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I am a DM running a high-level campaign. My group has recently leveled up to 17, and one of the casters has taken True Polymorph. They have stated their intent to turn into the most powerful kind of dragon allowed by the spell, and use it in combat.

I am worried that the martial classes (Paladin & Rogue) in the party will feel overshadowed by this - after all, with a prep time of 1 action, this caster can turn into an Adult Gold Dragon that almost certainly possesses better mobility, greater or equal damage output, and a health pool twice or more the size of theirs. When that health pool is depleted, they return to "only" a 17th level caster down their 9th level spell slot.

(Yes, the spell requires concentration, so in theory they could be forced to drop the spell before then, but an Adult Gold Dragon has +13 to Con saves and 3 Legendary Resistances; thus any damage less than 30 will not carry any risk of breaking concentration, and the caster can use Legendary Resistance to succeed concentration saves from greater damage than that which they fail. As a result a damage-based method of dropping their concentration will probably burn through their health pool before it succeeds.)

So, I am asking this question to identify the ways in which high level martial characters can excel in their niches in ways that this caster cannot just by turning into a dragon/other high CR creature.

My intent with the answers I get is to implement them: i.e. structure the game such that it is one that supplies a set of challenges that make the martial characters feel useful and powerful, rather than a set that make them feel outclassed by the shapeshifted caster, regret their class choices, and feel like "transitional characters" whose only purpose was to get the casters to level 17.

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High Level Martial Characters aren't bothered by Dispel Magic

Nor by Counterspell. I'll also point out that high level martial characters with a magical weapon aren't bothered by resistances. If you have them at level 17 and they don't yet have a magical weapon, I'd suggest they find one soon, esteemed DM.

  1. If you cast Dispel Magic at the martial character, they still hit you with a sword, dagger, axe, staff. Multiple times. By that level, they typically have a magical sword or war hammer or axe or dagger: which means "there's no saving throw against steel" becomes a problem for the enemies.
    If one of your martial characters is a monk, stun lock for opponents of any size starts to become an issue, and a big benefit for the party.

  2. If you cast Dispel Magic on the polymorphed spellcaster, they may remain a dragon, or, they may turn back into a spell caster who is now down one 9th level spell slot. Chances are that Dispel Magic cast by CR 18+ monsters (which is who Lvl 17 PCs will often fight) will be cast at a high enough level to end the True Polymorph. It lasts until dispelled. If your goal is to intimidate a town full of mortals, that red dragon polymorph ought to work fine. But on the next encounter .... who are the party facing?

  3. Incapacitated spell casters can't maintain concentration. Medium to High CR monsters that can incapacitate a spell caster render concentration on True Polymorph moot (if the caster hasn't done the "concentrate for an hour" before anyone meets them in dragon form). Find any monster with the ability to Paralyze their foe (a Pit Fiend is one such, and from your comment a dracolich can paralyze them with a touch) and things can get interesting. There are some poisons that paralyze. There are some spells also ...
    Paralyzed

    • A paralyzed creature is incapacitated (see the condition) and can’t move or speak.

    Incapacitated

    • An incapacitated creature can’t take actions or reactions. (PHB, Appendix A)

    Which ends concentration

    The following factors can break concentration:{snip}
    • Being incapacitated or killed. You lose concentration on a spell if you are incapacitated or if you die. (Basic Rules, p. 84)

    The set of high-level monsters/NPCs that have Dispel Magic or an ability that can incapacitate is larger than the set that have Dispel Magic. (Thank you for that point in the comment, Vigil).

Monsters being faced by level 17 parties typically have a lot of magical powers and abilities, lair actions, and legendary saves. Make use of them.

  1. A Pit Fiend, CR 20, can cast Hold Monster (DC 21 Wisdom save) on an Adult Dragon.

    Choose a creature that you can see within range. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be paralyzed for the duration.

  2. For a funny example: Tasha's hideous laughter is a first-level spell that can incapacitate any creature with an Intelligence score of 5 or higher(on a failed save). As a DM you can really have fun with this - burn a few level 1 spells to test the use of Legendary Saves on the Adult Red Dragon? evil DM grin (Thanks @Louis Wasserman)

Pick the fights for parties of this level carefully. My suggestion to you is to have encounters always be a team of mixed opponents; bundle the various BBEGs with different kinds of slightly less powerful clusters of minions and / or allies.

Example: a Balor with a Marilith or two in support. (And if you use the MM variant, then can try to gate in some other demons for the fight).

FWIW, high level play is a little bit of a different animal since the opponents have so many powerful abilities in hand; the DM has a lot of options and choices on what to use.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answer! One thing that would improve an answer focused on monsters' ability to end the spell prematurely, and support the statement "Monsters being faced by level 17 parties typically have a lot of magical powers and abilities, lair actions, and legendary saves. Make use of them." is to mention an often-forgot clause of concentration; that it is broken when incapacitated. The set of high-level monsters that have Dispel Magic OR an ability that can incapacitate is larger than the set that have Dispel Magic. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil May 27 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vigil Coolness, and I think I ought to add one example. Need to think of a sweet and juicy one ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 27 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tasha's hideous laughter is a first-level spell that can incapacitate any creature with an Intelligence score of 5 or higher. \$\endgroup\$ – Louis Wasserman May 27 at 19:07
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It depends on the specific classes involved

High-level thieves get extra turns. Going first is a big deal, going first and second is a huge deal. They can also use some otherwise restricted magic items that can be extremely powerful-- for example a thief with a Tome of the Stilled Tongue can, with preparation and at most once per day, cast any spell as a bonus action instead of normal. So a thief might be able to cast True Polymorph except it's quickened, which is pretty clearly better than casting True Polymorph but it's not quickened-- it being quicken means the caster could use their first turn in a surprise round to cast the spell and turn into an adult red dragon and then fly over and fire breath the enemies and then take a second turn where they multiattack the surviving enemies. A druid, for example, would instead only be able to attack on their next turn after polymorphing.

High-level Fighters get extra actions. An adult red dragon may get 3 different very damaging melee attacks each round totalling 2d10+6d6+24 possible damage, but a 20th level Battle Master gets four attacks per action and can action surge to get two actions. That's 6d12+16d6+40 possible damage in one round if they decide to pour all their resources into a single fight. Furthermore, in addition to dealing more than twice as much damage, the Battle Master can apply all sorts of different effects on up to 6 of those hits. For example, they could attempt to push a Large or smaller creature up to 90 feet backwards with a longbow, in addition to that damage. And if they have a magic weapon or ability score increasing magic, that damage will be even higher.

High-level Zealots are nearly immortal. While an adult red dragon has quite a few hit-points, the Zealot has 0-ish hit points but "While you're raging, having 0 hit points doesn't knock you unconscious... if you would die due to failing death saving throws, you don't die until your rage ends, and you die then only if you still have 0 hit points." and "your rage is so fierce that it ends early only if you fall unconscious or if you choose to end it." This means only effects that specifically knock the target unconscious (like sleep for non-elves) or directly kill the target (like Power Word Kill) can kill a high-level Zealot. And even then, raising them from the dead is free. While they aren't super sticky, they do still do quite a bit of damage, and it's not like the Adult Red Dragon spellcaster is any stickier.

A 20th level Kensai does comparable average damage to the Red dragon, though not nearly as much as the Battle Master. Specifically, they do as much as 5d10+32, but they also have advantage on all 4 of their attacks, can reroll a miss, and have a higher attack bonus, so that actual average damage is a bit higher than it might look. Monks do struggle to keep up at high levels, in general, though.

If paladins and rangers count as martial characters, they can keep up pretty well as well (unless you are a Beast Master). The ranger does that in part via spells like Swift Quiver, while the Paladin does that mostly because their lower-level features can nova pretty well-- high levels of paladin don't add very much besides spell slots.

Now, while almost any class can keep up with an Adult Red Dragon sans legendary actions at 20th level, that doesn't mean that they can keep up with a spellcaster at 20th level. A 20th level Wizard can be just vastly more powerful in every way than a 20th level monk. Battle Master fighters and Thief rogues can keep up in combat, because Fighters do absurd amounts of damage at high levels and Battle Master maneuvers can apply many useful effects chosen for the situation sort of like spells while for the thief extra turns really are that good, but actual spellcasters have their own class features that make their abilities better than just casting True Polymorph generically.

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High level martials are not "better" in combat than high level full casters who have access to True Polymorph. 9th Level spells are game-changing, extremely powerful effects. It's likely a wizard would have it twice via a simulacrum.

Compare changing into an Adult White Dragon (72 damage breath weapon with a high Con save, 49 dpr physical attacks) versus Meteor Swarm (140 damage on failed saves in an 80 foot diameter) followed by assorted lower level blasting spells the next few turns. High level casters are quite deadly and will be much more deadly in short bursts than the martial characters in the party. The real purpose of the martial characters in the party is to protect the casters! I have never noticed a martial character who minded the enemy taking massive damage from the caster.

But I suggest that your player is under-playing their hand by saving it for themself. The best use of concentration on TP is using it on another player or casting it beforehand and making it permanent (subject to dispel magic, of course).

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