Tag Archives: tiers of play

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

The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve out made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that Gary and the game’s other past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Way back in my analysis of bounded accuracy, I explained how attackers in D&D Next tended to hit harder as they leveled up, rather than hitting more often. In “Changing the balance of power,” I wrote that fighters suffered from this new design. “The accuracy-for-damage trade matters most to fighters. Fireball and Blade Barrier work as well as ever. The rogue remains content to sneak up on the goblin king.” But if the Queen of Battle confronts a goblin horde, and she only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters, because she can only fell one goblin per turn. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.

Sverrir by ArboEarlier editions of the game offer a solution, a solution so odious that I hesitate to mention it. If fighters gain multiple attacks per round, the misses matter less because there’s more where that came from!

Multiple attacks seemed bad because they always brought awkward memory demands and calculation. “D&D’s designers have struggled to parcel out extra attacks as fighters gain levels. Jumping from one attack directly to two results in a rather sudden leap in power. Instead, AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. Yuck.

If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.

Late in D&D Next’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that dates to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained free access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those edition’s designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, 5E matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes make similar leaps, such as the rogue’s Uncanny Dodge ability.

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. Fifth edition aligns the game’s tiers with the leaps in power brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level wizard spells. The designers finessed the other classes so they gain benefits to match the wizards’ gains.

It seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.