D&D 5E Running Tier 3 D&D 5e

I agree with all of this in general but would like to add some nuance from my experience.

Encounter specific interventions
These are tricks, complications, goals, or anything else that is bespoke to that encounter. It emerges by thinking through the scene.
• How often? I use these as often as possible, keeping an eye on pacing and on my own effort/burnout level.

Another way to think of encounter tactics is to think of them as a cultural or regional. They can be used repeatedly in specific locals. I.e. slippery, sliding shale that threatens to send PCs over cliff faces is a locale-based phenomena. It might affect several square miles of a large mountain or just a narrow pass. Could be well known or "Don't go! No one ever comes back from there!"

By the same token any kobold war band of this particular tribe could use a combination of caltrops/bearings & flasks of oil/fire as a way to escape and injure pursuers. (Rare but funny situations where a heavily armored warrior repeatedly fails dex saves and is trapped on a pool of flaming oil).

If they go to a different mountain or find other tribe of kobolds the situation will be different.

These should also flow into other aspects. The duergar who compete with the kobolds have special fire-resistant armor, or giants hunt on the shale faces, throwing rocks to create landslides and using giant eagles to retrieve the bodies.

Party adapted interventions
These are strategies to thwart specific powerful or problematic PC capabilities, and encourage players breaking out of habitual solutions.
How often? I use these intermittently, sometimes more often, sometimes sparingly to not at all, sort of like salt.

These can be unique to a specific foe, allowing it to be reused but in a plot-rational way. Imagine if the bbeg was an illusionist. It nerfs the casters & archers with highly obscuring AoE illusions, but the minions already know it's an illusion and can see through it. Or if they use Seeming to disguise Shadows as gnolls. Maybe the party is attacked by an illusory monster, which consumes time/resources and then later they encounter a real version of that monster but discount it.

All of these tactics are irritating nerfs that should be used judiciously (in part because players will learn and adopt some of those tactics) but a good recurring villain is usually recurring because they thwart the PCs enough to escape.

General interventions based on rules concerns
These are things like "my combats are taking too long, so I halve all monster hit points" or "my sorcerer twinning this particular spell is wrecking my fights so I'm nerfing the spell."
• How often? Personally, I use these as little as possible and only when it's strictly necessary or clearly the best way to achieve a goal.

Making global changes, even to minor things can have sweeping consequences. Be sure to apply the tiniest, most situational version of a rule tweak. The broader the change, the more likely to have an unexpected consequence.

Looking over your party (alpha striker, mage, ranged, melee), I have some hunches...
  • First glaring weakness is very little healing. Do damage fast and hard to them, and force paladin to spend action using Lay Hands or ranger using Cure Wounds.

  • I would expand this from just damage to longer lasting status effects, things that need Lesser Restoration. Blindness, deafness, etc. Look at some of the higher level cleric spells for lists of things the party will have trouble with.

    Even when the paladin gets Lesser Restoration, using (or reserving) some spell slots for that is reducing their smite-splosions, which is still a way to limit them

    [*]PCs often tend to turtle around a paladin for save bonus, so strategies to break that up are great – 2-3 goals that require different PCs engaging with stuff on different areas of map, ongoing damage zones, mages with fireballs, weaponizing one PC, etc.

    The paladin bubble is a common issue. Look for things that have effect even on saves. A low level Shatter spell becomes a lot more efficient when you are guaranteed to hit 3-4 PCs.

    Ways to break up the bubble include Dissonant Whispers (1st level non-fear based spell that can cause PCs to run away), Crusher feat (can move an enemy 5ft), the warlock eldritch blast push/pull invocations, Sentinel (no, the paladin has to just stand there), and fun stuff like just Banishing the paladin. And remember, if you can Incapacitate the Paladin, their buff auras turn off.

    [*]Ranged monsters – either along with terrain hazards, distance, or even better other monster roles – will help to keep the threat on.
    [*]Party is balanced, but anything that separates them or removes one of them from the combat – even for a round or two – will have an unbalancing impact that requires players to adapt.

Definitely agree with the above. Ranged attackers can often fit in three roles: targeted damage, volume or fire, or tactical value.

A rogue sniper can dish out terrible damage if they can attack from concealment or have allies in combat. (It's like an adventuring party, in reverse!) Don't neglect the value of simple animals in this. They don't do damage directly, they enable the main foe to use their best attacks.

A mob of kobold archers are generally relying on chance to either get a meaningful lucky hit or wear down a foe by attrition (note that doing 8x 2hp attacks can be more effective than one 16hp a5tack when the target is a caster concentrating on a spell).

Some Ranged attackers aren't doing damage directly but are using things like alchemist fire, caltrops and the like to create terrain hazards that didn't exist before.

log in or register to remove this ad


"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
Wow, not my experience at all. Paladins going nova with the smites and getting the crit was pretty much insta-death for virtually anything the DM put out on the table for one campaign. And that’s the first I’ve heard someone say Steel Wind Strike was weak. Playing a Horizon Walker Ranger who had this spell, it practically turned him into a teleporting buzzsaw. The spell was clearly designed for gishes.
Nah. If it actually used your weapon attack in some way, instead of just being a series of spell attacks, then it would be a spell for gishes. But it works exactly the same for a wizard with a staff as it does for a ranger with a flame tongue.

It's a good spell, it's a 5 target AoE with pinpoint targeting and can benefit from attack buffs. But it's only a gish spell in terms of thematics, not execution.


Registered User
Nah. If it actually used your weapon attack in some way, instead of just being a series of spell attacks, then it would be a spell for gishes. But it works exactly the same for a wizard with a staff as it does for a ranger with a flame tongue.

It's a good spell, it's a 5 target AoE with pinpoint targeting and can benefit from attack buffs. But it's only a gish spell in terms of thematics, not execution.
It’s also force damage (which is probably a nerf that should happen across the board) meaning very few monsters will have resistance. The reason I think Gish is thematic but it also does keep you in melee, which a full wizard probably doesn’t want to do.

My approach wouldn't be a mixture of what was said earlier:
  • Interesting lair effects (Especially in a Greek themed campaign, these could range from shrines where only one god's divine magic works to permanent silence to sovereign glue traps (seeing how there are lots of centaurs. ;) )
  • Legendary actions for leaders. Even if it's just one free save per round or granting them the lucky feat. That can make things much more difficult.
  • Since you have some serious damage dealers, increase specific foe's HP by 20%.
  • Choices for resources. If the RP leads to exploration which leads to combat, set up opportunities for them to use resources prior to combat. I mean forcing that paladin to make a choice between healing the poor dying satyr or saving it for their upcoming battle might come into play. Having the wizard/thief need to cast a spell to diffuse the trap or they can attempt saves might make a difference.
  • Casters that target your PC's weaknesses. It's amazing how a few spells like hold person and counterspell can do.

Good luck.

Edit: I should add that this greatly increases combat time, and for some players, becomes a source of frustration. As a player, I have never minded being the fighter and having the intelligent wizard target me for things like hold person or banishment. If it happened every fight, then I might be annoyed. But a player being targeted every so often should be expected.
Last edited:

We have just reached level 10 in our campaign ( playing through Odyssey of the Dragonlords, so Greek themed )

I am struggling to make combat feel challenging, PCs do walk through most encounters, I have tried some environmental items, but now they have a lot of abilities they negate most of them. As you can see PC1 is a super nova class ( average of 70 points of damage per round with Smites )

the PCs are
  • PC1 - Paladin 6, Sorcerer 4
  • PC2 - Rogue 2, Wizard 8
  • PC3 - Ranger 10
  • PC4 - Sorcerer 2, Fighter 8

Don't want to nerf characters so I am wondering how best to run Tier 3 encounters so that they pose some threat. Thanks in advance.
IMO The designers of 5e messed up so it's on you to redesign monsters and challenges.

1. Have incorporeal creatures ignore armour and shields when attacking. Only Dexterity, force magic like the shield provide protection.
2. Have the DCs to save successfully =+5 over the amount. So if the old DC is 15, a DC of 20 works as before but a 15-19 now has a lesser effect. Example an upcast Sleep spell may make someone Drowsy (new condition) if they save.
3. Do not be afraid to give monsters class features, feats or better equipment even magical consumables.
* A Nightmare with barding;
*A Bugbear with the action surge, fighting style and the Savage Attacker feat;
*A Beholder with sorcery points
* A fallen paladin wight that can unholy smite
4. Give opponents Skills - have them grapple casters
5. Someone drops to 0 they gain a Level of Exhaustion. Adjust recovery rates.
6. Use Sunder to destroy holy symbols, spell foci etc. Have giants and the like sunder weapons or disarm.
7. Have dragon breath (depending on age of dragon) destroy equipment and magical items. Have dragon fear DC increase every round.
8. Use terrain and environment - underwater sinking heavy armoured PCs nevermind disadvantage on all melee attacks with slashing and bludgeoning weapons, pure darkness zones, continuous corridors with reverse gravity effects, flowing magma that causes heat metal effects, cursed ground that diminishes healing, psychic energy fields that drive someone slowly mad (maddness per DMG), thunderous caverns that deafen or break concentration, wild magic zones that weaken attunements, illusionary pockets...etc
9. Use mob tactics, feel free to have a mob grapple and possibly attempt to restrain PCs
10. Have Large, Huge and Gargantuan creatures impose conditions with their attacks via save, save with disadvantage and auto failure respectively depending on size - conditions such as shove, knock prone, create difficult terrain etc.
11. Use PC tactics against them - Hasted Wraiths, Spirit Guardian Cultists, Invisible Stalkers with a Globe of Invulnerability...etc
12. Reimagine monsters - a werewolf whose howl infects Lycanthropy, a demon whose attacks add flaws, a dao whose attacks gradually petrify beginning with decreasing movement (Slow), a banshee whose scream unleashes lingering injuries, a water weird whose touch incurs a supernatural thirst (new condition)...etc
13. Increase the scope of Legendary Actions, Lair Actions, Environmental Affects.
i.e. have a Mummy Lords regional effects, affect potions, magical components made of liquid as they all turn to sand (no saves)
14. Failures of 5 or more should see results
  • lockpicks get broken
  • persuasion checks change the NPCs disposition toward pcs
  • climb checks see a money pouch untethered from the belt and goes falling down the canyon
  • Arcana checks to investigate a teleportation circle cause a feedback that sucks a spell slot


I don't think Paladin Smites are very powerful at all. A spell cast with a spell slot is generally going to be more powerful than a smite used with a slot of the same level.
This is totally true, but you can't cast 6+ spells in one turn like you can with Divine Smites, without any setup or special/contrived circumstances required.

The total amount of damage that Paladins can do total in an adventuring day is balanced, and actually rather pathetically low in the mythical scenario with 6-8 combat encounters per day. What is gamebreaking though is how they can dump an entire day's worth of damage into a single round to one-shot just about any BBEG.

One nerf the OP should consider is implementing a "once per turn" restriction on Divine Smites - this is absolutely coming in the new PHB so it's not like you would be concocting weird homebrew rules, you would just be implementing an upcoming change early. Another tactic is to use waves of enemies, make the Paladin either waste smites early on the less important enemies, or sit on their resources giving others a chance to shine. If they always have it in their head that this enemy I'm fighting may or may not be the REAL threat that I need to go nova on, you may seem them trend naturally towards only smiting once or twice per turn for fear of being exposed with no spell slots later on


Lots of generic combat advice and whinging about paladin smite. Don't nerf the sorcadin suddenly after 10 levels, that will just feel real bad.

For tier 3, the players would normally have 5th level and soon 6th level spells. But with all the multiclassing they're doing I think your casters are probably all at least a spell level behind that. Which is great, because its the higher level spells that in my experience make things hard for us as DMs.

When I've run the game at tier 3, and even at tier 4, rather than have a series of balanced encounters for a full "adventuring day" I tend to focus on big insane set pieces which aren't really balanced that much. Some small encounters where the players get to crush mooks are still fun and shouldn't be neglected though - just less frequent than "usual" or what we're used to from lower tiers.

Some examples of the situations/set pieces I've run:
Getting to a lair 5 miles underwater and fighting an elder brain (and all its minions) in its brine pool
Getting to the top of a monster infested mountain to conduct a ritual, before the bbeg gets there and steals the macguffin.
Defending the home village from waves of attackers
Raiding an enemy city, only for a hostile dragon and rider to also be raiding that city

You'll notice that many of these can't really be done on a 5ft grid, because of the scale. Lots of theatre of the mind, up to the point where the action focuses in and you can play on the grid is how I've done it


Paladin's don't have steel wind strike, for one thing. Smite is more powerful as written than pretty much any paladin spell.

It was an example of a 5th level spell and Treantmonk branded it Purple which is "modest".

If you are talking about Paladin spells, the following spells are all generally more powerful (some are way more powerful) than using a smite with the same slot:

Banishing Smite
Destructive Wave
Holy Weapon
Summon Celestial
Circle of Power
Find Greater Steed
Death Ward
Aura of vitality
Dispel Magic
Lessor Restoration
Protection from Evil and Good
Wrathful Smite

Also there are a ton of good Paladin subclass spells.

In 5E spells are just more powerful than attacking.
Last edited:


This is totally true, but you can't cast 6+ spells in one turn like you can with Divine Smites, without any setup or special/contrived circumstances required.

The total amount of damage that Paladins can do total in an adventuring day is balanced, and actually rather pathetically low in the mythical scenario with 6-8 combat encounters per day. What is gamebreaking though is how they can dump an entire day's worth of damage into a single round to one-shot just about any BBEG.

I don't know how you can divine smite 6 times in one turn, but I will take your word for it.

Divine Smite can do a lot of damage and can do that very quickly and against some foes that is the best play, particularly if the have legendary resistances.

However dumping an entire days damage into one BBEG is not really game breaking when a Wizard or Sorcerer can do the same thing and do it multiple times a day with their best spells or how a Cleric, Druid or Bard can bring someone up off the ground with healing word while also attacking until she runs out of slots. Divine Smite is cool and fun but it is just not that powerful.

At the end of the day martial combat in D&D are just not as powerful as spells. A caster, including Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks, that use casting resources to enhance damage does so at the cost of spell casting which is generally more powerful due to the 5E mechanics.


In terms of action economy smite much stronger than you suggest because 1) that slot gets to be used at the same time as you can attack and 2) all those attacks and smite damage can be focused on a single enemy.

That said, Paladins just don't get many great spells for combat casting. Sometimes your subclass will come with a useful one or 2 though.

Smite does offer an advantage in action economy and Divine Smite is useful. It is not powerful or game breaking though in the same way that some spells are, including some Paladin spells.

Paladins do get good spells for combat, although they are split between 1st and 5th level mostly. Wrathful Smite is one of the most powerful 1st level spells in the game (although I rarely see it used to maximize its effectiveness and it is getting severely nerfed in ONE). Bless and Protection from Good and Evil are also powerful as is Command, although that is situational. There are a bunch of powerful 5th level Paladin combat spells and then there is Dispel Magic at 3rd level, which is powerful in combat but also situational.

Paladins don't have a lot of good combat spells of level 2-4 and other than Bless and Command their good 1st level spells don't upcast well. But they do have a lot of good spells at those levels that will generally be of more valuable if used out of combat as opposed to the extra 10-20 damage or so they are going to do to one enemy in combat.
Last edited:

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads