Sustainable Characters and Short D&D Campaigns

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been playing (as a player, not the Dungeon Master) in a Dungeons and Dragons game. It was conceptualized as a sort of “last stand” type adventure, with four characters taken after the moment of their deaths by some powerful, godly figure, to see how long they could last against various challenges. Restored to the peak of their power (20th level) and given only mundane, non-magical gear, they are thrown together with no warning or preparation time and bounced from one scenario and battle to another, with only two instant-use short rests to allow them to recover. It has been a lot of fun to play a powerful character with no need to manage magic items or a vision for the future beyond how to mechanically apply my abilities and limited recovery from one fight to another.

One of my favorite passtimes as a fan of Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition has been working on what I call “sustainable builds.” These builds have as few expendable resources as possible. It is impossible to create any character build without some abilities that only function a small number of times per rest, but it is possible to create strong characters that are not reliant on them. For instance, a rogue can use their sneak attack without limit. A fighter can attack four times per round without limit. Cantrips, certain creation and item-based abilities, and ability-check based bonuses are all great mechanics to play with that don’t involve limits. Sometimes, you have to look towards the final levels of a class to find a way to remove the limits on abilities (Barbarians lose limits to their Rage ability as they go up in levels and Wizards can eventually cast certain lower-level spells without using spell slots), but since most of these builds have been conceptual only, it hasn’t mattered much.

All of this work meant I was ready the instant I was added to this group (none of whom I’d met before, which was its own challenge. I am incredibly shy and anxious when it comes to meeting new people). After some back-and-forth to coordinate class and character building, I built a charact with almost no limits on their abilities, that could overcome the lack of magical weapons thanks to a small multi-class dip, and that can put out consistent damage from a range that also makes them difficult for enemies to attack (unless they’re ancient dragons with huge fly speeds). That massive range was not as useful as I hoped it would be given the encounters we’ve done so far, but it has meant that creatures attacking my character have had to work for it a bit more than they otherwise would have. Combined with their high movement speed, a few choice spells, and the ability to grant themselves advantage on an attack thanks to hiding or the Steady Aim feature of rogues, I can almost always hit with a sneak attack.

I could have taken it a bit further, taken some of my character’s abilities further, but I wanted to enjoy myself so I grabbed a wider array of abilities than I otherwise might have. That said, my turns in combat are exclusively me using one of a small number of abilities to ensure I get sneak attack damage if I hit my target, movement to a better position if one exists, and then my attack. My job in these fights is to consistently put out damage on one or two targets per turn. My character lacks the burst damage of the spellcasters, but the only resources they have that they can run out of are a couple Warlock pact slots (that are completely unnecessary to their performance), hit dice for recovering hit points, and then the hit points themselves. The Wizard and Cleric are running low one spell slots, the Monk is almost entirely out of ki points, and my character can just keep sneak attacking. Of course, it is incredibly helpful that the Wizard and Monk are tanks built to keep enemies around them, which means I can easily do my job without worrying too much about being attacked, but I feel like my role is going to become more and more important as we near the finale. After all, the game is supposed to all of us fighting until the last one drops. There’s no “win” condition since the whole point is to see just how much we can fight our way through.

The day I’m writing this, we’re heading into the third of our three planned sessions. It will be the fourth heavy battle we’ve fought in a row and everyone is out of high-level spells to cast. We’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel and it looks like our luck is about to run out now that we’re out of powerful restoration magic and quick-fixes to massive problems. Still, I’m excited to see if we wind up going to a fourth session, if the game ends after tonight, or if the group persists for more games in the future. They all seems to know each other a bit more, but that could just be a false impression on my part. Regardless, it has been a lot of fun and I hope the group goes on to play more Dungeons and Dragons together. I’d love to have another group to play with consistently.

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