D&D General Bringing out the big guns - Low Level PCs with High Level antagonist NPCs? (And/Or high power items)

TheSword

Legend
There are a number of times in 5e products where high level NPCs (Jarlaxle Baenre, Strahd von Zarovich, Manshoon, Yeenoghu, Baphomet, The Xanathar etc etc) could come into contact with PCs that are substantially below their CR (1/2 to 1/3 their CR). I totally understand that PCs shouldn't be able to resort to combat in every encounter and should sometimes run away. We talk a lot about asymmetric fights and how that forces PCs to be more creative, sometimes run away and try to learn more about the world around them to prepare. However what happens when the foe is an intelligent, dynamic and has opposing goals to the PCs?

What impact does having these kind of NPCs interacting the PCs at low levels have on the player's enjoyment and the progress of the campaign? Does it give a sense of epicness or does it make the players feel weak and powerless? Or both? What are the risks

Similarly what happens when magic items far out of a players normal reach comes into the mix early on? A staff of Power, Vorpal Blade, or Holy Avenger at level 3 or 4? Does it cause resentment if every PC doesn't have one? Does it make player advancement less fun? Does it cheapen other magic items?

I'm intrigued by the idea of both and I'm really interesting in people's thoughts on the issue.
 

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Clint_L

Legend
There are a number of times in 5e products where high level NPCs (Jarlaxle Baenre, Strahd von Zarovich, Manshoon, Yeenoghu, Baphomet, The Xanathar etc etc) could come into contact with PCs that are substantially below their CR (1/2 to 1/3 their CR). I totally understand that PCs shouldn't be able to resort to combat in every encounter and should sometimes run away. We talk a lot about asymmetric fights and how that forces PCs to be more creative, sometimes run away and try to learn more about the world around them to prepare. However what happens when the foe is an intelligent, dynamic and has opposing goals to the PCs?
This isn't advice, just me relating my experiences. In my games, it is pretty normal for PCs to be in conflict with much more powerful foes, especially as the BBEG. In general, the players need to be very caution and not overcommit to a fight, always having an escape plan, and this comes from making it clear over time that you don't have to kill every opponent to succeed. In fact, with new groups I emphasize this at session 0: running away is always an option.

In general, I find that this makes it more satisfying for players when/if they finally defeat the BBEG, maybe by getting more powerful themselves, having a great plan, figuring out how to de-power the baddie, or some combination thereof.

What impact does having these kind of NPCs interacting the PCs at low levels have on the player's enjoyment and the progress of the campaign? Does it give a sense of epicness or does it make the players feel weak and powerless? Or both? What are the risks
See above, but for me the main risk has been stubborn or one-trick-pony groups whose only tactic is "Rawr, kill!" They are at risk of a TPK, and I had this happen with a school group despite doing everything I could to make it clear that they were not in a winning situation.
Similarly what happens when magic items far out of a players normal reach comes into the mix early on? A staff of Power, Vorpal Blade, or Holy Avenger at level 3 or 4? Does it cause resentment if every PC doesn't have one?
It can!
Does it make player advancement less fun?
Maybe?
Does it cheapen other magic items?
100%.

I think it is a terrible idea to give out highly powerful magic items at low levels. It absolutely creates jealousy because of course every player will want something that lets them be the big hero, too. It also totally skews encounter balance, making it much more volatile. For example, let's say your level 3 paladin has a holy avenger so you decide they need a tougher challenge; here comes a young dragon. Which then one-shots the level 3 paladin with its breath weapon because, despite his amazing holy avenger he still only had 28 HP and crap saving throws.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
1 Powerful NPCs is why I like both Lair Actions and Dungeon World Fronts. Its all foreshadowing and indirect contact that point to the BBEG without needing to be a direct confrontation and TPK.

2 This one depends on the personality of the players. I had one player who on learning that the legendary Sword Dawnover (aka Demonbane) had fallen into the hands of an enemy general, vowed that he would recover it. This backstory became a motivation to his character and eventually lead him on an ic quest.
I use Heirloom rules for such Legendary Items giving them a level/reputation trigger. PCs might come across legendary figures weilding them, but will not be able to trigger the item themselves unless they are deemed ‘worthy’ (ie have higher level or Influence bonus) - in story its that the magic is empowered by the Hero not ‘inherent’ in the item
 

J-H

Hero
I'm starting a campaign right now loosely based around Castlevania II with this exact premise. Everyone starts with a Legacy item chosen from a list of about 15 options, at level 2. The weapons are +2 +x, where X is some kind of bonus feature. The items all get a minor upgrade, often related to defense or mobility, at level 5 (PB +3) and then another boost at level 9 (PB +4), which the players know about in advance.

So far everyone seems to think it's pretty neat. We'll see how it goes. I figure the extra punch will let them take out enemies better, but they will still have to manage HP and rests (what a horrible night to have a curse....). They have an alchemist, a ranger, and a cleric in the party, so they should be fine.
 

aco175

Legend
We have done campaigns with the PCs starting each with a more powerful magic item. It makes them a bit more powerful that the DM can take into account when designing encounters. It is not that much different than boosting PCs with everyone now gets a free feat at first level in addition to the stat boosts.
 

Clint_L

Legend
Yeah, I think if you're going to do it you have to do it equally, like folks are describing. Then it's more just a question of encounter balance, which I think will be much harder, but then I'm crap at encounter balance anyway, so what do I know?
 

TheSword

Legend
It feels like powerful NPCs introduced early need very clear goals that are discoverable by the PCs. Which means that Archmage wouldn’t just drop a fireball on the party.

Whether it’s because they think the party can be useful, or they want to try and recruit the party. Or some kind of deal has been made and they always keep their word etc etc.
 

aco175

Legend
I never have named NPCs show up.
"Hi, I'm Drizzt. Maybe you guys can go grab me a grape soda since I do not have the time. Me and Wulfgar are going to be doing this super cool thing that you will never hear about, but trust me- you don't. Super-size please- we are going to be tired after, thanks."

Not named NPCs can be of any level until they need to be something else. The low-level party meets a powerful mage who needs a grape soda might only be 5th or 7th level. The PCs do not need to know unless they fight him or plot needs him to be something else later when he offers to enchant a weapon for the party and needs to cast a 6th level spell.

I never seem to have 20th level NPCs around. Not even bad guys since my campaigns never get above 15th level.
 

TheSword

Legend
I never have named NPCs show up.
"Hi, I'm Drizzt. Maybe you guys can go grab me a grape soda since I do not have the time. Me and Wulfgar are going to be doing this super cool thing that you will never hear about, but trust me- you don't. Super-size please- we are going to be tired after, thanks."

Not named NPCs can be of any level until they need to be something else. The low-level party meets a powerful mage who needs a grape soda might only be 5th or 7th level. The PCs do not need to know unless they fight him or plot needs him to be something else later when he offers to enchant a weapon for the party and needs to cast a 6th level spell.

I never seem to have 20th level NPCs around. Not even bad guys since my campaigns never get above 15th level.
I guess I’m referring to antagonist NPCs more so than other heroes where I wouldn’t really expect there to be a big conflict.

If you’re dealing with BBEG then the name recognition I think is probably quite useful no? After all PCs are more likely to start throwing insults against unnamed dark wizard as opposed to Manshoon, founder of the Zhentarim and a legendarily powerful Archmage. Assuming the players know the setting.
 

Raiztt

Adventurer
What impact does having these kind of NPCs interacting the PCs at low levels have on the player's enjoyment and the progress of the campaign? Does it give a sense of epicness or does it make the players feel weak and powerless? Or both? What are the risks
It's going to vary greatly based on your table, but...

Me and my players absolutely hate it. Done poorly, it very much feels like the game is about the antagonist and how cool they are instead of the PCs.
 

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