8
\$\begingroup\$

Me and my friends decided to play some D&D 5th edition. The issue is, though I am a long term DM I am only well-versed in the rules for 3.5e and Pathfinder 1st, same as Open Legend but it uses a completely different base system than the other ones.

Right now my adventuring party is about to meet in the common tavern setting. All of those characters are of level 1 and consist of:

  • Life Cleric
  • Artificer
  • Barbarian
  • Monk
  • The UA Phoenix Sorcerer with a few tweaks.
  • Warlock with homebrew.
  • Blood Hunter

Due to the large party size, how can I develop an encounter which addresses the action economy which is tilted heavily in favor of the players right now?

\$\endgroup\$
12
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Aside from the homebrew setting and class, are you using standard 5e rules? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Feb 24 at 13:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes i am using essentially standard 5e rules from the PHB and DMG. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Lauer Feb 24 at 13:15
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ So am I right that this boils down to 'how do I plan an encounter for 7 characters'? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Feb 24 at 13:19
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Mark, you need to decide which is the question: introducing magitek items at level 1, or build an encounter for seven players. I have DM'd this edition for a number of parties: those are separate questions, particularly as the DMG encounter guidance is build on a 3-5 player model with things getting a little fuzzy as the number of characters grows (which you have correctly identified as a problem in encounter design). I strongly suggest that you reserve the magitek question for a separate question; when to introduce magic items for your players in this edition is very much its own question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 24 at 13:31
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much for the advice, as i am essentially asking here for the very first time. But yes it would be important then to just get to know the basics of having a level 1 encounter be fun first. I can introduce these items later on in the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Lauer Feb 24 at 13:37
6
\$\begingroup\$

Consider designing combat with specific goals other than annihilation, design more flexible combats, and prepare fallthrough options

This is a specific example of a very common problem with D&D 5e combats! One of my guiding principles of combat encounter design in 5e is that balancing those encounters is not as mechanically tight as might be preferred-- it's very hard to knowingly hit the "sweet spot" of a challenging, but survivable, encounter, and more PCs introduce more variables that are hard to take into account. Another is that combat is much more brittle for low-level PCs, particularly below level 3.

The usual advice of "include more individual enemies per combat" will bring the action economy imbalance more into line, but it's easy to overshoot and make combat much harder than you'd intended. So my advice is to put your effort into giving yourself more flexibility during the encounter rather than trying to achieve a very precisely balanced encounter in advance. That way you can make it more likely that a combat will have at least the degree of challenge you want while reducing the risk that it will be way too difficult.

1. Goals other than annihilation

It's very common for D&D encounters to be treated as fights to the death for all involved. That's not necessarily a problem, but when the stakes for PCs are death (without convenient access to spells that fix death) it is hard to present a challenging combat without a real risk of PCs dying. If your players are interested in a campaign with that level of challenge and risk then you're all set! But if not, designing combats that can end before one side is totally destroyed can help.

This allows one side of the combat to be overmatched (so you don't have to worry so much about balance) without that imbalance causing them to be in mortal peril. If you overload the enemy group with individual enemies, they can accomplish whatever they need to do and then depart (or the PCs can struggle to survive long enough to accomplish their goal, and then escape). Similarly, even if the enemies are going to fight to the finish, they don't need to kill the PCs. They may want to take prisoners, or send a message, or any number of other things. This approach is basically a way for imperfect balance (or the brittleness of low-level combats) to be kept from unraveling the whole session or game.

2. More flexible combats

This is my most-used option, by far. I design combats with waves of enemies, and if it turns out that one wave was too difficult the later waves don't need to arrive at all. Players, who don't know what you have planned, will never know the difference! If a combat seems too easy, you can send another wave in. This lets you adjust combats in the moment, which again gets around the need for ultra-precise, pre-session planning.

It is worth noting, as Ben Barden pointed out in comments, that this is essentially a gimmick. It works well when used to plan combats that you are especially worried about balancing, but is not a great option to use all of the time. Players will catch on if use waves all the time.

Another spin on this approach is to have conditions for retreats or routs, and to encourage the players to be aware that withdrawing is an option. Enemies don't have to drop to 0 HP before they're out of the fight. Being at 25% of your maximum HP might well convince a creature to flee rather than risk death. PCs, when overmatched, might be well advised to run away and return later with more resources and a better plan.

3. Fallthrough options

It can be very situational, but it may suit your story to have "in case of emergency"-type options ready. A friendly group of soldiers might arrive when the situation starts to look grim for the PCs, evening the odds or even effectively ending the combat. It is important to plan for an intrusion like this in advance, at least as a sketch-- suggesting to your players that you'll get them out of tough combats can introduce awkward elements to the game.

When I use this option (which is rare), I like to add a mini-goal to make it seem more like the PCs are earning their salvation. Something like the PCs catching sight of the banner of the approaching soldiers, and informing them that help will arrive in four turns. Now they don't have to win the combat (however that's defined), but instead they need to survive for four turns. It can be a very exciting situation: can they do it?


Honorable mentions

These aren't quite as on-topic as my main three suggestions, but they can also be helpful:

Put more effort into planning adventuring days rather than individual encounters.

This allows you to include a mix of encounter difficulties, and you can adjust subsequent encounters based on how your players have fared. If a combat you expected to be hard turns out to be deadly, the next one they face before their long rest can be an easy combat drawn from your list. If a combat you expected to be hard turns out to be easy, it can be followed up with another hard encounter.

I usually prepare my combats in D&D Beyond, and it's easy to add or subtract enemies from planned encounters and mark them according to how difficult they are. Then I just pick what seems appropriate from "Highway Bandits (Trivial)", "Highway Bandits (Easy)", "Highway Bandits (Hard)", "Highway Bandits (Unreasonably Deadly)", and so on.

Vary tactical ability of enemies

Most stat blocks offer a variety of things an enemy can choose to do, and some of those choices work particularly well between different individuals. An easy example is a trait like Pack Tactics: enemies with that trait will gain a lot from positioning themselves in ways that allow them to use it. A combat that involves most of the enemies having Advantage on their attack rolls is much more dangerous than one where they rarely do. You can play enemies in ways that make the most of their abilities, to the PCs' peril, or the enemies can be less capable and give the PCs an easier time. This is also something that you can adjust during combat, if you feel the need.

Offer training wheels

Adjusting combat rewards can be an effective way to offset a combat that was harder than you'd intended. If you provide extra healing potions after a brutal fight, the effects of the combat being difficult may be less pronounced.

\$\endgroup\$
2
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ On the "more flexible combats" - if you overuse the fact that the players don't know how much you have planned, that can get to be really obvious after a while, which in turn takes a lot of the emotional investment out of the fight. We know the DM is going to nudge the difficulty, so how do our efforts matter in any real way? Fortunately, you can fix that by mixing in some of step 1. Have long-term effects of the combat depend on how many waves they manage to defeat, whether they manage to do it without backup, or whatever. Gives them reason to care about their performance again. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Feb 25 at 18:39
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Personal experience on that one: I had a DM who really wanted to hit a certain level of "Party feels endangered" without ever actually TPKing... so he would have his enemies press us as hard as they could until PCs started dropping, and then have them suddenly lose all tactical skill and let themselves be mowed down. He lied about it when confronted, but the pattern was blatant... and infuriating. I eventually had to leave that group. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Feb 25 at 18:42
4
\$\begingroup\$

The DMG Has The Answer.

Per the Basic Rules on Encounter Design, you've got to determine a desired encounter difficulty (Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly), get the per character XP Threshold for that difficulty, use those values to determine the party XP Threshold for that difficulty, assign some monsters and sum their XP, then modify the XP value of the encounter by how many monsters you have (and how many player characters), and then run the encounter.

The multiplier for multiple monsters reflects the fact that if the monsters focus their attacks on a single target then that player character is likely to drop (especially at levels 1 and 2, where a single hit can drop an unharmed character). Larger parties make it likely that the player characters can destroy some of the foes before being overwhelmed, but the GM needs to consciously consider the danger of focusing fire on one or two player characters.

Do note the Party Size guidelines (bolded for emphasis).

The preceding guidelines assume that you have a party consisting of three to five adventurers.
If the party contains fewer than three characters, apply the next highest multiplier on the Encounter Multipliers table. For example, apply a multiplier of 1.5 when the characters fight a single monster, and a multiplier of 5 for groups of fifteen or more monsters.
If the party contains six or more characters, use the next lowest multiplier on the table. Use a multiplier of 0.5 for a single monster.

Examples

As an example of the process: I decide to challenge seven (7) level 1 player characters with an Easy encounter to start the adventure.

  • Per the chart in the DMG or Basic Rules, that has an XP Threshold of 25 per character.
  • That's a Threshold of 175 for the entire party.
  • It fits the story to use basic skeletons (50 XP).
  • Three (3) skeletons is 150 XP.
  • For a seven member party, the multiple monster multiplier is lesser. At three to six members, that is x1.5. So the 150 XP multiplies to 225 XP, well above the XP Threshold.
  • I remove one skeleton, reducing the creature XP to 100, then multiply by 1.5 to get 150 XP.

Second Example: Designing the boss encounter of the same adventure, I choose to make it Hard.

  • That is a XP Threshold of 100 per character.
  • For the party, that is a Threshold of 700 XP.
  • I choose a Bandit Captain (450) and a Death Dog (200). I could have chosen a CR 3 monster (700) but that would be problematic at the next step.
  • That 650 XP is multiplied by x1 for being multiple monsters against a large party.
  • That checks out.
  • Note that one creature has a x0.5 multiplier against such a large party. That means you could use a CR 4 Banshee at it would only be 550 XP of the 700 budget, but that would probably kill half the party.

I know all those charts can be mind numbing or intimidating (or both). But they do provide really useful information for these kinds of situations. Good luck, and I hope that helps.

To preempt comments: I realize this answer would be improved by copying the entire encounter design charts but I am not doing, and not going to do, that.

\$\endgroup\$
2
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ It would be worth noting that low level encounters are swingy, and adding more enemies makes it even more likely that a single PC will take multiple attacks and go down, so the DM needs to be aware of that, especially if one PC is a 'tank'. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Feb 24 at 16:26
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri True, but 7 vs 2-4 shouldn't really create that problem :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 24 at 21:53

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.