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 the D&D Adventurers League 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.
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.