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How to Challenge Players? Just Add Damage!

A Braxat attacks a caravan in a Dark Sun game. Art by Kerem Beyit.
A Braxat attacks a caravan in a Dark Sun game. Art by Kerem Beyit.

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.

The Goal is to Have Fun

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!

Why Damage Likely Solves the Problem

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:

A chart showing the average damage in the DMG, vs actual damage in the Monster Manual and Volo's.
Table comparing the guidelines for monster damage in the DMG to the damage actually dealt by monsters in the MM and Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

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.

Guidelines for Adding Damage

Step 1: Decide if the Combat Should Be Challenging

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.

Step 2: Add 1-2 Dice of Damage

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.

Average values for common die combinations.

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).

Step 3: Continue Adding Dice as Needed, Descriptively

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:

  • “The bugbear grabs the table with two hands, swinging it into you!”
  • “The stone golem vibrates with eldritch energy, and its fists move faster than before.”
  • “The demon calls out to its master, and is granted power from its liege.”

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.

Step 4: Monitor PC Hit Point Levels

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.

  • “The table the bugbear was wielding finally breaks apart, and she has to resort to her fists for the next attack.”
  • “The stone golem’s power seems to ebb, and it isn’t striking as capably.”
  • “The demon has lost a lot of blood. It doesn’t look as dangerous as it desperately claws at you.”

Why Not Change Hit Points or AC?

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.

Are the Encounter Creation Rules the Problem?

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:

Character LevelEasyMedHardDeadly
52505007501,100

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:

  • If you have 2, 3-6, 7-10, 11-14, or 15+ monsters, the XP cost of the monsters goes up. More monsters = more chances to hit and overwhelm. For example, if you have 3-6 monsters (pretty typical), their XP is multiplied by 2.
  • If you have fewer than 3 PCs, you apply the next highest multiplier. 3 PCs against 3-6 monsters? The multiplier is 2.5x instead of 2x.
  • If you have 6 or more PCs, you lower the multiplier. 6 PCs against 3-6 monsters? The multiplier is now 1.5x.

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.

Removing the Multiplier

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).

“One Louder”

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!

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19 comments on “How to Challenge Players? Just Add Damage!

  1. Richard Green
    June 10, 2021

    Excellent stuff Teos! Totally agree with you on increasing monster damage rather than hp or AC to make fights tougher. I have a lot of experience doing this from 4e where I would also reduce monster hp for creatures from the earlier books to speed up combat.

  2. Alphastream
    June 10, 2021

    Something I meant to add to this post and forgot is the definition of the encounter levels. This was mentioned in a comment to our previous post. I really like what the DMG sets out to do:

    There are four categories of encounter difficulty.

    Easy. An easy encounter doesn’t tax the characters’ resources or put them in serious peril. They might lose a few hit points, but victory is pretty much guaranteed.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    I think these are great goals, and one of the reasons I don’t like using just Deadly / Not Deadly as WotC designers now suggest.

  3. Nils
    June 10, 2021

    Is the 2nd column meant to say DMG instead of MM? As in there’s something on the DMG that lays out expected damage?

    • Alphastream
      June 10, 2021

      Augh! Yes! I will fix that in the next few minutes. The second column is from the DMG, where it states the damage a monster should inflict at each CR. Thanks for catching that!

  4. Zoar
    June 10, 2021

    Shouldn’t damage per round account for how often the creature will hit? If they have a 50% chance to hit, doing average 13 damage per hit, then a creature with one attack is doing 6 damage per round.

    • Alphastream
      June 10, 2021

      Excellent question. However, not per the DMG rules. The DMG has expectations for attack values (for example, a CR 6 monster should have an attack bonus of +6), but this is not used to determine the damage. The damage is separately calculated, as shown in the table I posted. That damage has some assumptions when it comes to multiple targets (all of my examples use single-target monsters to avoid the complication, though the result is the same).

      • Alphastream
        June 10, 2021

        This was asked on Twitter: could the damage be related to accuracy? Maybe the monsters are more accurate and these don’t deal as much damage? According to the Blog of Holding analysis, no. They are not correlated. All monsters are more accurate than you would expect from the DMG guidelines, but not enough to compensate for the low damage.

  5. Chris
    June 19, 2021

    What do you think should happen with big area attacks like breath weapons? Similar guidelines to increase their damage?

    • Alphastream
      June 19, 2021

      Adding a die of damage still works as a starting point. ThinkDM has a great article on dragon breath weapon damage and a clever idea that uses a breath weapon dice pool. (https://thinkdm.org/2019/06/08/breath-weapon-dice-pool/) Worth checking out!

      In general, the DMG has interesting and likely inaccurate ways of tracking AoE damage. The rules say AoE/multi-attack should do 1/2 the expected damage per round, and the expectation is that 2 characters would be in it. If you expect more, you can divide it among that many targets. So, if a monster should do 30 a round, the guidance is that the breath weapon would do 15 damage on average, assuming 2 targets. BUT… damage that is recharged or daily or situational can do more damage. In practice, it ends up being around 4x the damage. So, for a breath weapon, you could look at 4x because it’s situational but half because it’s AoE, so 2x the expected DPR. Start with that number and adjust upwards to what seems like fun. I would still add a die (or 2 at high CRs) and see how that feels.

      • Chris
        June 23, 2021

        Thank you! I tried your approach this week and my games suddenly feel much more like adventurers being challenged by dangerous foes than super heroes crushing minions.

        Great stuff!

        • Alphastream
          June 23, 2021

          Thanks so much for sharing! Fantastic to hear!

  6. Jacob
    June 20, 2021

    The Blog of Holding’s claims just don’t hold water. Take the Stone Golem from your example. If you follow through with WotC’s math from the DMG, it should actually be a CR 10 or maybe 11 Monster.

    It deals 38 dmg, which we find on the CR 5 line, but next to that we see +6 to attack. The DMGs rules state for every +2 above +6, we increase the offensive CR by 1.

    The Stone Golem has an offensive CR of 7.

    The Stone Golem has 178hp, in line with CR 8, but it has damage immunities, which for an expected CR 11 creature means we must multiply those hp by 1.5. That gets us to 267 hp, in line with the CR 14 column. The typical AC for a defensive CR of 14 is 18, we don’t need to make any adjustments for our AC of 17 because it’s not 2 above or below 18. Because our Stone Golem has Magic Resistance, we add 2 to the AC for our calculations, but that still leaves us at AC 19, which isn’t more than 2 above or below AC 18. That gives us an defensive CR of 14.

    The average of 14 and 7 is CR 10.5. Now this is where we get into some more messy CR math, but trust me when I say it’s easier just to round this monster down to CR 10.

    The Blog of Holding’s claims are nonsense. They aren’t born out by even the briefest examination.

    Of course, knowing how CR is calculated, and knowing that this creature is effectively only a CR 8 if the party has no problem bypassing its damage immunities, is good to know.

    • Alphastream
      June 20, 2021

      I believe Blog of Holding to do good statistical analyses. They talk through the possibility of that correlation, but they aren’t seeing that correlation. For example: “We can test common and seemingly powerful traits like legendary resistance and magic resistance and in almost all cases, the presence or absence of these traits has no correlation to higher or lower monster statistics. Therefore, they are not visibly affecting a monster’s CR. The only verifiable exceptions, as I mentioned here, are regeneration (which has a negligible but real effect, reducing some monster HP a by a few percent) and possession (which has a large effect, halving hit points) and possibly damage transfer.”

      Or: “Shouldn’t such a big increase or decrease – for instance, bumping a monster from 100 to 50 or 150 HP, or from 30 damage to 15 or 45 damage – change its CR? Perhaps it should, but it doesn’t in the corpus. There are plenty of examples of monsters with wildly varying hit points and damage potential sitting next to each other in the same Challenge Rating – without any other attributes which obviously compensate for the differences.”

      And, specific to attacks: “In other words, monster attack bonuses tend to be a little more than one point away from the average. And, as we’ve proved in previous steps, there is no correlation between high/low attack bonus and any other monster stat.”

      Have you done a statistical analysis to see otherwise?

      • Jacob
        June 20, 2021

        It would take a lot of time to reverse engineer every monster in the Monster Manual and graph each creature’s DMG calculated CR against their CR listed in the monster manual. And there appears little reason to do that work when the small sample I have tested haven’t shown a large discrepancy worthy of investigation.

        The Blog of Holding analysis doesn’t pass the sniff test when even their hand picked examples fall flat.

        The Blog of Holding holds the disparity between the CR 22 Ancient Green Dragon and the CR 22 Geryon from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes as an example.

        But when we actually reverse engineer the CRs of these monsters based on the guidance in the DMG, we find that the Ancient Green Dragon should be CR 23 and Geryon should be CR 22.

        The kind of statistical analysis The Blog of Holding is doing to conclude that features like Magic Resistance aren’t accounted for doesn’t work because they are only comparing two features/statistics at a time. There’s too much noise from the other variables they aren’t factoring in to detect anything other than the largest factors (like regeneration).

        When you reverse engineer an individual monster’s features you usually will find that the monster is within +/- 1 of the listed CR. There are monsters such as the CR 6 Young White Dragon which should actually be a CR 8, but just as Lightning Bolt and Fireball deal more damage than one would expect from a 3rd-level AoE spell, I think it may be intentional that Dragons often seem to punch above their weight in Dungeons and Dragons.

        I have reverse engineered a lot of the Monster Manual monsters over the last 6 years, and I haven’t found any that are off the DMG guidance by 3 CR or more, and the vast majority are within +/- 1 CR of the listed CR.

        The fact that folks who are conducting statistical analyses struggle to come up with even one good example to support their conclusions would seem to confirm my suspicion that their methodology lacks statistical rigor.

      • Jacob
        June 20, 2021

        Actually, I forgot in my last post about the Rakshasa. It’s CR definitely deviates by 3 or more from the expected CR. It’s an example of a creature that is clearly and intentionally an exception to typical CR calculations.

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  9. Thomas Christy
    September 13, 2021

    Great article Teos! I am working on a way to put this in my roll20 macros and to slide it up and down with a master slider (or a few sliders) as I like. I’ll get a video up when I have it ready.

    • Alphastream
      September 13, 2021

      That’s a really cool idea! I look forward to seeing that!

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