# What is the D&D 4E encounter system?

In answering a question on applying old-school rules to 4E, R.S. Conley suggests "Not use the encounter system. Just set up a region sandbox style and what the player find they have to deal with"

I don't understand what exactly the encounter system is, then: I thought it was the way to setup each encounter: "an encounter should have X number of enemies, according to the level of the party, adjusting up or down for difficulty", wherever it happened, not blocking a sandbox encounter; and not a fixed "here there should be an encounter, and here another", as I understand the answer. Since I have also seen at least one successful sandbox setup, I think that my interpretation of "encounter system" must have some flaws.

Conley seems to be suggesting that you build the world first, populate it with creatures, and ignore scaling the enounter difficulties to the players. That is, if you place a level 20 dragon in a cave, and the players decide to explore said cave at level 5, they're still going to have to deal with that level 20 dragon. This is opposed to the "normal" style, where you would create encounters that suit the PCs' level.

In sandbox play, it makes sense to not adjust encounter levels, but in a more narrative game, it would make sense that the challenges the players encounter are generally challenges that they can deal with.

Note that neither is right nor wrong. They're just different ways of making use of the encounter-building rules.

• build the world diet? Dec 2, 2010 at 14:37
• Sorry. "Build the world first." iPhone auto-correct can do really stupid things sometimes. :) Dec 2, 2010 at 15:33
• Exactly. In old school D&D sandbox play you don't scale every encounter to the level of the party - you just fill the world with stuff, and the PCs aren't unrealistically shielded from the reality of the world. Forces them to do pre-research, to run away when overwhelmed, and to value victories more. Dec 2, 2010 at 16:09
• You can still plan adventure sites or adventures you've scaled to their level, but even in those you don't slavishly adhere to level guidelines, and they know if they wander into the jungle instead they might fight a goblin or a giant. It's a mode of play that stresses creating a living, breathing world and then the PCs finding their way through it, as opposed to a constructed narrative with "appropriate difficulties." Dec 2, 2010 at 16:15

In computer gaming terms, Sandbox style is Morrowind, Encounter style is Oblivion. The Sandbox style is somewhat more realistic, in that the players can encounter things that are significantly more or less powerful than they are. However, this can also lead to frustration or boredom on the part of the players if they constantly have to deal with these kind of things. The Encounter style is designed to constantly scale with the player's power, which should keep the frustration or boredom to a minimum. However, if the party is particularly well or badly synergised, they might find 'at-level' encounters too difficult or easy, and run into the same problems.

Also note that almost none of this advice applies to systems outside of D&D. D&D is really the only game that so rigidly sets power levels of critters and players. More free-form character systems remove this rigid power measure, and this makes encounter balancing for those games much more complicated. D&D prior to 4 also suffered from this problem when characters were built that did not excel at combat.

• I'd say Oblivion is still sandbox (I got above level 20 before I even started the opening quest the first time through!). Dragon Age is good example of encounter style.... But, minor tangent aside, your point still stands. :) Dec 8, 2010 at 3:07
• Player frustration with sandboxes only really comes up in computer games. A human GM can notice that the players are bored or frustrated and can help the game get back on track—sometimes just by saying, "Maybe you should go back to town and try a different direction…" Dec 8, 2010 at 16:40
• Depends a lot on the GM. If the GM is inexperienced, or pressed for time, and especially when running a published campaign of some sort, it can still happen (at least in my experience). Dec 9, 2010 at 0:12
• yhw42 - I listed Oblivion as Encounter style simply because even the main questline encounters seemed to scale to my level. Sure, you can ignore the main questline until level 20, but I was completing the main questline at levels 3 and 4. Dec 9, 2010 at 0:13
• Now I see your point about difficulty scaling with level. btw: I don't get notified of your comment response unless you use @ in front of it, i.e. @yogozuno. Dec 10, 2010 at 20:22