The tricks D&D designers used in Vecna: Eve of Ruin to keep 20th-level characters from breaking the game


A false liche, named Rerak, sits upon a throne of lies. He’s mostly purple, and looks a bit disaffected.
Image: Martin Mottet/Wizards of the Coast

In Vecna: Eve of Ruin, Wizards of the Coast runs a tight ship

One of the biggest draws of Vecna: Eve of Ruin, the final campaign in the decade-long run of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, is the fact that you can play as a high-level character. Most D&D campaigns end around level 10. Eve of Ruin starts there, and then proceeds to go up to level 20, the game’s cap. That means players will begin the story with extremely powerful, potentially game-breaking spells and abilities. So how did the designers at Wizards of the Coast manage to keep characters in line, preventing them from blowing up the entire narrative from the jump? The answer is very, very carefully.

First of all, the danger here is real. High-level magic users can take lots of powerful spells before or at level 10. These could be used to quickly reveal secrets that would spoil things like the true intentions of major characters, or the locations of people or objects. Casual use of those abilities, especially early on, could spoil… well, everything really. So designers have explicitly noted that some areas in Vecna: Eve of Ruin are different from others. That includes the blanket use of Nondetection in particular locations. It’s a spell in the Player’s Handbook that ensures people and objects “can’t be targeted by any divination magic or perceived” by other magical means. Other nerfs aren’t so subtle.

Teleportation abilities were a particularly big concern, it seems. Vecna: Eve of Ruin does a lot of narrative hand-waving to tone them down or disrupt them completely. For instance the hub location for the campaign is Sigil, the City of Doors in the Outlands. It’s an entire plane of the multiverse that can only be entered or exited via a series of obscure portals. Once players leave the hub, there’s no way to get back until the job is done.

In other locations, it’s simply noted in the “Regional Effects” section of a given chapter that certain spells don’t work as intended — including teleportation and summoning spells, and spells that would otherwise allow revealing the location of a creature or an object players might be looking for.

The biggest nerfs aren’t really nerfs at all. They’re traits baked into the high-level monsters that players bump up against over the course of the campaign. These include the regular assortment of features that we’ve seen for a decade now, like reaction abilities that trigger when characters gain the upper hand and potent resistances to certain types of damage. There’s also the catch-all “legendary resistance” feature that’s been part of this edition from the very start. That means for some creatures in Vecna: Eve of Ruin, when a character gets them good with a spell or other ability that requires them to roll a saving throw and they fail, they can just choose to succeed instead.

Savvy Dungeon Masters expect these things, of course, and prepare evocative in-fiction descriptions in place of simply saying “Nuh-uh, no you didn’t!” and reading the rule aloud.

There have been plenty of times while playing D&D I’ve had my butt saved as a DM by some special rule that designers thoughtfully included right there in the text of the book. That kind of oversight is one of the benefits of running a published adventure, after all. And it should come as no surprise to players, either. In a game where the person at the head of the table can hide their rolls behind a screen and more or less legally lie to your face in the service of making the story more exciting, did you really expect it to be any other way?


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