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Monday, March 12, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons - High Level Threats and Low Level Heroes

Today I want to ramble a little bit about something that I probably do too much of - throwing high level enemies at low level heroes.

Yesterday, I ran a session of Dungeon Academy, a campaign I'm running for people who are brand new to D&D. In this session, four level 3 heroes fought a lich. They, uh... killed it.

Not really something that should happen! I definitely feel like I made some mistakes and I'd like to take you through my thought process.

Scaling: In D&D, I think it is important to have the players understand that not everything in the world is scaled to their level. Some creatures are really powerful. My thinking is that by having a group interact with something much more powerful than they are, then that will build anticipation for when they're finally strong enough to face that creature.

I think it makes leveling feel more important. It builds anticipation and gives the players a sense of accomplishment.

Making the Encounter: My idea here was to give the group an item that could hold back the bad guy - beads of force. When you throw a bead, it does 5d4 damage and traps the target in a sphere of force.

That's good, right? The group can trap the lich and run for their lives!

The heroes needed to obtain some elemental gems. So, in theory, they can grab the gems, run, and then keep the lich at bay with the beads of force.

Troubleshooting: I think you should always plan for the possibility that the bad guy defeats the group. In this instance, I decided that the lich would take them - alive - to the Temple of Elemental Evil for questioning (This campaign involves the original 1e Temple of Elemental Evil).

These players are very, very new to D&D. To expect them to figure this out on their own is probably a bit much. I knew I'd have to drop hints, but I didn't want to hint too strongly. Unfortunately, I didn't really have an NPC who I could speak through, so it was not easy.

It went like this. The lich left his carriage, which was drawn by skeletal horses (cool, right?), to go get his gems.

The group stole his carriage and looted it - they got one of the lich's spellbooks and his beads of force.

Can Liches be Blinded? Another character was able to snag the gems when the lich was unexpectedly blinded by the death of a darkling. I had to look real quick - are liches immune to blindness? No.

He has truesight. Does that mean he has blindsense? I had no idea so, in the heat of the moment, I just said that yes, he could be blinded.

Truesight is on page 9 of the Monster Manual. Looks like I was right - he was blinded.

I should note that I had actually used two of the lich's legendary resistances, so it's plausible that he'd save the third one an accept the short-term blindness.

This was all part of a sprawling chase where the lich dimension door-ed onto the roof of the carriage and fought the heroes. I pulled my punches in the first round, using only a paralyzing touch and no legendary actions. But in round 2, things got real. I had him casting rays of frost with his legendary actions.

During this battle, the ranger rolled TWO critical hits, launching arrows into the lich's skull.

Cantrips and Monsters: I had another quick quandary. Do cantrips scale up for monsters? In the heat of the moment, I couldn't remember. I knew that ray of frost does 3d8 for spellcasters of 11th level and 4d8 for 17th level casters.

Looking now, I see that the lich is a CR 21! In his stat block on page 202 of the Monster Manual, it says he's an 18th level spellcaster. So that mean his rays of frost do 4d8. I got that right, then.

This whole thing boiled down to the lich flying and chasing the group, who were fleeing in the carriage.

I kind of awkwardly let them make an arcana check when the beads were mentioned. One of them rolled high on the check, and realized what the beads did. Two heroes tied beads around their arrows with gauze from their healer' kits (which is an awesome idea, IMO). Seraphine, the cleric, fired.. and rolled a critical hit!

The damage ended up being something like 10d4+2d6 +another 2d6 from some beneficial effect from another party member that I can't recall.

The lich was already injured pretty bad. The bead of force critical actually blew him up!

The group cheered. I made sure to depict the lich's wispy spirit blinking out of existence. He's not dead, he's reforming near his phylactery.
Mr. Softee: I feel like this was a real borderline case (at best). I was definitely going too soft and I should have put more "failsafes" in place. I should have come up with a reason why the lich doesn't want to hurt the group (maybe he doesn't want harm to come to his carriage?) or I could have had some other powerful entity show up and hold him off.

The group enjoyed it, so I didn't feel too bad about it. I've done worse! Want to hear about it?

The Shackled City

I'll give you an example of a time I royally screwed up. Back in 2008, I ran a Shackled City campaign converted to 4th edition rules.

Dysfunction: I ran this for my old high school group. We seem to be that rare bunch that actually sort of grew apart in adulthood. I see all of these other groups out there who've played together for 30 years. We just can't do that any more, and this campaign showed why.

For a long time, I had a tendency to go too harsh when DMing - specifically, my monsters did too much damage. I was very concerned about challenging the group, as I knew what it felt like when the game was too easy - it sucks. What's the point?

But the 4e rules were brand new and I made a lot of math mistakes when creating monsters converted from 3e.

The first three sessions of this campaign were brutal. I royally screwed up the damage conversions. Once I figured it out, I apologized to the group and we continued on. Good, right?

No. I still would get complaints about things being too hard, or weird, or whatever.

The Baby: There was one scene in particular that stood out. There's an encounter where a bad guy is holding a baby out of a window above a city street, threatening to drop it. The adventure is very clear... one wrong move and the bad guy lets the baby go.

The group is meant to negotiate with the bad guy in a tense roleplaying scene.

Nope. Two of the heroes charged, using a fly spell to soar to the tower at top speed. The group was something like 50 feet away.

I gave them a chance to take it back, but they were convinced that what they were attempting should work. I had the one character who got close make some kind of check to catch the baby in time. The DC should be hard, right? The adventure says it's virtually impossible. DC 20, right?

The character rolled a 17, and was really upset that he failed. He felt that the DC was too high. We had a whole thing about it.

I Gave Up: From that point on, I erred on the side of caution. When in doubt, lower the DC and the damage. This is what they want, right? I was definitely being a bit passive-aggressive about it.

The next session, the group had to navigate a lava flow. In theory, they'd jump from rock to rock. There were some frightened citizens on a rock in the lava that needed rescuing.

Lava damage in 4e was different in every product, probably due to the whole concept of scaling threats to match the level of the group.

After looking through some products and scoping out lava damage, I erred on the side of too low - 15 damage per round.

The party's tiefling... Etheria von Kalypse - a legendary character played by a really fun player - realized that she could swim through the lava because, as a tiefling, she had fire resistance 10, which means she subtracts 10 from any fire damage she takes!

So yeah, she swam through molten lava.

Lukewarm Lava: Some of the players moaned about this, and I was outraged. They complained when it was too hard. They complained when it was too easy. I made some sarcastic comment telling them not to worry, I had made sure to give them some low damage "marshmallow lava" because I didn't want to hear them cry about it.

Fun game, right? Not my finest moments, that's for sure.

We got to the end of the campaign. Shackled City is really cool. It doesn't quite gel as a story, but there are a heck of a lot of cool ideas and scenarios in there.

The Final Battle: The final battle is against an angel/demon lord named Adimarchus who is trapped in an asylum in the plane of Carceri.

Again, I erred on the side of too low. When the battle commenced and I dealt out some of my measly damage, even Etheria said "Oooohh" sarcastically.

So.. yeah. Scaling damage in D&D. Not easy! It can get ugly!

Intermingling with Powerful Creatures: What I learned is that if you're going to use monsters that are much more powerful than the heroes, give the players a heads-up: "Just so you know, there are some creatures in here that are much higher level than you, and you probably won't be able to kill them outright."

To me, that's fair. Everyone has different meta-game expectations. Players who play a lot of video games normally expect that anything they encounter is created to be an appropriate challenge for them.

If you do make an encounter where there's a higher level villain, make sure you have at least one way for the heroes to survive unscathed. Things like:
  • A big ballista that fires lightning bolt (8d6!).
  • A scroll with a powerful spell on it that can banish, ward off, or subdue the bad guy.
  • A reason that the villain doesn't want the heroes dead - the villain wants to corrupt them, the villain wants to mess with their heads, or the villain wants to manipulate them
  • Summoning a powerful creature to hold off the bad guy.
  • A timed event that kicks in right when the villain is about to kill the group - an earthquake, avalanche or explosion of some kind.
Tomorrow I'll be hosting Waffle Talk on my Twitch Channel.

Also, I've been adding notes to my Guide to Tomb of Annihilation as I play through it. I made a number of mistakes that I think I can help you avoid. It's so hard to remember every little detail of that massive dungeon!


KKRP said...

Reminds me of when my level 8 party were attacked by Demogorgon. They had just grabbed an artifact that could summon a mighty air elemental that would allow their pirate ship to fly. The idea was that they hold off Demogorgon until the summoning ritual was finished and then book it out of there, but they decided to stick around and try to kill him instead.

It ended with 3 of them dead, the 4th feebleminded, and their ship destroyed (after they rammed it full-speed into Demogorgon). One of their NPC friends had to step in and get them out of there at the last second. It was wild and something they'll never forget, but it proves even when a party is outmatched and have a way out, they might stick around anyway. They got to stab a demon lord in the nuts at least.

mAc Chaos said...

That high school group sounds very frustrating. What ended up happening after the campaign?

Anonymous said...

I think it's great. Lucky dice rolls and clever use of a magic item. Defeated a super powerful re-occurring villain. The liche underestimated the party and will not next time. Couldn't be a better start to a campaign. That's why you can't script too much.

aguirre said...

pretty big post there, love the history of the lich, i really like and recuring villan.
To me the lich was toyng with them and underestimated them, so he got defeated, will not happend next time.
If i was the DM, the lich would send a message, or appear in a dream to say that he will have his revange, and make the players a litle paranoid.

S'mon said...

Lichs are huge glass cannons - they'll kill the PCs very fast if you play them like they want to win, but if not they'll die fast.

I guess you don't use XP - CR 21 XP for that seems a bit much. :)