Pre-published, official campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition supposedly contain some level of balance to stop them from being cakewalks or slaughters. However, sometimes these good intentions don’t pan out. Even in company-approved adventures, sometimes the odds are stacked against the heroes.
This comes out of a tradition that dates back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ earliest adventures, from the infamous Tomb of Horrors to the life-destroying Soul Gem in The Ghost Tower of Inverness. However, this doesn’t make these encounters any more enjoyable for players. Whether they’re outgunned, outnumbered, or set in a deadly environment, there are some encounters that are famous for their difficulty.
8 Curse Of Strahd’s Bonegrinder Massacres Low-Level Characters
A reimagining of a classic adventure, Curse of Strahd is deliberately one of 5e‘s hardest campaigns, taking place in the dark and horror-themed setting of Ravenloft. Death lurks around every corner, but the windmill Bonegrinder, inhabited by a coven of Night Hags, is one of the deadliest spots in the entire realm.
A trio of Night Hags, with the powerful boosts they get when together, is a challenging fight for many parties, but the Bonegrinder is made more egregious because the PCs are expected to come across it at level 3 or 4. Even facing the Bonegrinder several levels higher can be challenging, but at these low levels, the Hags can easily massacre entire parties.
7 Hoard Of The Dragon Queen’s Assassins Are Dangerous Because Of An Error
It’s rare but skewed balance in an official encounter isn’t always intentional but can stem from a genuine mistake that later has to be corrected. The most notorious of these is Hoard of the Dragon Queen, where a low-level party can come across an inn taken over by a trio of assassins, who they may well have to fight.
When the encounter was planned, the assassin stat block was much weaker, at CR3. Before the book’s release, however, the stat block received a significant buff, making them CR8 with a host of offensive abilities. For a long time, the book was not updated to match the intended party level, creating an extremely unfair encounter for the party.
6 The Starting Manticore (Dragon Of Icespire Peak)
Dragon of Icespire Peak is explicitly designed as a campaign for newcomers and is included in 5e‘s starter set. In one of its first adventures, the PCs can receive the easy-sounding objective to travel to the home of a woman who lives outside the town of Phandalin and encourage her to join the town for safety.
There, they encounter a Manticore, a CR3 creature that can fly, has ranged attacks, and deals more damage than level 1 characters can take. The intention seems to be for the players to realize that they are outmatched and try to find a peaceful solution, but newcomers to D&D are unlikely to recognize the threat and take this option,.
5 Curse Of Strahd’s Baba Lysaga And Her Hut Are A Deadly Combo
Nearly every inch of Curse of Strahd‘s Barovia has something deadly lurking in it, but few spots are deadlier than the ruined town of Berez and the witch who lives at its center. Baba Lysaga isn’t always a mandatory fight, but there is a good chance the players will need to go to Berez to retrieve an artifact there.
Baba Lysaga is no minor threat herself, a witch who is able to fly while casting several brutal spells at the party. However, she is also backed up by her animated hut, a monstrous hulk of a creature with several vicious attacks and over two hundred hit points. The two together can butcher most parties, each covering the other’s weaknesses.
4 Flennis The Necromancer Plays With Fire
Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus is a controversial entry into 5e‘s published modules, with some questioning its quality and particularly its early-game balance. One adventure the players tackle at 2nd level is the Dungeon of the Dead Three, piled high with threatening encounters.
However, the most notorious part of the Dungeon is the fight against Flennis. A necromancer, she has a surprising trick up her sleeve in the form of Fireball, a third-level spell that can easily down or even kill an entire party at that low a level. Common advice for running the adventure is to have Flennis cast other spells instead, as a single fireball could lead to a Total Party Kill.
3 Tomb Of Annihilation’s Acererak The Lich Is Practically Death Incarnate
Tomb of Annihilation is another module designed from the ground up to be a challenge, a difficult crawl across a hostile environment with a number of brutal and trap-filled dungeons along the way. The final battle against its villain, Acererak the Lich, follows suit and is one of the most dangerous enemies printed in an official adventure.
Acerak’s spellcasting capabilities are a major problem. He has access to Power Word Kill and the ability to cast it three times, potentially flat-out devastating a party immediately. Furthermore, he appears after a number of other challenging boss fights, including against an Atrophal and against the Soul Monger itself. The party’s best hope is in receiving immense buffs from the Nine Gods before fighting him, which can tip the odds back in their favor.
2 Curse Of Strahd’s The Coffin-Maker’s Shop Is An Unforgettable Ambush
The town of Vallaki initially appears to be something of a safe haven for the PCs in Curse of Strahd, free of the vampire lord’s influence, but it contains one of the most infamous encounters in the module. On a quest to return the bones of a saint to a church, the party has to turn to a coffin-maker’s shop. Searching inside, they are ambushed by a group of six vampire spawn.
A smaller number of spawn would be a dangerous encounter, and six are all but impossible to kill before they overwhelm the PCs. The PCs can try to retrieve the bones and run, but the spawns’ speed, grappling, and high damage make even that a risky prospect. This encounter lives on in infamy for its challenge and its unexpected nature.
1 The Blue Dragon (Hoard Of The Dragon Queen)
Dragons are a major threat in D& D, with even the youngest categories presenting considerable challenges to low-level parties. Despite this, the party can come up against Lennithon, an adult blue dragon, on their very first day of adventuring in Hoard of the Dragon Queen.
The party isn’t expected to kill her, simply drive her off by doing 25 points of damage, but that is an incredibly risky proposition for a group of level 1 characters, particularly after the other challenging encounters the party face throughout Greencrest. Even if they drive her away quickly, there is a good chance at least one party member will die to her lightning breath first.
NEXT: 7 Most Underrated Subclasses In Dungeons & Dragons (& 7 Overrated Ones)
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