If you've played D&D, you know that most campaigns end around level 10. By level 10, the player characters are considered "Heroes of the Realm"- so why do most campaigns end before the characters move on to tier 3 or tier 4 of play? Well, there are probably a multitude of reasons, so let's explore them, and why maybe that's a good thing?
THE LEVEL 10 THRESHOLD
If you've played D&D at all, you most likely know that the most intense gameplay can come from early levels. Levels 1-5 are when your player characters are their most vulnerable, and before they have access to army-shattering spells.
As you can see from this D&D Beyond chart, character levels peak at levels 3-5 for most users. After level 10, characters have such a low representation that they're almost non-existent up until level 20 (which is possibly from people making experimental level 20 builds). This all means that people tend to make new characters at level 3 most often, but also only usually play up until level 10. This is the Level 10 Threshold represented with actual data from the D&D Beyond site. So, this means that the most exciting levels to play D&D with our characters for most people are levels 3-5 especially, but overall 1-10.
As a Forever DM, I have long understood this dilemma. Back during the days of AD&D, and even before during Basic D&D when I started playing, there was the same general problem. The difference between now and then, however, is that 5E has made leveling up easier and many people use milestone leveling, but the very idea of having an extremely powerful level 20 character basically makes them a god among men. The problem with gods is that they're so powerful that, while it might be fun in a novel way to experiment with their powers and abilities, almost nothing holds a challenge for them anymore. D&D came from a wargame background, and as such - many spells and abilities came from the idea that the characters would eventually build a keep if they were a fighter or construct a wizard tower if they were a spellcaster. The characters would then control entire armies, or travel to other dimensions to seek out ways in which they might become actual gods. Before AD&D was released, TSR created modules and expanded rules which took these things into account.
One of the main issues with D&D 5th Edition, is that there are no real official published supplements to take the game beyond 10th level. There are a few campaigns or adventures that will level up the characters to those levels, but no real guidance on how to handle high level adventures exists beyond those few published adventures. In Basic D&D, before AD&D was released, 1983,1985, and 1986 saw the release of the Companion Set, Master Rules, and the Immortal Rules respectively. The Companion Set offered mechanics and suggestions for higher-level characters creating strongholds and hiring staff, while the Master Rules handled high-level adventures and the paperwork of running a small empire. Finally, the Immortal Rules detailed how adventurers, once reaching max level, could pursue becoming an actual god.
THE APPEAL OF LOWER-LEVEL GAMING
So, what makes levels 3-5 in D&D so interesting and compelling? I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's because while the characters aren't quite as squishy as levels 1-2, levels 3-5 are when your character begins to become formidable without being invincible. This leads to a more engaging playing experience because the players feel like they're progressing with their characters but aren't steamrolling every enemy group they encounter with earth-shaking spells or abilities. The players are using a comfortable number of abilities and have access to a couple of stronger spells but it's not overwhelming and combat doesn't last hours. With Basic D&D, there was a clear endgame in mind for characters that had approached max level, with supplemental rules encouraging play and helping players and DMs navigate it all. With 5E, you get a small number of tips here and there, and you're technically able to level to 20 if you want, but there's no real incentive other than to become more like a superhero than a noble adventurer.
SHOULD WE GO ALL THE WAY TO 20? The real question here is, is it worth it to take your characters all the way to level 20 just because the rules are there to support it? Honestly, my advice is to say that other than the obvious, which is "do what you and your players will have the most fun with" is to use Story Arcs to guide your campaign. With the campaigns I run nowadays, I run them so that the story reaches its climax right around level 10 (sometimes they go a little bit over, like 11 or 12). This ensures that the players have fun developing their characters up until level 10 and then I give them all the choice to keep going if they want, or to take a break and try another campaign or another game entirely. With one of my campaigns within the past few years, I took some first-time players from level 1 all the way to level 10. By that time, the players and their characters had truly become Heroes of the Realm and had become the rulers of Phandalin. They'd built businesses and created a stronghold and had made Phandalin the home for their characters. That was the end of that particular story arc. We decided at one point to continue the story of those characters, but true to this post the game fell apart a few sessions later. I tried to make combat engaging, and things like that, but life just happened to get in the way. We still want to eventually get back to that game, but right now most of those same people are enjoying playing a new campaign where right now they are at level 7 or 8, and I plan to have them reach level 10 a little before the climax of this story arc. The reason I'm saying all this is because rather than have your characters end up in limbo, try to make it to the end of a story arc with them so that they have a good resting place in case you ever want to come back. Whether or not you go to 20 after that is up to you and your players but try to consider what those players might gain from it that they already don't have, besides godlike powers.
CAMEOS One cool thing to do to persuade your players to leave their characters more readily at level 10 and move on to another campaign or game is to have their characters show up as mentors or NPCs in other games you run after the characters are retired or taking an extended break. This will give their players a nice little nod and let them reunite with their characters every once in a while, even if you're running another campaign. Let them see the effects of their characters and their influence. They can roleplay their new characters having heard of the older characters beforehand, or maybe the new campaign ties somehow into the old one's aftereffects and the players must join forces with their old characters.
IT MIGHT BE OUT OF YOUR HANDS One thing about campaigns ending after getting to level 10 for most characters is that sometimes, you might just have to concede that the campaign has run its course. Over the years I've run games, I've barely ever had people stay the entire duration of the campaign. The previous Phandalin campaign I mentioned above was comprised of a group of players who are now all very busy in their everyday lives. We started with five players, and at one point had seven. This was largely during Covid and since then, many of them have had kids being born, or have accepted new careers. We even lost a player in our current campaign due to a career change. These days, Dungeon Masters like me can count themselves lucky if they can find a night where everyone can get together reliably, let alone count on that for at least a year. Make sure that you're flexible. Using story arcs can help somewhat because then you can find natural spots in the story and action to fast forward time in case there's a cast change. This makes it easier to resume, too, if the players all manage to end up being able to get together again, because you can go to the lull in the action and pick up somewhere later on in the story where the action picks up as well.
Everyone has different experiences at the table, so these things may not apply to everyone, and it might even largely depend on what edition you use. However, as a dungeon master and a player, I'm mostly going to focus on my campaigns ending at around level 10. Let me know what you think about this. Do your campaigns regularly end before level 10 or at level 10? If so, why did it happen that way for you? Or on the other side of the coin, do you always max out your characters? Let us know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading! - Joe