Homebrew University: Building a Better Brawl [5e, Encounter Building]

Homebrew University: Building a better brawl

Hello Game Masters!

A lot of Game Masters struggle to balance the encounters that they plan for their party. When prepping for combat in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, some find that the guidelines laid out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide result in encounters that their players waltz through with little to no difficulty. Others find that their grand battles overwhelm the capabilities of the PCs, all too often resulting in a near TPK. Today, I’m going to talk about encounter balance in 5e, my experiences with just how much a given party can handle between long rests, and how I plan encounters of all difficulties within these limits.

Definitely a CR1 encounter

“Look everyone, this one looks angry!” – Ervond, Former Level One Space Medic

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE!

At its most basic level, encounter difficulty is determined by the XP value of the enemies the party faces. Now, what’s that I hear?

“But I don’t use XP for levelling!”

That’s okay, neither do I! In fact, when it comes to levelling, I don’t like the experience system at all and am a strong proponent of the milestone system. That doesn’t matter! You can still use XP values to judge encounter difficulty, even if you aren’t actually awarding your players the experience, and it is often a vital tool when doing so.

So, where do we start? We start with the Adventuring Day XP table on page 84 of the DMG (or, alternatively with Kobold Fight Club or the encounter building tool on dndbeyond, which spit out the same values). This table is going to define how much one character can take on in a day. From one long rest to the next, this is a good measure of how far their character resources such as spell slots and hit points can stretch. For the whole party, you just add the values together, depending on how many players you have and what level they are.

From here, you need to portion this ‘allowance’ of XP into a budget for each encounter of that day. Now, these numbers have been laid out by Wizards of the Coast such that it’s exactly enough for six medium difficulty encounters in one day, and some DMs really structure their games like this. Let’s stop here for a moment though, and take a look at what that really means.

How hard is ‘hard’?

On page 82 of the DMG a medium difficulty encounter is defined as follows:

Medium. A medium encounter usually has one or two scary moments for the players, but the characters should emerge victorious with no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources.

That doesn’t sound that difficult, does it? Truth be told, it isn’t! Six medium encounters in a day aren’t particularly challenging individually, but attrition does slowly wear at the resources the PCs have remaining at their disposal. This is a major reason behind why so many DMs of 5e find that their encounters aren’t as difficult as they were supposed to be. They balance for a ‘medium’ difficulty, but that terminology is a matter of perspective. What the DMG defines as medium, most players and DMs consider a walk in the park.

Let’s compare this to the DMG definition of a hard encounter:

Hard. A hard encounter could go badly for the adventurers. Weaker characters might get taken out of the fight, and there’s a slim chance that one or more characters might die.

Now, this description sounds much closer to what I would consider ‘medium’ difficulty. There’s actually a chance that a PC might hit 0 hp, but it’s only a slim one. There’s some mild risk involved in the fight. This carries the same cognitive dissonance between name and expectation as the ‘medium’ difficulty does. The DM preps a ‘hard’ encounter, expecting their players to feel pushed and challenged, but in reality they aren’t likely to have problems unless the dice really don’t go their way.

‘Deadly’, on the other hand, is described as:

Deadly. A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat.

This is an actually hard fight that will push the PCs. They need to plan and fight cleverly or somebody might die. There’s actually a real possibility that they could lose. This is a challenging combat.

So, what do we take from this? Understand what the difficulty tiers actually mean. It isn’t as simple as what it says on the tin. 

How my Adventuring Party handles my Deadly Encounters

How do these labels help us?

Once you understand how difficult you actually want your fight to be, you can start piecing it together. I mentioned earlier that a party can handle six medium encounters in a day, well they can also manage up to three deadly encounters, based on the numbers laid out in the DMG. This is by design, because the party is expected to take two short rests a day.

If you go beyond the budget for deadly, it is possible to make truly nightmarish encounters that are still theoretically within the means of the party’s character resources for that day. An example of this might be a boss encounter with a powerful creature far above the party’s normal CR (provided its XP value doesn’t exceed their daily budget). Nevertheless, do not take such encounters lightly, as they can easily lead to PC deaths.

Once you’ve portioned the daily XP budget into the number of encounters you want the party to face, it’s simply a matter of ‘spending’ that XP on monsters and other enemies, each of which has an XP value listed in its stat block. Note, the number of enemies also modifies the overall XP value of a given encounter. For example, for an encounter in which the party faces fifteen or more creatures you must multiply the sum of their XP values by 4, before you compare the number to your XP budget. These multipliers are listed in a table on page 82 of the DMG. However, as mentioned above, it’s often easier to simply use a tool that calculates these things for you. 

These guidelines significantly simplify the design process of setting encounters at the right difficulty level and frequency for your party. I hope these tips have been helpful, and if you have any questions please find me on the Demiplane Discord. Have fun and good luck!

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