Saving fifth-edition D&D’s evil wizards from meddling do-gooders

In more than a year of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve pitted player characters against a lot of wizards. Often, a published adventure or one from D&D Expeditions offers a spellcaster as a climactic encounter. These showdowns typically follow the same script: The players target the leader and focus fire. The villain falls, often without firing a single spell.

Sometimes players relish these easy victories. For instance, in the Expeditions adventure, “The Howling Void,” players spend the adventure unraveling the sources of the villain’s power. So at my table, when the showdown proved easy, it felt like a hard-won reward.

Wizard Pinata

Wizard Pinata

More often, players anticipate a climactic battle, face a cream puff, and feel let down. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us so dungeon masters like me could let that happen.

Some encounters with wizards threaten to go the other way. I once spoke to a DM who had just run a convention adventure. His villain won initiative and launched a fireball that killed the entire party. Rather than ending the session and going for a beer, the DM rolled back time, undoing the slaughter. In the wake of the Fireball TPK, casting Grease must have been a let down. To avoid my own total party kills, I’ve held back fireballs against low-level groups, blaming the villain’s overconfidence, and hoping I could still challenge the players with Web.

Some blame for these fizzled encounters goes to habit carried from fourth edition and the practice of building encounters according to an experience-point budget.

Fifth-edition adventure designers will put spellcasters in encounters as they would in fourth edition. They pit the PCs against a single wizard who ranks several levels higher than the PCs. Fifth edition’s experience point budgets even suggest that this match makes a good fight. Not so. In the last edition, these encounters worked because the game designed arcane foes as monsters, contrived to make a fun encounter. They had defenses and hit points that enabled them to survive a few rounds of focused fire, and spells (attack powers) calibrated to damage a party without laying waste to them. In fifth edition, that wizard’s spells may be too lethal, and he is as fragile as a soap bubble in a hurricane.

To create a satisfying fight against a fifth-edition wizard, spread the experience budget. The wizard needs plenty of allies: brutes to lock down attackers and apprentices to concentrate on defenses. Plus, a wizard of more equal level won’t have spells that can nuke the party that you intend to challenge.

Let me tell you how a showdown with a fifth-edition wizard would really go. It would be a hero’s nightmare. The villain’s magical alarms would ensure that he always stands prepared. You would enter an arcane lab for the climactic battle, tripping barely-seen glyphs with every step. Those lucky enough to escape the wards’ curses, blindness, and damage would face a choice between moving and tripping additional wards, or standing still and posing an easy target for fire and lightning. Any of the people in the room could equally be servants or the mastermind himself, magically disguised. Or perhaps he stands invisible and sheltered in darkness. Unseen, he darts from cover to unleash a barrage, then weaves back into cover before you can counter. The mastermind’s apprentices lurk behind barriers, concentrating to surround him in defensive spells. You face a choice between chasing these minions to unravel their master’s protection, or charging into the teeth of his defenses. Then, if you somehow near victory, the villain blinks away, or proves to be an image or dupe.

Truly, the bards would sing of a victory against such a villain. But at your table, find a fun balance between the evil mastermind and the unprepared pinata.

If you approach a wizard’s defense too much as min-maxing players would, you can devise an encounter that would result in a total party kill. Unless tacticians fill your table—unless your players see the game as a puzzle to solve—you must hold back a bit. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Even a balanced encounter can frustrate players. Many of the Wizard’s best defenses prevent PCs from finding, reaching, or even identifying their foe. For instance, in “Empowering the War Mage,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes that the Blink spell can lead to frustration.

To temper frustration, and add flavor and variety, you can organize a wizard’s defense on a theme. For example an illusionist may rely heavily on misdirection to keep characters guessing. A necromancer might rely on undead servants and may also use Magic Jar to possess a proxy.

However, just as an occasional easy encounter can prove fun, an occasional dose of frustration can lead to fun. A villain who keeps thwarting attacks by teleporting away or by making PCs flail at illusions will fill players with more hatred than one who merely burns orphanages and drowns puppies. When players finally best a maddening trickster, you will see cheers and high fives around the table.

This leads me to consider ways spellcasters can challenge meddling do-gooders. In my next post, I will review the spells that can save evil masterminds from a quick thumping by murderous treasure hunters.

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10 Responses to Saving fifth-edition D&D’s evil wizards from meddling do-gooders

  1. Orillion says:

    I would go ahead and extend the lesson here to “never put PCs against a group of enemies outside of their “tier.” If the party is 4th level, don’t put them against a 5th level wizard (because fireball), but also don’t put them against a 5th level fighter (because extra attacks) or monk (stunning strike AND extra attack) or rogue (3d6 sneak attack damage!). And it only gets worse at higher tiers.

  2. Alphastream says:

    From the way you wrote it, I think you know that I wrote Howling Void’s conclusion with that expectation. I’ve heard of a few TPKs in the final combat, but in most cases the enemy will get in a good spell and that’s about it. The adventure’s challenge has been in the earlier stages and this end is about seeing those results achieved.

    One thing I learned with one of my earlier 4E efforts was to stop thinking that the final fight needed to be a challenge. Playtest reports showed the final fight to be easy… and that they liked it that way – especially when the early encounters had been tough. It really hurt me to leave it as an easy fight, but when the adventure came out and I ran it at Winter Fantasy myself… I could see the playtesters had made the right call. Since then I’ve tried to recall that lesson and keep final encounters engaging but only making them a tough challenge when they needed to be one. Most of my recent efforts have had very reasonable final fights, now that I think on it.

    As you point out, casters are very vulnerable. They need protection of some sort if they are to challenge the party over several rounds. I agree with you – the enemy wizard should know this and prepare accordingly. In Howling Void, all of the enemy’s preparations have been for the ritual – they shouldn’t have the time to also lay down a series of defenses. And, all the steps the party makes is undoing the ritual’s built in defenses, so I think it works logically. I played it at Gen Con with a great DM and it was fun to see it in play.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,
      Thanks for granting some insight into the design of the Howling Void.

      A joy of dungeon mastering organized play adventures is that they can surprise me with things that work that I may not have expected to work. When I ran the final battle in Howling Void and saw it turn into a romp, I wondered what I could have done better to make the fight harder, but then I saw that the players enjoyed the victory that they had earned earlier in the adventure. I learned something.

      We dungeon masters tend to apply the rules of fiction to our games, and most times it works, but sometimes RPGs work by different rules. Sometimes the climactic battle doesn’t need to be the toughest.

      Dave

  3. Chris Wachal says:

    I blame a lot of this problem on the fireball spell itself. It is completely overpowered for its level. Nearly every time I’ve seen a Wizard with fireball on their list the difference between a cakewalk and a TPK was almost always if I chose to cast fireball or ANY other spell on their list. Fireball was 6d6 during the play test and right before release it was inexplicably raised to 8d6. That change has caused nothing but problems for the game.

    • DM David says:

      Chris,
      Thanks for commenting! I’m starting a list of questions for the next time I have a chance to meet Mike or Jeremy at a convention. At Gen Con, I forgot a question I wanted to ask. I’ll keep it short, but they seem to like talking D&D. Go figure.

      Q: Why 8d6 instead of 6d6?

      Dave

      • Chris Wachal says:

        I’d like to hear the answer to this. Although, I suspect that the answer is “We had a lot of feedback that Fireball just didn’t FEEL like the Fireball from older editions. Our feedback indicated that players wanted Fireball to kill everything in the room when you cast it. Since, we had increased the hitpoints of all monsters right at the end of the playtest, the spell no longer felt as useful and we decided to increase its damage slightly.”

        Unfortunately, Fireball has pretty much always been more powerful than similar spells of its level(and often of levels higher than it). People grew to expect that.

  4. Justin says:

    Spoilers for 5E starter set

    In the Lost Mine of Phandelver, I had two wizards die before they got off any attacks (Glasstaff, whose secret door the players were able to locate, and the necromancer at Old Owl Well). In the final battle, I just made up that Neznarr had a higher initiative than the PCs, and he was able to at least cast some spells. The spiders in that fight definitely made it more likely for him to survive.

    Regarding fireball, the most fun I had as DM in the starter set was launching a fireball from the flameskull as the players all clustered in a circle. They were 4th level, and I don’t think I took anyone below 25% of their remaining HP, but then again, I only dealt 20 damage out of a possible 42. I can see the potential for needing to pull punches on that one.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Justin,
      I played Lost Mine of Phandelver and that flameskull encounter raised a sense of peril verging on panic. I loved it!

      Dave

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks for this article David. Excellent food for thought! I look forward to your next post!

  6. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    Gone are the day when ambitious adventurers would tell the little kobold guarding the wizards dungeon that the locals want him gone and its time to relocate up into the mountains…

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