I am a newbie DM and started DMing because our current DM was not bringing a nice and engaging story.

I am doing really good on the role playing and storytelling, but my encounters had been nothing more than some fun for my player's characters. I even edited some foes stats and used some high CL creatures, but it still looks like stealing candy from a kid to them.

Our party is currently level 6. Wizards are Polymorphing themselves into powerful creatures and hasting each other and our poor fighter is being destroyed on the frontline every combat due to the fact I increased the difficulty. The wizards are not finding the battle any fun, while the fighter is getting knocked down almost every encounter. I kinda want to skyrocket the CL but that could be the wrong call for the other 2 players that are non-spell casters.

I guess this is what you pay for allowing 3 spellcasters on your party on 3.5.

How do I balance this campaign without sending a demon from another realm that destroys magic around him and frustrating the players?


7 Answers 7


Generally speaking, larger numbers of enemies (not tougher enemies) and better tactics.

It's a common tactic to just increase the stats of existing monsters or to choose higher CR creatures for them to fight, but that has a few problems. First, no matter how high their attack bonus and damage get, a single monster only gets one turn per round while the PCs get much more than that, so they can often just whittle the monster down just through sheer number of actions. It often ends up being a case where in order to pose any sort of challenge the monster has to be capable of one-shotting PCs, which isn't particularly fun. Instead, increasing the number of foes, even relatively weak ones, tends to make for a much more even fight. The enemies get to act more, they can gang up on characters and they're much less vulnerable to single target save-or-die spells.

As for tactics, having enemies play smart (or at least cunning) can make a huge difference. Since the PCs are playing spellcasters, have enemies close the distance with them (even if they have to take attacks of opportunity to do so), have them grapple, blind or deafen casters, make them spread out so they're less vulnerable to AoE attacks. Use stealth, have the enemies set alarms and traps, have them use buff spells or potions if they see the party coming. Have them flank and use the aid another action against high AC characters. These tactics aren't appropriate for mindless or particularly dumb creatures, but anything else should be doing their best to negate any advantages the party has.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Related How can I play monsters and NPCs up to their potential? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Mar 5, 2020 at 0:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ An example: Tucker's Kobolds \$\endgroup\$
    – Guus
    Mar 5, 2020 at 13:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for waves of weaker to average monsters. Once wizards run out of spell slots, their options decrease sharply, unless they are also overgeared. \$\endgroup\$
    – nijineko
    Mar 5, 2020 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is great, especially about adding more monsters and the Aid action is one I did not consider before, especially when multiple little guys go on the same turn. Also want to add that having people come from behind the party (when possible) can help keep the magic users on their toes as they are often in the back lines. \$\endgroup\$
    – Stickyz
    Mar 5, 2020 at 15:28

I'ts been a long time since I played, much less DMed, 3.5e, so I'm going to try to keep what I say pretty high-level and hopefully system-agnostic, but I'm also saying this as someone who exclusively plays Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder, so forgive any bias. Also, some of what I suggest will require some amount of customizing enemies. That said, these are the techniques I use when DMing for strong players or large groups.

Enemy Action Economy

Giving the enemies more things to do is the easiest way to design harder encounters. There are two ways I generally accomplish that: putting more enemies into the encounter and giving an individual enemy more actions per turn.

Put More Enemies In Encounters

This is the most obvious, and easiest, way to increase enemy action economy. Determine the CR you want to achieve, use 1/3 to 1/2 the total XP budget on a "commander", then spend the rest of the XP on relatively weak creatures that are still threatening in groups. Finding enemies that satisfy that can be tricky since it requires knowing where your party's weak points are and choosing enemies to exploit them.

However, packing a lot of enemies into an encounter comes with a few caveats:

Primarily single-target-focused parties will spend much longer in combat. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you and your players enjoy doing

This may not actually be harder for AoE-focused parties. If your players are spamming AoE spells or making four attacks each round, many lower HP enemies do not necessarily take longer to kill or present more difficulty than fewer higher HP enemies.

It becomes very easy to tip this too far in the enemies' favor. Two bad rounds for the party or one exceptionally good round for the enemies can make an already challenging encounter insurmountable

Design or Modify Enemies to Perform Multiple Actions Each Round

This is the more difficult way to accomplish this, but if done well, it can be incredibly rewarding for both you and your players. You because you only have to focus on tactics for one or two enemies and can spend more time storytelling during combat. Your players because they have a clear tactical goal to focus on and characters (especially casters) who normally feel pressured to provide AoE-damage or wide-area battlefield presence can instead focus on single-target damage/control for once.

As a specific example, I once recreated the Constructor from Borderland 2 in Starfinder and used it in a few encounters. While statting it, I had a few things I was designing around: I had a mix of new and experienced players, the party consisted of seven characters, I wanted combat with it to be high-tension but short. So I designed it to make four actions per round. It took it's normal move and standard each round, but also had a list of other actions it could perform two of each round (one of which was knocking back melee characters, forcing them to spend actions to get back in range and reduce the number of full attacks they were able to make).

Make Combat About Solving a Puzzle

Make combat less about who does the most damage. Don't remove the stakes from a fight, but create a condition (or multiple conditions) for actually winning. This forces players to think about what they're doing and can be much more engaging than simple battlefield tactics. Here are some examples of how to accomplish this.

Design an enemy that has a hard-to-bypass DR and/or SR and come up with something the players can do to temporarily (or permanently) disable it. It can be something simple like destroying an object in the arena first (like the fight with Seath in Dark Souls) or something subtler like needing to cast a certain spell in its vicinity.

Create an arena that forces the players to stay in specific places. You could have some sort of mystical light that debuffs players if it hits them, forcing the players to try to draw enemies to shaded areas and deal with them there. Make the punishments for being hit by the light scale up each time they get seen (hp damage, physical stat damage or mental stat damage, attack/skill check penalties, etc.).

If you and your players like lighter/humorous encounters, go full MMO and make an enemy that forces players to literally solve riddles or math questions or perform simple tasks to deal damage. This is obviously going to be more of a joke, but it can lead to great interactions between PCs when the 8 INT fighter is asked to do simple multiplication, fails the DC 12 INT check and gets laughed at by the wizard, then laughs at the wizard when they can't climb a thirty foot rope unassisted.

Plan Your Tactics Ahead of Time

Don't just choose enemies for an encounter. Think about the ways the creatures work together or how they respond to certain things. You know what your party does, so have actions ready to respond to those things. Also, consider the ways in which the enemies will engage the party.

If you have a large group of enemies, consider splitting them up and making the first group the one the party finds initially and have the second group show up in the second round to flank them.

If you choose monsters from the monster manual, make sure you use the spells/special attacks they have. If you choose a CR 6 enemy that can cast Burning Hands at CL 3, but it never actually uses it, then you've actually chosen a CR 4 or 5 enemy instead. I have played with a lot of DMs that pick cool looking monsters and then have them exclusively full attack each round. It doesn't matter what the CR of a monster is, there's only so much damage natural weapons can do.

Lastly, figure out how to play to the enemies' strengths. If you're playing in a specific terrain, find enemies that get bonuses in that terrain. Give one of the enemies bard levels and have them buff his allies. Choose enemies that are good at closing distances and flanking.

If you have any questions or would like me to clarify anything, feel free to ask. I could write a lot more about this, but this is already pretty long and I don't want to ramble (also it's almost time to leave work).

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice for numerous other editions as well. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Mar 5, 2020 at 18:25

35 years ago (omfg!) AD&D 2 was even more unbalanced, here's how I approached it:

  1. Treat the rules as guidelines not laws.

If something is too powerful, change the rules (but explain why and get agreement). I'd allow one use of an op item/strat. Then I'd ban it from the game. It made finding op strats fun and even lifesaving, but kept the game balanced longterm.

  1. Make challenge more than just violence - make it so firepower isn't always the answer.

One of the hardest things my high-level (lvl 18+) party had to do was a long trip in secret as low level caravan guards.

Every encounter was a problem for them as they unthinkingly lashed off high-level spells, or took too little damage or even just used their artifacts to produce food and shelter.

They killed witnesses to their blunders, then tried to make up evidence for the murders, then tried to bribe the people who found flaws in the evidence, then...they almost failed the mission in the first session :) Something as simple as controlling their usual arrogance in a bar was a major issue.

  1. Expand the objectives beyond personal firepower and one-on-one combat.

Make it more than just about loot; add town-building, politics, large-scale combat to the mix. Your players can be major forces in the land if you allow them that path.

The reason my players were traveling in secret in point 2 was to get a specific type of animal that was close enough in appearance to a Tarrasque that I allowed a one-time (op strat!) polymorph so they could unleash it in the woods bordering their town.

They wanted to weaken a druid circle that lived there but couldn't just attack them directly. That trip and follow-on conflict was a couple of weeks of emerging content requiring their creativity and cunning not just pew-pew power.

As DM you can master a world not just a battle arena. If that's what you want of course.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Please take a look at the tour, it's a useful introduction to the site. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Mar 5, 2020 at 11:13

Puzzle Me This

Congratulations on running into one of the more frustrating parts of D&D, encounter balance. There are plenty of discussions on this site and others on how to use the CR ratings to build encounters, and what to do when you have unbalanced parties. Instead of rehashing all of that, I am going to suggest some out-of-the-box solutions that don't require stronger enemies or changing stats.

The first suggestion I throw out when someone asks about this is to make the combat portion of an encounter secondary to the actual goal. My favorite example of this is the Simon Says puzzle room. The party is in a large room with colored squares on the floor. The squares light up in a specific pattern and the party has to traverse them in the same patter to get to the other side and unlock the door out. However, there are also enemies in the room and if they step on a square out of order it also counts and will reset the pattern.

The encounter itself can be as easy or hard as you want, since defeating the enemies doesn't let you leave the room. Maybe your party decides that it would be easier to kill them all and them do the floor puzzle, in which case it is just another fight. But you can also make it clear that they could ignore the enemies and complete the puzzle and leave. Now the choice is whether they burn the resources (spell slots, HP, items) on the fight or try to speed through. For added fun you can have some kind of mass damage trigger when the puzzle fails, so that the enemies screwing it up has more consequences.

Another puzzle fight I like is Reforming Elementals. The party encounters an arbitrary group of different elementals (the type and number depends on how hard the fight should be). Fighting the elementals should be fairly simple, but every 1dX turns the ones that were "killed" reform and continue to fight. The only way to permanently kill them is to use an opposing element against them during the fight. It shouldn't need to be magical either, so that your Fighter can still contribute. Splash some water on a Fire Elemental to kill it, hit an Air Elemental with a clod of dirt.

Make sure you give your party some hints as to what is happening during the fight, but feel free to wait until after the first "respawn" to do so. Mention that the dead elementals leave behind some glowing wisps where they fall and then it reforms from that. The initial fight should not be too hard, since you want at least some dead elementals before the first respawn round. The difficulty here is that the encounter size is essentially "infinite" until the party solves the puzzle.

Roll For Morality

My other favorite suggestion for overpowered parties is to make combat an ethical choice rather than a numerical one. This is basically the idea behind Superman: strong enough to do anything, but constantly analyzing whether he should. Put your party in situations where they know they could win a fight if it came to it, but then make them decide whether or not they would be the bad guys for it.

Another standby that I have suggested before is the horde of mindcontrolled villagers. Would a group of 10, 20, or even 50 level 1 Peasants be a problem for your PCs? Probably not, given their level and some basic tactics. But that isn't really the point of the encounter. Your players should know for a fact that the villagers are under some kind of spell, and they need to find the source and kill/destroy it. Doing that without killing the entire village of innocent people is the real challenge here.

An even more extreme example of this can be found in older editions of D&D, even. The Dread Emperor is a high-level Fighter with some pretty good stats and magical gear. But the thing that makes fighting him so difficult is that his magical plate armor has chains that can let it attach to collars, which he can force people to wear. Anyone who is wearing a collar takes damage that the Dread Emperor would have taken in his place. And since old D&D was Edgy and Dark(tm), the Dread Emperor usually had those collars on children.

So a fight against the Dread Emperor involves an implicit decision to injure and most likely kill a couple of kids, before you even start to do damage to the enemy himself. In all honesty the Dread Emperor is probably a little too grim of a boss for a normal group of PCs to run into and fight, but his existence is a pretty good indicator that even the game designers realized that sometimes the hardest part of an encounter is whether or not you should even be fighting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ (Book of Vile Darkness details for 3.5 both the Dread Emperor (17–19) and his creature-enslaving armor (111).) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 5, 2020 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good call @HeyICanChan I couldn't remember if the Dread Emperor was in 3.5 proper or an earlier edition. I know I have seen (and used) various homebrew versions of him over the years. \$\endgroup\$
    – D.Spetz
    Mar 5, 2020 at 19:57

I've never played D&D 3.5 so I can't give any specific examples, but I had a similar problem in my current GURPS campaign, and I think my solution is system agnostic.

Pick enemies that will counter your powergamers.

In my campaign, my powergaming player is a dwarf blacksmith. He has great armor and weapons, and high strength so he does crazy damage. After the first couple encounters in which he shrugged off all attacks and crushed every foe's head with his hammer, I started including enemies he might struggle with. Men-at-arms wielding polearms who could poke him from further away than he could swing his hammer. Archers who would take advantage of his stubby legs and kite him. An assassin who wrestled to get a knife in a gap in his armor. The rest of the party was more mobile, so the archers and pikemen couldn't rely on distance, and they were less encumbered by armor, so they wrestled better. Only the dwarf was countered. And I was careful to not take it too far, now and then he would corner an archer or win a grapple and I was fine with it.

So maybe your party will have to fight other wizards who know a lot of counter spells, so your party has to rely on your fighters to cut them up. Or there will be fast, melee enemies who can close the distance before the wizards blow them up.


Some notes:

Remember to handle duration for buff spells. Alter Self, which is what I assume your 6th level wizards are using to shapechange, has a duration of 10 minutes/lvl. Measured in fights, how long does an hour last in your games? 1 fight? 2? 3?. Measured in exploration how man rooms can a wizard search in 10 minutes? How many corridors can they get trough? If they move slower what happens?

Some spells in dnd are fundamentally broken. Alter Self isn't one of these but some of the more esoteric sub options for it can be. Here's a pretty decent guide for wizards that includes options that might be to powerful:https://forums.giantitp.com/showthread.php?104002-3-5e-The-Logic-Ninja-s-Guide-to-Wizards-Being-Batman

Consider joining a dnd 3.5 game, and play as a wizard. An excellent way to get the hang of a class is to play it yourself. Then you can learn how other gms handle it. If there's no offline games there are lfg reddits and rpg internet forums where you can find online games.

Consider constricting the amounts of resources they can get. Example, don't let wizards decide what scrolls they can get, randomize them, even if they're shopping. Also downtime. Don't remove it entirely but maybe instead of a month they get a week. Instead of finding mint condition 50 charged wands at a wide selection the magic shop have a random assortment of wands, each with 1d20 charges in them.

You might have to put the foot down to some of the more excessive optimizing. Ultimately you still want to be pretty free with what you allow but if people take advantage of that to much it's ok to rein it in a bit.

With all of the above the wizard is still likely to be a powerhouse, but maybe a little more managable. Note though that pure fighters in 3.5 aren't very good so consider introducing your more martial classes to alternatives. Rangers, warblades, marshals, etcetera.


Instead of building an encounter with monsters sharing a single Challenge Rating, create two sets of foes: high CR monsters which will focus on attacking the Wizards and low CR foes that will swarm the Fighter. In effect, the encounter will be split into two battles between combatants of matched abilities.

Yes, the Wizards could easily clean up the weaker monsters with powerful direct damage spells, but this will mean using up spells better spent attacking the more dangerous boss monsters.

As DM you may have to tweak the encounter on the fly to make sure it is challenging and fun but not too challenging. For example, start the encounter with a handful of low CR minions that will attack the Fighter. If he quickly defeats them then simply feed more minions into the encounter to keep him busy.


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