The “adventuring day” is one of the most widely ignored design features of fifth edition DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Described in chapter 3, “Creating Adventures”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it covers the implicit expectation that Dungeon Masters will present their players with six to eight medium to hard encounters over the course of a single in-game day (which may or may not fit into a single gaming session). While not all of these need to be fights (traps, hazards, and social encounters that involve expending resources also qualify), there is an expectation that adventures will include more than the single fight most tables orient the adventuring day around.
It’s often touted that there’s no ‘wrong way’ to play D&D, and if your players are enjoying this arrangement there’s no need to change things up. However, this tendency by DMs to build single-fight adventures fundamentally changes the game in ways that many people don’t realize, but very often complain about. Players dissatisfied with the performance of their characters write hit pieces about classes they perceive to be ‘too strong’, DMs beg the community for help in how to ‘deal with’ certain characters, and various other rants, laments, and essays are written and spread around the community every few weeks, all based on issues that arose because their table isn’t playing adventures designed the way that the game’s math is built and balanced.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways your game is improved when you follow these guidelines.
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WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Parties Don’t Focus Exclusively on Combat
When adventures are designed to focus around a single fight in the story’s climax, more often than not the table will develop a sudden and disproportionate favouritism toward abilities and equipment that are useful in those central encounters. Not only that, players often hoard their potions, spells, and other resources, deliberately trudging through minefields of toxic mould spores and swamps of liquid ebola rather than just teleporting or summoning some giant eagles to carry everyone safely to the next destination like the DM naïvely allowed themselves to assume would happen. Many fun spells, items, and even subclass choices go ignored by many tables because they lack combat value.
More tragic than a dearth of quirky archetypes and gag items, however, is a tendency for such parties to lose their focus on gameplay that isn’t based on character optimization. Flaws and bonds that may have once offered rewarding social value can become regarded as handicaps for players to vaguely describe at character creation and promptly ignore for the entirety of the campaign. By spreading battles out and emphasizing encounters across the breadth of the game’s three pillars, your party will have more incentive to embrace versatility in their archetypes, spells, and even the equipment they choose to seek out.
WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Encounters Are More Consistent
In adventures where there is only one major encounter, players naturally gravitate towards glass cannon characters who have lots of up-front damage and very little long-term survivability. Such characters typically have a good three to five rounds worth of tricks, and then they’re tapped—sometimes even for the day.
Normally, this would be a very risky gamble. If there are additional encounters that follow, the characters will be of limited use and might even become a handicap to their team. But when there’s only one fight in a day, there’s no downside to using every ability and spell right away. Berserker barbarians can frenzy knowing they’ll clear the exhaustion afterward, sorcerers can expend all their sorcery points twinning and empowering their most damaging spells, paladins can blow all their spell slots for their Divine Smite, and so on.
Adventures that adhere to the standard adventuring day strongly discourage characters from going nova. With multiple fights and challenges that necessitate the expenditure of resources, these adventures require characters to spread out use of their abilities. These encounters are far more consistent to run and play.
Martial–Mage Disparity is Reduced
The primary difference between martial and magical characters in D&D is that mages must carefully manage their spellcasting resources like spell points (or spell slots, if your table hasn’t woken up to how terrible of a mechanic those are), while most martial classes like fighters and rogues regain all their combat abilities after just a short rest. When the mages can blast off all their spells without having to ration them for subsequent fights, they become disproportionately powerful by comparison, often to the point where they utterly eclipse non-spellcasters.
To phrase this problem another way: so-called ‘god-like spellcasters’ are not a feature of the game, they’re a user problem.
Of course, as replies to my Reddit comments will clearly demonstrate, there are a great many people who disagree with this assessment. As such, I’ve put together an in-depth mathematical analysis to demonstrate my point. Below you can find an analysis of the four most common classes (fighter, cleric, rogue, and wizard) over the most commonly played level ranges (1–6) showing how spellcasters compare to average character performance when they are forced to manage their resources versus when they can let loose with everything all the time.
The following assumptions are made for the characters below:
Ability Scores. All of these characters use the standard array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) for their starting ability scores. Average hit points are used, rounding fractions down.
Equipment. No special equipment (including magic items) is assumed.
Number of Combats. The party is expected to face three medium or hard fights and two or three noncombat challenges (hazards or traps) during the adventuring day.
Number of Rounds. The average length of combat is three rounds.
Average Damage. The average damage per round (DPR) is calculated assuming monsters have AC 13 when the party is at levels 1–2, AC 14 for levels 3–4, and AC 15 for levels 5–6. The average DPR for spellcasters that target a monster’s saves instead of their AC is calculated assuming the target fails the spell’s saving throw 55% of the time. Area of effect spells hit two targets. Resistances and immunities are not accounted for, as not every creature has them.
Remember that attack rolls always have a chance to critically hit, so the average damage of a weapon is actually higher than the average of all the damage die’s faces. For example, most people count the average damage of a greatsword as 7 because it deals 2d6 damage, but this doesn’t account for the fact that 5% of the time the greatsword will deal 4d6 damage, raising the average damage to 7.35 (or 8.75 with Great Weapon Fighting), not counting the wielder’s Strength modifier. This extra damage also applies to all attack riders, like sneak attack, combat manoeuvres, and divine smite. (This, along with the fact that most spellcasters don’t add their ability modifier to cantrip damage rolls, is why cantrips will never, ever keep pace with at-will martial attacks, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
All characters have an expected DPR assuming reasonably optimized weapon and spell choices. Additionally, the spellcasters have an additional column (Single Fight DPR) for the damage they are capable of dealing if they face only one single encounter per day and can gleefully burn all their highest level spells during the fight.
KELDAR DUNWOOD (Variant Human Battlemaster Fighter)
Notes. Keldar has the Great Weapon Fighter fighting style. He improves his Strength by 2 at 4th level and Constitution by 2 at 6th level. He wields a greatsword and starts with chain mail armour, picking up plate armour at 4th level.
It’s assumed that Keldar is able to get into melee in the first turn of every fight. Starting at 2nd level, it’s assumed that he gets to use his Action Surge feature every fight. Starting at 3rd level, it’s assumed that he gets to use all of his combat manoeuvres every fight.
Because Keldar is supposed to represent all fighters, his starting feat is something relevant to most fighter builds, like Charger, Sentinel, or Mage Slayer. He’ll probably take Great Weapon Fighter at 8th level when his attack bonus gets high enough that he can afford the –5 to attack rolls.
DAIN GRIMSTEEL (Hill Dwarf War Cleric)
||Single Fight DPR
Notes. Dain wears chain mail and carries a shield. He increases his Wisdom by 2 at 4th level. Dain’s Attack Bonus refers to his spell attack.
Sacred flame is Dain’s go-to for damage, but he uses guiding bolt once per fight starting at 2nd level and every round starting at 5th level. Starting at 3rd level, he casts spiritual weapon at 2nd level at the beginning of every fight. If Dain has to heal any of his allies, his DPR would significantly drop. If only one fight happens in the day, Dain gets to use all of his spells in one battle, significantly increasing his average DPR.
When he gets the Guided Strike Channel Divinity option at 2nd level, Dain uses it to give Merric the rogue a guaranteed sneak attack once per fight (remember, it’s a team game, you’re supposed to support your allies).
If only one fight happens during the day, the impact of that feature is somewhat lost, but Dain’s single-fight DPR increases by 134%, as he doesn’t have to ration all his spells. If he can use all his spells every fight, he will be able to do the following at 5th level: (Round 1) spiritual guardians at 3rd level, (Round 2) spiritual weapon at 2nd level plus sacred flame (2d8), and (Round 3) guiding bolt at 3rd level.
MERRIC UNDERHILL (Lightfoot Halfling Thief Rogue)
Notes. Merric wears leather armour (upgraded to studded leather at 2nd level) and wields a rapier and a dagger. He increases his Dexterity and Constitution by 1 each at 4th level.
Merric’s damage assumes that he gets into melee combat in the first round and uses his bonus action to engage in two-weapon fighting each turn, doubling his chances of landing a hit and therefore dealing sneak attack damage. Starting at 2nd level, he is guaranteed his sneak attack damage on one round every fight because Dain uses Guiding Strike to grant him +10 to an attack.
CAELYNNA AMANODEL (High Elf Evoker Wizard)
||Single Fight DPR
Notes. Caelynna casts mage armour on herself at the start of each adventuring day. Fire bolt is her go-to for damage, but she uses burning hands once per fight starting at 2nd level and twice per fight starting at 3rd level. Starting at 5th level, she casts fireball at the beginning of every fight and burning hands on subsequent rounds.
At 4th level, Caelynna takes the Resilient feat, choosing Constitution to increase that score by 1 for some needed survivability and also to gain proficiency in Constitution saving throws to help maintain important concentration spells. She can’t cast spells if she’s dead, so boosting Intelligence will have to wait until level 8. Had she gone with the abjuration subclass to get the arcane ward, she might have been able to put off the Constitution increase until 8th level, but right now she needs the survivability.
If only one fight happens in the day, Caelynna gets to use all of her spells in one battle, significantly increasing her average DPR. At 3rd level, for instance, she would be dealing 14.2 damage per round by dropping two scorching ray spells and a burning hands after enemies get close, while at 6th level she would be dealing 43.4 average damage per round by dropping three fireballs.
As you can see, as soon as spellcasters aren’t limited by having to ration their spells, their damage output doubles, leaving martial characters—who are supposed to be the most reliable combatants able to carry the party through numerous engagements—as nothing more than glorified sacks of hit points, leading them to question their class choice and possibly even groan on social media about how the designers gave mages all the best toys. If you’ve overheard (or been confronted by) such claims from your players, you may want to reconsider how you’re designing your adventures.
WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Encounter Difficulty is Easier to Gauge
As stated above, D&D is designed and balanced for a certain number of encounters in a day. The encounter design guidelines in chapter 3, “Creating Adventures”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide include different difficulty categories like ‘easy’ and ‘hard’, which are designed around an assumption of how many challenges the party has or is yet to face before their next long rest. We can see this clearly when comparing the value of ‘medium’ encounters to the amount of XP in an adventuring day for characters of the party’s level.
ADVENTURING DAY XP PER CHARACTER
||Encounters per Day
Likewise, monsters are designed in certain ways based on the abilities of characters of that level, and when those expectations are exceeded it becomes difficult to properly gauge how to challenge the characters.
To understand how this works, we need to look at how average monsters compare with average adventurers.
Using the analysis above, we can figure out what the Average Adventurer™ looks like.
Now that we’ve worked out how a typical character is expected to perform, we can compare it to how average monsters perform. Chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide offers some benchmarks for calculating monster challenge rating using hit points, AC, and other metrics, but these guidelines are incredibly misleading. Experienced DMs know that most official monsters low-ball their hit points and stack damage to raise their final CR. There’s a reason for this, which becomes apparent when you examine the actual average abilities of creatures according to their challenge rating as is included below. (Note that for the sake of brevity, I’ve only examined the creatures from the Monster Manual. For averages beyond CR 5, check out this breakdown by Reddit user u/bradstah.)
|Challenge Rating (XP)||HP
|1/8 (25 XP)||8.6||12.4||+3.7||4.6|
|1/4 (50 XP)||15||11.8||+3.8||6.6|
|1/2 (100 XP)||20.2||12.5||+4||8.8|
|1 (200 XP)||30.92||14.13||+4.5||12.3|
|2 (450 XP)||47.3||14.13||+5.1||16|
|3 (700 XP)||57||15||+5||16|
|4 (1,100 XP)||77||15||+6||19|
|5 (1,800 XP)||95||16||+7||26|
1 Unlike the Average Adventurer table, this doesn’t account for hit chance, so adjust accordingly (e.g. an average CR 1/2 creature’s DPR vs. an AC 18 character is only 3.1 (8.8 × 35% hit chance), or 3.2 if the monster makes attack rolls with a chance to critically hit)
2 Nearly one in three monsters of this challenge rating have resistances and immunities that increase their effective hit points vs. 4th-level characters, and so this has received an ad hoc 10% increase
3 Nearly half the monsters of this challenge rating can fly, increasing their effective AC against characters of the expected level, and so this has received an ad hoc +1 adjustment
These enemies are hardly what one would expect after consulting the Creating a Monster section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It takes until CR 2 for the average hit points of enemy creatures to exceed what is recommended for a CR 1/8 creature! But this isn’t some strange design quirk, it’s deliberate.
Looking closely at the numbers, we can see that up until all characters have their subclasses at 3rd level, the enemies they’re meant to face (CR 1/8 creatures at 1st-level, CR 1/4 creatures at 2nd-level, CR 1/2 creatures at 3rd-level, and so on) only have an average number of hit points equal to 1.5–2x the characters’ average expected DPR. It then jumps to 2.5x their expected DPR for 4th and 5th levels (CR 1 and 2 creatures, who are often lieutenants of low-level bosses) before really taking off as we leave behind ‘stock’ enemies and start getting into specialized foes meant to be at the centre of entire adventures.
Additionally, during this time, a typical monster’s per-round damage is in the neighbourhood of 1/5th an average character’s hit points, increasing to 1/4 at 5th level.
That’s a pretty deliberate pattern, but also one that is easy to muck up. A 5th-level wizard who doesn’t have to ration his spells when a bunch of wererats ambush the party can probably take out multiple enemies on each turn. On the other hand, if the wizard has to be smart with their spells, it instead becomes a challenging encounter that forces players to strategize and take risks.
There’s Less Work for You
It’s easy to think that making one big encounter for a session is a lot less work than making multiple smaller encounters. It’s just one fight, after all—how hard can it be to design?
Many people are of the opinion that this is why Matthew Mercer (the DM of the massively successful liveplay show Critical Role, on the off-chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years and haven’t heard of him) often designs encounters based around single monsters. But while it is undeniably a very exciting and cinematic style of gameplay, it comes at a price that few people really understand.
Let’s look, for instance, at one of the most iconic encounters Matt Mercer has created for the show: the Battle of Emon.
I chose this encounter for two reasons. Firstly, it’s from campaign 1, before Critters lost their minds over the death of Mollymauk in campaign 2 and Matt became much less willing to put truly scary threats in front of the group. (There were 17 character deaths in campaign 1 and only six in campaign 2, two of which were in the last episode—it was a great campaign, but you could tell that Matt was playing with kid gloves.) Secondly, it was the second most complex encounter in the entire campaign after the climactic Battle of Thar Amphala, which I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen it.
The Battle of Emon really showed off why Matthew Mercer is so lauded as a Dungeon Master. In addition to running Thordak, the deadliest dragon in the world of Exandria, plus two wyverns, a fire giant, and two fire elementals, Matt also ran no fewer than 10 NPCs the party had enlisted for aid, including a whole other dragon, a high-level spellcaster, and a skyship captain. (Still no idea where Larkin went, though.) I’d have to double my Adderall to handle even half that many moving pieces, so big props to Matt for pulling this off.
We’d seen a number of dragon fights before Thordak, going all the way back to episode 19, when the party narrowly prevailed in a battle against an adult white dragon that Matt had run pretty much by the book aside from boosting its hit points from 200 to 630. The party was 11th level at the time. Now between 15th and 16th level and veteran dragon hunters, the adventurers were among the mightiest heroes in the world, and Matt needed to make sure that this fight was sufficiently challenging.
While the Battle of Emon wasn’t as by-the-skin-of-their-teeth as some of the other boss battles of campaign 1, Matt successfully accounted for powerful buffs such as heroes’ feast and potions of fire resistance, as well as several special weapons such as a dragonslayer longsword and an arrow of dragonslaying, building a two-phase battle with a secondary health pool and variable stats that went just long enough to allow everyone to do all the crazy stunts they wanted without dragging on into a war of attrition. By the end of the fight, Thordak had taken more than 1,400 damage.
A conservative estimate of Thordak’s challenge rating is at least 29, more likely 30 (assuming the Soul Anchor gave him 50 hp of regeneration a round and allowed him to use the extra attack during his multiattack as well as his special legendary action to summon two fire elementals), and so even with a large party (9 characters and allies plus Raishan… sorry, Jarrett, you just didn’t count for much), Thordak alone was worth more than twice the party’s deadly encounter threshold.
You can choose to follow Matt’s lead if you want, but consider for a moment the amount of work he had to put into designing this encounter. At this point, he’s clearly abandoned the regular encounter guidelines in favour of his own calculations of the party’s capabilities. He can justify the time spent planning this encounter because it’s his job. (Yes, the cast get paid for the show. They always have.) If you’re not wanting to spend more than 1–2 hours of prep before each session, you probably won’t be able to balance things as well as Matt does, possibly leading to disappointing results.
Putting it all Together
D&D is balanced around six to eight encounters a day, including three or four fights, with two short rests between long rests. When adventures are designed this way, it forces characters to spread out their game-changing abilities, making fights more consistent and ensuring all classes are able to contribute in meaningful ways. The vast majority of problems that arise in games—from inequality between class performances to difficulty balancing combats—are the result of DMs disregarding encounter building guidelines in favour of single, large encounters that are extremely difficult to pull off.
Even if you make adjustments to various classes, such as granting short-rest-based classes additional uses of their features (Action Surge, Ki points, Channel Divinity, warlock spells), you still run into problems of balancing encounters as the various difficulty thresholds lose all context and meaning. Medium encounters become trivial, and even deadly encounters fail to deliver significant challenge. Before you know it, you’re spending hours homebrewing different monsters each week just to make for exciting battles, wondering why DMing takes so much time and effort on your part and quite possibly getting burned out.
The encounter design rules are there to help you, not constrain you. Relying on them can make your job so much easier and allow your players to remain excited because their characters all contribute in important ways. It isn’t wrong to design your adventures around one great, big encounter, it just requires much, much more work and a much better understanding of the game’s underlying math than you’re expected to have. Do yourself a favour and use the tools available to you, and you’ll find your job that much easier.
Feature Image: Wizards of the Coast