Learn more about encounter building in the Epic Legacy Core Rulebook
Designing engaging encounters is a critical aspect of creating an immersive Dungeons & Dragons experience. As a dungeon master (DM), you have the power to craft memorable battles that challenge your players and keep them on the edge of their seats. One way to do this is by introducing spellcasting monsters into your encounters, but beware. This is not nearly as easy as it seems, and when done poorly introduces far more problems than it solves. To help explore this process and figure out ways to make it work for you, we will discuss the delicate art of balancing spellcasting monsters to create thrilling and engaging encounters for your players.
Understanding the Role of Spellcasting Monsters
Spellcasting monsters serve as a unique challenge for players, often possessing a variety of abilities and spells that can turn the tide of a battle. These creatures can have diverse roles in an encounter, from damage dealers and crowd controllers to supports who enhance and heal dangerous foes. When designing an encounter, consider how the monster's spellcasting abilities can complement their other abilities, and how they can interact with the environment and other creatures in the encounter. This is no easy task. You shouldn’t be expected to read through every spell and find an optimal one, so don’t feel bad settling for something that has decent synergy, but far from perfect.
Balancing Spellcasting Abilities
To create a balanced encounter, consider the following factors when designing a spellcasting monster:
Spell Selection: When choosing spells for your monster, ensure that they are thematically appropriate and serve a purpose in the encounter. Avoid giving your monster too many high-level spells that may overwhelm the players. Instead, mix powerful spells with lower-level ones that can provide utility and support to the monster.
Hugely important to consider is that your monster will likely spend its entire action casting the spells you choose. So whatever you decide, compare it to what the monster would be doing otherwise. If the spell doesn’t look attractive next to its ordinary action pool, there is more work to be done!
Spellcasting Frequency: Determine how often your monster should cast spells during the encounter. This can be influenced by the monster's spellcasting ability, spell slots, and the intended difficulty of the encounter. Be cautious of overusing spells, as this can quickly deplete the monster's resources and make the encounter less challenging. It may also overwhelm the party who don’t have an answer to that particular problem. A fireball is something a tier 1 party can handle once, at best in a single encounter. Multiple castings in rapid succession is sure to spoil the night.
Save DCs and Spell Attack Modifiers: When setting the save DCs and spell attack modifiers for your monster's spells, consider the party's average ability scores and proficiency bonuses. Ensure that the DCs and modifiers are challenging, but not insurmountable. Also be mindful of what happens on a failure. Failing a Dexterity saving throw against burning hands sucks, but its manageable. Failing one versus banishment is frustrating, especially if that save DC was so high they barely had a chance.
Spellcasting Resource Management: Be mindful of the monster's spell slots and spellcasting resources. If the creature has a limited number of spell slots, use them strategically throughout the encounter. Conversely, if the monster has a renewable spellcasting resource, such as spell points or innate spellcasting, consider how this may affect the pacing and challenge of the encounter. Its okay to give a monster more spellcasting resources than the players. No one will be mad you pulled your punches and didn’t use four disintegrates in a row. They will be understandably frustrated if you overwhelm them with so many powerful spells they have no way to respond other than pray to their dice.
Integrating Spellcasting Monsters into Encounters
Once you have balanced your spellcasting monster, consider the following tips to effectively integrate them into your encounters:
Synergy with Other Monsters: Spellcasting monsters can be more effective when paired with other creatures that complement their abilities. For example, a spellcasting monster that can control the battlefield with area-of-effect spells may be more dangerous when accompanied by melee combatants that can take advantage of the PCs struggling to thrive in such difficult circumstances. Even the humble hold person can turn a unhittable fighter into a punching bag for a previously harmless swarm of zombies.
Environmental Interaction: Use the environment to enhance the effectiveness of the monster's spellcasting abilities. For instance, a spellcaster that can create difficult terrain or control the elements may be more potent in a hazardous or confined environment. A wall of stone can be a huge obstacle for a paladin or fighter, but a wonderful strategic asset for a monster with a flying speed.
Tactical Considerations: Encourage your players to think tactically by presenting them with spellcasting monsters that can change the flow of battle. This can be achieved by using spells that disrupt the players' strategies or force them to adapt to new challenges. For example, a monster that uses its spellcasting to teleport between inaccessible locations will force the party to change their approach. They can no longer simply rush and overwhelm the caster, and instead must figure out how to climb up to the perch from which it slings fireballs.
Creating engaging encounters is an essential part of any successful D&D campaign. By carefully balancing spellcasting monsters and integrating them into your encounters, you can provide your players with memorable, challenging, and thrilling battles that will keep them coming back for more. Remember, when it comes to spells, less is more. Its tempting to stack your creatures with an arsenal of magic for every situation. But by focusing on the principles detailed here, you’ll make life easier for yourself and more fun for your players.