I once ran a 1st Edition D&D adventure where the player characters took a trip to the Abyss to steal the Wand of Orcus. The recommended level of play was for levels 18 to 100. Yeah, that’s right: 100th-level characters. As you might know, I’m referring to the module H4: Throne of Bloodstone. The three governing rules provided by the adventure for dealing with ultra-high-level D&D characters were: 1) stomp on the power curve of expected character growth; 2) strictly apply all the rules; and 3) actually, don’t apply the rules strictly—instead, weight the results against the fortunes of the high-level characters. They can take it.
I played in and DMed quite a few high-level games during this time, using a varying mix of D&D, Rolemaster, and house rules for years, depending on the game . . . but I’ll resist the temptation to tell you about my college campaign. For now.
In 2nd Edition, D&D brought us Skip William’s Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns, which provided guidance on a variety of topics, including instructions for DMs on how to handle potential game-breaking situations and adventures, as well as new magic items, true dweomers (higher-level spells than 9th level), and extended advancement charts to 30th.
Then 3rd Edition D&D rolled out the Epic Level Handbook, an epic-sized tome by Andy Collins and moi that extended the style of play of lower levels into the stratosphere. The book also provided a bestiary of epic-level monsters (including my favorites: the abominations) and a “roll-your-own” spell system that tried to provide a formulaic way for players to create spells that could do almost anything.
After that, 4th Edition brought high-level play right into the core game, with expected progression from 1st to 30th described. The last ten levels of a character’s advancement included that character’s epic destiny. Epic destinies were portrayed as if they could change the way players would interact with the game. Despite a lot of stirring verbiage, the abilities provided by a character’s epic destiny were not too divorced from the same sort of things the character had been doing at earlier levels while at the gaming table.
So, that’s the nickel tour of a few highlights of high-level play from previous editions. If you believe some rumors, high-level play is “broken” and many groups don’t enjoy it, regardless of level. I’ve probably already revealed my bias, but I’d like to find out what you think. For the sake of the question, let’s define high-level play as games that occur within the last few levels of a given edition’s level cap, or games that occur within a given edition’s follow-on rulebook describing high-level play.