Two of my friends and I recently played our very first game of D&D using the Essentials kit.

I DM'd, getting them through the Red Box create-your-own character story. It was all good fun, they killed the minions in their solo adventure happily enough. They'd chosen a rogue and a wizard - common sense told me that they'd be squishy, but I didn't want to influence their characters in any way.

The first encounter from the attached adventure (involving 2 wolves and 2 goblins, no minions) was a brutal massacre, however. I'd made it clear to them that this would be just be a practice fight so that we could all get a feel for group play without fear of death, but even after changing the goblins to minions halfway through the fight, it still ended nastily for the PCs.

Luckily, the players haven't been disheartened by their first encounter, but I'm wondering what it is I need to do to make sure that party wipes don't happen every time. We may have a 3rd player (probably a cleric) joining later, but for now, I'd like to keep the other 2 still playing.

Like I said, I'm a new DM, so I don't know all the rules and tricks yet. How would you go about altering the difficulty / levels of monsters to a 2-player party, especially one made up of a rogue and wizard?


3 Answers 3


The system is designed to accomodate this

...but without the DMG it's a little tricky.

The science:

Basically, each enemy has an XP value. This is how much XP it's worth when it's defeated (divided among those who defeat it), but it's also useful for building encounters.

Here's how you build an encounter in 4e: You take the XP value of a "standard"-type enemy of the same level as the party, and multiply that number by the number of PCs in the party. The result gives you a "budget" that you use to "buy" enemies to create an encounter of average difficulty (the party is unlikely to die, but will expend a noticeable amount of resources --consumables, healing surges, daily powers-- during the fight).

For a more difficult fight, increase the level of the standard-type enemy whose XP you're using as the baseline multiplier to get your budget, up to four or five levels above the party. For an easier fight, drop the level down by three or four. The extreme ends of this will produce boss-level fights, or make-the-players-feel-invincible routs.

The art:

The DMG recommends actually using enemies up to five levels higher than the party for boss fights, but in my experience this is more frustrating than interesting; it's better to use "solo" type monsters of the party's level. The challenge level will be similar but more fun.

Combine standards, elites, and minions for interesting fights. Minions die quicker and elites last longer, so if there's an NPC or ability you want to be present throughout the fight make it a tougher monster type.

Use soldier (defender) and lurker types for longer more drawn-out battles, brutes and strikers for shorter, more intense fights.

If you've got a combination of enemies whose abilities support each other in significant ways, or you're adding strange terrain, remember that this may make the fight harder than its XP budget will imply.

The mechanics of monsters changed partway through 4e's tenure

With the publication of the Monster Manual 3, monsters got their hp reduced, their damage increased, and their powers were made a bit more interesting. This makes fights take a little less time while being a little more tense, but the overall resource drain per fight is pretty much the same. If you can get your hands on them, use post-MM3 monsters whenever possible until you're familiar enough with them to adjust the earlier monsters to fit that ethos. If you can't, don't worry about it too much. You'll learn to fiddle with monsters based on experience, and until then the fights will be a little more tedious than they'd be with MM3 monsters.

To that end, seriously consider a D&D Insider subscription. It provides a searchable compendium of every mechanic --rule, monster, item, class, race, etc-- ever officially published, a solid character builder AND a solid monster builder, and downloadable access to all the Dungeon and Dragon magazines for 4e. AND all the errata are kept up-to-date across the compendium and builders. I was suspicious of the service at first, but quickly found it to be nearly indispensable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your help and answer. This is pretty much exactly what I wanted to know - how to lower the difficulty without changing too much in regards to the encounter make-up itself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ thank you again for the advice. My latest session ran much better, halving the experience budge and bolstering numbers with minions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 17:25

For something like that, you might be able to encourage the PCs to hire a couple of men-at-arms from the local town to come with them. Hirelings like that are often pretty cheap (1 or 2 silver or so in 3.5 edition) on a per day basis and roughly the equivalent of a hobgoblin warrior/minion or the like. Or, have them seek out a full fledged NPC fighter or cleric in their home base to formally join their party, splitting treasure and exp with them; that's a good RolePlaying and bartering opportunity and if do you get a third player, they can take over the NPC.

Failing that, you might want to look through the adventure and cut the #'s of monsters and treasure down a bit; it's probably geared towards 4 players, so it may just be too overwhelming for small parties as-is. I would be careful about introducing NPCs or hirelings that 'steal the players thunder' though - give them reasonable personality, keep them helpful but not dominating; they aren't meant to take a lead role. (it will be more fun for the players to win the adventure with some wits and the help of a couple of men-at-arms than to watch while the DMs DragonBorn Barbarian NPC toasts the big bad guy)

You could also take the 'popcorn monster' approach - give the monsters 1/2 their usual hit points, -2 to on all damage dice rolled, worth 1/2 the treasure and 1/2 the experience. Then wratchet it up to 3/4 and -1 to damage later for important encounters after you've 'tested the water' a bit. But I think I would recommend hirelings* or an NPC over the other options.

*Don't let them have more than 2 hirelings, no matter how much gold they have though ('soldiers are only 2sp for the day? I'll get 20 of them!' ...No)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Except for a couple of tangential bits about adjusting monster numbers, this is entirely unlike an answer to the question. The question is asking "how would you go about altering the difficulty / levels of monsters," not how to beef up the party so it can handle unreasonably tough encounters. And as you yourself point out, this strategy has a number of fatal flaws regarding spotlighting and other concerns. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 12:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ You are right, but - this is his 1st game of D&D, first time as a DM, doesn't have a DMG to calculate encounter levels, doesn't have a MM3 to use the new adjusted monsters ... ;) I will accept my downvote, but I still feel like I've given a new player some useful tips for solving the root of his problem. You guys have the rest of the bases covered. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TysoThePirate - thank you very much, I was considering some of these options, but maybe for implementing later once I've got a handle on the rules a bit better. Bonus thanks for letting me know roughly how to set up the NPC companions in terms of stats, etc! \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 14:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for hirelings. I was looking for something along these lines in case I needed to help the party when I DM. I was not sure the best way to introduce a helpful NPC without it being OP. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 3:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is helpful in some ways, but without the fundamental understanding of D&D 4e's XP budget, one can't really know how to tune an encounter's power to begin with and when assistance would be necessary! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 7:39

Well first i want to apologize that this my not be the perfect answer. So first follow the game mechanic for building an adventure this will greatly help you as a gm. Secondly lie and use a little real world common sense. some creature will run if hurt enough. mobs will disperse if morel drops. these things aren't in the game mechanics that i know of but have used for years.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The meat of this answer is "follow the game mechanic for building an adventure", but his question is essentially "what is the game mechanic for building an adventure". \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Sep 6, 2014 at 0:44

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