|Epic play sometimes benefits from epic terrain!|
Tier 4 (level 17-20) is the most challenging tier of D&D to adjudicate. At these levels, characters wield earth-shaking powers and legendary magic items that make each group wildly different. Consider the following guidance before tackling this tier as a DM.
Note Down Items, Allies and Enchantments
Before play begins, jot down all the goofy stuff that your players have available: shield guardians, wyvern steeds, simulacrums, rare and legendary items, ongoing spell effects, etc. Consider whether these features increase the group’s APL: but most important of all, ensure you know how they function.
Apply the ‘Rule of Cool’
Assume every combat challenge will be easily overcome. Up the difficulty as needed, but let the players enjoy their capstone powers before searching for ways to counter them. You’re good so long as everyone has fun. During combat, find ways to introduce character interactions and thrilling choices instead of just resorting to raw power.
Adjust Encounters on the Fly
Every group plays differently at tier 4. More than ever, it’s your responsibility to shake up encounters on-the-fly until you hit the right balance. Here are some simple tricks you can employ:
- Introduce waves of reinforcements. Players sometimes blow their big powers early, leaving them exposed to new threats. Just add more enemies of the types listed in the encounter.
- Counter magic with magic. Consider adding an evoker for every spellcaster in the group.
- Maximize enemy damage instead of rolling (including spell damage!)
- If you overcompensate, introduce an evoker or a champion as an ally at the start of the next round. At these levels, the characters should have plenty of allies to fall back on.
Know Your Spells
High-levels spells often have complex conditions and limitations. To avoid slowing play, refresh your memory of the most troublesome spells before the game begins (start with antimagic field, gate, imprisonment, simulacrum and wish). In addition, don’t be afraid to ask players “what powerful spells do you have prepared?”.
In the hands of enemy casters, some spell combinations can be especially potent. For example:
- A 4th-level glyph cast into the hood of a cloak could polymorph a wizard into a Tyrannosaurus Rex when they drop below half hit points.
- A globe of invulnerability protects a high-level caster from counterspell, allowing them to unleash their most powerful spells in relative safety.
- Spellcasters can use the Ready action to cast a short-range spell outside of counterspell range, then move into range to release it without risk of being countered.
- A contingency spell can trigger a dimension door to whisk a spellcaster to safety or cast greater invisibility on them when they take damage.
Exploit Epic Terrain
High-level encounters feature fantastic locations: falling sky-ships, the ever-changing soup of the astral plane, walking castles, and more. Consider making the terrain itself an enemy. For example:
- Slaves trapped inside vampiric orbs inflict necrotic damage to characters who start their turns nearby. Players can spend actions to deactivate the orbs – or simply kill the slaves!
- While the dark druids wear their thorn bracelets, their forest grove has a suite of legendary actions you can employ each round to damage and entangle the characters.
Impossible Choices and Epic Sacrifices
Try to include dilemmas that can’t be solved with the wave of a magic wand. For example, there’s enough antidote to save just one character from the demon lord’s poison. Sacrifices also create memorable moments for high-level games. Perhaps the only way to close the gate is to snap the wizard’s beloved staff, or hold off the demons until the gate explodes?
Drain Player Resources
The difficulty of the game spikes at high level as characters burn their most powerful abilities. Consider adding time-limits, environmental effects that prevent rests, or waves of enemies to wear down player resources. If time is short, include traps and curses that sap spell slots and drain hit dice.
Make It Epic!
The days of treasure hunts and caravan treks should be distant memories by Tier 4. Quests at these levels have the fates of worlds at stake, with gods and demons lords as patrons and villains. When crafting the adventure, always ask yourself how you could dial it up a notch. Go gonzo!
(This article was inspired by advice found online from Mike Shea, Teos Abadia, Alan Patrick, Merrick Blackman, and others.)