Encounter difficulty in a homemade module


Hi y'all. I'm writing my own module and I've got some ideas for encounters that I'm very excited about. The only downside is that they're too high CR in the end! The section I'm currently working on is a keep called Grasswall. The PCs have infiltrated the keep by this point, and are facing a gnoll with 7 levels of cleric who has been built up throughout the module. That's a CR 7 encounter. The PCs are 5th level here, so it's boss-level. I was planning on adding some support for the cleric, as solo casters tend to melt like ice in Death Valley against a party of PCs, and was thinking of adding a weakened unique chimera (CR 6) for his mount. He'd be initially fought in a ritual chamber in the keep itself, then he'll meld into stone (if possible) once he's damaged enough and move up the tower to mount his chimera and fight the PCs there.

The downside is that the CR of these encounters will be all over the place. A CR 7 cleric with a couple of acolytes (probably inquisitors or fighters) will be at least party level plus 3. I dislike the CR system overall (it seems arbitrary and not the greatest of guidelines at times), and since I'm not using xp in this module, it won't affect the PCs' level. I'm just worried that I'll inadvertently cause a TPK. Does anyone have some experience with this kind of thing? Maybe some encounters that should have been hard but were easy, or vice versa? Any advice you can give me will be appreciated.

The cleric isn't the final boss of the module, or even the keep- that's a CR 10/MR 1 mothman and a CR 7 dragon, respectively. He's just been built up a lot, and I want to make this memorable.

You need to ensure the enemy caster has prep time. Don't force it, as you want to allow the PCs to leverage surprise if they can manage it, but build your enemies space around making the boss inaccessible without his knowing it. Giving your enemy the teamwork feat "lookout" and an ally to support the feat ensures that he won't be caught completely unaware. If that ally can always act in a surprise round, such as a bodyguard animal companion, then you're pretty much set.

Doing this gives you a more even expectation of what the enemy can do, that way you don't need to worry as much about him going down without a fight.

One of the things that can make a fight really random is the use of crowd control effects. I'd stay away from group crowd control spells if you don't want to accidentally kill the party.

You should also be willing to mix it up a bit. If the cleric goes down too fast to run, maybe have the chimera retrieve him and fly off instead. You could also have the chimera present but disguised as a smaller animal if you need to pull him out mid fight.

Use traps. Not super high-level magic traps, but things like trap doors and tripwire crossbows. This will keep the PCs on their toes during the fight without risking their outright death from a single bad roll.

You can also have guards (2 or 3 levels in the NPC Warrior class) in hidden walls with arrow slits during the final fight. If this boss has been built up, then he should be expecting the PCs, he should be somewhat prepared.

Sticking with the trap angle, you can give the cleric an attendant/flunkie who runs around the final fight serting off traps. This guys shouldn't be powerful (no more than two level of Expert or Commoner), and have him start the fight hidden.

You could combine these ideas by having a couple of guards for the cleric to buff while his flunkie runs around setting of traps.

The cleric has received dream spells from the BBEG, who has been scrying on the PCs already, and he's well aware of the PCs' arrival- he's got time to prepare. Traps are a good idea... the gnolls have only been in the castle for three days (give or take a day) but setting one up is a nice way to add a non-creature element to the fight. The cleric is much more melee-focused than casting focused, so I don't expect a TPK. He's a hard hitter, though, and has a high AC as well.

The chimera lives on a ledge that connects to the top level of the castle's highest tower via a stone bridge- it won't be present during the first fight. The castle itself is built into a massive cliff face that forms the border of the human lands and the badlands. That ledge leads to the cavern where the dragon, the true leader of the raid, is staying. The NPCs, having knowledge of the PCs' existence, would normally be swarming all over the place and on high alert, but internal tension and general insanity/laziness (the gnolls worship three different Outer Gods) has kept them from optimizing their efforts.

The chimera itself (I'm thinking of reskinning it as a manticore to lower the CR further) was sent from the Outer God that the cleric worships a day ago as a sort of "prize" for his takeover of the town. It's kept up there to be offered sacrifices, and also because it's too big to fit into the keep.

Without seeing the statblock, I can't say for sure. But a CR8 encounter is usually pretty brutal unless the party is super optimized.

That said, single casters can get destroyed by the action economy, even with prep time to precast buffs. Or they just steamroll the PCs. Sometimes it comes down to dice.

I don't know if traps fit the character of this Gnoll, he's a necromancer right? You could give him some roadblock undead low CR minions like zombies or skeletons (or if you're truly evil, ghouls). Maybe desecrate the area and/or unhallow. Other option is to create a haunt that works with the Cleric. Gnolls with a level of acolyte could work too. Mostly you want to slow down and divide the attention of the party.

Definitely don't roll a CR6 and CR7 encounter together against a level 5 party. That's TPK territory.

I'll have to think of something else for his mount. Perhaps I could lower the cleric's level to compensate... My party has one player who optimizes to hell and back (he's got an inquisitor who hits like an adamantine truck and a cleric with 25 AC at level 5), one player who builds solid characters and actually cares about flavor and roleplaying, and one player who has no idea what he's doing but still succeeds because he's playing a debuffer witch. I tend to build encounters with my party in mind, and sadly that means that the difficulty can be skewed. This is especially a fault of mine, since other people might play this module eventually.

Here's the current stat block.

Utobi - CR 7
Male gnoll cleric of Shub-Niggurath (theologian) 7
CE medium humanoid (gnoll)
Init +3
Senses darkvision 60 ft., perception +16

AC 22 (-1 dex, +9 armor, +3 deflection, +1 natural), touch 12, flat-footed 21
hp 88 (9d8+33+7 temporary)
Fort +9, Ref +4, Will +9 (+2 vs mind-affecting, +2 vs fear)

Speed 20 ft., fly 60 ft. (good)
Offense +1 dagger +15/+15/+9 (1d4+7)
Ranged mwk composite longbow +10/+10/+5 (1d8+6)
Special Attacks channel negative energy 1/day (4d6, DC 13)
Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 7th, concentration +11, DC 14+spell level)
4th: divine power*, warp metal, lesser planar binding
3rd: extended fly*, remove curse, remove blindness/deafness, meld into stone
2nd: levitate, darkness, grace, hold person, cure moderate wounds
1st: bless*, cure light wounds (4), feather fall
0 (at-will): read magic, detect magic, message, create water
Domain Void

Str 17 (+4), Dex 8 (-1), Con 17 (+3), Int 12 (+1), Wis 18 (+4), Cha 8 (-1)
Base Atk +6, CMB +9, CMD 20
Feats Power Attack, Heavy Armor Proficiency, Lightning Reflexes, Improved Initiative, Combat Casting
Skills perception +16, knowledge (religion) +13, knowledge (dungeoneering) +6, heal +8, intimidate +3, linguistics +8
Languages Common, Gnoll, Aklo, Elder Thing, Undercommon, Infernal, Orc, Abyssal
Gear full plate, +1 dagger, headband of inspired wisdom +2, unholy symbol of Shub-Niggurath

Before Combat
Utobi casts extended fly, bless, and divine power (in that order) when he hears the PCs approaching. He orders his acolytes to flank with him in combat.
During Combat
Utobi flies into the air and lands in a position where he’s able to flank or target a ranged attacker. He focuses on ranged combatants first, then spellcasters.
Utobi is bold, but not stupid. If reduced below 30 hp, he casts meld into stone and moves up to the next level of the keep, signaling to the acolytes there that the PCs have arrived. He continues moving upwards, eventually leaving the stone atop the great tower. He heals himself there, and if encountered atop the tower, he fights to the death.

I changed Utobi to a 5th level cleric and added a Medium flanking buddy named Shaggat- now, if Utobi escapes upstairs and gets to ride his (sort of) manticore, it'll be CR 7. Next are the devotees of Abhoth. Most of em are mutated. I might have gotten a bit carried away with the grossness of the situation, but I think that's what Abhoth would have wanted.

This one is odd because the PCs can convince the insane gnolls that they've been sent by Abhoth himself to claim the captives, which means that they don't have to fight the gnolls here at all. Of course, to do that, they'll have to enter the room and encounter the mutants themselves...

Also, this doc is getting pretty laggy. I don't think this laptop was meant to handle 13 pages of 7 point Times New Roman font with double columns.

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