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I'm trying to improve the pacing of my encounter design. (I suspect that I've been making them too easy for my players, or that I haven't been paying close enough attention to how many resources they are consuming during an encounter.)

Assuming that an encounter of medium difficulty has "one or two scary moments for the players, but they should emerge victorious with no casualties" and "one or more of them might need to use healing resources" (which has been the case so far), how many such encounters should a party of 3 PCs, level 1 through 3, typically have before they are expected to take a long rest?

So far, my party has been having 3 to 4 such encounters, which might be too high. They are fighting low-level "mobs" (kobolds, goblins, an ooze or two, a mimic, a bunch of skeletons, and other such oddities one might find in a sewer system).

Note: These players are new to the game (my two cousins, 7 and 11 years old, and my mother). I'm trying to introduce them to the game. Don't know if that's relevant or not. I don't want to scare them away from the game, but I don't want them to become munchkins, either.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, since mom's a caster, I'd have to say a long rest. And yes, it's only the three. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 9 '17 at 10:26
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From DMG pg 84:

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

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I don't know how I didn't see that. I guess it might have something to do that it's not right there with the combat difficulty section. But that is exactly what I needed to know! \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 9 '17 at 10:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MikeHofer It's actually in the whole section about creating encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – Javelin Feb 9 '17 at 10:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Javelin, True, but the part he quoted was on page 84, "The Adventuring Day", where I was reading from page 82, where they break down the adventuring difficulties. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 9 '17 at 10:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bluntly, the DMG advice on encounters is a poor guide to how things will actually turn out. I have found it to be almost useless in balancing encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – Jack Aidley Feb 9 '17 at 12:39
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The DMG says six to eight, my experience is closer to 3

The problem is with hit points mostly. A 1st level party member has enough hit points to survive one or two hits from a goblin, but only one Hit Dice. However, the damage is not spread out evenly.

Calculation for 1st level

3 Goblins is a hard encounter on first level for a 4 member party. Depending on intiative they are expected to live three, two and one rounds*, respectively. That means 6 attacks, 2 hits, 11 HP (2x 1d6+2). The Wizard of the party would be unconcious after this, the Ranger not.
Whoever took the damage can spend his only Hit Die after a short rest, but it is gone now. The Cleric could heal him instead, but now a spell slot is spent, so it can not be used in the next fight.

You could send the character without the HD to the back where he is less likely to receive any more damage, but a Paladin is much less effective there. Just like the Sorcere in the front line.

Higher levels

Level 2
A hard encounter is 6 goblins, their expected damage output doubles, but the party HP does not.

Level 6 A two Flameskulls is only a medium encounter, but the Fireballs can take out the party Wizard even if he succeeds on one of the saving throws, and they usually include more than one character. No party can survive 7 more of these enocunters, most could not survive 3.

Level 11 A single Adult Green Dragon is a hard encounter, has a 60-foot cone breath weapon, for 56 damage. Even if the party wins, how many spell slots and hit points would they have left?

All the examples above assume no optional rules, a party with magic items, multiclassing and feats does a bit better.

Conclusion

I have played and DMed in many different groups since 5e came out. My experience is that character deaths usually happen after the third encounter. Hard encounters can't be won without burning up limited resources (HP, HD, spell slots, superiority die, etc) and there are just not enough of them for 6 encounters.


*I am generous here with the PCs, the DMG says a single creature is expected to live 3 rounds on average.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This actually tracks closer to my experience so far. If the party takes damage, the cleric has to spend spell slots to heal them; if she has no spell slots, they're up the proverbial creek, and have to rest. This happens far too often to allow for 6 to 8 encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 9 '17 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the balance model was either 4 or 5 characters in the party, but our experience was similar. The first two character levels are very swingy particularly when critical hits are involved. The number of hard encounters we could handle was increased when we hit third level and some of those crowd control spells (like web) became available. You might want to address how the party only having three members actually makes it more difficult and swingy. The tyranny of small numbers, each loss/unconscious hurts the party a lot more. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 9 '17 at 13:41
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It depends on the types of encounters you plan and what options you leave open. If all of your encounters are combat encounters then the 2 or 3 mentioned in other answers is quite possible. You use up hit points and spells up way quicker during these than during non-combat encounters.

You could pad your combat encounters with near-encounters (party can dodge or hide from the baddies, until at some point they're forced to fight them) that increase tension but won't actually use up too many hit points - unless they fail sneak/hide. Set up scenarios where they can persuade, deceive, or intimidate their way out of situations.

For instance: the party gets spotted just as they manage to lift a grate or door that could be barred. One outcome (perhaps hinted at during description) is that they rush through the opening with the fighters covering ,and then close and bar the door. Some arrows fly through the air, saving throws, but no combat to the death occurs. Narrow escapes can be fun.

Of course later on, you can still run into the bad guys but perhaps at this point they've split up so the really dangerous combat scenario becomes 2 milder ones.

If you allow room for this sort of thing to occur then you can increase the number of tense moments. If the party doesn't go for the non-violent solution or they fail some crucial actions then combat would ensue and they use up a lot more resources.

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