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Low-Magic, High-Rollers: Ep 10 – Nothing is Broken, Everything is Permitted

In this series I’ll be covering aspects and themes that continue to vex Dungeon Masters and Players with styles and tastes that often run on the darker, crunchier, and/or visceral end of how they enjoy their D&D



The undead of the mire slosh through the knee-deep bogwater towards them. There are more sloshing steps behind them, they turn and see three more. These are no typical zombies or skeletons, but minions of The Three Hags, they brandish old weapons and constricting vines threaten toward them from rotting rib cages. The Bugbear Barbarian/Fighter pulls out his halberd and grunts “Easy” and begins swinging with his 15 ft. reach.

“OMG it’s SOO BROKEN” No it’s not, they just allowed your game to get bigger and badder. 

CUT! Wait! Fellow Dungeon Masters reading this, don’t think it, not even for a second. This is not broken, I repeat, this is not broken. You know what is broken though? You’re willingness to balance the encounter, there, I said it. Yup, spicy me is back! First it was Rangers and your no-travel nonsense, now I’m back to tell you to bump up the danger for those epic Player Characters that need a little more to hack at.

Powergaming Is Not The Problem

One of my long-term campaigns is with a younger crowd that grew up on things like Pokemon, Star Wars Games, and Fortnite. Even though they were conditioned to max out the stats of their Pokemon and switch out their green guns for purple ones, they love to roleplay and know that I give out XP for RP so they level out or build good narrative reasons for their character’s class and combat choices. So long as your players are made aware of your need for them to powergame in-character, then they’ll narratively take their lumps during moments where they know that doing the most efficient thing is likely “what their character wouldn’t do”. Through these compromises, they will also understand that it can be as fun to fail a roll or scenario, as it is to win one. Proving this aspect is easy if you’re the one encouraging more organic character decisions with alternative incentives to winning scenarios. 

When it comes to combat, it really is as simple as adding two things: More baddies, and more mechanical crunch. With a roleplay medium as loose as 5e, the beauty is in the mechanical customization as much as the narrative worldbuilding. 

Let The Hordes Rise And The Traps Fall

If your party is optimized, it’s about time you do the same. No intelligent creature of a greater and more insidious plan would ever have the hubris to do all the work unprotected and alone. Even beholders and aboleths only have so many stalks and tentacles, so it’s time for some minions to populate that dungeon boss encounter.

Don’t cheap out on generalizing the hit points and weapon choices of these smaller enemies, roll some dice! In large groups with varying weapons and trap-making devices, a swarm of kobolds can be deadly whilst ambushing a party attempting to sneak up on a dragon sleeping upon their hoard. Try adding these tables to bring some difficulty spice to the area. 

Alter and change the weapon options within these categories as desired. It’s best to roll them as part of your DM prep to save time. 

1d4 Minion Weapons

1-Slashing: Swords, Axes, Glaives.

2-Piercing: Spears, Daggers, Swords.

3-Bludgeoning: Maces, Clubs, Fists.

4-Ranged: Bows/Crossbows, Darts, Throwing Daggers/Axes and ALSO Spell Attacks!

Now the minions are armed with a gaggle of deadly weapons and spells. Not enough?! FINE, here, stack this with a weapon effect variant to add some kick to these minions.

1d4 Minion Weapon Effects

1-Poison: Paralysis, Unconsciousness, Necrotic, Simple Poison damage, etc

2-Upgraded: These weapons are retrofitted with accented pieces like spikes, serrated blades, or with embedded onyx beads and cause 1d4 extra of the weapon’s damage type.

3-Cursed: If the hit is made with a 19 or higher, the target’s next attack is made with disadvantage. This weapon is considered magical.

4-Magical +1/+2/+3: This weapon is magical and carries all the standard effects therein. 

Now that you’ve armed your diligent or chaotic band of minions to sick on the party as the Big Bad laughs from their dais on high, how about giving the chamber before the battle a few Indiana Jones surprises to make the party expend precious health, spell, and item resources?

1d4 Big Bad’s Lobby Entrance Traps

1-Gas Tile: Triggered by a stone tile or floorboard that’s tread upon. A hidden vent overhead releases a toxic agent of a type of damage fitting for the theme in the dungeon. DC 17 Perception/Investigation to detect a trap like this.

2-Trap door Closing Cell: A trapdoor triggered by cobweb-hidden tripwires plummets the target into a chamber and metal bars slide closed overhead as the chamber’s walls begin to close on them. Wedging an appropriately-strengthened object between the walls will save them for a round before breaking. The bars above are thin and rusted but have 50 HP. In 2 rounds, a medium creature will take 4d8 bludgeoning damage. The character is unconscious in round 3, and dies outright by round 4. DC 15 Perception/Investigation to detect a trap like this. Note: Immovable Rod is a clutch item, if this is a magical trap, the rod delays the walls for 2 rounds before breaking. If it is a mechanism, the rod stops it. However, once the rod is removed, the pressure will make the walls snap shut, watch your arms, adventurers.

3-Boiling Oil: A hoard of precious gemstones litters the ground next to the villain’s gate, pulling forth any of them will raise the tile that they’re on and rain boiling oil down through hidden vents for 5d10 fire damage. If they are healed with divine magic, healing and scarring is magically repaired. If healed by rudimentary means like medicine or a healing potion, their dexterity and constitution is -2 until they get a form of divine healing on them. DC 18 Perception/Investigation to detect this trap.

4-Cursed Bone Spikes: A pressure plate triggers spikes made of bone to shoot up from the ground. The target takes 4d8 necrotic damage and is cursed with the voices and pointed grabbing hands of those whose bones the spikes are made of. This curse chooses a vulnerability to a type of damage at random. The Remove Curse spell is the only way to be rid of this effect. DC 15 

“But these crazy magic items and this game-breaking economy hacking is wild!”

Who put them in there? It’s important to ask players early on for a wish list of items they’d like to play with throughout the campaign. Remember, it’s a wish list, definitely put one of each rarity type in there for each player, but you don’t need to put in ones you deem to be a potential problem. If you still want to appease their want for an item but it messes with the world’s build or tone just do the usual thing and talk to them. Figure out how to boil out one mechanic and add something similar that won’t mess with the game you intend to play. 

Now one of the biggest hacks in longer campaigns is player economy hacking. Hiring cheap labor and taking over municipalities or businesses in wild buyouts can boost their resources tenfold. This one is easier to manage if you have a decent idea of how things are priced in your world. I find creating a simple pricing system based on rarity type works best, then inflate the price as desired depending on the size of the municipality and temperament of the shopkeeper. This will prevent the players from gaming the base-price system and needing to haggle and do quests for shop discounts and such. If they buy property make sure there are expenses for renovations and furnishings and the potential of hired staff being unsavory individuals in disguise. Should the party fail insight DC’s while giving an interview to a thief, perhaps things go missing or a gang will move in on the Inn they bought. The richer they get, the more noticeable they’ll be in reputation and looks, so more scamming and thieving will gravitate toward their assets. It makes for fun side quests with criminal syndicates that are powerful and appropriate for high-level characters. 

At the end of the day, the game is always in a constant state of needing a balance. It’s okay for them to win, but it’s also alright to bump up the intensity to match their methods. Remember, you’re a DM but you are still playing as well and have every imaginative resource at your disposal to balance the world around them. Time to set things to hard-mode!

Written By 
Christian Petrozza
IG: L2S_Entertainment
Twitter: @Late2theShowEnt

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