The Alphastream Game Design Blog
The easiest way to challenge players is to add damage. Usually. We are going to talk about why damage works better than other options, how to know how much damage to add, but also other important considerations in adjusting your challenges.
We aren’t trying to actually defeat the characters. We want to challenge them. Not all the time, but probably most of the time. And sometimes we have a crucial battle where we want a really tough challenge. We want to be reasonably sure we will deliver on that goal. Players can always surprise us, and that’s awesome. It’s okay if players come up with a great plan, roll extremely well, or happen to have exactly the right tactics or spells or features. What we don’t want is that success is automatic and without effort or excitement.
I think of encounter design as I would if I were scripting a movie or writing a chapter of a novel. If we enter the dark cave, we might at first have a very easy fight that gives us a taste of the dangers ahead. It allows our protagonists (the PCs) a chance to shine and show off their techniques. As we move further we might encounter a harder fight, one that presses the characters, but they quickly turn the tide and continue. Perhaps near the end, they confront the true horror, and here we want a tough challenge that forces them to dig deep. They will probably win, but it should feel difficult and dangerous.
In all of these cases, the goal is to have fun. Players can have fun a lot of ways. I’ve both played and ran at tables where we absolutely owned every challenge, easily dispatching the monsters. And we had an absolute blast. Usually, this is because the DM is cheering us on the whole time, the plot of the adventure is fun, the action is compelling, and we are having fun feeling like amazing heroes. The foes are strong, but we are stronger.
I’ve also had games where the fun was all in the challenge. Tough fights where we clutched victory from the jaws of defeat. Battered and bruised and breathing sighs of relief (and singing sad songs for those who perished), we emerged to tell the tale. I find my favorite memories are these kinds of games.
The worst games I encounter are those where the story of the game, and the expectations of players and DM, don’t match the challenge level. It’s supposed to be the cinematic clash with the great demon, but it’s lame. It’s an ambush by a terrifying beast… that can’t deal any real damage.
These are the cases where our script falls apart. Our movie is lame. We need to make it exciting and up the challenge level. So, rule one: only make changes if it will actually make the game more fun!
Last time, we looked at why so many DMs struggle with 5E encounter design. The rules for encounter design recommend monsters that would take 5-6 rounds to defeat average characters. (But most characters aren’t average – we will look at this next time.)
As I said before, I don’t think the problem is the encounter design rules (more on that below). I think it’s the monsters. The encounter design rules give us the kind of results we want. Fifth level PCs facing three basilisks – awesome! Or is it?
The rules for building monsters are found in the back of the DMG. They stipulate, for each CR, the range of expected damage. Blog of Holding analyzed monsters a while back, finding that they had fewer hit points and dealt less damage than the DMG monster creation guidelines suggest. Importantly, there was no correlation to special features! This means, a monster might deal little damage without having anything we would expect to have caused this drop in damage. The monsters are simply weaker than expected.
By how much? I hope you are sitting down. Here is my chart:
Your encounter with three CR 3 creatures… it is probably off by between 3 and 18 points of damage each round. Your encounter with three CR 12 creatures? It is off by 45-60 points of damage each and every round of combat!
Here is another way of thinking about it. The gap in damage for a CR 12 creature is 18 damage. That’s the average damage roll on 6d6!
Now, we don’t necessarily need to get all that damage back. But monsters are not dealing enough damage. Here is what I would advise DMs.
We want our heroes to win. We want everyone to have fun. The goal isn’t to frustrate players. We just want to be able to offer a challenge when we need it.
If this challenge is meant to be easy, if the players need an easy fight for a change, or if they are having fun with easy combats, don’t change anything.
Monsters below CR 1 generally don’t need adjustment, unless your characters are high level and facing lots of low CR creatures.
For most cases with CRs 1-9, add a die of damage. Use the same die as the monster already inflicts. This may seem low compared to the chart we saw above. However, consider that monsters may make several attacks, and the die size often reflects the type of attacks.
Many 5E DMs (myself included) tend to use average damage. Just add the average value of the die. 5E rounds down. For example, a d4 deals an average of 2 damage (2.5, rounded down). If it helps, print out a cheat sheet of the die averages.
For example, the party is facing three CR 4 babau demons (from Volo’s Guide). They attack twice with 1d8+4 attacks, for a total of 16 damage. The damage is based off of d8s, so we add one die of the same type. The attacks now deal 2d8+4 damage, for an average of 13 per attack and our new total is 26 damage a round. If we want to be extra cautious, we can look at our DMG chart: The old average was way below expected damage. 26 is just under the minimum expected for CR 4. Close enough and much more likely to be a fun challenge.
For CRs of 10 and higher, add a +1 to attack rolls and either 1 or 2 dice of damage. As you can see on the earlier chart above, the difference in expected damage gets worse as the CR increases. It isn’t true for all monsters. But, in general, 2 dice of damage will help you close the gap.
Example: The party is facing stone golems. The CR 10 creatures make two slam attacks dealing 19 (3d8+6) damage. 38 is way below our expected damage of 63-68. Adding a d8 to each attack, will increase our damage to 24 each, or 48 total. That’s still very low. Adding 2d8 to each attack will bring our total to 56 per round, which is far more reasonable (and still low, but it should work if your slow attack is used tactically).
After the first round or two, take stock of the situation. If you think the monsters aren’t hitting hard enough, add another die of damage (or two, at high CRs).
I do this descriptively. Here are some ideas:
You can add more dice as needed. If you find you are missing often, you can also add +2 to your attack rolls. I tend to do this sparingly, as most monsters are reasonably accurate.
Pin your party’s Hit Point totals to your DM screen, or keep a slip of paper near your notes. You want to have a feel for how much damage your party can take. If the fighter has 68 hit points, and you hit for 2 blows that deal 14 each, 28 damage is almost half.
With time, you can develop a good feel for how much damage to deal. You can also watch player faces, as they tend to get much more intense when Hit Points are scarce. Finally, it’s a good practice to ask players how their characters look. “Describe how your character looks after that blow.” This is an opportunity for a little roleplay or descriptive fun, but also informs you and other party members whether this PC is barely standing.
What you really want to avoid is the situation where you are adding damage, you think everything is fine, and suddenly you realize that every PC is in single digits and the monsters are still in good shape. Avoid that by monitoring those PC levels.
If the damage you added is too much, you can back off. Again, narrate the change.
A lot of DMs like to modify HPs and AC. This makes monsters tougher, but it means combat takes longer. If your fights are too fast (is that possible?), then you could consider making them hardier.
I personally prefer to have fights be relatively quick, but pack a punch. Long fights can get boring and feel like a slog. That’s why I focus on damage and don’t generally modify my AC or Hit Points.
If I do modify Hit Points, I tend to do it on the fly, when a monster dying right now would be a letdown. In that case, I will elevate its Hit Points within the maximum range for the monster. (For example, a stone golem has 178 Hit Points, but it has 17d10+85 as its range, so it can have up to 255 Hit Points.)
So there you have it. This is why and how I address encounter challenge in many of my games. Next time we will look at some special cases. But, before we go, let’s talk about one more related question.
A good number of you asked here and on Twitter whether the problem is just the encounter guidelines. I find the encounter creation rules in the DMG (and also those in Xanathar’s) are generally doing what they are meant to do. When we use the rules, they do in fact help us choose different kinds of encounters. They help us to pick a range of monsters which should be appropriate. Let’s take a quick look.
The DMG rules in Chapter 3 are what we would generally want. We get a table with the XP budget per character, at various levels of challenge. Here is an example for level 5:
If we have 5 characters of 5th level, and we want to create a Medium fight, we have 2,500 XP worth of monsters to play with. Anything below the Hard level works, so our max XP for a Hard fight is 749*5 = 3,745 max XP. This also works with mixed PC levels. We just add up the values from the table.
The system isn’t as easy as it was in 4E, but it’s not terrible. And a number of encounter generating tools are out there that automate the math (including on D&D Beyond). A well-known one is Kobold Fight Club.
If you read the rules, you will find they also have modifiers (a multiplier) based on variables which often impact play:
These are all good variables to consider. Are they perfect? Nope. But they are generally the right design approach. Consider this scenario:
I have five level 5 characters. I want to create a battle against basilisks. I look up the CR 3 basilisk, and the rules tell me 2 of them would be just shy of a Medium fight, and 3 of them would be a hard fight. For me, a lot of that is true. I like the hit points they have, I like the gaze attack… but the average damage is 17. Unless I petrify half the party (unlikely), this won’t be a challenge due to the damage, so I adjust the damage.
One option DMs and authors (even many Adventurers League authors) use is to not use the multiplier. This can give you twice the monsters when you have 3-6 of them!
I find this goes too far. I don’t love combats with tons of monsters. In the example above, I don’t need or want 6 basilisks. Characters and monsters have trouble moving around and the DM’s turn becomes very long. I can use the lack of a multiplier to get away with slightly higher CRs, but this can also be problematic if the monsters have special abilities or powerful spells (cone of cold against a low level party, for example, or so many basilisks that every PC is petrified).
An option I like better is the Spinal Tap method. In the movie Spinal Tap, Nigel Tufnel reveals his amp has dials that go up to 11, instead of 10. “It’s one louder, isn’t it?”
Here, we re-label the DMG encounter creation table so each column is one higher. We ignore Easy fights in most cases, and we call the Medium our new Easy. The Hard column is now what we use if we want a Medium fight, and the Hard column is what we use when we want a Medium fight. If we want a Deadly fight… well… here we can do the following:
Take the difference between Hard and Deadly and add that to Deadly for our new Deadly. (Our “11 Deadly,” if you will.)
Example: In the table we shared earlier for a level 5 PC, a Hard challenge is 750 XP. For Deadly, it is 1,100. The difference is 350 XP. Our new Deadly is now 1,100+350, or 1,450 XP.
This isn’t too bad an approach. I used it for my Tomb of Annihilation campaign. I find it is inconsistent in how it performs at various CRs, but it’s an approach I like. If you find that adding a die or two of damage isn’t enough, try this method, or even both together. (If that doesn’t do the trick, you may need to wait for next week’s article!)
Note: The rules in Xanathar’s try to simplify by incorporating the multipliers into the tables. But, they give up on trying to provide different challenge levels. I really like the different challenge levels. To me, the challenge levels are integral to the art of encounter design. Simply asking if something is deadly or not is not what we would use to write a movie screenplay or to tell a story in a novel!