D&D 5E When you've made the battle too much to handle...

pogre

Legend
I suspect the solution lies in your villain's motivations. Are there ways to move the lich's agenda forward without killing the PCs? Could they help him reach those goals? Perhaps in exchange for being subject to Geas spell and undertaking a mission, the lich let's them live. Are the PCs just in the way - are there other ways to remove them?
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
So, no monsters in disguise? Nothing out of the ordinary?
That doesn't follow. You seem to think knowing a monster's AC and HP implies that somehow means the players know exactly what it is. That's not the case. They know something happens when the thing they're swinging at drops 80 hp. They don't know what.
They all know which of the monsters has magic items and which doesn't? etc..?
That also doesn't follow. Knowing this monster has an AC19 doesn't tell you if it has magic items, nor what those magic items are. Monsters don't follow the same rules as the PCs.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
No one is talking about reading stories but you.
Show up to the DM's house or log into Roll20 for a game...then get zero input into the outcome of the story as the DM dictates all...yeah, that's reading me a story. If I, as a player, have no choices to make, I'm not playing an RPG. I'm being read a story. If I, as a player, have only the illusion of choice and the DM has decided exactly how things play out before we've even sat down to "play", I'm not playing an RPG. I'm being read a story. It's not an RPG unless the players can affect the story as it unfolds. And no, I don't mean just being able to decide who I attack in a combat.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
That doesn't follow. You seem to think knowing a monster's AC and HP implies that somehow means the players know exactly what it is. That's not the case. They know something happens when the thing they're swinging at drops 80 hp. They don't know what.

You see four kobold children in the corner. Three have 1hp each and AC 11, the fourth has 40hp and AC 20, kind of feels like it loses some surprise.

That also doesn't follow. Knowing this monster has an AC19 doesn't tell you if it has magic items, nor what those magic items are. Monsters don't follow the same rules as the PCs.
It kind of feels like the unarmored human appearing thing with AC 19 has something special going on...
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
You see four kobold children in the corner. Three have 1hp each and AC 11, the fourth has 40hp and AC 20, kind of feels like it loses some surprise.
Weird that you assume that's what I'd do. But it's your strawman. Keep swinging all you want.
It kind of feels like the unarmored human appearing thing with AC 19 has something special going on...
Again, monsters and NPCs don't follow the same rules as characters. Don't know what to tell you.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Weird that you assume that's what I'd do. But it's your strawman. Keep swinging all you want.
It seemed to follow from your "Tell the players the AC and HP of the monsters up front. Go. They know what's up and they can make an informed choice."

Again, monsters and NPCs don't follow the same rules as characters. Don't know what to tell you.
As long as everyone at the table is having fun.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Show up to the DM's house or log into Roll20 for a game...then get zero input into the outcome of the story as the DM dictates all...yeah, that's reading me a story. If I, as a player, have no choices to make, I'm not playing an RPG. I'm being read a story. If I, as a player, have only the illusion of choice and the DM has decided exactly how things play out before we've even sat down to "play", I'm not playing an RPG. I'm being read a story. It's not an RPG unless the players can affect the story as it unfolds. And no, I don't mean just being able to decide who I attack in a combat.

We are terribly sorry if you've had such bad experiences. If you have, though, those are your experiences. Please do not expect that the discussion of others who haven't had these experiences is aimed at addressing your personal concerns.
 


Setup: PCs are 8th level, a caster-heavy group drained of resources, in a battle with an "atrophied" lich (has some lair and legendary lich abilities, capped as 11th level caster, reduced DCs, no phylactery so it won't stick around if there's a chance it could be destroyed) ...

IF the battle keeps going as-is, it's a TPK. We paused in battle between session, so I have till next weekend to regroup.

It Got Out of Control When... The atrophied lich used its Lair tether ability (CON save or take half the damage the lich takes) and the Shield Guardian ability, combined with legendary actions to repeatedly cast Toll the Dead. I felt it's a fair tactic a genius-level bad guy would use, especially since he's been scrying the PCs for weeks now.

But, it's still too much... The Guardian is now down, but the atrophied lich is still renewing spells each round, doing great on HP, and tethering to the PC wizard. He's been scrying them for weeks now, so I've tailored his strategies to defeat their abilities. The PC fighter is on fumes. The PCs have exhausted their powers trying to keep her afloat.

So, damn, what do you do? I believe now the PCs should have been 9 or 10th level before this battle, my bad on that part. Too late now to correct. It's game on and if I play the Boss intelligently, it knows it's winning and simply has to spam Toll the Dead until everyone is dead. Looking for ways to throw in some (believable) chances for the PCs rather than mercilessly mow them down. Also, on a tangent, may approach the group again about limiting the # of attack cantrips one can cast between short rests. The fighter PC is probably not happy with cantrip spam at the moment...
I underlined what stood out to me.

Single higher level foe, with guard, versus a lower level party. Seems reasonable at first blush. A high level foe should be prepared. But, scrying for weeks? I presume that this is part of the convoluted backstory, but I am a little surprised the party was this unprepared.

The lich doesn't mitigate the damage it takes, but can inflict additional damage when it is harmed? Not sure what you mean by it is "renewing" spells each round. Are there limits to legendary, lair, or similar actions? I forget what is per round or encounter.

- Wizard / Cleric should cast darkness, minor illusion, blindness, or something else to block line of site so that toll the dead is useless. Or, do something that forces the lich to cast spells that the cleric and wizard counter. Leaving a lich at distance is a death sentence. (Do I understand correctly that it is doing 3d8 / 3d12 up to four times a round? That's a cantrip? It seems that a save makes for no damage, but its save DC must be strong. That seems quite strong, but then it is not casting any other spells. But, then, it is casting three cantrips a round plus a spell.)

- Cleric should bombard the lich with sacred flame. This needs line of sight, obviously, so it may conflict with the previous tactic. The cleric should be healing the fighter otherwise.

- Wizard should cast dispel magic or counterspell on the tether ability. (I don't know if that is strictly BTB, but it should be given the strength of this power.) Is this a lasting power or does it need to be renewed?

- Thief should be holding action to stab the lich when they cast. Waste the legendary actions. Also provide flanking advantage to the fighter.

- The fighter needs to be up front and personal with that lich, and the rest of the party needs to keep them alive. Hammer it into the wall like John Henry's last stand. Gain bonus attacks whenever it tries to cast a spell.

- The fighter can tackle the lich, yell "save yourselves", and die a heroic-ish death. Or, wait a minute, can casters cast when grappled? Have the fighter grapple, cleric heal the fighter, and everyone else pound the snot out of it?

As to what the DM can do, and actually answer the OP's question:

- The cleric / paladin / warlock can ask their god / inspiration / patron for a miraculous teleport away.

- With the next successful hit that does >10 hp damage the lich teleports away. "Curse you meddlesome kids!"

- With the next AoE the PCs cast part of the ceiling collapses between the adversaries.

- Secure in its power, the lich allows the PCs to escape when they flee. They obviously aren't a threat, but it is going to find a new lair.
 
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dave2008

Legend
Show up to the DM's house or log into Roll20 for a game...then get zero input into the outcome of the story as the DM dictates all...yeah, that's reading me a story. If I, as a player, have no choices to make,
No one said that though. You are making giant leaps. No one is saying give the players no input or don't allow them to make any choices. Not even close. If there are a million choices in a campaign, and the DM fudges 2 of them, that is not the DM telling a story with 0 input or action by the players. You're trying to jump the grand canyon and we are suggesting you don't step in a puddle.
 

There are a number of really thoughtful and creative post above.

However, I would let them suffer the consequences of their actions, and get ready to rollup new characters for the next session...
That can be fun. But, as others have said, that can also kill the game dead. TPKs are serious business, and can destroy any enthusiasm the players might have had for playing. It can be difficult or even impossible to rekindle the flame of enthusiasm once utterly doused by disappointment.

OT: The fact that a number of people are trying to find ways for the PCs to avoid death, just substantiates the point that I've made in another thread, that it is hard to die in 5E... (because in this case - DMs feel obligated to find a way to save the PCs)
That's a pretty blatant non sequitur though? You're conflating "how does the system math work" with "what do DMs choose to do." The two are entirely orthogonal things. It may be the case that the rules make it hard to die (though frankly that is exactly the opposite of my experience), and it may be the case that DMs are reluctant to create situations where death is a likely consequence, but those two things are not related to one another. One is about how the designers wrote the rules, the other is about DM psychology (and maybe player psychology too).

I don't run 5e myself. I run Dungeon World. But I also run a game where my players know that random, irreversible permadeath doesn't happen. Unlike what a lot of people (seemingly including you) would say in response to that, this does not mean my campaign has no stakes. I, personally, find that removing death from the table actually enhances the stakes, as my players take very seriously that everything they do can affect the world and have ripple out consequences; they know that the people and places they're attached to are not inviolable; they know that they will be tested, not so much in "can you roll big enough numbers to rescue the President," but in "can you make a decision you can live with?" That's so much more juicy and weighty than death!
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Can the players not retreat and regroup? What is keeping them in the fight?
The Boss is ravaging their capital town (they run a barony) with a large sphere of annihilation because they started trashing his base, so they don't feel they can flee because he'll just start doing it again. There's a lengthy backstory to all of this, but actions of the PCs convinced the Boss to see them as a legit threat, so he unleashed a personal experiment on their town.

So by this do you mean they tried and failed or never bothered trying? If they failed, I'd want more details. If they never bothered trying, that's their mistake. Hopefully lesson learned.
(1) They looted a ring that restores stone to flesh, found various lifelike statues, and learned the Boss likes to petrify hated enemies and make them into art galleries. They found those galleries (before getting the ring) and even passed back through one. I couldn't have been more obvious, so I didn't feel inclined to be even more obvious and say "man, sure would be cool if you had something to use that ring on...."
(2) Various NPC interactions that were avoided in which the NPCs might have been converted/tricked, etc. into aiding them. Much like the alu-fiend, not everything is happy to be trapped in this base with the Boss.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The Boss is ravaging their capital town (they run a barony) with a large sphere of annihilation because they started trashing his base, so they don't feel they can flee because he'll just start doing it again. There's a lengthy backstory to all of this, but actions of the PCs convinced the Boss to see them as a legit threat, so he unleashed a personal experiment on their town.
Damn. That sounds awesome.
(1) They looted a ring that restores stone to flesh, found various lifelike statues, and learned the Boss likes to petrify hated enemies and make them into art galleries. They found those galleries (before getting the ring) and even passed back through one. I couldn't have been more obvious, so I didn't feel inclined to be even more obvious and say "man, sure would be cool if you had something to use that ring on...."
Yeah. That “hopefully lesson learned” was directed at them.
(2) Various NPC interactions that were avoided in which the NPCs might have been converted/tricked, etc. into aiding them. Much like the alu-fiend, not everything is happy to be trapped in this base with the Boss.
Sounds like a case of “no thank you, we’re the heroes”.

Best of luck with it. Hope something in the thread ends up being useful to you.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Does the lich have any other goals other than a TPK? Maybe after it kills one or two characters it offers to let the others live if they take a deal or take on a job?

Initially yes, he wants info on the new world he woke up to after a 10,000 year forced slumber. His race enslaved all other races and now he's curious about a changed world in which his people don't rule, and humans build cities. To him, that's like dogs driving cars. He was gathering info by capturing human souls to interrogate and later sell. The PCs weren't happy when they finally uncovered the who-dunnit mystery of who made a village disappear. While he'd like more info, he's not at all happy about the dogs biting at him and peeing on his rug.

This mystery strongly implies that there's something Special about the player characters, but as far as they know there isn't anything THAT special about them. Where you choose to take it from there is up to you. Perhaps this leads to the reveal that someone (good or evil) has been Watching them and wasn't ready to let them go just yet.
Intriguing. I'm running a Kingmaker reboot, and a major premise is there's a BBEG super-fey who is cursed with a task to cause 1000 kingdoms to rise and fall in this part of the world (a fey-breach area that the PCs colonized), all in a unique way, before she can be free of the curse. She's really close, and the PCs are on her list of "help them rise to power" and then find a really special way to make them fall (fey love new experiences and get bored seeing the same old thing).

It's convoluted but right now, if they die, their frontier barony really doesn't fall. It's currently on the brink of independence thanks to a civil war in their home kingdom, but if the Baron dies without an heir, it simply reverts to a Duke who raises a new Baron and that's that. All the effort she's put into manipulating this part of the world fails, and she'll probably have to invest another 5+ generations into it.

She's helped them in the past (previously by offering a proxy deal to stabilize their barony, which resulted in a black dragon liquifying dissidents, which wasn't really what they wanted but led to a totally awesome new storyline...)

It might be crazy if she intervenes. They'll know something crazy is up but not why. And it fits. She's got a real reason to fear this Boss. If he ever were to get his full powers back, he'd be a legit threat to her.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Don’t fudge dice.
Oh, my players know I don't. We've had deaths over time.
I have seen players begin testing the limits of what the dm will do to save the PCs just to see if the dm will kill them.
Yeah, I've seen that too.
I can't even wrap my head around the idea of an "11th level caster" lich. How'd they even become a lich?
It's an "atrophied" lich, a 3.5/Pathfinder creature. It's basically a lich that hasn't used its magic for a really long time and lost many of its powers. Still formidable. In this story, the lich was trapped in sleep by enemies for 10,000 years and awoken weakened. In 3rd edition, a lich was minimum 11th level caster.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
I don't think the players should have any expectation that they're going to win by default. They need a plan for winning and a plan for getting out if things go pear-shaped. If they didn't prepare for the latter, that's on them regardless of whether the DM did or did not expect the difficulty to be too much for the PCs.
It was clear they were going against something powerful and undead and wizard-like. They're on a time crunch and have been told that the Boss's base is on the Plane of Vacuum, and if he dies, the protections on the base go away and everything dies. Even so, they are willing to take him on because he's destroying their hometown from afar at the moment. But, they went in without much of a plan other than Leroy Jenkins.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Just because you wrote something down does not mean that encounter design is over.
Always good advice. The Boss is having to keep a lot of balls juggling after having just woken up and losing much of his powers. He's (1) got a base in the Plane of Vacuum that needs wards maintained to keep everyone from being instantly annihilated, (2) minions that aren't undead to keep intimidated so they don't revolt from the revolting development they find themselves in (broken promises of power in his service), (3) wards to protect his personal collection of valuables, (4) a sphere of annihilation on the Prime plane that's drawing power from Vacuum, and (5) a battle.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
As a last ditch scenario, could the Wizard deliberately nuke himself
Interesting! I like giving every class a chance to have the spotlight, and the only arcane caster might have figured out how to grab ahold of the tether and reverse it, albeit possibly at the cost of his life. That sounds like how heroic tales are made!
"dead spirits", that implies there are a lot of souls that have been bound to the Lich over the years.
He put a lot of spirits in soul jars and has sold a lot of souls over the years. As the battle weakens his ability to juggle all his powers, might be interesting to have the cleric see souls appear. There's an empty dormitory in this base suggesting once it house a lot more. Perhaps he sacrificed all his apprentices at one time and some remnant still haunts it. Can the cleric reverse their Channel Divinity to unleash the spirits, and what might the consequences of such an action be?

Good stuff to chew on and possibly privately message my players over the week.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
having a pc or two die won’t end the campaign.
It's been lethal to-date, so I feel somewhat a little bad that there's only 1 PC that started at the original level 1 (another retired by choice). That PC likes to tell stories about amazing adventures that culminate with "but you weren't there and wouldn't get it."
 

Kobold Stew

Last Guy in the Airlock
The Boss is ravaging their capital town (they run a barony) with a large sphere of annihilation because they started trashing his base, so they don't feel they can flee because he'll just start doing it again. There's a lengthy backstory to all of this, but actions of the PCs convinced the Boss to see them as a legit threat, so he unleashed a personal experiment on their town.

It's good that they have motivations for what they are doing, and I think there are still a number of options open to them:

1. They retreat, and learn a lesson. Their town and perhaps their barony is destroyed by the Lich, who is singing their names as the reason for his actions. They have survivor's guilt and a reason to exact revenge later in the campaign. Their actions are on them, and they will be constantly reminded of their failure.

2. They retreat, and the town is destroyed. Refugees flee to their barony, and they live with the consequences of the survivors furious with them for having angered the lich.

3. One of the spellcasters with Arcana struggles to control the Sphere. (Have they done this?) A sphere is powerful but it takes time to work and devastate a town. What will the lich do if it loses control? What wil they do with it if they get control?
a. Even if that spellcaster fails, it's a heroic death for one player and the lich can leave satisfied; TPK avoided and surviving players learn a lesson and can memorialize or avenge their friend as they choose.
b. Maybe the Lich is going to return every year on the anniversary of this battle, or on every full moon. For ever. (Maybe it's already doing so in other towns, and has been for years. That way it might be possible to plot its actions and ambush it elsewhere!).

4. Do any of them have a bag of holding or a haversack? Even if they don't a villager might have one, inherited fro his grandmother from her adventuring days and now used to keep apples fresh; they can give it to the characters. Have that person save the town by bagging the sphere. There is then an explosion. You can roll the effect, or just decide what happens.
a. Maybe the player dies, but the town is saved and renamed in their honour. See 3.a. but lich leaves unsatisfied.
b. Maybe the whole group is sent to the astral plane. How do they get back?
c. Maybe the whole group AND THE LICH is sent to the astral plane together (or some other plane... wherever). Now they have to work together to get back!

I get that you see this is an imbalanced encounter, but there seem to be so many ways this could be resolved without a TPK. It doesn't need to be all about a single slugfest. This lich has been around forever. Make sure he stays there.
 

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