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So, I'll set the stage. We're a party of 4, level 8 at the moment, with an allied NPC. In our most recent encounter we went up against:

  • ~20 "minions", (<35 HP, +4 to hit)
  • 1 Winter wolf (75 HP, +5 to hit)
  • 3 dire wolves (37 HP, +6 to hit)
  • 1 modified Huskarl (<105 HP, +7 to hit)
  • 1 Druid (~40 HP)

All of these enemies, Druid exempt, got at least 2 attacks. About half the minions had a harpoon attack that Grappled upon hit, so that kept us pinned pretty good.

Keep in mind, this was designed narratively to be a "challenging" encounter; it was set up as a raiding camp that we were vastly outnumbered for. But every encounter is set up narratively to be challenging in this way. So when the norm is something we're not supposed to beat, that feels a little off base. If the smart answer is just to walk away from the story, that strikes me as setting us up to fail.

Am I overreacting, or was this fight a little harsh? We won this one, but I also lost track of the amounts of times that the DM crit-failed attacks, and he almost always rolled min damage. I only really have experience with this DM and it's sort of always been this way. I just wanna know if this sort of setup (roughly 820 HP to slap grind through, 26 mooks w/ 35 HP, etc) is a good way to set up an encounter or if it's just intentionally difficult for difficulty's sake.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Mołot, 40355 says Reinstate Monica, Medix2, user37158, mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 23 at 4:07

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Were you ambushed in your camp or were you attacking them in their camp? Also, how it is going to help you if we will answer yes or no to the question in the title? \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Sep 22 at 22:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not expecting anyone to solve anything, I'm just trying to figure out whether or not I have a reason to feel like this is unbalanced. Also, we attacked them at theirs, but were kinda forced to do so based off where their camp was located/where they had just come from. \$\endgroup\$ – garrhyde Sep 22 at 22:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 23 at 6:37
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Attacking the camp is never the only option

There are a lot of factors that go into determining the balance of encounters in D&D. The CR guidelines, players skill, party composition and often the DM gut instinct all play a role. Without being in your DMs head or even at your table we can't tell you if they are stacking things against you. However we can give you a breakdown of things that might have impacted the encounter here.

DM Things

Here I'm going to discuss things that might have impacted this fight from the DMs side; encounter design, DM technique and potential mistakes.

The encounter

Yii Elfe's answer already gives a good breakdown of the CR math to show that; yes, in pure balance terms by the DMG this encounter was too hard. However there is a lot more to consider than just that. At the end of the day, you survived so; no, the encounter wasn't too difficult for you.

Encounter math is only a guideline at the best of time. Due to the variety of party combinations and player skill an encounter that is difficult for one group might be a cake-walk for another. Potentially your group regularly punches above its weight in CR terms and your DM has adjusted for this as a good DM should.

Encounters per day

The "balance math" of D&D is set up for 6-8 encounters of medium-hard difficulty per day. If you are fighting less than this, you can handle bigger fights. KorvinStarmast has a great answer to a very similar question where a player is trying to break down the encounter they just experienced.

Basically if the players can spend all of their resources on a single encounter, so can the DM and the balance still works out.

DMs are human too

In Yii Elfe's answer they mention the modifier for large groups being the factor that pushed this fight beyond the deadly encounter level. Without this the encounter would only have been hard-deadly. It is entirely possible that your DM simply forgot this modifier, working directly off the XP budget for the encounter without considering the number of creatures. I will admit I have done this in the past.

Player things

Here are some things that you can consider for future encounters to be prepared for challenges like this.

Were you really meant to fight them?

What was the motivation for assaulting the camp? Was an all out attack the only option? Could you have retreated and come back with reinforcements? To me this sounds like players not thinking outside the box.

I often put war-camps or large groups in front of my players that they would have no chance of fighting in a straight up battle. The point is to encourage them to think outside the box. Find allies, divide and conquer, stealth attacks and guerilla warfare, all viable options to shift the odds in a fight like this.

The problem is if this clashes with the campaign expectations and the way things have played up to this point. If the DM has been running the game such that you can always handle any fight put in front of you, then throws this at you with no warning, that is a little bit unfair. If may be worth having another session 0 to check that the players and DM are on the same page regarding how the game should be run.

Combat tactics

Was there a clear leader controlling the enemies? It sounds as if the druid may have been in charge of this band. Did you focus fire on the leader to bring them down? Your DM may have been using morale rules or similar to have the minions run away if the leader is killed.

Did you utilize buffs, area control and AoE spells? Without details of your party we can't be sure of exactly what ability are available to you. But most 8th level parties will have access to some decent buff spells and at least one Wall of X spell. Wall spells are great in encounters like this to separate your enemies and mean you only have to fight some of them at a time. Spells like confusion and dominate beast can also turn and enemy into an ally, shifting the odds of the fight in your favour.

Reconsider your goal

The way you discuss grinding through the enemies sounds as though you were trying to kill everyone in the camp. In my campaigns, "kill all the things" is very rarely the goal of any encounter. Were you there to steal something back? Drive them off? Eliminate the threat from a local village? In each of those cases killing all of the enemies isn't really required. Hurt them badly enough and they shouldn't cause a problem for a while.

In every fight it is important to know what you are trying to achieve and why you are there. Sometimes it is worth fighting to the death, often it is smarter to run away and live to fight another day.

Conclusion

Ultimately you survived the fight, any fight you walk away from wasn't too unfairly balanced. I believe you should give your DM the benefit of the doubt, either this was balanced to your party based on experience, or they made a mistake, either way they are human and doing a hard job. You might like to gentle raise your concern though, if it really bothers you.

In the mean time, reassess your own strategy. Did you play this situation as cleverly as you could? Was there another option? Could you have avoided a direct confrontation? Remember there are 4 players and only 1 DM, you can always think of something they haven't planned for.

Finally, your DM has given you something amazing, a memorable fight. Really this is what D&D is all about. In years to come your will look back and recall "remember that time we took on that massive camp?" and laugh about it. Enjoy the game for as long as it lasts.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's the first line of the conclusion that really matters here. But I'd emphasize the fuzziness of the CR calculations even more. It's hard to assemble a party of enemies that feels dangerous to the players but can still be beaten. Challenges where players use a lot of their resources (including HP) often feel dire. If the DM is consistently fudging rolls to make the combats win-able, that's one thing, but consistently winning fights that seem really hard is a sign of good encounter design, not bad design. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Sep 23 at 17:16
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"Mathematically", this is beyond a "deadly" encounter, but that doesn't mean the DM planned on killing you.

Using the tables in the DMG (page 82): A "hard" encounter for 4 level 8 characters would have monsters worth 5600 XP, a "deadly" encounter 8400 XP.

  • 20 "minions" = 2000 (at 1/2 which would be very beefy for their CR seeing as other 1/2 CR has around 15-25 health)
  • 1 Winter Wolf = 700
  • 3 Dire Wolves = 600
  • 1 Huskarl = 2900 (using a homebrew stat block that seemed to have the same stats)
  • 1 Druid = 450
  • Total = 6650 XP

This falls somewhere between a "hard" and "deadly" (8400 XP) encounter But when using the formula from the DMG you also have to account for number of monsters. For encounters with more than 15 monsters you multiply total XP by 4 making this encounter 26600 which would be a "deadly" encounter even for a lvl 15 party.

Even ignoring the minions the encounter results in:

Total = 4650

Multiplier for 6 monsters = 2

Adjusted XP = 9300

Which is still above the "deadly" threshold (8400) for a lvl 8 party of 4.

On a side note: not all encounters are meant to be encounters. If you find a war camp and charge in 4 vs 30 you put yourself in a bad spot.

Huskarl stats: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/73/c7/df/73c7dff3da89a6b7a322fd0a1e4c44e9.jpg

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for all the math! In response to the last bit, I agree, but this one most certainly was set up as our party's only option unless we just said "no" and walked the other way from the main questline, which also wasn't really an option based on how the campaign had been set up thus far. \$\endgroup\$ – garrhyde Sep 23 at 0:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your math doesn't seem to account for the NPC ally. I don't know how much difference it would make but a party of 5 is significantly stronger than a party of 4. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 23 at 1:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Assuming the ally is level 8 (or equivalent), you can scale up the recommended XP thresholds from the DMG by 5/4, so 7000 XP for hard and 10500 XP for deadly. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul T. Sep 23 at 2:01

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