In D&D, an interesting thing happens when you cross the threshold from Tier 3 (levels 9 to 13) to Tier 4 (levels 14 to 20). No matter what the DM throws at players, the players have answers. By Tier 4, the players have likely accumulated magic items, astounding feats, powerful spells, multiple attacks, to say nothing of a psychological profile of the DM. Players know how much they can take, they know when to stay and fight, and when to run, when to take a short rest and when they need a long rest, they know how to preserve resources. They've gotten good.
Not only that, but the DM's arsenal diminishes the higher the levels the players attain. At low levels, the DM has 340 pages of monsters that pose actual, real threats to the player characters. But as players level up, low CR monsters become useless. At level 15 and up, there just a handful of monsters that can stand up to the players. Sure, you can throw lots of monsters at the players, but that muddles combat. There aren't many modules written for high level play, either, so there's not a whole lot of guidance or help for a DM running high level games.
What most DMs don't realise is that what's actually happening at high levels is a reversal of power. In the beginning of a campaign, the DM holds all the power. A Level 1 character can be killed by a cellar rat. It's easy, and it's built into the game design. Even an experienced player struggles to survive during Tier 1 play, because there's quite simply a limit to how much defense a low level character can acquire.
And even an experienced player functionally starts life over as a Level 1 character. The world is new to them, the story completely unknown. You might have played through the Tomb of Horrors, but how's that going to help you in The Rise of the Runelords? And even if you survive the first module of, for instance, Runelords, what do you know about the actual plot of the adventure? It's not until module 3 or 4 that the actual end goal becomes clear.
But by Tier 4, the players have acquired the bulk of the power at the table. They know the plot, they have the tools they need to succeed, and they're on a rampage. The DM now has to react to the players. Sure, the world and the monsters are still managed by the DM, but the players are driving the story. The DM still has the key to the plot, but the players are calling the shots. It's up to the players when they trigger events, and they've got the rhythm of the story down well enough to know when to progress.
As a DM, I embrace the high level tier as my opportunity to become a player. Yes, I still have to prep maps and learn new monster stats and read up on the story, and that's fine because it's part of the gig. But I enjoy being on the back foot. I like having to drum up clever surprises for the relentless onslaught of the player characters I helped forge. I enjoy watching the player character engines crank into gear, using all the synergies and combos that they've selected or that I've given them, in the form of magic items.
I embrace the challenge, and I give up the idea that they're in my world. At Tier 4, I'm an unwelcomed guest in the player's world, and they're trying to destroy all my toys. And they do it really well. At Tier 4, I have more bookmarks in my books than ever, because I know that I'm going to need every dirty trick, the cleverest of traps, the weirdest NPCs, and the most tempting of bargains to give pause to my players.
At lower tiers, I'm fighting just as hard as the players are to keep the player characters alive. But a day when my Tier 4 players admit they're afraid they might not survive combat is a major win.
Just to be clear: You don't let players know about this power exchange. As far as the players know, the world is as threatening and as dangerous and as mysterious as ever. That's not a cheeky "we're in the DM club, let's be mean to players" thing, that protects the sanctity of the game. Without the belief that the world and the rules can kill them, there's no game any more. And obviously it's actually true, even if you do let yourself believe you're at a disadvantage. The truth is that a carefully placed Sphere of Annihilation can take out an entire party, so the god complex is valid, but to hit that perfect balance is the real challenge.
And the challenge of finding the right balance between fear and fun exists from Level 1 all the way up to Level 20 (and higher, if you're brave.) And that's the consistent role of the DM, whether terrorizing players or running in terror from them.
Photo by Stephen Frank on Unsplash.