It's a common enough question: what should DMs do for high level combat? My party is now at 19 and they like a challenge. I've tried a few things and some have worked better than others. Overall, my players have enjoyed high level play. I'd like to share what's worked for me in case it helps you with your high level parties.
This is huge. I run surveys and state-of-the game dialogues every few months. What your players say is way more important than anything I or anyone else can say. Do they want harder fights? Longer fights? Are they cool with PC deaths? Get their ideas and their permission first.
Building tension outside of combat is often more important to the feel of a fight than the combat mechanics are. The threat of what could happen may be more important than what does happen and is a more potent tool than number crunching/fight balancing.
That said, let's look at some mechanics anyway…
"In a fair fight, I'd kill you."
"That's not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?”
Most of my thoughts ultimately fall into this category. High-level characters are hard to threaten in a fair fight, so don't fight fair. Use ambushes, environmental advantages, broken combos, and powergamey exploits. Make a microwave or use barbarian-rogues. Make effects that give relevant damage vulnerability or use monsters that interact with each other.
The environment can function like a monster in and of itself, both inside and outside of combat. Examples:
- Wear them down. Extreme cold or heat cause exhaustion, toxic air slowly damages them, horrifying places cause insanity over time. Long rests may be less effective or outright impossible.
- Hazards. Hazards like lava harm the PCs but can also help the monsters. I had a red dragon dive into a lava river on reaching low health, popping out only once it got its breath weapon back. Rinse and repeat for a hard encounter.
- Nearsightedness. Give your monsters a sensory advantage over the players. Limit their vision with fog, magical impairment, acidic fumes that make the eyes water, "deep darkness" that even darkvision cannot penetrate, etc. Give native creatures immunity to these effects, e.g. "deep-darkvision," acid immunity, or blind-sight.
- Mess with magic. Wild magic surges (with a table that's more interesting than the PHB) or anti-magic fields/areas change the dynamic of parties with spell-casters. Anti-magic fields can turn god-like casters into mere level 1 characters with high HP.
Break the Action Economy
Let your bosses break the economy.
have gotten a lot of attention. Or you can give a boss two initiative rolls. Or give the creature two actions on one turn. Let them attack and cast a spell. Or just give them a few more attacks. Make them rival the party in power.
Split the Party
There's a reason you're not supposed to split. So… create situations where the party has to take on more than one objective simultaneously. You can have the players who aren't in the spotlight play as enemies.
Additional Monster Abilities
Give monsters additional effects. Here's a few fun ones:
- Death explosions. Makes melee players think twice about how/when to kill a creature. Careful: this can punish martial characters.
- Shackles of pain. A creature that can share some of the damage it takes is very dangerous.
- Movement options. Misty step/teleportation gives enemies far more strategic options.
- On-crit effects. Up the stakes in a fight by giving extra damage on crits, vorpal effects (e.g. molydeuses), saving throws against additional effects, etc.
- Counterspell and dispel magic. You have to be careful with counterspell because it can be unfun if abused, but it is a useful tool, especially if you can make a caster counterspell a counterspell. Dispel is also useful and can help tone down caster power.
Save for Half
Save for half ensures that PCs take damage. Over the course of a day, several of these effects will add up. Use it in place of normal attacks.
Use PCs Against Each Other
Curses! Possession! Charm! Enemies abound! Confusion! Use (or create) effects that turn players against each other so that high-powered allies become high-powered enemies. Mind flayers, for example, get a lot more interesting when they control their enemies rather than stunning them.
Killing a PC
Even at high levels where resurrection is easier to come by, a PC's death is an important moment. This is a tool for you to use. It shows that you're not fudging to protect them and makes an otherwise moderate fight feel more difficult. Some thoughts:
- Hit them while they're down. Don't wait for death saves. It may not be the best strategic move for the monster, but it sends a message. For extra fun, give the creature a buff from the kill: healing, a blood frenzy, casting soul cage, etc.
- Death exploration. Being dead doesn't need to be boring. The PC may not participate in combat but their soul may enter the ethereal plane so they can spend their turn going through walls or interacting with other souls there. Perhaps they find a secret area or scout out the next encounter before they are revived.
- Death role-play. You might give a dead PC role playing options on their turn. For example, the PC may review their life. What do they remember? What do they regret? Do they get to approach your world's god of death or judgment?
Parting thought: I have to remind myself that the difficulty of a fight is subjective and is more about how they felt than the numbers they saw. Players may feel a fight was difficult even though the DM knew a TPK wasn't happening. PCs don't to lose lots of HP for a fight to feel difficult, they just need to feel threatened. Listen to them to gauge difficulty and adjust your techniques for the future.
I'm no expert, but these are things that have worked for me. I welcome your ideas/feedback!
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