One of the more challenging aspects of any Dungeons & Dragons campaign is keeping things challenging for the players as they continue going up in levels. They will invariably find things easier to slay and overcome as their skills grow and their problem-solving abilities get better. The longer that players go under the same Game Master the better they are able to guess at what the next problem might be, too.
We’ve already discussed earlier in this blog (go back far enough and you’ll find it) how higher level characters by default demand more impressive villains and monsters. Oh it is always fun to go back and slaughter orcs (a standard low-level threat) once you have a suit of impressive armor and a magical weapon or two. Maybe you’d like to summon up some mid-range or high-end elemental of your own to send rampaging about, drop-kicking goblinoids in all directions and throwing lava into their pathetic little villages. But that isn’t much of a challenge. Fun, yes. But in no sense is it inspiring.
So it comes to pass that more powerful opponents must be found to keep the players on their toes. This is completely natural. So too then should the transition be natural. On the horizon in the background of every tale should be an ominous outline of something even worse than what the players are tackling in the foreground right here and now. The secret to keeping this a smoothly flowing narrative is to reverse-engineer the antagonists at the beginning. As a Game Master get acquainted with the entirety of the Monstrous Compendium (or whatever equivalent your game system might have) and find out which of the potential enemies therein might prove to be the apex predators of your world. Then stair-step it down. If that horror is the top dog and the worst thing possible that your players can confront then what might be the next highest on the food chain? What role do these entities play in the greater scheme of things? Give these ultra-powerful beings something to do other than occasionally harassing the players. If all the bad guys have to do all day is sit and think about how to ruin a player’s life then that villain isn’t worth much. Only if the players get to the point where they threaten the very existence of a top-tier monster should that creature shift its focus entirely on the players.
Anything more than that and the players are going to feel as if the Game Master is doing everything in their power to screw with the players who are ostensibly partaking in this game to have a good time. Give the players ample chances to turn the story more to their liking. There is only a better story to be had in collaboration. Making it all about the mayhem isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as mayhem playfully and lightly sprinkled throughout the story. Occasionally you might have a wild and reckless session in which a great deal of havoc is wreaked in a short period of time. That happens. But not every single session should be an apocalypse. That isn’t fun for anybody. And it is a pain to plan for. Ever try coming up with a good ending for your game world? Yeah, that’ll put a crimp in your git-along. Even when your players get up to those upper levels keep it as light as you can. There is no reason to keep everyone in a sense of dread for every single session. Now and again sure. But we aren’t going full on “Walking Dead” crap here. We like a bit more Pollyanna, thanks very much.