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In a weekly campaign I've been running my players have recently reached levels where they are obtaining some of their core abilities. One of my players is a druid, who has chosen the wild shape-focused Circle of the Moon. Now that he can transform into a brown bear as a bonus action his character has made me notice a flaw in my session design: my characters seem to never be at a loss for abilities, spells, and the like. Encounters - combat encounters especially - are always too easy for them.

I should point out that this is my fault, not theirs - if anything they are taking fewer rests than what would probably be considered normal. I find fitting in the recommended number of combat encounters to be immersion breaking. Tossing so many random combat encounters at a group who is making a day trip to kill an ogre harassing a nearby farming village feels very manufactured. The timescale also feels a bit prohibitive - running into so many hostile groups in a single adventuring day seems odd.

The focus of my campaign is the story, not combat. Combat-heavy segments are definitely within scope, likely solving the problems I've mentioned, but they will not always be appropriate. I am specifically interested in solutions for when combat-heavy play is not a good option.

How can I stress my players' resources while making the stressors feel natural without simply adding more combat encounters?

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The DMG (p. 267) specifically gives you options for changing the frequency of rests.

If the pace in your campaign is such that a nominal days worth of encounters should take 3 days or a week or a month, then change the rests so that you can take a short rest once a day/every 2 days/once a week and a long rest every 3 days/once a week/once a month.

You can also change the pacing within a campaign - this is the dungeon rest cycle, this is the wilderness rest cycle etc.

Make the mechanics fit your pace

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A similar suggestion I've seen is not to just change the "allowed frequency" (a very game-centric approach), but redefine the meaning of short and long rests, such that a night's sleep is a short rest and a day/3days/week of restful activity is a long rest. \$\endgroup\$ – Reinstate Monica Feb 28 '17 at 9:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now this is interesting... I'll have to do a test run to make sure it doesn't break anything unintentionally, but this could solve my timescale problem - handily, at that. Obvious in retrospect, haha. \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 28 '17 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer!!! And if the DMG already gives this option, it is not even too much house-ruling. The standard rules are probably with dungeons full of enemies in mind, where you have several encounters a day. A more story driven campaign should use this rule to make the pace feel natural, while retaining the interesting game mechanics, that spells take "a while" to recharge. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Feb 28 '17 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any chance you can pinpoint this in the DMG (or SRD if it's included)? I'll definitely be giving it a look when I'm off work! \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 28 '17 at 16:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel this answer gives the broadest, most thorough treatment to the problems I mentioned. Thanks Dale! \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Mar 5 '17 at 18:07
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Obstacles.

I had an encounter light night that forced my players to utilize spells to their advantage. Here's what I ran in order to get them to expend spells in search of an answer.

A pool that caused 2d6 burning damage per round you were in it. Player's using ice based spells, or choosing to unleash a fireball and evaporate the water, could eliminate most of the problem to reach the key at the bottom. The pool was 50 feet deep, and the current slowed swimming speed down to 5 feet per round. A fireball detonated in the middle would evaporate a full 40 feet of water, leaving just 10 feet at the bottom that needed to be dealt with. Ice spells would also reduce the temperature in 10 foot segments.

A boulder too heavy to move by hand and dense as iron blocking the path forward. This was specifically to allow one of the wizards who took Shatter a chance to shine. He got a little too Shatter happy later and it took them 4 full days to tunnel out after he triggered a cave in. Sometimes, you shouldn't shatter support pillars.

A mechanical lever that requires electrical power to get turning. This is basically a setup for a wizard who has lightning bolt.

A key made of wood locked inside a resin too hard to smash. This is meant for a magic user who has acid in their repertoire.

I think you're getting the idea. Basically, pay attention to what spells your party takes, and gear some stuff towards being an obstacle that will specifically require them to use their spells to bypass. This takes some careful planning, but you'll find D&D players are tenacious, and inventive. They'll come up with all kinds of scenarios that will work if you give them half a chance.

Edit: So, Samthere pointed out that this can feel railroady. I tend to agree. Recently I came upon a wonderful suggestion that has me creating really weird puzzles for my guys. Basically, you design a puzzle without thinking of the solution. You just apply things randomly, like, "Ok, three boulders crossing this side, two statues facing West, a diverted stream running against gravity on the ceiling, and a single rose sprouting from a glowing rock in the middle of the room." Then you let the players bash their way through it however confidently they think an idea will work. Sometimes, you reject 2 or 3 ideas, letting the frustration grow until one of them goes, "I got it!"

A caution to this. Have a backup plan prepared in case they literally don't think of anything. The backup plan should include a magic based ambush or trap that teleports a player character somewhere away from the group who has to solve a rather simple puzzle to unlock a hidden exit rune in the room.

Or something like that. ;)

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    \$\begingroup\$ "He got a little too Shatter happy later and it took them 4 full days to tunnel out" Hah! \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 27 '17 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Shufflepants Feb 27 '17 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ While this can work, it can also feel a bit like railroading. If your party experiences a sequence of obstacles, with each one tailored to a specific ability they have, what chance do they have to innovate or express themselves? Some players will really enjoy this chance to shine, but other groups may feel less immersed. \$\endgroup\$ – Samthere Feb 28 '17 at 10:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Gear some stuff towards them. Certainly not all. The entire last paragraph addresses this particular point. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Feb 28 '17 at 12:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LinoFrankCiaralli I'm a big fan of that sort of approach! Well, you're probably going to think of at least a few feasible solutions as you make it, but you're not offering them up. Sometimes players will take a direction you didn't imagine and breeze through it, sometimes they'll bash against it and just start trying things! I designed an encounter somewhat like that recently; instead of just giving the enemies good abilities, they had a setup based on protecting each other in limited ways. My players managed to find a linchpin I didn't know about and get straight through! \$\endgroup\$ – Samthere yesterday
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If your campaign is low on discrete combat encounters then there will be little you can do to force characters to ration resources between short/long rests.

But you can extend encounters by having creatures try to flee, or one fight rolls into another one. This can make combat last longer than some spells/abilities (like Barbarian Rage), forcing characters to have to spend more resources, or choose to do without. But Wild Shape is a tough one since it lasts quite a long time (1/2 level in hours) so unless you can force the druid to shift back into normal form it will last longer than any single encounter.

Another option is to trick characters into thinking there is going to be combat, so they engage all their pre-combat abilities, but then nothing happens (combat related, anyway). But this is a low trick and would only be acceptable one or twice, IMHO.

Another possibility is to ambush characters, so that they would have to spend their action activating an ability (unless the druid has combat wild shape) or doing something else. This drives characters towards the economy of actions and they have to prioritize. Again, this would be an exception to normal encounters.

In general however, it is difficult to drain resources in 5e unless you also limit short/long rests. Allowing characters to rest while in a dungeon will definitely skew the difficulty curve in favor of the characters since they can refresh many abilities and HP. So you will need to apply pressure on the parties ability to get rest, rather than upping the encounter frequency hoping the party uses expendable resources.

But it seems like you feel the druid wild shape ability is overpowered, or at least is that characters "go to" option. Given the number of times (2) and the length (hours) it can be used, it is clearly a core competency of the druid, so I wouldn't try to deny the player access to it. Instead focus on what it prevents the character from doing. Open a door? Probably not. Give another character a potion? Nope. No spell casting. No item use. No ability to converse (outside of magic). So have the player play that way. He can't engage the other players outside of animalistic grunts and gestures. Design encounters that would appeal to the druids abilities other than shape change.

Why is combat too easy? Is the party just that well coordinated? Are enemies not using their special abilities, instead just standing around to be damage sponges for the players? Can the players choose all of the encounters, are they never ambushed or trapped? Keeping the players guessing, so they never know if that one goblin is actually super tough, just the bait for a trap, or maybe really is lost by himself is key to resource management.

Uncertainty in combat usually drives players to conserve resources instead of going nova on everything right off the bat. Forcing hard decisions about resting is key as well. Doesn't have to be "rest and get attacked", it can be "rest and that goblin band slips away", or "rest and the monsters have time to move part of their treasure horde" or "rest and another villager gets eaten". Let the party make the decision, you just lay out the choices and the consequences.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. I agree with everything you say about making the players uncertain. I think that a irregular sprinkling of encounters that look like combat, but ultimately are not, is a good thing. I have been playing a campaign recently where every situation is solved through combat, and every combat is predictable. I can metagame when to cast my buffs. It is getting tiresome. If you work uncertainty about combat into the story, it is a plot element, not a "low trick." \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Feb 27 '17 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarcusYoder. true, but usually the "start combat" signal is calling for initiative. So once players do that, it may be hard to convince them to NOT attack something :) If you start calling to roll initiative whenever they walk into a store, see a guy come into their campsite on 2nd watch etc, then the tactic may wear thin. If players reflexively kill everything then I find that A) that is just what they want to do and more importantly B) combat rewards players more than non-combat. The DM can fix the latter. If players defuse a situation non-violently, reward them for it! \$\endgroup\$ – Jason K Feb 27 '17 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, but if I am metagaming when to cast buffs, it only helps to do it if we aren't already in initiative order. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Feb 28 '17 at 20:14

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