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

6 thoughts on “Making a Tier 4 D&D Encounter for Characters Who Play Like Superheroes

  1. Lich Van Winkle

    Folks could look back at the Companion- and Master-level adventures from BECMI. I ran some of them, and have nearly zero recollection of their contents, but there must be a few models there for this level of adventuring.

    Reply
  2. alphastream

    I did not enter this challenge, so it’s great to see your entry! I love the setting and the dramatic nature of the encounter. Worthy foes, worthy challenge, epic scenery. I dig that. While I don’t think tiers have to match specific types of stories, it is great for the highest tier to have epic concepts.

    When using few words, clarity is really tough to achieve. I like how you use first and second tower as keywords. You mention “highest tower” at one point, and here you should probably just say first or second, and earlier use specific First Tower and Second Tower definitions and note which is on top. Similarly, I think the first paragraphs become clearer if you simply state “two towers” instead of “towers” and state that they both fall. That achieves a clear image for the DM and players that then is clearer when they reach the center of the area and the actual battle starts. Two towers mark the center of the town, surrounded by smaller structures. The two towers fall as you approach. You get there, and the two towers bridge the pit. Smaller structures ring the pit, slowly dragged in. That clarity is key, I think, so the DM and players can focus on the epic play.

    Ideally, you have some resolution. It’s hard to find the words for it here, so simply a statement of what the Yuguloth will do. Maybe they can stop the rift in a future encounter? You can point to stuff that would happen in another encounter, while still giving resolution to this scene.

    Similarly, I like to empower foes to provide information. It’s extremely hard to find the words for it, but if you can state that they know the reason the one yugloth was punished, and work to stop the heroes, and can communicate these things, that becomes interesting to the players during the combat. I generally spend a lot of time tweaking things to try to achieve this with few words.

    My comments aside, this is a lot of fun. I hope I get to play the final adventure!

    Reply
    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Teos,
      Thanks for making the time to give feedback. This will prove valuable! I’m eager to make some adjustments.

      Dave

      Reply
  3. Beoric

    I think this is an interesting example of how the style guide can get in the way of effective communication.

    For example, essential elements – the description of the environment, the actions of the allied monster, the and the motivations of the allied monster and its guards which are necessary to run them as NPCs, are separated into different sections. Moreover, the physical description of the area is also separated into three different sections. And the sections aren’t always contiguous, so you jump from area description to more area description to NPC action to NPC motivation and back to area description.

    I find the effect of this is to make it more difficult for me to understand the situation (in fact I don’t think I entirely understand the physical space). I wonder if there is a way to cheat the style guide so you can bring related elements together?

    Reply

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