Every so often, the players in my D&D games surprise me (and themselves) with the level of tactics that they employ. For every encounter where the player characters run away from a difficult opponent, they have at least one other encounter where they overcome a significant challenge quite handily. Allow me to relate one such event.
I ran an encounter recently for my high-level Forgotten Realms game, in which the party of 16th- and 17th-level PCs faced off against the most powerful demon in the Monster Manual: the balor. This was the second time the heroes had faced a balor. The first was an unfortunate affair during an incursion into the City of the Spider Queen that resulted in the party wizard's death before the rest of the PCs could flee. This time around, the PCs knew that their fate rested solidly in the hands of another balor; it that had claimed control of the demonic transport that was to take them deep into the Nine Hells.
The players. The party consisted of four humans: a barbarian, a combat medic cleric of Lliira, a wizard, a fighter/elocator; and a dwarf hammer of Moradin. (Combat medic is from Heroes of Battle, elocator is from Expanded Psionics Handbook, and hammer of Moradin is from Player's Guide to Faerûn.) While the key players in this battle were the wizard, barbarian, and dwarf, even the elocator contributed by using her turn to move into a position from which she could dimension swap with another comrade, opening up attacks from those that had a hope of overcoming the balor's damage reduction. The combat medic, having sworn a Vow of Nonviolence, busily healed the party throughout the fight.
Forewarned is forearmed. In preparation, the PCs decided to be wary and ready. The surviving members of the earlier expedition knew about the terrible power of the balor's fire stormspell-like ability, and earlier encounters with other demons revealed a penchant for blasphemy. With a Knowledge (the planes) check result approaching 45, the party's new wizard also deduced not only the general traits shared by all tanar'ri demons, but also that the balor had a number of spell-like abilities beyond the ones the party was previously aware, such as power word stun.
Getting ready. As with most adventuring days, the day began with a heroes' feast. Then, knowing that defeating the balor meant they could wrest control of the ship away from it, the party spent time reinforcing themselves against the inevitable onslaught of attacks they would expect from the mighty demon. The key spell in this regard was greater spell immunity on all but the elocator, which afforded them the luxury of choosing four spells of 8th level or lower to which a PC might be immune. They cast a few other standard "buffing" spells, and then the party teleported to the field of battle.
Round 1. The opening of the battle involved a couple of relatively insignificant minions. Even a marilith, who a day earlier had been routed by the PCs, proved little more than an appetizer for the main course. While the raging battle was exciting and went well for the heroes, the threat of the balor still loomed in the minds of the players. The balor, meanwhile, wanted to see how well its marilith consort fared against these humans (and dwarf) from Toril. That the marilith was taken down so quickly by the hammer of Moradin infuriated the balor, who appeared in a blast of flame. The balor went after the dwarf by opening up with a greater dispel magic. While I had hoped to dispel the spell immunity spell (of which the balor was not aware), the dice did not fall the balor's way, and the significant magical protections were still in place, although the dwarf's fly spell was gone, so at least he couldn't engage in aerial combat (especially since the dwarf was the one with a holy cold iron hammer).
Round 2. After a frustrating set of rolls on its dispel checks, the balor decided to cheer itself up a bit by uttering blasphemy, with the entire party in range. At the very least, it could keep using blasphemy every round and let its lone surviving minion (a mountain troll from Monster Manual III) clean up. This is the first point at which the aforementioned spell immunity came into play. Of the five party members, only one was dazed (the elocator), and the surprised balor flew back a bit, to distance itself from the dangerous dwarf and the now-raging barbarian.
Round 3. Having suffered some damage from a quickened true strike-laced Manyshot of cold iron arrows from the party wizard's holy bow, the balor decided that fire might be the best firepower. (The party's avoidance of, and in some cases damage from, flames in the area clued it in that they might not be resistant to fire.) Enter fire storm, a great way to prepare the dish "humans jubilee." Exit fire storm, stage left, as it also appeared on the short list of spells to which most of the PCs were immune thanks to greater spell immunity.
Round 4. The balor still had close to 200 hit points remaining, and its unholy aura-augmented Armor Class of 39 was proving to be nearly impossible to hit. The greatest danger was still the dwarf and his holy cold iron hammer, so the balor looked to buy some time with power word stun. You might have seen a trend forming here and can probably guess that greater spell immunity defended against the power word as well.
Round 5. While the dwarf flailed about wildly and ineffectually with his hammer, another quickened true strike accompanied another Manyshot, and the balor changed its mind about which target was the most dangerous. The mountain troll was also finally overcome by the barbarian, so the balor would soon have to deal with the whole party. It was time to eliminate them as quickly as possible, and what better way to do that than use implosion. Target number 1: the likely weak-Fortitude saving throw of the party wizard. The chance of success was about 80%, thanks to the spell's save DC of 27. The die is rolled, and when it came to rest, the number on top was a single digit. The balor began a chortling gloat, when the PC noted that the result also included the effects of a moment of prescience, which meant the PC would have failed only on a natural 1. With Abyssal curses, the balor waited for its next chance to act.
Round 6. Enough of the spell-like abilities. Standing tall with its vorpal longsword, the balor decided to take care of things the old-fashioned way. With a cry of "off with their heads" (in Abyssal, of course), the balor sliced down at the dwarf. The initial attack roll was a natural 20, and the critical hit was confirmed. Finally, the balor had a chance to rejoice as the dwarf fell headless to the ground. (The dwarf was brought back the following round by a revivify spell, which is found in the Miniatures Handbook and the upcoming Spell Compendium.) Follow-up attacks on the too-easy-to-hit barbarian made the balor long for the next round so that it could open up with a massive Power Attack. With just under 150 hit points left, the balor felt comfortable sticking around for only another round or two, and it knew that if it got too bad, safety was a greater teleport away.
Round 7. The balor never got a chance to see how sweet it would be to cut up the barbarian. In the ensuing round, lucky shots from the wizard's bow and a pair of critical hits (thanks to the Improved Critical feat) from the raging barbarian's greatsword destroyed this unluckiest of balors. As the killing blow struck, the balor once again shouted in defiance, knowing that its death throes could potentially destroy some of the party. Indeed, the 100 points of damage taken by the barbarian and the wizard reduced both of them below -10 hit points. But another spell was in play that kept even them alive: fortunate fate (from Magic of Faerûn and the upcoming Spell Compendium), a 7th-level spell that triggers a heal spell on a target if the target drops to -10 hit points.
So there you have it; a mighty battle, and one that felt like it could swing either way as the rounds passed by. The day was won by sound tactics, a number of preparatory spells, and not a small amount of luck. It also serves as an example of how characters might focus their resources to overcome a single challenge -- even one with a Challenge Rating much higher than they would normally be inclined to tackle.
Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Expanded Psionics Handbook, Heroes of Battle, Magic of Faerûn, Miniatures Handbook, Monster Manual, Monster Manual III, Player's Guide to Faerûn, Player's Handbook, Spell Compendium.
About the Author
Stephen Schubert, formerly a minion of a large computer services company, has written for Dragon Magazine, Star Wars Gamer, and the Wizards of the Coast website. He now works as a developer for roleplaying games and miniatures at Wizards of the Coast, and he has been involved in many products on the 2005 schedule.