Category Archives: Scenarios

Making a Tier 4 D&D Encounter for Characters Who Play Like Superheroes

Dungeons & Dragons tier 4 spans levels 17 through 20, where wizards can cast wish. When I read class abilities in that range, I think, Well, that’s overpowered. And then I think, They can cast wish. If the party plays like the Justice League, then the design hit the right note. (See The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before and The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.)

I’ve played dungeon crawls at levels 17+ and felt surprised by how much the delve felt like ordinary D&D. I’ve also played T4 encounters where everyone flew dragons to battle in the stratosphere and T4 encounters where the party faced off against the mad mage Halaster mounted on a flying tarrasque. Want to guess whether those open encounters proved more memorable than the dungeon crawl? (Hint: Yes.)

So the tier 4 adventure design open call from D&D Adventurers League got me thinking. How would I answer such a call?

Part of the challenge—and fun—comes from the call’s limits. These restraints include a limit to 500 words or fewer with no maps. No doubt these limits aim for two goals: (a) to spare the time of whoever evaluates the submissions and (b) to test writers’ ability to follow directions. The rules also limit submissions to 1 page, but 500 words take less than a page. For example, the 1-page encounter in the sample document takes 662 words.

When I think T4 adventures, I think of events that cap a multi-year campaign with a final showdown with Orcus, Tiamat, or a similar arch-foe. But Adventures League sessions start and end within 4 hours, which leaves little build up for, “Orcus attacks!” This led me to imagine situations where an epic party might be drawn into a conflict that fits a convention slot. My encounter hints at that conflict. Also, I opted for a starting encounter to avoid something as potentially bewildering as tuning into the last 15 minutes of a movie. I agree with Sly Flourish on the importance of starting strong.

In the City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977), a loan shark could summon Orcus to deal with folks who miss payments, so a sudden attack by the demon lord has a early precedent. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

For tier 4, I prefer to leave the prime material plane. Adventures set in a place like the Abyss feel like a better match for legendary heroes. Besides, the outer planes bring the most suitable foes for the tier. But the rules limit encounters to the Forgotten Realms. Rather than quibbling that the Realms setting includes the Abyss, I thought back to a Lore You Should Know segment on a Dragon Talk podcast episode that fired my imagination. Adam Lee describes the fallen cities of ancient Netheril and the mythallar’s that tapped enough magic of the weave to levitate cities. What if some evil sought a mythallar to power some scheme? Unlike a plain McGuffin, I could use that raw magic to justify some big special effects. Tier 4 merits heavy use of the imagination’s unlimited special effects budget.

Remember all those mighty abilities that make tier 4 characters play like superheroes? These characters commonly fly, run on walls, teleport, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. You want battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. (Maybe next time.) 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 dial the difficulty above easy. I aimed for medium difficulty, but I suspect I barely landed easy. Blame it on just 500 words of threats.

For my fantastic location, I opted for a magic gate tunneling from a ruined city to the Abyss. I hoped for a site that forced characters to use their abilities while still being run theater of the mind—although an abstract map would offer greater clarity. Just draw a big tube with 2 circles and 2 lines and tick off 15-foot increments like a measuring cup. Cross it with 2 lines for the fallen towers. Ambitious DMs could unroll the tube onto a flat battlemap. Very ambitious DMs could model it in 3 dimensions.

Selecting monsters at this tier poses a challenge because so few stand a chance in the big leagues. Fewer still work in groups and even the mightiest solo monsters struggle against groups of adventurers. For example, when I ran a solo tarrasque against a level-20 party, I needed to give D&D’s mightiest monster maximum hit points to hold up. For my encounter location, my foes needed to fly.

I settled on yugoloths. They fly and the type boasts a number of other advantages: I can team spell slingers and martial types to match with the varied powers of the party. Plus, their nature as mercenaries make them an easy fit for an adventure. Monsters who challenge characters in multiple ways give players more chances to exercise their characters’ abilities. The nycoloths bring innate spellcasting and that makes me concerned that so many abilities could mire a DM in too many choices and layer too much magic on the battlefield. At this level, even “shock troops” feature suites of abilities.

My encounter’s last ingredient comes from an anthropomorphic fox bent on using the party for revenge. I added Rusty for two reasons:

  • His presence lures characters into the pit when good sense might keep them outside.
  • He adds more opportunities for interaction to the encounter.

For a look at my encounter, see the draft PDF and an updated version based on feedback.

Related: Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: To Steal a Primordial
Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship

Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: To Steal a Primordial

At the Dwarven stronghold of Gauntlgrym, a trapped primordial called Maegera the Dawn Titan fires the forges. In Storm King’s Thunder, a party of drow raids the forges to steal the godling. If the player characters happen to visit Gauntlgrym, they gain a chance to foil the theft.

The description of Gauntlgrym in Out of the Abyss reveals the primordial’s tremendous power, but the struggle for the creature lacks gravity. Player characters just happen to stumble across 8 drow in a hallway. A couple of rounds of combat thwarts the caper.

If drow enter a dwarven stronghold and sieze a primordial from the forge, surely they made a better plan than the encounter suggests. Also, foiling the theft of a primordial merits at least a set-piece encounter, if not a full session of adventure.

This side trek expands the raid at Gauntlgrym. I aimed to make the drow more cunning, and the players’ interference more memorable.

For the drow, I plotted their scheme like players would if they had similar resources and powers. Now instead just killing unprepared drow in a hall, players feel like they match wits with a cunning foe. The drow and shadow demons get a chance to use stealth and spellcraft, forcing players to use their wits.

This trek integrates two potential encounters from the wandering monster tables in Gauntlgrym chapter of Out of the Abyss.

The tricky part of reimagining this scenario came as I worked to arrange the pieces so the scenario can play differently depending on the players’ strategy. Still, the events likely lead to a big confontration in the crypts.

In the original encounter, the lack of setup makes the drow seem random. In a dwarven fortress, they seem very random. After the battle, the players learn the plot, but now that it has failed, the details seem less importatant. If you run the original, you should hope that the players give the event little thought, because their success rests on a wildly coincidental meeting.

The new scenario sets up the drow scheme in advance and shows the stakes. The sudden chill in Gauntlgrym lends some weight to the theft.

This scenario should challenge 8th-level characters.

Also, my spell checker wanted to spell doppelgänger with umlauts. I went with it because everything is more metal with umlauts.

Download: To Steal a Primordial

Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship

Chapter 3 of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Storm King’s Thunder encourages characters to roam the Savage Frontier, completing quests and facing warring giants. As written, the section could to become a grind, with long marches interrupted by routine encounters. However, the content leads dungeon masters to enliven the journeys with their own ideas.

Lately, I’ve embellished my own sessions by building on the characters, monsters, and treasure featured in the book to create side treks.

Frost Giant’s Ship

This post shares one of my mini-adventures, The Giant Ship. Although this side trek expands on the suggested encounter for Helms Hold (p.91), you can also plant a hook at any time the characters travel the coast. This episode aims to bring problem solving, roleplaying, and more flavor to what might otherwise be a routine battle.

Characters at levels 5-10 gain access to abilities like flight and invisibility. The giant ship in this trek poses a rescue problem that such PCs can now solve. I tried to contrive a scenario that invites several strategies. I love when players face a dilemma that lets me sit back while they scheme.

As a battle, this final encounter should challenge a party of 7th-level characters. But because they characters probably won’t face another battle on the same day, they can win against the foes.

The scenario’s format shows my effort to make details easy to spot at a glance. I did not create this trek to be read and set aside; I created it to be played at the table.

Please tell me how the trek played at your table.

Download: Side Trek for Storm King’s Thunder.