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In a game I am a part of there is a player who considers themself a necromancer. They are fully specced and invested around the spell "Animate Dead". They are very effective and efficient at keeping track of, and controlling their minions, often taking a minute or few for their full turn with 7 fielded minions, each with multiple attacks. The problem is that they are really really powerful. Their control/raise limit is well over what it should be for their level (+9 from a mixture of class abilities and feats/traits that raise CL.) This means they have been able to raise anything that we have come across as at least a bloody skeleton, even adding extra template via use of desecrate. They also pair this with an elevated CL Command undead spell, giving them a large swath of minions to use that are hard to permanently kill.

The setting of the campaign has been the deep darklands, and while we are only level 7, they have given raise to 15HD bloody Fiery skeletons. Needless to say, these outperform any martial at the same level.

The party is a small group, with 1 other consistent player who is a Rogue/Arcane trickster, (about as well optimized as they can be with a couple boons to make them stronger) and then a guest player every now and then who is less important and not consistent. As a GM it is getting hard to balance encounters because as the opponents scale up, the party does as well, but the characters do not gain extra capability. No one in the party is upset at the level of power they have, as they generally tend to do different rolls then meat-bag front-line. However they still like to feel useful in combat, and if enemies are too scaled up, they can't hurt them easily.

The challenge is providing something that can be a threat to creatures of that capability, while still proving to be a threat to the rest of the party. I'm not looking to nerf them unless absolutely necessary. The necromancer has his body hidden inside the skeleton of a large creature, strapped, secured, and hidden, while using shadow projection to command and be safer on the battlefield. AOEs can threaten his body, but it's hard to justify direct targeting of his body over the skeleton it resides in, which is also quite mobile. Keep in mind, that the necromancer can raise pretty much anything, so after every encounter, they can potentially get stronger, and can at this point raise (7+5CL x2 = 24 + 2 from alchemical salt x2 from desecrate = 52) a 26 HD creature as a bloody skeleton, or a 17 HD creature as a bloody flaming (or elemental) skeleton. This is at level 7.

I would like if possible, to hinder the necromancer in a natural way, or threaten their creatures without giving him fodder for new and stronger creatures all the time. How can I limit his growth?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wait. Are there rules for hollowing out undead creatures and riding around in them like they're tanks? Or is this something you had to homebrew? And you've already ruled that giving the necromancer's shadow "independent life and movement as if it were an undead shadow" a la the spell shadow projection means that the necromancer can somehow still speak, correct? (In 3.5, for instance, "Shadows cannot speak intelligibly" (MM 221). Maybe Pathfinder changed this?) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 15 at 16:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is ambiguous in pathfinder, and we have previously encountered ones that can speak. So in our setting they can speak. There are no rules for hollowing out creatures. We assumed it is similar to riding a mounted creature and treat it as such, with the "saddle" being what he is strapped to inside. The GM actually perferred this as this made it easier to incap the necro, without sending the minions into a killing spree because the necro died and then the party wipes. \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 15 at 16:44
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So... your problem can be approached from a few different directions.

Not giving him more:

  • Skeletons are only made stronger by racial hit dice, rather than class hit dice. If you want to throw a challenge at the party without powering the necromancer up further, make sure that your more powerful foes are PC races with appropriate numbers of class levels.
  • Skeletons can only be made from non-undead things with bones, and even then only things with corpses that stick around. There are plenty of potential foes even in the darklands that don't fit that bill.

Depriving him of what he has:

  • Space and mobility. He's dragging around as much as a small army of undead, at least one of which is large enough to carry and effectively conceal his entire body It's going to be a real hassle to try to fit those down cramped corridors, especially if you're on a time limit, especially if the process of moving from one place to another requires somewhat complicated squirming... or swimming.
  • Physical separation. If one or more of the undead in question fall to the bottom of a ravine (perhaps because they failed an important skill check) and there simply isn't time to go down and get them, then it doesn't matter if they have the kind of fast healing that would let them stand up again afterwards. Similarly, if the party can be made to flee after some of the skeletons have been knocked out of the fight, those are skeletons that they may not see again.
  • Evil clerics with the Command Undead feat and/or casters with the Control Undead spell could try to steal his undead from him. After all, he's made such a beautiful army - why wouldn't they want it for themselves?
  • Socially Acceptable Behavior: there are going to be a lot of situations where walking around with a pack of skeletons who are covered in blood and also on fire is going to be... disapproved-of. In order to go into those places and interact in a largely non-hostile form, they're going to have to leave the skeletons behind somewhere.
  • Technically, someone could be smuggling in holy water for situations much like this. The inhabitants of the darklands are at least going to be aware that "undead who can't be destroyed, other than by the power of Good" are a thing.
  • Houserule: I wouldn't normally say this in cases like this, but the fact is that the thing that's supposed to be balancing for bloody skeletons is that they're still vulnerable to all of the traditional focused anti-undead threats. You're playing in Darklands, which is effectively a houserule saying that those threats don't exist. It seems entirely reasonable to then say that you're pivoting the Bloody Skeleton vulnerability to something that's likewise uncommon, but only as uncommon as the original form was supposed to be - like the traditional "fire or acid" of the trolls, or something similar.

Powering up his friends:

  • He's gone all-in on the minion necro thing, to the point that he hides inside an undead mount and tries not to let people know he's in there. That means that any magical items that aren't focused around cranking his ability to create and control undead don't do a lot to increase his overall strength, while they still do all of the standard things at buffing up his friends.

Now, the trick is how to do it in a reasonable way. As far as this guy is concerned, this is his Cool Thing. He wants to be a necromancer with an amazing unstoppable army of minion skeletons... and he's been quite successful at that. He's been too successful at that, but you don't want to take it straight from "too successful" to "utter failure" by DM fiat or Rocks Fall All Die or whatever. You're going to want to be somewhat moderate about it, and talk it over with them. Explain how, hey it was a fun run in some ways, but it's warping the game to a degree that you can't manage, and your'e going to be making some adjustments accordingly. Talk about any houserule changes at this time. Give them a few encounters here and there where the army (or most of it) is forced to stay behind, for whatever reason. Give them an adventure or two that contains plausible threats that might cause them to lose one or more of their skeletons entirely. (Don't just fiat-kill them, but reintroduce a level of actual risk.) Limit the number of enemies that you throw at them that have large numbers of hit dice, bones, and bodies that don't vanish. If they want to go get more skeletons, they can go hunt something that has an appropriate skeleton, but make it something that they have to go a bit out of their way to do. Tweak things along those lines a bit, and you can get to point that's a bit easier to manage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, everyone is and was having fun, however the speed at which the necro is scaling was getting out of hand. This has a lot of good suggestions, I especially like the skill challenge option as they have 0 skill bonus, and it presents a challenge that can also require out of the box thinking which I generally like (personally) \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 16 at 18:01
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The simplest answer to this problem is to present challenges (social, economic, asymmetric, logistical, logical, intuitive, academic, pathfinding) that cannot be solved by skeletons.

A perhaps even simpler answer is to simply state your problem to the players, and have them come to some solution to solve it from both sides of the table (such as by reducing the necromancer's power level, either out-of-game or by some story event).

However if you want combat encounters that can challenge the necromancer without doing either of those things, you probably want to look at;

Assassination

Enemies with Rogue class levels or other abilities would probably aim for the necromancer's soft wibbly flesh bits rather than his minions. After their base is destroyed by the necromancer's overwhelming power, they attack in the night to poison him while he sleeps (or some such). This is a type of attack that challenges the necromancer while allowing other characters to shine (such as by detecting or foiling the attack). It's also a very natural thing to happen, as the necromancer is the clear point of weakness in his horde. Focusing on disabling the necromancer first also makes perfect sense, as if the necromancer is able to command his horde, the rogue(s) will all die very quickly unless they can escape.

For extra points, try to have the rogues escape if their attempt fails, and have them (an organization, for preference) be a recurring villain as they attempt additional means of killing off the necromancer (have the PCs find out that they consider him the main threat and can 'easily' mop up the other PCs when the necro is dead - ideally use this to motivate the other PCs to show they aren't small fry, and foil/kill the enemy assassins) such as poisoning supplies, sneaking their way into the camp inside loot objects (such as art statues or something), long range sniping, so on.

Wards

There are spells that specifically stop kinds of things from entering areas, or that target kinds of things. Enemies might have access to such things and choose to use them against the undead. The party is like 90% undeads, and only 10% living beings, after all. Feel free to have new kinds of spells available to NPC spellcasters - as the GM you are encouraged to invent new kinds of spells, monsters, magic items, or other things to populate your world.

Two Fights

the Order of the Red Vanguard's Sentinel Golems are flooding in through the entryway and are no joke, they hit hard enough to crumple steel. The Necromancer is holding them off while the party hits the lab technicians (led by Gaer Sorras himself) to grab the heart of the mountain before they manage to use it as a power source for their Worldeater, a juggernaught humanoid-shaped machine they plan to conquer Daevenar with.

If the Necromancer goes for the Heart and the party mostly goes to hold back the Sentinels, Gaer Sorras pulls his Tchotchke Armour from an extradimensional space directly onto his body and becomes untouchable by any physical means while able to reach through flesh and bone and pull out chunks of your insides, while the sentinels attacks are powerful but kinda clumsy and dextrous and small player characters can often dodge them while cutting through the exposed tubing to disable the machines.

If the necromancer's minions and the party split equally both ways, you get Four Fights - the necromancer's huge skeletons struggle to hold the sentinels off while player characters cut the tubing and aim for the controllers behind them, and Gaer Sorras pulls on his tchotchke armour while his minions desperately try to connect the heart of the mountain and need someone to stop them while the skeletons hold off Sorras.

If the sides switch, it can get a bit problematic as you've already established that one is strong and one is weaker, but you can do things like have Gaer Sorras turn and grab the heart of the mountain, muttering an incantation in ancient Voldian that causes him to start to levitate and glow, clearly getting stronger although probably at some horrible cost etc, and the Sentinels burst into the room forcing their controllers to move forward to stay in range, a range at which they are suddenly vulnerable to being flank and cut down (stopping the sentinels dead). Etc.

Basically you use description and stuff to make it clear there are two objectives in many fights. That need to be attended to at the same time, not one by one. So the party needs to split, and this gives way more opportunity for player characters to have Very Necessary Jobs that can't just be palmed off on the skeletons. As the skeletons split to handle more jobs etc you just create more situations that need to be attended to and force the party to handle it.

Give The Skeletons Less Screen Time

If the skeletons will roll an encounter, you turn it from an encounter into a description. 'Your skeletons rip apart the Chaos Hounds with little problem'. If the skeletons are fighting the sentinels, and the PCs are fighting Gaer Sorras, you don't give the skeletons any turns, you just tell the necromancer how much damage they take after rolling some dice and give him a rough countdown for when they will be overwhelmed and the sentinels will flood the room. Refocusing the narrative onto the PCs every time and making sure the necromancer and his minions only get about the same amount of 'screen time' as the other PCs do individually will naturally remove focus from their overpowering strength.


You can 'solve' this problem other ways, by limiting the necromancer's power, bringing enemies that kill off all skeletons while not being useful if raised from the dead themselves (class leveled guys, clerics etc), having the necromancer not be useful in fights in various ways (space too small for Gargantuan sized skeletons to enter) etc, but that's a fairly limited solution that restricts your palate at the same time as lowering the ability for the necromancer to interact with the game.

My 'assassination' and 'wards' solutions are similar to this, but allow a significant degree of 'being played around' that can use the rest of the party's skills to allow the necromancer's skeletons back into the game - at which point they stomp the enemy. You can make solutions like this work but you have to work in both ways for the necromancer to still be part of the story in the way he wants to be, for the best solution.

The best way to solve it I put at the very top of my answer - talking to people, finding a consensus solution (even one where you just de-emphasize combat and have the skeletons performing off-screen mayhem while the players J'accuse! on the main villain with legal documentation). You can make it less of a problem in a lot of ways, but in general in dnd any time you're being creative you're going to result in a funner time for everyone than simply trying to beatstick the problem to death with bigger numbers. Numbers lose their shine after a while, but fun storytelling rarely does.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like a lot of these suggestions! The assassination one seems harder as like I said in my answer, the necromancer tries to stay hidden and just use a shadow projection to command. Also if the necromancer dies all the skeletons go wild and kill everything anyway, including the assassin. \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 17 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erudaki this doesn't require a huge amount of creative thinking. If the necromancer never leaves his armoured whatever, have the assassins bring an armour-piercing spear with a head loaded with gas poison that they shove in through the ribcage and trigger the poison release. Or poison his food. Or teleport the whole undead (with necromancer inside) to the bottom of a lake (where the necromancer drowns unless his home is airtight). There's lotsa ways for a prepared assassin to take out this guy. And once he's dead, they should have an escape route. Invisibility potion, say. \$\endgroup\$ – user2754 Mar 17 at 14:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Kudos for suggesting reducing screen time that the skelly dudes get. It's a very potent method of 1) Letting the necromancer keep his Cool Thing 2) Reducing the load that necrominions have on the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Mar 18 at 13:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ The only major downside of the reduced screen time is accounting for buffs that the necromancer can throw on his minions. IE bolster undead, unliving rage, etc. Which could always be redirected to a "main" undead that participates in the fight for him. The minions are pretty much "him" and screentime hasnt been an issue yet, but it could be if he continues to grow numbers. Good tip. \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 18 at 17:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Adjusting your encounters to achieve a preferred encounter state (like "I adjust which enemies are attacking where so that the skeletons aren't directly part of the fight the PCs are in") is the sort of thing that your players will start to see through after not too terribly long... and it poisons the game. Really, any time that you offer something that looks like a choice but then fiddle things around behind the DM screen so that their choice doesn't matter after all does this. This is especially the case when you're doing it to neutralize a PC's Cool Thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Mar 18 at 18:42
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Have them face a few encounters against enemies that tend to specialize in dealing with undead such as paladins and good clerics (who manage to get away)(rangers with instant enemy spell, inquisitors with bane and greater bane) but are not specifically built against the PC's undead (they just happen to be really effective), or against some enemies that do not leave bodies like elementals. This should remove some of the undead.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ See the campaign setting. Paladins and clerics are not super common in the darklands. Evil clerics maybe, but they will not have an anti-undead channel energy. Elementals may work, but can only be done so much. They also cant permanently kill bloody skeletons. Do you have a way to do these sorts of things more naturally in the setting? \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 16 at 13:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erudaki Good point, I had forgotten that bloody skeletons eventually reformed after being destroyed unless destroyed in a specific method. Also, know nothing about the darklands. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Mar 16 at 15:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ everything down there is evil. its home to drow and duergar and lots of other evil things. \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 16 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Erudaki I was going to suggest bleed damage from a source like the wounding weapon property, but undead are immune to bleed. Is there another way that you could deal them greater damage than their fast healing so when it looks like they would recover, the ongoing damage just destroys them again? Until the necromancer figures out whats happening and stops it. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Mar 16 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Im not quite sure what you mean. Wouldnt any dots (barring gm fiat) go away when the skeleton dies and reforms? Wouldnt that also start to make the necromancer the center of attention as he tries to remove this curse-like-effect? The fast healing usually isnt a problem. Its the ever growing size of his army. He could theoretically raise 7+9 = 16x4 64HD worth of undead in his animate dead pool, then 11 HD of undead with his Command undead feat, 7 with his Corpse Companion class ability, then if he devotes 1 spell/day to command undead spell, he can add an additional 16 undead of any HD. \$\endgroup\$ – Erudaki Mar 16 at 17:32

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