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I am running a D&D 5e West Marches style game. We have a pool of around 10 players, who all have one character. This game kills off a character around once every 1.5 months due to the nature and difficulty of the encounters.

I attempt to level most sessions in one of two ways:

  • Depending on the "Biome" they are in (i.e. the further away from the start, the harder it generally is)
  • Medium -> Hard encounters for the party, so that they have fun, yet still feel challenged.

To date the characters have all been within fairly similar level brackets of around 3-5 however as we continue the campaign I can see a disparity starting to occur due to some players having a little more general "survivability" than others (I generally don't attack specific members of the group with encounters)

My question is this:

How do you balance encounters for parties that have larger gaps between player levels?

For example: One 8th-level character with high AC and strength alongside three or four 3rd-level characters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you want to discuss the merits of level gaps, I recommend doing it in Role-playing Games Chat. Comments are not the proper venue for this discussion, but I bet many people have good input about this in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jun 29 '18 at 12:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please answer in answers, not in comments. See our policy. Comments on questions should be for seeking clarification or requesting information. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 29 '18 at 16:29
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I think you'll always have a struggle with this as, from my understanding of the system design, the basic framework of 5e isn't designed to handle this kind of situation.

In general I think this would call for 'Hard' encounter design for the common / average level, accepting that it could be swung into much easier territory if the lone higher level PC is able to leverage their skills and abilities effectively.

Introducing 4e 'minion' style rules could help - design up some monsters that have super low HP counts so that they can be taken out reasonably easily by the lower level characters whilst the higher level ones get on with trouncing the boss monster.

You could set up encounters where there are other, non-combat tasks to be resolved, giving the lower level guys something to do. This might get old quickly, but for an encounter or two should work well. Wrecking ritual paraphernalia, rescuing bystanders, trying to stop a giant sand clock etc

Quite often the more potent abilities of the higher level characters will be resource based, so you might find after a couple of encounters they have less 'gas in the tank' to easily trample over lower encounters, so maybe trying to string more encounters between rests will lessen your issues.

It does seem though that one useful solution will be to limit the level range of the campaign - e.g for July through Sept you're in the 5-7 range, and anyone who would out-level that gets other rewards instead - narrative benefits, titles, refining their character or 'unlocking' campaign benefits - or even mentoring another character to donate earned levels back to the lower level characters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really dislike stringing more encounters as a solution to this problem. That will just emphasize the problem since lower level characters have even less resources. You'll end up with 2-4 encounters where higher level chars only outshine the lower level chars, 2 more where the higher level chars are literally the only ones existing and finally a point where the only difference is ability scores and hit points, which at least scale semi-linearly. Love the rest of the answer, though (+1). \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Jun 29 '18 at 11:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a good point - I was thinking that the final part you describe when everyone is down to just basic rolls would be the most even it was likely to get - didn't think about it getting worse before it got better. Good spot! \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Jun 29 '18 at 11:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have accepted this answer, but all the upvoted answers to this question are great and really added new things to thicnk about as I mull over this "problem". For future visitors, read on further! \$\endgroup\$ – GPPK Jul 3 '18 at 9:25
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Leave It Up to the Players

If you're running a West Marches-style game, do you necessarily want to be balancing encounters?

Quoting from one of Ben Robbins' posts:

[A]ppear passive — The world may be active, but you the GM should appear to be passive. You’re not killing the party, the dire wolf is. It’s not you, it’s the world. Encourage the players to take action, but leave the choices up to them. Rolling dice in the open helps a lot. The sandbox game really demands that you remain neutral about what the players do. It’s their decisions that will get them killed or grant them fame and victory, not yours. That’s the whole idea.

(From West Marches: Running Your Own)

For instance, perhaps there're rumors of a young red dragon somewhere on the slopes of Dark Smoke Mountain. From a west-marchian point of view, you could argue that it's the players' job to figure out how to investigate and perhaps conquer that challenge with the players available. Maybe they decide to use the level 8 tank as bait and then all the lower-levels attack from cover or buff the tank or loot the cave while the dragon has some level-8 lunch.

Solve It With Them

You can even join in discussing the solution. To quote Ben again:

Because the rules were well-documented and clear, there were lots of times when West Marches combats would become fascinating (albeit life-threatening) tactical puzzles for everyone at the table. We would all gaze down at the battle map (me included!) and ponder possible moves.

(From West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1))

There you are at the table as the PCs are discussing the pile of loot the red dragon no doubt has. You say, "Wow, holy smokes (ha ha) guys, how are you going to keep all you level 3s from becoming shiskabobs? I mean, hey, you guys do whatever you want, doesn't matter to me, but if you just form a skirmish line, and whack away, you low-level guys aren't going to make it. Ah, maybe you're thinking with all that loot the cleric at Joe's Temple will be inspired to cast a few raise deads. Sounds like a plan. So what do you do?"

For that matter, maybe they'll decide the red dragon is too tough and go pick on some goblins, and the player of the level 8 will come in with a level 1 instead.

Regardless, to me, the west-marchian answer is to describe the world, then let the players figure it out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is it. Encounters should be balanced by area in the West Marches, so that it's difficult for players to wander out of their depth, but it shouldn't be impossible. In fact, part of the fun is created by leaving the possibility that players might come up against something that isn't balanced for them. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Dec 18 '18 at 23:49
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I read an excellent article about the different types of boss fights in World of Warcraft a few years ago. The concepts in this can be applied to pencil and paper RPGs too.

I wish I could find that article but I can't so here are some points from memory.

  1. Fights where most people just provide bodies. An example would be a fight where so long as your healer and damage soaker can manage and the rest of the group between them does enough damage it doesn't matter if one character does terrible damage so long as in aggregate your group does enough.
  2. Everyone must be able to meet the minium bar for participation. For example a fight where everyone has their own enemies that they must take down without relying on other people to help them out. A variation of this is a fight where the group must split in to subgroups, so if you are weaker than average the group can pair you with a stronger than average person to compensate but a single outstanding person can't carry the whole group.
  3. Randomly selected spotlight. One single character is given a tough challenge that they must beat with little or no help from other people. An example would be where the boss randomly focusses on one person and they must be able to withstand it or only one peson has the opportunity to attack something and they must do enough damage to achieve something (stop a clock, kill a thing, whatever)

In your situation the problem is that your encounters are mostly type 1. The overpowered guy can basically do everything and the rest are surplus to requirements at best, or liabilities that need to be protected at worst.

For type 2, try to set up a few encounters where the party needs to split up to fight multiple things at once. Perhaps the tough guy will accomplish his task easily but the others should be challenged and every subgroup needs to succeed to win. Maybe the party needs to attack on multiple fronts but one is clearly the toughest and that is where the tough guy should go.

Type 3 is trickier in a face to face game because it might result in people sitting around while the one person who has focus gets all the attention. This doesn't have to be the case though. For example consider a fight against a creature that sends out tendrils and tries to grab people. A random person is grabbed and they must resist somehow (strength check, do a certain amount of damage, whatever). While the tendril is active the creature is exposed in some way and vulnerable to damage which gives everyone else something to do. The focussed person's job is to prolong the time in which the creature is vulnerable as long as possible.

Unfortunately this is a lot easier to do in a computer game because you can just say "only the person attacked by the tendril can damage it" but in a traditional RPG the players will want to know why they can't reach across and stab it or why they can't all grab the victim and help him resist the pull.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While this is a great answer, I don't think option 1 reliably works in DnD 5e. What is an easy challenge for a level 8 character will most likely one-shot a level 3 character if they happen to get caught in the AoE of their fireball spell. We're talking about a roughly 40-60 HP difference here, where a level 3 character might be expected to have 30-ish HP max. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jun 29 '18 at 13:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik I agree that the idea doesn't translate perfectly to a traditional RPG. In an MMO the fact that half the characters die because they weren't capable enough isn't a problem so long as the other half can finish the encounter. This is obviously not really true for a traditional RPG. Type 1 in a traditional RPG either means the strong character has no real challenge and does most of the work or the strong character is challenged and the weak ones can easily die. My point was meant to be that Type 1 encounters are the problem that the asker is experiencing. \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Nolan Jun 29 '18 at 13:16
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Here is experience from one of my campaigns - which had an almost identical issue (level 9 barb and 3 level 4/5 characters).

  1. Design encounters to counter the skills of the highest level player. In my situation, he was basically an all physical damage fighter, and most of the lower levels were casters. Having him soak damage allowed the casters to kill the boss.
  2. Large encounters, because having an array of strong and weak opponents allows for everyone to contribute in some way.
  3. Use mechanics to split the party during an encounter. Maybe the high level player falls into a pit trap and has to fight his way back to the party from a lower level, while the party above deals with an ambush.
  4. Give enemies that are specifically weaker to the lowest levels in the party (as an opposite idea to #1). This allows them to artificially boost their performance in an encounter without having to adjust anything else.
  5. Non-Combat encounters. Puzzles, traps, and other similar dangers can be used instead of monsters.
  6. Gauntlet style encounters. It makes them consider when/where to use their abilities. This restricts higher level party members from blowing their skills on weak monsters, which allows for lower level players to have more to do.
  7. Reward weaker characters, make up the difference in power by giving them slightly better loot. You may consider fudging rolls to allow the party to get better items for certain players.
  8. If all else fails - find the breakpoints for leveling. Casters and warriors get major power boosts at certain levels. Giving the party enough experience to hit these breakpoints quickly will allow them to immediately contribute more to future encounters.

A combination of these ideas is usually why I aim for, including mixing it up randomly to allow for more diverse gameplay.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Lets bring Proteus the Invincible along this week, so the DM will make it rain loot & xp" \$\endgroup\$ – Callum Bradbury Jun 29 '18 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CallumBradbury I agree with your comment - it is something players will take advantage of... IF they realize that is what you are doing. Which is why I recommend fudging the rolls versus just giving greater rewards. You have to remember - the game is about having fun. If players are not having fun because they are under-powered... well you are limited until the problem starts getting balanced anyways. I mean you could always restrict people to level ranges - but that has its own issues as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Sh4d0wsPlyr Jun 29 '18 at 17:44
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In a West Marches campaign, this is a problem for your players. Their characters choose where to go and what dangers to face.

Trying to balance encounters for an imbalanced party doesn't really work in the West marches style. The regions should be of an appropriate challenge for a level range. If you go to a non level appropriate region then it won't be fun.

The question for the characters is why are you working with a party of a significantly different power level?

If it is to use a more powerful ally to gain experience quickly in a dangerous area, then they run the risk of getting killed. If it is to protect prospective future heroes while they explore areas that you have conquered years ago, then you aren't getting the thrill of danger or any experience or treasure worth your time.

I would suggest that you ask your players how they want to handle it.

They may be happy being unchallenged for a few sessions while the low level characters catch up. A level 4/5 region would fast track the level 3 guys in your group but the xp would have minimal impact on the level 8 guy. Generous use of inspiration dice for the lower level guys (due to having an inspiring hero with them) will make them more resiliant.

My preference would be to allow the player with the higher level character to use an alternate character when playing with the group of low level characters, maybe letting loot and xp feed on to his main character to avoid penalizing him for not dying.

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