# How should you adjust Encounter Levels for underequipped PCs?

In two campaigns I play our PCs are equipped far below the guidelines given in the DMG, p. 135 ("Character Wealth by Level"). We keep getting into trouble and are overwhelmed with situations we should be able to handle, judging from the CR of opponents. So I wonder if you can construct guidelines like: "If you have the equipment of 2 levels below your character level you should effectively be regarded as 1 level below your actual character level as far as Encounter Levels are concerned."

You would have to judge how much of a PC's progress in abilities and power derives from improved equipment and how much from class levels. So: Has such an assessment ever been tried? What does or what should it look like?

I am well aware that there are other factors that contributed to our repeated defeats: No maximized characters, special circumstances in encounter design, and being just too plain stupid. All of these had their share. Nonetheless I would like to know if the impact equipment has can be reasonably assessed.

So I wonder if you can construct guidelines like: "If you have the equipment of 2 levels below your character level you should effectively be regarded as 1 level below your actual character level as far as Encounter Levels are concerned."

It will vastly depend on the character. In D&D 3.5, spellcasters, and Druids especially, are much less reliant on equipment than, say, a Fighter or Barbarian.

Furthermore, this is not JUST about the total value of the equipment, but also about the spread of the value:

• A character pouring all its wealth into a single item, say a big sword, will do extremely when it can bring that item to bear, and be hamstrung otherwise.
• Conversely, a character spreading its wealth too thin, and having only cheap items (in bulk), will find themselves lacking "punch".

And of course, as mentioned, it will very much depend on the foes they face. Some foes are intrinsically gear-check encounters, rewarding specific equipment choices, and harshly punishing others. Immunities and specific damage resistance are like that, incorporeal foes, foes that keep out of melee range, etc...

While I could see lowering the CR of the encounter, I think that ultimately it would be more fruitful to help the PCs obtain useful -- but not necessarily expensive -- equipment. Bunko's Bargain List is a well-known example of a list of "cheap" items to help overcome specific situations: gaining flight, protecting from gaze attacks, breathing underwater, etc...

Any seasoned adventurer should have heard plenty of horror stories from other adventurers illustrating a large range of dangers, and seek to protect their party from all those... it's bad enough to be left vulnerable to dangers you never thought or heard about!

I would expect a character with a slightly lower wealth than WBL, but with a few good offensive/defensive items, and a nice collection of counters, to be comfortable facing encounters of the normal CR for its level.

## The key word is "Guidelines"

CR is one rule of thumb indicator of how difficult an encounter will be. However, different encounters with the same CR will have completely different levels of actual difficulty depending on a number of factors, of which party wealth is only one. Even two parties with identical character stats (excluding equipment) and identical wealth value will have vastly different experiences depending on how that wealth was spent. To give a concrete example, imagine a standard 4 character party with wizard, rogue, cleric and fighter all at level 11, with the spellcasters out of memorised spells:

• Purchase option 1: The wizard has obtained a wand of fireballs and all other party members have +3 cold iron weapons (plus other items not relevant to the situation)
• Purchase option 2: The wizard has obtained a wand of lightning bolt and all other party members have +2 adamantine weapons (plus other items not relevant to the situation)

Now put the party up against an iron golem. If the party bought the items specified in option 1 then they are in for a very tough fight even though the value of the items is greater. If they bought the items specified in option 2 then they are likely to win easily.

So, the short answer to whether GMs should consider a party to be lower level if they have less equipment is: it depends on whether the equipment will make a significant difference to the encounter difficulty.

To use a recent low-level example I GM'd: A party of level 1 PCs had two sorcerers, each with Sleep, and two fighter-ish types. For encounters with goblin and orc warriors the equipment made no difference — an overwhelming wave of Sleep spells put the enemy down and the fighters used their relatively low quality weapons to coup de grace at leisure. Conversely, before the party ran into a gray ooze I made sure they had the opportunity to obtain decent quality ranged weapons to allow them to stand off and survive, because in that encounter the equipment mattered.

As was mentioned in the answer to another question recently, GMs are well advised to game out each potential upcoming encounter and see how it is likely to turn out. (I couldn't re-find the answer in a quick search, if anyone knows it please comment and I shall credit it.) While it is impossible to predict some player actions, this should give the GM an idea of how the encounter may play out and where the pitfalls are. A blanket wealth-by-level adjustment to encounter difficulty will not substitute for this sort of case-specific analysis.

• Basically you are saying: Ignore the numbers, look at what the equipment does. But the numbers matter. XP are awarded on the ground of a logarithmical relation of character levels and CR. The table in the DMG exists because certain character levels are associated with a certain amount of equipment. Of course the DM still has to check whether a party has adequate equipment for an encounter, but there are a LOT of linear progressions in magic items (all bonuses, number of uses/day). I think this should be taken into account. Nov 30 '19 at 16:13
• @Giorin I agree that CR matters as a reflection of "earnable" XP. Think of all possible encounters in the level-appropriate CR range as being the "menu" in the XP restaurant. Then look at the menu choices individually, rule out the ones that are too spicy or too sweet, then select the appropriate dish for the occasion, modifying it slightly if required. Also think about the consequences of applying the blanket rule you suggested: characters will take much longer to level up if all encounters have a lower CR. This may be good or bad, but it will definitely be different. Nov 30 '19 at 23:28

The Dungeon Master's Guide (p. 39) actually addresses this fairly directly:

### Modifying XP Awards and Encounter Levels

An orc warband that attacks the PCs by flying over them on primitive hang gliders and dropping large rocks is not the same encounter as one in which the orcs just charge in with spears. Sometimes, the circumstances give the characters’ opponents a distinct advantage. Other times, the PCs have an advantage. Adjust the XP award and the EL depending on how greatly circumstances change the encounter’s difficulty.

Encounters of EL 2 or lower are the exception. They increase and decrease in proportion to the change in XP. For example, an EL 1 encounter that’s twice as difficult as normal is EL 2, not EL 3.

You can, of course, increase or decrease XP by smaller amounts, such as +10% or –10%, and just eyeball the EL.

Modify all ELs and experience rewards as you see fit, but keep these points in mind.

• Experience points drive the game. Don’t be too stingy or too generous.

• Most encounters do not need modifying. Don’t waste a lot of time worrying about the minutiae. Don’t worry about modifying encounters until after you have played the game a while.

• Bad rolls or poor choices on the PCs’ part should not modify ELs or XP awards. If the encounter is difficult because the players were unlucky or careless, they don’t get more experience.

• Just because the PCs are worn down from prior encounters does not mean that later (more difficult) encounters should gain higher awards. Judge the difficulty of an encounter on its own merits.

So, what you do is highly dependent upon whether PC choices or luck led to them having a lower level of equipment. Were you stingy as a DM or did they take actions so as to turn away riches or squander them foolishly? Did they ignore potential treasure or did they have no chance at getting the treasure in the first place?

If it's their fault, they should get nothing extra by a strict interpretation of the rules. If it is your fault, then they are entitled to extra experience for the encounter.

A chart is there for reference, but it is much more clear if you look at it on there rather than here:

$$\\begin{array}{|l|c|c|} \hline \textbf{Circumstance} & \textbf{XP Award Adjustment} & \textbf{EL Adjustment} \\ \hline \text{Half as difficult} & \text{XP} \times 1/2 & \text{EL} - 2 \\ \text{Significantly less difficult} & \text{XP} \times 2/3 & \text{EL} - 1 \\ \text{Significantly more difficult} & \text{XP} \times 1\frac{1}{2} & \text{EL} + 1 \\ \text{Twice as difficult} & \text{XP} \times 2 & \text{EL} + 2 \\ \hline \end{array} \$$

I do think it absolutely needs to be addressed that your players should not be two levels behind in equipment unless they are opting to save up their money for something big rather than be properly equipped for the present.

While there are standard treasures for monster groups, you are absolutely empowered as the DM to add treasure through storyline to bring your players up to par. For example, my players recently raided a bandit camp and were able to take what the bandits stole from their victims as an extra cache. They will also be able to sell bandit scalps to the merchants guild for a bounty. Perhaps a noble rewards them with the wealth filling in the gap for what they perceive to be services rendered to their realm.

This should not be a recurring theme in your campaign unless the players themselves are causing it to happen through their actions, thwarting your attempts to give them the necessary wealth.

Remember that this is an exercise in mutual storytelling - you can bend rules if it increases the enjoyment for all. It doesn't sound like anyone would be happy with such a poor equipment situation - neither you nor the players.