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For example, just recently gave my PC's an encounter in a dungeon setting. I had four 3rd-level characters (A fighter, a barbarian, a rogue, and a ranger admittedly with a beast companion) against two carrion crawlers (a classic and a favorite).

According to the DMG, my party's "XP threshold" for encounters is:

  • Easy: 300
  • Medium: 600
  • Hard: 900
  • Deadly: 1600

My two Carrion Crawlers are CR2, or 450xp each. Since there are two of them, the DMG marks them as being 1.5x more difficult of an encounter. So they're end XP value is 1350. Surpassing the "hard" threshold and into "deadly" territory.

As the DMG states, this list is balanced around the idea of four PCs.

My players relied on very few tactics (only the rogue really tried to "fire and maneuver"), and it sort of became a slugfest going back and forth. However, even with the Crawlers multiattack and poison (which most of the PCs saved against anyway), the encounter only really felt like a "medium" encounter, which is described as "one or two scary moments for the players, but the characters should emerge victorious with no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources". Indeed, I didn't feel a sense of terror until one crawler ended up paralyzing and grappling the beast companion, trying to crawl away with it (it was the closest and smallest target).

In short, using 5e's encounter creation guidelines just feels like it results in some rather moderate encounters, even up to "deadly" levels! I feel like I'm missing something, or maybe I'm just playing these monsters/NPCs badly.

I know 5e is centered more around storytelling and narrative gameplay, but my players and I also appreciate challenging encounters. My current plan is to introduce more environmental/terrain challenges to encounters to keep them interesting.

I suppose my question is, is there something I'm doing wrong? Are 5e encounters just supposed to be easier? Are PCs really that much more powerful than in 2e, or 3.5? Am I missing the point?

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Your Difficulty Calculation is Incorrect

The XP numbers represent the lower end of each type, such that:

  • 0-299: Trivial (easier than easy)

  • 300-599: Easy

  • 600-899: Medium

  • 900-1599: Hard

  • 1600+ - Deadly

Your encounter was therefore hard, not deadly.

Difficulty Comes in Depth

Any single encounter, unless ridiculously deadly, will not challenge a party if they are allowed to have a long rest between every encounter. Difficulty comes when many encounters slowly whittle down the party's resources.

Further Reading

On the topic of creating and running challenging combat encounters, you may wish to read the following articles by the Angry GM (bad language warning):

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Encounters in D&D 5th edition are balanced around something called the adventuring day, which is explained towards the end of the encounter building section in the book. No single encounter should really be a threat to the party, but rather the series of 6-8 encounters between long rests should be. Even a single deadly encounter is easily overcome by the expenditure of a sufficient amount of the party's resources, such as spell slots, rages, etc. Thus, success in a single encounter should never be measured by killing all opponents without dying, but rather finishing the encounter with enough resources intact to face the rest of the encounters of the day.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, and if your group is like one of my groups (who are all about the combat), you'll want to adjust your encounters with this answer in mind. My set of players want to use every spell, every item, every everything, always. We have 2, maybe 3 encounters between long rests. If you want every encounter to have some semblance of "if we botch this we could die", as my party does, I'm finding that if you set up a "balanced" encounter (i.e. party of lvl 8 vs one fomorian CR 8), but then give the baddie some fodder allies (4 or 5 combat-competent slaves) it turns pretty formidable. \$\endgroup\$ – Euch Dec 27 '16 at 15:37
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This might be what your players want.

I've played in a number of games where we were having fun but the DM kept saying: "this seems like it's too easy for you" and cranking the difficulty up. Then the DM accidentally made the battle too difficult, and we lost and several of us were killed, so we ended the campaign there.

What most players want out of a combat is to spend three to five rounds showing off how awesome their character is. They don't need the sense of dread. It's possible your players feel differently but I recommend asking them directly.

If you feel like a battle was unsatisfyingly short, an easy way to scale it up is to have reinforcements arrive -- just copy one of the existing monsters and have a few more show up.

You described this battle as "a slog" and that's a worse problem. Combat turns into a slog when everybody stands still for several rounds because they're just grinding down each other's hit points. Consider using a larger number of monsters (with fewer hit points each), perhaps arriving over a series of rounds. This will lead to more interesting tactics as monsters show up and go down more frequently.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I find that adding large numbers of additional monsters creates more problems than it solves. It isn't unreasonably difficult to hit a lot of things in 5e and throwing a lot of supposedly 'disposable' minions, usually creates the problem of severely tilting the action economy away from the party, which improves the likelihood of killing a player accidentally. While player death can be a goal, it often creates a lot of needless disruption and it's not terribly satisfying if the death occurred at the hands of Orc #12. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Dec 27 '16 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, I've spoken with my group about what kind of games I enjoy playing and running, and they're on board with this campaign because they like the same things I do. This campaign is all about very lethal combat encounters, which we can get away with because something keeps dragging the players back to life, trapped in a pocket dimension. Think Dark Souls, but the price of each death is a slight bit more subtle. Larger numbers can be interesting, and your answer's definitely inspired a particular encounter in my head, so thank you! \$\endgroup\$ – Omnipotent Rodent Dec 28 '16 at 5:34

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