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D&D 5E Let's talk about actually *creating* high-level content.

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
So there's a few discussions about playing high-level or perhaps running high-level, but I want to discuss the creation process from the DM's side about creating the high-level content through one-shots, adventures, monsters, encounters, or exploration.

This discussion can be advice, thoughts, opinions, comments, or just shared experiences.

I love high-level play as a DM because its where my imagination can go as far as I want and can come up with interesting challenges for my players.

For example, I am soon going to have my players attempt to fight an Adult Black Dragon alongside Black Puddings that ooze under its command in the lair as a one-shot. I have no clue exactly what characters they are going to bring but I have a few magic items like plate mail or acid resistance, arrows of dragon slaying, some good spell scrolls like 6th-level Protection from Energy and an 8th-level Cloud Kill, and quite a few potions.

The tricky thing, though, is that the lair is full of acidic lakes which the dragon swim in. The acidic lake heavily obscures whoever is in it and it does 10d10 damage per round to whoever is in it. Did I mention that the lair is actually located in the Plane of Water? Because it is and has various Antimagic and Wildmagic zones scattered about.

This is my definition of a cool adventure, at least in my mind, and its one of the reasons I absolutely adore high-level play. I didn't even get into the lore but perhaps that isn't necessarily limited in low level play anyways.

But I can put this type of challenge against my players and watch as they have to come up with a way to bypass the enemy's heavy defenses without worrying that this is a "guaranteed TPK." As long as the players are focused, I think they could surpass my challenge and we could have a another story we recount for months or even years.
 

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Stalker0

Legend
In general I think the most important thing for a high level adventure is the ticking clock. The greatest pressure is time.

without time pressure, high level adventures have access to so many resources that they will win eventually. But with the clock they have to get creative.

“The world is going to end!”
“No problem!”
“In 30 minutes!”
“It just got interesting”

Beyond that, I agree with the OP that part of the fun of high level design is not worrying about your party. Again, you just assume that high level characters can basically do anything or get access to anything. So you can get zany and just assume they will figure it out.
 


You either need to rework the rest mechanics into something less explosive than the default into something much more incremental that allows attrition or patch the problem by 100% using a tight doom clock closer to the one on half minute hero than anything fitting a plot. The default rest mechanics are close to the ttrpg equivalent of quake's ~givehealth 100<enter>
edit: The ravenloft book might offer you a new rest mechanic there as the attrition is important there
 

Look over your PC's capabilities and assume that they will use them. This includes specifically spells such as commune and legend lore. I would expect in the week before they set out a lot of informational magic and sagacious consultations will be made. If they walk in blind, well, their loss.

Remember that defenses that nullify PC abilities will / should nullify the same abilities for the dragon.

Throughout time in the real world, a straight up fight against a foe superior in numbers or strength is stupid! The dragon will not "fight fair". Its the PCs job to force a "fair fight" if not unfair to their benefit. And, since we have rules it can be "fairly unfair", if you get me.

Think in three dimensions, especially if aquatics play into it. You don't need a lake that does 10d10 acid damage. If everyone is fighting, swimming, dodging underwater let them take 1d10 acid damage per round. That's a concentration check each round, however easy it might seem. Furthermore, it adds a lot of mental pressure each time you say "Steve, beginning of your turn- take 1d10 damage. Now what do you want to do?" Remember to give the dragon a non-acid themed ally, servant, or mercenary. If this is an old and experienced black dragon, it has needed to anticipate foes that are resistant or immune to acid. How has it prepared for that?

Gold and silver, pre-industrially, are resistant to corrosion. Copper not so much. There are no pearls in a black dragon's trove.

A rule of thumb: It seems to me, without chase scenes or cat-and-mouse fights, that difficult combats take 3-7 rounds. Easy ones take 1-4 rounds. This has held fairly consistently through editions.
 
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So, a few thoughts on my end about things and general and your one-shot in particular.

In particular? Zones always sound good, but in personal expeirence I have found players move very little unless they have to move to reach a new threat, or someone is running, so a lot of zones end up unused, or players end up on the edges of them. Additionally, this can be a lot of bookkeeping, especially if you want to make the zones dynamically move.

A busy battlefield slows things down.



Now, as to things I do for high-level play. Any fight I want to be memorable, I alter the statblocks. I don't even think at low-level play I keep boss monsters 100% RAW. Give them the ability to react to the players. Maybe instead of just using the f5ft line of 12d8 acid, the dragon sees the party has spread out and uses some magic to turn their breath into an acidic fog that does 5d8 damage every round (basing off of cloudkill) or they spray up and cover themselves in Acid, taking on the Black Pudding's rules for melee fighting.

Maybe you even fight dirty. The Dragon dives into the acid to avoid being seen, and those acid lakes connect, so it swims up, lunges out of the acid with a bite that grapples, and drags someone into the acid. Even if they have resistance, they will start suffocating, and that gives a new goal in the fight. Not just "beat it til it dies" but "SAVE JIM"

Also, as much as it slows things down, I have minions and I have lieutenants. You need a few different things being big threats and able to pull off unique abilities, because the players can shut down a single target. Legendaries help, obviously, but caging it in with a wall of force can still cut off the main threat and let them piecemeal an encounter, so it is generally better for higher level play when they are throwing so many powerful abilities to have multiple viable targets for those abilities.

Oh, also, in that line, maximize the Boss's hp. Just do it. A fighter PC and cleric PC can use Holy Weapon+PAM+Action surge+Superiority Dice and dish out 4d10+14d8+1d4+25 damage, which is an average of 112.5 damage, that is one turn that dealt 2/3rds of that dragons health. From a single turn. When you get to high levels PCs can burn down bosses so fast that they either have to be very hard to hit, or very very durable. Otherwise they fold in half the second the party has the time to fight them.

In terms of larger adventure structure? Be clever and put them in situations that require the loss of resources or a lot of time. Perhaps you have the door to the inner sanctum heavily warded, and you can either force yourself through and take damage, undo all the magic, or try and go around it by destroying the ruins that could explode and cause damage anyways. The players are levels 12 plus with magic items? They can handle this. Or maybe this place is so acidic and deadly that they take a single point of acid damage every round just for being inside the layer. It isn't a lot, but if they have to navigate the layer on top of fighting the dragon? That is going to add up.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
Yeah, survival of the characters is a decent motivator, but put something else in peril so that if the PCs just run, bad stuff will happen to something they care about.
Oooh, this is especially relevant to adventures rather than one-shots.

Whenever a character makes it to high level, they'll usually have engaged with the world and their character in dynamic ways. Maybe they're loyal to an organization they weren't before because the organization had sent them aid in response to what they've done for them.

At that point, they'll start to care and threatening, while not ripping away, their connections they've made through organic play is much more interesting and gives both the player and the character a reason to fight outside of a vague "The fate of the world."

I also love showing them a potential reward rather than threatening them directly, especially for players that are somewhat adamant about not engaging because they're not great roleplayers. I could inform them that a weapon which would make their character more powerful and interesting is being held within the keep or that the gods are willing to impart a blessing or boon to anyone that wishes to engage with the whatever or yonder. Gives good organic motivation and makes the game fun to DM when players actually care about what's happening.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
Does anyone have what they consider to be "cool monster synergy encounters?"

For example, Will-o-Wisps have great synergy with Banshees since a Banshee's wail can instantly drop a player and a Will-o-Wisp can basically finish them off quickly.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Does anyone have what they consider to be "cool monster synergy encounters?"

For example, Will-o-Wisps have great synergy with Banshees since a Banshee's wail can instantly drop a player and a Will-o-Wisp can basically finish them off quickly.

There's lots of them the problem is why are they working togather?

I can do his ghblevel I don't enjoy running it. The setup is important. By that a mean location and any additional rules that apply to that location eg water, acid, fire.

Pay attention to any special movement forms.
 

jgsugden

Legend
Don't forget that the PCs will have high level magics at their disposal ... and you shouldn't try to make it irrelevant. The worst sin I see at high levels is when DMs use tricks to negate the abilities of the PCs so that they can have an encounter unfold as they planned it. The PCs should be able to use high level magics to bypass elements of the challenge - it is what makes it feel high level.
 
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There was a "reddit" post of some length awhile back about spicing up boss encounters by making the boss have "tiers." Take them down 1/4 (or 1/3, or 1/2, etc) hit points, the boss sheds all "save each round" effects and the excess damage, gains some new powers or triggers some new feature to the battle. I've begun to take this to heart during my conversion of Paizo's Kingmaker (3rd edition).

As others noted, time is key. High level players have access to so many powers that you'll need a suitable reason they can't have a "15 minute" adventuring day, rest up to full, and repeat, so as to challenge them at some point.

On the other hand, it's nice to flex muscles, and that's the challenge of high level play. D&D has done a decent job of allowing large numbers of inferior monsters to be a threat, so it's an art to make that work. Not everything need be a CR15 battle, but every battle should be meaningful at this point.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
Yeah, survival of the characters is a decent motivator, but put something else in peril so that if the PCs just run, bad stuff will happen to something they care about.
Yep this is how I ended my last campaign. A former PC (a player wanted to switch characters which was perfect as it gave me an NPC they had a strong connection to put in danger :)) Basically they had to retrieve some maguffin and reverse the problem the NPC had caused (he had a reputation as a wildcard) or else it was curtains.

They happily went off on the epic quest, encountering a tarrasque in the process, and it was a fantastic good time.
 

Does anyone have what they consider to be "cool monster synergy encounters?"

For example, Will-o-Wisps have great synergy with Banshees since a Banshee's wail can instantly drop a player and a Will-o-Wisp can basically finish them off quickly.

One thing I don't see used often are mounts. The ability for the enemy to get in and out, with the mount using their action to disengage really gives a different feel to the combat.

Doing something like creating an illusory battlefield, then having blind creatures like grimlocks or other creatures that don't rely on sight could be really interesting.

Any time you can utilize a creature that is immune to something devastating other creatures can do. Like undead with a creature that can spew poison clouds, or the oozes and acid.

Thinking about it though, there aren't a lot of specific monster synergies, creature A putting out something that allows creature B to be far more effective. Might be something you have to homebrew in
 

Challenging high level encounters have never been a challenge to me. There is always something with more powers and hit points etc. What is challenging to me is plot.

How to make an interesting high-level campaign. How do you get the players interested in something greater than themselves? Then how to turn that into a campaign?

I'm struggling with this now. My party is finishing up Divine Contention and they will probably be 11th level. I will have some leads with Ebondeath, the Cassalanters, and Xanathar and the Undermountain. But since the party wants to play to 20th level, I'm wondering just how much that is going to take.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
How do you get the players interested in something greater than themselves? Then how to turn that into a campaign?
Realistically, nobody cares about anything unless whatever it is actually provides tangible benefits for them.

You wouldn't care about your parents if they never fed, clothed, or sheltered you so why would the players feel that way about fantasy stuff?

To get people to care about something, you should show that the something cares about them enough to help them when they need it. If you want to show that the church cares about the cleric character, have them receive certain benefits when they help out. Something like providing spell scrolls of healing word or, when they show true piety, scrolls of revivify.

If you want the knight to care about the princess, have the princess provide the knight with land.

And though it sounds like I'm suggesting it to be transactional, it actually shouldn't. The church should provide the scrolls as gifts, not rewards. Same thing for the princess and land. Because if its purely transactional, its more of a business than a connection.
 

pogre

Legend
Challenging high level encounters have never been a challenge to me. There is always something with more powers and hit points etc. What is challenging to me is plot.
Totally agree. My players enjoy playing through to 20th level. Plot momentum for the campaign can be my biggest struggle. The solution for me has been lots more politics. That, of course, becomes quite campaign and character specific, but generally having PCs attached to a faction or even entire nation has worked well.

In one campaign I have a high level PC trying to help independent city-states resist the push for an Athens-like Delian Empire. Most of the pressure is coming in the form of trade barriers and food supply - making the usual solution of find the problem and kill it less viable.

In another campaign, a paladin is caught up in court intrigue and an emperor who is falling under evil influences. He was forced by noble-obligations into a political marriage and has learned that his otherwise innocent, and unknowing wife was likely sired by Titivilus. Every move he makes for largely altruistic reasons has seemed somehow to further Titivilus's schemes and it is driving him crazy.

The amount of direct player input on the high level adventures has gone way up. I often ask them - what are your goals and what are some obstacles you foresee. I have developed an absolute level of trust with my players that allow me as the DM to put them in tough moral positions and keep the enjoyment level of the game high.
 

The tricky thing, though, is that the lair is full of acidic lakes which the dragon swim in. The acidic lake heavily obscures whoever is in it and it does 10d10 damage per round to whoever is in it. Did I mention that the lair is actually located in the Plane of Water? Because it is and has various Antimagic and Wildmagic zones scattered about.
I'd be really (really) cautious about using anti-magic as the 'solution' to high level play.

Where so many DMs fail is they stop DMing at mid levels, pretty much right at the end of a session where PC use recently minted abilities (that the DM has little experience with) to steamroll one of his encounters (or an entire adventure) with relative ease.

The DM then rage-quits and the campaign ends.

Accordingly, the DM now has no experience with mid level play.

Every DM knows levels 1-5 and what to expect, The spells, basic abilities, class features etc. But few have much experience actually running a campaign to high level, due to the above.

My advice to DMs is always the same. Dont give up. Make your mistakes. Embrace having your encounter wrecked from time to time. Get experience with high level play, so you become a better DM and know how to run such games better.
 

You can follow the KISS principle and still have a reasonably challenging encounter that prevents the party from waltzing in and going nova. The main thing to think about is designing the lair around the monster such that if the party tries to just sit there and mindlessly dish out damage, they're all going to die. You don't need tons of zones and ability-neutralizing things. Here's how I'd do an adult dragon (whom we've given acid immunity):


Quick sketch of the above-ground part of the lair (embellish to taste):

dragon_lair.png


The pools are connected by an underground network of passages. They additionally have a layer of mist above them, allowing the dragon to stay hidden as he peeks above the surface to surveil the party. The cave is dark, giving the party -5 to passive perception. The dragon's main tactic is to Hide, peek above the surface of a pool, use his breath attack on whichever branch he figures will hurt the party the worst, and dive back down beneath the surface, where he waits for his breath to recharge. Following the rules for hidden combat, Readied actions are resolved after applying damage except in the event the dragon fails his Hide. Wizards who Ready spells may, therefore find their concentration broken by the breath weapon.

Once the dragon is below half health, he retreats to his main cave, where he quaffs a couple healing potions from his hoard, hides somewhere, and waits for the party. If the party retreats, he vacates the premises, taking the best treasure with him but leaving behind some consolation prizes.

You can see here if the party uses low-level tactics, they will get their asses handed to them. I'm sure people used to playing high-level casters have all sorts of awesome stuff they can do to win this, and that's the point. Make them do their awesome stuff instead of just spewing out Disintegrate a bunch.
 

Stalker0

Legend
My advice to DMs is always the same. Dont give up. Make your mistakes. Embrace having your encounter wrecked from time to time. Get experience with high level play, so you become a better DM and know how to run such games better.
Yep, I am always inspired by Xanatos from the Disney cartoon gargoyles. For those who don't know, David Xanatos is one of the greatest cartoon villains of all time....because....he actually wins at the end! By the end he is one of the most powerful men on the planet, he has a smoking hot wife, a new baby boy, and his hated enemies (the gargoyles) and the world now see him as a hero.

He is know for the "Xanatos Gambit", effectively he puts his enemy in a scenario where they have to make a choice....and no matter what they choose he has set up his plans to benefit himself.

In high levels I do this a lot. Villains who are expecting high level adventures don't set up encounters to "kill" the adventures....that's way too hard. Its more, how can I deflect them, or use them for my purposes?

One of my best moves of all time, the villain set up a "super deadly" encounter for the heroes to protect his lair (which was actually one of several lairs he had). The heroes won of course, and started looking through his lair. In it, they found an extremely well hidden and super secret book with a nigh unbreakable code....which they proceed to crack of course.

But the trick was, the Villain knew these heroes, and knew that they had some of the greatest investigative minds on the planet. No secret could be kept from them....so he didn't really both to try. He just made it convincing enough for them to think he had.

The book was a complete red herring, and led the heroes away from where the villain needed to work...buying him time for the next phase of his master plan.

So if the trap had killed them....great! But if it didn't, it still moved the heroes where the villain wanted them to go. A win win for the villain!
 

Yep, I am always inspired by Xanatos from the Disney cartoon gargoyles. For those who don't know, David Xanatos is one of the greatest cartoon villains of all time....because....he actually wins at the end! By the end he is one of the most powerful men on the planet, he has a smoking hot wife, a new baby boy, and his hated enemies (the gargoyles) and the world now see him as a hero.

He is know for the "Xanatos Gambit", effectively he puts his enemy in a scenario where they have to make a choice....and no matter what they choose he has set up his plans to benefit himself.

In high levels I do this a lot. Villains who are expecting high level adventures don't set up encounters to "kill" the adventures....that's way too hard. Its more, how can I deflect them, or use them for my purposes?

One of my best moves of all time, the villain set up a "super deadly" encounter for the heroes to protect his lair (which was actually one of several lairs he had). The heroes won of course, and started looking through his lair. In it, they found an extremely well hidden and super secret book with a nigh unbreakable code....which they proceed to crack of course.

But the trick was, the Villain knew these heroes, and knew that they had some of the greatest investigative minds on the planet. No secret could be kept from them....so he didn't really both to try. He just made it convincing enough for them to think he had.

The book was a complete red herring, and led the heroes away from where the villain needed to work...buying him time for the next phase of his master plan.

So if the trap had killed them....great! But if it didn't, it still moved the heroes where the villain wanted them to go. A win win for the villain!

Unfortunately, an overuse of this strategy has it's own problem, making the players feel like they are never accomplishing anything.

Don't forget, even Xanatos lost (the werewolf wife incident) or had to settle for a lot less than he actually wanted. Make sure that while the villain is still "winning" the players don't feel like they are just caught in an endless cycle of losing until you let them win.
 

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