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5e Tiers of Play: Matching Campaigns to your Players’ Level

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

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So you want to join an Adventurer’s League D&D campaign. You’re told you need to choose a Tier to play in, but what does it mean, exactly? 

In 5e, level ranges are tiered based on the party’s power and scope of influence. According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG pgs 36-38), the tiers are:

  • 1st—Levels 1 to 4: Local Heroes
  • 2nd—5 to 10: Heroes of the Realm
  • 3rd—11 to 17: Masters of the Realm
  • 4th—17 to 20: Masters of the World

Follow along to better understand what this tier structure means for you.

The Tiers of Play, Mechanically Speaking

The tiers are, by and large, separated by Player Characters’ (PCs) power spikes, which is why they’re relevant when considering multiclassing.

Some classes power spike more dramatically than others. For instance, damage progression for rogues is steady and gradual. The way they power spike is via Uncanny Dodge at 5th level, Reliable Talent at 11th, and subclass features at 17th.

On the other end of this, fighters get Extra Attacks at 5th (as do all other martial classes) and 11th levels, and an extra Action Surge on the 17th. Meanwhile, damage-dealing cantrips get extra damage dice on the 5th, 11th, and 17th character levels. 

These are also class levels when full-casters get higher-leveled spells—even warlocks, thanks to their Mystic Arcanum feature—which vastly expands how characters can exert their will upon the world.

Consider Fireball and just Fireball: This spell is unbalanced by design. It’s part of the fun that it’s ridiculously powerful at the level you can first cast it. An angry sorcerer can potentially wreck a village by themselves with this. Other less flashy spells, later on, can change the course of a campaign. Scry, Teleportation Circle, Plane Shift, Teleport, Wish, and still more.

Not to say that PC progression is the only thing that matters; magical item availability is also a big deal. Two identical parties, except one has level-appropriate magical gear and the other has none, will not play the same way. 

A canny DM accounts for this when prepping for a session, fine-tuning challenges according to how much useful treasure they’ve doled out so far.

Something else to keep in mind is that combat length tends to increase as the levels pile up. Big fights at higher levels can take up whole sessions. Naturally, things run smoother when everyone at the table knows their stuff, and time wasted on frantic page-flipping and wiki-scrolling is minimal. 

Another couple of ways to curb this tendency are using pre-rolled initiatives, running similar enemy types at the same point in initiative, and visually representing ongoing conditions (Roll20, the virtual tabletop my group uses, makes this very convenient).

Epic Boons

Let’s address the 20th level elephant in the room. Is there life after the final tier? Do we have to stop once we’ve gotten strong enough to slap gods around? Not necessarily.

I myself think it’s advisable, as someone who’s not overly fond of the potential for spectacle creep at the topmost levels, to make everything feel like a Shonen anime. By this point, many people miss the fast and deadly fights of the early game.

Still, if you want to go on a planes-hopping, god-smacking journey of over the top madness, there is a way to keep some sense of character progression after the 20th level: The DM has a page (DMG, pg 231) full of Epic Boons to award to level 20 characters as rewards for their mighty deeds. 

Some of them are underwhelming—”wow, you can choose one failed attack to actually hit once per long rest!”—but others are quite flavorful, such as this one:

“Boon of the Stormborn:  You have immunity to lightning and thunder damage. You can also cast Thunderwave (save DC 15) at will, without using a spell slot or any components.”

A DM well-versed in the game can also craft their own Epic Boons to bestow upon PCs at key moments, and there are always powerful Artifacts that can be sought after to get an edge against some universe-destroying threat. Tharizdun sends its maddening regards.

Perhaps you want to keep things fresh by pushing the Players themselves, in which case….


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The Tiers of Play, In Narrative Terms

Now that you know the main mechanical considerations regarding the tiers of play, we can look at how mechanics shape narrative.  This is why each tier is better suited for different types of stories. 

1st Tier — Levels 1-4

The PCs are still not that far removed from being everyday people, still learning the adventuring ropes. They are closer to Olympic athletes and PhDs than to demigods. 

Life is cheap and most things can end theirs quickly. This tier is all about meeting in a tavern and doing odd jobs for okay cash. 

Appropriate things the party may encounter 

  • Protecting merchant caravans
  • Investigating small-town disappearances
  • Fetching components for the local alchemist
  • Dealing with the giant spiders in the sewers 
  • Seeking out a locally desired MacGuffin

Sure, they can whack some goblins, but two or three ogres might be more than the party can handle. This is far from being a negative. The lethality and knowledge that the PCs are small fish in the multiverse ocean can be a great source of tension and a motivator for pursuing more power. 

Tier one is also the best to play horror adventures in, as horror thrives when the PCs/players feel disempowered. As DM, good luck doing that to a bunch of dragon slayers.

In summary: tier 1 adventurers go on small-fry types of jobs, building their reputations and refining their abilities in relative obscurity, eventually becoming local heroes, well-known professionals in some circles, and so on.

Because it’s easier to approach due to the simplicity of the class abilities and monsters, this is the best place to start with beginner players. The later tiers continue to grow in complexity, requiring a lot more investment for players to get up to speed and use their character’s abilities effectively.


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!


2nd Tier — Levels 5-10

The PCs are significantly more powerful, and can now start meddling in affairs of state, ranging farther from their original haunt and fighting much gnarlier things. They’re far from indestructible, but they’re experienced veterans with their core class features in place, maybe even a multiclassed build going. 

With the power, comes recognition. Now they are more likely to be sought out by people with critical missions to carry out than to go job-hunting. They might even be pursuing their own goals and becoming proper political actors in the world.

The mercenary leaders of the Chain of Acheron started out at 5th level in Matt Colvile’s live-streamed campaign. This was an apt decision, the second tier is one where PCs have some sway over the world but are not major movers and shakers… Yet.

Appropriate things the party may encounter:

  • Political intrigue, espionage, and assassinations
  • Dealing with more difficult, rare occurrences
  • Mass Disappearances that can threaten larger settlements
  • Larger threats that the party is invited to take care of thanks to their fame

3rd Tier — Levels 11-17

Now the PCs are a proper big deal. Terrible is their wrath, and lucky are those who count them among their friends. Their actions are more likely than not to change the course of history.  

They are on their way to becoming legendary. Their deeds are known—and sung—far and wide unless they took measures against this. They hobnob with the exceedingly rich and powerful, kings, archmages, and dragons. These powerful, established factions and individuals see them as threats, dangerous unknowns, or esteemed allies.

Travel across the world can be routinely accomplished instantaneously by a 3rd tier party. They build and keep strongholds, amass followings, change the landscape of power, pursue their goals across the planes of existence.

Appropriate things the party may encounter:

  • Problems that require going to extremely dangerous, lost, or forbidden places
  • Fabled items that must be found to solve an issue of great importance
  • Being put into morally difficult situations between opposing factions
  • Solving problems that could otherwise result in mass death

4th Tier — Levels 17-20

The adventurers are basically gods. Almost. They can beat up Tiamat. Full casters can Wish the world into a different state. If an entire plane of existence, or even the whole of creation, needs saving or annihilation, it’s their job. They are legendary, in the business of starting or installing dynasties and meddling in the gods’ affairs.

Clerics can become saints and warlocks can become patrons themselves. Indeed, even godhood might be on the table, depending on the DM.

Appropriate things the party may encounter:

  • Doomsday cults
  • Fighting, aiding, or partnering with literal Gods
  • Multidimensional existential threats
  • Bending the very fabric of existence, history, and all that

Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

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Adventure Ideas by Tier

Below are some adventure ideas organized by tier. There are only two for the upper tiers because very few people even play them.  

Tier 1

The Delian Tomb (1st level)

Increasing goblin incursions have the usually peaceful village of Villane on edge. When the blacksmith erupts into the tavern, distraught because goblins have kidnapped his young daughter, everyone is upset—but no one feels up to the task.

Luckily, there are some adventurers in town to rely on in this dire hour. They don’t know it yet, but the goblins have holed up in the tomb of a forgotten knightly order, the Delians.  

The Giant Spotted Owlbear (4th level)

The giant spotted owlbear has been hunted to near extinction. A dead one is worth its weight in gold for its surprisingly sweet flesh, thick coat, and distinctive face that looks good on a wall. 

After a rare spotted owlbear sighting in the nearby forest, the party is tasked with hunting it for the Baroness’ table. The local druid circle might object. 

Tier 2 

The Statue Garden (5th level)

A local noble, Lady Kaelin, took an interest in visiting an elven ruin whose existence she discovered through her studies. She sent a trio of woodsmen to check it out. Only one survived. He came back with talk of a statue garden around the ruin, saying his companions were turned into stone by something lurking there. 

Has a Medusa taken up residence in the ruin? Or a kobold clan with tame basilisks? Maybe something weirder? Lady Kaelin hires the adventuring party to find out and deal with it.

Brains, Brains (8th to 10th level)

Entire settlements in the Underdark region surrounding the dwarven city of Ûthzaak have been deserted over mere weeks and with barely a sign of struggle. The last one was a mushroom farm too close to the city for comfort. The dwarven king worries about what this could mean. Only a handful from the dozens of scouts he has sent looking for the cause of this have returned. They rave about tentacle-bearded monsters and brain-dogs leading droves of placid captives somewhere to the north and then underground.

Mind-flayers (Monster Manual, MM pgs 221-222) are terrifying news. The king locks the city down and has the whole place working on fortifications. He also sends a party of powerful, famous heroes of the realm to learn more about what is happening.

Tier 3

Strange Remedy (12 to 14th levels)

The Sovereign is in a coma and close to death. Nobles are already arguing matters of succession since the Sovereign has left no heir. The winds carry the stench of civil war. Neighboring nations are likely poised to strike for easy territorial gains at the first sign of turmoil.

What afflicts the Sovereign is no ordinary disease. No magic, arcane or divine, has helped. The court wizard suspects the Sovereign’s illness to be a particular magical-biological weapon thought long lost. He’s adamant about the need for a satchel of Mummy Lord powder to concoct a suitable remedy. 

The only known location where one might be found is in the depths of a cursed ruin—at the heart of the most powerful of the aggressive, neighboring nations.

Tier 4

Angel of Entropy (17th to 20th level)

The gods are not all at their best. They have waged war among their kind and killed for reasons they deemed just. One casualty was Oreithu, who sought to extinguish all things and scatter their essence to eventually merge and birth the multiverse anew. They saw this as the proper way of things—which need to be carried out periodically.

When the other gods destroyed Oreithu, they didn’t extinguish all the followers. The solar Skorunn lived, despite having followed Oreithu. For millennia they lay grief-stricken, but now they seek to gather back the pieces of their god across the multiverse and resurrect them at the expense of all life in the material plane. They have the aid of a small, fanatical cult in this.

Summary

There, that’s all you need to know about the tiers of play. Let’s go over the core bits of information. 

  • The tiers of play are:
    • 1st—Levels 1 to 4: Local Heroes
    • 2nd—5 to 10: Heroes of the Realm
    • 3rd—11 to 17: Masters of the Realm
    • 4th—17 to 20: Masters of the World
  • The tiers are separated by power spikes that come with character and class levels, as well as magic item acquisition.
  • You can keep playing past the end of tier 4, and Epic Boons (DMG, pg 231) are a way to maintain a sense of character progression.
  • Each tier has a different game feel due to how powerful and well-connected the PCs are in each, as well as the sorts of things they are likely to do at any given stage in their journey. Tier 1 is the best for horror; Tier 4 is the best to feel like you’re Saitama.

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