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This is my first time DMing a D&D game and I'm learning as I go. I'm running Tyranny of Dragons, and here's my situation:

Through a series of lucky events and other phenomena, the party is one level higher than the recommended level for this chapter--level 7 rather than level 6--and all difficulty has gone out the window. They are a larger than average sized group as well (7) and I am losing my players in combat as they don't feel the need to plan their next move. They have the, "We're not gonna get hurt anyway so I'll just hit something," mentality and it's certainly not what I want for my campaign. As with many other, I want my players to be challenged and entertained.

I've certainly learned my lesson with this as my first DM experience but I'd still like to salvage this campaign in any way I can. I was considering increasing the number of enemies in each encounter by a few and/or increasing their damage/defense by a few points as well but I'd like the community's input.

My question: how can I save this campaign and make my players fear the death of their characters again?

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It doesn't have any overall "Adjusting the Adventure" section but some encounters do have a "for groups of # size or larger, add # more enemies per PC." This one also doesn't account for higher levels. – MattyMcGrizzle Jan 14 at 3:56
    
Answers here will tell you how to make it harder, but don't forget to warn your players. You're basically rewriting the world, so it's rather unfair if you kill them all, because every enemy in the world leveled up while they weren't looking. – Patrick M Jan 15 at 8:15
up vote 37 down vote accepted

You should scale the encounters to increase the difficulty for your party.

The ability to scale encounters to your party is very important when you do not intend on following a campaign to the T. The DMG actually clarifies how to do this for your party on page 82. Where it tells you how to gauge your party's difficulty rating by XP values. Within this section of the book, you can adjust the encounters appropriately.

The way to do this by the book is to gauge the combined XP difficulty of your party:

XP Thresholds by Character Level \begin{array}{l|llll} \text{Level} & \text{Easy} & \text{Medium} & \text{Hard} & \text{Deadly} \\ \hline \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots \\ 7 & 350 & 750 & 1100 & 1700 \\ \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \vdots \\ \end{array}

If you have seven players who are level 7, the XP Thresholds By Character Level table specifies:

  • A Hard encounter for that party would have a threshold of 1100XP * 7 players = 7,700 XP.

  • A Deadly encounter, by this table, would have over 1700XP * 7 players = 11,900 XP.

When creating the encounter, gauge how many creatures it has, and use the XP from their statblocks in the monster manual (or elsewhere) to determine if they meet this threshold. In this case, let's try using ochre jellies as a test creature for this encounter (though a harder encounter would have more variable creatures than just one type).

The Ochre Jelly has CR2 (450XP). The table on p. 82 of the DMG specifies that you do the following to gauge encounters:

  • Add up the XP values of all the monsters in the encounter.
  • Multiply that XP value to determine its challenge based on the Encounter Multipliers table on the same page (82).
  • Compare it to the party's XP challenge value calculated earlier (7,700, hard / 11,900 deadly) to gauge difficulty.
  • The highest threshold that that combined XP value surpasses indicates its difficulty.

So normally 7 Ochre Jellies would only be 3150 XP. But with the creature quantity multiplier, 7-10 monsters is 2.5X. Bringing that XP total to 7875. This would constitute a Hard encounter by the reasoning within the DMG.

\begin{array}{ll} \text{Number of Monsters} & \text{Multiplier} \\ \hline 1 & \times 1\\ 2 & \times 1.5\\ 3\text{–}6 & \times 2\\ 7\text{–}10 & \times 2.5\\ 11\text{–}14 & \times 3\\ 15+ & \times 4\\ \end{array}

Ultimately, it is your job as a DM to scale up the encounters if the party has improved beyond what the campaign has originally stated. This is a tool provided by WoTC to help DMs determine how to cater to custom campaigns and/or premade campaigns that are adjusted.

I personally find that Deadly level encounters are the only way to give my players a run for their money. Anything below it can be made trivial pretty easily.

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12  
It might be worth noting that with a 7-player party using milestone experience, this would have been required anyway. – Miniman Jan 14 at 4:07
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With 7 PCs, you use one step lower experience multiplier. So, 7 Ochre Jellies would only be a 2x multiplier. At 6300, this would put it in the middle of hard territory. – Kyle W Jan 14 at 19:40
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Check out Kobold Fight Club's encounter builder for an easy way to scale up encounters. I've been doing this with Princes of the Apocalypse. I input the mobs for an encounter, set the group to size '4' and the level to the level the campaign expects the characters to be at to see how difficult the encounter was designed to be. Then, I set the group size and level to match my PCs, and add additional monsters until the encounter matches that difficulty. That creates encounters that are a more appropriate challenge for my larger group. – Shaun Jan 14 at 19:44
    
@KyleW Is that covered on p. 82 or somewhere else in the DMG? I'd like to quote it in the answer. I read it over but I might be missing it from what the book reads. – D. Webber Jan 25 at 17:51
    
@D.Webber Yes, I'll have to find it when I have the book available. I believe it's on the page after the multipliers for monsters. – Kyle W Jan 25 at 19:34

(First, 7 players is a lot, for an adventure designed for four. Consider that excitement during combat may be a matter of spotlight as much as it is risk.)

  1. You can do nothing. If you look at the character advancement table (PHB p.15), you see that the first few levels tick by pretty quickly, and looking at classes' advancement tables you see features developing substantially as low level characters proceed through the apprentice tier. By letting your characters skip a level, they've grown "too early." So their current encounters are underwhelming.

    But soon that advancement will slow down, especially as your characters are gaining 1/7 the XP for each encounter, rather than 1/4. The level-up they "skipped" was 9K XP, and the next three are 11K, 14K, and 16K XP each, which start to drag you back into the "right" spot*. Milestoning rather than awarding monster XP? Just push back the next two milestones by a bit and get yourself back on track. Late tier-2 levels can be a bit of a slog, anyway, so I'd argue it's not too much of a problem to blow by them a little quickly.

  2. Delay leveling up. "Experience Points" (DMG pp.260-261) details some alternate methods of awarding XP--if at all! Some older editions required a dedicated training period with a higher-level mentor for your character to advance a level, even with the requisite XP. Even as small a change as only allowing a level increase after a few days' downtime could start to bring your characters back "in line" with expectations.

  3. Adjust objectives for encounters. Are all of your players' combat encounters just matters of "hit until the things stop moving?" If the encounter's objectives are time-sensitive--like stopping the far-away kobold cutting the bridge support--your characters have regained motivation to care about planning ahead, cooperating, and thinking tactically in combat. If the outcome's a foregone conclusion, make the process matter.

  4. Adjust strength on the fly. The D&D Encounters version of this adventure gives some (very) loose advice on this subject: "you can increase the number of monsters.... Start by adding one monster... for each additional member of the party.... For encounters with... more powerful monsters you usually can't add... without making the encounter too difficult.... [So add some lesser monsters.] Be careful if you find yourself doubling the number of monsters in an encounter."

    One easy way to do this is to position your add-on units as a "backup force," which will enter the battle after some turns have passed. (They've become alerted by the sound of battle, or an alarm is sounded, &c.) If the battle is going easily, the reinforcements arrive early in the game. If the battle seems appropriate the reinforcements arrive late, turn tail and run, the PCs have an easy way of dodging the encounter, or they simply disappear.

  5. Use the DMG. "Creating Encounters" (DMG pp.81-85) may look daunting, but it's your friend. You can calculate the XP budget for existing encounters, evaluate with respect to 6th-level (4-person) party, then play a bit to scale up to provide the same difficulty to a 7th-level large party. It seems like a lot of work to go through, but after three or four times you get pretty familiar with the numbers.

  6. DMG+Angry: Encounter Building on Steriods. ('Roid Rage and all!) Check out Angry GM's series Let's Build an Angry Megadungeon. (As usual, be warned of rude language sprinkled through his work.) It's the most in-depth look at how to pace and structure encounters and XP that you'll find for 5e.


* Here's what I mean: Your characters are earning an amount in this adventure designed to drive one from 6th->7th level (9K XP). But they're already 7th, and so will make it almost-to-8th. When they hit those designed to drive a character from 7th->8th they'll quickly hit 8th, but only make some progress to 9th. Tabularly:

\begin{array}{lll} \text{Expected} & \text{Your}& \\ \text{level at} & \text{level at} & \text{K XP in} \\ \text{adv start} & \text{adv start} & \text{adventure} \\ \hline 6 & 7 & 9 \\ 7 & 7 \frac{9}{11} & 11 \\ 8 & 8 \frac{9}{13} & 14 \\ 9 & 9 \frac{10}{16} & 16 \\ 10 & 10 \frac{10}{21} & 21 \\ 11 & 11 \frac{10}{15} & 15 \\ 12 & 12 \frac{10}{20} & 20 \\ 13 & 13 \frac{10}{20} & 20 \\ \end{array}

So through tier 2 you're pretty-well ahead, until the end of a level. By tier 3 you're down to a half-level ahead, and it keeps dropping thereafter. (This is a similar, but much-simplified, treatment to that AngryGM delivers in his structuring of the megadungeon.)

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Depending on how comfortable you are with ad-libbing...

Make your Encounters Smarter

It can be difficult to create more powerful enemies to challenge the players, especially for new DMs, but you can simply recycle weak enemies into more challenging encounters to add flare.

7-on-1 against a troll might normally lead to a gang-up; the party has numbers and they have strength. What if 8 kobolds came out of hidden alcoves and surround the party, it is now 7-on-9. Archers and casters now are surrounded just like the troll and the melee builds are forced to disengage or even suffer an AoO just to defend their allies. Keep a few "Adversary" cards around that contain all of the information you need for an enemy, and spring the small fry on any challenges that aren't challenging.

This approach reduces the overhead (your work is basically done for you) and you can tweak your response on a case-by-case basis. It attempts to force your players to consider that they can't simply waltz in, they need to plan for any eventualities. Combat might not get more difficult, but it becomes more entertaining as the party begins to plan.

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