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Reading the DMG I'm confused by the encounter difficulty chart. It seems straight forward, but upon really testing it I've found that according to the chart, the very first encounter in Lost Mines of Phandelver (Starter Set for 5e) would be considered deadly! Did I do something wrong, or am I misunderstanding the way this should work?

For example, in the first ecounter there are 4 challenge 1/2 (50 xp) goblins. 50x4 = 200. For a party size of 4, this would be a x2 multiplier (4 enemies vs 3-5 party members) which is 400. According to the encounter chart, at level 1, 100xp is the Deadly value. With the recommended 4 party members that makes the deadly threshold 400. This was in no way a deadly encounter. I'd say at best it is medium. Am I using the charts wrong?

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Yes it can be that deadly. I blogged about the initial encounter in detail in this post.

The Party

  • Elven Wizard
  • Human Rogue
  • Human Wizard
  • Human Fighter

The Fight

  • Four hours outside of Phandelver the party ran into an ambush set by four goblins.
  • The party roll perception rolls. The goblins rolled various 20s for their stealth check. The Goblins got a surprise round.
  • In the surprise round, the goblins shot arrows taking out both the human wizard and the elven wizard.
  • The Goblins win initiative over everybody except for the downed wizards. They shout a NPC Wagon Driver and the Human Fighter who remain standing.
  • The human rogue starts running towards the goblin shooting his short bow. The human fighter dashes toward the nearest goblin.
  • The Human Wizard rolls a natural 20 on his death check. The Elven Wizards get a successful death check.
  • The next round the goblins focuses on the charging Human Fighter but his high armor class prevents him from being hit.
  • The Human Rogue closes in and kills a goblin with his short bow. The Human Fighter reaches a goblin. The Human Wizard hides. The Elven Wizards continue to roll death checks.
  • The next round the Human Wizard cast sleep causing one more goblin to fall.
  • The remaining two goblins start running away
  • The Human Rogue shot down one, and the Human Fighter kill another goblin.
  • The Fight is over with all goblin down. The Elven Wizard is stabilized.

Comments

  • Surprise is important and goblins are good at creating a surprise round due to their high stealth.
  • In general low CR 5e monsters have one special ability they are good at. This can be decisive under the right circumstances.
  • Quantity is also a decisive advantage. For another group with 8 PCs I ran this encounter with 8 goblins. The goblins were completely outclassed even with surprise. It is my opinion that the multiplier for number of opponents needs to be used for the party size as well. In subsequent session it is obvious that doubling the monster does not provide the same challenge if you double of the number of PCs. It wasn't until I increase the difficultly to four times the original I was able to get comparable results for the eight PC group as I did for the four PC group.
  • 5e combat is highly situational. Different plans, different terrains, different initial conditions can produce widely varying results. The result is that small differences in CR don't mean much. Only when the numbers are increased from 50% or 100% on either side the differences become decisive.
  • 5e rewards system mastery but there is less to master. And because of 5e combat sensitivity to circumstances, there is no combinations of abilities that make for an instant win.
  • The use of a d20 and the flat probability curve means that a run of bad or inferior dice rolls can and will happen. The same with a run of superior dice roll. In combination with 5e's sensitivity to situational factors this means results can vary wildly from group to group even when using the same PCs.

In general the book works great for four man parties. Try running a few encounter with a four man party, Phandelver is good for this to get a feel of how 5e combat is supposed to be like. Then for a larger group, increase your encounter size by 25% increments until you get the same feel as the smaller group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "It is my opinion that the multiplier for number of opponents needs to be used for the party size as well." From the DM Basic Rules, p57, under "Party Size:" "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." These rules do still list that encounter as Deadly, though. Did you focus fire with the 8 goblins? Maybe the adjustment in the rules still isn't enough. \$\endgroup\$ – Gregory Avery-Weir Dec 12 '14 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that there's no such thing as a "surprise round" before initiative in 5e. Surprise simply applies to the first round of combat: "Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. If you're surprised, you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren't." \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 9 '18 at 1:20
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I've run a couple of mental simulations of this combat (in addition to actually running it twice), and it has the potential to be deadly.

If the goblins get a surprise round and gang up on 1 character at a time, it is absolutely a deadly encounter. However, if the goblins split their attacks between 2 or even 3 party members, then it's not so deadly.

The important thing to remember here though is that encounter XP budgets and the adjusted threat level amounts are only guidelines. Sometimes an encounter rated at deadly can be solved easily, may only turn out to be moderately hard or could be a party wipe. The deadly guideline is telling you that a party wipe is in play, something that is possible if the PCs use bad tactics and the goblins use especially good ones.

Granted, this is less deadly than a much higher level encounter might be when rated deadly, but it's a L1 encounter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Most spell casters drop pretty quickly in this fight if the goblins get surprise. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Dec 12 '14 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Aviose yeah, Goblins do what, 6 damage or something? that's 2 good hits or 1 good crit. Or even 1 hit if they didn't bother to boost con \$\endgroup\$ – wax eagle Dec 12 '14 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Basically.... Been running 5e since release and I've learned one thing. Someone almost always drops in the first round of an ambush, and the fight favors the ambushing side a lot. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Dec 12 '14 at 20:33
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The encounter can be made deadly by a DM intent on killing one of the PC's, simply because it's an ambush, and ambushes tend to work extremely well or fizzle out as soon as the first PC comes into passive perception range.

My own experience, with a reasonably careful party whose suspicions were immediately roused by the location and the dead horses, was one where the party dealt with the threats easily.

A much less experienced party might make bad decisions and be more vulnerable, but the DM should not be punishing an inexperienced party in this way.

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