Balancing a DnD encounter is a juggler’s act. You have to carefully tune the hit points, action economy, party’s resources, and a dozen other things. However, if dosed correctly, pedaling the danger to the floor makes the most epic of memories—like a pressurized carbon turning into a diamond.
This is the story of a memorable battle and the lessons I learned.
The party Free Wanderers had cleansed a dungeon from a beholder, pledged loyalty to the cloud giant Braga, found an airship, repaired it, and now soared the skies towards glorious Myrefall.
It had been a long and strenuous leg of the journey filled with sorrow and happiness, rekindling old relationships and discovering new ones.
Finally, they talked among themselves, we are heroes.
Finally, we have everything in order.
Or so they thought.
An ancient rule of thumb: “When everything is in order, pull the problem lever.”
Now, I didn’t want a specific problem, but rather a scroll of possibilities that will shape our story and enrich it—add another core memory.
And so I made a list of 20 encounters this jolly party might stumble upon during their three-day flight, and left it to the dice.
And for two days dice were benevolent. They brought them a meeting with a captain of a passenger airship, who shared news from the party’s base town; a pleasant conversation.
They had encountered hippogriffs and Adrestia, the party’s druid, shared a breeze and stretched her wings before the dukes of the skies steered towards mountains.
They even invited her for a supper.
The storm came on the third day, after gentle sunshine and happy songs.
Light rain turned heavy and flashes of blue and white pierced the dark clouds. The planks creaked as the wind threatened to topple the airship.
Isvag, the party’s ranger, took the helm and navigated the ship as the God of Lightning bashed at the mortals.
“Furl the sails!”, she yelled battling the thunder.
Left, right, under, one hit on the hull, second on the mast and a final flup.
With Adrestia’s guidance as a giant eagle and cartoonish sound, the airship emerged in a peaceful pocket of the sky. For miles, there were storm clouds above and beneath, but in this strip of heaven, the sun was snoozing.
Oyk, a Yakfolk NPC clapped Isvag on the back and hugged Adrestia. It was me being proud of their first victory against what was only a slight tingle in the upcoming encounter.
Because on the third day the party rolled a 7. And as the world of Dreon has 7 mighty dragon deities, it was only natural to put an ancient blue one on this number.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they heard the wings behind.
A blue mass of scales was dashing towards them, an empress of the sky, a mistress of the storm.
“Full saaaaaaails!” Isvag screamed and the airship rushed forward. Everyone was in their positions, preparing weapons and securing the cargo.
Ogorim, the party’s wizard, ran to the lower deck and put the ArcEngine in overdrive. It gave them better stability and quicker height manoeuvering. The airship’s speed, however, still depended on the wind, which was luckily plentiful.
And then the first droplet of sweat on my forehead. My envision of an epic chase stumbled on a hiccup.
Charlie, the party’s sorcerer and a silver dragon herself, transformed into her formidable form.
“Fly well”, she said spreading her wings to intercept the blue dragon.
The meeting took us all by surprise.
“You’re a brave one coming towards me”, Blue said as they swirled in circles.
“What do you want?”, Charlie asked.
“A bit too brave and rude”, the dragon said inspecting Charlie. “I want to know who flies over my sky?”
Charlie knew she cannot match the ancient, and looking back at the ship, she explained who they are and offered gold. When the dragon refused and asked for something unique, again Charlie looked at the ship ‘trying’ to remember what she can offer.
“Uhmm, I don’t think we have much on the ship… However, I do have a magical necklace if you want-“
At the same time, the dragon and I, the Dungeon Master, realized she was stalling.
She managed to suppress her anger against the ‘evil’ dragonkin and choose to buy time.
“Roll for deception”, I said.
And as the dice fell and my friend called the number, I turned my gaze and looked at the rest of my table who were biting their nails.
I raised my arms, flapped them, and invoked Isildur’s famous words:
The chase was on.
As Blue darted towards the party, the airship dove into the storm again. This time they were hit by multiple bolts, abandoning caution in the face of greater danger.
Charlie desperately tried to get hold of Blue. Every grapple failed and breath weapons only grazed her tough scales. Ogorim and Oyk shot ballistae, landing a couple of hits. Adrestia flew as a pterodactyl, guiding Isvag. She spotted a forming whirlpool and the party dodged it. She saw a dangerous storm pocket and they dodged that too.
But the dragon was gaining, unstoppable.
I was fearful but trusted they will find the way. They were looking at their sheets, trying to add pieces into a big solution. But the problem and the beauty was that no one knew what the solution was.
Try to outfly her?
After a small narrative pause for them to roleplay and figure things out, I pushed the pedal to the floor.
“At this rate, the dragon will catch up to you in two turns.”
The table exploded with ideas.
Ogorim briefly contemplated turning the vessel into a delayed bomb. They would ride Charlie and Adrestia to safety while Blue ravages the airship and departs from this life in a gigantic explosion.
Neph, the party’s warlock, was seeking guidance and help from his patron.
Adrestia and Isvag were busy handling the ship.
Charlie tried taunting Blue.
“I shall end you, you and all your evil dragonkin for what you did to my family!” she yelled. “Come fight me you coward!”
Unfortunately, she would find better luck yelling at the stars. In the end, fearing for the lives of her friends and one round until the rendezvous, Charlie managed to claw Blue’s eye and bite her neck.
Hearing the painful roar and using a moment of distraction, Isvag feigned a turn and drove into the clouds while casting Pass without Trace. Angered, Blue swiped at Charlie, looking for the party. With a bleeding eye, the dragon rolled a 28 Perception with disadvantage.
The table exploded in cheers and laughter as the party rolled a 29 for stealth.
The dark stormy cloud forms around you, hiding your presence from the dragon. Once more, Melora had answered, lending you her aid…
However, the celebration stopped quickly when I frowned, contemplating what a furious and proud dragon would do.
After a moment of silence, I looked at ‘Charlie’ and asked for a saving throw as Blue charged a massive lightning breath.
Zwooooooooozzzzzz and a dying shriek.
The static split the sky and Charlie fell unconscious, falling.
Now, this is where panic had burst opened our doors and entered without permission.
9000 feet above the ground, the party searches between the wind and rain for their fallen friend. The clock is ticking but they mustn’t leave the cloud’s safety until the very last moment.
“Where is she!?” Neph yells.
One thunder, then another—we only value time when we measure it in seconds.
“THERE!”, Ogorim points at almost 1000 feet below them.
It was a surreal few moments at our table, or perhaps it was minutes. I remember Charlie’s story rolling in my mind like a film strip rapidly coming to an end: the meeting with the party, their victories, tavern shenanigans, and her meticulous cooking. And judging by the players’ looks, we were watching the same movie, stunned.
‘There goes Charlie the dragon falling as she lived—bravely loving her friends.’
As a dreary silence veiled our table, my party started half-uttering sentences. All they could see is the loss of their friend approaching as quickly as the ground. It had crippled us.
I have to toss a rope, a wake-up shake, I remember thinking.
With each round that I loosely timed in real life, Charlie was 500 feet farther.
With each round, she rolled a death saving throw and failed the first.
“What do you do!?” I asked them suppressing my voice shivers.
The ideas were great but required proximity and speed they didn’t have.
A rope toss, a rope toss…I think to myself while pacing, and then my face lightened up!
In one of the most memorable moments we experienced, Oyk the NPC approached the helm and pulled a lever, shutting down the ArcEngine.
And as the engine lost its arcane spark, the same one enlightened my players’ eyes—they grabbed the rope and started pulling.
Airship dove towards marshes in a magnificent 20-ton free fall.
Charlie succeeded on the next death saving throw, buying the party some time. Isvag cut the sails loose, reducing drag. Adrestia invoked the wind to push them harder. Oyk and Neph grabbed two special ballistae that were spread apart and armed with a wide net. For a successful catch, they both needed to hit.
Now it was a numbers game and I kept it simple: a die roll determined the time they’ll catch up to Charlie and the result bathed me in another wave of sweat.
The wind zips around you as you follow unconscious Charlie approaching the ground. The trees and bushes are getting bigger. Your bodies and ship strain battling the fear, praying that you will reach her in time. 1500 feet to the surface…
We are so stressed even our pet hamster stopped running on its wheel.
‘Neph’ takes a d20 die and squeezes it until his knuckles go white.
Dice be with us for they only have one shot…
“You are in range!” I jumped.
Two bolts shoot towards Charlie in a wide arc, each tethered to one end of a huge net. We roll at the same time—I was Oyk and my friend was Neph and we were frightened. My hand trembled and a special kind of camaraderie formed between us, one that only comes in war and catastrophe, one that awakens when two are saving a life.
My die falls good, and his also.
The net wraps around Charlie and a few hundred feet before we all smash into pieces, Ogorim restarts the ArcEngine and with violent shakes, the airship stops and the party is safe.
Beaten, bloody, and dizzy but whole.
Steps for a successful deadly encounter
It’s important to convey the imbalance of power clearly when odds against the party are truly enormous. At the end of my dragon description, I stated: “This is not something you can win. I suggest you run.”
This way the party doesn’t feel tricked into an unwinnable battle, because their 7th-level characters would know not to fight an ancient dragon.
Communicating that this is beyond their reach and that it requires a different solution, avoids leading the party into a stone wall.
Mind you, they can still try to kill the beast and in an astronomical case they succeed, the reward would be even greater: proving you wrong that indeed, this was winnable.
But that choice would be them fully knowing they might easily die, which makes a world of difference in their agency.
Rephrasing the win condition
Most of the time when presented with a problem, players will try to solve it and often feel disappointed if they fail to do so. And when presented with a monster, the winning condition is usually to kill it.
Transforming the win condition from killing a dragon to outflying it, elevates the whole experience.
Painted with a new tone, the narration takes a different form. The players are not retreating with a tail tucked between their legs, but rather having an epic chase where they use their wits to outsmart the pursuer.
One of the most vital relations between players and Dungeon Masters is now more important than ever.
Trust in DM’s genuine care and intent and that they will ‘toss a rope.’ Faith in the process and players’ capabilities.
Trust in the story and epicness of the moment that you are creating.
I was lucky to have my players onboard for many years, so when Blue hit Charlie with 88 damage lightning breath, they knew I wasn’t mean. They trusted me in pushing the pedal to the floor and in return, I believed they will find the way out of it.
Help too little and the party feels they are fighting a lost battle, not a deadly one. Help too much and the encounter becomes an orchestrated scene where players are actors, and not even paid.
It’s a careful balancing act, where careless leaning to one side shatters the moment.
When thinking of ways to aid the party I always consider narratively plausible events, sometimes adding a dash of fairy-tale-like coincidence.
For this example, if the dragon had managed to grab the ship, I’d make sail ropes tangle around it (literally tossing a rope to my players haha). However, I’d measure the aid, having the rope catch one of the players as well.
Maybe the dragon had a perfect lineup for its lightning breath, and in a few seconds, it will catch 80% of the party which is terrifying.
In that case, I might have the ArcEngine unexpectedly jerk and cause the breath to miss a couple of PCs, but!
I will also make those close to the rails make a save to stay aboard the ship.
Luckily, the only aid I needed to provide was Oyk shaking the party out of shock and propelling the story forward. Fortune was with us.
When unsure about the aid, the rule of thumb I follow is: the gifted victory tastes sourer than an unfair defeat.
The world is filled with dangerous creatures of different threats. Having deadly monsters confront your party, reinforces the vividness and reality of the world. This greatly depends on the setting and the place of the encounter, but the message is the same: there are beasties only waiting for a wrong move, and there’s a chance for you to meet them.
The key here is occurrence and that is only up to you, your world, and the preferences of your table.
Change of pace
Deadly encounters are excellent for increasing the game’s pace, something I wish I knew in my earlier DMing years. In the past when there was a lull in a campaign, I would often amp up the world catastrophes and villains’ plans. This sped up the game but unfortunately, it would spiral out of the control.
Little did I know that the secret ingredient was a rogue dragon swooping for some chat and fresh meat.
Sense of progress
Having the same type of monster re-encounter the party in a later stage greatly enhances the feeling of progression.
Once, the party had fled across the skies, but now they are hunting the dragon. Once a fatal lightning breath now becomes a sustainable blow.
Previously stalling for time, presently asking the question: “Who are you and what do you offer for your life?”
Ideally, I love to reuse the exact same monster to re-encounter the party. This is hard to pull off and having the same type will do the same, but boy is it sweet when the stars align.
Just imagine how dramatic the following scene would be, one year and several levels after our ‘Mortal Chase.’
‘What you are searching for, Charlie, is a powerful potion’, the alchemist said.
‘I can make it for a price…but… I lack a vital ingredient. I need the scales of an ancient blue dragon. Unfortunately, they are not only hard to find but even harder to kill. Now I heard a rumor about one in the vicinity of Myrefall. The folks call it Blue and- ‘
And Charlie stopped listening, her eyes flaring with resolve, her lightning scar on her back tingling.
Oh, I heard about that rumor as well.
What are your thoughts about deadly encounters? What are some other benefits you enjoy when running one? Any memorable you want to share?
If you’ve got thoughts, I’d love to hear them below in the comments or on Twitter!
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Fly well and watch out for dragons.