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Don't Be Afraid of Using Powerful Foes in D&D

Our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are littered with creatures. Some are weak: crafty kobolds, gibbering goblins, or wailing harpies. Others challenge our parties: militaristic barbed devils, zealotus drow, or angry froghemoths. A select few, in the grand scheme, stand above the rest: ancient dragons, sinister pit fiends, or megalomaniacal liches. As Dungeon Masters, we shouldn’t be afraid of using the latter, powerful foes in our D&D campaigns. As players, we should understand the role these powerful foes take.

DMs can use powerful foes in a variety of ways. They can be the big bad villain of a campaign, a backdrop in the campaign, or a message that the world is dangerous, unpredictable, and real.

A crazed ancient gold dragon could be the campaign’s primary antagonist, interfering with the party using divination spells such as scrying. Despite the party not being anywhere near strong enough to battle the gold dragon, it can still play a role in the story.

A cult of worshipers of the world below could awaken a tarrasque from its deep slumber, causing the lands surrounding the party to become apocalyptic. The party isn’t directly opposing the tarrasque (yet), but it’s still affecting the campaign as a whole.

An inexperienced party could be blazing a trail through a dense, tropical jungle when a tyrannosaurus rex charges through the woods, terrifying the party. The party cannot handle a dinosaur of that size and strength at their current experience level, but encountering it is still a meaningful story beat.

We don’t need to be scared to drop these extremely powerful creatures into our worlds — they make them feel alive! If our parties battle them, so be it; they should know better. Not every encounter is meant to be fought and won.

I used this strategy in my last session. As my party was moving across the Feywild, from Unseelie Lands to Seelie Lands, they met a civilization of centaurs who built towns atop the backs of tamed tarrasques (yes, the Feywild in my world is insane). These mostly peaceful fey beings told the group of a great Tower of Thorns in their Golden Sea. A silver dragonborn lived there, leading dragonborn warriors to battle in the nearby Grove of Laughing Goats. He’d slaughtered many of their tribes and young — the centaurs wanted him dead. The party, thinking this a simple “side quest” en route to the main objective, decided to scope out this Tower of Thorns and slaughter the silver dragonborn.

Across the Golden Sea they flew, riding invisible on the back of their gold dragon ally, Marzius. Eventually, they found the tower and the silver dragonborn was there, meditating atop the huge spire. They devised a plan and attacked the silver dragonborn, swooping past the tower on dragonback. To their surprise, he leaped off the tower to follow them, transforming into a massive, purple-eyed ancient silver dragon.

Their surprise was palpable; the battle is still ongoing.

Will they win? Possibly. Do I think they will? No. The question is: what will they do in defeat? Will they fight to the death? Will they retreat? Will they surrender to the mercy of this ancient silver dragon? Or will my expectations be shattered and the powerful foe be defeated?

No one knows. I can say one thing: using this powerful foe is exciting and we shouldn’t be afraid to do it more often.

Until next time, farewell!

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