5E When Fiends Attack: Are Balors, Pit Fiends and Ultraloths too weak?
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  1. #1

    When Fiends Attack: Are Balors, Pit Fiends and Ultraloths too weak?

    Friends, Roleplayers, Dungeon Masters,

    I was reading the very interesting thread about Balor vs Pit Fiend, and though I couldn't contribute to the intense DPR calculations being made, I found the a minor point in discussion worth spinning out into its own topic. In short, the calculations being made were whether a group of (simple) 9th level characters with potent but minimal magical items could beat a Balor or Pit Fiend in a straight up fight. Now, setting aside the (fairly understandable) decisions made about the party makeup, we get the somewhat startling idea that a Balor will lose to those five 9th level Champions in virtually every fight, assuming that it just stands there and attacks. The Pit Fiend does a lot better, winning 90%. I'm using @Hemlock's numbers here, always a poster handy with the maths. This is before we begin discussing the Ultraloth, who is tailored as much more of an infiltrator, and is very underwhelming if you're expecting him to put the fear of the Yugoloths into a party.

    So, that's the preamble: players apparently have a solid chance while in the second tier of play to take down the most powerful Fiends in the game, outside of demi-powers like the Demon Lords who we can ignore for the moment. My question to you is this: is this a problem?

    I can see two primary responses, which I invite you to challenge or agree with or just shout Lemon Curry at;


    1. The game works best, and is most popularly played, between levels 4-10. Letting the players fight anything in that level range - including Pit Fiends - lets them have any kind of monster as the BBEG for a storyline, adventure, or campaign. It lets the entire contents of the Monster Manual be useful for any group, and reflects actual campaign needs rather than plot concerns which are easy to explain.
    2. Ultra-powerful enemies like the leaders of Fiend factions should be terrifyingly dangerous. They should only be faced by the most powerful of groups. In addition, it makes no sense that a Balor can be killed by mid-level adventurers, since it means that they cannot be the 'scourge of worlds' or whatever; any decent sized town could probably kill one.


    It's worth noting that many other creatures in the game could be included in the discussion - Strahd does not seem able to kill one hundred adventurers, to be honest, unless they were all level two. Furthermore, we could draw minions into the discussion, but I'd like to focus attention on the boss level Fiends for the moment, rather than rely on having a three-hour swarm combat for a boss encounter. I'm interested in the philosophy of high level Fiends here: is their weakness a problem for the game, or something that enables players to face them when you want them to?
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  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Rampant View Post
    My question to you is this: is this a problem?
    No, it isn't.

    It takes assumptions that need not be exactly as made to achieve, and in actual play would only come up if the goal is to reach the result of lower level characters defeating higher CR enemies.

    The only problem that can arise is for someone's desired outcome of lower level characters facing a higher CR enemy to not match the outcome they are making likely with their choices of how to run the game.

    Of course, a significant reason why my answer to this question is "No." is what Challenge Rating actually means in the 5th edition game. It is not the level at which a party is meant to be able to have reasonable chances of defeating the monster - it is only the level at which the monster's defeat is nearly assured not to include any player character casualties. And because the moment that you include the assumption of optional rules being in use, you are by definition making CR less accurate because it is assigned relative to the default rules of the game.
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  3. #3
    It's been pretty well beaten into the ground discussion-wise round these parts I think, that it's very easy to bring down higher level foes as a result of action economy differences. Since Pit Fiends and Balors have neither legendary actions nor lair actions, there's really no way for them to equalize this discrepancy.

    It's also been (fairly) well documented here and on the defunct wizards forums that a lot of the listed CRs in the MM are higher than they should be. In a recent thread about monster design, a discussion of the Ogre and Bandit Captain revealed a stark difference in power, with the ogre likely being underpowered for its listed CR.

    I would argue that this is, in fact, a problem. While I appreciate the wider level range players can engage foes in, the result is as you say, nobody can take a balor seriously as a threat when a group of mid-tier adventurers plow through them, no matter what the expected range of play is. Additionally, the MM itself has been on the receiving end of complains before about a lack of high CR opponents, so having those high end creatures under perform on exacerbates the issue.

    In truth though, while it is a problem, it's not a BIG problem. In your example, you say that a balor will lose to 5 9th level champions. Okay, what are the chances of a group of players all being champions? I've never witnessed it. Since champions are great at sustained brawling, I'm not really shocked they were able to win, though I might pick through that thread later to see if some concerns I have were addressed. Not only that, but this is also a 5 minute workday issue, where the PCs are at maximum power going into the fight without the expectation or risk of follow-up encounters.

    At the end of the day, I think 5e typically does boss fights somewhat poorly, and it's easy for even big threats to get swarmed quite easily. You just have to adjust you expectations to the game accordingly and make sure bosses have minions are to help draw fire. Also, Tome of Beasts from Kobold press seems to have succeeded in making their enemies more lethal at similar CR ratings to the foes in the MM, so if you need more dangerous offerings I'd check it out.

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    It's not a problem, it's a feature, seriously.

    But for the more important part of the question: While DPR calculations are useful for gauging relative effectiveness in a slobbernocker, very few, if any, creatures actually fight that way.

    Take the Balor, for instance. It is built for speed, has significant reach, an attack that can send people careening into chasms (looking at you, Gandalf) and can fly just out of melee range if it should find itself needing to bypass the PC's front line. It's a beefy shock trooper, and it should be played as such.

    Also, one thing that the stat block doesn't cover, is that the Balor can regenerate it's corporal form at a time and place of it's choosing, meaning death isn't a failure state for them. Which makes the stakes of combat incredibly different for them, going all out to kill just one member of a party per encounter before or after their explosion is a viable tactic for them.

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    I believe the design intent goes to your first theory. However, that's an aftershock of so many editions where the power curve is just ungraceful after 12th level. At this point in 5th Edition, I have DM'd or played in three campaigns going the full path to 20th level. Bounded Accuracy works exactly as it says on the tin. Resource consumption is still significant at higher level challenges, though many of those challenges have to be home-brewed using the monster tables in the DMG as there is a dearth in the MM. Spell usage is less than other editions, and attunement keeps the magic items toned down as long as the DM isn't Monty Haul.

    The Greater Fiends are not nearly as scary as they were. I believe the 1st Edition Arcanaloth was a 22nd level Wizard on top of fiendish abilities. No one wanted to ever be on the same plane as an Ultraloth. Even in the cosmopolitan Planescape setting, fiends and celestials of name rank were not to be messed with unless you knew the dark of it. Since I have a fondness for Yugoloths as the great movers and shakers of evil, I have up-statted nearly all of them, back-filling the lower and mid CR's with lesser known fiends that are at least mildly intelligent enough to be a BBEG or later, a Lieutenant in a greater fiend's plot.
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  6. #6
    I am really not sure if they indeed underperform if you dmtake magic items out of the comparisons and remember what challenge rating means regarding 5e. And for fighting classes there is not so much in dpr gain after level 11.
    Also to build encounters, party size is a factor and non legendary monsters just need a few low level friends to be a lot more threatening.

    Some things could be better in the MM. I miss some abilities monsters used to have that would indeed would help them fend off low level threats in a white room. Regeneration of the tarrasque comes to mind.
    So using xp as guidelines you should be able to fight a single fiend way before level 19 or 20. Then again, using its mobility it can easily one shot the squishier adventurers at level 9. That is what CR really mean in that edition. I still wish we had a different metric than CR. Monster level of the playtest was more to my taste.

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    Yes, it is a problem.

    The problem is that high-level play needs high-level monsters that are scary out of the box.

    Otherwise you can't say the game supports high-level play, only allows it.

    It is increasingly clear that the game will need a new "layer", a comprehensive rules addendum that adds true support for high-level characters.

    Note: by high-level I include every meaning of that term:
    * characters that are of high level (of course)
    * characters that actually use the subsystems of the game: chiefly multiclassing, feats and magic items. Saying "those are optional" as an excuse for the game's manifest inability to handle characters equipped as such is an increasingly hollow excuse
    * veteran players with experience, good tactical and statistical abilities

    Such an addendum will need to provide, at minimum:
    - a framework where encounters are no longer calibrated for being the 6th or 8th encounter in a day; alternatively optional rules to ensure that this happens even when the DM or adventure does not provide literary reasons for not resting
    - monsters that are up to the task of providing high-level (per the definition above) challenges. This includes the designers being aware of the true DPR achievable by optimized parties. This includes the designers anticipating trivial kiting and other move-denial strategies easily achievable by high-level (again, per the complete definition above) parties, and equipping monsters accordingly. The short version: a monster with no other movement mode than a regular land speed has no business at high level, except possibly as simple grunts. Any monster described as a "leader", as "intelligent" or equivalent absolutely must be equipped with the necessary tools to manifest those traits, right there in the stat block.
    - the "look at its Int score, it should easily outsmart the PCs" is dismissed as an excuse for shoddy and weak stat blocks. No monster should need non-trivial help from DMs to be able to fulfil its described role. Any monster that can't fulfil a role without such help has to have that role removed from its description!
    - much more robust support for solo BBEGs. Anytime the only practical means to challenge a high-level party is to add more monsters, this is to be considered a hard FAIL for the design. If this means new rules that create "solo" monsters with abilities not achievable by regular specimens, so be it. After all, nobody is forced to use a given stat block, so let's just call any such solo support optional.
    - more "elite" monster stats that have been given more proficiences, class abilities and even feats. Monsters and NPCs simply can't compete with PCs that have access to these systems.
    - acknowledging that bounded accuracy has its limits, and that a lowly CR 1/2 humanoid simply doesn't work once the campaign shifts over to high-level play. Specifically, include more humanoids in the CR 5ish range (and any at CR ~10 would be a pleasant bonus)
    - specific "elite" (high-CR) stat blocks unique to each humanoid. By now we've worn out the Veteran NPC stat block - we need and deserve unique Duergar, Gnome, Orc, Grimlock etc etc "Veterans"
    - look at 4E for sheer joy and creativeness in monster abilities. Most single-digit CR humanoid stat blocks look and play almost identically, simply because NPCs aren't allowed to have unique and cool abilities!
    - actual examples of all of the above. That is, not just new rule systems, but those new rules put into practice. Actual stat blocks ready to plop down into an encounter - in their dozens!


    Other inclusions that would be nice to have would be:
    - unshackling the metamagic subsystem from Sorcerers, so every spellcaster is given (optional) access to various metamagic options
    - high-level means to break the "only one Concentration spell" hard limit. Do note that Concentration does two things: a) damage breaks your spell, b) you can't maintain another Concentration spell. At high level it is entirely reasonable to hand out abilities that allow you to break this limit in various ways, including splitting up use case a and b.
    - a fix for the wonky saving throw bonuses that the base system leads to. Either no monster is given save DCs of above 20, or a new mechanism is instituted that means no high-level PC has a non-positive modifier. The design goal must be for every PC to be able to succeed at every save, preferably by rolling 17 or higher.
    - rules support for low magic campaigns (as optional variants). The rules do talk about campaigns with less magic items and so on, but they are completely silent on the fact that nearly all player character subclasses grant access to spells or magical abilities, and there is no variant to switch out at-will cantrips. There could be much more rules coverage on this subject: alternatives to granting at-will cantrips to casters, at least one more entirely mundane (=unmagical) subclass for fighters, rogues, barbarians, rangers, paladins, and monks: no spells at all, no class features that are spells but in name.
    - a more nuanced attunement system, so you can choose between - for example - attuning yourself to three major items (for your level), or perhaps six minor items (for your level) or any combination thereof. While the current system is adequate for most levels of play, it becomes too simple at very high level.
    - more support for epic level play

    If you want to call this rules supplement Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, I won't complain
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    Quote Originally Posted by CapnZapp View Post
    The problem is that high-level play needs high-level monsters that are scary out of the box.
    The high CR monsters are scary "out of the box" when used against characters "out of the box."

    Quote Originally Posted by CapnZapp View Post
    Saying "those are optional" as an excuse for the game's manifest inability to handle characters equipped as such is an increasingly hollow excuse
    It is genuinely impossible for the monsters built to work assuming default rules to also work when engaging optional rules unless those rules don't change anything.

    It is also genuinely impossible for monsters built to work assuming specific non-default rules and a particularly high player skill level to also work when not using those optional rules or dealing with players of differing skill level.

    However, there is a very easy way in which the monsters can be scary out of the box for out of the box characters, and appropriately challenging to characters allowed optional rules and played by skilled players; Give the monsters the benefits of the optional rules too, and have them played by equally skilled DMs.
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  9. #9
    How do the CRs of the big nasties look if you consider them a component in an encounter with a number of other enemies, rather than exposed and on their own in front of a party of adventurers?

    Having minions to tie up some members of the party and threaten others while you fireball the area, poison several of the party, or pick off weaker members might make their CRs more realistic.

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    It really is a surprisingly easy fix that I've used against my players with some downright scary results.

    In one of my games, my 12th level characters fought a Balor. You know what I did to make him scary? I gave him legendary actions.

    I felt that was a missed part of the monster out of the box...very few demons (demon lords are, of course, the exception) are as iconic and (dare I say) legendary as the Balor, so they make very effective BBEGs. Give him legendary actions, legendary saves, and the fight becomes much, much more interesting. If you want, even give him lair actions (I did). This can be applied, really, to any monster you want to use as a BBEG.

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