Running a session for Dungeons and Dragons follows a minor formula of sorts. While this formula isn’t always so rigid and sometimes nonexistent, I like to say that it does exist. This formula consists of how a D&D session is going to unfold. There is going to be story progression (at least that will be the goal), some role-playing, but most importantly, there is going to be combat.
Combat is where, I believe, players and their characters can showcase their skills and teamwork ability. However, it comes down to one thing. How easy will this encounter be? Is the goal to let the players steamroll their way through the enemies or do they need to be smarter with their resources?
As a Dungeon Master, I typically have these questions answered before I even start setting up the session for my players. Personally, encounters are the one thing that I need to plan beforehand. I know what my players can handle and what they can’t. However, it wasn’t always like that. At one time, I struggled with balancing encounters for my players. But I’ve picked up tips and how-tos along the way that I will share.
One of the most important things to consider when balancing encounters is to think about player levels. The creatures that your players are going to face will depend on whether they are level one or level 6. Sending a dragon against your players at level one will kill them outright. Hoard of the Dragon Queen is one fine example of having players go up against a dragon in the first chapter. Typically that isn’t something you’d want to do unless there’s a reason for it.
The second thing to consider is challenge rating. Challenge rating is a math equation that Wizards of the Coast made to determine how strong a monster is in relation to a party of 4 characters.
When looking at a monster’s stat block, you can see their challenge rating or CR as : CR: ¼ right underneath any resistances and/or immunities the creature may have. A CR of ¼ means that at level 1, 4 of these ¼ creature can go up against a party of four. A CR of 1 means one creature with this rating can go up against a party of LV 1 characters. This makes for a good balance encounter.
While this is a good starting point, it is not the end all, be all, to determine what to use. The chart falls apart at less than 4 players and more than 5 players. It also does not take into account any magic items, healing, or the environment. So when you have a table of plus 7, which I don’t recommend to anyone, it’s best to use your own intuition for encounters.
I let Kobold Fight Club do the math for me and it cuts down on my planning time. The website lets you choose how many players you have and what level they are. All you have to do is add creatures and it tells you whether this will be a easy, medium, hard, or deadly encounter.
With action economy, it boils down to who goes first and how many actions they have. At the start, players and creatures roll initiative. Some players will get really high initiatives that are somewhere above 22; I’ve done that in campaigns before and so have my players.
So, let’s say everyone rolled really high but you didn’t and the Big Bad is last. Well, I’m here to say no. In this situation, I’d put this Boss at the middle of the initiative. Why? Well, for starters, if this encounter is going to be challenging, and it should be since it’s the villain of the campaign, I’m not going to let it get wailed on by the players before it’s turn.
Of course, the players aren’t going to be fight only the Boss. Typically, I had other small nuisances to the encounter to divide the player’s actions. Depending on dice rolls, a high level party can kill a high level monster in about 5 or 6 rounds. Usually, it doesn’t go further than ten rounds which equals to a minute of combat in game, but there are exemptions. I believe that a good balanced encounter is where players have to plan and think a bit more instead of going on a rampage.
However, if the players are doing so much damage even with all the creatures around, I boost the monster’s health by 20 or 100 depending on what creature it is.
To balance the encounter for your table, taking healing into consideration is huge. Unless you’re planning to outright kill your players, I’d suggest giving them some healing potions before the throwdown.
My current table in my homebrew has no healing other than a paladin with her Lay On Hands ability. Throughout the campaign, I’ve had NPCs give them healing potions as an advance and other resources for the players to have on hand.
The way I see it, if the party has no healing, I slim down encounters. My decision is based on party level and how many players I have. I don’t want to overwhelm my players in each encounter. This is even more critical if they’re going through a dungeon. If every counter is deadly or hard, they won’t make it until the end.
Next, we have party composition. This is straightforward. While this hasn’t happened to me, I’ve witnessed a table with 6 barbarians. These guys will destroy your monster before you can outright take them down. Barbarians are beefy and can tank and should. So, work around that. A good balanced encounter means challenging every player. Have those barbarians make Wisdom saves, Charisma saves, and even Intelligence saves. I assure you that most of them won’t be able to unless they roll really, really high.That is one extreme example. Most people I know will ask about what the table has and what is needed. I consider this the norm.
There will usually be a tank, one or two rogues, perhaps a fighter and/or a monk. A cleric, though not that kind of cleric (aka little to no healing), maybe a ranger and/or a bard. Depending on a the party composition, the encounters will change.
During a one shot I played in, the table only had squishy characters. We were all spell casters. Our Armor Class sat between 12 – 16 give or take. The DM had to alter the encounter so that the creatures wouldn’t outright kill is with one hit. Squishy characters don’t have a lot of hit points. I wouldn’t recommend having them go up against one attack killers.
Lastly, we have intuition. As a DM, you become aware of the flow of the game. That’s in the job description. Eventually, you know what your party can handle and can plan accordingly.
To put this in perspective, there was an instance where my players encountered two Giant Crocodiles. They handled it very well but I also wanted to let them know that this was a dangerous area and traversing it wouldn’t be easy. Giant Crocodile sits at a CR of 5. The Barbarian had taken down the first one to less than half the creatures hit points in two rounds. So, I added another Giant Crocodile.The party was just fine.
There have been times where I might have made the encounter too deadly. When that happened, I had the creatures fail a saving throw or outright take them off the field even if they have ten more hit points left. It’s all about gut feeling.
I will say that while balanced encounters are the goal, small victories are important. Players want to feel powerful and it’s okay to stroke their egos a few times. Once you’ve DM’d for a few sessions, it develops like a sixth sense almost. Trust that sixth sense.
Overall, combat is going to be a huge part of any campaign. Of course, it does depend on what kind of campaign you’re running. I’ve never been in or seen a game where there wasn’t at least one fight during the session.
As a DM, I want to challenge my players but also not outright kill them. In order to achieve this, each encounter has to be balanced, unless you are giving the players easy victories or some much needed experience points. In order to do this, I take into account the player’s levels, any healing they can do, what each player can bring to the table, and how many actions each creature and player has during combat. Resources like checking the Challenge Rating and using Kobold Fight Club are very useful to me.
However, the one thing to keep in mind is that you are the DM. You’re the one behind the screen and can tell how combat is going. If you think your players having too much trouble on an easy encounter, it’s alright to scale back. If they are steamrolling past a hard encounter, add more hit points to the enemy or add more enemies. The choice is yours.