James Maliszewski wrote an interesting post earlier today over at Grognardia entitled 'High Levels'. He presents a few interesting points to be sure and begins examining the LBB OD&D books and how subsequent supplements handled high-level play. The point being, the ever often complaint that the games seems to break down at higher levels and how his experience didn't really transcend beyond the 10-12th level range. More to the point, was the game ever really designed with that intention of high level advancement to begin with?
His conclusion? Likely not even if the game leaves the option open.
My opinion differs slightly... While I agree that the game was probably not originally designed with high level play in mind, I think many embraced the idea which is why it became firmly cemented in the game later on. All one has to do is take a look at the BECMI sets where D&D actively explores a level range between 1 and 36 (and even beyond!). The 'Companion Set' in particular also gives rule and guidelines for building and maintaining a stronghold as well as rules for mass combat. I feel that the idea here was to provide a different sort of life for the would be adventurer who now has become powerful and wealthy enough after years of successes. Different sort of challenges for a hero who has become a bit more note worthy. Of course, the 'Immortals Set' only suggest a much higher calling as a character becomes a demi-power in their own right as they transcend mortal bounds. Neither of these may be adequate for a campaign though -- I know I would never use the Immortals Set though it could work for one that was base in the heroic age of classical Greece.
Even if you did away with these other options, does the game really break down at higher levels or is the problem more with how the game is run and what resources are being made available?
I know that 3rd Edition play has it's issues but the 'breakdown' is just more visible because of how the combat tends to slow down at higher levels because of the multitude of FEATs and powers available. I don't think pre-3rd edition D&D is as bad though there are still issues if we consider the Wizards. I suppose the problem with the system is how powerful the magic gets at epic level play compared to the poor thief or fighter. Many think the Fighter a 'one-trick pony' and a thief the equivalent of a 'red shirt'. Each class has their strengths and weaknesses but spellcasting classes tend to really outshine them in the end.
This is probably why the campaign has to change and adapt to keep things fresh. While it is perfectly acceptable to have a spellcaster wield the power that he does, there should be times that magic nor might are the answer to resolve the situation the characters may find themselves in. Having a wizard blow apart an enemy army SHOULD have consequences and what might be an easy answer should have every assassin for leagues out to kill the wizard as a result.
However, there probably weren't many 'powerful' challenges / monsters created at the outset simply because the focus was probably for lower level play. With tougher challenges more limited what do you do? Throw more and more fodder at them? Create newer and bigger creatures? Why not just other villains and mercenaries just as competent as the party is? Sounds to me, that might be the easiest option and a great way to play out campaign backstory ideas you've been sitting on.
Mechanically speaking, this is where the SIEGE which can based on your opponent's HD and level keeps the game interesting and success is never a given for a particular task. I suppose one could tweak a few other things in the game if one wanted to run something meant for high level play. Check out how the 'E6' rules are set up if you haven't seen it before -- a brilliant set of rules meant to cap 3rd Edition play to 6th level to preserve the thrill of the game and prevent some of the breakdowns people complain about in the first place.
In any event, the only point one needs to remember is why you are doing it the first place -- the enjoyment to take part and tell a story. Some people may prefer to build up to these epic levels and may take years to get there. Others may opt to do a limited story-arc and create higher level characters for the purposes to play a particular style of game. A good GM and group should be able to navigate the pitfalls of higher level play.
One of my most memorable adventures I ran was through the Mines of Bloodstone (H2). It was brutal and pushed characters to ridiculous limits but it was fun! I do want to run it again but, on average, the couple of campaigns that I have progressing consist of characters about 10 levels short from the recommendations. Even then, I would have to change a few things since some of the challenges were a bit obscene. ;)
Thanks for reading!