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In my campaign the party is travelling a lot, so I made my own system for random encounters. Basically the party rolls 4 times a day a d20 and on a 19 or 20 an encounter happens. I am running a sandbox style game in which the players choose their own quests and then travel to the various destinations. The travel-encounters are mainly used to reflect a level of threat in the area.

The Problem: the encounters are very spread out over the course of the journey. When they beat one encounter they have enough time to rest back up until the next one. Because of this, the players and me don't find the encounters challenging unless I make each of the encounters very hard for them.

How can I make the random/travelling encounters more challenging/interesting without making each encounter very hard or deadly?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ unsure what you're asking. the question in the title (as far as i can tell) seems to be about encounters per day and encounter difficulty, whereas the question in your description seems to be more about the nature of random encounters and how to run them. can you clarify please? \$\endgroup\$ – Handsome Unlimited Aug 1 '16 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you think 'hey guys, how about we don't do long rests during a travel, so the random encounters are more interesting?' as a new rule would help? :) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 1 '16 at 10:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HandsomeUnlimited the question is about if i should keep the encounters spread out over the journey or make all, or most, of them happen in one day. Erik that sounds like a good idea, i'll talk with my players. Thanks in advance. \$\endgroup\$ – Voge Aug 1 '16 at 10:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast i'm playing a sandbox style game in which the players choose their own quests and then travel to the varoius destinations. the travel-encounters are mainly used to reflect a level of threat in the area. \$\endgroup\$ – Voge Aug 1 '16 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have added that comment to your question to more fully explain the campaign issue that you are trying to address. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 1 '16 at 14:17
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You could do away with the dice rolling and just start a 'random' encounter when you feel like it's a good moment, for example, when they just returned from the goblin lair, exhausted and spent. This can make an encounter that should otherwise be easy suddenly a challenge.

Also, it can be easy to forget that a random encounter doesn't necessarily have to mean random combat. You can make up dozens of encounters that challenge the players without them just having to grab their sword and hit stuff.

I have an old DnD book called 'En Route' which is full of random encounters and most of them have no or little combat. For example, there is one where a pixie steals a valuable item of one of the party members and leads them on a merry chase through the woods (she does give it back in the end, she's a good sport). There's one where a group of cultists block a bridge (the river is sacred to them) and the players may only continue when they impersonate one of the animals living in or near the water. Or one where they encounter a cow that follows them around and kicks over their stuff (the cow is possessed by an evil spirit).

Obviously it depends on your group whether or not they would like something different, or just want to smash stuff. But there are good role playing opportunities for the players in encounters such as these, for very little effort on the GM's part. You can give them XP as usual when they 'finish' an encounter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you provide a link for that 'En Route' book you cite? I'm intrigued. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Aug 1 '16 at 11:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here it is: amazon.com/Route-Penumbra-D20-Michelle-Brown/dp/1589780043 There's a part 2 and 3 as well. It's for dnd 3/3.5, but most scenario's are easily adaptable to other systems. \$\endgroup\$ – Dennisch Aug 1 '16 at 11:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ For me this is the answer. I see random encounters as a big way to communicate the setting to the players. I want a number of random encounters that are as fleshed out as set encounters. They give the flavor of the world and the local area. Whether there is combat often depends on how the PCs react as anything. Only a few are going to be monsters who are strong and aggressive enough to unconditionally attack the party. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Aug 1 '16 at 17:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would solve the possessed cow situation but smashing it. Probably after the second or third kick. \$\endgroup\$ – Emilio M Bumachar Aug 1 '16 at 23:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also available as PDF from DriveThruRPG \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Aug 2 '16 at 1:58
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Increase the time requirements for long/short rest

In part to prevent this type of problem we made a house rule that a long rest would take 16 hours and a short rest would take 8 hours. We did this to have the characters suffer resource attrition over days and weeks since none of us likes the idea of having many fights during a single day.

When the characters are traveling overland they hardly ever get a long rest unless they spend a day resting, and forces everyone they are traveling with to delay. Works like a charm for us, but it is a drastic house ruling to solve the problem.

The inspiration for this came from DMG where it on page 267 suggest 8 hours short rest and 7 days for long rest. We have found that 16 hours works very well.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for finding the page. I didn't have the DMG available as I was writing my original post. \$\endgroup\$ – Marius Aug 1 '16 at 16:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ No worries. Was on lunch break, so it was easy to find. I, also, use that variant in one of my campaigns and we really like the effect it has on nudging the feel away from "adventure of the week" toward "we live here." \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Aug 1 '16 at 17:10
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The Problem is, that the encounters are very spread out over the course of the journey and when they beat one encounter and have enough time to rest back up until the next one. Because of this, the players and me don't find the encounters challenging unless i make each of the encounters very hard for them.

Have you considered not doing the encounters, then?

Let me ask you this: what exactly do the encounters add to the game aside from XP and treasure? Plot points? A way to establish what the world is like? What effects the actions of the players have on the world itself? To instill a sense of dread, oppression or press why the party should hurry?

If it's none of these things and you're just doing it to hand out XP and treasure, you should really consider skipping these encounters. The players don't like them, you don't like them so why do you spend time on something nobody likes? Tool down the "regular" encounters so that the players can do them just fine and do the actual fun things that advance the plot.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I mostly use the encounters to establish the world and what adversarys the party later faces. For example, one encounter was them meeting gnolls who had recently slain something and wanted to protect said prey. And with that encounter i established gnolls in the area and they might be a threat later. The problem is, if the party fights them and have to use some dailys, it doesnt matter to them because they can longrest once or twice before the next encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Voge Aug 1 '16 at 10:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can just have them find signs of gnolls in the area, maybe even have them come across the remains of a different party's conflict with gnolls. Throw in some interesting investigation rather than just another gnoll fight. \$\endgroup\$ – Space Ostrich Aug 1 '16 at 14:59
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As others have pointed out, a good encounter does not have to involve combat (conflict, yes; combat, no).

As you have realised, if an encounter does involve combat then D&D 5e is essentially a resource management game: how many resources (hit points, spell slots, per day powers etc.) should I spend in this encounter and still have enough to deal with the next?

Since a long rest is (almost) a resource reset button the DMG p.84 gives you guidance:

Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters per day. If it the adventure has more easy encounters, they can get through more. If the adventure has more hard encounters, they can handle fewer.

In addition you should know your players: experienced players are better at resource management than novices and can handle more encounters.

Now, here's the solution to your problem.

The RAW say that a long rest is (PHB P.186):

A long rest is a period of extended downtime, at least 8 hours long, during which a character sleeps or performs light activity: reading, talking, eating, or standing watch for no m ore than 2 hours.

it is quite within your power to rule that a long rest in the wilderness is longer than 8 hours, say 48 hours (similarly, a short rest could be 8 hours). Naturally, resting where you are same and secure is way more efficacious than when you are not: you are not rousing at every tiny noise and have a nice feather bed.

This forces a real decision on the players - do they stop here for two days to recover (risking more encounters) or push on in the hope of getting to civilisation, where a long rest takes 8 hours. Also, it makes the decision to travel Fast, Normal or Slow (p.182) more significant. Finally, it poses a problem for spellcasters "Do I prepare Fireball or Leomond's Tiny Shelter? Do I use my last 3rd level slot or save it for LTS?"

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So based on the title, the content of your post, and your comments on other answers it seems that the problem you are having is that your players are always prepared for combat and your encounters are not challenging them. Your idea is to increase combat difficulty by throwing many encounters at the players with no breaks in between. I am going to answer with this in mind, and if I am wrong in my assumption feel free to correct me in the comments.

Your Solution

Overwhelm the Players with Numerous Encounters

Your problem is that your combat encounters are not difficult enough so you propose adding more combat encounters until the players are actually challenged.

This seems like a bad solution to me for a few reasons (in no particular order):
1. Your players are more likely to become annoyed with combat.
2. The difficulty the players are experiencing, and the subsequent victories, won't feel as satisfying.
3. It's not a very interesting solution from a gameplay perspective.

All of these are completely subjective and really depend on your style as a GM and your players' preferences, but in my experience these hold true.

My Solutions

Interrupt their Rest

The first, and possibly the easiest, response to players resting all the time is to have encounters happen while they are sleeping. Wake them up with a bandit ambush, or a sudden forest fire. Have wild animals tear through the camp looking for food. Do something that ensures they don't get a full eight hours of sleep. If you do this often enough the players may start to post watches and take longer to prepare their camps every night, which could then lead to them only having enough time for a short rest.

Give them a Deadline

You have said that the style of this campaign is such that the players choose where to go and what quests to pursue.If you want the players to stop taking so many Long Rests you can frame some of the quests in such a way that they only have a limited amount of time. In this way time becomes a resource and the players must manage it carefully if they hope to complete the quest.

Increase the CR of the Encounters

Simply use tougher enemies in your combat encounters. This may be difficult to work into the world you have already built, and as such may not be the best solution for all cases, but if it is possible to just increase the level of the enemies your party is facing, or increase the number of enemies in a group, or use tougher monsters then any of those things could increase the challenge.


Ultimately, you should try to increase the challenge in a way that is fair to the players and fun for everyone at the table. If they are okay with just fighting more things then go ahead and throw more things at them, but try not to overuse any one of these solutions or your game may start to feel stale and bland.

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You could, but justifying it might mess with verisimilitude.

DnD encounters are intended to be part of an adventuring day, and wouldn't be challenging outside it, since the difference between doing well and doing poorly isn't enough to cause consequences. You're running into that problem, as well as a problem with the definition of an adventuring day encompassing two different things.

The problem is that an adventuring day is:

  • A narrative construct in which multiple encounters draw from a common pool of resources.
  • A timeframe which is blocked off by long rests and divided by short rests.

You want the first without the chronology baggage of the second. There's two ways I can think of handling this without a ton of baggage, as well as just eliding combat encounters.

Making a journey one adventuring day

If the justification works for you and your group, you could say that the stress of traveling, being outdoors and keeping good pace means you need to take a longer rest for the same benefit. That way you could scale up an adventuring day to a "Journeying Week" where a long rest is a day spent resting, replenishing stocks and maintaining gear, for example. The nice thing about this is that all the work's already done, you know how to handle the structure, and it's minimal work to explain and understand.

Providing an alternate challenge framework

If you want more flexibility with chronology or just feel like the journeying week idea wouldn't work with your party, you're going to want a narrative construct to fit your encounters from. In that case, something like Oregon, I mean Eberron Trail might work well. Your party has resources for the journey, food, probably a supply cart and some other stuff, and the encounters should revolve around managing those.

As an example, say you're going through a large temperate forest where goblins live. They want the party's stuff, so they mount a raid. They have a good enough idea that the party can fight, and none of them want to die over the stuff, so instead they engage from range while the party's resting and try to shred the party's tents. If they succeed, the next time they move on the party the party's wet, miserable, and debuffed when they try to distract the party while they break the cart's axle. That way, the encounters feed into each other.

Just ignoring the framework

You can also simply not put the battles into a resource management framework, acknowledge that they won't be particularly challenging, and use them as worldbuilding. Something as simple as mentioning occasional skirmishes with goblins that can't press the party enough that they aren't fresh could work. You could also use this to show wildlife in action, with predators trying to threaten the party, but if they look closely they can notice the predators are keeping their backs towards a small enclosed space of some sort where their young are. If the party fights it, then they fight it, if they don't they don't, and you don't have to worry about balancing a day. Similarly you could mix in entirely non-combat encounters at will.

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Make Random/Travel Encounters Clumpy

Yes, if you are going to have several en route combat encounters, it works well mechanically to group them into one eventful day. If they are spread out through multiple days, the spellcasters get to have all the fun.

Encounters draw attention

When you throw a second encounter at the party, describe how the noise, smoke, smells, etc., caused by the previous encounter have drawn attention. Flying creatures and any kind of scavengers are good here.

The party may begin to start abandoning their camp to avoid follow-on encounters. That’s great — then the problem of the party resting after every encounter is solved. They still have the chance of running into something else (whether because the dice say so, or you do).

Tribes

Another motif is to have party wander into the territory of a clan or tribe of monsters. They might first come upon an unsuspecting group of the cretures, then be challenged by larger groups of creatures who have come to investigate (maybe along with their guard animals, for variety).

Don't slow the story down too much

Multiple encounters “along the road” can slow down your storyline. Be aware you don't need to put multiple encounters in every time. Just the possibility of there being follow-on encounters before a short or long rest is possible will encourage the party to be appropriately stingy with their spells and limited-use powers.

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Here's what I do.

I only run a random encounter if I think it's going to be particularly, fun, challenging, or relevant to the story.

Otherwise, I tell the players what they encounter, and how the encounter starts. If the combat is overwhelmingly in the PCs favor right from the beginning, I simply rule that they win, or the enemy flees, and I give them the XP anyway.

This adds a bit of colour to travels, and the occasional actually difficult encounter gives a sense that travelling can be dangerous, without bogging the game down with pointless combat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree that PCs should be given experience for encounters that they do not actually play out. Experience is a reward for play - In my experience, players only find XP satisfying if it is rewarded after some effort on their part. Awarding it for encounters that are not played out is anticlimactic at best, and could lead to bad behaviour at worst. What is stopping the players from traipsing around the wilderness all week to level up, without ever having to play a combat encounter. Also, does this really make travel feel dangerous if they have no chance of losing anything? \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Aug 1 '16 at 11:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's stopping them traipsing around the wilderness all week is that some encounters are actually dangerous. Note that I only do this with easy, low-challenge encounters, where the PCs are in no danger at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Apocalisp Aug 1 '16 at 13:05
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You can, but it's not the way the game was built to be played.

What you fight, and how often you fight, changes between group to group and DM to DM. Although you CAN simply have one or two more difficult fights during an adventuring day, that is not how the game was designed. 5E is mechanically built around resource attrition, and thus, short rests and long rests are part of game balance. DMG p84 gives specific examples of how much (adjusted) XP worth of encounters a party can face in The Adventuring Day, specifying:

Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters per day. If it the adventure has more easy encounters, they can get through more. If the adventure has more hard encounters, they can handle fewer.

Additionally on DMG p84, under Short Rests:

In general, over the course of a full adventuring day, the party will likely need to take two short rests, about one-third and two-thirds of the way through the day.

As you can see, the game's mechanics (challenge rating, XP, encounter building in general) all work around the idea of a certain number of fights during an Adventuring Day. As DM, you can do as you wish, but you should know the rules before you bend or break them.

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