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The DMG contains recommendations for the XP values of encounters that are supposed to help you create engaging but survivable combat encounters (page 82).

They work pretty well for low- and mid-level play. Unfortunately, for higher level play (Tier 3 and Tier 4) these recommendations are, to use a technical term, crap. At higher levels these encounters typically fail to pose adequate challenges for a competent adventuring party. I can confirm this from own experience, both as a player and as a DM.

As a DM, I have no qualms to throw monsters against high-level PCs that have a higher CR than the PCs' average level and I routinely ignore any multipliers for using more than one monster (and I tend to run a relatively low-magic equipment campaign).

Our DM does the same, regularly attacking us with multiple times the XP budget of a deadly encounter. We do have good magic items, but nothing over the top, no legendary items or such; our frontline fighter does not even have a magic weapon.

However, I think they are playing with fire by pushing ever farther beyond the guideline to break us -- at some point, the risk of a TPK becomes very real1.

I am therefore interested in understanding, what has worked in your campaigns as XP budgets for high level combat encounters (Tier 3, level 11-16), compared to what the DMG says? How many times more is OK in your experience? What in your experience has been too much? Have you been ignoring multipliers for multiple monsters routinely, and how did that work?

I appreciate that it would be very hard to give an exact answer for this, a lot will depend on the party composition and equipment. I am not looking for super-exact calculations, more for broad ranges.


1 In one recent encounter, our party of 3 characters of 12th level (XP budget for a "deadly" encounter per DMG: 13,500) was ambushed by an improved Hellfire Engine, Hobgoblin Warlord, 5 Hobgoblin Captains, 4 Hobgoblin Devastators, a Hobgoblin War Priest, Priest, Bard, and 30 normal Hobgoblins on fast vehicles. The naked XP value per DMG totals up to about 34,000 XP, without applying any multipliers. With multipliers for multiple monsters, it is 136,000, or more than 10 times the budget for a deadly encounter. We somehow managed to not only survive and escape, but also kill about half of the leadership and most of the rank-and-file Hobgoblins in the process. But this could have very easily, with one bad roll - resulted in the end of the campaign. The hellfire engine is removing the possibility of raising the dead.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage Please don’t answer in comments.. \$\endgroup\$ May 16 at 11:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eddymage Something you have seen from the player's side is perfectly applicable to answers. In some cases it might even be better, as you have first hand experience in how it plays out (from the seat it arguably matters the most to). \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    May 16 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ How many encounters per adventure day are you experiencing? \$\endgroup\$ May 16 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Ok, maybe I will elaborate a little bit more and add it as an answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    May 16 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast It varies, I can try to tally it up from the campaign notes, but if I would need to guess on average maybe 3-4 (more if you count non-fights). In cases like this one, where we have large mega battles, it is typically just the one encounter, maybe something minor before, as we afterwards either flee to safe ground or hunker down somewhere to recuperate. \$\endgroup\$ May 16 at 12:47

5 Answers 5

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Frame challenge

I'd like to offer a bit of a frame challenge.

You say:

However, I think they are playing with fire by pushing ever farther beyond the guideline to break us -- at some point, the risk of a TPK becomes very real.

I think your actual problem is that the DM and the players (or at least one player) are not agreeing as to what is fun.

You might not be 90 degrees off from each other, but you're some degrees off.

The combat you described does indeed sound over-the-top, but you also say:

We somehow managed to not only survive and escape, but also kill about half of the leadership and most of the rank-and-file Hobgoblins in the process.

Sounds like a success to me. Faced with overwhelming odds, you decimated enemies that were intent on not just killing you, but destroying your very souls, and you either eliminated them as a threat, escaped their area of influence, or weakened them so much you'll be able to mop them up later.

And maybe you've bagged so much XP it's time to level up.

But there is something here that the DM has done that is not-fun to you, and that's the issue, and that's the way you should approach it.

Some tables, TPKs aren't a no-fun game

At some tables, the game is played where TPKs are possible, or even likely, or common. These 3 characters die, 3 more come in. I don't think that kind of play is probably common, but it is certainly done, and within the rules. For one table a TPK is a disaster and a horrible, no-fun session, everything is ruined; another table, it's business as usual.

Also, you can certainly play a high paranoia game where those 3 characters never make a move without scouting and scrying, always hidden, and whenever confronted with a superior force, run and hide, then regroup, strategize, and attack. History is full of examples where an inferior force defeated a superior force in just this way. (Although tbf, history is also full of TPKs.)

Handling character death

Different tables handle character death differently. Some tables, characters effectively never die permanently, or perhaps even temporarily. Other tables, characters die all the time. The DM chooses how death is handled. If you don't like it, then that's a topic to discuss with the DM.

Finding an XP recommendation won't fix your problem

Because basically what you want to say to the DM is, "you're doing it wrong, here's better XP guidelines.".

But nothing you've said suggests that the GM thinks they're doing it wrong.

XP budgets don't kill parties, DM's do. A TPK can only happen because the DM lets it happen. The DM has an infinite set of tools at their disposal to prevent it. And for many players, at least the possibility of a TPK makes the game fun.

And also an XP recommendation is likely to be imprecise

There are a lot of factors that make XP guidelines for building encounters very imprecise, especially as you level up.

They don't take into account the state of the party. The party could be well-rested, or not; buffed or not; have chosen the right spells or not; have the optimal equipment for dealing with this particular encounter, or not.

They don't take into account that as the number of participants goes up, the complexity goes up. XP becomes an extremely poor predictor of outcome given the many variables such as area-of-effect, who is aiding who, who is benefited or hindered by terrain, and even can the DM (and the players) keep track of the many participants. If the XP recommendation assumes that either the DM or the players are executing perfectly, then the extent to which it accurately depicts outcome will be heavily influenced by how well the combat is executed on either side.

XP guidelines can only average swinginess, at best. As levels and CRs go up, effects and outcomes become ever more swingy. Spells and effects like disintegrate are all-or-nothing, and scoring a hit on a leader of one side or another at the right time could turn the tide, but missing will use up a 6th-level slot and more importantly, likely a character's whole turn. And outcomes become more swingy, too.

What you can do instead

There are some tools, most of which I have used many times. I can't say there aren't too many times where I just decided not to play D&D because the game didn't seem worth the candle, but it has happened.

Talk to the DM one-on-one out of session

Hopefully you're basically friends, so somehow you should be able to talk about it. You probably can't "fix" the problem in a single discussion. However, you can become more aware of each other's viewpoints, and in my experience, that helps. I find in these conversations it's usually better to go light, and not try to get it all out all at once.

Talk with the whole table, after session

In the group I play with, there are multiple games going on, and various people are players or DMs, and we're a fairly experienced and opinionated bunch. In the games I'm in we almost always have a discussion afterwards. Usually the DM says, "Aaand that's where we'll end for tonight. Before we go, questions, comments, concerns?" Sometimes it's pretty quick, other times it's lasted quite awhile.

I'm not sure a player can effectively start this conversation, I think it probably has to come from the GM. Maybe it's something you can suggest to the GM, one-on-one.

What you can do at the end of a session as a player

What I have done as a player is two-fold. Even when I don't agree I've listened very carefully to what the DM and the other players have to say about my role in what is fun and not-fun.

Secondly, I make sure that at the end of every session I usually try to throw out a few comments about what I thought was cool about the session, whether it was a fellow player's clever maneuver or roleplay, or something cool the GM did.

I have also found in group pastimes that sometimes one person bitching and moaning becomes contagious. I try to make sure that any feedback I offer does not feed into this, at the very least it's counterproductive if my observations on something being less than perfect actually leads to things being more less than perfect.

Change the game

If you aren't having fun, don't play. Suggest a different game, or run the game yourself.

Roll with it

You can also just lean into it. Miamoto Musashi taught in The Book of Five Rings that a samurai does not fear death because they are already dead.

You could decide that this is the game, and if you're having fun, who cares if everyone dies.

No one ever likes to hear "change your attitude" as a solution, but it is true that sometimes focusing on changing yourself yields better results.

Suck it up

If you're having enough fun that you don't want to quit or play a different game, if you can't change the GM, and you can't change yourself, then just suck it up and focus on the parts you like. Again, people rarely want to hear this, but it's an option.

Calibrating encounters for higher levels

As a DM

I don't weigh everything out by XP, and the GMs I play with don't either.

I try hard to make sure character death is unlikely but possible, and that a TPK can only happen if the PCs do really dumb things on top of dumb things, or purposely decide to go down fighting. I tell the players this ahead of time. We discuss it in session 0, and along the way if we need to. I find it's more fun if the players usually triumph but not always, and sometimes have real setbacks, and feel a certain sense of risk.

I design encounters by designing an encounter I think will be fun, then add or subtract monsters until it's where I want from challenging to deadly by seat-of-the-pants, then I design in some level of early warning for the PCs and make sure they can escape. A good encounter might not be winnable or might not be escapable, but it shouldn't be unwinnable AND unescapable.

I haven't had a TPK yet, although I've had a couple that came pretty close, and some heated conversations. Externally I shrug and say, "I'll keep your concerns in mind, but we all agreed at the beginning that high danger was possible." Internally I look very carefully at what I did that resulted in something that I didn't expect, so I'll know better for next time.

As a player

As a player, I can't tell you the number of times we've gotten our butts kicked, escaping by a thread, only to re-group and either wipe out whatever it was through planning, or just avoid the encounter all together. We the players have had (good-natured (mostly)) arguments that we bugged out too soon. I'm usually of the school that as soon as it starts to go pear-shaped, you bale and hit 'em from orbit, but I tend to usually be the voice of paranoia.

This approach as players has helped, but it's mostly been after- and between-session conversations, that have allowed us to play the campaign I am currently a player in, into the top ranges of Tier 3, and soon into Tier 4.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks Jack, I think this is spot on re our relationship with the DM. We give him regular feedback, and I agree the risk of death needs to be there. I still as a DM personally would be interested at what xp budget encounters tend to become so deadly that TPK from duking out is greater than 5% or so. \$\endgroup\$ May 15 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, think I get where you're coming from. There's a great question for 3.5 where in the comments Hey I Can Chan says to KRyan, "I'd argue that rules are a waste of time at level 30." Similarly, somewhere in 3rd tier, I'm just not sure encounters can be balanced by XP. Encounters get super-swingy. Some of ours have hinged in part on whether we had telepathic bond up or not. But hopefully, someone will come up with some numbers for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    May 15 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ It does indeed. Comments cleaned up! \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    May 16 at 11:20
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I agree that the encounter difficulty calculations just don't seem to work very well at higher levels, and I routinely create "Deadly" encounters even though they barely break a sweat.

But I've also realised there are a few other considerations with encounter building.

First there is the number of encounters per day (or per rest). The DMG does assume 1 or 2 encounters between short rests, maybe 3 or 4 per day.

And this does make a difference. If your party is travelling and have an encounter along the way, they will usually know this is likely to be the only encounter that day and will feel free to use up all their resources, action surges, high-level spells and so on in the battle, knowing they'll get them back before their next possible fight.

But in the past my PCs have decided to bring out the big guns in some initial encounter (that was maybe set as "medium" or "hard" and never intended to be that troublesome). And then pushed on or maybe never had a chance to rest. And a couple of moderate encounters later they have stumbled on to some "big boss" fight and started struggling with no action surges left or powerful spells. The worry that someone may die suddenly becomes real!

Second, when evaluating an encounter difficulty, it's important to take PC abilities into account. I try not to actually pick monsters that can overcome PC strengths (I mean, players like to feel powerful and I don't think its fair to do that), but you do have to realise that sending a Fire Elemental against a party with fire resistance and cold spells is not going to be as difficult as the numbers may suggest.

Lastly, when I've wanted a deadly encounter to actually feel deadly (and knowing my PCs are likely to have all their resources ready), I have actually boosted the monsters. Taking action economy into account is important: Knowing that the PCs will have 4 or 5 turns in between an individual monster's turn. I will often give my "big boss" monsters max hit points instead of average to increase their chances of lasting more than a single turn! And often adding in multiple minor "henchman" monsters is useful (ignoring their effect on encounter calculations entirely). This helps distract the PCs, causing them to use their actions to get rid of them rather than entirely focusing on the "big boss".

Addendum: I believe the new Mordainkainen's book has re-balanced monsters that, apparently, have adjusted CRs. So I think Wizards have recognised that the numbers don't quite stack up very well at the moment.

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I usually run games that go up to around ninth level, so not quite where you're at. But here's my theory:

Most of the time, players don't need to be sorely tested. Players don't need to come within an inch of losing. All the players really want for a good combat is:

  • to show off how awesome their character is, usually by making a satisfying attack against an enemy
  • to get attacked at least once by a foe that feels dangerous

At the end of combat, if my players have done those things, I feel like it was a good battle.

In terms of difficulty, usually when I want a difficult battle I do it in waves, so that I can make the later waves easier or harder depending on how the players are doing in the earlier waves.

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The DM and the players should communicate

First of all, not all groups have similar opinions on encounters. Some players like hack and slash and just killing enemies to feel cool and powerful. Some groups like gritty meat grinder encounters and find TPKs normal. While other groups dislike encounters for the sake of encounters and prefer every encounter to have narrative importance.

If the players want to feel cool, the DM should "shoot the monk" so design the encounter in a way that lets the players use their abilities. Enemy tactics that rely on disengaging for the Sentinel feat player, hordes of small enemies for the AoE damage dealer, etc.

If the players want a meat grinder, there is no need to be afraid of TPKs. If the players want encounters with narrative importance, then the DM should think of reasons why the NPCs would attack the players and roleplay the NPCs.

The players should tell the DM what they want if the DM doesn't communicate. If you think encounters are too hard and ruining the fun, you should tell the DM that. By the way, XP/CR is a poor way to balance encounters.

Action economy, environment and enemy tactics

CR/XP does not account for enemies using tactics, enemies having tools, particular terrain, etc. Very difficult encounters can be designed using only low-CR enemies by making proper use of terrain, hiding places for the enemies and giving the enemies a strategy. Speaking of enemy strategy, enemies can have a goal that is not necessarily "kill all players" (it can go from defending their territory, obtaining whatever item the players have, stalling/distracting the players, etc.).

If the enemies are in their territory and are prepared, they can have strategic positioning, trick the players into triggering traps during the encounter, have advantage on their attack rolls by using surprise/hiding/magical darkness (if the enemies have blindsight or devil's sight or something). To further give the enemies an edge, they could have collected intel on the players and their abilities/strategies.

All this is to say that encounters can be more about how the monsters are used and less about the monster's raw stats. A high CR monster that is a dumb brute will most of the time be trounced by the players.

Setting goals other than "kill all enemies"

The players and the enemies probably have goals other than wiping the other side out. The players might have a time-sensitive mission and the enemies are here to stall/distract the players. Maybe the players have a target to protect (an object or NPC with a certain amount of health) and the enemies have to damage that target. Maybe the players have to reach a location (a point on the map) and the enemies have to prevent the players from doing so. Or swap the enemies and the players, now the enemies are defending a target and the players are trying to destroy it.

Creating such goals will vary both player and enemy strategies and add a different type of difficulty to the encounter. Strategies might focus on tricking or taunting the others side instead of just dealing damage.

The DM should tell players that they can always run away, and the players should remember that they can run away if encounters are too tough

Running away from monsters is a perfectly valid choice, it's logical (the characters would have self preservation instincts). You might feel better if you made the DM aware that the group will run away from encounters that look too difficult and the DM lets the group do that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I +1ed this as it makes good points environment etc. Our DM knows we will (and have) fled from overwhelming encounters. Our Dm however — to protect the monsters from being shooting stall targets against the high mobility of our archer — has started to give them ultra movement (80-200 feet) and range (1000 feet) which makes escape a difficult proposition. It may get better now we gained access to teleport \$\endgroup\$ May 15 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin this comment, particularly about the DM homebrewing movement and ranges to try and block escape is information that should likely be added to the question (potentially in your italicised example block) \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    May 16 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @illustro, I’m not sure if I not rather remove the example altogether. It’s less about bashing our DM, more about what a good range for honestly challenging but not mortally deadly encounters on higher level of play would be. I don’t expect our DM to follow advice on this anyways, but would like to know for my own games. \$\endgroup\$ May 16 at 16:55
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Give to the enemy infinite HPs.

This first part of the answer comes from player's perspective: I still never applied such strategy when I was DMing.

I am playing a campaign where our party consists in 5 characters of level 12-13, and we encountered one of the midbosses. Since at such levels the procedure given in the DMG is not completely reliable (as noted in the question with much more technical wording, with which I agree with), our DM did not take into account the HPs of the enemy and instead he decided that the encounter should have last 3 rounds, since during the campaign it was the average number of rounds of our combats.

From our perspective it worked well: the encounter was challenging, we spent several resources (spell slots, a couple of potions, rages, Channel Divinity abilities and so on), some of us lost a lot of HPs and the enemy had the chance to use some of its interesting and powerful abilities, such as spells and legendary actions.

Obviously, at the beginning of the encounter we did not know that our DM decided in this way, we were completely unaware that the enemy has \$\infty\$ HPs and the number of rounds was prefixed, he told us at the end.

In my experience, from a player perspective, was a nice encounter and my table was comfortable with this strategy.

From a DM perspective, 1: augment the enemy's HPs.

I am DMing a campaign for 6 characters which are now at 8th level: even in this tier, I found that the difficulty computation is quite misleading, even taking into account the adjustment for a 6 characters party.

Sometimes I give to the enemies the maximum number of HPs: this make the enemies last on average 2 rounds more than in the case of using the prefixed number of HPs.

For example, I planned a medium encounter with a single monster: if I would not set the HPs to the maximum, the fight should have last 1 round (or less, depending on the initiative order), which seems to me quite inconsistent with the difficult.

From a DM perspective, 2: employ all the enemy's abilities.

Some monsters have interesting abilities, and using such abilities in a smart way and with some planning can increase the difficult of an encounter.

For example, I planned a fight with a Boneclaw; such encounter is classified as Easy for 6 characters at level 8. I set the environment in dim light (an obscure room, with a menacing fog hoovering all around: a classic): in this way, I used in all of its turns its Shadow Stealth bonus action:

Shadow Stealth. While in dim light or darkness, the boneclaw can take the Hide action as a bonus action.

Moreover, when it was surrounded by the 2 fighters of the party I used a couple of times its Shadow Jump action, which deals 5d12+2 necrotic damage upon a failed ST and teleports the Boneclaw up to 60 ft. away. Doing this allowed me to use its Deadly Reach reaction

Deadly Reach. In response to a visible enemy moving into its reach, the boneclaw makes one claw attack against that enemy. If the attack hits, the boneclaw can make a second claw attack against the target.

Employing all the arsenal transformed an easy encounter in a very challenging , yet fun, one: in this way the party has to come up with some strategy and clever use of spells.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an interesting, practical idea. I think it is not one you can use regularily, or you would (a) entirely invalidate some spells and abilities such as Power Word Kill and (b) train the players to focus on methods to remove opponents that do not rely on hp (Banishment, Polymorph, etc.) "I'll ignore the rules to drive the story so what happens is more exciting for the players" while well-indended is also hard to keep from slipping into railroading, and deprives you yourself of unexpected outcomes. +1 for the cool example with the boneclaw, that part is great. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 5 at 8:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Yes, I think it really depends also on the type of monster. Anyway, remember that we do not know if he is applying such strategy, so we are fighting assuming that the monster has a fixed amount of HPs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Jun 5 at 9:25

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