Author Archives: David Hartlage

Rethinking Potions as a Bonus Action

A popular house rule in Dungeons & Dragons lets characters drink a potion as a bonus action rather than as an action. (See Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D.) When a typical round takes several minutes of real time to play, this rule spares the players from having to wait for their turn only to spend it adding 2d4+2. That turn feels like a letdown.

Nonetheless, I favored playing by the book and making drinking a healing potion an action. Until we welcome CamelBak hydration backpacks into our D&D worlds, I estimate that getting and opening a vial, and then downing the contents would take the better part of 6 seconds. Also, characters tend to need healing potions late in a fight, and I enjoy the difficult choice between pressing an attack despite dangerously low hit points or healing. Choices make games engaging.

My opinion changed after I played countless battles while eyeing unused potions of giant strength, fire breathing, and heroism in my characters’ inventories. Near the end of a battle, I still like the dilemma that healing potions can bring, but those other potions work best as a boost at the start a tough fight—the sort of fight you never want to begin by wasting a turn sipping a potion. The typical D&D battle only lasts three rounds!

Can I start fights with a timeout? “Before we roll initiative, my character tells the dragon, ‘Wait one second,’ holds up a finger, and then drinks a potion of fire resistance.” Until that works, I will continue to retire characters with stockpiles of unused potions. I would have enjoyed using those potions, so I suppose I’m ready to invent a device that rigs one of those gag cup-holder hats with more tubes than a pan flute.

The Tournament Adventure That Tested My Limits as a DM

For tier 2 of my Dungeons & Dragons weekend, I ran Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, billed as a “punishing one-session tournament dungeon designed for four 8th‑level 5th Edition characters.” My group relishes punishing tournament D&D games and once made the annual D&D open championships the center of our gaming year, so the Necropolis seemed tailor made. See Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.

Necropolis author Sersa Victory specializes in tournament-style deathtraps flavored like the concentrated essence of every graveyard-and-murder-themed heavy metal album cover. The Necropolis delivers. In the first room, one character had his eyes torn out. The adventure includes a creature called a constellation of living spheres of annihilation. For the right audience it works brilliantly, and I ran it for the right crowd.

That said, because every room includes a page or two of connected puzzles, traps, and monsters, I often found running the adventure taxing. As I flipped pages, I sometimes worried that I failed to keep the fast pace needed for maximum engagement. Confession time: I love encounters with more in play than monsters to kill, but this adventure layers so much into every scene that I wished for a bit less. I feel so ashamed. A more measured approach to heaping punishment would have limited the simultaneous moving parts that demand a DM’s attention.

Later in the weekend, when I ran a tier 4 adventure of my own making, I took the lesson to heart and eliminated some complicating elements from an encounter that hardly seemed to need the filigree.

Why Does Rime of the Frostmaiden Have Just One Magic Weapon?

Spoilers for magic items in Rime of the Frostmaiden.

As written, Rime of the Frostmaiden includes a typical number of magic items, but only one useful magic weapon, a +2 trident. That count excludes the Berserker Axe, which attaches a harsh curse, and 6 laser rifles, which I don’t count as magic. Some players will relish letting their rogues and rangers become raygun-blasting snipers, but many players, including those with greatsword-wielding barbarians, may not fancy where a laser rifle steers their character.

Dunegon masters can change the adventure’s loot to fit their players, and you, I, and the designers all know it. Surely though, the lack of magic weapons comes by design, from a choice the authors made because they felt it enhanced the adventure.

What motivated this choice?

The stinginess reinforces the scarcity and struggle that sets the adventure’s early tone. ThinkDM writes, “It’s meant to convey desolation at the surface level of Icewind Dale, literally and figuratively. This sets a contrast to the high magic stuff happening later in the adventure.”

The adventure mainly avoids granting magic items that only suit a particular class or character, favoring wondrous items, protective items, and even a wand of magic missiles that any character can use. This avoids the awkward moment when the party finds a +2 longsword even though everyone wants a rapier. (DM hint: When you announce the find to that party, pronounce “longsword” as “rapier.”)

D&D’s fifth edition design aims to play fine without magic items, but a lack of magic weapons weakens fighters, rangers, and rogues against creatures resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from non-magical attacks. Every character suffers moments like when the fireball-blasting sorcerer enters the forge of salamanders. However, the game makes creatures resistant to non-magic weapons common enough to lead the designers to give monks and druids fist and claw attacks that count as magic. The D&D Adventurers League gives out magic weapons to any fifth-level character who wants one. This avoids both penalizing the classes that need them and the awkward moments when a group finds the wrong type of magic sword.

In Frostmaiden, a certain infestation of vampires could overwhelm a party without magic weapons. At best, that barbarian spends a night feeling ineffective. Hope you found a laser rifle.

Dungeons Are Contrived for Fun Games

The ancient Egyptians used canopic jars to store the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver of corpses embalmed as mummies. I’m surprised that as a longtime D&D fan, I learned that fun fact only recently. Credit Jen Kretchmer, the author of The Canopic Being from Candlekeep Mysteries. The group for my D&D weekend started our tier 3 games with this standout adventure that built mummy lore into an ingenious villain.

After playing the adventure, I remembered that the dungeon’s lack of stairs caused a silly controversy. A preview by James Haeck reveals the feature. “It’s filled with fantasy elevators, and ledges are accessible by ramps rather than by stairs. If you have a player in your gaming group who wants to play a wheelchair-using character, this is a great adventure to borrow dungeon design ideas from. After all, it is a fantasy world. If it’s a player’s fantasy to kick ass in a wheelchair, why not?”

Some D&D fans grumbled that such a dungeon defied history or D&D tradition. In D&D, any closed environment meant to be explored, infiltrated, or raided qualifies as a dungeon, and those places almost always include substantial allowances to make play more fun, most often including oversized spaces with plenty of room for fights. D&D dungeons owe as much to history as fire-breathing dragons do. As for D&D tradition, the original 1974 D&D books recommend sloping passages and sinking rooms as tricky dungeon features. Dungeons can make such allowances and still murder characters.

James asks, “If we didn’t mention that the dungeon was fully accessible here, would you have even noticed that there were ramps instead of stairs?” True. Nobody noticed.

Without Encumbrance, Strength Is a Roleplaying Choice for Sub-Optimal Characters

Of the 6 players gathered for my weekend of D&D, nobody showed up with a character with a strength higher than 8. Fifth edition D&D makes Strength a common dump stat because the game lacks an encumbrance system that players use. I’ve never played fifth edition with the option, mainly because I’ve never played this edition in a style that encourages the bookkeeping. Encumbrance fits with a gritty style of dungeon crawl that focuses on counting torches, rations, and perhaps abandoning copper pieces in favor of more portable loot.

When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity-based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength—more with optimal feats. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

With encumbrance justifiably relegated to a seldom-used optional rule, a more evolved D&D design would boost the value of Strength with some advantages over Dexterity. After all, mighty warriors swinging great big swords form a deeply resonant part of fantasy and the game. I want to play those characters without feeling like I made a sacrifice for the sake of roleplaying.

For more, see A Game Design History of the Dump Stat.

Next on Thursday: Dungeons are contrived for fun games.

Upcoming on DM David

A month back, I gathered with five other gamers for a weekend of non-stop Dungeons & Dragons, an event that I overheard my mom saying sounded like “just an awful time.” She comes from a generation that recognized golf and fishing as the only leisure activities grown men could admit to enjoying, but she would not have rated those as a pleasant either. Her assessment of a fun weekend amuses me because we both understand that people like different things, and I like D&D. My group of enthusiasts started with new characters and jumped levels after each adventure until we capped the weekend at level 20.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

For 9 years, I’ve written here about D&D. When I started, I figured I might run out of topics after a few months and stop. The ideas kept coming, and part of the fuel came from gaming conventions where I spoke with other gamers. For March 2020, I had a trip to GaryCon scheduled, but the pandemic pulled the plug. So a lack of such fan gatherings left me feeling short on inspiration.

The 6-person convention brought D&D thoughts, discussion, and a fresh surge of ideas. Our high-level play led to three posts on tier 4 games. Some of the thoughts lead to a variety of shorter posts that I plan to deliver twice a week until I run out.

Also today: Without encumbrance, Strength is a roleplaying choice for sub-optimal characters

Challenging High-level Characters Without Breaking the Dungeon Master

A the highest levels, Dungeons & Dragons lets super-powered characters travel otherworldly realms and battle threats that approach the power of gods. That grand scale lets dungeon masters enjoy the fun of loosing our imaginations’ unlimited special effects budgets, and of pitting the characters against any threat we can dream while feeling confident the players will win. But to DMs new to running high-level games, that power level can also feel unmanageable. I‘m here to help.

My last post shared advice from Adventurers League administrator Alan Patrick for improving top-level games by circling back to recapture elements that make low-level games compelling. This new post offers more help for challenging high-level characters and their players in combat while dealing with the mental demands of running tables with so many powers and effects in play.

Give the characters more to do at once. A D&D character’s limit of 1 action, 1 bonus, and 1 reaction never lifts, so while high-level characters gain more options, they can only choose a few.

Much of the joy of playing games comes from weighing options and making crucial choices. The delight and challenge of playing high-level D&D comes from having all the answers, but only so much time—a dilemma that creates interesting decisions. Every round offers a choice of possibilities. Which will best win the day?

For high level characters, Alan Patrick seeks to build encounters around multiple, simultaneous problems or challenges to be resolved. Those include battlefield traps and hazards, secondary objectives, countdowns, and other elements that demand attention. He recommends avoiding situations that simply ask characters to work to avoid an obstacle. Instead, make players choose which of many possible outcomes they should spend their energy to reach.

The final showdown of Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before presses every player to make tough choices on every turn. The main foe drains health to regenerate, so it makes an obvious target, but the creature’s allies seem even more punishing. When I played the adventure, my group struggled to decide who we could most afford to ignore. Meanwhile, many of the monsters spewed worms that posed a deadly hazard we couldn’t ignore. I found my attention riveted as I wrestled over how best to use my power on my upcoming turn.

In that encounter, Alan hit his design target.

Make the party run a marathon. When high-level parties rest, they recover tremendous resources, including new helpings of the reality-remaking 9th-level spells that even 20th-level characters can only cast once per day. If you prefer not to let the party coast through adventures because they tackle encounters at full strength and then cut through every problem one wish at a time, then time pressure becomes essential. High-level characters feature enough resources to run a daily marathon. Make them. Tier 4 adventures work best when players must face obstacles in a race against time.

Give preferred targets maximum hit points. The moment a key foe takes the field, they become the favored target for attack. In fifth edition, the sort of masterminds behind an evil scheme or capable of attacks that threaten a group also suffer from too few hit points to flaunt their best tricks. The hit dice formulas in the monster books represent a range of possible values. For obvious targets, dial up health to the maximum value.

Give the headliner a warm-up act. In this analogy, the headliner is that primary foe who makes an obvious target. If a high-level party can start fights by targeting that lead foe and unloading all their attacks and powers, the heroes will beat every encounter in a hurry. So build encounters like live entertainment, with a warm-up act that starts the party before the headlining boss monster appears.

Managing high-level battles

The threats capable of challenging high-level characters also tax a DM’s skills. Every monster, power, and hazard adds more choices and more to manage at the table. If you’re like me, you sometimes struggle to handle it all. Some techniques can ease the load.

Seek uncomplicated monsters to fill groups of foes. D&D’s high-threat monsters almost always include menus of powers that add complexity. Such creatures play fine at lower levels where one demon makes a potent threat, but when these creatures gather in the groups needed at high levels, they slow the game. The Monster Manual offers very few high-challenge creatures that remain simple to run, so uncomplicated, hard-hitting foes such as giants and mariliths prove especially useful.

Bring monsters in waves. Challenging high-level characters often means more monsters and more complicated monsters, which can mean that players wind up spending too much idle time between their turns watching the DM run monsters. Instead, add creatures in waves that come as the the players thin the foes already in the battle. The delayed arrivals maintain tension without dragging down the DM with too much activity.

Favor traps and hazards that trigger on an initiative count. Battlefield traps and hazards help challenge mighty heroes, but effects that trigger during a characters’ turn add more to the DM’s memory load. Recently, when I ran an encounter in a fiery environment that inflicted damage to creatures at the end of their turns, I kept forgetting. When I changed to inflicting damage on initiative 0, I added the fire damage effect to my initiative tracker and remembered it. That made me and my iron golems happy.

Add legendary and lair actions to your initiative tracker. Add markers in your initiative tracker for any legendary actions. If you opt to change when legendary monsters use their extra actions, reposition these markers, but the reminders lift the burden of remembering the actions.

Use average damage. In the fourth edition days, I would sometimes attempt to speed high-level battles by using average damage for monsters like the edition’s designers recommended, but some convention players felt slighted by my shortcut. Now, D&D gives average damage as the standard for monsters, so players accept it and I welcome the option to skip damage rolls. Sometimes, if a blow threatens to drop a character, I roll that damage in view of the players. Perhaps a low roll spares the character. Instead of rolling handfuls of dice for things like spells, I use a die-rolling app on my phone.

Delegate. Instead of managing all the extra demands of high-level play, delegate some of the effort to the players. Let one player track initiative, another run allies, and a third handle the hazards. You can even have someone count the damage dealt to monsters. Spreading the work makes games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun. See How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

Five years ago, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League administrators faced a dilemma. The campaign’s loyal players had characters that neared 17th level and tier 4 play, but the league lacked adventures for these characters. The campaign administrators wondered if they should add top-level adventures despite the smaller audience for these heights. D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast had not led with any top-level content. Some D&D enthusiasts even wondered if games at such levels would prove fun or manageable. (Spoiler: Yes.) If the league created scenarios for epic levels, then the campaign’s authors needed to experiment and learn for themselves how to make the adventures play well.

League administrator Alan Patrick learned as much as anyone. He has run more than 350 sessions at levels 17 through 20, most at conventions with tables of strangers bringing unfamiliar characters. He won experience by running for every available character type through a spectrum of play styles.

The product of Alan’s experience appears in a trilogy of high-level adventures each perfected by the author through more than a hundred runs. The trio includes DDAL00-01 Window to the Past, DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, and DDAL00-10 Trust and Understanding.

For Alan, top-level D&D play works best when its style circles back to some of the same elements that make tier 1 rewarding for players.

Circle back to the characters’ emotional roots

New characters feel close to their roots: things like their homes, schools, families, and heritage. Often their adventures connect back to these elements. In the middle levels of 5-16, as characters leave a place like the Village of Hommlet, they visit exotic locations while rising to superhuman power. At the end of a legendary career, tier 4 characters and their adventures may deliver wonders, but the scope can rob their adventures of any emotional connection.

To remedy this distance, reconnect the characters to their humble origins, to the friends they met and locations they visited, to their heritage and home. Tier 4 adventures mark the end of a character’s career, and players feel the nearing conclusion. Reconnecting with characters’ origin adds emotional resonance to their journeys. If the character’s home is an actual place, they can return as legends and see reminders of their start. They can mirror the path of the hobbits returning to scour the Shire or the Beatles giving one last concert on the roof of Abby Road.

During a long weekend of D&D, my group played the same characters with stops from new to level 20. DM Shane Morrison ran Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before to finish the series at level 20. In one scene, we witnessed the ruin to come if we failed our mission. Shane described the doom awaiting many of the locations and friends from our characters’ careers. This moment brilliantly rooted our battle to save the world to the story of our characters. Win or lose, I knew I fought my character’s final battle, and I felt like I was fighting for something that counted.

Even while high-level adventurers look back to their start, they will see reminders of their achievement. Their legendary reputations may lead non-player characters to react like star-struck fans. Except for the occasional secretive rogue, tier 4 characters would rank as the rock stars and celebrities of their world. Getting a meeting with the king might not pose a challenge, because he can’t wait to finally get a selfie. Sample PC dialog: “Ask the royal artist to paint faster. We have a multiverse to save.”

A return to the characters’ roots hardly means that legendary heroes should fight rats in the cellar. Tier 4 merits heavy use of our imagination’s unlimited special effects budget. The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers a vision for cosmic settings and foes. “Characters traverse otherworldly realms and explore demiplanes and other extraplanar locales, where they fight savage balor demons, titans, archdevils, lich archmages, and even avatars of the gods themselves.” High-level characters have the power to do all that and still visit home for snacks.

Tier 4 characters play like superheroes, flying, running on walls, teleporting, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. Imagine battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to make them sweat despite their fire resistance.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains that adventures at this tier have far-reaching consequences “possibly determining the fate of millions in the Material Plane and even places beyond.” Such grand stakes offer a cinematic flair, but not every adventure must aim to save the multiverse. “The breaking of home is a much more emotional experience, which keeps players dialed in to the game,” Alan explains.

Smaller stakes still work well when they feel personal, and they avoid an exhausting need to raise the stakes every week. Thor and Superman may rank among the mightiest heroes of their fictional universes, but half of Thor’s adventures amount to family drama and Superman saves Jimmy Olson as often as the world. Superman stays rooted in his found family at the Daily Planet.

Return to the early game’s swings of fortune and embrace them

At early levels, D&D games start with a certain swingyness where the characters’ fates rest on happenstance and on the dice. Characters die because of a single critical hit or because they happened to stand in the line of a lightning bolt. Players have less invested in characters at low levels, so the game’s designers rate character death as more tolerable. During the middle levels, the game’s uncertainty fades. Characters grow stout enough to survive a few bad rolls and monsters rarely have abilities potent enough to force a hero to save or die.

At top levels, some of those early twists of fortune return. Words kill without a save, and botched saves turn heroes to dust. But all these levels, bad turns count as mere setbacks. I recently ran a tier 4 adventure where two heroes were disintegrated. Neither lost more than a turn during the fight. Dealing with such setbacks brings much of the fun. High-level characters have answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities.

But most top-level monsters fail to deliver the same excitement.

When Alan first began running adventures for high-level characters, the obvious problem stemmed from challenging players with such super-powered characters. He explains that most D&D fans want adventures that challenge both players and their characters, but at top levels, the game’s advice and its monsters fall short.

In fifth edition D&D, characters gain hit points at a faster rate than damage dealt by comparable monsters. The foes matched against 1st-level characters make for dangerous encounters, but at level 8 or so, the game’s advice for building encounters leads to overmatched monsters. By the highest levels, the monsters can feel hopeless. (For a breakdown, see Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players by Teos “Alphastream” Abadia.)

Sure, DMs can add more foes, but that slows fights and players wind up spending too much idle time watching the DM run monsters. Alan aims to see more player dice rolls than monster rolls.

DMs can add tougher foes, but for heroes in their teen levels, the official monster books leave few options. At top levels, even the toughest monster of all, the challenge 30 Tarrasque, makes a disappointing solo foe. The adventure Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques resorts to multiple Tarrasques with added powers like a ranged attack, fly, or a breath weapon. After all, a level-appropriate party will often fly from claw/claw/bite, so even Godzilla needs nuclear breath.

To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. This recaptures some of the swings that makes low-level D&D exciting. In DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, the Aspect of Kyuss claws for 66 points of damage compared to the Tarrasque’s sad little tap of 28 points of claw damage.

Although such numbers may seem harsh, tier 4 characters have a far stronger ability to bounce back. That quality creates additional drama at the table. Alan’s ideal for a climactic tier 4 battle resembles a bout in a Rocky movie where the heroes’ adversaries push the characters to their limits. As players face likely defeat, they call on every resource to turn the tables and win the day. When I played DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before with a level 20 party, the showdown with Kyuss matched that ideal. I felt certain the monster would kill us all, but somehow, we slowly battled back to win. Compare that to most tier 4 battles where monsters deal insignificant damage, which players dutifully track out of respect for the game. When my party battled Kyuss, we cheered every time our foe missed.

High-level D&D characters bring enough hit points to make added damage a nearly essential ingredient to any credible foe. But the high damage numbers penalize support characters who rely on concentration to help the party. Nobody who suffers 66 points of damage makes a DC 33 save to keep concentration—even though a proportional amount of damage would result in a makeable DC 10 save at low levels. I once floated a “modest proposal” for improving D&D that would avoid damage hacks, which penalize support characters. The suggestion revisited a rule that dates to the original little brown books. Back then high-level characters who earned a level only gained a hit point or two. However, even if Matt Mercer and the ghosts of Dave and Gary all approved such a house rule, players would never go for it. So instead, we’re left with the damage thing.

Next: More on challenging high-level characters. Plus dealing with the cognitive demands of running high-level games. To avoiding missing the next post, follow me on Twitter at @dmdavidblog and sign up to receive posts via email.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Data from D&D Beyond suggests that 90% of Dungeons & Dragons games stop by level 10. That means players are missing out because at high levels D&D can prove the most fun of all. Sure, in older editions when characters rose above level 10, the math of the game crumbled. Also back then, everyone playing alongside a high-level wizard started feeling like Jimmy Olsen alongside Superman. But fifth edition solves the linear-fighter/exponential-wizard problem and the math mostly holds up, so dive into high-level play. The game plays (mostly) fine.

I wrote “mostly” because high-level games pose unique challenges. Don’t expect much help from the game’s designers. They focus on the low levels that dominate actual play and on making the game welcoming for the new players driving the D&D’s growth. The designers figure those of us interested in high-level play have the smarts to make the game work. We can. Here’s how.

Trouble: Characters have abilities that erase obstacles

Low-level D&D challenges players with physical obstacles: dungeon walls and doors, chasms, towers, and portcullises. As characters grow in level, they gain abilities that surmount all those deterrents. Dungeon masters lose all the barriers that can test players and channel characters through adventures. High-level characters can bypass other obstacles too. A suggestion spell makes a hostile witness tell all. A scrying spell reveals the location of captives. Teleport takes you directly to their location. Even the dead may tell their tales.

How can a DM cope?Sometimes DMs and adventure designers resort to blocking troublesome abilities. During a recent weekend of D&D, two of the three published, high-level adventures that I played nullified teleportation.

As a way to vary challenges and encourage new, ingenious solutions, you can block characters’ powers, but I suggest avoiding that technique. Instead, as a DM who is a fan of the characters, embrace their power and savor the freedom it gives you. As DM for a high-level group, you can invent nearly insurmountable obstacles, traps that verge on the unfair, and heap complications on the characters without sparing a moment worrying the that the party will become stuck or overmatched. High-level characters bring answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities. High-level D&D offers an invitation to set your wicked imagination loose. You will love it.

Vary the challenges. Despite the fun of using super-powered abilities, players still enjoy obstacles that test their problem solving. High-level characters will find easy answers to some obstacles and foes, so if you want some hurtles to remain, look to vary the challenges.

This means that high-level adventures invite problems when all the monsters share a theme along with similar strengths and weaknesses. When I ran a high-level epic themed around a green dragon and its poison-spewing allies, the moment the party cast heroes’ feast and gained resistance to all poison, a 4-hour session turned into an overlong joke.

Recently, I created tier 4 encounter that started with a wave of iron golems, but iron golems suffer from a -5 Charisma modifier. A typical high-level spellcaster with a DC20-plus saving throw can cast a 8th-level banishment and clear a battlefield of 5 iron golems with a single spell that the golems have zero chance of resisting. For the next wave of foes I aimed for high Charisma and perhaps enough attacks to break concentration. Say hello to a pair of mariliths. If my approach seems unfair, remember that tier 4 parties have answers for everything. You can dare players to win and then feel confident they will. The players will solve the mariliths too, but with a different solution.

Players love an ingenious trick that wins an encounter, but they grow bored if the same method keeps working. If the same trick threatens to work more than once, consider improvising complications or devising a different sort of barrier. If the same trick could work a third time, you can invent reasons to nullify it. I’ll sign your permission slip.

Separate the keys to success. If you ever wonder why the Empire of Star Wars keeps building weapons with single Achilles heels, this advice should resonate. When you devise high-level adventures, divide the keys to victory.

Often the keys to solving an adventure include the identity and locations of the objects to retrieve, of the lairs to invade, and of the evil to smite. Typically, a lack of information rates as the only obstacle likely to block high-level adventurers from ending your adventure too soon. To protect a scenario’s challenge, protect the information.

  • In investigations, assume every non-player character, living or dead, is an open book. This means that when you decide what NPCs know, make sure that no one has all the answers the players need to skip to the adventure’s end.
  • Until the end of a scenario, make sure that persuading or killing a single non-player character can’t bring the party success in all their goals.

Expect players to skip to the end of locations. Top-level play can make dungeon crawls as toothless as flying makes pit traps. Characters bring too many ways to skip the walls, doors and traps. And 1-6 pit fiends hardly make sense as wandering monsters. For high levels, focus on smaller locations with one or two challenging encounters.

D&D used to be game that emphasized building groups with characters who could fill unique roles, including a fighter able to protect more fragile characters and especially a cleric able to heal. The design of today’s D&D lets parties operate without healers and makes every character fairly durable. But at high levels one character type can reshape what a party can accomplish. Wizards and other spellcasters with teleport and plane shift unlock the sort of world-spanning, cosmic adventures that work best at high levels. Groups that lack such capabilities have to rely on portals or patrons who provide the transportation. For me, the hardest part of designing a high-level adventure for an unfamiliar group of characters comes from rewarding the wizard’s capabilities, but not requiring them.

Next: Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

The Most Useful D&D Miniatures to Buy On a Budget

When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons battles on a map, I used tokens and Cardboard Heroes instead of miniatures. Today’s gamers have similar inexpensive options ranging from tokens, to cardboard pawns on plastic bases, to printable paper minis, to flat-plastic miniatures.

When pre-painted plastic miniatures reached stores, I figured I would augment my cardboard with a few common monsters: orcs and skeletons and the lot. But the appeal of miniatures proved irresistible and my collection grew unchecked.

If you’re cheaper or more sensible than I am, you can still follow my original plan and collect a small group of broadly useful miniatures—the sort of figures I use so often that I never bother to file them away. Such common figures tend to come cheap too. This post features the most useful figures to buy on a budget. As of posting, I found all the pre-painted selections for sale at between $2 and $5 each. Unpainted picks often come a bit cheaper. To find these figures yourself, paste the figure caption into search and browse the listings that appear.

Typically, pre-painted figures come randomized in boxes, so if you buy a box, the you never know what you get. For maximum value on useful figures, buy singles from online vendors. For bargain hunters I recommend going the web site of a miniatures vendor, selecting all the D&D, Pathfinder, or D&D Miniatures and sorting by lowest cost first. Pages of bargains appear, many for broadly useful figures.

Unpainted figures bring the new hobby of painting miniatures. But the hobby of painting welcomes dabblers more than you may think. Even a beginner can paint figures with more appeal then some slapdash factory job. Just buy a painting starter set, put on headphones, and enjoy the almost meditative flow that comes from painting.

Bandits and thugs

The Bandit Knocker’s club and hodgepodge of armor makes the figure my favorite back-alley brawler.

Reaper Bandit Knocker (sold unpainted)

Reaper Bones: Bandit Knocker 77510 (sold unpainted)

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Bandits

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Bandits

Storm Kings Thunder #14 Bandit Captain

Storm Kings Thunder #14: Bandit Captain

 

Guards and soldiers

Heroes & Monsters #08 Watch Guard

Heroes & Monsters #08: Watch Guard

Watch Officer Heroes & Monsters #9

Heroes & Monsters #9: Watch Officer

Deep Cuts Unpainted Miniatures: Town Guards

Deep Cuts Unpainted Miniatures: Town Guards

Night Below #13: Greyhawk City Militia Sergeant

Night Below #13: Greyhawk City Militia Sergeant

 

Zombies and corporeal undead

The Terror Wight figure serves as a wight, ghoul, or any other corporeal undead, making it one of the most versatile figures.

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Zombies

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Zombies

Terror Wight War Drums #34

War Drums #34: Terror Wight

Reaper Bones Zombies

Reaper Bones: Zombies 77342

Incorporeal undead

Translucent undead figures stand in for ghosts, wraiths, and more.

Banshee Rage of Demons #21

Rage of Demons #21: Banshee

Not pictured: Boneyard #05: Ghost

Skeletons

Reaper makes a variety of skeletons for their Bones line.

Reaper bones: Skeletons (various, comes unpainted)

Reaper bones: Skeletons (various, come unpainted)

esert of Desolation #39: Boneshard Skeleton

Desert of Desolation #39: Boneshard Skeleton

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Skeletons

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Skeletons

Spiders

The giant spider is large, while the other spiders are medium sized.

Wolf Spider Elemental Evil #08

Elemental Evil #08: Wolf Spider

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Spiders

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Spiders

Reaper Bones Giant Spider

Reaper Bones: Giant Spider (sold unpainted)

Giant rats

Reaper Bones: Barrow rats 77198

Reaper Bones: Barrow rats 77198

Wolves

The wolf pack has medium figures, while the winter wolf is large.

Reaper Bones: Wolf pack 02830

Reaper Bones: Wolf pack 02830

Reaper Bones: Winter wolf 77437

Reaper Bones: Winter wolf 77437

Knights

Figures with full helms work best because they double as animated armor, helmed horrors, and the like.

Underdark #11: Royal Guard

Underdark #11: Royal Guard

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #36: Dezmyr Shadowdusk

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #36: Dezmyr Shadowdusk

Reaper Bones: Knight Heroes 77676

Reaper Bones: Knight Heroes 77676

Evil spellcaster

Baldur's Gate Descent Into Avernus #08: Falaster Fisk

Baldur’s Gate Descent Into Avernus #08: Falaster Fisk

Deathknell #36: Grim Necromancer

Deathknell #36: Grim Necromancer

Cultists

Reaper Bones: Cultists and Circle 77351

Reaper Bones: Cultists and Circle 77351

Berserkers

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #17: Berserker

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #17: Berserker

Not pictured: Monster Menagerie 2 #19: Half-Orc Barbarian

Goblins

Orcs see the table almost as often as goblins, but the smaller humanoids make better low-level foes, so their figures prove more useful.

Monster Menagerie 2 #03: Goblin

Monster Menagerie 2 #03: Goblin

Savage Encounters #16: Goblin Skullcleaver

Savage Encounters #16: Goblin Skullcleaver

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Goblins

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Goblins

Assassins and rogues

Reaper Bones: Romag Davl, Thief 30004

Reaper Bones: Romag Davl, Thief 30004

Not pictured: Kingmaker #10: Shadow Rogue