 campaign! Now let’s not do that again.


  11. @Alphastream: “My first thought is to change the altars to hold NPCs with which the PCs have interacted. They aren’t just turning off the altars with skill checks but also saving those NPCs. And, when the ghouls come up from his aura, I would have those ghouls be NPCs (even foes) that died during the campaign. ”

    That is such an awesome idea. I wish I had used it. I actually felt this a lot – that once I ran something I wish I had a chance to run it again slightly differently.

    @TheMainEvent: The fun factor for me never dropped when we went into Epic. It was a lot harder to run but I think I and the players enjoyed it just as much as we enjoyed Heroic and Paragon. They were all fun. We definitely loved watching the PCs evolve from little adventurers wandering out of a city to demi-gods battling ancient primordials in the very bottom of the Abyss only to then battle Orcus, the new God of Death, about two hours later.

    Epic is tons of fun.

    @Doug H: The adventures were mostly written before WOTC knew much about running paragon or epic games so they needed a lot of rewriting. Generally a good DM gives whatever time he or she can. In my case, it was the main focus of my free time so that is what I gave.

    @Phil: The crit thing might have just been my group but it was pretty severe. If the house rule doesn’t affect your characters than it shouldn’t be a problem having it in place, should it? =D

  12. “I actually felt this a lot – that once I ran something I wish I had a chance to run it again slightly differently.”

    I feel that way all the time with anything I write or run. It is the DM’s lament, I think, to always have so much hindsight because you are behind the curtain and can see what could have been. I blogged recently about using The Jester’s ideas on a drunken brawl. It was a lot of fun, but if I could only have foreseen a few factors it would have been really fantastic. And yet, on we go to designing the next week’s game!

  13. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections on the campaign, Mike. Personally, I love campaigns that span the full level range of the game — I ran one in 3E and two in 3.5, and I fully expect my current 4E game to go all the way to the top. I may do episodic side stuff to get a taste of settings we don’t use in the main game (such as Dark Sun), but I just love the epic sweep of the full-scale campaign and the transformation from fledgling hero to fledgling god. Nothing else I’ve experienced in gaming compares.

    That said, I’m glad to have gotten some heads up information about things to watch out for in the future. Due to my commitment to finish out the 3.5 campaign in that edition of the rules, we only started out 4E campaign in April, so the PCs are still only 6th level. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff already, and I’m looking forward to seeing firsthand the craziness that awaits.

  14. Although I DM a ton, I’m not an experienced writer, running either LFR or canned adventures with little modification. For me, though, the key is to have a good time. If players enjoy plowing through your NPCs, then let them. As for making sure you have fun, just hold on to one truth above all others: Whatever they do, your players can never take away the story you tell. They can ignore it or shape it, but you’ve written it and told it. Personally, I don’t need any more than that.

  15. Oh, and if you need a player for a Gamma World campaign, …. 🙂

  16. Very good post!

    My players are still lvl 6… wonder how long it will take me to get them at least to epic levels…

    Way to go, Bravo!

  17. Personally I would avoid nerfing critical hits and instead look at the true problem: Multiple iterative attacks on a critical. There are in fact a lot of ways of completely negating extra attacks though, for example a power that pushes a PC once if they miss with any of those attacks can cancel out multiple crits (or blinds, or turns the enemy invisible or does any number of other things). Critical hits also reduce grind, end combats faster and provide an element of excitement. For some strikers an improved crit range is very important to their overall DPR, like Daggermaster Rogues. Part of using a terribad weapon like a dagger is access to that terrific 18-20 crit range from Daggermaster.

    The other thing really that comes out is that the main adventures you’re running are not great. I can appreciate that you spent time improving them, but there is only so much you can do when the actual adventures themselves aren’t helping you. Part of the reason for this is simply replacing or improving monsters that are there isn’t the most useful thing. Many of the encounters in the E1-E3 series are just not well designed from the beginning. Entirely different combinations of creatures, terrain and similar would improve some of these immensely. What I’m saying is that they don’t go far enough in making zany terrain, interesting scenarios and groups of monsters that work together in a very optimal way.

    If you have an optimized party vs. monsters that are kind of “thrown” together as many of the encounters in E1-E3 are, they will never be competitive. Even if you do spend the time to give them new maths.

    It is very important now, as a DM to really have a solid understanding of what the monsters you’re using are and how they interact. Many of those triggered actions and similar can be essential in preventing those huge crit strikes with multiple attacks (as an example). Aura’s and similar can also be vastly important: This is where I think 4E has failed somewhat at epic. The DM needs to track all the things his 5 monsters do, just as well as each PC needs to know everything about what they do. If the DM is lagging on the understanding of his monsters abilities, the PCs will frequently walk over them as those triggered actions can make a massive difference.

    Making a challenging solo requires an understanding of how your party performs and what they do. It is true there is a lot of material available, but in reality you only need to be familiar with what your PCs use: Not everything in existence. This is where I think a lot of DMs, including myself, who played 3E then transitioned to 4E have gone wrong. You don’t need to be worried about every game element in 4E: Only what your PCs have is truly relevant. 4E is a pretty balanced game and nearly everything can be adequately countered. Bear in mind that PCs have limited options in reality: As the DM you have unlimited options. You can throw any powers you like onto a solo to make them challenging or have interesting quirks. For example, monsters can have powers that give them bonuses to initiative, resistance to conditions (which is pretty important in general) and even improved crit ranges (look no further than the MV Balor for evidence this has Wizards seal of approval).

  18. Tikkchik Fen Tikktikk says:

    Regarding players calling out powers and feats you don’t understand:

    1. Make them read the full power to you.

    They should have this at hand. It’s 2010; everyone should either have access to a text editor or the character builder and a printer. Of course, this doesn’t mean they didn’t pull the power out of their butts when they were typing, but it gives you a chance to say “Whoa, that does what?” and a moment to reconsider monster tactics and strategy.

    2. Make them roleplay and describe the power to you.

    Sometimes it’s hard to describe exactly what is going on with the more abstract powers, but they should have to try.

    I’ve heard fears that this will bog down combat even more. In my experience, though, what actually happens is this:
    * The player begins really making the character their own, putting their own stamp on how the powers’ effects manifest.
    * Other players better understand that character’s quirks, personality, and potential in and out of combat.
    * Players get brainstorms of more cinematic things to try as they think outloud and begin taking advantage of the golden rule (try anything, the DM will come up with a check and a DC).
    * Combats become memorable for player actions, not just the setting and the monster description. “Remember that time I …” instead of “Remember that time the DM …”
    * Combats take a bit longer but no one really minds because they really become a cinematic and essential part of the story.

  19. Great post! I too am baffled by the PCs’ powers and frequently forget all the cool stuff my monsters can do.

    I’m up to 57 sessions of the first Parsantium campaign with the PCs about to hit paragon tier. Not sure we” make it up to 30th!

    Cheers and congratulations!


  20. On remembering auras and triggered actions:

    Write it on an index card, toss it on the table near the monster. If you want to be semi-secretive, put just the trigger (not the effect).

    It’s hard enough to remember what a monster can do on its own turn, but to remember anything that happens outside of its initiative is exponentially harder, because you use them when everyone’s attention is focused on another player, not on you! You have to steal the focus, and if things are moving quickly (which is generally good) you won’t have much of a window there before you have to say those dread words: “back up.” But if you put reminders where everyone can see them, one of those sets of eyes will notice.

  21. Nice recap. I’m running two 4e campaigns now (once a month each, whew!), and I figure on about 10 hours of prep time per run. One is modules, the other is homebrew.

    I use a virtual game table for both, even though we meet face to face. I project a map onto the wall and they get to discover stuff as they move around. Auras are easy to track, there’s a visual representation of them, everyone is aware of them. Monster powers are implemented as macros with a nice rollover, so also easy to remember. PC’s don’t use macros, they have power cards (which we make together) so the game text is easily checked. And they roll their own dice, rather than using the computer, like I do. Mind you, we’re only in heroic tier yet.

    I have watched encounters I thought would be easy shred them and tough ones get dismantled already. I don’t expect it to stop, some of the issue is tactical choices about what to fight first, and uncertainty about what might come in the next encounter.

    I’m not surprised that players who choose to enhance damage first might top out at level 22. There are feats and powers for other things, movement, defense, utility, healing.

  22. “Critical Hits” complains about too much critical hits in 4e? Strange =)

  23. I’d like to see a post on how your party’s epic destines all played out and intertwined.

  24. Thanks for the overview. I started a 4E campaign so we would publish better 4E adventures (mostly on DriveThru.RPG, we can’t afford to do all the fancy printing WoTC can) because I alwats assumed there were some nuances that are picked up only by playing rather than reading the rules and relying on years of gaming experience.

    We can only meet about once a month, not sure if the group will want to stay together after 10th level although one player already picked out his 11th level paragon path so he at least has a character conception he is looking to build. Funny thing about your crit comment is that I grafted a “traumatic hit” homerule on top of the crit system so every hit can add damage or effects and every miss can be a fumble. So we play with a double chance of special hits but obviously no triggering powers off a traumatic hit. I just like it when once in a while the die rolls indicate that a limb or head has been severed….

    Then again I expect the monsters to get slaughtered. I really only aim to push the party once or twice per session and I find that the best way is usually larger numbers of medium tough creatures. They can synergize big damage on a solo or bad guy leader elite – but fending off a group of enemies only 2 or so levels under them makes them get creative about moving to create choke points and looking for environmental hazards they can use for protection.

    I read comments about the published epic adventures not being terribly useful – maybe we can pen some appropriate ones after I get some DMing under my belt at that level.

    I have a psion, shaman, barbarian, warlock and fighter in my player group. As we progress past 4th level I look forward to seeing if the dwarf fighter starts to feel outclassed by the other classes or not. With no divine adventure mates, my group tends to be more afraid of the undead than they really need to be – but that just makes it more fun for me.

    Dave Wainio
    Three Sages Games

  25. It is impossible for a dwarf fighter to feel outclassed by anything. Fighters are probably the most versatile and strongest class in 4th Edition. Especially a Dwarf Fighter, which is almost the best kind of fighter you could be.

  26. Wow Mike, that was an interesting read. No offence to anyone intended, but the thought of playing D&D for 30 levels actually makes me feel a little physically ill. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character get above about level 6 in any edition of the game, and I’ve finally realised (after trying to love 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions) that D&D will never be the game for me.

    It’s a bit of a sad moment for me, because I always believe that each new edition will fix the things I don’t like about the game, but actually it just keeps making them more explicit. But not to worry – I’ve just discovered The Burning Wheel, and I think I’m in love again. I swear this time it’s real.


  1. […] 2.5 years across 100 sessions from Mike Shea over at Critical Hits. Must read for 4E fans, IMHO. What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign by Mike Shea __________________ 20-year gamer and unapologetic fan of D&D 4E. You should probably be using […]

  2. […] What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign : Critical Hits – Beware the Warlord and critical hits. A very well-written reflection. […]

  3. […] What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign, via Critical Hits. Now that D&D 4E’s been out long enough for a campaign to have run to completion, Mike Shea gives his insights into what we used to call “the new edition”: Near the end, there wasn’t any bad roll that couldn’t be boosted up by five points using some combination of forgotten feats, situational bonuses, magic items, or triggered actions. People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. […] There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do. […]

  4. […] I have never seen anybody explain it so beautifully and succinctly as this (pay particular attention to the last sentence): It’s pretty clear to me that the rules-heavy […]