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I'm a fairly new DM and have trouble properly balancing combat encounters sometimes. For the final battle in Curse of Strahd, the players have managed to

secure the help of van Richten and Ezmerelda (she was the card reading). They also have the tome, sunsword and holy symbol.

The party consists of a sorcerer, monk, warlock, eldritch knight and cleric, all level 9 (I could make them level 10 before hand as well).

Of course, Strahd would

know this is what he is up against, and although prideful, would

likely have help with this fight. How many wolves/bats/vampire spawn would make a fight like this hard, but winnable?

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We can't tell you

Balance doesn't come from the monsters you put on the table, it comes from how you play them and how your players play their characters.

If you play Strahd as written, a clever and diabolical opponent with centuries of experience of wiping the floor with adventurers then, unless your players are very, very good and highly experienced then they are dead PCs walking. See How can I play monsters and NPCs up to their potential?

For example, Strahd has these abilities that will make things really tough on the PCs:

Legendary Resistance (3/Day), Regeneration, Spellcasting particularly detect thoughts, animate dead, nondetection, greater invisibility, polymorph, animate objects, scrying), Spider Climb, Charm, Children of the Night (1/day).

Used judiciously, with that on the table, I could kill the party you describe with no trouble at all. Basically, I'd pick them off one by one.

Given the gothic horror nature of the adventure this would be a very nice end to the campaign: just when they feel themselves strong enough to take on the BBEG he teaches them a lesson in hubris and ruthlessness. Classic!

Alternatively, I could put a dozen minions on the table with them., employ them stupidly and give the party an easy win. but that would be boring.

You have the power

Strahd likes to play with his food so it is completely in character for him to devastate the party, gloat and walk away, just so he can do it again tomorrow.

Or weaken the party and then leave them to his minions in a number that you are confident the party can deal with even in their emanciated state.

And here is the little DM secret you need to know. Come closer, I'll whisper it.

Monsters die when you want them to - hit points are a tool but there is nothing to stop you saying "It dies" even if it has a gazillion hit points left.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you advise what combination of monsters and mode of playing them would provide balance? Of course how the monsters get played affects balance, and you demonstrate that well, but that presents an opportunity to share experience in how to play the monsters to provide balance. Your advice on that front is limited to 3 sentences at the end, where you suggest if it winds up too tough, the NPCs could leave or die by fiat. We have a well-defined party here with their situation and resources provided; expertise-based guidance should be able to provide more concrete advice than that. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 20 '18 at 13:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically I'm interpreting this as a frame challenge -- you've pointed out there's a problem in the querent's assumptions -- but you haven't progressed to actually providing a concrete solution in the new frame (bar those 3 sentences, which aren't much). Can you flesh that solution out further? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 20 '18 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a really good write up of Strahd's tactics on the Long Nights in Barovia Blog \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Jul 17 at 20:30
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Here's my background: I haven't run Curse of Strahd in 5e, but I have run Expedition to Castle Ravenloft in 3.5e, which also has a final battle against Strahd.

Here's my answer: as Dale said, it's very difficult to predict in advance what will be a "difficult but winnable" encounter. Quite a lot depends on the circumstances -- who's surprised who, who's got what spells active, what sort of tactics Strahd uses, and how well-optimized your player characters are.

If your goal is just to have the one combat be interesting, the thing that works is to eyeball the reinforcements on-the-fly. When the players attack Strahd, start the battle with just a few allies for him, but tell the players that he's calling for more help. Every round, a few more monsters show up. This lets you adjust the difficulty on-the-fly: if Strahd seems to be doing poorly, he gets more reinforcements, and vice versa.

What I did when I ran the game was to have Strahd fight the party several times, at various points in the castle. Usually they'd defeat him, but sometimes they'd run. When he died, he'd just mistform back to his coffin and respawn and attack again after an hour. So the real "boss battle" of the game wasn't Strahd, but rather the catacombs full of traps and minions that surrounds Strahd's real coffin. Then when the party got close to Strahd's coffin, I used the trick described above: every round more monsters showed up, until they fought their way to the coffin and killed Strahd permanently.

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While I think that DaleM's answer was great, I just wanted to add personal experience. My group recently finished this campaign. There were 8 of us, and most of us were level 10. We also had Kasimir. Strahd had a dragonborn minion, and also

Patrina

Ezmerelda and our other allies were busy with Strahd's other minions (hellhounds, etc.), so it was essentially 9 against 3. Our DM said he would not hold back, although he did essentially tell us when we should Counterspell. By the end of the fight only 2 party members had been knocked (0 hit points or less), although my cleric had to cure Kasimir to get him back in to the fight.
I should probably also note that our party members resisted being Banished or Dominated, which could have changed the way that the battle had gone.

I haven't DMed 5e much, myself, but as far as I can tell Strahd is designed to be able to handle a party of ~4 by himself (hence the legendary actions).

I should probably add that our party did have

the sunsword,

but I don't know that we had any special tome or holy symbol. Also I was playing a Cleric (Light domain), and another player was a Paladin so we had fairly ready access to radiant damage to prevent Strahd or other vampires from regenerating.

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