71
\$\begingroup\$

This is something I've been thinking about as a DM in my encounter design: Why have easy/medium/etc combat encounters that don't really require resources to successfully complete?

Given the limited time many of our tables have to actually play, I've never created "easy" combats that don't require resources because they seem like a waste of table time. If there isn't a challenge and no resources are needed to overcome the enemy, then isn't the combat win just kind of a gimme and it's only actual resource used is everyone's actual time at the table?

I've generally looked at 5e combat like a game of resources and in order to successfully challenge my players to make it interesting, the combat generally has to be difficult - but I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing to the easy-win combats.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 28 at 12:05

12 Answers 12

161
\$\begingroup\$

Others have mentioned other reasons, but here's another that I find particularly compelling.

In a game of D&D, it is generally accepted that the DM will build combat encounters to be difficult for the characters no matter what level they are at. This can lead to a pattern where your players feel as though, even with all the new powers they are getting, they are still weak.

Giving them a combat or two that is low level can remind the players how far they've come, especially if you choose similar enemies to a well-remembered early combat. For example, if your campaign opened on a difficult battle against a group of wolves, tossing some wolves at your now 8th-level players can help them feel as though they have grown in power.

It's a way to reward players for making progression and leveling up. It shows them that, even though on the game's main course they will always be challenged, they are still very powerful individuals, apart from the rest of the world.

It's a way to help them personally experience how far they've come, instead of just telling them so using numbers on their sheet.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 56
    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the idea of throwing something at them that they faced before with difficulty. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 14:57
  • 26
    \$\begingroup\$ This is one reason people like Metroidvania video games, when you are forced to backtrack over areas that you first struggled through, but with new powers, it shows you how strong and capable you've become \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Wells Feb 27 at 17:08
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ Balders Gate 2: The Throne of Bhaal had a fantastic, very memorable encounter like this that has stuck around with me. You start your journey as a level 1 scrub struggling with gibberlings and fleeing from common thugs, slowly and painfully building up. Eventually, much later by the end of ToB, you're controlling a level 20+ party practically fighting godlike beings - and at one point you enter an encounter with hundreds of plain soldiers and thugs. It's an absolute MASSACRE, and serves as a spectacular, brutal demonstration of how incredibly powerful you have become. \$\endgroup\$ – Kim André Kjelsberg Feb 28 at 8:44
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @KimAndréKjelsberg +1 for BG and TOB - the vanilla game also had thugs regularly "ambushing" you as you made your way around the map - At a low level, this could be a serious fight, but at higher levels, it became an annoyance and an opportunity for some low-mid level loot. Again, perfectly shows how incredibly powerful - going from tactically fighting, expending any resources you have just to survive, to one-shotting them with a fireball or having your fighter take them all out on their own. \$\endgroup\$ – Miller86 Feb 28 at 9:46
54
\$\begingroup\$

Combat as a mechanical resource

If you are using XP progression (which is the default way to play, according to the PHB) and you want to give your player characters some catching-up, then you could use an easy combat encounter for this purpose. Similarly, you could give the party items as a reward from such encounters.

Combat as a pacing tool

While D&D is essentially a combat engine, not all campaigns are heavy on combat. Often, story-driven or intrigue campaigns tend to be light on combat. They may essentially involve the party going from location A to location B. If the players seem to get bored by this pace, the DM could add the occasional easy combat encounter to maintain player engagement.

For example, if the party is traveling by ship and the DM wants the voyage to seem more substantial than a scene transition, then an encounter with mutineering pirates or ambushing sahuagins could make the voyage more interesting.

Combat as storytelling

When you narrate your game world, the DM's medium isn't limited to the words they say when the player characters walk into the dungeon and look around. Instead of communicating via exposition, the DM can use interactive in-game challenges to convey the same message.

Much like how environmental exploration can be a means of storytelling, you can use combat encounters as a form of narration, worldbuilding, and foreshadowing. For example, the DM may communicate that a crypt is infested with undead via hostile undead, rather than exposition. Or, suppose the PCs are exploring a forest with a big bad CR 3 Winter Wolf at the end, and the DM wants to foreshadow "Here be wolves." Instead of exposition via NPC dialogue or narration, they could instead send some CR 1/4 Wolves as a greeting party.


Disclaimer: Adding extra combats is not universally beneficial to every game, especially when time is limited. Eschewing combat in favor of a battle summary ("You stab the goblin and get 100 XP and 5 gp") or narration ("The sign says there are zombies inside") is more efficient than a time-consuming battle, but potentially less engaging. However, for the reasons given above, these extra easy combats can be beneficial to some games, and the DM should consider the tradeoffs before adding them to their campaign.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In terms of XP, though - why not just say you've won and hand it out (like not rolling for something you will know succeed/fail?) My main concern is the amount of time the encounter will take at the table just to hand out some more XP to 'catch up'. THey've caught up, great - but now we've put a session in towards that rather than moving the story along. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ A lot of this has to do with time management at the table. Yes, you could use the combat as exposition, but that takes a LOT more time then just saying "here be wolves" that could be spent moving things forward more. That, and players often miss even heavy handed clues. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 14:48
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Agreed, with every benefit there is a tradeoff, and combat is often time-consuming and inefficient. My answer may not apply 100% to your campaign, but it may help other DMs who also face this question. Combat is one of many DM tools for pacing or storytelling, however, it should not be the DM's go-to solution. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Feb 27 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ OH definitely! We typically do a 3 hour session and most times i'll do an hour of roleplay and 2 hours of combat. But that's fungible depending on what's happening (either one can shift in ratio.) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 15:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ It wasn't mentioned under Combat as a pacing tool but, BECAUSE combat can be drawn out/inefficient it can be a good way of delaying the characters arrival to a place you haven't fully prepped. Particularly if you don't want to railroad their decisions but they go to places that require some prep but hard to predict when they'll make the decision to go... \$\endgroup\$ – highbandwidth Mar 3 at 20:38
29
\$\begingroup\$

Because it's fun

The purpose of the game isn't to accumulate, track and expend resources, it's to enjoy the process. Combat encounters are a major part of the major (though not all!) RPG game system designs because many people like to play combat encounters. For example, one can think of D&D 4E as a foray towards 'tactical combat boardgame', which is an attraction for some groups and a detraction for others.

Challenges are not resource costs

There does need to be some feeling of a challenge and risk involved to improve involvement, but that's IMHO orthogonal to resource expenditure - there's no meaningful difference between "Oh, we're just going to smash these goblins so it doesn't matter how we proceed, let's just skip rolling the dice and write down the xp and loot" and "Oh, we're just going to smash these goblins so it doesn't matter how we proceed, let's just skip rolling the dice and write down the xp and loot, and cross out some ammo, wand charges and a healing potion".

In both cases we play out the combat encounter (instead of reducing it to the abovementioned sentences) if and only if it's fun to do, not because we want to accurately track expended resources. Groups who don't enjoy playing out encounters without a story impact shouldn't play them out in detail even if it'd be a hard encounter that costs resources. If your story, setting and group fits that, then it'd be appropriate to just say "while you're resting for the night, a bunch of wolves attack your camp. You defeat them, but it costs you resources X, Y and Z". And if your group enjoys playing out tactical combat, then they'll likely want to play out also scenarios where they have an advantage.

There are various games which do explicitly handle challenges as resource costs i.e. "spend X, or get consequences Y". In most of its forms, D&D isn't really one of these systems. It can be used like this, depending on the DM, but it intentionally has a lot of "heavyweight" combat mechanics designed to play out encounters in tactical detail, instead of resolving them as a resource metagame. After all, D&D early origins come from the miniature wargaming community, and it's reflected even in 5e rules.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, thats kind of what I'm asking. Is it actually fun to spend valuable table time on an easy-win? From my own experience, I've questioned the use of such time as player. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 15:36
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ you assume that "people like to play combat encounters". That might be true for you and/or your table, but for example not for me or my table. I like encounters that add something to the story, and I also like the occasional dungeon - but I absolutely don't like "random encounters" that only exist to use up resources, unless there's an interesting aspect about them - such as a new, mysterious creature type, or fancy loot. "Getting to play out an encounter" isn't enough of a reward for me to enjoy an encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Feb 27 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I think it's almost getting to subjective at that point? If people get to feel 'epic' or 'cool', for them it's worth the time. I know in games I've played and dm'd it's been something discussed at session 0. \$\endgroup\$ – akozi Feb 27 at 15:57
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I can attest to the example given: a combat encounter that (in another system) literally was “Oh, we're just going to smash these [enemies] so it doesn't matter how we proceed, let's just skip rolling the dice and write down the xp and loot” was distinctly un-fun, even for me who is not usually a centrally combat-motivated RPGer. My experience is that easy combats that are actually gamed out are much more fun. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 27 at 15:59
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch You're commenting something entirely different than what you asked in the question. An encounter can easily be boring because it only took resource expenditure (easy vs simple - e.g. "tank&spank" encounter that has a 'challenging' but straightforward enemy which costs you a bunch of wand charges and healing potions) as opposed to a encounter that's risky because the challenge has inherent uncertainties with story consequences, and you can't just "buy your way out" by expending resources. \$\endgroup\$ – Peteris Feb 27 at 16:54
21
\$\begingroup\$

There are two reasons I use those now and again

  1. Sometimes, the players need to feel successful.

    I use this particularly with new players, and with younger players when I deem that a tougher encounter might go badly.

  2. Sometimes, the party's foes make a mistake.

    Just as the PCs can now and again underestimate how hard an encounter or monster is, the reverse is true. This works either in an ambush scenario (where the bandits really don't know who they are messing with) or after a social situation when the reaction by the party's opponent leads to blows - due to NPC ego, anger, surprise reveal of pet peeve, or something else. In such a case, social-encounter-to-combat-encounter transition, if there are a goodly number of opponents, some of them fleeing or surrendering when the party begins to beat the stuffing out of them is a common result. That leads to a non-combat encounter / situation: what do we do with these prisoners?

  3. A last reason that I no longer use with our current group: to get the party used to not expending resources as a reflex.

    A group of old timers had developed the habit of going nova early since I tended to run 3 or 4 encounters at the hard - deadly level. (I tend to backwards budget daily XP budget to make encounter bundles). On the fourth encounter of that day, I went 'easy to medium' since they had no spell slots left, but there were still plenty of enemies in the area. The party won handily except that one character had to make a death save due to getting hit by a crit. The crit / damage spike phenomenon is part of the swinginess of the d20 system. (I don't do this anymore since there is a limit to how many new tricks old dogs will learn.)

@Matthieu'sM's point on variety making for a fun game experience is something I've seen at tables from both sides of the screen.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Did the players feel 'good' about those encounters? Or did they feel that they were too easy and just a time waste? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch In which case are you asking? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 27 at 16:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably more with the more experienced player - but in general, do they like combat encounters that they breeze through because they were made to breeze through (and not just due to their smart tactics/good rolls.) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 16:32
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Depends on the group; now and again the case two PWNage event leads to a serial encounter with prisoners that they then deal with in a non combat way. Matthieu's point on 'variety adding to the gaming experience' is spot on here. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 27 at 16:34
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Loving that third point. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 18:20
16
\$\begingroup\$

Variety breathes life in the game.

D&D is not a video game where the difficulty of an encounter is carefully tailored to always be Medium/Hard for the current group of players.

Instead, I have found that a variety of difficulties makes encounters more fun.

Just like various foes should react differently, various foes should present different difficulty levels. For example it is unrealistic that the cities gatekeepers, paid a couple coppers a day, be a real challenge to a high-level party... but it may not prevent said gatekeepers from challenging the party nonetheless.

Varying difficulty levels make the World take a life on its own, rather than strictly revolving around the party. It gives a more "sandbox" feel.

Variety fosters Role-Play.

Similarly, variety limits meta-gaming and fosters role-play.

If the players are used to always encountering a certain level of difficulty, they will adapt their gameplay: they know that an encounter requires a certain amount of buffing, and the expenditure of a certain amount of resources (spells, potions, etc...), so as combat starts the Cleric casts a protective spell... "as usual".

Instead, when the difficulty of encounters swings wildly between Easy and Deadly (or Impossible), and cannot be "meta-gamed", then the players have to proceed cautiously, and have to use their characters' knowledge and interactions to suss out how strong the opposition really is.

Personally I find it more realistic.


I would note that this does not mean that the combat should become boring and sluggish. The DM is in position to shorten the fight by having the opposition flee or throw down their weapons when they realize how hopeless the fight is... such as after just witnessed one of their allies getting cleaved in two in a single swing by the Big Bad Fighter.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Not forcing completion for the sake of completion is a very interesting method to give them that "powerful" feeling without wasting table time. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 27 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ "...variety limits meta-gaming and fosters role-play" this! (+1) \$\endgroup\$ – Lorenzo Donati Mar 1 at 16:03
10
\$\begingroup\$

To reduce player paranoia

If players expect each combat encounter to be deadly or at least to consume a significant amount of resources they will approach the game very carefully. That means more of the game time is spent on planning instead of action. In extreme cases it can lead to players anticipating to encounter danger even when there isn't any or trying to avoid combat at any cost. This is similar to how springing deadly traps upon players will make them check every nook and cranny before proceeding and can significantly slow down the game.

By occasionally introducing an encounter that can be won without any planning, complicated tactics or significant losses you can encourage players to be bolder and take more risks in the future. It could also speed up gameplay and even make player actions more varied if they don't feel pressured to make the most optimal choice every turn.

While watching players overcome the odds against a difficult encounter is undoubtedly fun, sometimes it is more fun to watch them charge recklessly into the fray, which they won't do if they know it will end up badly.

\$\endgroup\$
9
\$\begingroup\$

Some people like it.

Take a look at page 6 of your DMG. (It's a fantastic resource.) One of the player types there just wants to be awesome in combat. They may or may not enjoy tactical challenge. They do enjoy the idea of charging into a horde of orcs, and hitting one orc so hard that his head comes flying off and strikes another orc, killing both of them on the spot. This is the part of the game that that player really gets into. Now, if you're a player who's really into tactical optimization and balancing resources and so forth, there isn't going to be a lot of appeal, but if you're that kind of player, then Easy encounters aren't really for you. They're for the kind of player that likes to be reminded from time to time that, as a sixth-level barbarian, they really are a raging badass that most people would have reason to be rightly terrified of.

It's a refreshing break

Shakespeare had humorous scenes even in the middle of his tragedies. You can, too. Giving the players an opportunity to cut loose on some hapless foes who aren't a meaningful threat and maybe show off a bit can offer a mental break in the middle of an otherwise grindingly difficult dungeon. That both gives them a bit of mental recovery time and means that when they jump back into the trenches, it hits them fresh again. Both effects can be worthwhile for crafting the experience.

\$\endgroup\$
7
\$\begingroup\$

A lot of the other answers are completely valid, but I think they're overlooking an issue. You're making an assumption that's actually invalid: that 'easy' or 'medium' encounters can be won without expenditure of resources. Even an easy fight should require expenditure of resources to resolve. If it doesn't, then the fight was well below easy, or the players just got way too lucky on dice rolls.

Don't forget, 'resources' aren't just spell slots. The term also includes things like Hit Points, Hit Dice, potions, scrolls, and anything else that's a limited-use option. If that goblin just scratches the wizard, that's still a resource expenditure. And while an easy fight might end that readily, a decent medium fight won't. Or at least, shouldn't.

Which is where we get into the fact that the CR guidelines are just that: guidelines. Only you can know enough about your party to guess when they fall short. Maybe your party is squishy enough (low AC) that a high damage, low attack bonus monster will be tougher than the numbers suggest. Or their AC is high enough that low to hit bonus monsters are nearly useless. Or that they're tactically developed enough to force you to wail on the high AC characters, while the juicy low AC ones keep clear.

Worth with those ability and traits when you set up your fights.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Death by 1000 easy-level cuts is definitely viable, especially for long slogs through an enemy stronghold or something where there isn't really the time to stop and rest. \$\endgroup\$ – Robotnik Feb 28 at 5:45
5
\$\begingroup\$

I have used easy encounters several times in my campaign, for two reasons:

  1. They've made a right decision or succeeded a roll, usually sneak or deception to lure some enemies away.
  2. I have a player that likes combat.

An example is when they were tracking bandits to their hideout. They succeeded perception roll to find a hidden passage right into the abandoned castle, where there were only 1-2 guards, as opposed to 4-5 guards on the main gate.

The easy encounter is given to give a sense of accomplishment for choosing the right option or succeeding an important roll (and make sure later they know what would happened if they choose the wrong option or failed the roll).

I also still put the encounter there, although I can easily narrate they beat the guards easily, to give at least one encounter per session for this player. He is happy with this arrangement, and the others too (usually the encounter only lasted 10 minutes).

\$\endgroup\$
4
\$\begingroup\$

Use easy combat encounters for plot purposes

Rather than having the combat matter for its own sake (e.g. forcing the players to expend resources to win and stay alive), consider using it to advance the plot. Perhaps the orc patrol the players effortlessly dispatched was carrying a message from the BBEG to one of his Lieutenants and so now the players now know some of his plans.

You can also use a small fight to set up a larger fight that will come later. Maybe one orc manages to sound a horn before dying, so they players will be unsurprised when the BBEG's fortress is on alert when they get to it.

Or combine those two ideas: Maybe the patrol was on their way back to the fortress, and the alert occurs if they don't show up on time. Consider giving the patrol written orders saying when they're expected back. Do the players read Orkish?

Easy encounters can help you control the game's pacing

Combat is also a very easy way to move the game along if the players are stalled. If the players are going around in circles because they can't agree on what the best way into the fortress is, have a patrol blunder into them. They'll stop arguing to fight, and perhaps the debate will be seen differently after the encounter is over. It certainly will if the brief fight caused the alarm to be raised!

Use easy encounters to flesh out your world

Maybe the orc patrol tries to run away or surrender when they see they're outmatched. Do the players accept their surrender? What do the orcs have to say for themselves, after being beaten? How do they see the BBEG the party is trying to kill? Does he mistreat his servants? They may be more scared of the players then their boss.

Such an encounter might also let you share some of your world-building with your players. Do orcs have their own society? Are Chaotic Evil creatures like them pure killing machines, or do they have more subtle emotions too? How do they handle fear? How do their Gods relate to the ones the players worship?

You can tie this world-building information right back into the plot too. Perhaps the party's cleric can learn that the orcs are terrified by signs of divine power (perhaps because the BBEG's army has no clerics of its own and they fear they've been forsaken by their Gods). That might let a normally non-combat spell like Thaumaturgy turn the tide in some future battle.

\$\endgroup\$
4
\$\begingroup\$

It can create an atmosphere

Imagine you have two cr 1/8 guards guarding a temple, at night, with no one around. The group of 4 PC's are level 10. The presence of the guards indicates that this temple is not free to enter for everyone. Even if the PC's want to do some kind of errand in there, illegally, so they need to kill or incapacitate the guards. The PC's can ready cantrips or ranged weapons, and knock them unconscious very easily.

The guards did not have an impact on the security of the building, but their presence made the temple seem like a guarded, important place. If they were not there, the temple would feel less important, and not valuable enough to even have guards.

Imagine the scenario where there is a forest, which people do not ever go into due to the danger it presents. The PC's are level 10. It doesn't make sense that CR 10 creatures would be the only dangerous creatures the PC's would encounter, so it makes sense for a lot of aggressive owl bears and constrictor snakes to be present. A few easy attacks make the wild seem like the kind of place the townsfolk would describe, instead of a harmless forest.

\$\endgroup\$
2
\$\begingroup\$

Some play styles more or less require them

If you're playing a sandbox or simulationist game, the group is expected to encounter opponents both far above and below their own power level. Gathering intel and estimating encounter difficulty are part of the challenge, and players can often avoid an encounter they're not interested in. In my experience, if a high level party picks an easy fight, they either want to blow off steam for five minutes, or there's some character development about to happen.

The difficulty might not be obvious

In a similar vein, if the party can't tell at a glance, and can't rely on the DM to only serve them level appropriate encounters, spell slots and other resources might get used to gather more information or to bypass an otherwise harmless encounter. Perhaps that's exactly what the currently-strapped-for-resources bad guys intended?

There are costs apart from what's on the character sheet

Dealing with easy encounters still has opportunity costs. They can buy time for the BBEG to get away, interrupt the party's rest, threaten less battle-hardened NPCs, provide a distraction, pin the party down in the wrong place. As long as there are enough other pieces on the chess board, a pawn in the right place can take a queen.

It might not have been planned that way, but still worth playing out

Sometimes your players will manage to distract the guards, poison the monster's dinner and catch the wizard in the middle of a dangerous experiment. The following combat may be a piece of cake, but it's a cake that the party earned, and there's satisfaction to be had by playing it out. It would feel cheap and unsatisfying to just handwave it here. Instead, I do my best to make the battle appear appropriately dangerous.

The wizard flinches and whirls around just as you're about to strike. He's fast. His voice booms and his palm flashes with a searing light just as your blade finds his heart. For a second you feel an unearthly pull as he struggles to complete the incantation, but then his breath fails and his body slumps to the floor. You made it, barely.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.