Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition in 2014, reducing much of the complexity of previous versions of the tabletop role-playing game to make it more accessible to new players. But eight years later, even the game’s most dedicated fans have begun to grow a little bored with the system.
“We’re all massive, massive, massive D&D fans,” said Russ Morrissey, owner of the TTRPG news site EN World and CEO of EN Publishing. “He just got to a stage where we would like there to be a little more depth, if there was just a little more to look forward to when you level up your fighter. We found that to happen in every aspect of the game. We felt that if we felt like that, there must be other people who felt the same way.
This intuition led to the development of Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition, a series of rulebooks that are backwards compatible with modern D&D, but can also be played as a standalone game system. They include the core rulebook titled Level Up: Adventurer’s Guide, Level Up: Monstrous Menagerie filled with new and improved baddies to fight, and Level Up: Trials and Treasurescorollary of the system to the Dungeon Master‘s Guide. Together they add complexity to nearly every aspect of the game, both modifying existing 5E systems and bringing back elements from previous editions, such as combat maneuvers first introduced in 3.5. Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords.
“When you enter a fight, the wizard selects from a list of spells and has something fun to choose from every turn, whereas often the fighter just says ‘Oh, I’ll move and strike,'” said said Morrissey. “A fighter is deliberately designed to be simple, the easiest class to get into. But after playing a fighter for seven years, you’re like, ‘It would be nice if I had a few choices like the wizard.’ combat are the martial equivalent of spells, where you can do a whole bunch of different things, just to spice up the fight and make sure you’re doing something different every turn. There’s a bit of resource management there- in. We’ve generally found this to make combat more fun.
Higher level also borrows aspects of 4th edition D&D – namely, the ability for tough characters to mark enemies as a way to protect their allies. It combines aspects of the 3.5 Marshall and 4E Warlord to create a new Marshall class. Level Up resurrects the “bloody” state of 4E, which gave monsters new abilities when reduced to half their total hit points. Holding author’s blog Paul Hughes wrote Level Up: Monstrous Menageriewhich provides new rules for every non-copyrighted creature in 5th edition Monster Manual. It has become the top seller of the three core Level Up books because it offers dungeon masters an easy way to spice up their games.
“We hope that people will completely embrace our game just because we’re very proud of it and think it’s very good, but we’re also very, very happy when people take pieces of it and use it in their 5E games,” Morrissey said.
To balance all the new rules, EN Publishing gathered tens of thousands of testers over the course of a year and solicited feedback via polls. Player feedback also helped the creators come up with some of the character options, including rules for playing as a vampire or a vengeful revenant. Higher level also combines aspects of the 3.5 and 4E prestige classes to provide multiclass feats to provide new options for customizing higher level characters. A fighter/sorcerer can become an eldritch archer, shooting magic arrows imbued with energy; a cleric/sorcerer can combine his spellcasting talents.
The new rules also greatly expand the social and exploration pillars of D&D, which have traditionally been underdeveloped compared to combat. Classes have access to more skills and the ability to use them with their main attributes so that their checks remain competitive as they level up.
“If you have a social scene and the barbarian has to sit and watch, or an exploration scene and the thief does everything and everyone twiddles their thumbs, it’s not fun for everyone at the table,” Morrissey said. “But we also wanted to make sure it made sense. So you’ll have people saying, “I don’t want my gruff dwarf to have social skills, that’s not his character.” My answer to that is: “Antisocial is a type of social. Your gruff dwarf can intimidate people, resist charms, or resist things other people do.
One of the main goals was to ensure that every element of the game continued to function at higher levels of play. The Level Up developers reviewed each spell to ensure that exploration didn’t become unnecessary as characters grew more powerful and gained the ability to teleport and generate their own food and water. The Level Up: Adventurer’s Guide provides rules for strongholds, based in part on Morrissey’s What’s OLD Is NEW game system, to ensure players are always excited about earning gold.
“One of the big things people were asking for was to spend money on 5E, especially as you get to higher levels,” he said. “So we went and gave prizes to each magic item and added the strongholds that give your character a place in the world, something to be proud of, something to come home to, something to grow. You can upgrade your fortress over time. You can base a campaign around this, if you wish. I think it’s a fun way to play.
EN Publishing issued an open call to designers who had previously worked on 5E and assembled a diverse team that Morrissey says helped tackle some of the older aspects of D&D. Several of the designers had disabilities and they suggested that language skills automatically include the ability to sign. They also wrote rules for prostheses and wheelchairs. Race has now been split into Legacy and Culture, and the Barbarian, Monk, and Paladin classes have been replaced with Berserkers, Adepts, and Heralds.
“We wanted to separate the cultural baggage from everything,” Morrissey said. “A monk is pretty much tied to an Asian stereotype. I didn’t mean you couldn’t play that, but you could also play this tall, bearded Irish fighter and any other type of unarmored character. That’s the same thing with the barbarian, which is sort of based on a Conan archetype, we came up with the idea of armored elves charging into battle like unstoppable juggernauts, it’s just expanding those areas of space Design.
Higher level offers a free license and compatibility logo to other publishers who wish to use the rules and has promoted upcoming releases that add new heirlooms, feats, backgrounds, spells, and archetypes.
“All of these publishers will make the whole gaming ecosystem bigger and better,” Morrissey said. “The main editor can’t do everything because you have to choose what you’re going to do, and there are some things where a third party might be more adventurous, might do something crazy that you wouldn’t have thought of, might take something in a totally different direction.
EN Publishing has a lot more in the works for Level Up, including a maneuver card game that will ship in August. A Dungeon Digger’s Guide heading to Kickstarter this fall will add new player options as well as rules for 100 traps and dungeons that can be spawned by random throws.
“A lot of people ask, are we trying to compete with 5E?” said Morrissey. “Were not. We run alongside 5E, and we’re an option for those who just want a little more depth. What we’re really, really hoping for is people coming to our system and the like it enough that we can back it up with a whole range of sourcebooks.