Level Up (A5E) Making Monsters Matter - The Danger Zone

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
This is my third and final post in this series—slightly overdue but I hope it's worth the wait!

Making Monsters Matter is about doing that very thing. Previously we have looked at how to make classic folkloric monsters more thrilling by diving back into our ghost story roots. We took that theme of proximity and enhanced it, allowing us to add gravity to our monsters by taking notes from certain monster movies.

In this entry, we draw even closer to the object of our fears and commit the ultimate blasphemy: building hopelessly, outrageously, sickeningly, overpowered encounters.

In case it isn't already plain, I'm talking about building encounters that well outclass the "deadly" category. These face-offs are something that, by rights, should happen in most any heroic fantasy campaign—and especially in horror campaigns. The normative guidance in our TTRPG books doesn't handle these situations well, but it is my sense that A5E is especially well suited to handle them. To make this work, we need to reframe what it means for us to build an encounter with overpowered monsters.

A hopeless encounter is defined as one where one or more enemy creatures have average damage that can one-shot a PC of a given level. This is somewhat different from the definition of an impossible encounter, which is defined by net difficulty and the assumption of being "impossible to win." With the hopeless encounter, the threat is so extreme to each individual PC that any subject to the threat will likely instantly die.
The average damage info can also be used to determine what kinds of objects the creatures can one-shot. (I'll go ahead and do that for us!) This helps us know right away what kind of materials are actually helpful in escaping a hopeless threat. And, the materials instantly destroyed by the creature in one turn of effort will be important in a later step (when we select exploration challenges).

EDIT: The inverse of a hopeless threat is a pitiable challenge---a creature you can one-shot, who has basically no chance against you on its own. Most creatures are prone to ignoring pitiable challenges unless they are foolish enough to actually attack. The horse swats not the flies that leave them well enough alone. (Noteworthy exceptions apply, particularly creatures on the hunt. Hungry ankhegs, trolls, giants, and dragons, etc.)

Some Notes
  • A creature is "hopeless" for a PC to face off against if it is of a CR higher than the CR maximum (for a single PC). These creatures can typically kill a PC in 1 round of successful attacks.
  • Objects are compared against the attack bonus and average DPR of the creature. Reinforced structures may be able to resist these attacks if this damage is spread out across multiple hits.
  • I haven't figured out how Elite monsters figure into this yet. Insight welcomed.
  • The damage of exploration challenges may not follow the same rules as monsters. For the sake of this table, I assume they nonetheless represent an overall comparable level of challenge and lethality to their monster counterparts. Definitions of "instant death" may vary.

MonsterExampleHopeless for Average PCs of…Objects Instantly Destroyed
(Material—Size)
CR 2Ankheg, cave bear, grick
Stampede
Level 1Glass, crystal, or ice—up to Medium resilient
CR 4Banshee, elephant, vampire spawn,
ghost
Pit trap, rooftop run
Level 2 and lessWood, bone—up to Medium resilient
CR 5Giant crocodile, flesh guardian, troll
Rockfall
Level 3 and lessStone—up to Large resilient
CR 7Chimera, cyclops, giant ape
Poison darts, sandstorm
Level 4 and lessStone—up to Large resilient
CR 8T-Rex, stone giant
Acid field, wild magic zone
Level 5 and lessStone—up to Large resilient
CR 10Cloud giant, deva, stone guardian, young gold dragon
Rolling sphere, tornado
Level 6 and lessIron, steel—Large resilient object (x2)
CR 11Aboleth, archmage, horned devil, vampire
Caught in the crossfire, sphere of annihilation
Level 7 and lessIron, steel—Large resilient object (x2)
CR 13Roc, rakshasa, vampire mage
Bridge of sorrow
Level 8 and lessIron, steel—Large resilient object (x2)
CR 14Ascetic grandmaster, knight captain, storm giant
Perilous cliff path
Level 9 and lessAdamantine, mithral—Large resilient (x2)
CR 16Adult white dragon, archpriest, sea serpent
Hallowed ground, malfunctioning planar portal
Level 10 and lessAdamantine, mithral—Large resilient (x2)
CR 17Adult black dragon, dragon turtle, master assassin
God corpse, tsunami
Level 11 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x3)
CR 19Adult shadow dragon, arcane blademaster, balor
Forest fire
Level 12 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x3)
CR 20Adult red dragon, pit fiend
Divine war
Level 13 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x3)
CR 22Ancient White Dragon
Empyrean
Level 14 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x4)
CR 23Ancient Black Dragon
Great Wyrm Black Dragon
Level 15 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x4)
CR 25Ancient Blue Dragon
Kraken
Level 16 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x4)
CR 26Ancient Gold Dragon
Ancient Red Dragon
Level 17 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x5)
CR 28Level 18 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x5)
CR 29Level 19 and lessAdamantine, mithral, or greater—Large resilient (x6)
CR 31Level 20 and less


There is a common sentiment among TTRPG gamers these days, that the Narrator will never present a challenge which the players cannot reasponably defeat. (We can blame certain videogames for this sentiment. And yes, OSR fans may well be disabused of this sentiment.) So there comes a desire to help players come to understand their situation in-universe.

In consultation with other A5E developers, there are a few options I'd like to present. I think they are both good options, and they are each better suited for different campaigns or play styles. Either way, communicate with your play group to see which one everyone agrees is the best fit. This will help norm expectations for sticky situations.

Option 1: Instant Awareness
In this option, when PCs discern a creature, they can instantly determine whether or not it presents a Hopeless challenge to them individually. This is a lot like identifying whether or not a creature is bloodied. With the bloodied condition, PCs can identify the signs of wounds, exhaustion, and demoralization on a creature. Similarly, characters can sense a hopeless challenge instantly, through a combination of keen observations, intuition, and sheer primal survival instinct. Characters might describe this sense in various ways depending on their worldview.

EDIT: Observing a mighty creature smash through materials like stone walls is also a great way of telegraphing that the creature is a hopelessly overwhelming threat.

Option 2: New Action "Assess Danger"
As an action, choose one target you can see. You made a Wisdom or Intelligence check. At the Narrator's discretion, check might benefit from Perception or Insight. The DC is 10, unless one of the targets conceals its nature (disguise, stealth, illusion, fear effect, etc.) with a higher DC. The results vary based on the DC and/or the result:
  • Failure (check result 9 or lower) -- You don't find the target particularly alarming, or the target is hard to assess.
  • Success (DC 10) -- You determine whether the target represents a hopeless challenge to you.
  • Failure (check result 10 or higher) -- Something is off about the target, but you cannot say precisely what. If against a fear effect, you instead rate the target as posing a hopeless challenge (accurately or not).
  • Success (Higher DC) -- You pierce the disguise or otherwise determine the accurate nature of the target; you also learn if the target represents a hopeless challenge to you.


So now that both the Narrator and the players know they are in a fight they cannot win, what happens next?

Generally speaking, mighty creatures don't care about pitiable threats. If PCs find themselves in close contact with a hopelessly powerful creature, this may not be enough to draw them into combat. That should only be the case if the story demands it. The PCs may have the chance to figure out a way around the creature instead of through it… and that would likely represent an Exploration Challenge.

So suppose the party slips and falls into the lair of a sleeping elder sapphire dragon… The creature still represents a threat even when its asleep, but as long as the players do not foolishly pick a fight with it, they have a chance to survive. What exploration challenges might a sapphire dragon present in its immediate surroundings?
  • any type of trap
  • lost item
  • rockfall

Now suppose that this same elder sapphire dragon used its layer to manipulate the PCs into ultimately awakening the terrasque. The terrasque is a hopeless challenge against all but the mightiest heroes. What kind of exploration challenges might the terrasque present against PCs just trying to stay beneath its notice? Depending on just how horrible the awakening of the terrasque is, it could cause anything from:
  • rockfall
  • divine war
  • primordial tornado
  • sunspots
  • wild magic zone

Of course, some of these exploration challenges are also highly appropriate for these creatures as signs of their presence in the campaign world. Also important to worth mentioning—again, a player who is foolish enough to pick a fight with a hopelessly powerful adversary doesn't get to benefit from these narrative shifts—they deserve to be eaten.

EDIT: Keep in mind that the PCs are likely not the only ones responding to the situation involving the overwhelming presence of a hopelessly challenging creature. What kinds of plots emerge when a terrasque isn't in the wilderness, but is in a capital city? How do the persistent problems, conflicts, and stalemates of power respond to the catalyst of this disaster? This is an important opportunity to set the tone of your campaign and provide your players with challenges appropriate for their characters. A campaign where you save orphans from a chemical fire will be profoundly different than when you use the opportunity of a zombie attack to raid the national treasury.

Finally, combat breaking out in any of these cases should remain a distinct possibility. It should be a possibility that players put active effort into avoiding. Even if combat does break out, the players should be connected to their goals deeply enough for them to recognize and act on their objectives---and try to clinch those objectives from the jaws of defeat. This might mean distracting and manipulating a hopelessly powerful monster, or it might mean making a sacrifice for the greater good. These are the challenges that are the stuff of legend.


tl;dr - don't be afraid to replace combat vs. shamefully powerful creaturs with exploration challenges. And even if combat does break out, remind your players that they will lose a fight to the death (so they need to get clever fast). Just communicate with your players so everyone shares the same expectations of how hopeless encounters should go down. Also, don't be afraid to let foolish players reap the benefits of their choices.
 
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Nice! It summarizes an idea I was discussing a while ago on a FB group, exactly about how to run impossibly overwhelming encounters.

Basically, it boiled down to 3 steps that are remarkably similar to the ones you described (no surprise here ;) )
  • clearly describe the encounter as overwhelming. In case of a BBEG of a campaign, maybe its sheer size and the fact that it can simply walk through castle defenses like they were made out of paper should be enough to telegraph the situation. The table you provided is particularly handy for that, as it results in a more "simulationist" approach than just handwaving everything
  • the overwhelming threat will probably not even acknowledge the presence of the PCs, like a person walking in the woods would probably not notice the insects unless they bite (and even in that case, the person will probably just try to wave them away)
  • the sheer destructive presence of such a creature will most likely create widespread havoc. This is a great occasion to create some challenges that are both urgent and possible for the PCs to deal with: saving passengers from crumbling buildings, fending off hordes of minions to cover the retreat of the population, preventing the holy tree from completely burning (or preserving a few seeds), etc. This last aspect is very important and accomplishes two things: keeps the morale at the table from totally plummeting and avoids the feeling of railroading that may loom when these kinds of events take place (there's still player agency).
 

Alhazrael

Villager
In the o5e adventure Out of the Abyss the party is extremely likely to engage in this style of encounter very early on with very little guidance to the DM on how to present it as an interesting challenge to the players. This is an an excellent take on the problem. I love using immense threats as a background to skill challenges and encounters, treating them as triggering events rather than combat. Tagging these threats as "hopeless" whether they are a creature, situation, or some other dire event is excellent and really puts the tone front and center.
 

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
UPDATE!

  • I have added a column to the chart providing examples of the creatures and exploration challenges of a given CR. Some of the destructive impacts of a given entity are a little surprising!
  • I have also included further advice and guidance based on the feedback in this thread! Thank you @lichmaster and @Alhazrael
 
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