As many fans of D&D’s history will already know, the balor was originally the balrog. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s estate threatened a lawsuit, and the makers of D&D were forced to change the name.
Given that the lawyers are probably not sitting at your table, nor can they sue you if you’re running a free game [if you’re not being paid to DM,] I want to post here what you’d have to do in order to turn the balor back into the balrog. I will also revise the previous encounter to fit a balrog instead of a balor.
Should you do this? I would answer a definitive yes. The balor is not known to very many people, and the balrog is known to almost any fantasy fan. The idea that they’re facing a balrog will be exciting to almost all players, something that very few monsters can achieve so easily.
Minions/allies of the balrog are the same as for the balor.
Changing the stat block is easy. I would attach the grapple and restrain effects to the balrog’s whip attack, lower the range to ten feet, and [possibly] remove the flying part of its movement. Everything else can stay the way it is.
The description of the balrog in the book is of a dark shadow, with a darker shape within the shadow, man shaped but larger. As it reaches the fire, the fire flows around it until the dark shape within the shadow is cloaked by fire.
Combat encounter 1, version 2. Balrog version. (difficulty 19)
Part 1: The balrog’s advance.
Of the three parts mentioned above, this is the one that will require the greatest change. Without the 25-foot reach of the balor’s whip attack, the previous idea won’t work. Nor does starting the combat restrained by a pentagram make the balrog look all that good.
I would start the combat with a certain room that the balrog is trying to get to. Perhaps a furnace type room, with a shaft going down into the volcano. Or perhaps magic symbols carved into the wall and/or floor*, just waiting for the balrog to arrive and activate them.
The players arrive at the room before the balrog combat, and then continue onward, passing the next few obstacles. [The obstacles will be described soon.]
* If you’re using symbols, you’ll need to make them indestructible, or too numerous to destroy. I would also advise letting them hear a noise from up ahead, and manufacturing some sort of urgency. If not, players can spend a long time trying to destroy something, despite you telling them that it’s indestructible. Saying that it’s indestructible will be taken by some players as a challenge.
(It is possible that they don’t know until then that the symbols are still operational. They might decide that it was a spell[s] that the cult already cast, or that the cult planned to cast but didn’t manage to do so yet. They’ll likely assume that the fact that they’re destroying the cult means they don’t have to worry about it. Then they continue on, they see the balrog advancing toward them, and you can tell them that they were wrong, that the danger is very much still present.)
[One way to tell them would be through an NPC, either a friendly companion realizing the danger and warning them or an enemy boasting that they’re finished now. (“As soon as the balrog reaches the room, etc.’.”) You could also simply narrate that they suddenly realize etc. It makes sense that the PCs’ experience with magic would let them realize stuff the players wouldn’t realize by them themselves, especially at these high levels, and you can pass the information on to the players as something that their characters just realized.]
Below are a few obstacles that the balrog will have to pass through in order to get to the activation room. The balrog will advance confidently, not dashing but not stopping either. Each obstacle represents a chance to stop or slow it, but its size and strength mean that the players can’t block it in some easy manner, such as by standing in its way. (A huge character cannot be blocked by a medium character. Basic movement rules.)
The balrog won’t let the players distract it and pull it from its trajectory to fight them, but it will attack if it gets the chance. The grapple condition also means that it can drag PCs along with it.
Left unobstructed, the balrog will reach the activation room in about 5-7 rounds.
- A wooden platform at the side of the path. The players might be able to pull it down onto the path, blocking the balrog’s advance. Or they can stand on it and throw ranged attacks down onto the balrog. That said, it will catch fire when the balrog draws near, which means it can only obstruct him so long.
- A room with a thick iron door the players can close and try to bar shut. The balrog’s strength means that it will only last so long.
- A narrow, possibly winding staircase that the balrog has to descend.
- A chasm with a narrow stone walkway serving as a bridge across. It’s too narrow for two people to walk next to each other, at least if they’re not friends. If the bridge is taken down before the balrog arrives it can teleport or jump the chasm, but if it’s still standing it will attempt to cross normally, and fight any PCs that might be standing there denying it passage.
I would suggest that the players have to pass the obstacles before they meet the balrog, preferably having to fight the cultists in order to do so. Then they see the balrog, or you let them know that the balrog can and will push past them, and they should choose where to make a stand. If the hallway in which it first appears is too narrow for more that one of them to fight at a time that will also help. Finally, you might want to place some side passages through which they can dash to get back between the balrog and the activation room, in necessary.
Even more than with the balor, there is an excellent chance that the players will defeat the balrog before it can trigger the eruption. Nor can you decide to trigger it anyway, and pretend that it would have happened in a greater/faster manner if the balrog hadn’t been defeated. In the case of this fight, I would have to advise you to just let them win, and probably not to repeat it later, starting with stage two, either.
What you can do, if you want to make stages 2-3 more likely, is raise the balrog’s HP, perhaps even so far as setting the hit dice on max. In fairness, the fight I described prevents the balrog from using every turn to inflict maximum damage, so adjusting the damage the other way is somewhat fair.
The other thing you could do is to throw an attack from the cultists [or other allies of the balrog] in the middle of the balrog encounter. This will distract the players, forcing them to split their attention between the balrog and the cultists and giving the balrog a chance to advance. Just be careful not to mess the PCs [and their plans] up too badly.
Stage 2: The Destruction
Once the balrog reaches the activation room, it will spend an action to cast a spell / magical effect to activate the runes [if there are] and cause the floor to shake and flames to start leaping up. It doesn’t make sense for the balrog to leave, so instead it will gesture toward the door and invite the PCs to do so. [It’s certain they can’t escape, so it doesn’t mind them trying. In stage 3, once it realizes that they might escape, it acts to prevent them.]
Below is a sample paragraph for you to narrate to your players. You can use it as written, or you can use it as a sample to help you come up with your own description.
The symbols are shine with a red light that grows rapidly brighter, and then disappears in a flash. As it disappears, tall flames shoot up from the opening, and the heat in the room begins to rise. The flames wrap themselves around the balrog, who throws back his head and laughs. Then the balrog stops abruptly and turns to face you. “It is over. The lava rises, and the greatest wizards in the world couldn’t stop it now. If you want to live, then go. Run for your lives.” The balrog gestures with its whip, and the door flies open. “Flee, you fools.”
Hopefully your players will get the message. If this isn’t enough, narrate descriptions of the rising temperature and the ground shuddering underfoot. If even that doesn’t work, start giving them a [rapidly increasing] amount of fire damage from the heat. Also, narrate that the heat is healing the balrog faster that they can hurt him.
Their first goal will be to escape the tunnels. This will not be a simple job, with the entire place coming aflame around them. Narrate the tunnels shaking, stones falling from the ceiling, and rising heat and occasional flames.
Here are ideas for actual obstacles they might face while escaping. (Use 2-3.)
- Rubble falling from the ceiling has blocked the way forward, and they have to find a way to shift it or to climb over it. A variation of this is if the place blocked is a stairway, going up or down.
- Flames are rushing toward them from behind, faster than they can run. They have one round to either block off the area behind them or find a way to take cover, or else they’ll take a load of damage.
- A stairway that they have to pass is now partially ruined. They’ll have to find a way to climb up or down in spite of this. And/or, they’ll need to prop up the staircase so that it doesn’t collapse as they climb it. [This second idea requires that the staircase be going up.]
- A boulder, sent rolling down toward them from in front or behind. Like with the flames idea, they have one round to block it or avoid it or they’ll get hammered.
- A locked door blocks them. To make matters worse, the room is filling with poisonous gas, making them dizzy [poisoned condition] and perhaps giving them suffocation effects if they can’ t clear it fast enough.
- The ground collapses under them, leaving them near the top of a chute with lava at the bottom. At least 1-2 PCs already slid down the chute a ways, and are clinging to the wall. They have to rescue them, and then make their way out. [I would have this one be the last challenge before escaping.]
After they escape the tunnels, I would use a single idea from the list in stage 2 of the balor encounter. No more, as they already faced several challenges in the tunnels. This encounter is more about giving the feeling of the eruption above ground as well as below than it is about challenging them.
Stage 3 will be the same with the balrog as with the balor, and does not need to be written out separately.