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Many class features have a limited number of uses per day, such as the barbarian's Rage, the cleric's Channel Divinity, or the paladin's spell slots for Divine Smite.

How much damage such a feature can be expected to contribute to combat depends heavily on how many encounters you'll have in a day, because once you run out of uses, it won't contribute any more damage. When planning your character and estimating average expected damage, you therefore often have to make an assumption about the number of encounters per day that will use up some of those limited resources.

What is a good assumption for the number of encounters per day?

Exactness is not needed, a rough estimate with a good explanation is better than no estimate.

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Theoretically 5 per day, in practical play 3 per day

There are multiple was to derive an estimate for the number of encounters per day:

Calculated from the DMG: 5 per day

The DMG provides tables of expected experience per character and adventuring day on page 84, and of expected XP per Easy, Moderate, Hard or Deadly encounter on page 82. From this one can calculate the expected number of encounters of each type in a typical adventuring day, if one had only that difficulty of encounter.

The numbers vary slightly from level to level, but on average over 20 levels of play they come to

Difficulty Easy Moderate Hard Deadly
Encounters 13 7 4 3

If all encounter difficulties were equally likely, that would mean on average 7 encounters per day.

There is a statement on page 84 DMG "Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day.", slightly higher than these numbers, maybe because encounters are not supposed to go all the way to the point where the party cannot handle them any more.

Easy encounters are described as follows:

Easy. An easy encounter doesn't tax the characters' resources or put them in serious peril. They might lose a few hit points.

So, for the purposes of consuming limited use of daily abilities, we can ignore Easy encounters, as they are supposed to not tax the characters' resources, other then losing a few hits. This also matches my experience: for example, characters rarely waste their limited features on fights they know they can handle with cantrips and routine attacks. We will just average Medium, Hard and Deadly ones, assuming all types of encounter are equally likely.

With this, the average, "theoretical" number of resource-consuming encounters per day based on DMG guidance is 4.6. Rounding it to a full number, it's five encounters per day.

Calculated from Mines of Phandelver and actual play: 3 per day

Now, one counterpoint is that all encounter difficulties may not be equally likely in an actual game or campaign. And we cannot know how the distribution looks like for every game. However, we at least can know it for some of the published campaigns.

Technoskald took the effort to list every encounter in Mines of Phandelver with its difficulty ranking based on the characters' level at the time of the encounter. Over the course of that adventure this is the distribution of encounters:

Difficulty Easy Moderate Hard Deadly
Encounters 8 9 8 16

That is 41 encounters total, and 33 of Moderate to Deadly difficulty.

Ignoring the Easy encounters again, due to the higher share of deadly encounters in the mix, the average from this published sample is slightly lower, and if you round it comes to four encounters per adventuring day.

However, this assumes that each day is fully filled with encounters, until the characters have exhausted all their resources. In my experience, in the absence of clear time pressure, players often opt to rest and recover before all of their resources are used up. You never know what's coming for you in the night. So, as long as the players have some ability to influence the number of encounters, you can expect it to be lower in the wild than what the XP guidance suggests.

This is borne out by practical experiment. We played LMoP, and even though our DM egged us on through NPCs to press forward whenever he could, we took in total 32 days of in-game time to get through it. There are many days of traveling around the countryside. At 33 resource-taxing encounters, that would just be one such encounter per day. However I think a better way to look at this is by looking at the days were we actually did have encounters.

If we remove all the "empty" days without combat encounters were we were just traveling or shopping or doing research, we had 11 days with encounters, or three encounters per day. Some of these were a single encounter when being ambushed traveling at night, others were dense with high numbers when fighting through one of the major adventure sites

like the goblin cave, manor or mines.

Player Surveys: 3 per day

ENWorld ran a survey asking players of 5e, "On average, how many combat encounters do you experience per day in a 5e game?". There were 82 answers:

Number Votes
Less than 1 9
1 9
2 18
3 20
4 7
5 10
6 6
7 or more 3

From this it is clear that nobody seems to be experiencing days with 13 Easy encounters, and two or three encounters per day are the most common. If we count "less than 1" as 1 and "7 or more" as 7, the average here is 3 encounters per day.

There is also this poll, better powered with 286 votes cast, that asked "The 5e DMG suggests 6 to 8 encounters per long rest with 2-3 encounters per short rest. I assume that this means that this is how they balance abilities that are on short rest and long rest cool downs. In practice, how many encounters on average do you have per long rest in your campaigns (as a DM or a Player)."

Poll results for encounters per day

With a weighted average of pretty exactly 3 encounters per day (and even if the average of more than 8 was around 12, still would be only 3.2).

This matches our own game experience of three encounters per day. The explanations for the difference to the theoretical four or five are likely the same:

  • very Easy encounters do not register as a challenge and cost no resources
  • DMs try to present exciting and dangerous fights, which means Deadly encounters that you can only do three or so of per day
  • and unless pressed for time, players will try to rest before being pushed to the limit, further undercutting the theoretical encounter numbers

Summary

For building a character for a real campaign, three resource consuming encounters per day seems to be the most useful assumption. Four or five encounters per day are also an OK assumption, based on the theoretical number of encounters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You could probably include something about "6-8 medium-hard" since that's the line everyone quotes from the DMG, but this is a good answer. The survey obviously doesn't have very many voters, but I'm surprised to see just how far it diverges from conventional wisdom. It would be interesting to see if they are hitting xp budget or not. Judging by the number of people who think wizards are OP, I'm guessing probably not! Good answer, a very interesting read. \$\endgroup\$
    – user77842
    Aug 4, 2022 at 8:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ The average is (counting less than 1 as 0.5) 2.98, so 3 is close enough \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Aug 4, 2022 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: I do not care if the encounters are combat encounters or not. DMG "As a starting point, use the rules for building combat encounters in chapter 3 to gauge the difficulty of the challenge. Then award the characters XP as if it had been a combat encounter of the same difficulty". The deciding factor is if the encounters are challenging and using up the PCs limited resources like spells. I can update the survey part, which is about combat encounters. In my experience, the vast majority of encounters is combat, so the point seems a bit contrieved to me. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 4, 2022 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer, but I don't know about the summary. As you pointed out, three encounters per day seem to be the answer accounting for remaining resources and night watch precautions. So, to be more reasonable, you should assume 5 per day, and expect to end the day with some resources remaining (that affects your expected contribution, because a class heavy on limited resources will only work at ~60% potential). Otherwise, it can be pretty troublesome to play a character planned for 3 encounters on the day where you really need to push for those 2 additional ones. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bielna
    Sep 29, 2023 at 9:46
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Based purely on games of 5e i've played or witnessed, the amount of encounters per long rest rarely exceeds 3 - if it does, some of those encounters are pushovers.

Further, the amount of encounters is often decided by the characters. Characters low on spell slots will often agitate for retreat and regroup, even if it is tactically disadvantageous. DMs often do not increase the difficulty if the Kobolds (or whoever) have a day to prepare, which they should be doing, to discourage exactly this sort of 'let's come back with more fireballs tomorrow' attitude. Thus if the party is doing well on spell slots and hp and so on, they are often keen to push forward. Once they start running out of either, it's time to fall back.

A group I joined as a way of mercy Monk with the Healer feat went from a few encounters a day to over 5, as being able to heal hp after every short rest from the Healer feat on top of the Monk's ki points being able to heal as well, left the spell slots of the cleric and druid free to be used mostly for combat, vastly extending the party's longevity vs the fairly easy encounters they were mostly facing.

However that group had few reasons not to take a long rest. It was simply that there was little reason to stop for that particular day that kept them forging onwards. Time pressures that force a party to forge onward without what they would prefer to have on hand have seemed rare in 5e, for various reasons.

When such time pressures have existed, they have generally been in terms of 'minutes' rather than 'hours', thus meaning the party has no time for a short or long rest.

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Counterpoint: it isn't encounters that matter, it is hit dice.

Hit dice are the only resource that doesn't come back fully on a long rest, and so are the most important resource a PC has. A day where 60% of your hit dice are expended, even if the day seemed easy, means tomorrow will be harder.

If you have two or three days of heavy encounters, and then a few days of downtime to recover hit dice then the pressure those encounters placed upon your key resource was ineffective.

The real question you should be looking for is something like how many days in a row of constant adventuring is the average, because I find it isn't many, and as a DM I make sure that the real resource I push to expend is hit dice, not the daily resources. I don't really care if they rest after only a few encounters and have most of their daily resources, if I have taken over 50% of their hit dice then that is the only resource expenditure that matters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am yet to even witness a table where hitdice were the major way of recovering hp. Tables just do not seem to have the luxury of short rests (or multiple short rests) between encounters, and nearly universally relied on healing magic (or other means of regaining hitpoints, such as second wind) to regain the majority of their hp, often due to being worried about enemies attacking them while they attempted to rest or retreat. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Aug 4, 2022 at 9:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2754 me too to be honest, the DMG does a very poor job of providing the right guidance to a DM. I still maintain that this is the truest thing though, keeping the pressure on is what a DM needs to do. Let a bunch of players start a day on less than full hp and they will really know they have to be careful, far more than handling an encounter or 2 without spell, and it will be more fun because they will have their resources to manage so the game is in their hands. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Aug 4, 2022 at 12:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hit dice aren't the only resource that aren't fully replaced on a long rest. There are consumable items: healing potions, spell scrolls, consumed spell components, stuff like poison, antitoxin, oil, caltrops, etc. Even ammunition in some cases. Magic items with charges typically don't recover their full charges in one night. Also, some class and subclass features take more than a long rest to recharge. examples include a cleric's divine intervention (7 days) and an Order of the Scribe wizard's one with the word (1d6 long rests) \$\endgroup\$
    – pyrocrasty
    Sep 29, 2023 at 7:20

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