This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy Two on 7 July 2021.
Lennon: Okay, so I’ve called everyone together to discuss protocol.
Ryu: Stop worrying; I donate all of your gold to charity.
Ostron: I don’t think a Gold Fund Me titled “Ryu needs a dragon” counts as charity.
Ryu: I have a totally legitimate parchment from the local king saying it does.
Lennon (legitimately confused): Not what we’re talking about. I just…I don’t know I just have this nagging sense that if we get a dangerously powerful artifact in here we need to have a plan for how to deal with it.
Ostron: I’m on board with this.
Ryu: No, I’m still confused. What kind of dangerous artifacts are we talking about?
Okay, so most veteran DMs have dealt with this scenario before: somehow, some way, the players have acquired an item or ability that has turned the power curve into a vertical wall. Whether they defeated an enemy well before they should have and took their stuff, or you approved a piece of homebrew without reading the fine print, the practical result is they’re now walking up to groups of enemies going “This is my boomstick” and it’s not even worth rolling initiative anymore. Or you’re sending hoards of minions to attack them and they’re just standing there with their hand out saying “No.” Either way, most of the encounters are over much sooner than intended and take up far fewer resources of the characters than you’d planned on. So what to do?
The biggest thing to remember is that much like when you’re having trouble steering your car, when you find yourself bleeding a lot, or when someone mentions a campaign setting with spaceships and crystal spheres, try not to panic. Obviously you’re not going to sit at the gaming table and start screaming and running around frantically (I mean, if you really want to, we’d recommend at the very least put yourself on mute or step out of the room), but you want to avoid knee-jerk reactions that will frustrate yourself, the players, or both.
The first thing to do is determine how exactly the balance of power is being messed up, and whether it should be happening. Review the rules for the item or ability yourself and determine if it’s being used correctly. There are numerous examples of people misinterpreting or misreading the rules for even low powered spells and abilities, sometimes as a larger community. It’s possible a similar misunderstanding is going on and causing the imbalance in power. If so, that’s an easy fix; just clarify the rules for everyone and move on.
But let’s say you look over the rules and determine that, yes, the players have actually acquired an infinity stone and are using it just as intended. From here you have a couple of options.
The easiest option is the mea culpa. Explain to the players that the item or ability they’re using is way more powerful than you’d accounted for, and it’s seriously skewing the way encounters are supposed to go. Then you offer some alternatives.
We want to stress here that the best approach is offering alternatives, not declaring what’s going to happen. Most players don’t like being railroaded through a story by their DM, and they’ll like it even less if you just jump in and do something by fiat that contradicts whatever they’ve accomplished by playing through the game. Giving them options should make the whole process smoother.
So on to the actual alternatives. We’re going to call the offending thing an “item” going forward but it would also apply to an ability or even a custom class. The most common options are removing the item, de-powering it, or running with it. We’ll tackle them in order.
If all of the players agree with you that the item is ruining the balance and they don’t want to continue with it in play, then everyone can just agree that it suddenly disintegrated, a literal god showed up and said “Thank you, I’ve been wondering what happened to my toothbrush” and made off with it, or it turned out to be sentient and wandered off on its own (see, Gollum and the One Ring). The details of the story are yours to make up, and would obviously be different if it were a class or ability, as well as whether there are hooks that might see it return later in the campaign. Either way, the practical result is the offending thing is no longer in the game.
The next option is de-powering the item. This is harder to do and requires that the DM and possibly the player be comfortable with tweaking game mechanics and rules. If you’re the type of person that homebrews things for your own games, this might be the way to go.
The details here will obviously vary widely but the point is to examine the rules of the item or ability, and then adjust them so it’s no longer as powerful. For example, if an item is doing 5d10 damage on a hit, maybe take 3d10 of that damage and have it only apply on a critical hit. Or if an ability the character’s using is basically at will, change it to only be useable once until after a short or long rest.
As mentioned the actual solution will be heavily dependent on what’s causing the problem, and will probably require some tweaking over time, particularly if you’re dealing with something like a custom class where new and possibly unbalancing abilities will be appearing every few levels.
A similar but slightly different approach is to make the item cursed. With cursing, it retains all of its power but there’s a tradeoff the character or characters using it will have to endure. It may be slightly easier to find some workable rules for something like this; there are a number of cursed magic items and just plain curses for non-item situations that you can pull out of a variety of sourcebooks. Unfortunately you’re still essentially playing with custom rules, even if you aren’t making them up out of nothing, so some trial and error may still be needed. If the effects are very powerful, you can’t just pull a similarly powered curse out for them because it will probably destroy the character in question rather than just make things punishing or difficult. Trust me, I know all about finding a balance with cursed items.
Now the two alternatives we just mentioned involve engaging with the players and confronting the issue head-on, trying to find some sort of compromise. But if your players seem really committed to using whatever is causing all your headaches, or if you’re trying to maintain your “infallible DM” mythos and don’t want to admit you handed three year olds a black credit card, you have to run with it.
If you go that route, you have to accept that your original campaign idea probably has to be heavily reworked, if not scrapped completely. Most campaigns are designed taking the progression of player power into account and when that is disturbed, the pacing and tone of the campaign changes drastically. Take Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Slight spoiler here, but let’s assume the characters are dealing with the Cassalanter family. If they have the ability to blow up the mansion before anyone in Waterdeep can do anything, the last part of the campaign is going to be very different from how the book intended. And if Ascerack is the only thing in the Tomb of Annihilation that’s going to be any more than a speed bump for them, they’re going to make it through that dungeon a lot faster.
Probably the easiest thing to do if the characters decide to keep the item or ability of extreme power is make that the focus of the campaign. As we’ve already indicated, it’s likely the original focus of the campaign is going to be within their reach a lot sooner than originally planned, so while they’re wrapping that up and enjoying steamrolling the enemies and obstacles in the way, you can begin to shift the focus of the rest of the campaign onto the source of their power.
Remember how we mentioned an infinity stone and the One Ring earlier? If you recall the movies or original source material for those items, they did exactly the same thing most of the time; whatever the heroes were originally doing got a lot easier once the powerful artifact came into play. Then after they had finished their original quest, suddenly everyone started asking questions about the artifact and started hunting it down. Captain America went from dealing with souped-up Nazis to a Chitauri invasion. Bilbo helped some dwarves get rid of a dragon, then his nephew has to deal with Nazgul and Sauron.
The point is, the ultra powerful whatever it is will attract attention, and the people interested in it are likely to be powerful enough to partially challenge or at least mitigate whatever the ultra-powerful thing is. Returning to the Waterdeep example, if the characters suddenly start nuking buildings they’re going to immediately attract the attention of the magisters, if not the Blackstaff directly. Having the premier magic user in Waterdeep and their minions after the party is very different from dealing with some thugs in the alleys.
This is where examining the rules of the powerful item or ability can come in handy again. Almost everything in D&D is going to have a weakness of some sort, or leave a vulnerability. If they’re getting more AC, they may be vulnerable to attacks requiring saving throws, or vice versa. If they have a powerful melee weapon, it does nothing if they’re being bombarded at range.
If for some reason the result is that they’re universally capable, start going after the rest of the party, or separate the massively powerful character somehow. This is a very common storytelling device, particularly in superhero movies; Thor and Scarlet Witch, arguably some of the strongest superheroes in the MCU at the time, were kept out of the massive Infinity War battle until the very end. Captain Marvel didn’t show up in Endgame until near the end either. Gandalf wasn’t at Rohan until they needed to wrap up the battle, and whenever Daenerys had issues with combat in Game of Thrones it was because the dragons were sidelined or too young to fight yet.
One important thing to remember in that scenario, however, is make sure you aren’t wholesale preventing the powerful ability or character from doing anything. As we already mentioned, totally removing the character’s abilities or item is usually not appreciated. Sectioning them off with an enemy or situation that challenges them specifically allows them to still use their power or powers without messing up the encounter for the rest of the party.
If that’s too hard to finagle, another option is to follow the pattern of the wild magic sorcerer. Lock the ability or item down and have the power spikes be random, or limited somehow beyond what they normally would be. This is similar to the curse solution but should be a little easier to manage because you aren’t changing the rules, just limiting how often they apply. So you can give it charges like a wand, or you can make certain aspects only trigger when they roll a crit, or some other random number for an attack. Then loosen the restrictions as the characters level up to the point where the item isn’t as universally unbalancing. In either case they still have access to the power in general, just not whenever they like. Gaining more control of it can also be a focus or a running theme as the campaign goes forward.
One other cautionary note; while the power or item becomes the focus of the campaign in this scenario, you’ll want to watch to make sure people aren’t resenting that, particularly if it’s focusing on one character. The character’s importance to events shouldn’t overshadow everyone else’s story. Frodo had the ring, but we still followed Gandalf’s evolution to a white wizard, Aragorn’s whole king thing, and the Legolas/Gimli bromance. While big scary people may be after whoever has the fantasy nuclear football, other characters should be just as involved. Maybe someone knows a person that might know more about the artifact, or has connections with a group that can help them hide from attention.
As we mentioned previously, implementing this solution by far involves the most work for you as the DM. if that sort of thing sounds interesting and exciting for you, then have at it. Otherwise you may want to explore one of the other options around limiting or removing the item all together.
Finally, just a brief note on preventive measures. Unfortunately with magic items no longer being explicitly leveled, and with bounded accuracy making levels of monsters and abilities less of a factor, it’s harder to tell when an item or a class feature is going to be disruptive unless you have a lot of experience with either fifth edition rules or game design in general. Some basic recommendations are that you should avoid handing out legendary magic items or anything that provides static bonuses to attacks, AC, or saving throws more than +1 until characters are closing in on level 10. Also be wary of things that grant unrestricted advantage on any combat related activities.
As far as classes and abilities go, compare any homebrews with existing, official classes. So far in 5e WotC has done a reasonable job making classes balanced within themselves, so look at what the class is capable of doing at various milestones vs others. If at level four they have more health than a barbarian, can outcast the wizard, or out-damage the rogue without needing sneak attack, you’ll probably want to pump the brakes on putting it in the game.
But if something does sneak it’s way in, hopefully the rest of the advice we mentioned will help you deal with it.
Lennon: So wait, you said you had a lot of experience with cursed items?
Ryu: Um, obviously.
Lennon: But…Ostron’s the one fiddling with all the magic items in the workshop all the time. When do you have to deal with cursed items?
Killer DM (heavily sarcastic): Well, Lennon, I’m so glad you asked. While you ponder that question, I need you to stand in the corner and be very still.
Lennon: Hah! I’m a Warlock now, I can make Wisdom saves …
Lennon (through clenched teeth): …but not against you.
Killer DM (with saccharine anger): Meanwhile…Mr. Dialysis?
Ostron: Yeah, yeah, I think there are some unintended side effects creeping in. At least he isn’t dreaming about the Tarrasque. I assume Ryu’s memory is still fine?
Killer DM: So not only is your handiwork falling apart, now you’re accusing me of negligence? Do you enjoy having chats with the modrons that often?
Ostron: Why would I be talking to the modrons?
Killer DM: I just assumed your soul went to Mechanus every time I killed you. Asmodeus knows none of the other gods would want to deal with you.
Ostron: Yeah, well, you still need me to fix Lennon’s memory, so let me just look around in his brain for a bit and you can take Ryu over to the scrying pool.
Killer DM: In that case I expect you’ll be done by the time I walk across the room.