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In Princes of the Apocalypse Ch. 6,

Oreioth, the necromancer and self-styled Lord of Lance Rock

has plenty of time and warning to prepare for his encounter with the party, along with the spells to do so:

Mage Armor and False Life at 3rd-level.

He is also in possession of a powerful magic item,

a Wand of Magic Missiles,

Which the adventure says he grabs before combat breaks out. He’s also alone, cornered, and clearly has no qualms about such evils as murder.

Furthermore, his stat block gives him the special ability to

Cast Animate Dead as a single action as long as he’s just killed someone.

Because he's alone with the PCs, this special ability can only practically be used on a PC.

Finally, the adventure explicitly states that the dungeon in which he appears should be handled while the characters are 1st-level, and the book states the whole campaign is designed for four PCs.

All of these things together seem to imply the designer’s intent is to have him use all (or all but one) charges of the magic item to instantly kill a PC and then use that special ability on his next turn.

However, my understanding of encounter design according to the Dungeon Master’s Guide is that this encounter would be Deadly without the magic item. After adding in the magic item’s ability to cause instant death and the fact that his special ability tips the action economy in his favor, the risk of a TPK rises greatly.

I’m second-guessing whether I’ve understood the intent of the designers here. Is this campaign really designed to make the instant death of a PC in the first dungeon a likelihood of the party ignored his repeated warnings to flee?

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No, he is not "supposed to", but it is possible

This is pretty explicitly stated, on p. 153 of the Adventure

The “Lord of Lance Rock” is Oreioth (see chapter 7), wild-eyed Tethyrian human with a bristly beard and a shaved head. If the characters moved through area L4 alerting him, they find Oreioth arranging and cleaning his tools on the tool bench. Otherwise, he watches warily from behind the four skeletons. In any case, if confronted, he shrinks from conflict and orders his skeletons to attack while he retreats into area L6.
The necromancer refers to himself in the third person and by his self-appointed title. He’s afraid of physical confrontation, but he pretends bravery when his pets shield him, saying, “Bow before the Lord of Lance Rock! Me! Behold my dark terrors!” He’s willing to magnanimously consider a surrender or offers of truce, as long as intruders leave the cave.

This says what he will do: shrink from conflict and retreat. Not: empty his wand of magic missile, and re-animate the killed character. This is not an encounter designed to kill and re-animate the characters, even if he could. Moreover, this pretty clearly points to the possibility of him not being aware of the characters, and being surprised.

So unless the players risk it by their behaviour, and press on, this is not designed to kill them. If they do, and you as the DM opt to have him use his resources in that way, he of course might. As a CR 2 threat with level 3 spells, and backup by a group of skeletons, this certainly could result in a TPK if all the characters are level 1.

While the original quest is meant for first level characters, it does not ask the group to fight the necromancer

Kaylessa believes an evil influence emanating from Lance Rock is the source of Red Larch’s troubles. She asks the characters, who should still be 1st level, to find out what’s going on. The characters discover that a necromancer who styles himself a “lord” is lurking in a cave near the landmark.

Nothing there says they need to combat him. They only need to learn what is going on. That is exactly how the encounter is set up: he tells them he is the Lord of Lance Rock, and that the undead are his making, and then he allows them to surrender and leave.

However, they may opt to come back later, when they are more powerful, and set things right. In particular if the group confronts him when they are all level 2 or 3, then the special ability may give him a little more staying power.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know why this was downvoted either (besides this being a very subjective question and people perhaps just expressing their disagreement with downvotes), but it seems to me that none of the answers so far have addressed what seems like a central part of the question to me: Why would Oreioth have his special ability if he wasn't expected to use it? Without an explanation of that, I don't really feel like upvoting any of the answers, either. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2023 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ As I noted on Thomas's answer as well, while the core of chapter 6 is for levels 1-3, the specific adventure that features Oreioth is explicitly introduced as being for level 1 specifically, and they're expected to level up to level 2 immediately afterwards. This can't be excused with "but maybe they're level 2 or 3", because the text very clearly says they should still be first level for that part of the adventure. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2023 at 21:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger Yes I saw that. I added something to explictly address it. I think the point is that the lv 1 group is actually not expected to fight him \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2023 at 22:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ "the lv 1 group is actually not expected to fight him": this can be inferred also from the description of the necromancer's actions if he is in the study (area L6): "He reacts only if attacked or if someone approaches the floating sigyl". \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Dec 6, 2023 at 22:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Swift Animation ability can only be used when a humanoid is killed, it would not work if one of his undead is smashed. \$\endgroup\$
    – smbailey
    Dec 6, 2023 at 23:41
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I doubt the author of the encounter considered the possibility of him upcasting Magic Missile to do maximum damage and cause a single insta-kill with little or no chance of defense on round 1 (I agree it's a problem if he does; with an average of 31.5 damage from blowing all the charges on a single shot, it's >50% likely to instakill even a Con 16 Barbarian; ironically, the party's weakling Wizard or Sorcerer with Shield is far safer here). It's absolutely a thing he could do, but upcasting is often overlooked. I suspect the author just wanted to be sure he didn't run out of offensive spells, there's no suggestion he uses it like an instakill cannon as a matter of course.

Beyond that out-of-universe explanation, it doesn't seem to fit with his characterization. The character in question is characterized as a mixture of distractible and cruel:

He was cruel almost from the time he could talk, catching small creatures and killing them in hideously inventive ways to savor the power of life and death.

That doesn't strike me as someone who kills quickly and efficiently, he wants his victims to suffer, and using the Wand of Magic Missiles to kill them instantly directly contradicts that aim.

Beyond that, he's clearly characterized as cowardly, shrinking from physical confrontation, and only fighting if attacked, or his driftglobe is approached, even accepting a truce offering if they agree to leave the cave. The fight is wholly optional, and while tough, almost certainly not intended to be run by a DM who optimizes their strategy to kill the party most efficiently.

As for why he has the ability? If he does manage to kill a character "the normal way", it's a horrifying thing for him to be able to do. If he survives (e.g. because the characters avoid the almost designed-to-be-avoided encounter), and becomes a recurring villain, it's a nasty surprise for later. It doesn't even have to be a combat when it happens; the characters who let him go can witness him idly murder and animate a peasant in a fit of pique weeks later, and be exposed to the consequences of their failure to stop him. I can't speak to what the exact reasoning for giving him an ability that you shouldn't plan on using against the PCs is, but I'm not going to assume that the adventure expects the DM to kill a PC like a redshirt, just to prove the situation is serious.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not sure why someone downvoted this, seems pretty reasonable, +1. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2023 at 21:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin: Apparently multiple people. shrugs I've got thick skin, I can handle it, but I would be curious to know what could be improved. I rarely downvote answers here unless they're flagrantly wrong (and no, missing the easily missable bit where the adventure specifies this is strictly a level 1 encounter like you and Thomas did is not wrong enough to earn one). Somebody really wants to downvote all the things here today it seems. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 6, 2023 at 22:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note, it's likely each missile is a distinct source of damage, so if the first 6 missiles take your HP to 0, the last 3 missiles would each be death saving throw failures. If this is the case, it seems even more likely that your Barbarian is going down. \$\endgroup\$
    – smbailey
    Dec 6, 2023 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @smbailey: Eew, that's pretty awful. Not sure I like a spell that low level being the most effective way to ensure someone stays dead... But yeah, apparently the toughest party member will be the weedy Sorcerer/Wizard. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 7, 2023 at 2:06
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At the very least, we can observe that such adventure design would be inconsistent with the game’s fundamental philosophy as described in the introduction of the Dungeon Master’s Guide:

your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more!

An adventure encounter designed to kill a player character would be in direct opposition to the game’s fundamental design, so that casts significant doubt on the proposition that this encounter was designed that way. In the absence of more specific guidance stating otherwise, we can assume that the game's general design isn't being contravened here (see also specific-beats-general)1.


1 General rules hold unless contradicted by a more specific rule: "This compendium contains rules that govern how the game plays. That said, many racial traits, class features, spells, magic items, monster abilities, and other game elements break the general rules in some way, creating an exception to how the rest of the game works. Remember this: If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins."

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Monsters don't know D&D's combat mechanics.

This includes necromancers. A cowardly necromancer isn't going to be a combat tactician. They will have orders of magnitude less simulated combat experience than most TTRPG players. They don't know that lethal spells become non-lethal when used against heroic PCs.

Each missile in a wand of magic missiles is possibly lethal. Throwing a maximum strength burst of such missiles at one human target is insane overkill! Imagine having a submachine gun with magical seeking bullets and one clip, facing 4 foes, and choosing to empty the clip into one and only one of them.

What more, you know of a spell (shield) that nullifies such an attack if fired as one burst, but only lasts for a few seconds. If you empty a wand at such a target, they can counter the attack and your wand is now useless.

Now, it also happens to be tactically optimal in 5e D&D against a level appropriate foe and a great use of action economy to use such a spell to drop a single low level fighter type.

But you don't have to have monsters using D&D combat mechanics to make fights interesting.

Have monsters roleplay combat

This is a cowardly non combatant with necromatic magical abilities. He'll use undead to cover his escape, blast at the nearest foe (unless said foe is locked down by his undead, in which case he might go after a different threat).

Any attack that does damage is an attack that attempts to kill the target. While D&D has an attrition based HP model, Monsters shouldn't be aware of it. Failure to kill means you didn't get a solid hit in - a matter of luck, not attrition - except against foes with insanely more HP than your damage output.

The wand would probably first be used to spray foes with 1-2 missiles each, along with a threat to surrender. Against non-PCs that would plausibly kill more than one of them! But PCs are tougher than that, unexpectedly. The low HP of the PCs might then encourage them to stop hostilities however (which ... is a win as far as the necromancer is concerned).

Once a target proves difficult to drop and threatening, doing the equivalent of "emptying a magazine" (the wand) is plausible.

As the DM, you control how hard a fight is

The stats, number of foes, and what creatures there are is completely under your control.

Running creatures optimally under 5e mechanics is definitely not required to make challenging fights. You are fully free to treat combat as a roleplaying opportunity instead of a tactical puzzle. Do so, and tell a story in combat!

Your players are free to do optimal tactics or not.

You can even go a step further, and intentionally trigger PC abilities. Trigger opportunity attacks, move through auras, group a modest number of monsters up into "fireball formation", have monsters advance adjacent to each other, etc.

If you want the fight to be harder, after all, you can just throw 3 more monsters into the mix.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interestingly, roleplaying the monster like this seems to increase the chance of a TPK over having them instantly kill one PC on their first turn, and then spend their second turn reviving them. Two magic missiles at each of four party members (a 6th-level wand cast) when they've likely already been in an encounter or two since their last rest has a reasonable chance of knocking out at least two, maybe all four, characters. Add to that the RP-based follow up of a 3rd-level wizard cast based on "If the first volley didn't down them, the second surely will!" and that's almost certainly a TPK. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kerrick
    Dec 7, 2023 at 20:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kerrick I'd expect him to fire 1 missile at each target while fleeing rather than burning most of the wand's charge on a single action (so, 2 charges). Against non-heroic foes (like commoners) that would result in at least some dead commoners. Remember, little to no real combat experience. The zombies/skeletons would also engage. And he'd flee, continuing to use a spell or a volley of magic missiles if there is pursuit. If a melee type manages to engage and beat down, then I'd have the necromancer EMPTY the wand (or use some other powerful spell in panic) and continue to flee. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Dec 7, 2023 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's nowhere to flee to. The encounter with the magic item can only happen after he warned the party to leave, after he loosed his minions on the party and used the distraction to flee, after the party followed him into his inner sanctum where he was hiding behind the curtains, and only after they provoke him once again. He's cornered, he already tried scaring, fleeing, and/or negotiating. He's a crazed cornered animal at this point. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kerrick
    Dec 8, 2023 at 0:48

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