My Experience with Running Tier 4 Play in D&D 5e

D&D 5e is separated into four tiers of play:

Tier 1: levels 1-4
Tier 2: levels 5-10
Tier 3: levels 11-16
Tier 4: levels 17-20

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion revolving around tier 4 and why it’s such a polarizing tier. In my experience, this is due to how different the game becomes at tier 4. The PCs are at the height of their power. They have so much influence over the story and the world around them.

Tier 4 PCs are practically superhumans due to their powers, alliances, and magical items. While this is a fun space to play in, it’s also a lot for the DM to consider when building new adventures. It’s a ton of work and that’s, understandably, why a lot of campaigns fizzle out upon reaching this tier or just before it.

We even have evidence of this from WotC themselves. We only have 1 hardback adventure that dips into tier 4, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which while a fun adventure is just a giant megadungeon.

It’s a hard tier to design for which is another reason why I think WotC is reluctant to create more official tier 4 content. It’s a huge investment and challenge that isn’t guaranteed to pay off due to the tiny player base.

Although, on the other hand, is tier 4 hard to design for because we have so few examples of it from WotC?

Anyway, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and talk about why I both enjoyed the tier 4 portion of my homebrew campaign. Yet also why I’m in no rush to play/DM at that tier any time soon.

The Good

Tier 4’s strength is that it’s a fantastic bookend for a long campaign. The players have watched their PCs grow from a no-name group of adventurers to demi-gods who have saved the realm (and world) a few times over.

Tier 4 is the culmination of the group’s hard work. It’s all about using their past experiences, alliances, and overwhelming power to tie up the various loose ends in the plot that no other group of people is capable of.

For example, vanquishing demon gods, preventing or ending large-scale wars, or destroying cults and evil shadow organizations.

The PCs are the infamous heroes of the world and they’re being called upon to save it once and for all.

High Stakes Makes for Impactful Decisions

All of those examples I just listed come with high stakes. The party is the only group capable of accomplishing these feats so their failure ensures that the world is changed irreversibly.

Tier 4 is full of high-stakes play. Every decision the party makes to solve these problems is an impactful one because one misstep can mean failure. And when failure means the ensured destruction of the world you’ve got a pretty compelling adventure on your hands.

I think this mentality is the strength of tier 4 play. It lets the DM go hog-wild with wacky designs because the crux of tier 4 are these impactful decisions that the party must make. They need to meet each challenge head-on and use their resources to overcome them.

There’s a ton of storytelling freedom here because the party has no choice but to rise to the challenge. Every hurdle is a huge ordeal which makes the players feel super accomplished when they overcome them.

Mythic Traits from Mythic Odysseys of Theros are a fantastic addition to high-tier adventures. Credit: WotC.

The Bad

My biggest knock against tier 4 is just how much time I spent on my campaign every week. I often had to make custom creatures, traps, puzzles, etc. to tailor toward the party’s strengths and weaknesses to give them a true challenge.

I’ve appreciated the newer monster books giving us more high-tier goodies to play with, but they’re not always a one-size-fits-all solution. Tier 4, in my experience, requires the DM to tailor challenges to their group. Homebrew is essential for making rewarding adventures.

I love homebrewing adventures, creatures, etc., but it’s an enormous time commitment to get “right” in my experience. While I don’t mind putting in the effort for my group who clearly appreciates it, it’s still a lot. 

PC Powers are Hard to Manage

I lost track of the number of times I forgot a PC could do XYZ and completely skip past a puzzle or challenge I’d placed before them. On one hand, this is a good thing because the PC is using their skills or creative thinking to overcome and obstacles.

Yet on the other, it kind of sucks when the party can just skip past a challenge because you forgot about one of their obscure magical items, niche spells, or new class/subclass features when designing it.

Although, this conundrum isn’t caused solely because of the DM forgetting or not keeping track of the party’s capabilities.

For example, teleportation magic is super accessible at this tier. It makes running around the world or jumping past dangerous obstacles a breeze. While it’s totally possible to just be like “yeah you can’t teleport in here” it’s a total cop-out to do that in every, single, dungeon.

Limitations are fun in small doses, but if the foundation of your game design is taking away powers and abilities from the party the table is going to get frustrated with you pretty quickly.

So basically, your goal is to both add challenges that the party can overcome while ensuring that they can’t just skip over or handwave everything. It’s a hard goal to reach and admittedly I fell short of this more often than I met it.

Balance Goes Out the Window

D&D 5e in general is challenging to balance. There are so many factors that contribute to “balance” that a perfectly balanced campaign is a pipe dream. You’re going to have plenty of adventures, dungeons, and encounters that will fail to hit the mark. That’s just how it is.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to make things fair and challenging? No, but it also means that the more variables we add to the equation, the more unrealistic achieving “balance” is.

Tier 4 is basically just throwing the entire algebra textbook at you and saying “solve for x lmao”.

Like I mentioned in the previous section, tier 4 is all about tailoring challenges to your specific party. This makes guides and resources like CR become less and less relevant depending on things like party composition, number and type of magical items, and the overarching story of the campaign.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to balance in tier 4. It feels like a constant process of trial and error until you learn exactly how to challenge your unique group of adventurers.

General Observations

The mechanical parts of tier 4 play were by far the most difficult for me to get right on a week-to-week basis. I felt that my game design chops were put to the test each time the party rolled up to a dungeon.

It was exhausting, but overall super rewarding and a great learning experience. Particularly because I know the group I play with always enjoys the hard work I put into our games.

Not everyone has this dynamic at their table which is why I can see why many campaigns fizzle out or out-right avoid this portion of the game. I mean, even I, who is fortunate to have such a group still isn’t eager to jump into this tier any time soon, even with our Strahd campaign coming to a close.

It’s just a lot more work. That level 8-14 cluster of tiers feels just as fun to play in, yet is much easier to design for in my opinion. Everyone feels powerful, but they don’t have too much power.

A Lot Happens in a Short Amount of Time

Any given game night in tier 4 has the potential to throw world-changing curveballs at the story. The party could forge an important alliance between kingdoms, ending a decade-long war, or they could kill a demon lord, shifting the power dynamic of the Abyss in a single night.

The party can save the world or doom it in a single session.

This makes for a pretty fast-paced story which is a godsend for the tail-end of a long campaign. It makes wrapping up plot hooks and story beats a breeze since so much can be accomplished in any given game night.

You’re no longer spending sessions traveling from point A to point B, you’re warping right into the action and tackling the world’s problems head-on.

I’m just going to fill this post with Theros artwork. No one can stop me. Credit: WotC.

Tons of Freedom in the Theme & Story of a Campaign

The party can handle anything. Ancient dragons, liches, armies, you name it and a party of level 20 adventurers will come out on top.

Well, at least if they can’t handle it you’ll have a world-altering conclusion to the campaign and plenty of new story beats for a brand-new campaign featuring a group of starry-eyed adventurers trying to navigate the problems that the previous crew couldn’t overcome.

Still, this level of play is the pinnacle of a PC’s power. You can, and should, throw whatever you want at the party. One day they may need to broker peace between two nations and then a week later they need to jump to a different plane of existence to stop a great evil from awakening.

On the other hand, you could also have large gaps of game time occur between adventures. Months or even years pass between the group’s next assignment and in the meantime, they’re managing various business ventures or guilds full of the next generation of heroes.

The storytelling freedom in this tier is unmatched and definitely the bright spot of an otherwise challenging tier to design for.

Conclusions

All in all, I’d say tier 4 is my least favorite tier of play in 5e. After playing it, I understand why so few people actually play this portion of the game and why WotC ignores it. It’s a lot of work to make the most of.

That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad time. Some of my wackiest ideas played out perfectly at this tier. I had so much freedom in both story writing and game design that it was a blast to come up with wild new ideas to throw at the table.

However, all this requires a ton of time and effort from everyone at the table, but especially the DM. There’s so much to account for when building a challenge for level 17-20 adventurers. It’s fun, but it’s not something I’m eager to play again in the foreseeable future.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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