So, obviously during first encounters a DM usually makes PCs fight small goblin groups, giant spiders, blink dogs, etc... but how should the DM keep up the challenge for higher level PCs without giving them the sensation that they are fighting more ogres, scarier hags, and just way more dangerous foes, just because they are higher level?

Where were the potent foes before?
Where are the weak ones now?

Is it possible for the GM to address this problem, without forcing PCs to often flee from early level fights or to fight many trivial fights later on?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is one of the things that always bothered me about RPG's, especially video game ones. In WW2, as an American soldier rose through the ranks of Private, PFC, Corporal, Sergeant, etc., they didn't suddenly start facing meaner Nazis with greater abilities to survive gunshot wounds or Japanese machine guns that suddenly (or even gradually) started firing at greater rates. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2018 at 13:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, they did see some of those things. Different areas of operations had units that were better trained and with better equipment. You may face fresh replacements, but you'll also have veterans who use better tactics, have better aim, more careful, etc. Also, there certainly have been advancements on firearms, tanks, planes, etc during wars. \$\endgroup\$
    – sirjonsnow
    Apr 9, 2018 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia Also I've never ready any documents related to D&D that assert it is meant to be realistic in any way, much less somehow be related to military ranks or war. I always thought that this was exactly what D&D and other RPGs are about. As you level up, the game levels up with you. That's a feature, not a bug. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2018 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ One way is that as they increase in level, they are more able to tackle harder challenges and attract more attention. Also, as they go up in level, they uncover the more serious problems that require their attention. This is more suited to epic quest style campaigns. \$\endgroup\$
    – bp.
    Apr 10, 2018 at 5:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another way is for the world to include fights that they need to run from. It's way less obvious whether a running-away encounter is 5 levels higher or 10 levels higher, they just run away. If there are always encounters that are just out of reach, the feeling (or fact) that the world levels up isn't so obvious. \$\endgroup\$
    – bp.
    Apr 10, 2018 at 5:07

6 Answers 6


There are many ways this could be explained, here are a few good story drivers that work:

Different areas have stronger and stronger enemies

Different areas in the world grow rougher and tougher as they stray from mainstream civilization. You can draw your party out into the wilderness for whatever quests they obtain.

A low level party would not be approached with a high level quest

A quest giver can easily size up the equipment and abilities of a level 2 party and see they aren't ready to face the ogre tribe he needs handled. Once the adventurers have made a reputation for themselves, they will be approached with more difficult work.

Include higher level content in the world that is being handled by someone else

The party could hear of a dragon being slain or fortress toppled - by a rival band of adventurers even.The higher level content they will one day do always existed, and in theory they could seek it out early, but for now it's just happening. Imagine in other places a quest would be happening ("slay the zombies and find out where they are coming from!") but the party just isn't there. ("The zombies kill a village, a small army is sent by the king to clear the source and takes heavy losses but succeeds")

Include lower level content at higher levels

Allow a leveled party to face a small goblin camp which can do nothing to stop their onslaught. It proves they have grown in strength, and allows players to feel strong in between the growing strength of enemies.

The party should have goals with more difficult methods

Find out what your party wants and open a path to it - then show that the path is blocked by harder and harder enemies. Present opportunities to the party that test their strength and reward their success. These opportunities will be increasingly strong in order to tempt an increasingly strong party, ans as such will be harder to obtain.

Or: Don't feel too much of a need to explain this

Finally - This is a problem which may simply not need solving. Like the in-story handwaving around how characters level up, the reasoning for them facing stronger and stronger enemies stems from it being a game. There is only so much you can do to hide the rules of the game behind a curtain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for different areas. Low-level PCs would be defending a village against goblins or whatever. High level PCs are travelling deep into the untouched mountains to delve the Dark Lord's crypt and recover his Eldritch Plot Device, so they're going to run into much scarier things. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dacromir
    Apr 9, 2018 at 0:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 As a player I'd definitely want a couple encounters where we can just mow the enemies down in a round or two, to feel good about the skills gained. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gnudiff
    Apr 9, 2018 at 8:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Include lower level content at higher levels" - add in the reverse of this to instil some humility. A black dragon flying over the party's heads while they cower in some long grass. A giant running past, bellowing for vengeance against the local tribe of ogres. Show them something they can't actually handle right now, let them dream of one day slaying the tyrant of Blackened Gorge. etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – timje
    Apr 9, 2018 at 10:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ One fun variant on your #3 that I ran for a little while was to have PCs working as a mop-up crew for the higher-level adventurers. Big Heroes storm on on flying steeds, kill the big dragon, grab her loot, and don't notice that she's laid eggs which are now hatching... while they go back to the castle for medals and cake all round, the PCs are frantically trying to round up dragonlings while dealing with the lower-level predators that had previously been scared off by Her Draconic Ladyship. Oh, and a very very bloated dragon corpse as an environmental hazard... \$\endgroup\$
    – G_B
    Apr 9, 2018 at 11:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Include higher level content in the world that is being handled by someone else" This is what makes games like the Gothic and Stalker series so good. There are other adventurers living their lives, the NPSs don't just stand around all day on a corner having their sole purpose in life to interact with the main character. Also, the player has access to areas he has no chance of handling with low level equipment, so the world doesn't really "level up". \$\endgroup\$
    – vsz
    Apr 9, 2018 at 21:06

The players should be fleeing from some fights every so often, or get overwhelmed and captured (a TPK isn't necessary, as an end to a losing combat). It humbles them, and keeps them thinking about combat. Additionally, they should occasionally run into a camp of goblins that they can wipe the floor with. Keeping it feeling like a real world means that they should be constantly running into asymmetric fights, and should face new and interesting tactics.

Further, you can make combat interesting by making unexpected enemies dangerous. A hundred kobolds using nets, stealth, and traps should be able to give trouble to even a well-equipped mid-level party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "or get overwhelmed and captured (a TPK isn't necessary, as an end to a losing combat). It humbles them, and keeps them thinking about combat." I usually didn't consider this way of defeating the players. I'll make sure to use this as much as I can. Thank you \$\endgroup\$
    – Albuz
    Apr 9, 2018 at 18:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also worth remembering that there are different ways to resolve an encounter, it doesn't always have to be combat. Sometimes it's dimplomacy. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2018 at 23:37

I have always handled this by making a very sandboxy sort of world, where the characters encounter things of all strengths, and they can decide which are the appropriate challenges.

So yes, this does involve characters often fleeing/negotiating/avoiding tough encounters, especially at low level. Those can be some of the most interesting. And yes, it also involves trivial encounters, especially at higher level, which I just handle trivially (e.g. "on second watch, some rats are trying to sneak your food. You chase them off or kill them. They eat/destroy a day's rations.")

I think a lot of the interest in the game is in the party having to assess and navigate these challenges, and not having the game just be a steady progression of artificially "level appropriate" encounters, that makes them think they can always just fight whatever they meet.


Meet “Tucker’s Kobolds”:

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker's kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience.

The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible.

The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight "okay" monsters like huge flaming demons. It didn't work. The kobolds caught us about 60' into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

"NOOOOOO!!!" screamed the party leader. "It's THEM! Run!!!"

Options you have are to give opponents the same equipment as the party, use the same nasty tricks as PCs, and better combat tactics and strategy.

For instance, instead of a regular bunch of goblins, PCs could face:

  • goblins with high quality weapons or armour (give attack, damage or defence bonuses without enchantments),
  • potion-using goblins (PCs will be surprised when a goblin turns out to have the strength of a giant, or a stack of healing potions),
  • goblins that don’t do stand-up fights: they ambush or use missile weapons (10 hidden goblins firing short bows from cover can cause havoc - squads with flaming arrows: bye-bye party),
  • rogue goblins who sneak in and backstab spellcasters,
  • goblins who track and wait for the party to make camp and rest: then attack while everyone is sleeping, or
  • just plain nasty tricks: “sniper goblin” uses arrows dipped in goblin excrement to give someone a serious infection to wear the party members down.

A pack of goblins may seem dumb, but they are cunning and if the PCs wander into the goblins’ territory, so the goblins will have a “home field” advantage: knowledge of the area to help with stealth, using natural features to attack (trick the party into chasing non-existent goblins into quicksand or the cave of an angry bear) maybe even booby traps. Think “guerrilla warfare”, rather than a regular military unit.

EDIT: I used “goblins” as a generic example. You could apply these to most “weak” opponents a party may face.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So how to explain why the goblins only start having magic weapons, potions, tactics etc. once the party is a higher level? \$\endgroup\$
    – Rawling
    Apr 11, 2018 at 6:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Drop hints there is a tougher clan of goblins “out there” or coming (the party encounters goblins who have fled their territory because if scary goblins), or gradually scale up the goblins (they occasionally use sneaky tactics or a potion when the party is at a lower level, but it gets more frequent as the party toughens up). Figuring out hue goblins are getting tougher (another country is funding and training them; they have a new leader) could also lead to an adventure or three. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2018 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry about the typos in that last comment. I would remove them, but I can’t edit my comments. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2018 at 13:37

Kill the Characters

If you want a truly immersive sandbox experience you have to be ready and willing to kill the characters if they engage in combat when they can't win.

The opposite problem of under powered opponents is less of a problem because the core mechanic of DnD 5e deals with this:

  1. The DM describes the environment - "There are 5 goblins"
  2. The players describe what they want to do - "Kill the goblins"
  3. The DM describes the result of the character's actions - "The goblins are dead"

Information is more important

The players have to know what is where and how hard it is so they can make informed decisions about where to go and when.


I think that this is something that you need to balance out both ways to make the world seem more immersive to the players.

Some combat should be easy, but it used up resources from the players, so instead of letting them short rest, get a few more easy to medium combats in front of them, now all of a sudden something easy is a bit trickier.

Some combats should be too hard. Having to run away from a combat is acceptable and something that you can train your players to do. Also, against a humanoid enemy, have them knock them out and run and not worry about it. Just because they could kill them doesn't mean that they will.

Finally, when characters level up, especially against intelligent creatures, having an easier combat or two makes sense. The thieve's guild who they are fighting against might throw the same number of guys at them as before, because they don't know your characters have gotten stronger, so maybe it's an easy win for the player characters, but the thieve's guild will definitely figure out quickly that they need to send stronger guys against them if it happens again.


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