I’ve been meaning to write an article on this topic for a while but have put off doing so for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s troublesome. I am not alone in thinking that the rules for encounter building are one of the worst aspects of 5th edition and one of the areas most due a revamp in the 2024 ‘update’.
Secondly, it has been covered very well elsewhere! I am indebted to Sly Flourish’s (Mike Shea’s) articles on the subject as well as Justin Alexander and DM Dave – all great blogs in general.
A few weeks ago, one of my players had her first turn at DMing. The morning before her session, she sent me a few WhatsApp messages, clearly a little anxious that her encounters might be a bit too deadly. It made me realize that encounter balance is still a big worry for lots of new DMs out there, so here’s my take on the subject.
1. Encounter balance is more of an art than a science
. . . and even then, it leaves a lot to random chance.
When you’re balancing an encounter, you are essentially asking, ‘are my players going to be able to cope with this, and will it be sufficiently fun and challenging?’
There are many ways of looking at these. At its heart, it’s a matter of maths. The Dungeon Master’s Guide assumes that a character of a particular level will be able to take on a certain number of encounters before they need to stop for a long rest. There’s a table for it: p 86 of the DMG. It’s worth reading this section of the DMG in its entirety. As an example,a party of four 7th-level characters should be able to get through 20,000 XP of encounters (5,000 XP each) before they need a long rest, and they will probably need a couple of short rests along the way.
Here’s the thing: except at very high levels, where a party is pretty indestructible, you are never going to blow an entire day’s budget on one encounter. If an encounter uses a quarter or more of the daily budget, it could be very difficult; a weak character might be knocked out or even killed. But an encounter that uses, say, a tenth of the daily budget: that’s not going to challenge the players at all.
So why do I say it’s more of an art than a science if there’s all this maths involved? Mainly because there’s so much random chance involved. Players might get lucky on the initiative order; they might land a few critical hits; they might happen to have the spells and magic items to round the enemies’ defences; they might be fresh from a long rest and have all their resources at their disposal. Or the reverse of these things could be true. I’ve seen players unexpectedly stomp through what should be a challenging encounter, and I’ve seen characters get absolutely destroyed by relatively unextraordinary adversaries. Seeing how an encounter pans out is part of the fun of being a DM. If it’s unexpectedly easy or difficult, that’s not necessarily a mistake!
2. Which calculator to use?
When 5th edition first came out, the encounter-building guidance in the DMG had some people scratching their heads. Fortunately, we now have a number of neat online tools at out disposal for checking if an encounter is too challenging. I recommend D&D Beyond, Kobold Fight Club, and Donjon.
There are also encounter building rules in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, which are much simpler but produce very similar results. I particularly like the updated advice about solo encounters here, namely that legendary creatures are the only enemies that are likely to be challenging on their own, and even then, a few minions and lieutenants are likely to make the encounter more interesting.
Bear in mind that you can still get some funky results with these encounter builders. For example, a beholder is a ‘hard’ – not impossible – encounter for a party of four 11th-level characters, but if you throw in a single rat, it becomes ‘deadly’. This is clearly nonsense, so use your judgement.
3. Take care at low levels
There is one stage of the game where encounter balance is a little more delicate, however, and that’s 1st level. (Frankly, 2nd level isn’t much easier.) At 1st level, a character is unlikely to have more than 12 or 13 hp, and may have as few as 7 hp. There are low-level creatures that can take out a 1st-level character in a single strike. A wolf, for example, attacks with +4 and deals 2d4+2 piercing damage on a hit. That’s a serious threat to a low-level party.
How do you get round this? Sly Flourish’s advice here is gold:
- Don’t go above CR ¼
- Don’t use more enemies than characters
- Keep the damage to below 7.
Four goblins might not sound like a seriously threat, but in 5th edition it’s at the upper end of what a 1st-level party can deal with. (And guess what: that’s the first encounter in Lost Mine of Phandelver. No one wants to lose a character in their very first session.)
4. Try running easier encounters
Justin Alexander has a great article on this. Essentially, the more challenging your encounters are, the more cautious your players become. The rhythm of the game slows down, and you start to slip into what has been derided as the ‘five-minute adventuring day’.
It feels counterintuitive, I think, because we are conditioned to play games to ‘win’, and that kind of thinking can sneak in even as a DM. When an encounter seems easy, the instinct is to up the difficulty. Some DMs are very adversarial; I remember one who said that putting the players on the ropes was where he got his fun. With respect, I don’t recommend this approach. Keep encounters on the easy side and let players feel heroic. The occasional boss battle will seem even more climactic as a result.
5. Play with the dials
Sly Flourish refers to the ‘dials’ of an encounter as mechanisms you can change in game: the hit points, attack damage, and number of enemies. There’s nothing wrong with pulling these levers during the battle if you think you’ve messed up a bit. If the party are cutting through the spiders like a hot knife through butter, throw in some more! If you think the battle’s becoming a drag, reduce the monsters’ hit points. If it feels like the monsters aren’t hitting hard enough, up the damage. I’ve run Curse of Strahd twice, and both time I have ended up giving monsters maximum hit points by the end of the campaign. But if you do this, think about what’s fun for the players. Read the room. If you feel like the encounter has gone on long enough, ease off a bit.
6. What counts as too deadly?
Outside 1st and 2nd level, a ‘deadly’ encounter is not necessarily lethal – but it has the potential to be. And at higher levels, a party can deal with far bigger threats than the DMG would have you believe.
DM Dave has some nice maths for ‘single session’ encounters (ie, the kind of boss fight that has the potential to end the campaign but will really challenge the party). He recommends a tier-based approach. In Tier 1, use 50 percent of the daily XP budget. For Tier 2, 60 percent. Tier 3: 70 percent. Tier 4: 90 percent. A party of four 13th-level characters could probably take on a lich in its lair, for example, and a 7th-level party is probably ready to take on their first beholder. That might seem ridiculous, but hey, try it and see. It certainly chimes with my experience of 5th edition.
Should you warn the party if they face a deadly foe? Up to you – but in my opinion, yes. As Sly Flourish points out, remember in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf says of the Balrog, ‘this foe is beyond any of you’? That’s a cool moment. We should assume that the characters are experienced adventurers even if the players are not, and a party of experienced adventurers should get a feeling if they’re facing something beyond their power. It’s not cheating to tell them.
A corollary to this: if the foe has legendary resistance, tell them. It’s not fun for a spellcaster to waste a high-level spell slot on a creature that can use legendary resistance to nerf it. Legendary foes are legendary because they are creatures of legend in the world. Again, it’s not cheating. An experienced adventurer would know if an enemy was somehow out of the ordinary.
7. Encounters are storytelling
In a way, I should have started with this point, because it’s probably the most important (and the one I’ve taken longest to learn). The best encounters are rooted in fiction. Don’t serve up an encounter that doesn’t make sense just because it is ‘balanced’: build encounters that make sense in the world. If they’re too easy, or too difficult, that’s OK! Your players will adapt accordingly.
Think about the enemies’ goals. Are they hungry? Hateful? Bored? Avaricious? Are they free-thinking or just following orders? Can they be tricked, bullied, bought off? At what point do they cut and run? This kind of thinking helps make an encounter feel like a living part of the story – a memorable character in their own right. Some of my favourite ‘encounters’ in Dungeon of the Mad Mage have involved no combat at all, and I know my players agree.
Don’t worry too much about encounters, and let go of the idea of combat being perfectly balanced. Unless your party are very low level, the characters should be OK. It’s much more rewarding to think about the story than the maths. Create interesting situations, be a fan of the players, and play to see what happens.
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