Homebrew University: Episode 2 Podcast (Legendary Actions, Challenge Ratings, & Kicking the S$%^ out of Your Party)

Maximize your Next Encounter!

Grab a desk and join us for another Homebrew University post-brew podcast! This one is all about customizing your 5e encounter!

Yesterday we released a Homebrew University blog post by Kyle Taylor on how he has adapted D&D 5e encounter mechanics to build a better brawl for his Adventurers. Today he sits down with Demiplane’s Peter Romenesko to talk about different styles of encounters and how to use them to challenge your Adventuring Party. Also included: helpful tips on how to use narrative elements to create a high-stakes brawl!

Sit back and enjoy a brew with us – or read the full transcript of the conversation below!


Missed our first podcast episode? Find it here. 

Homebrew University: Episode 1 Podcast


Episode 2 Transcript

Peter: Hi Everyone, this is Peter Romenesko from Demiplane. Thanks for joining us for today’s Homebrew University. Homebrew University is where we get a chance to talk about various aspects of breathing life into your own ideas through the use of tabletop roleplaying games, and it’s one of my favorite things to do every time we do it. So, we’ve got Kyle Taylor here with us today, known as Stormchaser across the tabletop roleplaying community, and we’re happy to have him. So, Kyle, thanks for being here again. 

Kyle: Hi, Pete. Glad to be back. 

Peter: Alright, so we just had our post go up. It’s all about encounter building. And encounter building is a super fun space, because it gives Game Masters the opportunity to kind of drop their NPCs up against their player characters and it’s the one time they get to really kind of roll dice against their players and maybe take a few jabs or give a few jabs. And I figured since this was our podcast, I get to ask my own question first, so I’m going to do so! You know, my story is: I just laid out a fantastic combat for me, which was against a hag’s coven and then a series of gith that were meeting – they had met together. And it was this ‘so what are the gith doing with the hags?’ and ‘how is this happening?’ and the astral sea and all of these different things, and so I was like, this will be a really deadly combat. This will be really hard, you know? And the party is blowing through it. Just like blowing through them. So, I already know that I’m a bad Game Master, you know, that’s written in the stars, that’s gonna happen. But for me, if your party’s consistently trouncing your deadly encounters, which really is what this is, you know, when you’re looking at encounters and they’re deadly, if they’re consistently trouncing your deadly encounters, what does that mean? How can you think about that and how should a Game Master think about it? Because that’s really – that’s where I think I’ll start today is with that question. 

Kyle: I think one of the things that’s really important to consider when you look at a deadly encounter is what that actually means in terms of what a deadly encounter is supposed to be and how it’s described in D&D in the Monster Manual in 5th Edition. And this is a thing that a lot of people don’t get, because it’s kind of counter-intuitive, because deadly doesn’t really mean what it says in the tin. People see the label ‘deadly encounter’ and they think ‘oh, this could be a TPK’. But really what ‘deadly’ is trying to communicate to the GM, or to the players, or what that means about an encounter is that there is the possibility that a player character could die. Possibility. And like for me, that’s the baseline. There should always be that kind of risk, you don’t want your players to be going in and thinking ‘well, we’re going to have an easy time here’. I mean, there are different ways of playing, but for me I feel like there should always be that kind of risk. And so, but that’s all that ‘deadly’ means. It means that there is this possibility, this chance that someone could lose their life here. And, so sure, that could happen, but it could also be that depending on how the tactics play out, if the players have the element of surprise, you know, if the enemies aren’t spread out in an advantageous way, that, yeah, they could blow through a deadly encounter, that can absolutely happen. 

And this is where you’ve got to start to look at the different ways that an adventuring day is put together, because one of the assumptions behind encounter building in 5th Edition D&D, and in fact in most editions of D&D, is that a lot of the adventuring day’s difficulty is built around the concept of attrition. And there is this assumption that you’re going to be on some kind of dungeon quarrel and you’re going to have repeated encounters every day and over time as you consume your resources, your spell slots, all of this, you’ll lose hit points, and by the end of the day things are going to get really hard, because this has ground you down for attrition. And you can see this, because if you look, essentially, at the experience point budget that is assigned for a day, and how that compares to a deadly encounter – a deadly encounter is 1/3 of that. The idea is that you can have 3 deadly encounters in a day and that is still a totally acceptable amount of combat to throw at your players. And this, of course, this corresponds to the fact that 5th Edition assumes that you get 2 short rests a day. You have a deadly encounter, you have a short rest, you have a deadly encounter, you have short rest. But, in theory, what D&D is essentially telling you is the maximum amount of combat that you can throw at your players in one go in a day is the total experience budget for that whole adventuring day, so that’s 3 of the deadly encounter’s worth of combat. And me, if I’ve got something that’s going to be an epic boss fight that the campaign has been building up to and the players are going at this knowing that they’re going into this fight, then you may well use your entire day’s budget of enemies, essentially, in one huge encounter. And it will be devastating. I mean, there is a serious chance that people may really die and that kind of thing. But that is essentially the most that your players can handle at once with full resources. 

Peter: Right, right. So, it sounds like you touched on two, almost like two directions, if you will. There’s sort of the ‘taking the adventure and going broad’. So, you have many, many – not adventures – but ‘taking the encounters and going broad’, you have multiple encounters that, over the day – I like that term – they- it’s a matter of attrition, you’re draining resources along the way to bring that angst – if you will – out of the player characters and make the stakes a little higher. And then there’s this depth that comes in where it’s all of a sudden BOOM, you’re in this and if one thing changes for the worse or, that’s the one where one or two dice rolls can really change things. 

So, I’m curious, for you, where do you lean on that spectrum? I’d be interested to hear where – I know where I sit and this is just an interesting kind of thought, but I’m interested to see where do you sit, where do you find yourself?

Kyle: Well, I like every encounter to be meaningful. And I find that when you are in this kind of state of attrition with repeated encounters, they become a matter of course and, for me, what I really enjoy is I enjoy binding the narrative stakes into the encounter, so every encounter should have real meaning for the story and it should be motivating to the players and it should drive the action forwards. So, because of that I tend to lean more into what you called the tall end. 

So, like I said, deadly is baseline. You might have- sure, you could have 3 of those in a day or whatever, but generally speaking, depending on the style of your campaign, if it’s more roleplay heavy or more exploration heavy, you might really have only one encounter in a day or two maybe, but the point is you can then absolutely afford to stack so much more into those. And then of course that doesn’t just come in the form of the strength of the enemies they’re facing, it’s also a matter of variety and tactics and you can have ranged, you can have spell casters, you can have melee, and you want to make these fights interesting. And so, you stack up different kinds of enemies. You’ve got to also then, of course, look at your party composition, how that’s going to interact with the way that your players fight, because that won’t be the same from party to party. And that’s really how you can start getting into making these encounters very much built bespoke for your party, and then you get into a really interesting zone.

Peter: Very cool, very cool. And when you think about the difference that your tall versus wide encounter design… How does that change as your players become more powerful? And I know that not every game system has players gaining levels or gaining new skills and every ability, some are very static or very difficult to gain new abilities. When you think about D&D – and I think in many – you have this clear level growth and there’s these kind of natural breaks in the levels, right? You’re starting out and then you’re a little more heroic and then everybody knows who you are and now you’re saving the world. You know, there’s these heroic tiers that are introduced. Do you need to change, or do you need to think about change as a Game Master in how you view encounters? And how you plan those encounters or how you plan the shift towards attrition as you get more powerful? Or do you stay tall? I’m just curious as to what you think there. 

Kyle: Yeah, I mean, I think this is a real function of how many spell casters you have in your party, because one of the distinct changes as you level is you get these new spell levels coming in and that really changes the game with what you can do. You hit level 5 and suddenly you have 2 massive game changes available, you have Fireball, which is just going to trash mobs when you have a lot of groups, and you have Fly. And as soon as you have that third dimension coming into combat, where falling ceases to be as much of an issue and you can have all different elevations and all of that, that completely changes the situation. I mean, if you’ve got goblins scrabbling around on the floor and your wizard is just floating 30 feet up, he’s not concerned.

Peter: Right. 

Kyle: I mean, of arrows, sure. But you really do get these breaking points and I think level 5 is a big one, because level 5 also comes not just with level spells, but also with extra attacks and martials and there are a lot of new things that come with level 5. And that’s notable, because that’s also the beginning of tier 2. And each time you get, I think, these tiers that you mentioned, that’s a really significant difference there. And part of the reason for that is the kinds of abilities that start to kick in at these levels. So, for example, at level 17, which is the beginning of tier 4, you suddenly get access to 9th level spells. You’ve got Wish on the table; the whole game changes. And it’s a little more subtle between levels 10 and 11 when you go from tier 2 to tier 3, but you can also see that because the gap between levels 10 and 11 is the biggest proportionally to the amount of xp that you get from encounters. So, essentially, you kind of need the most relative xp to go from level 10 to level 11, so you really see these breaking points where new abilities start to come into play. I think a great example is Divine Intervention for Clerics that starts to kick in tier 3, tier 4 and so, yeah, you get these jumps in difficulty, but at the same time the CR system is kind of built to handle that to an extent. That’s one of the beauties of using it is you do have a lot of this quantified, but, like you say, you get these quantum leaps and they come when the increase in strength is not just a simple increase in damage, it’s an increase in the variety of options in what you can do. And I think you see this in a number of the different kind of streaming campaigns that you get on the internet, like if you compare the first campaign of Critical Role to, say, the second campaign, which – so the first one was like a lot of very high level stuff, whereas the [second] one started right from the beginning – you can really see the differences. For example, at the end of campaign 1, it’s basically all tall encounter design, like you’re discussing. It’s boss fight after boss fight and all the little stuff in-between they kind of just walk over because they’re high level. But then all of the key encounters are big, high-level boss fights with everything thrown into them, you know, the kitchen sink, it’s all there. And you do or die. 

Peter: Excellent. As you think through that concept of tall encounters and throwing in your boss fights and things like that, what are some of your favorite tweaks that you’re making to the baddies that your heroes are fighting that are tall? Are you, like, do you have kind of a series of surefire, here are 3 things I’ll consider, you know, you always will add in a way to potentially avoid damage as a reaction, you know, like a parry or a reflect or a shield. Do you have some sort of…like, are you trying to layer in lair actions, you know, by level 5, but they’re minor? What are some of the things that you drop in as you’re thinking through encounter designs that kind of help level your playing field as the Game Master and help challenge those players? 

Kyle: I think what you’re describing there is something that 5th Edition has actually added in a very explicit way, because 5th Edition brought with it legendary actions and legendary monsters. And what some people don’t realize is that that is a template that you can apply to any monster, any NPC. You don’t just have to say, ‘this is a dragon, so it’s legendary’. You could have a non-legendary dragon if you wanted to. But the point is that what legendary really does is it lets the monster act between every single player turn, and the thing is that here you have normally 3 legendary actions per round on a monster, in the monster manual, but that’s with the assumption that the creature is facing 4 players. So it has its normal action and then the 3 legendaries and so in-between each turn, essentially, it goes and a good way to scale the number of legendary actions that a legendary creature has is essentially to say the size of your party minus 1. And then that completely changes the game, because it’s not just we have a round, there’s initiative, we go back and forth, this creature is going to act every single time a player takes an action. And that makes a huge difference. And then when you’re designing the plethora of legendary actions that a creature has available to it, you can then say, you can then have a special movement type so that it can stay mobile and not pinned down and you can have a special attack so that it can get moving on the fly, you can get something with some range, so you have a combination of ranged and melee so you have this creature that is always moving and it’s dynamic. And that keeps the fight really interesting. And it keeps your players on their toes because they can’t just rely on the fact that oh, we’re going to get 4 turns of hitting this thing before it goes again. No, no, no, it’s coming at you. And that can really change how a battle plays out. 

Peter: Oh so, really interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way, it’s almost like each legendary action is a single-use enemy. 

Kyle: Yeah!

Peter: It’s not just, it doesn’t have its own health pool, you know, it doesn’t have its own AC, its spell is the same, but it’s still a way to interrupt each time. And then you layer in minions on top of that and all of a sudden you’ve got a double-decker, right? Because now you’ve got the minions that actually do divert damage away from the main enemy and they have a tail attack or a breath weapon or a move, you know, a mobility escape without attack opportunities or something like that. So, yeah, that’s a really good thought. I hadn’t thought about it that way. That’s really cool. Awesome. 

I have a totally different – now that’s talking about going tall, I’m going to talk a little bit about going broad, and this is another one where I can, I can ask my own questions here. So, my party loves taking long rests in D&D 5e, when we play these games. It’s their favorite thing to do, because – I don’t know that they’ve ever actually taken a short rest. [laughs]Like, I think it’s only long rests. So, for me, I think it’s a little bit of poor encounter design, but then also maybe being a little bit too nice. So, how do you go about interrupting a long rest without being an asshole? How do you tie that to the game? What are some of the things that you’ve done or some examples that you maybe can share of just like disrupting the long rest, disrupting the party from trying to refresh? 

Kyle: Well, I mean, I think one of the things to really bear in mind here is the rules as written in 5th Edition you’re only allowed the long rest once per 24 hours. So, it’s like you can only have a night’s sleep once per day. Sure, you can rest in that time, but you’re only getting the benefit one time. So that’s, for a start, because it’s simply – sure, you can take a break, that’s what short rests are for, you can wait and rest for 8 hours if you want, but you’re not going to refresh all of your spell slots. 

Peter: Got it. 

Kyle: That’s the rules-as-written side of it, but, I mean, logically you might want to say, ‘okay, cool, if you actually do go back to the inn and take a break for a time and rest, sure, you can regain all of your spells, all of your hit points, no problem’, but in the meantime the world is continuing while you are doing nothing and events are progressing. And here, you don’t actively tell your players they can’t rest, they can do whatever they want, it’s an open world, but while they’re doing that the evil duke has spoken with the grand vizier and events are moving out of their control. You do this with narrative and you tie it into the story and while they left the dungeon to go have their long rest, the kobolds have built more traps and the dungeon has been fortified and there’s a troll waiting for them in the atrium. The world is not static. When you walk away, things do not just remain as they are, it’s a dynamic, living world and I think that’s the real, the best way in my opinion to have long rests have real meaning, especially when too many of them are being taken. 

Peter: Right, right, it’s a very narrative way to say ‘Welcome back. By the time you return to where you were, you will be the same and/or worse off’. [laughs] 

Kyle: Exactly. It’s incentive, because, like I said, rules-as-written you can only do once per 24 hours, but that’s kind of, it’s game-y, right? If I rest for 8 hours, why shouldn’t I feel better afterwards? So like that’s something that I’m sometimes inclined to waive in favor of saying, no, no, you can do whatever you want, but there are real world consequences for your actions. 

Peter: Right. Yeah, my favorite are like ‘oh, so we just destroyed this huge’ – I can see it now – ‘oh, we just wiped out a hag from the hag coven and the other two ran away, and the gith are destroyed or maybe they teleported away, well now here we are in this swamp in this terrible area in a hag’s home, why don’t we just take a long rest here?’ I can just see it. I can see it already, you know? It is interesting to be like okay, well, what would happen? What would happen if we set up shop and threw the campfire together and made some s’mores and just got our spells back in the middle of this deadly swamp? So, it is interesting, it’s like do they deserve that or does something else change? 

Kyle: Well, I think if you’re honest with your players about your expectations about what’s going on, if you – there’s that famous thing of the DM saying ‘are you sure you want to do that?’, you know? 

Peter: Exactly. The power of that question. 

Kyle: Exactly, exactly. So let them do it, but just be upfront about the fact that this may not be a good idea. And the thing is, normally the characters would know that and so you can tell the players, ‘your characters would know that maybe isn’t the best idea’. 

Peter: Right, right. That’s a great point. Good, awesome. Well this has been great, this has been a lot of fun. So, everybody, this is Kyle Taylor, Stormchaser in the tabletop community, and we’re just talking about all the fun stuff that you can do and inject into your own tabletop roleplaying games. I get a lot out of it, because I think it makes me a better player and that’s what we hope we can do with Homebrew University. So, Kyle, thanks for your time today, this has been great. 

Kyle: Thank you, Pete, it’s been great. 

Peter: Awesome, we’ll talk to you soon.


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