With the release of the new Unearthed Arcana encounter-building guidelines, there has been a lot of discussion about encounter design in fifth edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.
The new rules, which were presented in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, are by far much simpler to use than those presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Designed to yield encounters consistently of medium to hard challenge following the XP Threshold by Character Level table in chapter 3, “Creating Adventures”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, they make easy pairings for characters to monsters, allowing for mixing and matching with ease and without having to perform multiple mathematical calculations to check adjusted totals against given ranges.
And yet, while they offer many helpful tips about monster selection and tailoring encounters to character strengths and weaknesses, there are a number of important points which Dungeon Masters should strive to keep in mind when designing encounters. We have outlined three below.
The Adventuring Day Typically Has Multiple Encounters
Combat rarely lasts more than five rounds, and most battles are typically resolved within three. This means that, by 3rd level, a full spellcaster might not be able to even expend all of their spell slots in a single fight, and as the party continues to get stronger they will have access to even more resources that can easily turn the tide of a battle.
Challenging a party that has progressed beyond tier 1 is typically a game of resource management instead of encounter size. AC and hit points become much less important considerations, replaced with spell slots, Hit Dice, and expendable goods like potions and scrolls. These resources are designed to provide a party with the ability to handle multiple encounters in a day—about six to eight medium or hard encounters, in fact. This means that to effectively challenge a party, the DM needs to throw several encounters at them between rests.
Bear in mind that not all encounters need to be fights; they can be anything that forces the party to expend resources. Traps are a popular alternative to combat, as they often deal damage and can be exciting, but having to use magic to bypass obstacles or taking damage from hazards are just as effective.
Creature Stats Are Just Numbers, You Can Change The Flavour
Say that one of your players decides to cast conjure celestial out of the blue. The spell summons a celestial of challenge rating 4 or lower. This could possibly be the first time that the spell has been used in the campaign, and you have no idea what it will summon.
At this point, you have a choice: you can either flip through the Monster Manual and get frustrated as you pass through the angel section and a dozen other monsters until you come to the couatl (or give up and look up your options on the Internet), or you can find any creature that has the right challenge rating—an elephant, perhaps—and swap the creature type to celestial.
The same thing applies when building an encounter. In a region touched by the Shadowfell, you might create an encounter with several swarms of bats led by a shadow-infused bat king which uses the stats of a darkmantle. In the lair of a necromancer, the party might encounter advanced types of undead, such as a guard who uses the stats of a gladiator or a hezrou. The Feywild is chock full of elves who, like their eladrin cousins, have the fey type instead of the humanoid type, and whose stats are otherwise identical to any of the NPCs in appendix B of the Monster Manual.
There’s nothing wrong with creating new monsters to suit your needs, but saving time in this area can let you spend more time making interesting complications to encounters.
The Best Encounters Are More Than Slogfests
How many times have you designed an encounter that can be summarized simply as ‘a race to reduce the other side to 0 hit points’? In a large, empty room; in a wide, open field; in a long, plain corridor—encounters in a completely static, featureless environment generally lack that extra, dynamic element which makes them really exciting.
There are many ways to weave meaningful objectives into an encounter. Interrupting a ritual to summon a demon prince, wresting control of an artifact from the enemy, protecting a portal to the heavens from an army of evil—all of these add a larger purpose to a battle while also raising the stakes, since the party can’t retreat.
Putting It All Together
Creating encounters in D&D is often more art than science. Building and populating encounter locations creatively can make for memorable adventures. Reflavoured creatures, multiple challenges in sequence, and additional objectives and stakes are three tools at every DM’s disposal that can keep a party on its toes. Try them out with your next adventure and see your game improve.
Have your own suggestions on building better encounters? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!