Customizing Encounters

Before really getting into the 5E Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules and running Tomb of Annihilation, I would never have imagined I’d have so much fun running someone else’s content. However, we at House of Bob are historically “home-brewers.” For the better part of our adventuring, we found ourselves in the custom crafted worlds of one or more of our friends, uncovering secrets, messing up plots and throwing the gamemaster through a loop every Sunday night. I really enjoyed crafting my own world, but it can be a lot of work. Today I’m going to take you through an encounter I’m planning for a home game. You’ll see my process for customizing an encounter after the players have turned the tables on my original plan.

For the past year and a bit I have been running a Storm King’s Thunder campaign with a group of friends. For those unfamiliar, Storm King’s Thunder asks the player characters to battle against legions of rowdy giants that are making trouble across the Sword Coast. My players have cavorted North and South, East and West, and at this point have made enemies of more than just giants.

In a past session, the player characters attempted to rob the Margasters (a powerful evil wizarding family), and have enraged an obsessive Cambion in the process. Bolavero the Cambion, a half-demon abomination from the Abyss, has been hunting them ever since, changing form and ambushing the PC’s in all manner of scenarios. The PCs are well aware of this threat, but have not yet succeeded in defeating this intelligent foe.

Presently, the player characters are in Ironslag, the volcanic home of an evil family of fire giants. The giants are waiting on a special delivery from a group of drow in order to achieve their evil plan. The players, in an absolute nail-biter of a combat (a PC and his beloved NPC sister both died), have killed both Duke Zalto and Duchess Brimskarda, but have had to retreat from the scene in order to lick their wounds without having recovered the MacGuffin: a magical Conch of Teleportation. Unbeknownst to the players and their characters, the Duke’s son, Zaltember, still resides within the mountain, and he’s got mail.

For our next session, I want to follow up an epic battle with a session that emphasised the brutality of war, the desperation of the giants, the connections of family, and the danger of giving your enemies time to regroup and form alliances. Even with Ironslag’s primary boss and mini-boss defeated, the players still need to recover a magical Conch of Teleportation from the dungeon. 

“It’s a game of strategy and skill and… Oops! I rolled a natural 1!”

We have a lot of chess pieces on the table. What do we want to emphasize?

  • Past mistakes come back to haunt you (letting Bolavero escape multiple times)
  • Family ties, grief, the consequences of war (the Player Characters aren’t the only ones with emotional investment in the outcome of the war)
  • The win condition of combat is not always killing everything in the room

In the interest of having all these things line up, I’ve decided the following:

  • Zaltember has the Conch of Teleporation, and is devastated over the loss of his family
  • The drow are/have arrived with their special delivery
  • Bolavero has charmed the drow and disguised himself as one of them

So in planning the session I need to review the stat blocks and abilities of Bolavero, Zaltember, drow mages, drow elite warriors, and probably also shadow demons, which the drow are supposed to attempt to summon in case of battle. A quick check on the DnD Beyond encounter builder or on Kobold Fight Club tells me that if the PCs were to encounter all of these foes that once, it would be BANANAS. For four level 10s, that would be like fighting six or eight normal or hard difficulty combats at the same time, especially because the enemies would get so many more actions than the players. 

To borrow a phrase from Sly Flourish (a fantastic rpg blogger), I need difficulty toggles. Things that I can change or tactics I can use behind the screen to make things easier or harder without my players knowing. I can edit hit points. Those Drow Elite Warriors could have their minimum HP (a measly 33 hitpoints) instead of the average (a respectable 71). I can change the spell lists of the mages (four back to back cloudkill waves anyone?). I can forget the shadow demons, probably, as there will already be enough going on. 

All in all, I’m confident I could run this combat without causing an inadvertent TPK. I’m not that proficient at playing NPC spellcasters anyhow. What does bother me though, is that Zaltember himself has the stats of an Ogre. That’s a CR 2 challenge for a group of level 10 PCs? A bit anticlimactic, don’t you think? No, I can fix this, I can re-flavour or reskin something. Maybe Bolavero convinces Zaltember that to avenge his family and earn the drow’s trust, he has to do something… evil. Something that would grant him immense power? Something that would change him…

When I was running homebrew campaigns, every week I would scour splatbooks for monsters that would fit perfectly into the mess the players had gotten themselves in. More often than not, I had to make do with the Monster Manual’s offerings. I would reskin, polish or shave-off abilities that I thought had the chance to make my encounters really shine. In this case, we’re going to replace Ogre Zaltember with something more fun… Draegloth Zaltember! The Draegloth is a creature found in Volo’s Guide to Monsters that is closely associated with the drow. It’s a big mean brute with a few drow-style spell like abilities. I want to re-flavour the Draegloth to be a twisted and deformed fire giant teenager.

So what do we change? I think that since Zaltember’s the boss, we’ll do what all the best video games do: make him tough, mean, and have more than one form or stage to make the encounter feel dynamic. I pulled up Giffyglyph’s Monster Maker web app and modified the Draegloth stat block to reflect my concept. He’s a bit beefier, has a nova ability that triggers when he decides to grab onto a victim, or when he hits half health, whichever comes first, and a climb speed, because nothing is scarier than a demon on the roof.

With all this tucked away in my OneNote, all that’s left to do is think about how to telegraph to my players the story behind this beast. Maybe they encounter a goblin within the dungeon, sobbing about how “Young Lord Zaltember’s went and cut a deal with the drow, now we’re kicked out!” Or perhaps another fire giant, fearing Zaltember’s thirst for power and blood sacrifice, is attempting to sneak their way out of Ironslag without getting caught by the young lord. 

Demon form Zaltember by Shaun Makes

If all this sounds too much for my PC’s, the stakes are too high, and the fight seems impossible… well you know you really only need the magical conch hanging around Zaltember’s neck. Right?