This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: PCs with Excessive Firepower
In the campaign I run, my players went on a dragon hunting frenzy. The wealth they gained from this allowed them to buy equipment that I feel is just too powerful (Example, a 10th Lv Barbarian/4th Lv fighter/1st level frenzied beserker having a +5 sword with Keen, wounding, and flame burst, making this a +10 equivalent sword.) I can't seem to find anything that is a challenge to them. They want me to start using NPCs with powerful items as a challenge, but I fear this will just give them more powerful Items. What can I do to challenge my players?
-- Robert, from AskWizards.com
The idea of how you challenge players is a central one in DMing.
1. Look In the Mirror
How did your PCs get this stuff? Oh yeah, you gave it to them! If you didn't want PCs to be able to buy 200,000 gp items, you shouldn't have put 200,000 gp (per PC, assuming they are splitting it equally) of treasure in the campaign. You need to look carefully at how you allocate treasure. Random placement shouldn't allocate treasure at that rate. You say they've been on a dragon-hunting frenzy, but assuming they've been at the dragon-hunting game for a few levels, they would have to kill literally dozens of dragons in the CR 13 to 16 range (no small feat -- dragons at those CRs are pretty tough compared to similar-CR monsters) to rack up enough money for a character to afford an item such as that sword.
So the first solution is a proactive one. You have allowed treasure to get out of control in your campaign. That means that you need to rein it back in. You were overgenerous before, so tighten the purse strings now. When the party whines about how they aren't finding much treasure, you can point to their shiny uberweapons and tell them where to stick it. They already have their treasure for the next two levels!
There is another wrinkle to this, though. Average PC wealth at 15th level is 200,000, sure, but that doesn't mean a character should be able to have a single 200,000 gp item! For one thing, where is he buying it (you stated it was bought, not found)? The DMG rules stipulate that even a metropolis of 25,001+ people has a gp limit of 100,000. Anything over the limit, if it is available at all, would have to be a special-case, special-order, unique item, not something you buy off the rack at Crazy Joe's Magic Emporium. Does the party have access to a friendly archmage or high priest who happens to have 200 days and 8,000 xp to spend on crafting an uber-item? If the party includes a PC spellcaster who has the necessary feats and spells and who wants to make the item, then more power to 'em. If not, there is no way that character should have easy access to such an item.
So plead ignorance. Tell the player you didn't understand the rule and he shouldn't have been able to make or buy an item like that -- you're sorry, but it has to go away. Give the player options for buying or building other items within the appropriate guidelines, and convey your sincere apologies for having given out the item. Through all of that, be firm that the item must go.
2. Challenge Players in Ways Other Than Combat
This is the simplest answer to your problem. If they are combat gods, make them do something other than fight. There are lots of kinds of encounters -- talking encounters combining player roleplay along with Charisma-type skills, resource or information gathering, puzzles and obstacles that require player thought and application of skills to overcome, and so on. See Wolfgang Baur's web articles on the subject (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Overland travel (as long as easy teleportation is not an option for the party, and that's easy enough for a DM to arrange) is more than a venue for random encounters. It is a time for the PCs to revel in the joys of nature and all the misery that that implies (just look at one of the environment books such as Sandstorm or Frostburn or the Dungeon Master's Guide for all kinds of devilish ideas). These challenges are generally not susceptible to resolution at the tip of a sword. PCs can achieve in-campaign goals without ever shedding blood, and may even receive greater rewards for doing so than by prying something from their enemy's cold, dead fingers. Players who build one-dimensional combat machines will fail miserably at these kinds of encounters, and it will show the players the error of their ways in min-maxing their characters to such an extent -- or so goes the real roleplayer's cant.
This is a cop-out, though, an armchair quarterback's answer, because it ignores the fact that D&D will eventually end up in combat. Using non-combat encounters is a great idea and you should do it, but honestly, it is only a delaying tactic. Sooner or later, the steel is coming out, and you need to know what to do to challenge your players when it does.
3. Don't Play to the Characters' Strengths
If your PCs are sword-swinging maniacs, don't rely on melee all the time. That's just asking your monsters to run into a meat grinder. Monsters don't need to be tactical geniuses, but they should have common sense that plays to their strengths, not the party's. Your uber-berserker is going to be at a severe disadvantage if he's fighting a dragon that won't land and tangle up close with him. That 200,000 gp sword just waves through the air looking pretty (and pretty useless). The dragon keeps flying back and forth, strafing the party with breath or spells (and casting dispel magic on flying characters to make them fall) or dropping large objects on the party (see falling objects on p. 303 of the Dungeon Master's Guide). Its attacks should concentrate on characters who have dangerous ranged attacks and magic. If a dragon is trapped in a cave too small to maneuver against foes who are obviously a cut above the common peasant soldier, have the dragon retreat until it can choose a battleground more to its liking.
It's not fair for every monster to know ahead of time exactly what the party can do or to always avoid attacking in ways the party can easily resist. It's not a crime for PCs to be good at something, and their purchases and levels need to mean something when they get to frustrate the monsters. But it is perfectly fair for monsters to communicate with one another, especially monsters who are organized minions of an evil overlord, or for intelligent monsters to scout and use spells to learn about intruders delving into their lairs before the party actually meets them face-to-face.
If your monsters go toe-to-toe with high-level types, make liberal use of Spring Attack to avoid letting the tough fighters get their full attacks going. Use rugged terrain to prevent PCs from making 5-foot steps. Use cooperation such as aid another, especially when relatively wimpy minions are in play, and maneuvers such as bull rush, trip, grapple, and overrun to move the PCs out of their preferred comfort zones. Make them waste actions getting up or breaking the grapple or moving back into position. Restrict their weapon choice -- your uber-fighter with his fancy sword can't use it at all in a grapple, which allows light weapons only. This becomes harder as freedom of movement becomes more prevalent at high levels, but a fighter with a 200,000 gp sword ought not have a 40,000 gp ring, too!
4. Use Monsters with Advantages, Not Stuff
At high levels, a fancy sword actually isn't nearly as good as it sounds. Keen, wounding, and flaming burst are all powers that depend on critical hits. Fight a monster that is immune to crits and suddenly you have a +5 flaming sword. That's still nice but much more manageable for the DM. There are tons of crit-immune monsters out there, each one more obnoxious than the last. Until the party's level catches up with their stuff, those monsters should be your stock in trade. Legions of undead, mage-summoned elementals (with DR/- to boot!), half-golems, incorporeal creatures, diabolical plant creatures, alien aberrations from beyond the stars with their undulant innards … the list goes on and on. You can use swarms of creatures that are immune to weapon damage entirely and ignore armor class. The base swarms in the Monster Manual are pretty tame, so feel free to develop nastier ones for yourself or use the rules for mobs in Dungeon Master's Guide II in the same way.
Not every creature should be crit-immune, but by weighting the opposition in that direction, you can undermine your players' advantages. Make liberal use of enemies with reach, that use touch attacks, with the ability to dispel or negate magic, and that have good escapability (those darned spectres or ghosts or dread wraiths or spring attacking in and out of solid objects, or demons and devils with tough abilities but little equipment who are always summoning allies and teleporting away before you can take them down).
Also, turnabout is fair play. Bring in monsters with domination or charm ability such as mind flayers, aboleths, vampires, or succubi, and riddle the PCs with charm effects until you grab control of one of the uber-characters. Then start busting caps on the rest of the party. Mmmm … delicious.
5. Whatever You Do, DON'T Throw High-Powered NPCs at Them
This is the worst possible idea, which is probably why the players suggested it. All that means is that once they polish off those juicy NPCs, who still won't match up to the PCs even if they have good equipment, the PCs will scoop up even more loot! That way lies madness.
6. Disallow the Frenzied Berserker Prestige Class
There's no denying that the Frenzied Berserker is a powerful prestige class in certain combinations. Along with controlling the amount and power of treasure in the campaign, it's also the DM's responsibility to control the level of power that's available through prestige classes. If one is causing problems, disallow it. It's not fair to just take it away, of course, because the character earned the XPs. Allow him to replace the Frenzied Berserker with a level of something else.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.