A little over a month ago I came across a question in the D&D 3.5 section of Reddit. It got my attention because if you are a DM or even a player you have run into this same problem. The version you are playing is often not relevant because the problem is quite version independent. When parties of PCs get powerful enough they tend to dominate their surroundings. They power through classically constructed dungeons and short circuit the adventure. Below is the question and I will attempt to answer it in a way that any good DM should be able to implement.
Hey all, I’m a decently experienced dm (decade or so) and I’ve run all kinds of rpgs with many different rule sets and I believe that my interests in all rpg games has gotten me in a spot of trouble. I’ve spent years with what feels like a rotating door of players with only a few constants and with life’s twists and turns for various reasons most of my dnd campaigns don’t get more than a year before half the group moves are has dramatic work hour shifts that take them away. All that aside I’ve been blessed this last year an a half with 7 players who truly would pass up everything to be at dnd, and to show them as much respect as they do me I’ve done my darn hardest to make a campaign both entertaining and fun. But a new problem has cropped up for me, and that’s taking the campaign past lv 14. The party averages lv 16 and the math provided in the dmg to create proper challenges is lacking at this point. I haven’t over feed magic items but some (mostly one) players have gone the “ill just craft or have crafted the magic item I need”. I’m typically very open to “player option C” with appropriate hurdles. But I’ve run several sessions I’ve become ashamed of. Battles that were meant to be large problems end up being easier than intended, “boss” fights don’t seem to hold any pressure, and any air of impending doom I’ve previously created is evaporating. Yesterday I ran a Tarrasque fight for the first time I’ve never had a party I thought could handle it, and they almost played with the dang thing. Sure I ate a couple of my players but even the one player that died laughed it off as the cleric performed a true res. 😳 any help or guidance in running an end of campaign scenario for lv 16 parties would be appreciated.
My first answer I gave off the top of my head. While is was adequate I did not feel it really answered the question in way that provided a lot of flexibility to the DM.
There are many creatures that work well against high level parties. A mage that is several levels higher than the party is one of them. Mages have a tendency to become entrenched if they are on their home ground. They may have all sort of magical advantages. For instance teleport pads that require a special ring to operate. Prepared spells. enhanced familiars through which they may operate. Summoned creatures, etc. Let us not forget any number of powerful evil races. Drow come to mind. Deep in the underdark even a high level party may have difficulty. You can deny your party resources, hit them with diseases, poison, traps. Fights with golems meant as a distraction, labyrinths, puzzles. Get your party out of their comfort zone. Seperate them. Force them to fight images of themselves. Be creative.My answer #1
With my second answer I tried to be a bit more insightful and provide strategies rather than simple opponents that could match the party.
Powerful parties will tend to use their power to their advantage. They will attempt to bulldoze their way through. Create scenarios where brute force is a bad idea. Assume your adversary is not stupid and knows what a powerful group can do. He or she will be prepared with strategies to offset their advantages. Your villain will do their best to gather intelligence on his foes while not making them aware he is doing so. The villain is also under no obligation to be fair. Perhaps that helpful bard in the village was not really being helpful after all but giving the party solutions to a few puzzle traps to lure them into false confidence for the trap where he misleads them. Better yet he is a dupe lead to believe he is helping while he is being used. Perhaps even more, one of the traps was that the paladin of the party needed to be tricked into wronging the innocent in order for part of the evil plan to work. They punish the bard (who is the victim of a frame job) and by doing so set off a series of events. Again, powerful parties never suspect their hard won victory was a means to an end possibly a means of ridding the true villain of a rival or expendable cohort.
Players, to a great extent, expect adventures to be like T-ball. They are looking for monsters to be placed in front of them so they can kill them and take the treasure; The typical D&D trope. This is one of the DMs best weapons. Make the adventure anything but what they expect. Instead offer the illusion of this. There are many ways of doing this. An opponent much smarter than most of the party is one way. Let’s, for instance, assume the party is on a rescue mission to save a princess. The princess has however been transformed into an ancient red dragon cursed to be unable to speak. All her attempts come out as roars. There in the room is an illithid looking like the princess. The dragon is chained so it must block access to the illithid/princess. The illithid will read the minds of the PCs and will encourage them to kill the dragon so that she might escape. The Illithid really does want the party to kill the dragon and does plan to escape. All the encounters up to this point have been to assess the party’s abilities and prepare to counter them. The party kills the dragon to rescue the princess. As the dead dragon transforms into the now dead princess the illithid disintegrates the body and teleports away. All the party finds is a large pearl where the girl lay. Little does the party know but the pearl is a cursed item that causes members of the party to tell the least flattering version of the truth to the king when he asks about his daughter.