Clash of the Titans: Lessons Learned from a High-Level D&D Death Brawl
It sucks to be a low-level character in D&D. Sad, but true. Your hit points are crap, you have no money or magic items, and your most impressive spells do exactly 1d3 points of damage per casting. I mean, OK, it’s not like the challenge ratings of the monsters you’re fighting are very high either, but still. Best-case scenario, your character is kind of a weakling but still gets a decent hit or two in per encounter. Worst case scenario, he’s completely useless (seriously, try playing a Level 1 Monk sometime and see how much you like being the only person in the party who can’t hold a weapon properly).
I mean, OK, I get it; it’s all about “role playing.” People get better at things as they learn and practice. Your character’s personal growth is reflected in his ability to level up, gain new skills, grow stronger, blah blah blah, whatever. But let’s face it: the only real point of playing a low-level character is that you get to dream of that glorious day when you finally emerge from the hellish lower levels and bloom into that elusive and magnificent figure that is the high-level character.
Of course, if your D&D campaigns are anything like mine, such dreams are rarely realized. Depending on how often you play, it can take weeks of real-world time to amass enough XP to make even one new level, let alone fifteen. By the time you hit level 6 or 7, the DM is already dropping hints about “wrapping up the campaign soon,” and promising that he has a “really great idea for a new (low-level) game that we can play next!” Before you know it, you’re crumpling up your character sheet and the DM is passing you a new, blank one. And the first line? “Name: Alora Elvensong, Wizard Level 1.”
Woo. Fucking. Hoo.
So, it was with great delight that I recently learned of a new kind of campaign that our group was going to try. Actually, it wasn’t so much an actual campaign as it was a one-shot D&D adventure in which our characters got thrown into an arena and were forced to battle one another to the death. Not a terribly complex concept, but the upshot was that instead of making another crop of Level 1 bozos, we got to create characters that started at Level 16.
I was enthralled by all of the new possibilities laid out before me. So many spells! So many feats! Three-digit hit points! Hidden abilities that had never before had time to manifest! My new Celestial Sorcerer stepped fully formed out of my imagination, with a Charisma score of 24, an arsenal of high-level spells, and a gigantic pair of glittering, feathery wings. I was the Angel of Death, and I was ready to rumble.
What followed was probably the single most entertaining D&D game that I have played in months. My Sorcerer faced down a howling Barbarian, a nigh-invulnerable Monk, and a shriveled Wizard surrounded by three gigantic iron golems. The DM, playing the part of a powerful and malevolent demon, transported all of us into his own pocket universe, dropped us into a coliseum, and gave us a single order: “Kill.”
It would be difficult to describe the ensuing battle in its entirety, given the thoroughly epic nature of the encounter, but here are some of the key highlights and “lessons learned” from the battle:
1. When playing a game that is far, far above your usual character level, be prepared to
a) look up a lot of stuff during the battle,
b) spend most of the next day regretting all of the stuff you forgot to look up during the battle, and
c) keep a pair of earplugs on hand for when your spouse goes off on a 60-minute tangential rant about all the stuff HE forgot to look up during the battle.
We knew in advance that we were going to need to do a lot of reading during the battle, since none of us were very familiar with playing high-level characters; but even so, there were still a lot of things we got wrong. It turned out, for example, that although my lightning spells couldn’t hurt the Wizard’s iron golems, it could slow them down. Of course, since we didn’t realize that until later, my lightning spells actually had no effect whatsoever during the battle. Much worse was the fact that we all thought the golems couldn’t be on the receiving end of a critical hit (which does double or triple the normal amount of damage for a particular weapon). Mike, whose Barbarian had a particular feat that made him more likely to achieve critical hits, was very pissed off when he heard this, but not nearly as pissed off as he was later, when he realized that it wasn’t even true. As far as I know, he is still fuming about it a week later.
2. If you don’t want to sleep on the couch, don’t cast a spell that can drive your spouse (or his character) permanently insane.
I learned this lesson the hard way after casting Prismatic Spray—twice—on Mike’s character. I still maintain that I wasn’t just targeting his character, but I couldn’t help it that he was the only character within range who didn’t have spell resistance! Prismatic Spray has a variety of effects, so the exact impact of the spell is determined with a dice roll. The first time I cast the spell, I made his character permanently insane. From that point forward, his character would perform a random action each round, from a list of possible actions including:
- Attacking the nearest person or thing
- Running around in circles
- Standing there and babbling incoherently
- Stabbing himself
Admittedly, it was pretty freaking entertaining to watch (a fact over which, incidentally, Mike still glares at me every time it comes up), but unfortunately it didn’t last long. The other guys convinced me to try a second casting of the spell, just for kicks, which again only affected Mike. The result this time? 80 points of electrical damage, which directly contributed to his death the following round. Oops.
3. Dispel Magic works remarkably well against iron golems with spell resistance. So, apparently, does Acid Splash.
I discovered this accidentally while battling the three iron golems that the Wizard (played by my friend Whit) had brought into the ring. I decided to do a Knowledge (Arcana) check on the golems, and discovered that they were made almost entirely of “iron and magic.” They had an insanely high spell resistance (as in, they were immune to almost my entire spell list), but they were surprisingly susceptible to Dispel Magic. It didn’t get rid of them, exactly, but it was an effective way of turning them “off” for a few rounds, allowing the Monk (played by Jeff) and the Barbarian (played by Mike) time to get some serious damage in. I tried to help, but as previously mentioned, most of my spells were pretty useless. Actually, the only spell I could find on my list that didn’t have problems with spell resistance was my single weakest combat spell, Acid Splash. For those of you not familiar with the spell, let’s just say that I managed to do at most three points of damage to the 200-hit-point golem per turn. It was more or less the equivalent of punching the thing (very lightly) in the arm. On one occasion, though, I cast the spell while attacking a golem who only had 1 hit point left, so a little Acid Splashing was in fact the final blow that brought him down. I guess it turns out that even low-level spells occasionally have their moments.
4. The ability to fly doesn’t mean a damn thing when someone has Dimension Door.
I started out very confident in my flying ability. I spent pretty much the entire battle hovering over everyone else, raining Death from above. Spells cast from the ground didn’t affect me; even the golems with their 10-foot reach couldn’t touch me. I was invincible…at least, I was for as long as everyone else was still preoccupied with attacking characters other than me. The minute Jeff (aka the Monk) decided he’d had enough and Dimension Door’d right on top of me, I was pretty much done. A quick grapple check, an attempt to shape-shift (which I failed), a rain of blows that drained me of over half my total hit points, forcing a Fortitude check (which I also failed), and I was unconscious on the floor of the arena with no one else to help me and dead within a round. Whee.
5. Always carry a backup weapon that doesn’t suck, or you will be seriously boned when the bare-fisted Monk decides that weapons are a form of “cheating.”
I guess Jeff’s Monk didn’t like the fact that Mike’s Barbarian had a big sword, because it was not very long before he decided to divest him of it. “No weapons here! Weapons no good! We wrestle like men, yes?” Of course, since a Monk is much faster than a Barbarian, Jeff was able to snatch Mike’s sword pretty quickly, and proceeded to run around the coliseum (which he could do in a single turn because…well, Monk) and bury it in the sand, leaving Mike staring down a very large iron golem empty-handed. As the DM pointed out later, “…and this is why all of my characters ALWAYS have at least one backup weapon that doesn’t suck on them. Because you just never know.”
6. Even if you’re crap at melee personally, extra hit points are a very good idea. A very, very good idea. Just ask the dead guy. Oh wait, you can’t, because he’s DEAD.
This was a lesson I learned as much from observation as direct experience. My friend Whit played the Wizard with the iron golems. Since he was planning to have the golems fight for him, he didn’t bother to make his character very strong. The Wizard simply released the golems and cast Invisibility on himself. Unfortunately, Invisibility is not exactly foolproof when one is up against other high-level characters with spells like True Seeing. Jeff spotted Whit’s character almost immediately, and proceeded to punch him to death:
Jeff: I use Flurry of Blows!
Whit: Yeah, I’m not gonna be able to resist that.
Jeff: OK, I do…(rolls dice)…96 points of damage.
Whit: Oh, wow, OK. I’m dead.
Jeff: What, seriously?
Whit: I have negative 30 hit points!
Jeff: Oh. Well yeah, you’re definitely dead then!
7. If you have super-awesome spells prepared, for the love of God, use them!
As fun as it was casting Acid Splash on the iron golems, I discovered later that I could have done a lot more damage if I’d used some of the other spells in my arsenal. Not the attack spells, of course, but I had also prepared a bunch of summoning and shape-shifting spells, the most powerful of which was Form of Dragon III. If I had just shape-shifted early in the game, I could have turned myself into an enormous dragon (with the retained ability to cast ALL of my other spells) for the duration of the entire battle, allowing me to do massive physical damage to those damn spell-resistant golems. Of course, this didn’t occur to me until after the battle, when Mike mentioned it in the car. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Oh well.
8. Laugh a lot.
No point to this one really, but it certainly does add to the fun, especially when you get to destroy your friends’ characters in a spectacularly over-the-top manner. Their subsequent pouting just makes it even funnier!
In the end, the Monk played by Jeff succeeded in taking down all of his opponents. The reward for victory was a single Wish granted by the DM. I don’t think Jeff originally intended this, but when it came time to make his Wish, he took a quick glance around the table, taking in all of the glum, defeated faces, and loudly announced, “I wish that everyone is alive again! Hooray! We wrestle!” We all appreciated the thought, and the game was declared officially over; but it did occur to me that in the context of the game, there was really nothing stopping that evil demon from using Jeff’s Wish to make us just fight the whole damn battle over again. But hey, maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. As least we could have delayed the inevitable return to Level 1 for just a little while longer…