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I have a group of PCs that started at level 1. The group varies in size between 6-8 PCs and they have a good spread of classes (healer, tanks, damage dealers, 2 arcane casters).

They are level 5 now. I have found that they are consistently able to handle encounters whose xp total should be considered "deadly" to my group per the DMG.

In general I have been estimating the compensating factors and difficulty of the encounter, not calculating it.


The last adventure was when the PCs were level 4. The adventure day took them through 5 fights with 2 short rests and no long rests. There were 7 PCs for this adventure.

1st fight 4 CR2 monsters + 1 CR4 monster. Total XP 5800

2nd fight 1 CR5 monster: 1,800 xp

3rd fight 1 CR5 monster: 1,800 xp

Short rest.

4th fight 3 CR 3 monsters, 12 CR 1/2 Monsters: 8,100 XP

Short rest.

5th fight 1 CR 8 monster, 3 CR 3 monsters: 12,000 XP

Total XP for adventure: 29,500.


I found the challenge of this adventure to be too small for the team. In particular I had planned a story mechanic to save the PCs in the final fight but was surprised to find that the mechanic was not necessary as they ended up besting that encounter.

Some things I have noticed which seem unbalanced are the damage potential of certain classes compared to monsters. PCs just seem to do more damage. Also the feat shield mastery in a large group of PCs is quite effective because imposing the condition prone (thereby giving other melee advantage on attack rolls) allows the PCs to focus threats down very effectively.

My questions.

  • In your campaign do you find that the PCs are strong compared to the CR/XP ratings of the encounter?
  • Would it help if I stopped estimating the CR of encounter and stuck to the DMG more rigorously when designing encounters for my group of 6-8 PCs?
  • Am I correct in assuming that the CR ratings for monsters as given will not provide a significant challenge to the PCs going forward beyond level 4 and 5. Will I need to increase the power level of the monsters, or make other things like terrain to not be in their advantage when designing encounters for my group of PCs?
  • Is what I am seeing a function of adding additional PCs beyond the first increases the power of the party in a non-linear fashion or more a function that the PCs work well together?
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All D20, but DnD 5 especially, are designed and balanced assuming a 4 or 5 player party. And you can kinda tell, when the rules start asking you to apply multipliers to bigger parties, rather than giving any concrete guidelines. Assuming distributed player competence, a 6 person party isn't simply 20% stronger than a 5 player party. It's much higher. There's an entire additional PC, with their own suite of abilities, magic items, and most importantly, actions. Never underestimate the power of having more standard actions than the other guys (unless you're a pack of CR1/2 minions going up against a bunch of level 5 adventures, then you're screwed either way).

In short, designing challenging encounters for big parties is one of the more substantial challenges a GM may have to face. There seems to be a razor thin design space between "no actual danger" and "guaranteed TPK" when planning for large parties. My own personal strategy is "5 players per party max unless you have a super good reason that a sixth needs to be in this particular game, and never ever ever ever more than that (and preferably not 6 for long)," but that probably won't help you, specifically.

First of all, stop giving them one big thing to focus on. There are a couple iconic encounters that tend to necessitate one big monster against a party of intrepid heroes, like dragon slaying. The problem here with big parties is 1 creature generally can only attack one thing at a time, so even if the beastie is downing 1 PC a round, the rest of the party can pop cool downs and beat the timer. If you design the combat space so the beastie can use it's AOE abilites to good effect, you often find yourself looking at a TPK. Quantity may be a quality all it's own, but it isn't everything. Basically, when the party is that big, the single monster encounter HAS to be able to one round KO any given PC, or it's not a threat. And while it's killing one PC a round, the remaining party members HAVE to have a DPR high enough to whittle the beastie down before it kills them all, or they all just die. SO! Anytime you're tempted to let 7 or 8 dungeon crawlers dogpile one big boss monster, resist the urge. Instead of fighting one wyrm, why not a mated pair of adults, maybe with a wyrmling thrown in to harass the squishies? (Actually, this particular piece of design advice sort of holds true for any size party if there's more than one healer to keep the front liners standing)

Secondly (related to the first), if your party outnumbers the monsters, they'll probably win unless each monster is SIGNIFICANTLY stronger than the PC. I can't give concrete CR equivalencies because it's different at different power bands, but 7 lvl 5 PCs who know which end of a longsword is pointy should mop the floor with 5 CR7-8 monsters. The power of two players worth of extra actions is too substantial to ignore. Design the encounter using the guidelines in the DMG, then add a few support casters or bowmen(or bowwomen, or bowgoblins, or bowwhatevers) at a little under CR to bring the numbers within 1 of the party.

Finally, if you're going to do mob (mob in this context being a large angry group, not a MMO enemy, nor a crime family) encounters, consider looking at the minion style monsters from 4th edition. They had decent defenses and attack bonuses, but 1 HP and very low damage. Custom brew up something mob-able, maybe give them advantage for being adjacent to allies, with a decent attack bonus and a beefy AC, but a damage range of a d3 and very low health. And remember, mob fights aren't typically meant to be challenging in and of themselves, they should be hard enough to drain some resources while letting the players feel like badasses for steamrolling through a pile of enemies. Remember, damage spread to 7 players hurts a party much worse than that damage stacked on 1 or 2 frontliners.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answers and I will definitely take these into consideration. I will definitely stop giving them just 1 threat to fight and will start to play the NPCs more intelligently. \$\endgroup\$ – Iajitsu Mar 7 '16 at 20:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ In 5e boss monsters don't have to attack only one thing at a time, though they still should try to if they want to win. They get Legendary actions which helps even out the action imbalance of many-on-one fights. Adding extra legendary actions per round helps a lot with big groups. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Jan 4 '18 at 21:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ This series by Matthew Colville has some great ideas for making combat more difficult or engaging. things like adding minions, higher saving throws that give multiple saves instead. youtube.com/… \$\endgroup\$ – John Dec 23 '18 at 7:04
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I'm finding the same. My level 5 party can easily take out a CR 8 creature on its own. Using the encounter guidelines from the DMG, I've thrown a couple of deadly encounters at them, and everyone has survived (though one character was at two failed death saves, after being chewed on by a mimic and damaged by a party member's AoE spell).

Additionally, you have a large party. A party of 8 PCs is very effective. Their ability to put a large amount of damage into one target in one round means even powerful monsters go down very quickly.

So, how to increase the challenge?

Different Types of Monsters with Different Tactics

Instead of fighting ogres, the party has to fight ogres and orc archers and wolf skirmishers and an orc shaman. The shaman casts debuff spells on the frontline fighters. The archers go for the second line archers and casters. The wolves harry the frontline fighters (using the Help action to give the Ogres advantage on attacks).

Terrain

Terrain makes a fight more tactical and more fun (especially if the players work out how to make the terrain their ally).

E.g., the party has to fight the ogres on a ledge above a fast flowing river. The ogres use Shove to try and push the characters over the edge. As well as fighting, the players now have to position their characters so they are not between the ogres and the edge.

E.g. the battle takes place across an entire town, with skirmishes all over the place. The players have to prioritise where they go. DO they head to the gate where they can hear a fight, or do they head to the burning building in the other direction? (Note - I'm doing exactly this scenario in 2 weeks to a party of level 6 PCs).

The nastiest fight I gave my players involved only two monsters - two mimics. The danger of the fight came from the fact that it was in a 5ft diameter vertical shaft. The players had to do a lot of manouvering to be able to reach the targets. One of the players had their character cast an AoE spell, which ended up damaging party members much more than the monsters.

Objectives other than "Kill Enemies"

For example, the good old escort quest. The players have to protect an NPC or an item. Killing the enemies still fails the mission of the attackers killed the NPC or destroyed the item.

One battle I remember from D&D 4E was where we had to protect a horse-drawn cart from attackers. Not only did we have to kill the attackers (goblins and sirges, I think) but we had to push the cart through the obstruction as well as keep clearing stirges from the horses.

Force the players to make hard choices. "Do I use my action to attack the foe or defend the NPC or push the cart or remove a stirge?" Make every choice have a consequence. Make sure you telegraph the consequences to some degree (as Lino commented, combat is not supposed to be fair, so sometimes the players won't know the consequences up front, but its unfair to completely surprise them every combat).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a point of contention here: Combat isn't supposed to be fair. Sometimes, choices shouldn't be obvious or existent without the player actually thinking about the combat as if he/she was there. Also, some choices may not be evident until an enemy tips their hand. For example, a goblin raiding party may not let on that they're trying to kill the horses until they run around the PC's and murder the draft horses pulling the cart. Revealing their intent prior seems like pandering to players too much in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Mar 1 '16 at 0:56
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There are some really good answers to your question, but I want to throw out a couple more thoughts.

You asked, are 5th Edition D&D PCs too strong?

Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe it's your PCs

Maybe it's your PCs are overpowered. First of all, there's nothing wrong with overpowered PCs. It's what they do. It's what they want to do. They want to run in there and kick some monster butt. That's a good thing. But if they're overpowered, you gotta take that into account.

Are the PCs using standard stats? Or did they roll their own? If a PC starts with a stat above 15 at character creation, then with racial bonuses and ASIs by 4th level you can be dealing with a character with a 20 stat.

Have you made house rules that favor the PCs? For instance, relaxing multi-classing restrictions, weapon restrictions, or spellbook restrictions. That can up their power.

Are you (or the PCs) playing fast and loose with the rules? PCs may be interpreting the rules in the most favorable light, or not taking into account limiting factors, such as spell components or the action economy.

Don't get me wrong, I loves me a high-powered PC. You just have to take that into account.

Maybe it's your monsters

You don't say which particular monsters you were using. I took a look at your final encounter, 1 CR 8 and 3 CR 3's. For representative monsters, I chose a Chain Devil and 3 Barbed Devils.

By the DMG's encounter estimation guide, I think the numbers come out pretty reasonable for your party, especially later in the day, after they've been softened up a bit.

But are the devils playing to win? Because the PCs definitely are.

If they're the big encounter of the day, they need to be ready to rock. Do the PCs got tricks? Then the devils need them too. They can't just run out there and start swinging, they got to strategemize.

In the case of the devils I listed, they aren't super-powerful. They aren't going to last long toe-to-toe with your heavy hitters. But they ain't stupid. And this particular little stretch of dungeon is THEIR turf. This ain't their first rodeo. They didn't get where they are by getting sliced and diced by the first PCs that came along. No sirree bob. And what's more, these particular monsters got some specialities. These particular monsters are IMMUNE to fire damage, and they gots telepathy and devil's sight. Your PCs would chop these guys into pieces under normal conditions. But in a room filled with flaming oil and magical darkness and silence, it would be a different story altogether. Just those three features could turn it from yawnsville for the PCs to a TPK. Heck, just one of those three features would turn things significantly in favor of the monsters. Let's see how your barb likes it when he is taking fire damage per round because he's coated in flaming oil, taking dex saves to keep his footing, and fighting in darkness and silence. Suddenly it's barbarian barbecue.

You might say, that's not fair, the MM didn't say that devils can create magical darkness or silence, or have flaming oil. That's true. But it says they have devil's vision, telepathy, and fire immunity. They have average intelligence. They're going to try to use their innate abilities.

A Time to Reap

Are your PCs ready to die? Are you ready to kill them? I mean that seriously. What happens if you kill a party member? There's no right answer, there, it depends on your campaign. For me, I try to avoid a flat-out PC death, but taking them to zero is a goal. Dropping a PC and forcing them to drag his sorry ass out of the fight and regroup is good. Heck, it's great. And death is a possibility. There is death-reversal magic available. It will cost, though. It will cost the PCs dearly on gold and plot to bring back even one PC. And that PC will be forever changed. Some campaigns, PC death, no resurrection, is part of the deal. Other campaigns, PC death never happens.

Are your monsters ready to die? Because they shouldn't be. Depending on the monster, when things go bad, they should get the heck out of Dodge. Maybe they grab their fallen buddies and fall back themselves. Maybe they throw a weaker monster at the PCs to buy escape time. But when the going gets tough, they should get going. Warn the boss monster. Get some reinforcements. Cause it's the peecees and the monsters know what happened the last time they got in here.

Your Questions

To answer your specific questions:

"In your campaign do you find that the PCs are strong compared to the CR/xp ratings of the encounter?"

It entirely depends on factors beyond PC level and CR/xp, particularly extra abilities, prep on both sides, and environment.

"Would it help if I stopped estimating the CR of encounter and stuck to the DMG more rigorously when designing encounters for my group of 6-8 PCs?"

Maybe that would help. But try overpowering your encounters then pulling punches. In my devil example, if the chain devil had nothing but a room full of chains and a rock in a bag with magical darkness, or maybe a ring of spell storing with one fireball on it, that would give the devils a chance to seriously bedevil the PCs without an auto-TPK.

"Am I correct in assuming that the CR ratings for monsters as given will not provide a significant challenge to the PCs going forward beyond level 4 and 5. Will I need to increase the power level of the monsters, or make other things like terrain to not be in their advantage when designing encounters for my group of PCs?"

The CR ratings are a start. Given a balanced encounter, the monsters got to use everything available to them though. Otherwise you need to bump up the CR.

"Is what I am seeing a function of adding additional PCs beyond the first increases the power of the party in a non-linear fashion or more a function that the PCs work well together?"

Adding PCs definitely has a network effect. And they are working well together.

Finally

Reading your adventure description, I think you've got a great base. You're clearly putting some real effort into it, and I'm guessing everyone is having fun.

In dealing with the numbers when designing encounters, you might want to take a look at Kobold Fight Club. I am not all that good with it, but it is an awesome tool. That's how I came up with the devils in the example.

http://kobold.club

Speaking of kobolds, if you haven't read it, you might want to read Tucker's Kobolds:

http://media.wizards.com/2014/downloads/dnd/TuckersKobolds.pdf

Here's my final advice, if you really want to give your players challenging encounters. Take it with a grain of salt. It heavily depends on your group and your play style:

Keep piling it on. Keep piling it on til you drop a PC or two. The day they get their butts kicked and drag a couple of unconscious characters or maybe a dead one out of that monster-infested #@*% pit of darkness will be the second-best session they ever have. The best will be the next time, when they come back and this time they mean business. This time, the characters are pissed and out for blood, and the players are gleeful. This time, the monsters are going to pay. Houyah!

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To answer your bundled questions in order:

• Would it help if I stopped estimating the CR of encounter and stuck to the DMG more rigorously when designing encounters for my group of 6-8 PCs?

Yes, this will help you in two ways.

  1. Your XP budget adjusted for the size of the party should increase the challenge and difficulty.

If the party contains six or more characters, use the next lowest multiplier on the table. Use a multiplier of o.5 for a single monster.(From sub heading "Party Size," Basic Rules, GM p. 57)

  1. As you do this more often you will build a better feel for how much morer to boost the challenge based on how many of your players showed up for the game.

    The XP amount in the DMG tables was based on a four person party getting two short rests and one long rest, and 6-8 encounters per adventure day. (Basic Rules, GM, p. 57. DMG has the same guidance)

    Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day. In the same way you figure out the difficulty of an encounter, you can use the XP values of monsters and other opponents in an adventure as a guideline for how far the party is likely to progress.

You will need to substantially boost the challenge when they are all 5th level.

• Am I correct in assuming that I will need to increase the power level of the monsters, or make other things like terrain to not be in their advantage when designing encounters for my group of PCs?

Yes. From the table Adventuring Day XP (Basic Rules, DM, p. 57) the budgeted XP per day per character more than doubles - from 1700 to 3500, when the party goes from 4th level to 5th level. Achieving 5th level is a substantial power spike. The martial characters get their second attack, and spell casters get third level spells. If you take the guidance on party size to heart, you'll be budgeting 7000 XP worth per character in a party that large for the adventuring day.

• The larger question: are PCs too strong vs CR rating or is what I am seeing a function of adding additional PCs beyond the first increases the power of the party in a non-linear fashion?

That depends on how well the party fights as a team. What you are seeing is two (maybe three) things.

  1. The additional PCs requires a larger level of challenge for the group.
  2. Your players, per your description (since edited out) are doing a good job fighting as a team. Good teamwork leads to success.
  3. The tactics and terrain being used by the monsters and opponents of your players. There are many variations on that, so you'll need to learn by doing. Some of the ideas in "Modifying Encounter Difficulty" will significantly change the difficulty of a given fight. So will monsters who fight smart.

    Last point: you listed two consecutive encounters, each against one monster whose XP was 1800. With a party of six or more, that adjusts to a 900 XP encounter, per the note on Party Size. Those two encounters, because the large party could concentrate their efforts on one monster, were likely to be a cake walk unless the monster had a significant area of effect spell or ability that could affect the entire party early in the fight.

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To answer your question: Yes I think D&D 5e is not very well balanced for a group of more than 4 PCs. As a DM you need to look at monsters, numbers of monsters and number of encounters.

In my group I had the same problem. There are 6 Characters in this group and they are very well suited (Tank, Damage, Healing) too.

They just annihilated any big encounter I threw at them. Easily 2-4 CR above their expected CR.

The key I figured is to put multiple encounters before the big one. They shouldn't be to much of a challenge, however they should tend to force your casters to burn some mid level spell slots. If your players are forced to use their abilities, while giving them no real chance of regaining them (like someone wote in the coments above) they have to houshold.

A different option would be to fake the final encounter, so your players might burn their actions. Be aware though that this method could lead to a dead PC very fast.

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I have had this problem swing both ways, and I think the number of player characters involved makes a tremendous difference in encounter difficulty.

In one game I run, I have two players often accompanied by an NPC, making a party of 3. While they have surprised me on occasion with their resourcefulness, power, and quick thinking, there have also been moments where I worried I was heading towards a TPK.

In "Sunless Citadel" there were multiple fights the PCs had trouble with. I recall the fight with the Mama Rat and her babies was a tough one that left everyone damaged and out of resources. My rogue/barbarian NPC did a lot of heavy lifting on the front line of that module. The final battle was handled through diplomacy of sorts (the warlock made a new pact with Gulthias, and Gulthias dropped his support for the BBEG in favor of the PCs), so I can't report back on how much they would have gotten their butts kicked.

In "Forge of Fury" there's a solo roper encounter, and this ended up being a knock-down, knock-out, all-spells-gone, almost-fell-in-the-underground-river-and-drowned fight. I believe there were 3 level four characters in that fight. They didn't even try the fight with the dragon, I was going to give them some help from a secret drider ally if they did try it.

Those player characters went on into "Waterdeep: Dragon Heist" and while the early encounters were pretty easy even with a few modifications to increase difficulty, things became more difficult in the later chapters. The characters got jumped by bugbears and came perilously close to losing the fight (at this point the fights were by-the-book, and the characters were level 6). At one point the 3-character party split up to pursue two different leads, and both led into combat encounters. Two PCs fled from an encounter with 8 thugs, and one PC fled from a temple of Bane where he was vastly outnumbered by 4 acolytes, a priestess, and 3 flying snakes. They came back later and were victorious, only to have their butts kicked by a simulacrum which they were again forced to flee from.

With a different group I started running "The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan" and let me tell you, they got the CR wrong on the nereid (the book claims CR 2). WRONG. She hits like a truck and she can turn invisible as a bonus action. A group of 5 characters fought her and her pet electric eel and won pretty handily but were unable to finish her off. 3 characters (5th level I think) came back later at full power and tried to defeat her as a solitary monster, and they got their butts kicked. The kenku swashbuckler died, the other PCs were taxed on resources, and while the nereid was once again low on HP, they did not have the means to locate and kill her once she stopped appearing from invisibility.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is: I have consistently seen 3 PCs have trouble with encounters that are about appropriate ranging up to somewhat overpowered for their level. Numbers make a big difference. My players are fairly experienced and tactical, and they build good characters on generous point buy. 3 characters is just not the same as 5 at all, and I can only imagine how much different 8 must be.

I had some troubles in 4th edition D&D with building encounters for 7 PCs. Either the fight was too easy (true most of the time), or the fight was too hard (as I discovered when I had enough XP budget to include multiple elite monsters). Between game problems and out-of-game problems (trying to herd that many cats, I mean people, and keep them focused is quite the task), I would recommend not going over 5 players if you can help it.

Anyway, I think classes and such are balanced enough, as long as you keep them in the context of a party of 3 to 5 adventurers.

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