A Dungeon Master has a sizable workload when it comes to crafting the next D&D session for their players. Whether it is another step within their story arc or planning random encounters, a DM will spend hours between balancing potential encounters and drafting the layout of dungeons or environments. The next larger piece being the integration of these encounter into a meaningful and cohesive narrative. The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers many suggestions and tables to help DMs define encounter difficulty for their players.
I’ve previously written about adding some variety to combat encounters here. Why am I talking more about Combat based encounters than social or skilled based ones? Well, many of those types of encounters are resolved with a skill or ability check. Combat has a different dimension of resolution and execution. Sometimes combat does not need to happen at all, depending on the context of the story and campaign your players are undergoing. But many D&D games imply the eventuality of combat, so eventually, there will always be some sort of fight happening somewhere. There will always be villains, monsters, and minions to defeat. Crafting environments that best suit them can also add a layer of complexity and difficulty for players, which is an excellent way to keep the players flexible to changing circumstances.
For example, if your party has been fighting cultists to prevent them from casting some elaborate ritual; maybe have the players perform a ritual and protect themselves from the onslaught of enemies trying to stop them instead.
Subtle changes or switched roles can profoundly alter the experience of the game. The only tough part? Balancing the encounter to a difficulty that reflects both the situation and the players’ capabilities. Encounter difficulty calculations as it stands in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is simply that – a guide. Creating encounters start on page 81 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, giving a short list of objectives that serve the underlying purpose of the conflict. Stopping a Ritual is one of them by the way. These are merely examples, but these are consistent objectives that come up often across various campaigns.
To balance combat encounters, an experience point threshold has to be determined based the on each character’s level. For example, a four-player party of 5th-level characters has a particular value of XP thresholds based on the difficulty of the encounter. For easy encounters, the XP budget is 1000 XP; medium is 2000 XP; hard is 3000 XP, and deadly is marked as 4400 XP. Once you determine the XP thresholds, you can craft encounters to fit within these ranges of difficulty by totaling the enemies’ XP and applying any modifiers based on the number of combatants. An example: four will-o-wisps (each 450 XP) has an adjusted XP value of 2700 XP which puts this group as a medium tier encounter for the party while a pair of wraiths (each 1800 XP) has an adjusted XP value of 5400 which puts them considerably high on the deadly tier.
There is a delicate dance at this point between terrain, hazards, damage consistency to consider. Terrain and hazards can be additional features to make the encounter challenging in a non-damaging way. Though some hazards can cause harm, which at that point, it may be necessary to consider them as a creature as well. The other issue now comes to damage output from your enemies. Let’s address the example above, the will-o-wisps deal an average of 9 (2d8) lightning damage per hit, which is once per round. They have a high AC at 19, the average attack bonus of a player-character at 5th-level is around +7 or less (assuming +4 on relevant ability modifier & +3 proficiency bonus). The players will need to roll consistently high on attacks against the will-o-wisps, they also have resistance to most elemental damage and from non-magical weapons. If the party does not have any magical weapons, that 22 hit points from the will-o-wisps start to feel like 44 instead. Should the party possess some magical weapons, then the fight seems more like a nuisance rather than a desperate clash. In the presence of magical weapons, to add a balance for the creatures, perhaps the party is fighting them in the middle of a bayou, and a dense fog has rolled into the area where the will-o-wisps haunt. The fog makes the area heavily-obscured, which blocks vision entirely which grants the party automatic failures on Perception checks and disadvantage on Attack rolls. With the disadvantage, the likelihood of hitting is amplified, almost granting the creatures an additional value to their AC which promotes their survivability. So now the players feel those same 22 hit points being a larger health pool than previously.
Okay, I know I covered some of these topics already. So you may be asking what is different now? If you read my previous article about my feelings about magic item distribution in 5th Edition (see here), then you also know that while compared older versions, that magic items now undermine the lethality of creatures and enemies.
Rather, my emphasis with the post today is to assess the cumulation of my madness honestly between those two posts.
Some things to always consider when building combat encounters (I have found):
- Having your environment change in the middle of combat adds complexity and removes static encounters
- When considering whether your players have magical weapons or not, add environment hazards or additional combatants.
- If low magic weapon distribution, treat deadly tiered encounters as normal. In high magic weapon distribution, deadly tier encounters are treated as hard. Why? I’ll explain later.
- Do not make your encounters always one particular tier of difficulty, disperse them, make the deadly ones epic and meaningful moments. Sprinkle the rest as you see fit. Not everything in a setting is out to kill the players.
In the presence of magic weapons, it invalidates some of the difficulty some creatures possess when it comes to resistances against non-magical weapons. For example, a lich having it is counter-intuitive at that stage of play as it’s expected that players have magical weapons when fighting CR 18 creatures. I have adjusted such creatures in some of my sessions and have brought back the threat some of these creatures traditionally exhibited. As I’ve stated in my magic item distribution article, many of the encounter calculations and challenge ratings were determined in the absence of magical items. Granted, the DM has full rights to how much magic weapons are distributed in their campaigns. Understanding that and realizing that magic weapons challenge the perspective of encounters are important facets in crafting meaningful encounters.
Proposed modification on Encounter Calculations
One method I’ve found to be useful for myself in my encounter calculations has been utilizing the Create Monster section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg. 273 – 281). Let’s use the same 5th-level party previously mentioned, the party consists of a Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard. All these characters are considered to have +4 relevant ability modifier, they have a proficiency bonus of +3, and we are assuming average hit points a +1 bonus to Constitution modifier. We shall assume highest AC allowable with highest damage weapon possible within their proficiencies.
- Fighter – HP: 39. 2 Attacks with a to Hit of +7. 11 (2d6+4) damage per hit. Action Surge x1. AC 18
- Rogue – HP: 33. Attack to Hit: +7. 19 (1d8+4 plus 3d6 Sneak Attack) per hit. Evasion & Uncanny Dodge. AC 16
- Cleric – HP: 33. Attack to Hit: +7 (for Spells). Save DC 15. AC 19
- Wizard – HP: 25. Attack to Hit: +7 (for Spells). Save DC 15. AC 13 (Mage Armor)
Now we calculate the characters like monsters with some minor exceptions. Attack bonus is almost always ignored when defining offensive capabilities, but Damage per Round and Save DC are always used. When determining the Defensive CR, follow the original system.
Let’s start with the Fighter, the Offensive output is defined by their two attacks and a single Action Surge use. The Fighter deals a sum total of 88 damage across three rounds, which averages to 29 damage per round. So the Fighter has an effective CR of 4 for Offensive. For Defensive CR, the Fighter’s AC puts them at a 13 minimum, but their hit points them at a CR 1/4; effectively, the Fighter has a Defensive CR of 3. Overall, the expected average for the Fighter is closer to 4 if anything else.
The remaining characters each individually average a CR 3. Using these values, a CR 4 and three CR 3 creatures have a total amount of 31oo XP, using the encounter multipler results, we get an Effective 6200 XP value. Judging from the previous encounter examples, the four will-o-wisps (with 3600 XP) still comes to a little over half XP value, which suggests that the encounter may pose a challenge but still be achievable. The two Wraith encounter was adjusted to 5400 XP, which implies that the encounter would still be extremely challenging and possibly “deadly” but nowhere near as unachievable as previously suggested. Even with magic items, the adjusted values of the characters are already included, therefore using the party’s adjusted XP value is a viable measuring stick for encounter difficulty.
It’s by no means the most concrete or precise way to measure, but personally, it gives a better impression as a whole. If you were to look at the 6200 XP value, and if an encounter’s adjusted XP value is about half (roughly 3100 XP) then the encounter is of medium difficulty for sure. In other words, this method makes the encounter difficulty more of a spectrum and less reliant on labels such as easy or medium difficulty. There are obviously some adjustments that need to be made to fine tune this process which I may make a short document in the immediate future that will break down this procedure better but for now, this is more of a rough guideline.
Just a recap of the procedure.
- Determine the Challenge Rating of each character as if they were monsters.
- When determining effective values, healing and evasive features like Second Wind or Evasion modify the effective hit points by 1.5
- A character with three or more saving throw proficiencies increases their effective AC by 2.
- Abilities or features that offer re-rolls on Attack rolls (like Reckless Attack) or damage rolls (like elemental adept or the Great Weapon fighting style) should increase those respectives by 2.
- Once each CR is determined, find their XP reward value and add them.
- Adjust the party’s XP value with the appropriate encounter modifier from the XP thresholds chart
- Determine a combat encounter’s adjusted XP as normal
- Compare the values to determine relative difficulty
Finally, these are guidelines and not definitive means of determining combat difficulty. Combat is never a mathematical or scientific allocation, there are factors like chance from the dice and party tactics that will throw an encounter calculation out the door. Just like the original system, this process serves as a measuring stick to determine the overall expected difficulty. My modification accounts for magic items and the inclusion of feats (which are optional and at the discretion of the Dungeon Master). Ultimately, the Dungeon Master decides what should and shouldn’t be included in their games.
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