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Problem

I'm running a campaign with 6 players, but they can't always show up1. That, by itself, would not be a problem, if I knew how many would come with enough time to prepare for it. The thing is: sometimes we simply discover someone is coming (or is not coming any more) 1 hour before the session. We have agreed that our quorum is 3 players, especially because some players come from a 2 hours travel to play, so I don't want to waste their time, but I can't run with only 2 players. (If only 2 players show up, we just play video games and hope that it wasn't wasted time :P)

So, essentially, the number of players is almost a uniform random variable from 3 to 6 players. I want to be able to quickly (less than 1 hour) adjust the encounters (designed for a fixed number size, say 4) for these party sizes, while (roughly) maintaining the desired difficulty.

Solutions I've tried but still present problems

Some things I have been doing, and I'll explain why they aren't exactly working.

  • Prepare all the encounters for 3 to 6 characters. Problem: Takes too much time. It's fine for sessions with high-roleplay, low-combat. It is not fine for the dungeon crawling sessions. I have plenty of free time, but not that much.
  • Prepare the encounter for how many players were supposed to come, handwave the unexpected absences/show ups, run the encounter as it was prepared. Problem: the encounter is unbalanced, especially when the 6 players become 5 or vice-versa. Who doesn't show up also slightly changes how difficult it is.
  • Adjust the encounters on the run. Problem: It seems I don't have that much experience, and although it worked sometimes, it also led to near-TPKs or walks through the park encounters other times.

Solutions that don't fit our social contract

  • Preparing for 6 characters and running the characters of absent players as NPCs or letting other players control them. Problem: The players want only themselves to play their own characters, so they handle the consequences of their choices, but only their own choices.
  • Preparing for 6 charaters and adding random NPCs to fill the absences. Problem: Well... either we would have recurring NPCs or random NPCs. Making the party simply trust them every time (or not finding extremely awkward that the recurring ones appear and go randomly) is annoying. We already have a lot of suspension of disbelief with the PCs magically disappearing in the middle of a dungeon that they couldn't possibly exit normally. I don't want to add NPCs to that Deus Ex mix and my players don't like ally-NPCs either.

What do I do?

So, the question is: What do I do? I believe some DMs here probably had to go through this problem at least once, not recurring as my case, but could provide useful experienced answers. Maybe someone had the same problem as well.


Answers explaining simply how to make encounters won't help (I read the DMG :P) unless they can explain how that can be quickly (quickly here refers to less than 1 hour) adjusted to a different party size when needed.

While answers explaining how to design encounters that are easily changed to different party sizes would help me, a more helpful answer can be applied in existing encounters from published adventures. This is not a pre-requisite, but a huge bonus.

One possible good answer I can see is adjusting the HP and damage of the monsters, without actually changing the number at all. I'm not sure how to do that consistently, though.

Answers defying the social contract are... well, not exactly helpful, unless it's the only possible solution.


1 We are all in tight schedules that sometimes get unexpected additions to them (e.g. huge problem came up in one player's company, he has to solve it this week, overworking a lot). This is awkwardly common for us, and usually simply there isn't something that we can actually do. A sudden deadline change risking the career is more important than the weekly D&D (for us).

Generally, when someone can't show up, they simply aren't able to play anyway, because they are busy (i.e. it's not actually a problem of being able to come and play, it's a schedule problem). That means even online gaming is an option that can't be used.

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First, a caveat.

There are no rules, per se, to tell you how to do what you want to do. You mention the DMG, which does have section on customizing monsters, including ideas like what I suggest here. (It also has a section on building encounters.) However, the systems in the DMG take time and thought, and you're asking for a quicker, dirtier method. So while I would certainly encourage you to internalize the DMG's guidance, what I am presenting here is a method for use on the fly. It is all based on personal experience.

For what it's worth, I have used both of the two approaches I offer here while running, e.g., Adventurer's League modules for tables of anywhere from 2 to 8 players, never knowing exactly how many I'll have.

Option 1: Scale the number of foes.

The single easiest method to scale 5e encounters is to focus on the action economy. In 5e's fine-tuned mechanics, whichever side gets to act more often has a major advantage. That is the reasoning behind, e.g., the legendary actions that some big solo threats in the Monster Manual have -- it's hard to make a solo threat, even a "big" one, feel truly threatening if it is totally outnumbered by the PCs. The very fact that it is outnumbered and unable to act as often as the PCs act means it's likely to get walloped. Legendary actions help to level the playing field.

By the same reasoning, you can make an encounter workable for a variable number of PCs simply adjusting the number of foes they'll face. More foes equals more actions equals more challenge. It's not a foolproof approach; some monsters have abilities that make them disproportionately difficult as their numbers increase. (Quick example off the top of my head: monsters with Pack Tactics get advantage if an ally is within 5 feet of their target, so the more of them there are on the field, the more likely it is they'll have advantage on any given turn.) But this approach does have the advantage of requiring essentially zero additional preparation. If you're writing an encounter with, say, zombies, you're only preparing zombies whether it's 2 or 5 or 20.

A very general rule of thumb is to pit the PCs against an equal number of foes, adding or subtracting 1 or 2 if the foes are very weak or very strong, respectively.

Option 2: Scale defenses, particularly AC, saves, and HP.

Sometimes adjusting the number of foes isn't feasible or desirable. Maybe you have in mind an encounter against a big solo monster or some specific named NPC. In that circumstance, your best bet is to scale defenses.

Combat is, in a sense, a zero-sum game. The longer it takes you to defeat a foe, the more chances (i.e., turns) that foe has to defeat you first. The PCs' offensive capabilities are generally a known quantity in a given encounter. You'll know roughly how much damage the raging barbarian's axe or the wizard's fireball is likely to do. By tweaking their foe's defenses upward, you'll buy the baddies a little additional time to be relevant before they're beaten.

However, be careful not to adjust those defense figures too much. The "bounded accuracy" model underpinning 5e's mechanics makes a +1 to AC meaningful. I have found that adjusting HP by 10-20% per extra/missing PC is generally workable. It is enough to make the difference palpable but not overwhelming. YMMV, of course.

You might be tempted to also adjust the foe's offenses upward. Unless you are really trying to either clobber or coddle your PCs, resist that temptation. Monster CRs are balanced such that raw damage output is matched to PCs of a given level. In other words, if you double the damage your zombies are doing, there's a good chance you could one-shot a PC, or two, or the whole party. If you halve the damage the zombies can do, your players are likely to breeze through the encounter. It is safer simply to increase a foe's defenses and thereby give it more opportunities to hit.

If you are feeling a little creative, you can even add some flavor to represent the adjustments you've made. Those zombies might be wearing scraps of armor (reflecting a better AC), or might be especially old, decomposed, and unsteady (reflecting worse saves and/or HP).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There is the DMG section about encounters as well (which was the one I was actually mentioning btw). \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 16 '18 at 4:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I've edited my answer to reflect the fact that you were intending a different section of the DMG. \$\endgroup\$ – screamline Jun 16 '18 at 4:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ The nice thing is, either of these can be done even mid-fight as well (for the latter, it'll likely only be HP that you can adjust at that time), as long as you're paying attention to how the fight is going; if the fight is skewing too far to one side or the other, you can make it harder or easier by adjusting enemy HP (this is the easiest one to get away with, as players don't generally know the enemy's exact HP) or having an enemy join or leave the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 16 '18 at 5:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes -- I have done exactly that, secretly bumping HP up or having a new monster appear in mid-combat when it becomes evident that the encounter is poorly calibrated to challenge the PCs. In my better moments, I've actually had something happen in-narrative to justify it, e.g., the dark artifact in the center of the room pulses and the zombies suddenly surge with renewed unnatural vigor. \$\endgroup\$ – screamline Jun 16 '18 at 18:14
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How I adjust encounters on the fly.

The first thing I need to say is, I am an "on the seat of your pants" DM. I almost never prepare for my sessions and let my players go wherever they want to. Usually that means there is a lot of roleplay, but sometimes the areas my players go into are monster-ridden (i.e. Dungeons).

"A good adventure needs stormtroopers." - Matt Colville

A key to my balancing process is having a stormtrooper, an enemy that is generic under the covers, but is iterable and changeable as encounters go on.

I saw one of your problems was that some of your encounters feel like a walk in the park if you run them on the fly. This is not a problem for me, in fact it's an important step in the balancing process.

The process I use to balance my encounters on the fly with no preparation.

  1. I look at the D&D 5e Guard statblock from OrcPub. This serves as the base stats of my monster. Whatever area the players are in, I reskin the monster around the actual stats of the Guard. (i.e. a rat monster, a goblin, or even a magician)
  2. Then I make a "walk in the park" encounter to gauge how strong the players are. I keep the 16 AC on the guard and maybe keep each enemy at half the health of the player with the highest health. The point is, on this step, you want to ensure your players can walk all over the enemies. 4 enemies is a good number to have.

    a) From there you will give your players a good idea of what kind of monsters they are dealing with, and b) you will have a better idea of what they can handle, and c) your players like to feel strong.

  3. Scale it up. Flavor: The enemies look stronger... more wiry and dexterous. If your monsters can't hit ever, you can add a small modifier to hit, or if they sometimes hit, you can just add some health to the stronger ones.

    Note: 16 AC is pretty high and you almost never want to increase it to 17 unless you know your players can hit that number. Nobody likes a long fight where noone can hit anything.

  4. Rinse and repeat. Depending on the state of your party, you can decide to increase or decrease the difficulty slightly using your "stormtroopers".

The advantage to this system.

You can say your players are fighting whatever you want them to fight. Orcs, goblins, humans, beasts. They start off weak, then grow stronger as you encounter more of them. You can get away with saying they have more HP or that they hit more by making them bigger and stronger. There is much room for flavor.

The players feel strong right away, then they feel the enemies rise to the challenge and it becomes satisfying to fight.

Why the guard stat block?

During a session, the only reference material I will use on the fly is the guard stat block and only the guard stat block. This is to make it simple and easy to glance at your computer screen and then focus back on the game. Personally I cannot handle going through tabs or flipping through the MM just to find multiple stat blocks.

However, you don't have to use the guard stat block. It can be whatever you want it to be. I use the guard stat block because the CR is 1/8, but the AC is 16. This means that if you just add HP, the CR will go up because 16 AC is pretty tough to hit at most low to mid levels. The hit modifiers are pretty good too.

So, all in all, aside from the HP, I find all the guard stats to be ones you could potentially find in a higher CR monster with minimal tweaking.

Questions

If anything is unclear, comment below and I will update the answer.

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I started DMing recently again (last time was in the 80's) for a couple of families (parents plus their kids). It's been a blast, but like you, there are times where some of them can't show up making it a slight challenge at first.

I have also had to learn how to adjust what I threw at them to make it challenging and to not just do a Total Party Kill (TPK). I don't mind PCs dying if they make poor decisions or their die rolls simply don't go their way but I am not a DM that seeks to throw a possible TPK scenario at them just for the fun of it.

Anyway, to answer your questions...

1) No Shows: This is handled in two ways in my sessions.

  • First, I have a copy of their character sheets and get updated ones periodically. That way, if someone misses, we can make the necessary adjustments and either I or one of the other players will run their PC. Also, if someone forgets theirs, I have a copy.

  • Second, I am lucky that I am running a game for two families. So if someone in one of the families can't make it, one of the other people in that family will bring their sheet and someone will run that PC.

2) Adjusting the encounters: This takes time and experience. So, to help answer the question on this, I will share my experience. First, our group is comprised of 6 Players. Each of their PCs started out at 2nd level which they are still at in a Homebrew campaign. But, the principals you will find in the below apply also to modules that you buy.

The first couple of sessions they ran through the small pack of wolves and later a group of 8 goblins (6 on foot and two riding wolves) I threw at them. But, I quickly learned how they strategized, they ran their PCs and how the various classes, weapons, and spells they liked to use affected the encounters.

We play every other week. That gives me time in between sessions to rescale what I throw at them. Because they were heading to a goblin hideout, I knew I had to increase not only the number of goblins I threw at them but also add some challenges for them (i.e. traps and unexpected events).

Along the path they were tracking the goblins down, I added traps, 2 goblin archers early on along the path, and another 4 closer to the hideout. I increased the number of goblins in the hideout to 43 total and added a surprise if needed...the goblin boss could turn into a werewolf. An ability that was given to him by Malar, the god they served. I also added 11 stirges to the mix that were controlled by the goblin shaman.

For 6 PCs that may seem like a lot, but remember, I learned how they worked together, strategized, fought, and used their spells. So, I knew I had to make it more challenging by making the goblins more strategic in their fighting as well.

I also created an NPC, a half-elf druid, that would come to their rescue if need be. I found a pregenerated druid, changed a few of the spells to what I knew would be helpful if he had to show up, and created a simple backstory of why he showed up in the nick of time if the PCs had a chance to question him (he and goblins have had skirmishes in the recent past and some of the druid's woodland friends keeping an eye on the goblins told him the PCs had tracked the goblins to their hideout. He knew they would need his help so he came). He was of high enough level to be of assistance but not so high to where he would take the challenge away from the PCs encounter. In other words, he wasn't their savior but simply an extra hand in the fight.

Remember, he only showed up if needed. I ended up bringing him to the rescue because they began to roll more ones that I have ever seen in a game, probably at least 10-12 ones were rolled. One person rolled 4 ones in a row and the goblins were beginning to overpower them. Several of the goblins were rolling 20's and none of the PCs were. But, the PCs were still making themselves a bit of a threat. Still, even with the Druids help, it made it for a tough fight and they finally won. Only one PC went down but he didn't die. All of them were low on HP.

The boss, when the druid showed up, turned into a werewolf (but without damage immunities a normal werewolf had. But max HP). Amazingly, the PCs' rolls also began to become much better and the tide changed for a bit. The shaman also had the stirges begin to attack. At that point, I had to judge whether to actually have them do so or not. So, what I did was that since the shaman was controlling them, each time he took a hit, he had to make a Concentration check. He passed each one. But then, he was killed. At that point, the PCs were beginning to become overwhelmed again, so I had the stirges become confused since they were no longer being controlled. I simply had them become a distraction for the PCs as they swooped down at them during the battle but not actually attack them. I just kept the possibility of them attacking in the forefront of the players' minds.

Finally, the PCs and the Druid won the fight. As it wound down, I had the stirges return to their roosts in the upper regions of the caverns. It is still possible they will attack as the PCs explore the hideout. And you never know, a goblin hunting party may return to find their tribe decimated and the PCs in their home. I have to keep the PCs on their toes and guessing, "What now?"

I shared all of that to share these principles,...

1. ADD SOME BEEF: Understanding how my players play their characters, I knew I needed to beef up the number of goblins from 20 - 43. Depending on what happened I could always reduce the numbers or even have them run away due to low morale. I also had them attack in waves and not all at once which also allowed me to control the actual number of goblins that were involved in the fight based on what was happening. If it was too easy for the players, I added another wave of goblins. If it was becoming too hard for the players, I simply never brought the other goblins into play.

NOTE: I did the beef up because it is harder to start out with a small number of them and try to reasonably explain why a bunch more showed up all of a sudden. I can explain 5 -8 showing up (i.e. a hunting party returning to the hideout in midst of the battle) but I can't explain how another 15-20 all of a sudden show up just for the sake of making it more challenging if the PCs were strolling through the smaller numbers.

2. HAVE A FLAREFUL CHALLENGE READY TO GO: I've never heard of a werewolf goblin. So, since these goblins rode black wolves and were called the Blackwolf Clan, I researched a bit discovered the god Malar, the Beastlord, and decided to have them worship him. Because of that, Malar gave the goblin boss the ability to change into a werewolf but without the damage immunities (none of the PCs had silver or magical weapons). But, this challenge was kept in my back pocket unless the Druid showed up OR if for some reason the PCs were simply easily running over the 43 goblins. As you know the werewolf showed up and made it more memorable. Who's ever heard of a goblin werewolf?

3. ON THE FLY DECISIONS: I added additional small monsters to the battle, 11 Stirges. At first, they were going to attack the PCs without question. But, as I saw what was happening, I decided on-the-fly to make their attack based on whether or not the goblin shaman was taking damage, succeeded or failed on concentration checks, and if he was killed or not. You know your encounters, therefore, you can think ahead of time, if it seems too easy, I'll add such and such. If it seems too hard for them or a smaller number of players show up, then I will remove or reduce such and such.

4. MAX THE HP: I also, based on earlier encounters, decided to start all the monsters at max HP. I will probably make this the case from now on. Since the PCs wouldn't know what each monster's HP was to start, I can easily make an on-the-fly downward adjustment, if need be, with any of them. Like I said, I want it to be a challenge, keep them on their toes and guessing "what now?", but I don't want to do a TPK if I can help it.

For example: When it came to the werewolf scene, the average HP is 58 but the max HP is 90. If the party is just waltzing over him, it doesn't seem fair to me to go oh, they killed him but I need to make it more challenging so let's make it 90 HP now. To me, it's much fairer to go, "Hmmm, they are having a tough time with this one. They have done 48 points of damage to him so far and he along with the other monsters are doing some damage to the party, let's drop his 90 to 58 and let them have a chance. They've fought hard so it will still be memorable."

5. HERE COMES THE CAVALRY: In the event, the whole experience was too overwhelming, I also prepared for the cavalry to come in and help. I had an NPC in my back pocket designed to be useful to the PCs but not be their savior and wipe out the goblins by himself. When they get to the orc stronghold, I will have a small group of soldiers from a nearby village ready to show up if needed. Possibly brought by the same druid. Either way, even as they go up in levels, I will have one or more NPCs in my back pocket ready to assist them. But only if absolutely necessary.

NOTE: The Principle of the Cavalry is very useful if not everyone shows up and you want to play what you've prepared. Have the players that showed up go ahead and play the session. Then, only if needed, simply have the "cavalry" show up (i.e. a single NPC that could be beneficial or group of NPCs). Just have a reasonable explanation of why they have shown up in the nick of time. For example, they are dungeon crawling searching for a tomb. As they come around a bend, they hear a group of people up ahead. They sound like they are looking for something also. It ends up that they have come across a group of NPCs that were there first or showed up after your players entered the dungeon. They are in search of something and work out a deal to join forces that particular session to find what each of them is looking for.

Though that was a lot of writing, NONE OF THAT took a lot of prep. Just a few adjustments. Because I prepped for the full party, it allowed me to also more easily make downward adjustments if needed.

ONE LAST NOTE: You can always have a one-shot ready to go for those nights you only have 2 or 3 players show up OR you just use the random chartsAppendixndex A of the DMG 5e to create a one-shot adventure and see where it leads. You can find and print out pre-generated characters for DND 5e at: http://dungeonsmaster.com/pre-generated-character-library-dndnext/

Plus, that is a great link if you need quick NPCs for your sessions.

Hope sharing my experience help to answer your question.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "HAVE A FLAREFUL CHALLENGE READY TO GO" - did you mean "flavorful" or something? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 17 '18 at 16:51

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