When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, I played in a group with three other friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but our adventuring group of three players and one Dungeon Master is considered to be on the smaller side. We were playing in a homebrew setting and our experienced DM did a great job providing us with appropriately challenging scenarios that tested our characters, but didn’t overwhelm us.
When I started cutting my teeth at running games, however, I had such a difficult time providing Beth’s character a reasonable challenge without accidentally foisting a no-win scenario upon her. It should have worked out, I thought. I mean, I had skimmed the Challenge Rating (CR) guidelines in the Monster Manual.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that building a balanced encounter and managing its difficulty is far more art than science. Most DMs naturally get better at scaling encounters as they gain experience. That being said, there are a number of tools that you can put in your pocket for those inevitable scenarios when your party is blowing through your foes, or falling unconscious at the very sight of a drawn blade.
Many of the other ideas presented below actually rely on one unifying concept. The Action Economy is how many Actions are available to one group or character, usually compared to an opposing group or character. An uneven Action Economy can dramatically tilt the odds towards the group or character that has more.
One of the very first big DMing mistakes I learned from (and that we still joke and write about) was throwing our two heroes into a basement against 8 Giant Rats. We were running the excellent “A Most Potent Brew” adventure from Winghorn Press which (like most adventures) is scaled or balanced or optimized or whatever for 4-6 players in an adventuring party.
I had given the two heroes some magical items and figured, hey they’ll probably be able to breeze through these dumb rodents. This was before I understood Action Economy. Even though the two character were more powerful than what the adventure called for, they still were only able to take two Actions for every EIGHT of their opponents’. When they missed an Attack, it was a huge deal. When the rats missed, they had seven more chances to land a blow. That’s what happened. They rained down an unrelenting storm of rat nibbles on our poor characters.
And it took forever. And it was not fun.
Fortunately, Beth gave me another chance, and I learned something about balancing encounters by considering the Action Economy. Essentially, if you want to scale up the difficulty, tilt the Action Economy away from the players. And if you want to make something easier, tilt it back towards them. Action Economy typically considers only Actions, but access to Bonus Actions and Reactions also come into play.
Number and Variety of Opponents
Once you have a good grasp on Action Economy, it is easy to see how adjusting the number of opponents your party is facing would have a dramatic effect on the difficulty. More enemies means they have the ability to take more Actions.
As we saw in the case of the Giant Rats versus the Magically-Enhanced Characters, a large number of even low level enemies can overcome superior forces by sheer volume. However, you are simply dialing up how many Bandits initiate an ambush, but they are all still just swinging the same sword attack, your combats will become stale. Additionally, there is a hard limit on how many melee combatants can possibly engage your player’s characters. When you start adding in enemy variety, those limits disappear.
The best DMs consider their party’s composition and make sure that everyone has a role. For high damage output classes like the paladin, give them something big and ugly to wail on. Give your Monk things to punch up close. Even better if you can shoot at her with some arrows as well!
When you need to dial up the difficulty on an encounter, adding in enemy combatants is a quick and easy way to accomplish the task. Providing your group with a variety of threats, both at range and face-to-face so that they have more problems to solve and have to move around more will make an encounter more difficult. Thinning opposing forces droops the difficulty.
A Challenge Rating, or CR, is the score a particular creature receives after taking into consideration a number of variables including hit die, special abilities, spell casting, and sundry others. There are extensive write ups in published materials such as the Dungeon Master’s Guide and on other blogs about how CR works and how its calculated. There are even more arguing the degree to which CR is helpful.
I think the best way to understand Challenge Rating for our purposes in a discussion about methods of scaling is to know that a monster with a higher CR is going to give your players more difficulty. If you need to raise the difficulty for your players, pick another creature from the same family or thematic environment that has a higher CR.
Important note: In spite of the formula for finding CR, it feels a bit subjective. Some creatures tend to travel in groups, or tend to be solo, and this affects the Action Economy and it seems too the CR. The Venerable Keith Amman discusses that in his post about the Rakshasa.
Magic Items, Lair Actions, and Hazards
Another way that you can mix things up for your players and keep them on the edge of their seat is to remember that the bad guys can wield different weapons and armor just like the players. They also share your player’s lust for magical items. Nothing throws your players for a loop like presenting them with a mundane encounter like “the Skeletons advance like skeletal beings down the scary hall” like deciding that one of them is wielding a Mace of Terror.
Much like mentioning the variety of opponents above, equipping your bad guys with certain magic items can ratchet up the difficulty for your players while adding a fun element of surprise as they scramble to figure out what’s happening.
If your players have cornered a big, but lonely, terrifying monster, consider giving that creature access to Lair Actions. These Actions tip the Action Economy back towards balance. They also add the extra drama of depriving the player characters of ways to stop them outside of taking down the bad beasty.
Even if a monster is not alone in its lair, adding hazards into the combat arena is an awesome way to ratchet up the difficulty for your players. If they are taking a chance every time they try to move, it ups the stakes… and stakes are good!
The goal of this post is to give DMs, old and new alike, a reminder of the awesome tools that they have at their fingertips for scaling an encounter. You can use these tools before your players show up, yes, but many of these are something that you can toss in (or out) as the encounter is unfolding. If you realize that EIGHT Giant Rats is too many, have one of the player’s missed sword attacks hit a support pillar, causing the roof to collapse on three of them.
We are planning some future posts that will look more into the nitty-gritty of how we recommend scaling encounters for one-on-one play. How do you scale encounters for your players?
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