Wizards of the Coast released the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2014, trimming down much of the complexity found in previous versions of the tabletop role-playing game in order to make it more approachable to new players. But eight years later, even the game’s most devoted fans have started to get a bit bored with the system.
“We’re all massive, massive, massive fans of D&D,” said Russ Morrissey, owner of the TTRPG news site EN World and CEO of EN Publishing. “It just got to a stage where we’d like if there was a little more depth to it, if there was just a little more to look forward to as you level up your fighter. We were finding that was happening across all aspects of play. We thought if we felt like that, there must be other people out there who felt the same way.”
That hunch led to the development of Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition, a series of rulebooks that are backward compatible with modern D&D, but can also be played as a stand-alone game system. They include the core rulebook titled Level Up: Adventurer’s Guide, Level Up: Monstrous Menagerie filled with new and upgraded bad guys to fight, and Level Up: Trials & Treasures, the system’s corollary to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Together, they add complexity to almost every aspect of play, by both modifying existing 5E systems and bringing back elements of previous editions, like the combat maneuvers first introduced in 3.5’s Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords.
“When you go into a combat, the wizard is selecting from a list of spells and has something fun to choose each round, whereas often the fighter is just, ‘Oh, I’ll move and hit,’” Morrissey said. “A fighter is deliberately designed to be simple, the easiest class to get into. But after you’ve been playing a fighter for seven years, you kind of feel, ‘It’d be nice if I had a few choices like the wizard had.’ Combat maneuvers are the martial equivalent of spells, where you have a whole bunch of different things you can do, just to spice the combat up and make sure you’re doing something different each round. There’s a little bit of resource management in there. We’ve generally found it just makes combat just feel more fun.”
Level Up also borrows aspects from 4th edition D&D — namely, the ability for tough characters to mark foes 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 4E’s “bloodied” condition, which gave monsters new abilities when they’d been reduced to half of their total hit points. Blog of Holding author Paul Hughes wrote Level Up: Monstrous Menagerie, which provides new rules for every non-copyrighted creature in the 5th Edition Monster Manual. It’s become the top seller of Level Up’s three core books because it provides an easy way for dungeon masters to spice up their games.
“We hope that people will adopt our game completely just because we’re very proud of it and we think it’s very good, but we’re also very, very happy when people just take bits of it and use it in their 5E games,” Morrissey said.
To balance all the new rules, EN Publishing gathered tens of thousands of playtesters over the course of a year and solicited feedback via surveys. Player feedback also helped the creators come up with some of the character options, including rules for playing as a vampire or vengeful revenant. Level Up also combines aspects of 3.5 prestige classes and 4E to provide multiclassing feats to provide new options to customize higher level characters. A fighter/wizard can become an eldritch archer, shooting magical energy-imbued arrows; a cleric/sorcerer can combine their spellcasting talents.
The new rules also significantly expand on D&D’s social and exploration pillars, which have traditionally been underdeveloped compared to combat. Classes gain access to more skills and the ability to use them with their primary attributes so that their checks will stay competitive as they level.
“If you have a social scene and the barbarian has to sit and watch, or an exploration scene and the rogue’s doing it all and everyone else is just twiddling their thumbs, that’s not fun for everybody at the table,” Morrissey said. “But we also wanted to make sure that it made sense. So you’ll get some people that say, ‘I don’t want my gruff dwarf to have social skills, that’s not his character.’ My reply to that is, ‘Antisocial is a type of social.’ Your gruff dwarf can intimidate people, he can resist charms or resist things that other people are doing.”
One major goal was to make sure every element of the game continued to function at higher levels of play. Level Up’s developers went through every spell to make sure exploration didn’t become irrelevant as characters got 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 O.L.D. Is N.E.W. game system, to make sure players always are excited about earning gold.
“One of the big things people asked for was things to spend money on in 5E, especially as you get to higher levels,” he said. “So we went and gave prices to every single magic item and we’ve added the strongholds that give your character a place in the world, something to be proud of, something to come home to, something to develop. You can upgrade your stronghold as you go. You can base a campaign around it, if you want to. I think that is a fun way to play.”
EN Publishing put out an open call for designers who had worked on 5E before, and assembled a diverse team that Morrissey said helped address some of the more dated aspects of D&D. Several of the designers had disabilities, and they suggested that language proficiencies automatically include the ability to sign. They also wrote rules for prosthetics and wheelchairs. Race has now been divided into heritage and culture, and the barbarian, monk, and paladin classes have been replaced with berserker, adept, and herald.
“We wanted to separate out the cultural baggage from everything,” Morrissey said. “A monk is pretty much linked into an Asian stereotype. I didn’t want to say you can’t play that, but you could also play this big Irish bearded pit fighter and any other type of unarmed character. It’s the same with the barbarian, which is kind of based around a Conan archetype. We had the idea of elves in armor charging into battle as unstoppable juggernauts. It’s just expanding those areas of design space.”
Level Up offers a free license and compatibility logo to other publishers that want to use the rules and has promoted upcoming publications that add new heritages, feats, backgrounds, spells, and archetypes.
“All these publishers will make the whole ecosystem of the game bigger and better,” Morrissey said. “The core publisher can’t do everything because you have to pick and choose which you’re going to do, and there are certain things where a third party might be more adventurous, might do something wacky that you haven’t thought of, might take something in a totally different direction.”
EN Publishing has plenty more in the works for Level Up, including a deck of maneuver cards that will ship in August. A Dungeon Delver’s Guide heading to Kickstarter this fall will add new player options plus rules for 100 traps and dungeons that can be generated through random rolls.
“A lot of people ask, are we trying to compete with 5E?” Morrissey said. “We’re not. We’re running alongside 5E, and we’re an option for those people who just want a little more depth to it. What we really, really hope is people come to our system and enjoy it enough that we get to support it with a whole line of sourcebooks.”