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How to Create Level-Independent Challenges (a la Challenge of Champions) | DMDave Workshop

BroadSword Magazine #1 is officially on the way, the entire run of the magazine has secured over $40,000 on Kickstarter. One of the adventures in the first issue involves an old-school, level-independent adventure that requires the characters to think… instead of, you know, just stabbing everything in sight.

However, level-independent puzzles and challenges aren’t something that are easy to create. And I’ve only done it a few times myself. That’s why I thought I might create this article here to learn a little more about thought-provoking challenges through the history of the game and how others tackled it.

And, like everything, I’m going to look back through Dungeon magazine to get those ideas where level-independent game design master Johnathan M. Richards blessed readers with his Challenge of Champions series.

Here is what to expect from this article:

  1. Challenge of Champions Analysis
  2. Common Themes in Challenge of Champions Challenges
  3. How to Create Your Own Challenges

Part 1. Challenge of Champions Analysis

So what is the Challenge of Champions? Challenge of Champions was a series of articles that appeared semi-regularly in Dungeon magazine. In all, there were six Challenge of Champions “adventures”. The first three were for second edition AD&D. The last three were set for third edition AD&D.

The first Challenge of Champions appeared in the 58th  issue of Dungeon Magazine in March/April 1996.

Here is its description (I left out the setting-specific information):

“Challenge of Champions” is an AD&D adventure for 1-4 PCs of any level and alignment but of different classes (ideally, one each of the main four PC classes). It can be inserted into almost any campaign, on the outskirts of a major city, where large numbers of adventurers are likely to be found.

It is important that the DM read the entire adventure before running it. A firm understanding of each of the ten scenarios is imperative for the smooth operation of the adventure, as well as to help the DM adjudicate alternate solutions the players may devise to each challenge.

A few things of note here:

  • The adventure is ideal for 1-4 adventurers of any level and alignment.
  • The player characters should each be of different classes, preferably fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard.
  • There are 10 scenarios in all.

The sixth and final Challenge of Champions appeared in Dungeon #138 (September 2006). Here is its opening description.

“Challenge of Champions VI” is a D&D adventure for a party of four PCs of any level. Like the previous Challenges (detailed in issues #58, #69, #80, #91, and #108), this adventure takes place on the outskirts of a major city in any campaign world. Make sure you study the scenarios in this adventure carefully, as this should help immensely in adjudicating any alternative solutions your players come up with.

Just like the first, there are 10 scenarios. Classes aren’t as important in this one, and it’s recommended that the party has four PCs.

Challenge of Champions Structure

Each Challenge of Champions more or less had the following structure in place:

  1. Introduction. Similar to the descriptions above, explaining to the Dungeon Master what a Challenge of Champions adventure entails.
  2. Adventure Background. The history of the event and why the characters would want to be involved.
    1. Adventure Synopsis. This was used frequently by Paizo publishers (CoC IV and beyond) to give the “high-concept” of the adventure.
    2. Adventure Hooks. Like Adventure Synopsis, this is a feature specific to Challenge of Champions (and all adventures in general, really) for the Paizo Publishing Dungeon magazine adventures.
  3. For the Dungeon Master. An overview of the contest and how to run it.
    1. The Rules. Appearing in the fourth Challenge of Champions and beyond, this gave the details on how the characters should arrive at the event (details below).
    2. The Hint. Starting in the fourth Challenge of Champions, characters could ask for hints on how to complete a scenario. However, characters could not score more than half the scenario’s points if they used the hint.
  4. Running the Scenarios. More details on how the DM should run the scenarios.
  5. Players Introduction
    1. Description blocks. To be read-aloud, these provide important details for the players. At the end of the introduction, the first scenario is introduced by NPCs.
    2. DM Notes. Details on the overall adventure and how it should be run.
  6. Scenario Descriptions
    1. Description blocks. Interestingly, in the first Challenge of Champions, the description for a scenario appears at the end of the preceding scenario (or player’s introduction). From CoC 2 and beyond, it appeared at the head of the challenge itself.
    2. Scoring. The number of points a team (or its individuals) earns for completing the scenario.
    3. Solutions. How to solve the scenario.
    4. DM Notes. Tips and tricks on running the scenario itself.
  7. Concluding the Adventure
    1. Description block. The closing ceremony and scoring.
    2. DM Notes. Anything that’s left for the DM to know about the challenge.
    3. Experience Awards. In the fifth and sixth CoC, a sub-header appears detailing how to give out experience for CoC.
  8. Sidebars/Extras
    1. Rounding Out the Team. If the party is low on characters (or a particular class), this sidebar offers up some NPCs that can assist.
    2. Score Sheet. This is for tracking the character’s progress through the 10 scenarios.
    3. Player Handouts (1 per Scenario). These slips of paper help the players visualize the scenarios.
    4. Adventure Hook. Some of the Challenge of Champions events offer up some roleplaying/adventure opportunities, adding a story element to the events.
    5. Team Results. Once the scenarios are finished, the Team Results card shows how well the party did in comparison to NPC teams and who the best team overall was.
    6. Individual Scores. This card shows how well each individual team member did in the challenges.

Part 2. Common Themes in Challenge of Champions Challenges

Having read through these series, I immediately noticed that there were a few “challenge themes” that appeared in each edition. I’ve made notes on the common themes below and which issues they appear in.

Card Arranging

The characters are given cards which they must arrange to solve the puzzle. The three cards in Scenario #1: Cafe Seat (CoCII) offers clues to passing the chessboard. To solve the maze in Scenario #8: Dim (CoCIII), the characters need to assemble the cards. The command word for Scenario #1: One Griffon deactivates the bronze griffon; it’s discovered by arranging the cards. Scenario #9: Nine Strokes (CoCV) requires the players the assemble the pieces to fit the EXIT sign.

Careful Placement

Certain solutions require the placement of an object. Sometimes, the object has multiple ways it can be placed, offering different benefits (or penalties) where it is placed. In Scenario #4: Thief’s Challenge (CoCI), the plank placed against the wall offers an advantage on Dexterity checks to cross the slime without falling in. The rope trick spell used at ground level in Scenario #6: Mage’s Challenge (CoCI) makes it harder for characters to get up the cliff. Scenario #3: Runt Girth (CoCII) requires the characters to place the boards in a certain way to make it easier to cross. If a character drinks the potion of growth without holding the partisan in Scenario #9: Imp (CoCIII), the characters won’t be able to get across.

Classic Games

A few of the scenarios incorporate classic games. Scenario #5: Elf Hive (CoCIV) is basically minesweeper.

Dual Use Items

Objects given to the characters may have more than one use. Scenario #6: Eon Pets (CoCII) has the characters use the rowboat both as a rowboat and later as a shield. The staff of fire in Scenario #7: Seven by Five (CoCV) shouldn’t be used as a magic item but as a prop.

Fake Monsters

Usually, if a monster is involved in a scenario, it is illusory.

Hint at Danger

Sometimes, a magic item hints that there may be an unseen danger somewhere in the challenge. The characters are given a ring of reptile control at the start of Scenario #7: Hot Spot (CoCI), suggesting they should search for a reptile.

Individual Challenge

There are challenges that require a single character to solve without the help of his/her companions. Each Challenge of Champions contains at least one adventure like this. Scenario #8: Priest’s Challenge (CoCI) requires that the priest save his/her friends. Scenario #7: Thorn Stew (CoCII) has three characters captured while a fourth character tries to “save” them. Scenario #3: Lead (CoCIII) has the rogue save his/her companions. The volunteer in Scenario #8: Dim (CoCIII) must find each of his/her companions in order to solve the maze.

Magic Items

Characters are almost always given some sort of magic items to use in the challenges. The magic items aren’t always intended to be used for the purposes the characters may think they are (see Red Herrings below).

Monsters as Helpers

A few scenarios require the characters to use the monsters present to assist them. Scenario #7: Hot Spot (CoCI) requires the characters to enlarge the fire snake and crawl across it to safety.

Meta Challenges

Usually, the last challenge of a Challenge of Champions will incorporate a “meta” element of the entire series. Scenario #10: Gem Sprite (CoCI) used the medallions gained throughout the adventure to open the final door. Scenario #10: Reuse Rat Bowel takes the titles of each of the scenarios and challenges the characters to rearrange the letters to find a solution to the maze. Scenario #6: Media (CoCIII) needs the characters to reference the Monster Manual. Scenario #10: Cape (CoCIII) has the characters read aloud the jumbled titles of the previous scenarios to gain access to the cape of useful items. Scenario #10: Death Potential (CoCIV) uses the scorecard to solve the TICKPOLE riddle.

Mirror Trick

The characters need to use a mirror to turn symbols that appear to be nonsensical into legible words. This was used in Scenario #1 Cobra Guard (CoCI). Scenario #1: Hearth (CoCIII) also uses a mirror to solve a riddle. The totem pole in Scenario #4: Eye for Eye spells (CoCIV) “BREAK MIRROR.” The command word cards in Scenario #8: Eight Boots (CoCV) must be viewed upside down.

Order of Operations

Nearly every challenge has a specific order in which the characters should perform tasks. Failure to follow the correct order often results in failure.

Props

A lot of the scenarios require the use of props. All of the mirror trick challenges should have a hand mirror present. Scenario #1: Hearth (CoCIII) requires the use of a pencil. The 2nd Edition Monster Manual is used in Scenario #6: Media (CoCIII).

Red Herrings

Magic items or other objects are given to the characters but aren’t intended to be used as their descriptor implies. Scenario #3: River Crossing (CoCI) offers two magic ropes which are used as normal ropes. Scenario #2: Tow Pests (CoCII) offers a mirror as a red herring to fool those who remember the last Challenge of Champions. The command spell in Scenario #5: Former (CoCIII) won’t work on the snake and is useless for the scenario. The four cards given out in Scenario #4: Eye for an Eye (CoCIV) do nothing. Both of the gloves in Scenario #7: Piece of an Eggshell (CoCIV) are useless.

Silenced Players

Certain challenges are made more difficult thanks to silencing effects such as the silence spell or gags. Three of the fours characters in Scenario #8: Priest’s Challenge can’t communicate due to gags (CoCI). Only characters that have been discovered in the maze in Scenario #8: Dim (CoCIII) can speak. Thanks to the gibbering mouther in Scenario #3: Are Those Teeth Real (CoCIV) the characters can’t hear each other. Scenario #7: Horseshoes (CoCVI) silences the characters.

Simple Math

A few of the challenges require the characters to do simple math. Scenario #8: Hornets at Evens has math that the characters must solve to determine if the chests are “odd” or “even.” Scenario #5: Five Doors requires the characters to do simple geometry to figure out which door is which.

Teamwork

This one is probably obvious, but almost all of the challenges in each Challenge of Champions requires the party to work together to solve the problems.

Transporting Companions

Certain scenarios require that one character act as an escort for the other characters using special items to protect them as he/she goes. In Scenario #9: Bear Sentry (CoCI) one character must place his/her companions into a portable hole and toss it past the bear. Scenario #4: Cyan (CoCIII) sees one character turning cyan to assist characters across the water. Scenario #9: Canine Crossing (CoCIV) has one player enter the pit and climb to the other side.

Using a Weapon for Something Other Than Killing

The character has to use a weapon for something other than stabbing things. This was used to prop open the purple worm’s mouth in Scenario #2: Fighter’s Challenge (CoCI).

Word Puzzles

The characters are word clues which they must decipher to pass a challenge. Scenario #10: Gem Sprite (CoCI) incorporates a word jumble. Scenario #10: Reuse Rat Bowel (CoCII) also incorporates word jumbles. Scenario #6: Media (CoCIII) uses a word puzzle to help the characters figure out what’s-in-what jar. Scenario #10: Cape (CoCIII) has a word puzzle to solve to find the cape of useful items. The chessboard in Scenario #1: Chess, Anyone? (CoCIV) reveals that the black bag is a “BAD BAG.” Putting the letters in the proper order in Scenario #3: Are Those Teeth Real spell out the word “ALLITERATION.” In Scenario #6: Seasick Sailors, removing the letters from the inscription reveals the command word. Scenario #10: Death Potential (CoCIV) uses the scorecard as the solution. Scenario #3: Three Cloaks (CoCV) uses anagrams. Scenario #4: Four Potions (CoCV) has a word riddle assembled by combining the potion labels.

Part 3. How to Create Your Own Challenges

Now that I’ve broken down all the challenges from the Challenge of Champions‘ series, you should have a decent idea of how to assemble good, level-independent challenges for your characters.

Here are a few steps I’ve ironed out to help in the challenge assembly:

1 – Come up with the solution to the challenge first.

The easiest way to create these challenges is to start from the end and work your way backward offering the best possible solution. You could even start with a map of a room and its obstacles.

Make sure you include a way out of the room or challenge-area. For example, a cylindrical shaped room could have a hole in the ceiling that the characters need to escape through.

Once you have everything in place, work your way backward from the solution.

Try not to overdo certain themes. For example, every challenge involving a word puzzle may get boring after a while. Unless, of course, your players enjoy word puzzles.

2 – Create the appropriate handouts.

A majority of the scenarios in Challenge of Champions come with handouts to help the characters solve the puzzles. In addition, many of the rooms can be difficult to visualize. It helps to create these handouts accurately for the characters to hold, view, and use.

3 – Supply the proper props and clues.

Each scenario begins with a description offering the characters the requirements to fulfill the challenge. Make sure that your descriptions and items give the characters a basic idea of what to do.

Be sure to sprinkle a few of your challenges with red herrings, but don’t overuse it. Otherwise, the players will always be suspicious that there’s a red herring present.

If you choose to offer hints, make sure that the hint cuts straight to the core of the solution. For example, if the characters are supposed to ignore the cards in a particular challenge, make sure the hint tells them to do that. But don’t give away too much!

4 – When in doubt, “steal” from other sources.

Supposedly, Pablo Picasso once said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Don’t be afraid to do the same with your challenges. As you saw in the Common Themes, one of the challenges incorporated the game minesweeper. There are hundreds of apps out there that have puzzle games–why not turn them into challenges? You could get ideas from your Sunday word jumble, or even use some of the challenges presented in Challenge of Champions themselves (retooled, of course, if you’re going to sell the final product).

Conclusion

Hopefully, this guide to level-independent challenges gives you some good ideas for the types of challenges that you can create for your games. When I go to make the challenges for BroadSword Magazine’s Trial of Heroes, I’ll be using these rules myself.

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Challenge of Champions’ art and layouts by Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing.

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How to Make a Dungeon in 30-Minutes or Less | DM’s Workshop

Hey hey! Happy Saturday, folks! Saturday is my Saturday campaign. I’ve already done some planning for it (in the last edition of this series) but I thought I might expand a little on the Leilon setting.

Also, I wasn’t crazy about the organization of that last article, so I thought I might clean things up a little better.

Spoilers: If you’re one of my players, you probably won’t want to read this since it contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.

How to Make a Dungeon in 30-Minutes or Less

Being a DM is hard. With life, work, and all the other distractions in the world, it can be hard to properly prepare for sessions in time. Fortunately, Fifth Edition makes it pretty easy to prepare. And if you’ve got a few useful tools at your disposal, you can build a Dungeon in 30-minutes or less.

Step 1. Pick an Adventure Type

There are two main types of adventures in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition: Location-Based Adventures and Event-Based Adventures. Both types of adventures are detailed on page 72 of the Dungeons Master’s Guide.

For the example I’m using today, I’m going to pick a Location-Based Adventure again, specifically a Dungeon. The Dungeon will be under the streets of the ruined city of Leilon.

Step 2. Determine the Dungeon’s Goals

This is the part where you can turn your brain off. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I love using random tables to generate ideas. On page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s a random table for the Dungeon’s Goals. I’m going to use my Dice Ex dice roller phone app to determine the result:

D20 Roll: 7 – Find information for a specific purpose.

Cool. Now I know that my adventurers will need to descend into the Dungeon for a specific purpose. But what’s that purpose?

Last time I identified a few key NPCs. One was a military officer that acted as the group’s patron. Then there was an enthusiastic commoner and a monster in disguise. Any of these could ask the PC’s to descend into the dungeon to discover what’s going on.


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Step 3. Identify Important NPCs

The last adventure set up most of the “friendly” NPCs, so I don’t want to be too redundant. It’s never a good idea to have too many characters. Not only is a pain in the ass to keep track of, but it can confuse your players, too.

Since there’s already a villain in Leilon, though, I thought I might add another one for this mini-dungeon. Again, I’ll turn to random tables, this time to the Adventure Villains table on page 74 of the DMG.

D20 Roll: 4 – Dragon bent on domination and plunder

Yo, that couldn’t be more perfect if I tried. If you read the last article, you’ll know that there are dragon cultists in Leilon. And now it turns out that there’s a dragon under Leilon? You can’t make this shit up.

Step 4. Flesh Out the Location Details

Here comes the fun part. We know the purpose of the dungeon and we know its villain. All we need to do now is to create the dungeon itself.

I have a few different sources that I like to turn to for dungeon creation. Sometimes, I’ll find a map somewhere on the internet. I’ll use either my buddy JD’s maps, Dyson Logos’ maps, or Tim Hartins–all three are professional cartographers with tons of maps to choose from.

But today I’m going to use another awesome source for maps: donjon’s random map generator. You can access it at https://donjon.bin.sh/fantasy/dungeon/

donjon
Donjon is the bomb.

I don’t want this dungeon to be too big. I want it to have around 6 encounters, enough for a single session of play. Usually, it’s a good idea to have a dungeon that’s got 1.3 to 1.5 more rooms than encounters. So for a 6 encounter map, I’ll need about 9 rooms.

Generating a map using Donjon.

I’ve put the settings to the following:

  • Name: Below Leilon
  • Dungeon Level: 1
  • Details: None
  • Map Style: Standard
  • Grid: Square
  • Dungeon Layout: Keep
  • Dungeon Size: Fine
  • Peripheral Egress?: No
  • Stairs?: Yes
  • Room Layout: Symmetric
  • Room Size: Large
  • Doors: Basic
  • Corridors: Straight
  • Remove Deadends?: All

Let’s see what it cooks up:

below-leilon-map

Pretty nifty, if I say so myself. Keep in mind that I turned off trapped, locked, and secret doors, so if I want those, I’m going to have to add those in myself.

Tip: when using donjon, you may have to play with the settings a few times to get it to look the way you want it to.

Determine Daily Encounter XP

Before I start populating the dungeon, I’m going to want to determine encounter XP. My guys are mid-way to 12th level right now and I suspect that by the time they defeat the bad guys in the town proper, they’ll probably be at 12th. Plus, they’re pretty tough. So I’m going to stock this place like it’s for a group of six 12th-level adventurers.

On page 84 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there’s a handy-dandy chart for knowing the amount of adjusted experience that a character can handle in a day before they need a long rest. I suspect my guys will take a long rest before descending into the dungeon, so I’m going to give them the full boat.

  • One 12th-level character can earn 11,500 adjusted experience in a day.
  • Therefore, the entire party can handle 69,000 adjusted experience in a day.

Tip: Adjusted experience is NOT the same as actual encounter experience. Adjusted experience is a virtual amount of experience used to measure challenge ratings.

Build the Encounters Starting with the Main Event

Next, I like to determine the encounters before I start sticking them in rooms. That way I keep the entire dungeon balanced. When I know there’s a villain in a dungeon, I like to start with the villain.

We know that there is a dragon that’s the main villain. But what sort of dragon?

I kind of saw the dungeon below Leilon as a burial area. So maybe I can toss a Dracolich at the party. How tough should that dracolich be?

We know from the XP Thresholds by Character Level chart on page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide that a party of six 12th-level characters can handle 27,000 adjusted experience in a single encounter. Whoa, Nelly! That’s a lot. In fact, if we reference page 275 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s Experience Points by Challenge Rating chart, that could be a creature of CR 20, right? Well, it could actually even be higher than that!

When you have a group of six or more adventurers, the adjusted encounter experience for a solo encounter uses a multiplier of 0.50, which means that the creature could be worth up to 54,000 adjusted encounter experience: that’s a CR 23 monster!

Keep this in mind: even though PCs can technically fight a CR 23 monster, that’s still going to be a very, very difficult encounter for them. But you know what? These guys could use a little love. Haha! But in order to soften the blow, I’ll make sure they don’t fight the thing after running through a gauntlet of bad guys.

The Villain Encounter

So what sort of dracolich are we talking about here? The theme of Leilon and the Mere of Dead Men is swamps and black dragons. So I think a black dragon is perfect. And on page 87 of the Monster’s Manual, we can see that an Ancient Black Dragon is “only” a CR 21 creature.

Of course, I’ll need to apply the dracolich template to it real quick and give it a cool draconic name. I’ll use Donjon’s Fantasy Name Generator to come up with a cool dragon name: I got Mammet.

As a dracolich, Mammet is undead and she gains immunity to poison. Plus, she can’t be charmed, frightened, paralyzed, or poisoned and she doesn’t suffer from exhaustion. Finally, she’s got magic resistance. Tough lady.

A dracolich is kind of a big deal. As a black dragon, they’re not as clever as the other dragon types (Int 16 and Wis 15), but not total dummies either.

Keith Ammann of the Monsters Know What They’re Doing describes black dragons as snarling bullies. Here’s his roleplaying notes on them:

Black dragons are cruel and brutal, and they target their weakest enemies first, so if a black dragon’s opponents have managed to inflict real damage on it, something’s gone horribly wrong, and it will skedaddle. It might accept a sufficiently attractive bargain offered by the PCs, but it will never surrender to them or agree to any limit on its independence.

What’s a dracolich doing down in the basement of a temple, though? Let’s turn to the random tables on page 90 of the Dungeon Masters Guide to get some ideas of her personality.

Since she’s a dracolich, I’m going to skip Appearance, Abilities, and Talents and go straight for her Mannerisms.

D20 Roll: 13 – Mammet fidgets.

I love it. She misses her scales (and flesh) so is constantly fidgeting when she talks. This probably makes her somewhat irritable. Next, her Interaction Traits:

D12 Roll: 7 – Mammet is honest.

What an interesting dynamic for an undead dragon. She’s honest, despite being a creature of pure chaos and evil.

Next, I need to figure out some sort of useful knowledge for her. She might know a thing or two about Tiamat, being so ancient. I originally thought about tying her into the usual BBEG, but I thought that’d be insipid. So I made this a stand-alone.

After the useful knowledge, I need an Ideal. Her ideals can be Evil, Chaotic, or Other. I’m going to pick Evil since I want a fight coming out of this.

D6 Roll: 2 – Mammet is greedy.

She’s already discovered immortality. Now she wants more. Perhaps she, herself, wants Tiamat’s powers?

What about her bonds?

D10 Roll: 5 – Mammet is captivated by a romantic interest.

Oo la la! Romance. Perhaps part of her driving force is that Tiamat killed (or enslaved) one of her past lovers.

Finally, a flaw or secret for Mammet.

D12 Roll: 3 – Mammet is arrogant.

Perfecto! That’s definitely a motivation to start a fight with a bunch of do-gooders.

Since Mammet is a villain, we also get to use the Villain tables on page 94 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

First, we’ll determine her scheme.

D8 Roll: 2 & D4 Roll: 1 – Mammet wants to seize a position of power or title.

She wants to be the new Tiamat.

Next, we need to know her methods.

D20 Roll: 20 & D6 Roll: 4 – Warfare via mercenaries

Mammet hopes to get the PC’s to work for her. She arrogantly proclaims that they must work for her or she’ll burn down the land and their town and that working for her is the best only option. She commands them to slay a local politician to prove their worth. Being somewhat arrogant, she doesn’t see them as a threat (they are).

Finally, we need a weakness for Mammet.

D20 Roll: 7 – The villain falls when an ancient enemy forgives its past actions.

Fascinating! This could potentially tie into how Mammet returned as a dracolich. It might even be a curse placed on her by an old foe.

In one shot, I’ve developed our villain using a little Encounter XP math, then came up with her personality and roleplaying traits. Plus, there’s plenty of hooks for future encounters should she survive the initial.

Using an Encounter Budget

Earlier, I mentioned that I’ve got 69,000 adjusted experience to work with. Well, I’ve just used up 16,500 of that (Mammet’s experience multiplied by 0.5). That leaves me with 52,500 Adjusted XP or roughly 10,500 Adjusted XP per encounter. Those are mostly going to be easy-to-medium encounters.

I think what I want to do is make it so that the temple was there to keep Mammet in check. The place is super-duper trapped so half of the encounters will be some clever (perhaps even complex?) traps designed to scare off intruders.

Mammet herself is kept in check thanks to a powerful gem that casts a white glow in the room she’s kept. The gem is one of those classic “don’t you dare take it, rogue” gems that old school dungeon designers love to toss in.

This precaution was put into place by powerful wizards since they were unable to find her phylactery (a story for another time).

The remainder of the challenges in the temple basement will be undead guardians and constructs that are there to thwart any who dare break in and maybe some constructs.

Sword Wraiths

I think a big fight with some sword wraiths (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) would be pretty neat. There will be one sword wraith commander paired with five sword wraith warriors.

Referencing the encounter multipliers chart on page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (and shifting it all down one rank because there are six adventurers present), the sword wraith and its retinue are worth 11,100 adjusted experience.

That leaves me 41,400 adjusted experience.

Complex Trap

Remember that I said I wanted a complex trap, too? Those are worth XP as well! According to page 118 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, a Complex Trap of 11th to 17th level is worth 11,100 XP.

Speed is on the mind here so I won’t have time to invent a new complex trap. So I’ll just use the Poisoned Tempest trap described on page 120 of Xanathar’s.

Now I have 30,300 adjusted experience to work with.

Simple Trap

I think I’ll throw in a simple trap, too. This time, the trap will just have a trigger and an effect. This trap will be “dangerous”. Looking at the tables on page 116 of Xanathar’s, a dangerous 12th level trap should have save DCs of 15 (or attack bonuses of +8). The damage severity should be 55 (10d10). Or I could make it cast a 6th level spell.

I think I’ll go with the spell option. That seems pretty cool.

So I’m going to make the trap create a Circle of Death. It’ll come out of a giant skull head built into the floor with the words “Speak DEATH to Find the Key” scrawled across its brow (in another language, so the PCs really thinks they’re clever). It’s totally a trick to trip up clever dungeon-delvers. The room will have the bones of withered adventurers all around it, too. Only a wizard can disarm the trap with a successful DC 16 Arcana check to both notice and disarm it.

That trap is worth another 11,100 XP. Now we’re at 18,800 XP.

Elementals

Next up, I want a challenge that incorporates lots of different creatures. I think all four elemental types at one time would be fun. Each one is worth 1,800 XP, so combined that come out to 10,800 total adjusted XP.

That leaves me with only 8,000 more XP.

Iron Golem

Finally, a good ol’ fashion construct could be fun. Iron golems are worth 15,000 XP, but since there’s six in the party, it’ll only be worth 7,500 adjusted XP. Boom. Nailed it.

Placing the Encounters

Now it’s just a matter of putting each of the encounters in appropriate locations. Here is what I’ve determined:

  1. The elementals will take up Area #1. They’re all large and should have lots of room to move. I want the ceilings to be high in this place so there’s plenty of room for the air elemental to get around. Plus, the floors should be made of unworked earth and stone so the earth elemental can use its burrow to its advantage. There will be a system of pipes (or even miniature aqueducts) that the water elemental can move through, using its swim speed and water form to its advantage. And finally, the fire elemental will work with the earth elemental on the ground. Perhaps they could even combine as one? The door leading to area #2 will be sealed shut (I’ll make it damn near impossible to open). It will require the PCs to locate three keys scattered throughout the dungeon (there are three wizard heads in each of the doors).
  2. Mammet’s tomb is in Area #2. The center of the room has a massive black glass sarcophagus where Mammet is trapped. There is a jewel fixed into the ceiling creating a bright light throughout the room. The walls are made up of bas-reliefs of the ancient wizards that trapped her there. Removing the gem wakens her (and also deals, like 4d6 radiant damage to anyone that touches it just for the hell of it). All of the doors leading into Mammet’s chamber require the three keys to enter. I’ll take out the northern and southern doors so there’s only one way in.
  3. The Circle of Death trap is in Area #3. To enter area #8, the PC’s will have to trigger the CoD trap.
  4. Area #4 holds one of the three keys.
  5. Area #5 is the iron golem which blocks the way into the hallway. It has one of the keys around its neck. If I really wanted to be an asshole DM, I could make the room full of fire traps that shot fire out at the PCs at random intervals (they’d do 3 attacks rolls at initiative count 30, targeting random locations of the room). This would not only hurt the PCs, but heal the iron golem, too. Totally going to do that.
  6. Area #6 is where the sword wraiths are. The room is full of columns, allowing the sword wraiths to duck and cover with their longbows. I might even make the room they’re in have a balcony (the stairs off to the side lead up to it). This makes for a much more interesting encounter.
  7. Area #7 is the tempest trap. The weird “closet hall” is the mechanism the controls the Tempest trap.
  8. Area #8 is where the final key is held.

And that’s it! The dungeon is fleshed out. I know it may look like a lot of work, but this type of stuff I can crank out in about 15 minutes thanks to random designs and a quick scan of monster books.

Tip: old school D&D isn’t about stuff always “making sense” together. It’s just rule of cool, baby. Gary Gygax named monsters after plastic toys with the first things that popped into his head. Rust monster. Bullette (it looks like a bullet). Owlbear. Just have fun with it.

Step 5. Find the Ideal Introduction

Back to the random tables on page 74 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I don’t really need to roll for an adventure introduction since I’ve already got one. So I can skip this. Otherwise, I’d roll to see how the PC’s learn about the adventure.

Step 6. Adventure Climax

All that’s left to do is to plan out the final climax. Again, I’ll roll on the random table on page 75 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide:

D12 Roll: 1 – The adventurers confront the main villain and a group of minions in a bloody battle to the finish.

Well, I more or less already planned this (admittedly, I took the steps a little out of order. But I know that my PCs will be fighting Mammet in the end. After 1,000 years of slumber, she’s cranky and wants to pick a fight. Knowing that her phylactery will keep her safe and the gem holding her back has been destroyed, she understands that if she wins the battle it’s a win for her and even if she loses, her soul can find a new dragon corpse which will make it much easier for her to escape this prison than flying away. Win-win situation!

Step 7. Plan Encounters

I kinda already jumped the gun on planning encounters, but one thing I did forget was stocking treasure. Just like last time, we’ll do this the easy way and use random tables.

Page 135 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a distribution of Treasure Hoards by tier. At 11 – 16, I get twelve rolls on the Challenge 11 – 16 table. I’ve already used two for this tier, but there’s an average of two per level. The PCs aren’t going to hit level 13 with the experience gained from this dungeon, so they’re probably good for at least one hoard of treasure.

On page 138 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I can roll up some random treasure for this adventure. I don’t see the place being “gold” heavy, but it’ll at least give me some values for other stuff I can throw in there.

I rolled 11 on the GP table and 23 on the PP table. That’s a total of 11,000 GP and 2,300 PP. This might seem like a lot, but don’t worry. This is totally in line with what PCs are capable of earning at level 12.

Next, I’ll roll up some gems, art, and magic items.

D100 Roll: 75 – three 250gp art objects plus a +1 weapon and dragon slayer.

I swear these dice love me today. If you aren’t familiar with dragon slayer, it’s a +1 sword that lets you deal an extra 3d6 of the weapon’s type.

I think it’s appropriate to give dragon slayer to the sword wraith commander. The other +1 weapon will be his longbow. This makes this group the original people who kidnapped Mammet and put her in place. However, they took considerable damage from the fight. They’ll have acid scars all over their face and their armor will show the old burns.

Each of the keys will be jeweled and worth the 250 gp.

Finally, the big gem will be worth the total value of the gold and platinum I rolled up, so 34,000 gp. The thing is as big as a pumpkin.

Easy peasy.

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A Quick Primer on Encounter Mathematics | DM’s Workshop for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Last night, I whipped up a quickie (well, it was around 4,000 words, but I digress) document on how to create an adventure in 30 minutes or so. While looking at it, I realized that I probably zipped through the math on it pretty quick. I realize now that I sometimes take for granted how well I know that I stuff–don’t get me wrong, I’m no math whiz. I just do encounter math, like, a lot.

Anyways, I thought I might go over encounter mathematics real quick to show how simple it is.

All you will need to follow along with this is the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is useful, too. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the following pages:

  • Creating Encounters, DMG pages 81 – 85
  • Encounter Building, XGtE pages 88 – 91.

Encounter Math Method #1 – Pick the monsters, then determine the encounter’s difficulty.

Okay, here’s the first way to do encounter. Basically, I’m going to pick my monsters first and then calculate how difficult the challenge is.

Pick your monsters.

Determine what monsters you want to throw at your PC’s based on the theme of the encounter.

I’m going to pick four fire elementals for this challenge. Fire elementals are CR 5 creatures worth 1,800 XP each.

Add together their experience. This is the encounter XP reward.

Take each of the actual XP rewards for the monsters you selected and add them together.

With four CR 5 monsters that’s 7,200 XP that the encounter is actually worth. So if the characters kill the fire elementals they will be awarded a portion of that 7,200 XP.

Calculate the adjusted encounter XP.

Here’s the tricky part. In Fifth Edition, there are two types of XP.

  • There is the normal XP that’s given out for defeating the monsters and accomplishing tasks.
  • Then there’s the XP that’s used to calculate monster encounters usually called adjusted encounter XP.

The thing that makes the adjusted encounter XP tricky is that it adds in a multiplier based on the number of monsters in the combat for the XP reward. This multiplier is virtual only; the PCs do not earn this experience. It’s simply there to help you balance the encounter.

Why have multipliers? Action economy! The more monsters there are, the more attacks will be made. A solo monster, for example, will only have 1-2 attacks per round at low levels. So even if that solo monster is a good CR, it’s far less likely to score a hit on the PC’s while it’s alive. Versus multiple monsters, even a bunch of weenies, they’re probably going to score at least a hit or two before they’re vanquished. In fact, if you look at mob rules math, throw in enough and their hits are automatic. Therefore, more monsters are harder.

encounter-multipliers
The encounter multipliers chart shows you what to adjust the XP by. 

Back to our fire elemental example, since there’s four of them, I know to multiply their total XP by 2. So those fire elementals are actually valued at 14,400 XP.

Remember: even though the encounter is valued at 14,400 XP, the PC’s only earn 7,200 XP for beating them!

Don’t forget to include the party size modifier.

One little thing that gets missed a lot (I missed it myself for a while) is the party size modifier. It reads:

If the party contains fewer than three characters apply the next highest multiplier on the Encounter Multipliers table.

If the party contains six or more character use the next lowest multiplier on the table. Use a multiplier of 0.5 for a single monster.

If I had only two PC’s fighting the fire elementals, their adjusted XP value would be 18,000 instead of 14,400 And if I had six or more PC’s fighting them, that’d make the encounter valued at only 10,800 XP.

Determine the encounter’s difficulty.

All that’s left to do is figure out how hard the encounter actually is. Do this by dividing the adjusted XP by the number of characters and comparing it to the XP Thresholds by Character Level chart on page 82 of the DMG (it will come up as Easy, Medium, Hard, or Deadly).

We’ll pretend that the fire elementals are fighting 4 characters that are level 11.

First, we’ll divide our adjusted XP amount by the number of characters in the group. So 14,400/4 = 3,600. Looking at the 11th-level row on the XP Thresholds table, we see that 3,600 XP is a Deadly encounter.

Deadly. A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat.

And that’s it! We just took our four fire elementals and created a Deadly encounter with them.

But what if we wanted to work backward from the encounter difficulty to the monsters?

Encounter Math Method #2 – Pick the challenge, then reverse engineer the monsters.

This next method is a little more advanced, but, arguably, is a much better way to determine your encounters especially if you want to balance your adventures properly.

Basically, it’s working backward from the encounter difficulty to figure out what sort of monsters you can throw at the PCs.

Pick the encounter’s difficulty.

This time, I’m going to pick my encounter’s difficulty first. Same situation as before: I’ve got 4 PC’s of 11th level. I want to throw a Medium encounter at them.

Looking at our XP Thresholds by Character Level chart, I know that the PC’s are capable of fighting a 1,600 adjusted XP per character encounter to make it a Medium encounter. Or basically, an encounter worth 6,400 adjusted XP.

Determine the number of monsters present.

Once you have the budget for the encounter, next determine how many monsters you want to throw at your PCs.

For this Medium encounter I want to build, I’m going to throw 10 monsters at my 11th-level PC’s.

Divide the encounter’s adjusted XP value by the multiplier.

This is where it gets interesting. Once you know how many monsters you want to throw at your PC’s, you take the multiplier from the Encounter Multipliers and divide it into the total adjusted XP amount.

With my Medium encounter, I have 6,400 adjusted XP to work with. I want to throw 10 monsters at the PC’s. So I need to divide 6,400 by 2.5. That leaves me with 2,560 adjusted XP total.

Don’t forget the party size modifiers!

Then, divide the adjusted XP total by the number of monsters.

Once you have the adjusted total, divide that number by the number of monsters.

So, 2,560 divided by 10 = 256. This is the per monster budget I have to build an encounter with.

Round the XP to the nearest CR. This is your target CR.

After dividing the multiplier into the total adjusted CR, all you have to do is take that number and round it to the nearest CR. If you don’t have the XP rewards by CR memorized yet, no worries. There’s a nifty table on page 275 of the DMG.

I got 256 for ten monsters for my Medium encounter. The closest CR to that is CR 1 (200 XP).

This means that if I want to throw 10 monsters at my group of four 11th-level characters, their difficulty needs to be right around CR 1.

Doublecheck the math by using the first method.

I usually doublecheck the math just to make sure that I’m not too far off.

Here’s how that would look for my encounter:

Ten CR 1 monsters worth 200 XP each x 2.5 encounter multiplier / # of characters = 1,250 adjusted XP per character

It’s a little under Medium, but close enough that it shouldn’t be an issue!

Daily encounter budgeting.

Last but not least, there are a few unspoken rules of Fifth Edition.

Fifth Edition adventures and “days” are designed to have the characters go through 6 – 8 Medium or Hard encounters. And each encounter should last roughly 3 rounds on average. This means that the average character will fight through 18 – 24 combat rounds before needing a long rest.

On page 84 of the DMG, there is a handle table for Adventuring Day XP. This lets you know the total amount of adjusted XP that the characters can handle before they need a long rest.

Therefore, if you want to build out an adventure that doesn’t have any “save points”–ie, places where the characters can perform a long rest–then it needs to stay within the budget for daily encounters.

And the math is pretty clean, too. If I took the amount showed there and divided it by six encounters, the number shakes out to be the value for a Medium or Hard encounter.

My group of 11th-level PC’s can handle 10,500 adjusted experience per character. Divide that by 6, and I end up with 1,750 per encounter per character. Checking back to the XP Thresholds by Character Level chart, that number is just slightly more than Medium. Bingo!

If all else fails, turn to Xanathar’s.

If the math side is still a pain for you, then no worries. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything actually simplifies these rules on page 88, a whole section on encounter building. They don’t really give you any sort of wiggle room for encounters that aren’t Medium or Hard, but it’s good in a pinch.

Thanks for reading!

I hope this was helpful for understanding the mathematics of adventure craft in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. Like most things, it just takes some practice. These days I can do a lot of it in my head, but then again, I do this kind of stuff for a living haha!

If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on Instagram or in the comments below.

See you next time!

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How to Create a Bad Ass Adventure in 30 Minutes or Less | DM’s Workshop

Recently, my Saturday group hit the infamous level 11, placing them in the third tier. What does third tier mean in D&D?

In the third tier (levels 11-16) characters have reached a level of power that sets them high above the ordinary populace and makes them special even among adventurers. At 11th level, many spellcasters gain access to 6th-level spells, some of which create effects previously impossible for player characters to achieve. Other characters gain features that allow them to make more attacks or do more impressive things with those attacks. These might adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents.

We get to have some fun! I need to create an adventure for them. But I decided that I would do nearly all of this using random charts. Insane, you say? Probably. But you’ll quickly see how easy it is to just the dice take the wheel and run the game for you.

Plus, I’ll show you some other nifty random generators that I use to help me create cool stuff.


Spoilers: by the way, if you’re one of my players, you probably won’t want to read this article. You’ve been warned.


Building an Adventure on a Budget

Some folks ask me about how to balance encounters and adventures. I thought I might share some insight into how I do it on here.

First, I consider the amount of XP that’s needed before the group hits its next level. As of this writing, they’re all half-way to level 12 (92,500 XP). That means they have to gain 7,500 XP in order to hit 12th level.

Ideally, that should happen in a single adventuring day for the group. At 11th level, a character can handle 10,500 adjusted XP per day (DMG p85). Keep in mind that adjusted challenges aren’t the same thing as actual experience.

That’s going to be roughly 6 – 8 Medium and/or Hard challenges in that day.

There are five characters in the group accompanied by a shield guardian sidekick. While the sidekick doesn’t take XP, it does push the encounter XP modifiers up (it makes the part 6 instead of 5), so my multipliers all move down a level. This means that the party can handle one CR 17 challenge as a Medium challenge (or one CR 22 as a Deadly challenge).

Told you that 11th level was fun!

Coming up with the rough concept.

Now that I know what I can work with, I’ll develop the theme a little. I know it will be set in the Forgotten Realms town of Leilon. In my campaign, Leilon was destroyed recently by marauding gnolls. Now, there are factions coming in to reclaim and build the town (mostly to take control of its local mines) so the PC’s have been invited to handle the situation.

This gives me lots of good hooks:

  • The factions themselves could be challenges. In fact, I’m definitely thinking about bringing in the Dragon Cult since the Mere of Dead Men to the south is known to have some nasty black dragons lurking in it.
  • The mines make for a cool opportunity for adventure. Southkrypt is an ancient dwarven mine where a group called the Swords of Leilon adventured.
  • With all the dead people in town, there could be a big undead presence. I haven’t really done a ghost story yet.
  • Leilon had a wizard tower at the center of it that was supposed to be guarded by magical wards and fearsome monsters.

With these ideas in mind, I thought I might also turn to the DMG’s random tables for adventure creation. Surprisingly, it usually gives me some pretty cool hooks (I’ve used it a few times with The Secret of Forsaken Peak).

1. Identify the Party’s Goals

First up, I need to create a goal for the Leilon adventure. There are three types of goal charts offered on page 72: Dungeon, Wilderness, and Other. I’m going to select other.

d12 roll: 1

Seize control of a fortified location such as a fortress, town, or ship.

Cool! So their mission (should they choose to accept it) is to take control of Leilon. As it stands, they’re currently members of the Lord’s Alliance and Harpers, so that’d be some good hooks to get the place squared away.

“Go fix this place, and we’ll give you money to fix Phandalin,” sounds like it could work.

2. Identify Important NPCs

Next, we need to come up with a cool NPC (or four). We start with the adventure villain:

d20 roll: 11

Humanoid conqueror

Interesting! And not what I expected. I’ll have to flesh out this conqueror a little more to see how he fits into this story.

Next, I need to come up with some allies. I’ll roll two.

d12 rolls: 3, 11

Enthusiastic commoner and disguised monster.

Oh, that’s fun. I already know that I want my enthusiastic commoner to be one of the dwarves that let them know about the issues in Leilon. The other ally I’ll have to decide as I go, but that seems like a ton of fun.

Finally, I need a patron.

d20 roll: 5

Military officer

Another interesting character. Why would a military officer be the PC’s patron? Maybe it’s a member of the Lord’s Alliance? Or someone else that’s interested in Leilon.

3. Flesh Out the Location Details

I know that most of the adventure is going to take place in Leilon. Fortunately, I’ve already done a little research and created a pretty cool map using existing information on Leilon.

leilon
Made using Photoshop and Watabou.itch.io’s Fantasy City Map Generator

Believe it or not, I created this map using a random map generator. All I did was click refresh a few times ’til it fit roughly the description of Leilon (road going through the middle, near the water, wall around it) and presto. Then, I stuck on a few labels using Photoshop and presto. Took me no more than 10 minutes (okay, yes, I’m a card-carrying Photoshop Expert, but I digress).

I won’t need to generate a lot of details for Leilon since it’s already established in the Lore. Plus, it’s more or less a ghost town at the moment. However, I might create some random encounter tables for monsters lurking inside the town. And if I needed to name some random buildings, I could do that using the random buildings charts on page 113 of the DMG. There’s no need to do all of that now, though.

Here’s a good rule: never make more than you need to for an adventure/campaign. You might burn yourself out! Sometimes, I don’t even have dungeons planned. I just download a map from one of my favorite cartographers and quickly come up with stuff on the fly. You have to be a pretty experienced DM to do that, though.

4. Find the Ideal Introduction

I kinda already did this, but maybe I can morph it a little. Let’s see what the random tables come up with.

d12 roll: 2

While traveling in the wilderness, the characters notice the entrance to the adventure location.

Yawn. Well, that’s not very exciting. I think I’ll leave it with what I had, where they were tasked by their patrons/allies to figure out what all the fuss is about in Leilon.

5. Consider the Ideal Climax

Finally, how do we want the adventure to end? Again, I’ll roll on the random table.

d12 roll: 11

The adventurers must choose whether to pursue the fleeing main villain or save an NPC they care about or a group of innocents.

Sounds good to me! I could see our enthusiastic dwarf friend tied up with some sort of danger coming (maybe a bunch of zombies?) while the villain–our conquering humanoid–got away.

6. Plan Encounters

Okay, so now I just need to tie encounters to it. The players have to seize control of Leilon from invaders–I’m thinking cult of the dragon. They’re lead by a big-time big bad cult of the dragon guy. I need a good name? For this, I’ll turn to another random generator, this time donjon’s Fantasy Name Generator. I like the first name, Rewill. Kinda weird! But I dig it. I’ll use the second name the generator came up with Birstio for his surname. Rewill Birstio, a human conquerer.

Since we have our main villain for this adventure figured out, I should flesh him out a little.

Who is Rewill Birstio?

Turning to page 94 of the DMG, we’ll see what the tables say:

First, what is Rewill Birstio’s scheme?

d8 and a d4 roll: 8 + 4

Wealth: steal land, goods, or money

Yo, I don’t think this could have been more perfect if I tried. Rewill wants to take over Leilon on behalf of the Cult of the Dragon. That villain!

But what’s Rewill’s method?

d20 and a d6 roll: 20 + 3

Warfare: massacre

So mean ol’ Rewill wants to massacre people there. Perhaps some friendly monsters in disguise are trying to quietly rebuild the town. And he’s come in by force with his meano cultists to bully them around?

I could give Rewill a weakness, but most of those seem to pertain to liches and other supernatural beings. Rewill is just a powerful warlord. In fact, I’ll probably even use the warlord stat block for him (it’s in Volo’s). So he’s a CR 12 bad guy.

What I can do is give him some interesting traits, though. More random tables! Here’s what I rolled for Rewill.

Rewill Birstio is a formal lord, wearing clean, fine clothing. He is perceptive, spiritual and insightful but has a sickly pallor about him (he’s suffering from a ghoul bite he contracted a few days ago… he isn’t showing symptoms yet, but will soon). He grew up poor, so he knows thieves’ cant. In order to ignore his poor roots, he now uses flower speech and long words. Despite being cruel and evil, he comes across as very friendly in the way he talks. Rewill’s greatest ideal is might above all other; he believes he has the right to conquer those weaker than he. He is extremely loyal to Tiamat, who has given him the opportunity go far within the Cult of the Dragon. His one weakness? Rewill enjoys decadent pleasures, a costly habit that often gets him into trouble.

Keep in mind that all of this came from just a few dice rolls.

So the first encounter I’ll plan will be the BBEG Rewill encounter. I want to make it a Deadly encounter (no need to be epic), and with six combatants in the party, I need to make sure that the entire encounter coughs up a total of 21,600 experience. At only half his normal price (thanks to there being more than five characters) Rewill will only eat up 4,200 of that himself. So I need some underlings.

What sort of henchmen will Rewill surround himself with? How about a couple guard drakes (his pets) some sort of magic user (his counsel) and a few underlings. I’m seeing five creatures in all.

Encounter #1 – Rewill Encounter (19,425 adjusted XP):

  • Rewill Birstio is a chaotic evil human warlord (Volo’s).
  • Two black guard drakes named Myli and Artere (Volo’s).
  • A chaotic evil halfling mage named Alter.
  • Three cult fanatics.

I’ll want to make this sort of interesting, too, so I might put Rewill and his guards up in a guard tower on the palisade or in a place that it’s hard for the PCs to immediately get to.

Rewill will inform the PC’s that he’s got a host of hostages that are trapped somewhere. He’ll have Alter use sending to tell them where the hostages are as long as Rewill and his group are allowed to escape.

That leads to my next encounter. Saving the hostages from monsters!

From the lore, I know that there’s a place called Manyclaws alley that’s been haunted for years by huecuva. Unfortunately, huecuva haven’t made it into Fifth Edition yet. Normally, I’d just cook up the stats myself, but instead, I’ll just substitute another type of monster.

What is huecuva?

A huecuva is a skeletal humanoid, a priest cursed by its god to spend its existence as an undead creature.

Cool! So here comes these undead priests ready to eat the faces off the power townspeople. What can I sub out for an undead priest?

I know I want it to be a horde of them surrounding. I want this to be a Medium challenge, meaning its total adjusted XP will be around 9,600. I want there to be at least 10 of whatever creature it is. 10 creatures normally adds a multiplier of 2.5, but since there’s six good guys, that multiplier drops down to 2. Doing some quick math, that means I can have 10 creatures worth 480 XP. I know from memory that’s roughly CR 2.

So what kind of undead monsters are CR 2?

Ghasts, minotaur skeletons, poltergeists, and will-o-wisps. Ghasts could work! Plus, this encounter is not so much about beating the monsters, but saving the poor villages before they get eaten.

Encounter #1 – Save the Townsfolk from Ghasts Encounter (9,000 adjusted XP):

  • 10 ghasts trying to eat 30 commoners

To step things up, I’ll give bonus XP for each of the commoners that the PCs manage to save.

So far, we’ve got 28,425 experience used. My PCs can handle 63,000 before they need a long rest. So we’re about halfway there. Time for some easier encounters.

All right, moving on to the next encounter, it’s doubtful that Rewill Birstio will have just himself and a few men. So he’ll need some more henchmen around the town. I think two easy encounters and one Medium encounter should work. We’ll have some guards standing at one of the gates.

They’ve been ordering people to go the long way around Leilon due to the invasion (really, they’re hiding their goings-on within the town). Each gate probably needs these. So that’s two encounters right there.

An easy encounter for my 11th levels is worth 4,800 XP. I want there to be five people for the PC’s to deal with, so just like before I’ll reverse engineer what type of bad guys I can use in this encounter. The multiplier will be 1.5, and with five bad guys that’s 640 XP each. That’s nearly CR 3. That’s a little higher than I’d like, so I’ll adjust down.

I think I might make one of the five into a “boss” sargeant type. That’ll help eat up a bunch of the XP budget, too. A gladiator should work well. With the 1.5 modifiers, the gladiator will take 2,700 of the 4,800 budget for each of these easy encounters. Now that leaves me with 350 for each of the other creatures. Again, I’ll use cult fanatics, and I’ll even put the whole group on horses.

Encounters #3 and #4 – North and South Gate Encounters (5,400 adjusted XP x2):

  • One gladiator sergeant mounted on a warhorse.
  • Four cult fanatics mounted on warhorses.

That puts us at 39,225 adjusted XP, giving me 23,775 more to work with.

I could do one more Deadly encounter, a Hard encounter, and an Easy encounter, or two Medium encounters.

I think I’ll go for the two medium encounters. I probably need one more “thematic” encounter incorporating the Cult of the Dragon. And then something random.

For the final thematic encounter, I’ve got a Medium encounter budget of 9,600 to work with. I’d kinda like a different type of bad guy here, sort of a “mini-boss” with a couple of henchmen. With three bad guys, that’s a multiplier of 1.5, so I have an adjusted 6,400 experience to work with. I want the mini-boss to eat up around 50% of that, so he/she needs to be around CR 7 – 8. The mini-boss’s two lackeys will be close to 1,500 XP each, so they can be either CR 4 or 5. Cult of the Dragon? How about a dragon or an Abishai? Black Abishai are perfect at CR 7, so that’s the mini-boss.

The Abishai will represent Tiamat’s interests in the world and act as Rewill’s chief assassin, keeping things quiet about their presence in the realm. Accompanying Abishai are a pair of mezzoloths hired by the Abishai to act as its brute force.

Encounter #5 – Abishai encounter (9,750 adjusted XP):

  • One black Abishai
  • Two mezzoloths

Finally, it’s always good to toss in a random encounter not related to what’s going on. It changes things up a bit and makes for a more interesting overall adventure. Again, I have roughly 9,600 experience to work with. I could throw one CR 17 monster with that, two CR 9s, three CR 6s, four CR 5s, five or six CR 4’s, seven or eight CR 3’s, nine or ten CR 2’s, 11 CR 1’s, up to fourteen CR 1/2’s, and like, any number of weenies below CR 1/2.

Checking over the CR 16’s and 17’s, nothing really stuck out as making sense. I liked the idea of a mummy lord in its lair (CR 16), but that’s too much of a BBEG for a random encounter.

Finally, I decided that a group of trolls had wandered into the town and was looking around. The cultists had mostly avoided them (and vice versa), but they see the adventurers as easy targets, potentially even threatening to get notice unless the PC’s pay up with food (preferably a halfling if they’ve got one).

To make things more interesting, I’ll have it so the trolls have been eating some of the ghasts in the town and picked up the ghast’s paralyzing claws. This will give the trolls a chance to paralyze on a DC 16 (8 + troll’s proficiency bonus + troll’s Con modifier) and they also have the stench feature with the same DC.

Encounter #6 – Ghoul troll encounter (10,800 adjusted XP):

  • Four trolls with ghast Stench (DC 16 Con save) and paralyzing touch (DC 16 Con save).

To make things more interesting, I might have the trolls walking around through the sucking mud of The Leilon Stuck.

So the grand total shakes out to be 60,525. We actually came in 2,475 experience under budget. Not bad!

Now that I have an idea for the theme and other happenings in the town of Leilon, I can also kinda guess a series of random encounters in my head should they come up. I know the place has dragon cultists, undead, and scavengers there. That’s probably enough to fill up some interesting encounters.

Quick Recap:

  1. The PCs are tasked by someone (a friendly pair of dwarves) to secure the town of Leilon from Cult of Dragon invaders.
  2. Leilon has been seized by a villain named Rewill Birstio. He’s got guards at both gates, plus some in the town (his own henchmen, plus the Black Abishai).
  3. To thwart the PC’s, he’s taken the villagers hostage (friends of the dwarves who’ve moved into Leilon to reestablish it) and tells them the PC’s that if they don’t allow them to leave peacefully, the villagers will be eaten by ghasts when the sun goes down.
  4. Trolls are wandering around Leilon eating the dead. They’ve developed weird powers because of it.

7. Treasure, loot, rewards!

The story elements have planted a few good ideas for rewards.

  • The dwarves who tasked the PC’s to check out Leilon may have something to reward the PCs with.
  • The PC’s patron (probably a member of the Lord’s Alliance or Harpers) that may have a different agenda. Maybe a McGuffin? Perhaps they’ll help fund the PC’s rebuilding Phandalin project if assistance is given in figuring out what the deal with Leilon is. What might be cool is saying that the Lord’s Alliance knows about the Dragon cultists, but just wants the PC’s to observe and report and not get involved. There are some higher-ups that believe the cultist’s presence there could help flush out some of the bigger cells.
  • Any treasure that’s found in the town. The trolls could have a bag of goodies with them, as would Rewill and his men.

How many rewards do characters get over the course of play?

According to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, between levels 11-16, there should be twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table (p135). That’s two rolls per level. I’ve already hooked up the gang with one treasure hoard this level, I owe them one more before they hit level twelve.

Again, I’ll use the random tables to tell me what to offer:

  • 11,000 gold pieces
  • 1,900 platinum pieces
  • 8 gems worth 1,000 gold pieces
  • 2 potions of superior healing and eyes of minute seeing

Now it’s just a matter of putting those items in locations that make sense. The trolls will have the gems: gathered from a ship that got stuck in the mud (they trolls at the sailors, of course).

The dwarves will offer 2,000gp for helping them save their friends from Rewill.

The Lord’s Alliance (or Harpers) will offer the 1,900 platinum for assistance in rebuilding Phandalin if the PC’s can secure Leilon.

The 2 potions of superior healing is found in a rundown temple near where the civilians are being kept.

Alter, Rewill’s mage will wear the eyes of minute seeing.

The other 9,000 gold pieces will be loaded on Rewill’s horses.

And that’s pretty much it…

With these notes here, I have the makings for an entire adventure with some cool story elements and hooks to keep things moving.  All I have to do is place the encounters in the appropriate locations, give the NPCs some cool quirks, and see what the PC’s want to do.

I personally don’t plan too much more than that. I know the big story points, but it doesn’t silo me or my group into a certain story. They can take any path they want and I roll with it.

For example, they could sneak into the place and immediately run into the trolls. The scuffle brings attention to the cult who prepares in various locations around the town, giving Rewill time to place the villagers in the basement of an old temple where ghast are known to rise at night.

Or the PCs could bust in through the front gates, swords swinging. They’ll face off against the guards there, but again, that’ll give the others time to match ’em.

And if they do get in without causing a disturbance, then they might even be able to get the drop on Rewill.

It’s super flexible this way!

See you next time.

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Improved Mass Combat Rules (Part 2: Basic Rules) | Rules Supplement for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Continuing on the rules that I playtested this last Saturday, this article covers the rules for improved mass combat in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

This is an attempt to improve upon the mass combat rules that Wizards of the Coast released a while back, which is a little too simplified for its own good and kinda blah.

Playtest Content

The material here is presented for playtesting and to spark your imagination. These game mechanics are in draft form, usable in your campaign but not refined by final game design and editing. They aren’t officially part of the game.

Constructive feedback is welcome and appreciated in either comments or social media. If you can give me a valid reason with examples why something is off, 9/10 I’m likely to make changes to the content and credit you for doing so. Otherwise, feedback without anything to back it up gets ignored (or at most a smile emoji like this 🙂 ) Thanks!

Design Notes

Here are my notes for this build.

Before the Build

First and foremost, I want to make sure that the rules here don’t change the overall rules of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition too much. It’s still a d20 system and uses the move/action combat system that Fifth employs.

In addition, I don’t want it to be a monstrous dice fest either. Instead of rolling for each individual creature, you instead roll for units.

The part that will take the longest amount of prep for the Dungeon Master will be creating the units themselves, so I think I’ll add in a supplement to this when I’m done that covers most of the “basic” unit types.

I probably need to incorporate some sort of “point system”, too.

For the rest of my notes on this build, you can read the introduction I wrote last night.

After the Build

I went through the entire 9th chapter of the PHB to build the notes out. You’ll notice a lot of similarities here in the rules.

The purpose of the unit damage and unit hit points rules is to greatly simplify unit damage for bookkeeping reasons. Otherwise, GMs and players alike will go crazy trying to work everything out.

I threw a couple other details that seemed to make sense such as a unit that misses and doesn’t have disadvantage still does some damage on a miss.

Heroes can challenge commanders so that the barbarian with the sucky Charisma score can run up and fight a boss one on one.

Originally, most creatures weren’t going to have a way to attack units, but I didn’t think that made a lot of sense (you’re telling me a purple worm can’t gobble up an entire unit of goblins?) so I added in a “mass attack” rule that allows bigger creatures to deal big damage.

Since I wrote roughly 7,500 words for this article, I’ll just let you read it and let me know what you think.

Errata

  • 1/28/2019: Reduced the damage to individual units by half (x20 on a hit and x10 on a miss) and removed the mob rules for auto hits with an 18. Also, I added in units with advantages to attacks deal double unit damage on a hit and normal unit damage on a miss.
  • 1/28/2019: Fixed area of effect damage so that it deals the spell or effect’s damage divided by 5 and not by 8.
  • 1/29/2019: Instead of a hero commanding a number of units equal to its Charisma modifier, I changed it so a hero can command a number of units equal to its proficiency bonus.

Mass Combat Rules

The optional rules in this article pertain to running large scale combats with dozens, if not hundreds of combatants.

Units and Heroes

In a mass combat encounter, there are two main types of participants: units and individual creatures.

Unit. A unit consists of eight creatures of the same type. The type of creature that makes up the unit is known as the base creature. In order to create a unit, you must add the mass combat unit template to the base creature, detailed below.

Individual creature. An individual creature is a character or monster that operates by itself on the battlefield. Some individual creatures may become heroes. Huge and Gargantuan creatures can only be individual creatures and may not create units.

Hero. A hero is an individual creature that moves and takes actions in initiative order without requiring an issued command. All characters are heroes. The GM may also run heroes on the opposing forces made up of commanders, specialists, and other independent NPCs and monsters. All legendary monsters are heroes.

Siege Weapons. In addition to units and heroes, armies can also employ siege weapons in mass combat. Siege weapons include trebuchets, catapults, ballistas and other weapons that deal heavy damage at long range. Siege weapons count as individual creatures.

Mass Combat Unit Template

Any Large or smaller non-legendary creature in Fifth Edition can become a unit. The following characteristics change or are added to a creature that becomes a unit.

Size. When it becomes a unit, the base creature’s size changes as follows:

  • If the base creature is Tiny, the unit’s size is Small.
  • If the base creature is Small or Medium, the unit’s size is Large.
  • If the base creature’s size is Large, the unit’s size is Gargantuan.

Armor Class. The unit uses the same AC as the base creature.

Hit Points. The base creature has unit hit points instead of normal hit points. Unit hit points equal the base creature’s hit point average divided by 5, rounded down (minimum of one). For example, a unit of Ogres would have 11 unit hit points (59/5 = 11).

Speed. The unit’s speed is the same as the base creature’s.

Ability Scores. The unit’s ability scores are the same as the base creature’s.

Initiative Score. Units have their own initiative score

Morale Bonus. A unit gains a morale modifier which is a number added to the d20 roll made to prevent unit’s from breaking during combat. A unit’s morale modifier is equal to the base creature’s Wisdom modifier + its current unit hit points + any one hero within 30 feet’s Charisma modifier (if any).

Saving Throws. The unit’s saving throw modifiers remain the same as the base creature’s.

Skills. The unit’s skill modifiers remain the same as the base creature’s. If an ability check would normally gain benefits from the Help action, the unit automatically receives advantage on the check. For example, if a unit is trying to knock down a barred door, it makes its Strength check with advantage.

Vulnerabilities, Resistances, and Immunities. The unit maintains all of the base creature’s vulnerabilities, resistances, and immunities.

Senses. Any special senses that the base creature has the unit has as well. In addition, the unit is always considered to have advantage on its Perception rolls. The base creature’s passive Perception increases by +5.

Languages. The unit’s languages are the same as the base creature’s.

Challenge. Units do not have a traditional challenge rating. If a unit is used outside of a mass combat encounter, reference the Creating a Monster rules in chapter 9 of the DMG for details.

Traits. The unit keeps any traits that the base creature has. However, some of the effects may be altered (details forthcoming in a future article).

The unit gains the Unit trait as follows (be sure to change the size and creature type):

Unit. The unit can occupy a Medium or smaller creature’s space and vice versa, and the unit can move through any opening large enough for a Medium drow. The unit can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points, and if the unit has half its unit hit points or fewer, it makes its attacks rolls, ability checks, and saving throws with disadvantage.

Spellcasting and Innate Spellcasting. Units cannot cast spells except for cantrips.

Multiattack. If the base creature has multiattack, the unit also has multiattack.

Attacks. The unit keeps the base creature’s attack bonus. If using a ranged weapon, the range remains the same. A Large unit’s melee reach is 10 feet and a Gargantuan unit’s reach is 20 feet. The unit can target one creature or unit within reach or range.

A unit may also make a melee attack against any hostile creature that is sharing the same space as the unit.

Attacks are made by rolling to hit as normal. On a hit, the unit deals its unit damage (see below). On a miss, the unit deals half its unit damage (rounded down). If rounding down would reduce the unit’s damage to 0, the attack has no effect.

Damage. Instead of rolling for damage, a unit deals unit damage when attacking another unit. Unit damage is equal to the base creature’s normal average damage for the attack divided by 5 (minimum of one). For example, a Gargantuan unit of ogres would deal 2 bludgeoning unit damage with its great clubs (13/5 = 2).

If the attacking unit targets an individual creature, fortification, or siege weapon, it deals damage equal to its unit damage times 20 on a hit. On a miss, the unit deals damage equal to its unit damage times 10.

Actions. Any extra actions or reactions that the base creature has may or may not be included with the unit’s actions depending on the action or reaction’s effect.

Sample Unit

This unit’s statistics presented here use a drow as a base creature.

drow-army

Drow Unit

Large unit of Medium humanoids (elf), neutral evil


Armor Class 15 (chain shirts)

Unit Hit Points 2

Speed 30 ft.


Abilities Str 10 (+0), Dex 14 (+2), Con 10 (+0), Int 11 (+0), Wis 11 (+0), Cha 12 (+1)


Skills Perception +2, Stealth +4

Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 17

Languages Elvish, Undercommon


Fey Ancestry. The unit has advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put the unit to sleep.

Unit. The unit can occupy a Medium or smaller creature’s space and vice versa, and the unit can move through any opening large enough for a Medium drow. The unit can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points, and if the unit has half its unit hit points or fewer, it makes its attacks rolls, ability checks, and saving throws with disadvantage.

Sunlight. While in sunlight, the unit has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.


Actions

Shortswords. Melee Weapon Attacks: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one unit or target in reach or one target in the unit’s space. Hit: 1 piercing unit damage or 20 piercing damage if the target is a creature. Miss: 0 unit damage or 10 piercing damage if the target is a creature.

Hand Crossbows. Ranged Weapon Attacks: +4 to hit, range 30/120 ft., one unit or target within range. Hit: 1 piercing unit damage or 20 piercing damage if the target is a creature, and the target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for one hour. If the target is a creature, it automatically fails its saving throw. If the saving throw fails by 5 or more, the unit or creature falls unconscious. Miss: 0 unit damage or 10 piercing damage if the target is a creature and the creature must make the aforementioned saving throw.

 

The Order of Combat

A typical mass combat encounter is a clash between two sides, typically armies, that employ militia, special units, mounted combatants, archers, siege weapons, and heroes. The game organizes the chaos of mass combat into a cycle of rounds and turns.

A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. During a round, each hero in a battle takes a turn. Non-hero individual creatures and units do not take their own turns, but instead, move and take actions when commanded to by heroes, or as part of the Clean-Up phase.

The order of turns is determined at the beginning of a combat encounter when all heroes (characters and opposing combatants) roll initiative. Once everyone has taken a turn, there is a Clean-Up phase, and then the fight continues to the next round if neither side has defeated the other.

Surprise

The GM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy with any of its units or heroes, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the GM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) check of any hero or unit hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of the opposing side. Any unit or hero that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the combat. If a hero notices a threat, it can alert a number of units within 30 feet of it equal to its Charisma modifier proficiency bonus.

If a unit or a hero is surprised, it can’t move or take an action on its first turn of the combat, and it can’t take a reaction until that turn ends.

Mass Combat Initiative

Initiative determines the order of heroes during combat. When combat starts, every hero makes an Intelligence check to determine their place in the initiative order. The GM makes rolls for each of the opposing side’s heroes as well. Units and non-hero individual creatures do not roll initiative.

The GM ranks the heroes in order from the one with the highest Intelligence check total to the one with the lowest. This is the order (called the mass combat initiative order) in which they act during each round. The initiative order remains the same from round to round.

If a tie occurs, the GM decides the order among tied GM-controlled heroes (including NPCs supporting the characters), and the players decide the order among their tied characters. The GM decides the order if the tie is between one of the opposing side’s heroes and a player character. Optionally, the GM can have the tied characters and GM-controlled heroes each roll a d20 to determine the order, highest roll going first.

Your Turn

On your turn, you can move your hero a distance up to your speed and take one action. You decide whether to move first or take your action first. Your hero’s speed–sometimes called your walking speed–is noted on your character sheet.

The common actions your hero can take are described in the “Actions in Mass Combat’ section later in this chapter. Many class features and other abilities provide additional options for your hero’s action.

The “Movement and Position” section later in this article gives the rules for your hero’s move.

You can forgo moving, taking an action, or doing anything at all on your turn. If you can’t decide what to do on your turn, consider taking the Dodge or Ready action, as described in “Actions in Combat” section of chapter 9 of the PHB.

Bonus Actions

Bonus actions function the exact same way that they do in traditional Fifth Edition combat encounters, however, some effects may be limited by the mass combat rules.

Other Activity on Your Turn

Your turn can include a variety of flourishes that require neither your action nor your move. These extra flourishes are described in detail in the PHB.

Reactions

Reactions function the exact same way that they do in traditional Fifth Edition combat encounters, however, some effects may be limited by the mass combat rules.

Movement and Position

In mass combat, units and individual creatures are in constant motion, often using movement and position to gain the upper hand.

On your turn, you can move your hero a distance up to your speed. You can use as much or as little of your hero’s speed as you like on your turn, following the rules.

If you are part of a unit, you and the unit move as one up the unit’s speed even if your speed is less than the unit’s speed.

Any unit that you command using the Command action can also move a distance up to the unit’s speed.

Individual creature and unit movement can include jumping, climbing, and swimming. These different modes of movement can be combined with walking, or they can constitute the unit or individual creature’s entire move. However the unit or individual creature moves, it deducts the distance of each part of its move from the speed until it is used up or until it is done moving.

Breaking Up The Move

An individual creature or unit can break up movement during its move, using some of its speed before or after its action. For example, if a unit has a speed of 30 feet, it can move 10 feet, take its action, and then move 20 feet.

Moving Between Attacks

If a unit or individual creature takes an action that includes more than one weapon attack, it can break up its movement even further by moving between those attacks. For example, a unit of dwarves that can make two attacks with the Multiattack trait and has a speed of 25 feet could move 10 feet, make an attack, move 15 feet, and then attack again.

Using Different Speeds

If a unit or individual creature has more than one speed, such as a walking speed and a flying speed, it can switch back and forth between the speeds during its move. Whenever it switches, subtract the distance it’s already moved from the new speed. The result determines how much farther it can move. If the result is 0 or less, it can’t use the new speed during the current move.

For example, if a unit of griffon riders has a speed of 30 and a flying speed of 80, it could fly 20 feet, then walk 10 feet, and then leap into the air to fly 60 more feet.

Difficult Terrain

Difficult terrain can include overgrown gardens, uneven grounds, or sucking mud.

Every foot of movement in difficult terrain costs 1 extra foot. This rule is true even if multiple things in a space count as difficult terrain.

Low furniture, rubble, undergrowth, steep stairs, snow, and shallow bogs are examples of difficult terrain. The space of another creature, whether hostile or not, also counts as difficult terrain.

Being Prone

Combatants often find themselves lying on the ground, either because they are knocked down or because they throw themselves down. In the game, they are prone.

An individual creature or unit can drop prone without using any of its speed. Standing up takes more effort; doing so costs an amount of movement equal to half the creature or unit’s speed. For example, if a unit of ogres’ speed is 30 feet, it must spend 15 feet of movement to stand up. A creature or unit can’t stand up if it doesn’t have enough movement left or if its speed is 0.

To move while prone, an individual creature or unit must crawl or use magic such as teleportation. Every foot of movement while crawling costs 1 extra foot. Crawling 1 foot in difficult terrain, therefore, costs 3 feet of movement.

Moving Around Creatures and Units – Heroes

An individual creature can move through a nonhostile individual creature’s or unit’s space. An individual creature can move through a hostile creature’s space only if the creature is at least two sizes larger or smaller than the hostile creature. An individual creature can move through a hostile unit’s space, however, doing so provokes an attack of opportunity from the unit.

Remember that another creature’s or unit’s space is difficult terrain.

If a hero enters the same space as a nonhostile unit, it can choose to join the unit as a free action. When a hero joins a unit, it can use the Command action to control the unit. The unit a hero is a part of does not count towards the number of units the hero is normally able to command.

Move Around Creatures and Units – Units

A unit can move through a nonhostile individual creature’s or unit’s space. A unit can move through a hostile individual creature’s or unit’s space if the creature or unit is at least one size smaller than the unit.

A unit cannot willingly end its move in a another unit’s space.

If a unit enters the same space as a nonhostile hero and ends its turn sharing the hero’s space, the hero can willingly join the unit at the start of its turn.

A unit can use the Attack action to make an attack against a creature that it shares the same space with as either a part of a command or during the Orders step of the Clean-up phase.

Flying Movement

Flying creatures and units enjoy many benefits of mobility, but they must also deal with the danger of falling. If a flying creature or unit is knocked prone, has its speed reduced to 0, or is otherwise deprived of the ability to move, the creature or unit falls unless it has the ability to hover or it is being held aloft by magic, such as by the fly spell.

Creature Size

Each individual creature and unit takes up a different amount of space. The Size Categories table in chapter 9 of the PHB shows how much space a creature of a particular size controls in combat. Objects sometimes use the same size categories.

Space

An individual creature’s or unit’s space is the area in feet that it effectively controls in combat, not an expression of its physical dimensions. A typical Medium creature isn’t 5 feet wide, for example, but it does control a space that wide. If a Large ogre stands in a 10-foot wide doorway, other creatures can’t get through unless the ogre lets them.

An individual creature’s or unit’s space also reflects the area it needs to fight effectively. For that reason, there is a limit to the number of creatures or units that can surround another creature or unit in combat. Assuming Medium combatants, eight creatures can fit in a 5-foot radius around another one. Because larger creatures take up more space, fewer of them can surround a creature. If five Large creatures crowd around a Medium or smaller one, there’s little room for anyone else. In contrast, as many as twenty Medium heroes or units can surround a Gargantuan hero or unit.

Squeezing Into a Smaller Space

An individual creature or unit can squeeze through a space that is large enough for a creature one size smaller than it. Thus, a Large creature or unit can squeeze through a passage that’s only 5 feet wide. While squeezing through a space, a creature or unit must spend 1 extra foot for every foot it moves there, and it has disadvantage on attack rolls and Dexterity saving throws. Attack rolls against the creature or unit have advantage while it’s in the smaller space.

Hero Actions in Mass Combat

When you take your action on your turn, you can take one of the actions presented in the PHB, one of the actions presented here, an action you gained from your class or a special feature, or an action that you improvised.

When you describe an action not detailed elsewhere in the rules, the GM tells you whether that action is possible and what kind of roll you need to make, if any, to determine success or failure.

The actions normally available to a character in the PHB are available to a hero during mass combat. However, there are two additional action options available to heroes while in mass combat: Challenge and Command.

Challenge

You can target one unit within 5 feet of you that you can see. You must then make a Charisma (Intimidation) check contested by the unit leader’s Wisdom (Insight) check. If you are successful, you may enter the target unit without provoking an attack of opportunity. While within the target unit, you cannot be targeted by the unit’s attacks and the unit cannot move or take actions. You may then fight the target unit’s leader (either an enemy hero that is present within the target unit or an individual unit using the base creature’s normal stats). If you defeat the unit’s leader, the unit automatically becomes broken (see “Morale Saving Throws” below). If you leave the unit, the unit can move and take actions again as normal

Command

You can command a number of units within 30 feet of you equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum of one) proficiency bonus. In addition, you automatically Command any unit that you are a part of. You cannot command any unit that already has an Activated token on it, or is incapacitated.

While under your command, the unit takes its turn during your turn. The unit moves to where you want it to using the normal movement rules, and it can take the Attack, Dash, Defend, Guard, Hide, or Rally unit action.

You can only use the Rally action on broken units. See details in the “Morale Saving Throws” section of this article.

After you command a unit, place an Activated token on the unit to signify that it cannot be commanded again until the next round.

 

Unit Actions in Mass Combat

A unit can only take actions in a round if it is commanded by a hero. A unit not commanded by a hero can only take reactions or follow any previously issued command such as Defend or Guard during the Orders step of the Clean-Up Phase. When Commanded, the unit can take one of the actions presented here, or an action that the hero improvises. Many monster units have action options of their own in their stat blocks.

Attack

The most common action a unit takes in combat is the Attack action. With this action, the unit makes one melee or ranged attack. See the “Making an Attack” section for the rules that govern attacks.

Certain features, such as Multiattack, allow the unit to make more than one attack with this action.

Dash

When the unit takes the Dash action, it gains extra movement for the current turn. The increase equals the unit’s speed, after applying any modifiers. With a speed of 30 feet, for example, the unit can move up to 60 feet on its turn if it dashes.

Any increase or decreases to the unit’s speed changes this additional movement by the same amount. If the unit’s speed of 30 feet is reduced to 15 feet, for instance, the unit can move up to 30 feet this turn if it dashes.

Defend

When a unit takes the Defend action, it focuses entirely on avoiding attacks. Place a Defend token on the unit. Until the unit is commanded again, any attack roll made against the unit has disadvantage as long as the unit can see the attacker, and it makes Dexterity saving throws with advantage. The unit loses this benefit if it is incapacitated or its speed drops to 0. While defending, the unit does not make attacks during the Clean-Up phase during the Orders step. If the unit is commanded to perform a different action on a subsequent round, remove its Defend token.

Guard

When a unit takes the Guard action, it focuses entirely on attacking enemies that come within range of it. Until the unit is commanded again, it makes an attack against the nearest enemy unit within its reach or range during the Orders step of the Clean-up Phase. Unless a unit is incapacitated, broken, or defending, it is automatically considered to have taken the Guard command.

Hide

When a unit takes the Hide action, it makes a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide, following the rules in chapter 7 of the PHB for hiding. If successful, the unit gains certain benefits, as described in the “Unseen Attackers and Targets” section later in this chapter.

Rally

When a unit is commanded to rally, before it moves, the unit must make a Morale saving throw and adds your Charisma modifier to the roll. On a failure, the broken unit must use its full movement to move towards the edge of the battlefield. On a success, you can move the unit to where you want.

Attacks by Creatures

The rules for creatures making attacks against other creatures is the same as detailed in chapter 9 of the PHB. However, the rules for a creature making an attack against a unit have a few modifications as detailed below.

Targeting a Unit

A creatire cannot target a unit with an attack that targets only one creature or target such as a melee weapon attack or ranged weapon attack. However, if the creature has a spell or other effect that targets an Area of Effect, it can target the unit with the following restrictions:

  • If the attack’s area covers 100% of the unit as well as each space within 5 feet of the unit, completely enveloping it, the creature makes its attack roll against the unit with advantage or the unit makes its normal saving throw against the attack with disadvantage. For example, if a wizard targets a unit with a fireball spell and the fireball completely covers the unit as well as everything within 5 feet of the unit, the unit makes its Dexterity saving throw at disadvantage.
  • If the attack’s area covers 100% of the unit, the creature makes its normal attack roll against the unit or the unit makes its normal saving throw against the attack. For example, if a cleric uses the thunderwave spell on a unit and the area of the spell covers 100% of the unit, the unit must make its normal Constitution saving throw to avoid the spell’s effects.
  • If the attack’s area covers less than 100% of the unit, but at least 50% or more, the creature makes its attack roll against the unit with disadvantage or the unit makes its saving throw against the attack with advantage. For example, if a sorcerer uses the burning hands spell and only hits 75% of a unit, the unit makes its Dexterity saving throw with advantage.
  • If the attack’s area covers less than 50% of the unit, the attack has no effect.

A hero can use the Challenge action to target the unit’s commander as described in the “Heroes Actions in Mass Combat” section.

Individual Creature Attack Rolls Against Units

If a creature can attack the unit with an attack that requires an attack roll, it rolls a d20 adding the appropriate modifiers as normal. If the total of the attack roll plus modifiers equals or exceeds the unit’s Armor Class (AC), the attack hits.

Opportunity Attacks Against Units

Hostile units do not provoke attacks of opportunity from enemy units or creatures.

Grappling and Shoving Units

A unit cannot be grappled or shoved unless done so by a spell or similar effect that would affect the entire unit such as a web spell.

Optional Rule: Huge and Gargantuan Individual Creatures

Huge and Gargantuan creatures are large enough to deal damage to multiple targets at once. A Huge or Gargantuan creature receives a new Action that allows one of its normal melee attacks to target a unit that is at least one size or smaller than it. On a hit, the creature deals unit damage equal to its attack’s average damage divided by 8 (rounded down). For example, an Ancient Black Dragon can make a bite attack targeting a unit. On a hit, it deals 2 unit damage to the unit or half as much damage on a miss.

 

Attacks by Units

A unit makes attacks similar to how a hero makes attacks:

  1. The unit chooses a target. Pick a target within the unit’s attack range: a creature, an object, or a location.
  2. Determine modifier. The GM determines whether the target has cover and whether the unit has advantage or disadvantage against the target. In additional, spells, special abilities, and other effects can apply penalties or bonuses to the attack roll.
  3. Resolve the attack. The unit makes the attack roll. On a hit, the unit rolls damage, unless the particular attack has rules that specify otherwise. Some attacks cause special effects in addition to or instead of damage.

If there’s ever any question whether something the unit is doing counts as an attack, the rule is simple: if you’re making an attack roll, you’re making an attack.

Attack Rolls

Units make attack rolls the same way that creatures make attack rolls as detailed in chapter 9 of the PHB. However, there are a few additional rules modifications:

Units Attack Individual Creature

When a unit attacks an individual creature that it one or more size categories smaller than it, it makes its attack roll with advantage.

If a unit makes a melee attack roll against an individual creature, the unit automatically hits if the attack roll it would need to hit the creature is an 18 or less and the unit does not have disadvantage on its attack roll.

Grappling, Shoving, and Seizing

A unit cannot grapple or shove another unit. However, a unit can attempt to seize a target. The target of the unit’s grapple must be no more than one size larger than it and must be within its reach. The unit tries to seize the target by making a grapple check instead of an attack roll: a Strength (Athletics) check made with advantage contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use. If the unit succeeds, the target is subjected to the grappled condition. The condition specifies the things that end it, and a unit can release the target whenever it likes (no reaction required).

Escaping a Seizure. A seized creature can use its action to escape. To do so, it must succeed on a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by the unit’s Strength (Athletics) check made with advantage.

Moving a Seized Creature. When the unit moves, it can drag or carry the grappled creature with it at its normal speed. If the creature is one or more sizes bigger than the unit, the unit’s speed is halved.

 

Cover

Cover functions the same way for units and individual creatures that it does according to the rules in chapter 9 of the PHB.

 

Damage and Healing in Mass Combat

For individual creatures in mass combat, damage and healing function the same way they normally do. Refer to chapter 9 of the PHB for details.

However, there are a few rules modifications for units.

Unit Hit Points

A unit’s unit hit points are the combination of the physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck of the entire unit as a whole. Unit hit points are a simplified way of tracking hit points for large groups.

The unit’s unit hit points are usually the total hit points of a unit divided by 40 (rounded down, a minimum of one). For example, where an individual knight would have 52 hit points, a unit of eight knights has 416 hit points, or 10 unit hit points.

Whenever the unit takes unit damage, that unit damage is subtracted from its unit hit points. If the unit’s unit hit points drop to half or less of its total unit hit points, the unit has disadvantage on its attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws.

Unit Damage

Units deal a lot more damage with successful hits than individual creatures do. When attacking another unit, that damage is represented by unit damage. Unit damage is usually the average amount of damage each member of the unit would do combined divided by 40 (round down, minimum of one). For example, an individual knight would normally deal 10 slashing damage with its greatsword, but a unit of eight knights would deal 80 slashing damage with their greatswords, or 2 slashing unit damage.

In addition, when a unit misses and it did not have disadvantage on its attack roll, it deals half its normal unit damage (rounded down). If rounding the damage down would reduce the unit’s unit damage to zero, it deals 0 unit damage. For example, if a unit of knights misses with its attack and it didn’t have disadvantage, it still deals 1 unit damage.

Units Damage Against Individual Creatures

When a unit hits with an attack against an individual creature, it deals an amount of damage equal to its unit damage times 20. For example, if a unit of knights attacks a single ogre and hits it, the unit deals 40 unit damage to the ogre.

If the unit misses on its attack roll against an individual creature and it didn’t have disadvantage on the roll, it still deals an amount of damage equal to its unit damage times 10.

Individual Creature Damage Against Units

If an individual creature hits a unit with an attack that can target it such as a spell with an area of effect, the damage the unit receives is equal to the damage rolled divided by 5  (rounded down). For example, a wizard lobs a fireball at a unit of knights and the knights fail their Dexterity saving throw. The wizard rolls 27 fire damage; that means the unit of knights takes 5 fire unit damage from the attack (27/5 = 5)

Unit Critical Hits

Units do not receive the benefit of extra damage on a critical hit.

Advantage on Unit Attack Rolls

When a unit makes an attack roll with advantage and hits, it deals double its normal unit damage to the target. And if a unit makes an attack roll with advantage and misses, it deals its normal unit damage.

Disadvantage on Unit Attack Rolls

When a unit makes an attack roll with disadvantage and hits, it only deals half of its normal unit damage to the target. And if a unit makes an attack roll with disadvantage and misses, it deals 0 unit damage regardless of what its unit damage is.

Units with Damage Resistance and Vulnerability

If a unit has resistance to a damage type, the damage of that type is halved against it (rounded down). If rounding down would reduce the damage to zero, the unit takes 0 unit damage from the attack. If a unit has vulnerability to the damage type, damage of that type is doubled against it.

Resistance and then vulnerability are applied after all other modifiers to damage. Multiple instances of resistance or vulnerability that affect the same damage type count as only one instance.

Healing Units

Units can only be healed with a mass heal spell which can heal up to 17 unit hit points for units within range.

Dropping to 0 Unit Hit Points

When a unit drops to 0 unit hit points, it is destroyed.

Unit Attacks Against Incapacitated Units or Creatures

If a unit or creature is incapacitated, it is vulnerable to attacks from enemy units. If an enemy unit makes an attack against an entire unit that is incapacitated, the unit is instantly destroyed. If an enemy unit makes an attack against an individual creature that is incapacitated, the creature instantly dies as if it had failed all of its death saving throws.

Units Knocking a Creature Out

A unit can incapacitate an individual creature instead of killing it. When a unit reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacking unit can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable.

Temporary Hit Points for Units

Units cannot receive temporary hit points.

Mounted Combat for Units

As long as at least eight mounts are available within reach of a unit, a unit can mount the creatures.

Eight willing creatures that are at least one size category larger than the unit (but no larger than Large) can serve as mounts for the unit using the following rules.

Mounting and Dismounting

Once during the unit’s move, it can mount eight creatures that are within 5 feet of it or dismount. Doing so costs an amount of movement equal to half the unit’s speed. For example, if the unit’s speed is 30 feet, it must spend 15 feet of movement to mount horses. Therefore, a unit can’t mount if it doesn’t have 15 feet of movement left or if its speed is 0.

If an effect moves the mount against its will while the unit’s on it, the unit must succeed on a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw or fall off its mounts, landing prone in a space within 5 feet of its mounts. If the unit’s knocked prone while mounted, it must make the same saving throw.

If the mounts are knocked prone, the unit can use its reaction to dismount it as it falls and land on its feet. Otherwise, the unit is dismounted and falls prone in a space within 5 feet of its mounts.

Benefits of Mounting

Unlike mounted heroes, the units and mounts act as one. The unit gains the following benefits while mounted:

  • The unit’s size increases according to the size of the unit it is on as follows:
    • Units mounted on Large creatures become a Gargantuan unit.
    • Units mounted on Small or Medium creatures become a Large unit
  • The unit’s unit hit points increases by an amount equal to the mount’s average hit points divided by 5. For example, if a unit of knights mounts riding horses, the knight’s unit hit points increases by 2 to 12.
  • The unit’s speed equals the mounts’ speed.
  • If the mounts have any special traits related to movement or defense, the unit gains those traits.

Units in Underwater Combat

Units are affected by being underwater the same as individual creatures as detailed in chapter 9 of the PHB.

Siege Weapons in Mass Combat

The rules for siege weapons are a little different than the ones outlined in chapter 8 of the DMG.

Siege Weapon Stats

The siege weapon’s stats are different while in mass combat. The siege weapons outlined in chapter 8 of the DMG have the following updates:

Ballistas. The ballista is considered an individual creature. Instead of its normal attack, a ballista fires a bolt in 120-foot line that is 5-feet wide. Each individual creature in the line must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw or take 16 (3d10) piercing damage. If the line hits at least 50% of a unit, the unit must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw or take 1 unit damage.

Cannon. The cannon is considered an individual creature. Instead of its normal attack, a cannon fires a cannonball in a 600-foot line that is 5 feet wide. Each individual creature in the line must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw or take 44 (8d10) bludgeoning damage.

Suspended Cauldron. A suspended cauldron is considered an individual creature. When it uses its boiling attack against a unit, the unit must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take 2 unit damage on a failed saving throw or half as much damage on a successful one. Gargantuan units have advantage on the saving throw and take no damage with a successful save.

Mangonel. A mangonel is considered an individual creature. If the mangonel hits a unit with its mangonel stone, the unit takes 5 unit damage. If the mangonel misses a creature or a unit with its mangonel stone, the stone lands somewhere off course. See “Missed Artillery” below. A mangonel can make attacks against targets behind total cover with disadvantage.

Ram. A ram must be carried by a Large or larger unit. While carrying the ram, the unit has total cover against attacks from above. If a unit carrying a ram hits an object, it receives a +1 bonus to its unit damage if it is a Large unit or +4 bonus to its unit damage if it is a Gargantuan unit.

Trebuchet. A trebuchet is considered an individual creature. If the trebuchet hits a unit with its trebuchet stone, the unit takes 8 unit damage. If the trebuchet misses a creature or a unit with its trebuchet stone, the stone lands somewhere off course. See “Missed Artillery” below. A trebuchet can make attacks against targets behind total cover with disadvantage.

miss-chart

Missed Artillery

If a mangonel or trebuchet misses its target with one of its stones, there is still a chance that the stone deals damage. Roll a d8 and a d6 at the same time. The d8 determines the direction the stone flies; refer to the directional chart to the right. Next, multiply the d6 result by 10, and that is the number of feet away from the target the stone lands. For example, if you roll a 7 on the d8 and a 5 on the d6, the stone lands 50 feet to the southeast of the target.

If there is a creature, unit, or object in the space that the stone lands, it automatically takes damage as if the siege weapon successfully hit it with its attack roll.

Unit Morale Saving Throw

Special circumstances may require a unit to make a Morale saving throw. A unit’s Morale saving throw modifier equals its current unit hit points + its Wisdom modifier + the Charisma modifier of a hero within 30 feet of the unit.

Circumstances for Morale Saving Throws

The following are situations that can occur during mass combat that can cause a unit to make a Morale Saving throw.

Half Unit Hit Points or Less

Whenever a unit’s unit hit points drops to 50% or less its total, during the Clean-Up phrase, the unit must make a Morale saving throw to avoid becoming Broken.

If a unit rolls 10 or higher on its Morale saving throw, it becomes Hardened. Place a Hardened token on the unit’s token.

If a unit rolls 9 or lower, it becomes Broken. Place a Broken token on the unit. During the Orders step of the Clean-Up phase, a broken unit spends its turn moving as close to the nearest edge of the battlefield as it can. It also can’t take reactions. For its action, it can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents it from moving. If there’s nowhere to move, the unit can use the Defend action.

Overrunning. If a hostile unit attacks a broken unit, the broken unit is automatically destroyed by the attackers.

Rally. A hero can use the Command action to Rally a broken unit. The broken unit makes a new Morale saving throw adding the commanding hero’s Charisma bonus to its Morale saving throw modifier. If the unit succeeds on its saving throw, the unit gets a Hardened token and the hero can direct the unit to move up to its full speed where it wants. If the unit fails its saving throw, it continues to move towards the nearest edge of the battlefield.

Attacking Larger Units and Creatures

If the unit is commanded to move adjacent to a unit or creature that is one or more size categories larger than it, the unit must make a Morale saving throw. On a failed saving throw, the unit cannot move towards the unit.

Hardened Units

A unit with the Hardened token automatically passes all of its Morale saving throws until the end of the mass combat encounter.

The Clean-Up Phase

After all heroes have taken their turns, there is a Clean-Up phase that occurs before the next round begins.

The Clean-Up Phrase is divided into the following steps:

  1. Orders. All units without an Activation, Broken, or Defense token that aren’t incapacitated can make one attack against the nearest hostile unit or creature within its reach or range. The unit can only make one attack even if it has the Multiattack action. Broken units move as detailed in the “Broken Units” section.
  2. Morale. All units without a Hardened token that aren’t incapacitated that have 50% or less unit damage points must make Morale saving throws against becoming broken.
  3. Effects. Any lingering effects such as gases, fires, or spells such as darkness are adjusted or removed.
  4. Deactivate. All Activation tokens are removed from units.

 

Unit Stats Coming to Patreon

Okay, phew! That was a whole lot of writing. But sometimes, I just gotta get something out on paper. These rules have already been playtested by me, but be sure to test them out yourself and see what you think.

If you’d like a quick reference to units, I’ll be posting units on Patreon and in a finalized version of these rules in PDF format (probably sometime this week). Otherwise, you’ll have to create your own using the template above.

Become a Patron to get unit stats and additional combat options!

Have fun and see you soon!

Art by Wizards of the Coast and Simon Goinard.

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How to Make a Legendary Monster| DM’s Workshop for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Hey all!

Thought I might whip up a real quick article today on creating one of the most fun elements of a good Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition game: big bad evil guys (aka BBEGs).

This method is pretty simple, too. In fact, it works more or less the same way adding a template to a monster does. Just requires a little bit of thinking on your part.

Let’s dig in.

Step #1 – Pick your base monster.

The easiest way to create a legendary monster is to start with a base monster. This will be the monster that we’ll base the rest of the design on and give us guidelines to what a legendary version of the monster should look like.

For this example, I’m going to pick the Night Hag as my base monster.

Step #2 – If the monster has natural armor, increase its natural armor by +2. If it wears armor, give it the best armor possible.

Natural armor usually scales with bigger, meaner versions of monsters. A +2 bump is a quick and dirty way of scaling up the armor.

If the creature wears armor, then give it the best armor possible (that makes sense with it). Remember that creatures with high Dexterity may completely forego armor or only wear studded.

For those that are already maxed out (like a death knight), you might give it a magic version of the armor. Just make sure that the armor isn’t beyond what your characters should normally receive at their respective level.

So now my Legendary Night Hag has a natural armor of 19.

Step #3 – If the monster has less than 20 hit dice, give it +10 more hit dice. If the monster has more than 20 hit dice give it +5 more hit dice.

The bigger the bad, the more the hit points. Increase its hit points accordingly (but you might wait to calculate it until you finish putting in its new ability scores below).

Step #4 – Increase its best three ability scores by +4 and its other three ability scores by +2.

This is kind of a quick and dirty way of doing this, but it does make for a pretty good rule of thumb. Check out its ability scores and see what its best three scores are. Then, go and increase those ability scores by +4 each. The remaining three scores increase by +2. If there is a tie, select the one that best fits the campaign.

Don’t forget to make adjustments to stats that are affected by ability scores. For example, AC is affected by Dexterity and hit points are affected by Constitution.

My night hag will have the following Ability Scores:

Abilities Str 22 (+6), Dex 17 (+3), Con 20 (+5), Int 18 (+4), Wis 16 (+3), Cha 20 (+4)

This makes her Armor Class 20 and her Hit Points 237 (25d8 + 125).

Step #5 – Give the monster at least three saving throw proficiencies. If it already has three save proficiencies, give it one more.

This one is a little tricky because it’ll require some thinking on your part. But all big bad guys have great saving throws. Therefore, you’ll need to consider which save proficiencies your BBEG has.

Give it at least three. And if its base monster already has three or more, then give it one more.

If it has no save proficiencies already, then give it “the big three”, which are Dexterity Constitution, and Wisdom. This will protect it from a majority of attacks that the characters will lob at it.

Otherwise, consider its biggest weaknesses. If it’s a fiend and has a relatively low Charisma score compared to the rest of its abilities, then buff up its Charisma.

For my night hag, I’m going to give her the big three saves, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom.

Step #6 – Give the monster Legendary Resistance (3/day).

Legendary Resistance is a power that allows the monster to avoid missed saving throws by choosing to pass it instead. This prevents the BBEG from getting one-shotted early on in battle.

Here is the text for the night hag:

Legendary Resistance (3/Day). If the night hag fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.

Step #7 – Give the monster Multiattack or give it extra attacks for its Multiattack. And give it extra damage for its base attacks, too.

You’re going to want to increase your BBEG’s damage output considerably.

First, if the monster doesn’t have multiattack, give it a multiattack that allows it to make two attacks with its normal default attack.

Second, increase the damage of the base attack. You can do this either by increasing the damage by one die (such as a 2d6 to 3d6) or by adding on a bonus damage type, such as poison (for beasts, monstrosities, and humanoids with weapons), necrotic (for fiends and undead), and so on. Usually, I try not to add more than 4d6 extra damage with the bonus damage type.

Here is how I will have my Legendary Night Hag’s actions:

Multiattack. The night hag makes two melee attacks.

Claws (Hag Form Only). Melee Weapon Attack: +11 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 19 (3d8 + 6) slashing damage plus 14 (4d6) necrotic damage.

Step #8 – Give the monster 3 Legendary Actions.

This is another part that requires some thinking on your part, but really, it’s not too bad if you use a few tricks.

Legendary actions allow for a monster to take actions outside of its turn. Typically, the monster will have at least two default legendary action options: move and attack. Then, it will have a third that will cost 2 actions. The third is usually a “crowd control” option, meant to protect itself. The best thing to do here is duplicate the effects of a 5th level or lower spell.

Here is the Legendary Action block for my Legendary Night Hag. I created its Death Sphere action from the spell storm sphere in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything with a few minor tweaks. I thought it sounded metal AF.

Legendary Actions

The night hag can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The night hag regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Move. The night hag moves up to its speed without provoking attacks of opportunity.

Attack. The night hag makes one claw attack.

Create Death Sphere (Costs 2 Actions). The first time the night hag uses this ability, it creates a 20-foot radius sphere of swirling air centered on a point it can see within 150 feet which remains for 1 minute.  Each creature in the sphere when it appears or that ends its turn there must make a Constitution saving throw or take 2d6 necrotic damage. The sphere’s space is difficult terrain.

Until the effect ends, the night hag can use its bonus action on each of its turns to cause a blast of enervating energy to leap from the center of the sphere toward one creature she chooses within 60 feet of the center. She must make a ranged spell attack (+11 to hit). She has advantage on the attack roll if the target is in the sphere. On a hit, the target takes 4d6 necrotic damage.

Creatures within 30 feet of the sphere have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks made to listen.

Move Death Sphere (Costs 2 Actions). The night hag can move the death sphere 30 feet.

Step #9 – Calculate the monster’s challenge rating and proficiency bonus.

This is pretty simple to do. The DMG actually gives you guidelines for doing it, too, on page 273.

The night hag has base 237 hit points. She also has legendary resistance, which acts as a 90 hit point bonus. Plus, she’s got resistances, which add a 1.25 multiplier to hit points. So her effective hit points are 408. That makes her a CR 22 on the defensive side… almost. She’s also got a bump in AC from Magic Resistance and having three saving throw proficiencies. So she’s actually a CR 24 creature on the defensive side.

She can deal up to 99 damage per turn with her claws (multiattack and one Legendary Action). Plus, thanks to her death sphere, she can do another 28 damage (catching 2 creatures in it, and hitting another with the enervating bolt). That gives her roughly 127 damage output during her turn, placing her offensive CR at 20.

The average of CR 20 and CR 24 is CR 22. So she’s a CR 22 monster worth 41,000 XP. At CR 22, she has a +7 to her proficiency bonuses. So I’ll need to go back and make adjustments across the board to her skills, saving throws, attacks, and spell DCs.

Here is the final stat block for the legendary night hag:

night-hag

Legendary Night Hag

Medium fiend, neutral evil


Armor Class 20 (natural armor)

Hit Points 237 (25d8 + 125)

Speed 30 ft., fly 30 ft.


Abilities Str 22 (+6), Dex 17 (+3), Con 20 (+5), Int 18 (+4), Wis 16 (+3), Cha 20 (+5)


Saving Throws Dex +10, Con +12, Wis +10

Skills Deception +12, Insight +10, Perception +10, Stealth +10

Damage Immunities cold, fire, necrotic; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks not made with silvered weapons

Condition Immunities charmed, frightened

Senses truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 20

Languages Abyssal, Common, Infernal, Primordial, telepathy 120 ft.

Challenge 22 (41,000 XP)


Innate Spellcasting. The night hag’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 20, +12 to hit with spell attacks). She can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:

  • At will: detect magic, magic missile
  • 2/day each: plane shift (self only), ray of enfeeblement, sleep

Magic Resistance. The hag has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.


Actions

Multiattack. The night hag makes two melee attacks.

Claws (Hag Form Only). Melee Weapon Attack: +12 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 19 (3d8 + 6) slashing damage plus 14 (4d6) necrotic damage.

Change Shape. The hag magically polymorphs into a Small or Medium female humanoid, or back into her true form. Her statistics are the same in each form. Any equipment she is wearing or carrying isn’t transformed. She reverts to her true form if she dies.

Etherealness. The hag magically enters the Ethereal Plane from the Material Plane or vice versa. To do so, the hag must have a heartstone in her possession.

Nightmare Haunting (1/day). While on the Ethereal Plane, the hag magically touches a sleeping humanoid on the Material Plane. A protection from evil and good spell cast on the target prevents this contact, as does a magic circle. As long as the contact persists, the target has dreadful visions. If these visions last for at least 1 hour, the target gains no benefit from its rest, and its hit point maximum is reduced by 5 (1d10). If this effect reduces the target’s hit point maximum to 0, the target dies, and if the target was evil, its soul is trapped in the hag’s soul bag. The reduction to the target’s hit point maximum lasts until removed by the greater restoration spell or similar magic.


Legendary Actions

The night hag can take 3 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature’s turn. The night hag regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Move. The night hag moves up to its speed without provoking attacks of opportunity.

Attack. The night hag makes one claw attack.

Create Death Sphere (Costs 2 Actions). The first time the night hag uses this ability, it creates a 20-foot radius sphere of swirling air centered on a point it can see within 150 feet which remains for 1 minute.  Each creature in the sphere when it appears or that ends its turn there must make a Constitution saving throw or take 2d6 necrotic damage. The sphere’s space is difficult terrain.

Until the effect ends, the night hag can use its bonus action on each of its turns to cause a blast of enervating energy to leap from the center of the sphere toward one creature she chooses within 60 feet of the center. She must make a ranged spell attack (+12 to hit). She has advantage on the attack roll if the target is in the sphere. On a hit, the target takes 4d6 necrotic damage.

Creatures within 30 feet of the sphere have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks made to listen.

Once the night hag creates a death sphere it can’t create another one until it completes a long rest.

Move Death Sphere (Costs 2 Actions). The night hag can move the death sphere 30 feet.

 

Step #10 – Last tweaks based on CR, proficiency, and flavor.

You might have noticed that I made a few more subtle changes to the night hag’s normal stat block.

I switched it damage resistances to immunities. The reason I did this was that as a CR 22 creature, resistances do not create a multiplier for effective hit points. However, immunities do still add a 1.25 modifier. So that was a quick fix instead of having to recalculate the hit points and CR all over again. I also gave her necrotic immunity, which I felt made sense considering her attacks.

Next, I gave the night hag immunity to being frightened. Plus, she picked up a fly speed of 60 ft., true sight, and telepathy.  All of these things are roughly in line with what to expect from high-level fiends and they don’t move the needle too much in terms of CR. I might also add an additional innate spell to give her some middle range abilities, since all of her powers are either long range or close range. Good ideas for that include hold monster, dominate person, and maybe even something like web to slow creatures down. For now, though, I’ll leave it as is.

Note: if you don’t want your legendary creature to be as tough as this one, consider cutting some of these things in half. For example, only award it 5 extra hit dice, give it +2 to 3 stats, only 1 or 2 LRs, etc. Just pick and choose what you want.

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Art by Wizards of the Coast.

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How to Make a New Magic Item for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (In 15 Minutes or Less)

Magic items are a fun part of D&D. And while the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide offers up plenty of cool magic items, sometimes there’s a concept that you have that could fit better into your campaign world.

But how do you create a magic item? There are rules, sure, but they can seem sort of intimidating, especially if you’re new to being a Dungeon Master. In this guide, I’ll show you how I come up with new magic items for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition in 15 minutes or less.

How to Create a Magic Item for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

Step #1 – Come up with the concept.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is what does this magic item do? And how will it help whoever owns it? Is it a weapon, a ring, a piece of clothing, or what? And how often should the possessor be able to operate it? Once per day? A set number of times limited by charges?

In this example, I’m going to take one of the ideas I received from my living list of magic items ideas.

Instagram follower @bpuz4 suggested this magic item:

A ring of mind control. You can control up to three monsters in your line of sight once a day.

This sounds like something that can affect three monsters with dominate person (5th level) or mass suggestion (6th level).

Step #2 – Figure out the “base magic item.”

Next, I look to the actual Dungeon Master’s Guide magic items list to find an item that comes close to duplicating a similar effect. This “base magic item” will help me see how the folks over at Wizards of the Coast balance the item as well as see how they word it for the rules as written (RAW).

For our ring of mind control, I might actually look at items other than rings. The eyes of charming (DMG, p168) sound like they have similar enchantment magic. The Anstruth harp (DMG, p176) can cast cure wounds as a 5th level spell, and dominate person, the effect that our ring will probably duplicate, is also a 5th level spell. Also, the Ollamh harp can cast confusion, another creature-agency affecting spell (albeit one level lower).

I’m going to go with the Ollamh harp for a number of reasons. First, dominate person and mass suggestion are both powerful spells. Ollamh is the only one of the bunch that is legendary and has similar spell abilities (it can cast fire storm which is a 7th level spell).

Also, its wording seems to have the effects I’m looking for. Plus, it has a cool drawback, too, which I think helps limit its abilities.

Now, all we have to do is take that item, work in the spells, and make it more of a ring than an Instrument of the Bard.

Step #3 – Shop secondary characteristics.

As I noted before, we’ve got the “base magic item” picked out, the Ollamh harp, for our ring of mind control. Now we need to determine the secondary effects, namely a ring’s RAW content as well as the spell content for dominate person or mass suggestion (if we decide to alter its basic function that is).

I’m going to go with the ring of evasion as the supplier of secondary characteristics for our ring of mind control. It requires attunement and has 3 charges, similar to the ring that @bupz4 described. I don’t need all the content there, just the general gist of what makes a ring different than something like a wondrous item.

Also, I want to make sure I review the spell content itself that I’m considering putting into our ring of mind control. I like dominate person because it’s only a 5th level spell, which means it’ll save us some “cred” when we go to give it a rarity stat. But mass suggestion can affect more than one person, although it’s much more limited in its function. So do we nerf mass suggestion a little to fit with the concept, or do we buff up dominate person?

My thought is that I want to make sure this item fits the description given to the best of its ability. Therefore, if I’m going to create a “ring of mind control”, then I need to make it control minds. My choice is dominate person.

Step #4 – Putting it all together.

We’ve got our base magic item, the secondary characteristics, and a spell to put into the ring. Now it’s time to write most of it out.


Ring of Mind Control

Ring, [rarity TBD] (requires attunement)

This ring has 3 charges, and it regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn. You can expend 1 of the ring’s charges to cast dominate person. If a target succeeds on its saving throw to avoid the spell’s effect, you must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or take 2d4 psychic damage.


Here are some notes:

  • Instead of writing up the entirety of the dominate person spell, I decided to reference it instead.
  • As a 5th level spell already, I didn’t want to make dominate person anymore powerful than it is by extending the duration for more than 1 minute.
  • Also, I did not remove the condition that it must be concentrated upon. Again, this is for balance.
  • This also means you can only control one target at a time with the ring.
  • The same “if the target takes damage” rider applies to the effects of the ring as it does with dominate monster.
  • I threw in a little bit of the RAW from “ring of elemental command” which actually has the powers of dominate monster written into it.
  • I decided to make the ring require attunement. More on why I did that in a second.
  • Finally, I threw in the part about taking damage if a creature passes its saving throw. Not only do I think it will help balance things out a little, but it adds some cool flavor to it.

Step #5 – Give the item a rarity rating.

Okay, now we have the rules down for how the ring of mind control will work. But how rare is it?

If we compare it to similar items such as the ring of elemental command or Ollamh harp, then it’s probably a legendary item.

Or, to get the actual rules for magic item creation, we can turn to page 285 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide under the Power Level heading. The Magic Item Power by Rarity chart tells us that a rare item should be able to cast a 6th level spell once per day. But we can cast ours three times. Unfortunately, the At Higher Levels text for dominate person doesn’t increase the number of creatures affected. Instead, it extends the duration, which isn’t the effect we want. Regardless, I’ll assume that for each extra use of the item per day, that’s one additional level. Therefore, I’ll consider it a “7th level spell.” That puts our ring in the “very rare” range.

Also, I made it so it requires attunement. The reason for this is simple: I don’t want the PCs trading it amongst each other. That will get old fast. With attunement, a PC must take a short rest in order to attune the item to his or herself.

With its drawback and limited uses, I think very rare with attunement is a fair rarity. Or is it?

Step #6 – Doublecheck your work.

One last way to doublecheck our work is to compare it to a caster that has access to the same spell. In order for a spellcaster to cast a 5th-level spell 3 times in one day, they must be level 18 normally.

Next, I want to cross reference that with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything page 135 and our Magic Items Awarded by Rarity chart. According to it, two very rare major item can be discovered at level 11-16. However, very rare major items aren’t available to characters below that level.

I think giving it the “very rare” badge is fair. After all, an 11th level full caster can cast dominate person (albeit once per day). Therefore, it doesn’t throw things too far out of whack. Of course, my mind may change after playtesting.


Ring of Mind Control

Ring, very rare (requires attunement)

This ring has 3 charges, and it regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn. You can expend 1 of the ring’s charges to cast dominate person.. If a target succeeds on its saving throw to avoid the spell’s effect, you must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or take 2d4 psychic damage.


 

Hope this is helpful!

Once you learn a few tricks, creating magic items in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is super easy. And hopefully, this quick lesson on how to create a magic item for Fifth Edition in 15 minutes or less can help you whip up some quick prizes for your PCs.

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See you next time.

Art by Paizo Publishing.