A Million Bazillion Orcs, and Other Nuisances

Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter

One issue I’ve encountered with the Storm King’s Thunder game is power inflation. It was already an issue during the Keep On the Borderlands phase, but it has reached new heights. We’ve got a party of six fifth-level characters, who are off-and-on supported by a (CR 7) stone giant NPC, plus any other NPCs who happen to be along for the ride (Lord Alden and Harold, in the current scenario, are both effectively CR 1).

This is a party that punches well above its weight. My best guess, based on running the “encounter difficulty by XP budget” math, is that they are roughly on-par with a 10th level “typical” party. The problem with that, however, is that CR 10+ creatures have abilities and defenses that lower-level characters, even these powerhouses, might not have the resources to overcome.

But then again, they might. D&D has never done “boss fights” well, and that’s still true of 5E. Put this party in a big empty room with a behir (CR 11), and my money would still be on the party unless the behir had access to lair or legendary actions. Multiclass Geek would probably get swallowed whole at least once, tho.

(In some ways, this is a feature, not a bug. If you put a giant boss at the bottom of a dungeon, where the PCs have had to fight their way to get to it and are down on resources, the fact that the boss is gimped by the party’s number advantage is a hidden way to make the fight winnable while still feeling epic.)

The current thought on encounter design for D&D is that in any given encounter you should have at least three monsters against a regular party, plus one monster for each party member beyond four. So against a party of six, at least five monsters. Against a party of nine(!), at least eight monsters.

This is rapidly becoming a very crowded 30′ x 50′ dungeon room. ¬.¬

The good news is, 5E is so much faster than the past three editions that there’s not that much overhead from having all these mass combats. “These two attack Rina. These four attack Togar. The ones attacking Rina need 10 or better, the ones attacking Togar need 16 or better.” (Dice clatter.) The DMG has a chart for mob attacks that boils even that down to “If they need a 15, every fourth monster hits,” but we have not (yet) had a fight so large that I felt it was worth looking it up.

Just taking the average damage from each mook attack, something I was dubious of at first, really makes this go even smoother. “You’re hit twice, take ten points of damage.” Easy peasy. The +/- 3 points of damage either way from rolling dice every time is not missed, although I still roll the damage individually for monster criticals, adding just that touch of spice roughly once or twice per game session.

The other issue, though, is 5E‘s strange fixation on not having monsters over CR 3 if at all possible. In the last session, Sheala took out a dozen enemies with a single fireball because they couldn’t survive half damage even if they made their saves. You can start stacking your monster ranks with reskinned knights, veterans, gladiators, and bandit captains to buff them up a bit, or create 3.5-style “mob” versions of lower level foes, and there are some third party supplements for the purpose. But the players might rightfully wonder why the orcs last week couldn’t withstand a fireball and the ones this week can, unless you introduce a story element of Bigger, Badder Orcs (say, a new strain bred by an evil wizard wearing shimmering rainbow robes).

There is an upside to having a party that can take a licking and keep on ticking– I can just put whatever I want and makes sense into the scenario and not be worried that they can’t handle it. But the real problem is things that should be dangerous becoming trivial. The “svartjaw” in the last session was a reskinned wyvern, a CR 6 brute, and they just melted it like butter before a blowtorch. Players love and want to win, but if they don’t feel like they had to at least work for it a little, it feels cheap, and will become boring fast.

5E‘s much-touted Bounded Accuracy is meant to address this very issue, but when you pile on a huge party like this, you flip the script. Suddenly the carefully-balanced math and action economy that is supposed to allow monsters to remain a threat across wider levels, is exactly what enables the party to just stomp all over everything.

There is also the Monty Haul problem, where the party’s ability to take on outsized challenges leads to them racking up high level treasure and XP, which in turn enables them to level up even faster in a geometric spiral. Dividing the encounter XP by six, seven, or nine as appropriate helps here, and I have complete control over how much wealth the party has access to simply by decided what’s out there, but it is still something I need to watch.

(As a side note, I do love that 5E is built on the assumption of class/race abilities only, decoupling magic items from character progression. I have always looked askance at “numerical progression” items from the first time I saw a +1 sword in my Holmes Boxed Set with chits instead of dice. My completely perfect world would mostly leave out treasure too– when did you ever see Frodo and Sam count gold pieces? But I fear that would force a little too much of my own preferred playstyle onto the rest of the group, and certainly “local duke offers 500 gp for bandit slaying” is a handy wrench in the narrative toolbox.)

None of these challenges are insurmountable, and compared to the “I hate my life!” slog of prepping higher-level 3.x/PF these are perfectly-acceptable problems to have. They’re just things I’m noticing about how the current game is going. Every campaign is different!

-The Gneech