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I'm planning an adventure in which the antagonist is a schlubby first-level Rogue who has drawn the Knight card from the Deck of Many Things and is using his new, perfectly obedient fourth-level Fighter to keep a small village under his thumb. (The Deck is no longer in the vicinity, and I'm not planning to give it to my players, don't worry.) Ideally, I want the Rogue and his Fighter to be too much of a challenge to fight head-on, instead requiring the party to come up with a clever tactic to separate, trick, or get the jump on them.

The problem is that I've never been much of a power gamer, and in the past I've found that when the party outnumbers a more powerful opponent, the sheer number of actions the players get means that the big bad gets trampled before they have a chance to really do anything. So I need some help:

  • Making the right character-building decisions for the Fighter (and, secondarily, the Rogue), so that he is the most formidable opponent possible for a first level party. (I don't know the exact party composition, because this will be the first adventure in a new campaign, but I'm assuming a balanced party, something like a Rogue/Fighter/Cleric/Sorceror.)
  • Choosing combat tactics that will be maximize those character-building decisions (including terrain features that the duo might find advantageous)
  • Ideally, the Fighter alone should constitute a Deadly challenge, or at least a difficult one, even without the Rogue.
  • I'm open to using Fighter equivalents from the Monster Manual, but would prefer to stick to the letter of the Deck's description and use an actual level 4 Fighter.

I do not want suggestions that involve:

  • Supplementary books. I'm limiting my players to the core books, and I want to do the same.
  • Increasing the level of the Fighter. The Deck of Many Things says the Fighter is level 4, so he's level 4. I might consider increasing the Rogue's level if necessary, but not above 2.
  • Giving the Knight any broken magic gear (anything beyond Uncommon), because then I'd have to give it to the players once they defeat him.

Thank you!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you open to changing the stat blocks at all? 5e's standard approach to the action economy/boss monster problem is Legendary Actions (and, less precisely, Lair Actions), but it's not clear to me if that's an approach you're interested in. \$\endgroup\$
    – Upper_Case
    Jun 21, 2021 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Upper_Case I hadn't considered Legendary Actions, because it felt like overkill for this situation, but it does seem like it could be valid if more basic options fail. I'd love an answer that suggests some appropriate legendary actions, because I don't even know where to begin designing/balancing those. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Jun 21, 2021 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @tack a knight can parry to bring their AC up to 20 and can attack twice with a great sword. What is it that makes you think this doesn't make for an already formidable opponent? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2021 at 20:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Give your 4th lvl fighter two lvl 1-2 fighters as (hired) group leaders and each one a group of 10 lvl 0 henchmen (or lvl 1 fighters/rouges). That way fighting will be heavily discouraged. Your rouge essentially took over his band of mischiefs using this lvl 4 warrior and is now setting up himself as "baron" \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 20:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your problem is likely to be the opposite – how to prevent killing them. Make sure to roll hidden, so you can dial back any accidental crits or max damage which risks perma-killing squishy L1 players! \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jun 23, 2021 at 13:20

2 Answers 2

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It already is

First-level characters are squishy, and a Rogue with Surprise could single-handedly gank a caster on its first attack if it rolls well; 1d6 (eg, shortbow) + 1d6 Sneak Attack + Dex Mod (eg, 2) often sums to more health than a Sorceror possesses. The Fighter's burst damage depends on the exact build, but it's unlikely to do less damage than a first-level Rogue, especially with Action Surge.

Ranged Villain

My only firm opinion on the antagonist's build is that they focus on ranged combat rather than melee. Intelligent foes, which typically (but not always) includes players, will make short work of a low-level melee rogue, either through direct damage or crowd-control (eg, spells with Con saves). A ranged rogue still gets sneak attack on targets adjacent to its beefy minion with significantly less risk from melee damage-dealers.

Battle Master Fighter

In my experience, the best way to force players to be creative is to make them believe they're outclassed, regardless of whether that's mechanically true. There's a tricky balance between outright damage, versatility, and countering their tactics. Ideally, you want a Fighter who's dangerous on his own but also makes the Rogue more dangerous.

If you're just using the PHB, your fighter options are Battle Master, Eldritch Knight, and Champion:

  • Eldritch Knight is arguably the most versatile, which is both a pro and a con in this case. It's better able to deal with PC variety / shenanigans, but also means they'll have a harder time creatively dealing with it, since they won't know its spell list. Moreover, many of the damaging spells on the Eldritch Knight's spell list are in supplementary books, so you won't have as many options for overwhelming force, which therefore means players are less likely to feel outclassed.
  • Champion is both too binary at low levels and too dangerous. At level 1, a crit from a strong melee combatant has a good chance of killing them outright, which will make them feel outclassed, but also unlucky and resentful at having to immediately reroll.
  • Battle Master gets four maneuvers early on, and while they don't measure up to spells later, they're quite useful at-level and are especially strong against low-level characters.

The maneuvers I'd consider for the purposes of working with the Rogue are:

  • Bait and Switch: If the group manages to get close to the Rogue, the fighter can interpose itself and protect its comparatively-squishy boss. Alternatively, Maneuvering Attack, so the Fighter and Rogue don't necessarily have to be near each other.
  • Distracting Strike: I'd call this mandatory for Rogue-enabling. Advantage means guaranteed Sneak Attack (in case a desired target's initiative falls between the Fighter's and the Rogue's), which makes the Rogue more powerful and incentivizes the party to deal with them individually.
  • Feinting Attack: Advantage, which makes the Fighter scary individually, especially if it's picked up Great Weapon Master. Combine with Action Surge for more fear factor
  • Trip Attack / Pushing Attack / Menacing Attack / Grappling Strike: All serve the same purpose of battlefield control. Your selection can be tailored to their party composition.

Otherwise, you don't need anything special

A fourth-level Fighter has up to two feats, depending on race, and even with a standard array can easily reach a Str of 18. A +4 damage modifier and Great Weapon Master probably makes it too deadly; the +14 base damage is more than most players' max health at level 1.

I'd recommend the Protection or Two-Weapon Fighting fighting styles; the former helps the Fighter better shut down would-be assailants of the Rogue, and the latter allows it to be dangerous to multiple targets in a single round.

If you're looking for Uncommon magical items, I'd suggest something more utility-focused so you don't one-shot your players: Oil of Slipperiness (battlefield control), Eversmoking Bottle (battlefield control, defensive for Rogue), or even Dust of Disappearance (escape mechanism).

Tactics are critical... to avoid a TPK

It's hard to predict DPR without build knowledge, but the Fighter could easily one-shot a caster with a (un)lucky roll. With a two-handed weapon or a critical, a Barbarian or Paladin will also be down, either "for the count" or "for good".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer - I would say Eldritch knight could be a powerful option for fighting solo (the OP mentioned that ideally they'd have the fighter be a challenge on their own). At fourth level they have three spell slots - even if the only spell they use is shield (+5 to an already high AC) it would make them incredibly difficult to hit. High defense gives the party a chance to realise they're out of their depth without such a high risk of getting one-shot. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 11:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing that might be worth considering is that a melee attack can always be struck to knock out rather than kill. If the rogue and fighter aren't particularly interested in killing the intruders, they could just subdue the party and either send them running with their tail between their legs, or parade them around as a show of strength: "Look what happens to anyone who challenges our rule. Tell your masters we won't be so kind next time". If the party does tryto fight them head-on, it could be a good way to show them that more thoughtful tactics that "Hit them until dead" will be needed. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another option for making the fighter intimidating is to show the fighter defeating someone the party thinks is tough. Have the party arm wrestle, and lose, against a local guard, one who is a grizzled veteran, only to find out this guard lost to the antagonist fighter. This is a common trope in storytelling and can be effective in setting the stage before players even see the bad guys. Or comical, as is the case when you see how many times Worf has been owned in Star Trek \$\endgroup\$
    – Taejang
    Jun 22, 2021 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't need supplementary books to make the Eldritch Knight a nightmare. Just Action Surge and double Sleep will probably knock out the whole party, no saves. Double Burning Hands will drop any 1st level character in the cone unless they pass both saves and you roll poorly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jun 23, 2021 at 10:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tack Alert's not a bad idea, though Observant is a decent alternative. Personally, I would consider giving the Rogue one of these feats and have them visibly alert the Fighter. That way the Fighter isn't quite as much of a threat and relies upon the Rogue a bit, ideally inspiring the players to separate the two. "Alert" seems thematically fitting for a villain vs. a thug, too. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 24, 2021 at 22:08
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The least complicated way to do it (IMO), is to give the fighter two feats from the players handbook. One at level one for being human, the other at lv 4. Great weapon Master and Lucky Then pick the Defenssive Fighting style for a +1 to AC.

Give LV 1 (hopefully Human) rogue the feat: Sharpshooter

In practice this is what you are looking at.

Fighter: Att: 2d6 (Maul)+3 (strength) +10 (Great weapon master) Surge doubles that damage. and if you crit you can do it again as a bonus action. The fighter can also re-roll up to 3 misses, and/or saves.

Meanwhile the rogue can stay hidden, and use a Crossbow.
Att: 1d6(xbow) +3 (dex) +10 (sharpshooter) +1d6 Sneak

The minimum damage (15) of each attack shoud be enough to down a lv 1 character. So it will be very scary for the payers.

Note: in 5e you can choose knock out a creature once they are at zero hp. Knocking a creature out (p76 phb)

Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One-shotting on hits (without a big +hit bonus) is a huge random threat, but I think the question meant "deadly" in the encounter-rating sense, not "I'm trying to actually TPK, or at least kill a PC". This sounds deadly, but I'm not convinced it would be in a fun way. Especially getting to make a 2nd attack after a crit (in which case a PC might already be fully dead, not rolling death saves, from massive damage) is kicking the party while they're down. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 4:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ My thought was that the party of 4 would be taken out in one round.. But not killed. Just a demonstration of power. But I see your point. I was mostly going for uncomplicated and direct. Also in 5e you can just choose to do non lethal damage. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 4:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ While it is true that you can choose to knock someone out instead of killing them when you hit with a melee attack, we're talking about the villains of the story. Why, exactly, would they choose to knock the players out instead of just killing them? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevanantBacon A small-time crook with some hired muscle may not be all that interested in killing people - that might get the Crown/local nobility interested, after all - and will just rough people up enough to keep them cowed and controllable. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fixed most of your issues I think. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 22, 2021 at 14:14

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