Last Updated on January 22, 2023
So, you’ve found a group to play with, congratulations.
Now you’re trying to figure out what to expect as you play. Maybe you’re the DM and you’re trying to figure out what kind of plans you should make for the overall campaign.
An adventurer’s life is exciting and far more treacherous than the lives of an ordinary character in a fantasy setting.
Contrary to what some may believe, you don’t just start off beheading dragons and slaying liches.
I mean, I guess you can, but more on that later.
In D&D 5e, there is a concept known as tiers of play, which is a method we use to describe how characters, and the campaigns they are in, grow with each level.
What are D&D Tiers?
Tears in dungeons and dragons are what come out of my eyes when my players kill a dracolich in one turn of combat. Wait did you say tiers? Oh okay. Gotcha.
“The tiers of play represent the ideal levels for introducing world-shaking events to the campaign.” Dungeon Master’s Guide, pg. 36.
This is geared towards DMs building a campaign, planning ahead of time what large events should occur, but the same concept is great for players to be aware of. As our characters level up, they get stronger. Shocking right?
I think of the tiers of play as a great baseline for viewing how exactly characters get stronger. There are four tiers of play, which split the 20-level process into roughly quarters.
As described in the DMG, the tiers of play are as follows
- Tier 1 (Levels 1-4): Local Heroes
- Tier 2 (Levels 5-10): Heroes of the Realm
- Tier 3 (Levels 11-16): Masters of the Realm
- Tier 4 (Levels 17-20): Masters of the World
In theory, each of these level groupings represents significant power boosts that the characters receive through leveling up.
The titles aren’t meant to be taken literally, they’re just meant to show us a rough picture of what characters in these groups will look like.
Should I Use Tiers of Play?
Now, there is some debate around this concept in the community. Tiers of play is a good system to reference, but it’s not perfect.
Not everything that is “official” content is always taken as law, which is good, but I want to talk about that debate a bit before we get into discussing the individual tiers themselves.
The first question I want to tackle is: Why do tiers of play exist?
The simple answer is what I already gave you, characters get stronger as they level up. But if that was the only thing we had to worry about we wouldn’t need any more separation than level to tell us what to expect.
Adventurers do not grow stronger in a strictly linear fashion.
That is to say, you’re not getting a set 20% stronger with each level you gain. Instead, we see a sort of exponential increase in power, with certain levels giving us larger boosts.
When I say power, I’m not only talking about damage, I’m talking renown, social skills, and experience as well.
The basis for choosing the tiers that 5e uses is when we get these substantial power boosts.
In theory, this makes sense. Level 5 for example sees a lot of classes getting game-changing boosts. However, growth isn’t as neat as this system might have us believe.
Since combat is a big part of a character’s growth, being one of the three pillars of adventure, let’s talk about CR for a second. CR or combat rating is a rating given to all sorts of creatures that players might have to fight. The rating says how hard it will be for a character of a certain level to fight them.
If all characters were created equal, CR would be a foolproof system. DMs would set up a hard combat and it would be difficult, an easy combat would be easy, and so on.
That’s not the case though. Sometimes high-level parties get slaughtered in what should have been an easy fight, and sometimes parties demolish a BBEG that they shouldn’t have fought for another five levels.
How you play the game changes the game. That’s part of what makes D&D so amazing, and it’s a big part of what makes this tier system flawed. A DM could make even the most creative and optimization-focused players feel like small fish in a big pond with the right combats, traps, and social interactions.
There are so many factors that completely change the dynamic of a game that it’s impossible to list all the examples of the tier system not working. All that being said, the tiers of play are by no means an ironclad ruling. They’re not even rules. To quote Barbosa, “they’re more like… guidelines.”
As a DM or player, you should not hold yourself to any of the expectations set by the tiers of play. Instead, you should use them as a jumping-off point.
Consider how the characters relate to the world around them and use that to decide what kind of exciting things are happening as they grow more powerful.
A few questions to consider when referencing the tiers of play are:
- How amazing are the abilities of your characters compared to ordinary people of the world?
- What is the theme or genre of your campaign?
- Is there one big plotline, or are there many goals to achieve?
- How much magic (and magical items) exists in the setting?
Alright, mini rant over. Onto the tiers themselves.
For each of these tiers, I’m going to explain them as best as I can and then talk about how to implement them, referencing some published adventures as I do so. Potential Spoiler alert for players who are still reading.
Tier 1 (Levels 1-4): Local Heroes
This is where we learn how to walk. Players are getting a feel for their characters and the abilities that they have access to.
From 1st through 3rd levels, they are choosing their characters’ subclasses and getting used to the features available to them. DMs can expect a lot of questions and/or misgivings about the actual mechanics of the game.
From a power perspective, the characters are pretty weak. There are an insane amount of monsters that they can fight and conquer, but they might struggle a lot. Wizards, as an example, are very weak, with not a lot of spells to cast and a set of Hit Points that most creatures could demolish in a couple hits.
Sure, I once managed to captain an entire pirate armada as a 2nd level artificer, but that was because I was a tricksy little hobbitsy (gnome actually but you get it).
Characters can certainly do some amazing things, and a good roll of the dice or a well-thought-out plan can make you feel like you’re in the next tier.
While the characters themselves are limited, the players are only limited to their experience and creativity. Seasoned players can blow through any type of encounter thrown at them in these levels, which is why many veteran groups opt to start out at level 3, skipping most of the training wheels section
Applying Tier 1
Naturally, this is where most adventures start. Even adventures that start at higher levels tend to pick up in media res, with a lot of implications to how things were going back at these earlier levels.
This is a great time to set up the overall story of the campaign. You’ll want players to be given a reason to adventure and then start learning things about the state of the world.
Tomb of Annihilation brings players to Chult by explaining that a deadly curse exists and is emanating from the peninsula.
There might be a lot of exploring, mirroring how your characters are exploring their abilities. Having a large variety of encounters will set up a great campaign. They might also set up a base of operations in a town where they’re receiving a bunch of smaller quests.
This is also the tier where players are most likely to die, so if you have any plans to avoid that, plan some contingencies. Out of the Abyss introduces a pursuit mechanic early on, where the players are being chased by drow and could end up being recaptured if defeated.
They go over a bunch of ways to stop that from happening, from earthquakes to hungry purple worms casually swallowing a view drow as they’re going about their business.
We don’t necessarily want to make the characters feel invincible here, but they shouldn’t be seconds from death at any given moment either. I mean, unless you want that…
Tier 2 (Levels 5-10): Heroes of the Realm
As the names suggest, the characters are getting much more powerful, and likely developing a sort of reputation. This is when we see classes really start to offer most of their impressive abilities.
Martial classes are getting extra attacks and exciting ways to deal more damage. Magic users are getting access to powerful spells that should make the players feel like they can do anything. I mean, wizards get access to fireball at 5th level, and it’s just up from there.
This is the time where you can fight weaker dragons and giants and live to tell the tale. Many campaigns end somewhere in this tier, such as The Dragon of Icespire Peak or Lost Mine of Phandelver. So it’s reasonable to say that some of the strongest monsters you face will be in this tier.
Applying Tier 2
Heroes of the region implies dealing with larger threats to the region. Characters have a good reputation going, and now might be the time to set them up with your BBEG or at least a pretty big bad.
If we look at Harry Potter as an example, this tier is Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. Our heroes have really come into their own, so now we can put them up against large trials, maybe even a short fight with a weaker version of He Who Shall Not Be Named.
Curse of Strahd has the fight against the titular Baron Strahd von Zarovich coming as late as 10th level, even though brave adventurers could try to take him on a bit earlier.
Even though our characters have come nowhere near the full scope of their abilities, they are powerful forces to be reckoned with and we should treat them as such.
It’s not unusual to throw these characters into something as big as an all-out war since they have the stamina to make it through such things.
Tier 3 (Levels 11-16): Masters of the Realm
This tier is where the fun begins. Spellcasters start to gain access to reality altering spells, and martial classes have a mastery over combat that only truly terrifying foes can counter.
If the adventurers are in a more political setting, they are likely living legends at this point. For better or worse people know their names. This may mean sending them on impossible missions to ancient tombs or to fight the gods themselves.
This is also where we see a lot of subclasses offer their capstone abilities, solidifying a character’s archetype.
Applying Tier 3
All but one of the official published adventures are finished by this point. At 15th level we see characters go toe to toe with the dragon god Tiamat herself in the Tyranny of Dragons campaign.
Out of the Abyss has an all-out war between demons with players fighting the Demogorgon, or as some DMs run it, Lolth the Queen of Spiders.
If your campaign is getting into this tier, the battles should be epic. I’m talking about the Battle for Minas Tirith epic. Don’t pull your punches. Throw gods and beholders and all sorts of terrifying beings at your characters.
Even in the terms of social interaction and exploration, the adventures you set up should be unheard of. Overthrowing kings is old news, tear down the institution itself at this point.
If you want your characters to truly feel like masters of the realm, make them the masters of the realm and give them access to powers no mortal has conceived.
I decided to look at a few CR 16 and 17 monsters and here are some of my favorites: Star Spawn Larva Mage, Hellfire Engine, Death Knight, Dragon Turtle, Planetar, and a Storm Giant Quintessent (which is literally a storm giant that was so powerful it decided not to die and became a conscious storm!)
Tier 4 (Levels 17-20): Masters of the World
Listen, if you’ve gotten to these levels, congratulations. It is rare to have a campaign last long enough to see your characters become gods. Okay, demigods.
Truly, the abilities the characters have access to, along with all of the obstacles they’ve overcome to get to this point is nothing short of legendary.
Very literally, this is the end of the line. There are no official mechanics for levels past 20. Whatever adventures you’re partaking in at this point are so awe-inspiring that you’re either dealing with multiversal threats or fighting a literal swarm of dragons.
There’s a reason most campaigns stop before we get to this point. The abilities available to characters are so incredible that most threats are just a matter of how do we beat it, rather than can we beat it.
Applying Tier 4
As a DM, this is either one of the most stressful, or one of the most exciting things you’ll ever do. I’d suggest DMing a one-shot of high-level characters just to get the experience.
Essentially, balancing combat is near impossible. Your players’ characters have accumulated enough features and magical items to take down most things you throw out there.
So you can get pretty wild with it. Make the game insane. Your players have reached a level of power that we rarely see in movies, like Neo at his peak.
Don’t feel restrained to making mundane combat, or you’ll end up with long arduous battles that no one wants to keep track of, least of all you. Instead, give the creatures your characters fight abilities that rival theirs.
There’s also the concept of playing past 20th level, which is possible, it just takes some work. Players won’t actually level up further (unless you use some fancy homebrew options) but there is a passage in the DMG that talks about epic boons.
These are essentially features that are really powerful. While the DMG provides a list on pg 232, you can totally just make your own, or use a feature/ability from some other class to make your players’ characters even more godlike.
Then, when they think they are truly invincible, invite them to Tarrasic Park (Jurassic Park, but tarrasques). Jokes aside, there is a really awesome adventure on DMsGuild called Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques, check it out and unleash chaos on your “invincible” players.
So those are the tiers of play. Love them or hate them, they are a nice way to think about the growth we watch our characters undergo. From stumbling villagers trying to find a quest, to rivals of the gods themselves, we see certain stages that an adventurer passes through.
Growth is a fluid concept and will look different at every table, but we can always use the tiers of play as a reference to see where we stand in the grand scheme of things.
As always, happy adventuring.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.