I'm a new DM and finding it a bit difficult to challenge my group that wants the glorious battles style of game play. When I asked them what they wanted from the campaign, the consensus was that they wanted near death battles that bring them out bloody and bruised. Currently, my players are all lvl 3 (soon to be lvl 4) and can easily destroy a swarm of goblins, orcs, etc.

I've been using the XP Threshold table in the DM's guide (page 82) and having a hard time grouping monsters into the deadly category, where I believe they want to fight, without going completely overboard over the current 1600 XP for 4 - lvl 3 heroes. In the DM's guide, it's suggested:

When making this calculation, don't count any monsters whose challenge rating is significantly below the average challenge rating of the other monsters in the group unless you think the weak monsters significantly contribute to the difficulty of the encounter.

DMG pg 82

Currently, I'm looking to have a group of Hobgoblins (MM pg. 186) attack the heroes for the next encounter. I was looking at 1 Hobgoblin captain 3(700 XP) and 6 Hobgoblins 1/2(100 XP). If I follow the standard rules, the total XP would be 1300 XP * 2.5 (7 attacks per round) = 3250 XP for the day. This is a bit obscene and is 2x the deadly encounter. If I were to follow the guide of quoted text and ignore the hobgoblin's since they're 6x "weaker" than the captain, this would just total out to a hard encounter.

My question is this then. Using the quoted text from the DM's guide, should I ignore the hobgoblin XP for modifying the encounter XP? My gut instinct on this tells me I probably should as they're going to be chum/1-shotted.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of How far below the average CR should I count monsters when determining encounter difficulty? \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 2:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ How many players are in the group? The hobgoblin's martial advantage (xtra 2d6 damage on an attack) can make for serious carnage to a small group. (this from experience) A battle at that level is swingy. The larger your group the more this matters (in terms of the size of your party mitigating damage spikes) so please include how many PCs are in your group. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 2:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I actually don't worry about calculating XP and encounters anymore. I use the playtest packet for Encounter Building now, that Wizards put out, and it's become an invaluable asset to building random/specific encounters. If you haven't used it yet, I certainly recommend it for any encounter now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zerrian
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 13:50

3 Answers 3


Check out this question: How can I play monsters and NPCs up to their potential?

The challange and XP ratings assume (I assume) that monsters play to their strengths. For example, your Hobgoblin captain should be commanding the hobgoblins - these are not mindless drones who attack without a plan - these are genetically professional soldiers. Good soldiers do not fight fair - level playing fields are for sporting fixtures, not battles.

The hobgoblins should refuse combat unless and until they have the advantage or they are desperate; but these guys plan ahead so they don't get desperate.

If the hobgoblins are aware of the party's approach then they should be preparing a series of ambushes, fall-back positions, escape/disengagement plans, booby traps, ways of separating the party and destroying them in detail.

If they are unaware then they should have done this anyway - good soldiers do.

For example, an attack on the party during a long rest has possibilities. 7 arrows with surprise at the PC on watch should render them unconscious with a high probability of success. They can then move in and slaughter the remaining PCs. Played this way this is certainly a 2x Deadly encounter. If they survive (which is unlikely) they will have earned every XP several times over.

This assumes that the party really wants "near death battles that bring them out bloody and bruised". My guess is that this is not what they really want.

The suggestion of a "battle arena" test is a good one. This can also be done in the campaign - maybe there are gladiatorial contests in your campaign that are not "to the death". Playing a team knock-out (that ends with 1 team knocked-out) could teach both you and your players what "deadly" can really mean without having a TPK.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the link, it was a bit helpful but as I see it, I just wasn't using my monsters to their abilities when it came to goblins and hobgoblins. The party did come across a band of wild boars that actually did bring them to the brink (lvl 2 at the time, I believe). This encounter, I had used the boars relentless ability effectively. A similar situation occurred with a zombie encounter and giant wasps & wasp swarm encounter. I believe when it comes to my monsters, I really need to pay more attention to their special abilities to get the most out of them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zerrian
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 15:28

This is a broad question but there are several ways to approach it.

A) Dispense with encounter XP all together and go to one of the alternate XP award systems, especially the milestone one. That way your players can get into all the brutal fights they want (and take all the rests they need) but you control their leveling as it fits your story.

B) Make fights harder by using your monsters SMARTER. Are you utilizing effective tactics and all the monster special abilities? Goblins in particular can be quite nasty as they use their "cunning action"-like ability to disengage or hide after they attack. Give your hobgoblins polearms so they can fight 2 deep and take advantage of their extra damage. Have some sneak around and hit that spell caster used to hanging out safely in the rear. Just throwing more monsters, especially if they obediently line up to be cut down by the players, will cause this "XP overload" phenomenon you are describing and will eventually bore players unless they level quickly and always have a new power/ability to use.

C) The XP modifier depends on how YOU think the encounter will go. If you feel the players will cruise through 6 CR1/2 monsters then definitely don't double their XP value. Just use the boss monster for XP difficulty determination and either beef him up or add some more powerful sub-lieutenants instead of just run of the mill hobgoblins (be sure to indicate this to your players [if they are familiar with hobgoblins already] by saying they have a unique uniform, are stronger looking, etc so it doesn't look like you are 'cheating').

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the suggestions. I have a feeling that I could probably forgo counting in the CR ½ monsters for now as their HP is small enough to be wiped out in 1-2 hits by my players (Fighter, Monk, Rogue and Cleric). I'm not overly creative, so even attempting to run a campaign has been a very daunting task. I've been using the monsters as is from the new monster manual and suggested weapons. On the other hand, I have been rather poor with their tactics and will keep this in mind for the next gaming session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zerrian
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 19:16
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ My advice to you then is to take a break from the campaign and run some "battle arena" type encounters with your party just to experiment with different tactics. Since they will be fighting I doubt they will complain and the freedom to explore the monster possibilities without derailing a campaign will make it easier for you. Or just pick one tactic per encounter to work on for yourself. Have someone come from behind in one fight, try to grapple or disarm a character in the next, etc. Keeping players on their toes while in combat is just as valuable a skill as good NPC conversations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason K
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 20:57

To up the challenge, use multiple types of foes.

Don't just give them them a bunch of orcs to fight. Give them four orcs with swords, using the flanking rules, and four orcs with bows, sniping from range, and a couple of wolves circling round from behind and nipping at the heels of the casters, and two goblins who do nothing but drag unconscious bodies away from combat, and finally a carrion crawler hanging in the shadows at the edge of the PCs vision, just lurking there, waiting, waiting….

Give them meaningful choices, with bad consequences for every choice. Do they stay and fight the sword-orcs, and let the archers take out their casters or do they rush past the sword-orcs to take out the archers, and let the orcs get attacks of opportunity on them? Do they assist a downed friend who is being dragged away or do they keep fighting?

Seriously, the most epic fights I've had have been where there was a nasty consequence for going down. If you know there are some hungry ghouls waiting in the shadows then you really, really don't want to get knocked down to 0HP.


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