Tabletop for Two: Episode Eleven
How do you scale an encounter in one-on-one D&D?
This is one of our most asked questions and something that sounds intimidating at first. Dungeons and Dragons is designed for a party of four, so it must be complicated to scale combat encounters for one player, right? Not necessarily!
Watch the Episode
Below, you’ll find our show notes and the topics we cover during our discussion.
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Mechanics & Principles for Encounter Scale
Our discussion of how to scale an encounter in one-on-one D&D starts with general principles for running duet encounters. We then get into some specific encounter building with examples from our Land of Vampires campaign!
- What is it, and why is it so important?
- Varies based on party, esp. with spellcasters
Action economy is the number of actions each side of a conflict get to take in a round of combat. This is really important in duet D&D because of the small party size, but there are some other tactics you can have up your storytelling sleeves to make scaling easier!
Spells like conjure animals skew action economy in the caster’s favor. Let’s say you’re a druid who’s just summoned two dire wolves to your side. (Awesome!) Now, instead of one action on your side, you have three.
Another area where this comes into play is when you’re facing a creature with lair actions, legendary actions, etc.
When you’re scaling an encounter in one-on-one D&D, action economy is often an even more important consideration than the CR balance of an encounter. That doesn’t mean to ignore CR entirely, but two relatively powerful PCs (a PC and a GMPC/sidekick) will still struggle when they’re vastly outnumbered, even against lower-level creatures, because of the skewed action economy.
Number & Variety of Opponents (Waves of Combatants)
- Building off of action economy, bringing in waves of combatants is the way to go!
So let’s say you want the party to face a band of gnolls. We actually just did this recently in our home duet game! Instead of having ten gnolls attack my PC and her adventuring companion all at once, a sound in the woods pulled my PC away from her camp, and she encountered four gnolls.
Then—oh no!—after she had taken care of those four, she heard yelping back at her camp and returned to find the other half of the band. She and her companion finished off the remaining six gnolls. The second part of the combat was more difficult because the party was more outnumbered (and wanted to protect their belongings), but the two waves of combatants kept the encounters more balanced and more fun!
We recommend using waves of combat for legendary creatures as well. On the party’s first encounter with, say, a high-level dragon, perhaps the dragon doesn’t have any of her extra-special abilities, or she has her legendary actions but no lair actions. Then, when the party pursues her into her lair, she has lair actions but, weakened by the first round of combat, she doesn’t have her legendary actions.
Digging Deeper on Challenge Rating
- Just like fighting a level 8 wizard is going to be very different from a paladin, fighter, or barbarian of the same level, there’s a lot of variety when it comes to CR. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Lair actions, environment
- Hp, average damage, area of effect
- Monster tactics
- Creature range and preferred mode of fighting (remember, it wants to survive!)
We love Keith Ammann’s work with The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. His tactical approach to reading a stat block and using it to understand how and why a creature would fight in a particular way is incredibly helpful.
Bonus: Magic items, lair actions, and hazards
- Strategies for helping your PC, especially enabling flexibility
Our number one piece of advice for setting up your PC mechanically for success is to make sure they have flexibility. Can they fight at range and up close, or can they at least get away or pull someone nearer, depending on what they need?
- The DM is on the player’s side! Fun wins out.
Let us know how you scale encounters in the comments below!
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