Creating Challenges for your Party
So in my last post, Character Death And The Effects It Has On Your Table, I mentioned how we were going to create appropriate challenges using, of all things, math. But I think it would behoove us to figure out exactly what I mean when we talk about challenges.
A fair bit of warning, the math in this section is 5th Edition exclusive, I try to be system agnostic when I am giving out advice, but when it comes to doing math for specific systems we will be working in 5th Edition for Dungeons & Dragons.
Some of the advice I give out in this post will be system agnostic though.
Challenges challenge the party. While that is an obvious statement to make, it helps us as GMs to remember that Challenges should challenge the party, not to be a cake walk or be impossible to overcome. Getting a table together every week involves keeping the promise to your players that what they are going to face is not impossible, or so easy that they fall asleep during the challenge and their character is still fine. One builds resentment towards you, the GM, the other builds apathy towards the game as a whole. Neither have any place at your table if you want to have fun.
When I talk about Challenges needing to challenge the party, this includes Combat Encounters, RP Encounters and Exploration Encounters, these are the three pillars of gameplay in DnD. While we all know about Combat Encounters, arguably the most thought out concept in DnD, RP Encounters and Exploration Encounters can be forgotten quite quickly when it comes time to figure out XP for your players, and those two encounter types should be major challenges for the party.
When a player is put into a situation where they have to expend resources, be it spells or gold or other abilities, it is now an encounter for them. If there is no risk of failure though, than it isn’t a challenge. That risk of failure creates drama and suspense in your game, and helps move the story forward. If a level 20 character comes across a stream cutting through the road, and they blow a 9th level spell to cast waterbreathing on themselves and they easily walk across the stream without any issues. That could be considered an encounter as they did expend a resource, but it was never a challenge. Now, if a level 1 character comes across a raging river 1,000 ft wide filled with man-eating sharks and a beholder floating around, that can also be considered an encounter, but it isn’t a challenge. There isn’t a way for your table to overcome the challenge, and it would be futile for them to even try. In both cases, players are expending resources but one has no chance of failure and the other has no chance of success, neither can be considered Challenges.
Now that we got the absurd hypotheticals out of the way, let’s talk about how to build appropriate challenges for your party, and here is where the math comes in (I told you we would use math!). First, we will need to know the average party level and we are going to need to crack open our DMG to page 82.
Before we get too deep in this, there are several apps that can help you create suitable combat encounters for your party, like Kobold Fight Club. This is not something I’ve ever used, I use this spreadsheet I created that is based off a post by The Angry GM, and I highly recommend you use the spreadsheet as well. You can only create better encounters when you understand the mechanics behind encounters, not when letting something else do all the thinking for you.
Now on Page 82, the first chart on the left has a few things we need and we can even apply them to RP Encounters and Exploration Encounters, what difficulty do you want? They have four levels: Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly. These help you differentiate between how much of a challenge we want to give our party, and for the rest of this post we will talk about building Combat Encounters. Eventually we will talk about how to build appropriate RP Encounters and Exploration Encounters.
So, we know what level our party is and we know how many are in our party. For an example, let’s go with a party of 4 all at level 3. That brings us to the 3rd Level line in the chart with the following options Easy - 75; Medium - 150; Hard - 225; Deadly - 400. Now those numbers are per character. This means we will now have to select what difficulty we want to go with. Let’s start with Deadly!
Now that we have chosen our difficulty, we will take the number assigned to our selected difficulty (Deadly - 400, we will call this number the Difficulty Number) and times it by the Number of Players (4). This gives us a total of 1,600 XP to work with (400 times 4). Now that we have that number, we know the upper limits to how difficult we can make a single combat encounter. We will now do the same for an Easy encounter, which gives us a total of 300 XP (75 XP times 4 players). We now have our lower limits to how easy a Combat Encounter can be before it is no longer a challenge for our table. These are valuable to know as it helps us create balanced encounters for our table that won’t be too easy that our players will fall asleep during combat and not too hard that they will grow resentful towards you. It’s all about balance, and it’s important to always know these numbers, it’s less important for us to figure out what a Medium or Hard encounter is as those are just numbers that exist in between our Easy & Deadly Difficulty Numbers, but feel free to do the math on those.
So we have our two Difficulty Numbers: 300 XP for Easy & 1,600 XP for Deadly, and you may ask yourself, now what do I do with this? Well now we get to go shopping for monsters! If your encounter is a Solo-monster fight, you are done with the math, go through that beautiful Monster Manual and compare the CR in the stat block to the two numbers you have. If you want something in between those two numbers, just remember that the closer to 300 XP a monster is, the easier the challenge, the closer to 1,600 XP a monster is the more difficult. We don’t need to get into Medium and Hard encounters if we have the math done for Easy & Deadly, just remember to not make every encounter Easy or Deadly, which is something we will get to in a future post.
Now, what if you want to create an encounter that has more than 1 monster in it? (Since we all know that Solo monsters are horrible idea when it comes to Action Economy.) Well, now it is going to get a bit harder to figure out as we have to consult another chart. This chart will have you add the Monster’s XP together and then to multiply it by the appropriate modifier. This is where things get bogged down for you, the GM. How are you expected to do so much math for a single encounter? It’s a wonder why people are scared off of being a GM when you have to not only create a world but you also have math homework!
But fear not, there are tools out there to help you speed up this process as previously mentioned, but it’s important to understand HOW this works instead of just using the tools. Having a basic understanding of what happens in the background better prepares you for making corrections on the fly and adjusting encounters at the last minute, and eventually you’ll get so good at creating encounters for your group you won’t need to rely on tools or the math. You’ll just know, but that takes time, practice and an understanding of the background math involved.
So now we have an encounter with two monsters, let’s say two Gargoyles are about to attack our party of 4 - level 3 characters. Each Gargoyle is a CR 2 (450 XP) creature, so we will add 450 XP + 450 XP and get a total of 900 XP. This is the number that will be divided between the party at the end of the combat, the Total Experience, but it isn’t the Difficulty Number of the encounter. We now must take that 900 XP and multiply it by its appropriate position on the chart, which is 1.5 times the total XP of the monsters as they are fighting two monsters. So it will be 900 XP x 1.5 = 1,350 XP for the Difficulty Number (As a brief reminder, this is NOT the experience that you give out to the party). So what originally looked liked a medium challenge for our party is actually closer to Deadly than you may have realized when first looking at Monster CRs. And this goes for any group of monsters, they are going to be exponentially more dangerous when they are together because they make combat last longer.
And combat lasting longer is the reason for those Encounter Multipliers, most encounters in DnD should only last around 2 - 3 rounds. If it goes on much longer, it’s getting more dangerous for your party. So a typical fight between a party and an appropriate monster should be about 2 rounds, when you add in a second monster, that pushes the length of the encounter to about 3 rounds, which just so happens to be the same as 2 x 1.5 (the Encounter Multiplier for 2 monsters). The creators of DnD assume that when you add in an extra monster, it lengthens the amount of time combat will take and thus makes the combat more dangerous for your table. And this goes on for the other Encounter Multipliers the same way that combat will go on for your party for the number of rounds it will take them to overcome the challenge.
When you have 3-6 monsters on the field, they will have to be weaker than the normal monsters a level 3 party of 4 might face when the monsters are by themselves. This means that the group of monsters will be easier to dispose of individually, but because there are more of them the combat will take about 4 rounds to finish.
In our previous example, we had gargoyles about to attack the party. But now what happens if there are more gargoyles? Let’s have 4 gargoyles attack the party, those 4 gargoyles will have a Difficulty Number of 3,600 XP. That is way more Deadly than our party can handle, we know that that will be a mistake per our Deadly Difficulty Number of 1,600 XP. So let’s change it up so that they are facing against 4 Magma Mephits CR 1 (200 XP), that Difficulty Number is only 1,600 XP (200 x 4= 800; 800 x 2 = 1,600), right on the dot for a nice Deadly encounter for our band of heroes, and you can expect that this will take the party about 4 rounds to deal with this encounter.
Creating appropriate challenges for your party can be hard, but by having a better understanding of the math behind it all, it can help you create better challenges for your party and allows you to adjust things on the fly, you aren’t blindly trusting in an app with no understanding of how it does what it does.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you created too hard of a challenge or too easy of a challenge, you can always have some of your monsters run away that are doing poorly or add in more monsters depending on the situation. Creating encounters is not an exact science, but we do rely on the numbers to help us create better challenges.
Next time, we are going to talk about how we can apply this thinking to RP Encounters and Exploration Encounters.