5E D&D encounter system

5E D&D Alternative Encounter System

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Encounters are a central part of Dungeons & Dragons. Whether they take the form of a pit trap, goblin horde or debate between nobles, they are an opportunity to test your players and let them show off all the cool things their characters can do. However, there is a major issue with fifth edition D&D encounter philosophy, namely the number of encounters the game expects a party to run into between long rests — 6-8 — versus the real-world time and effort it takes to plan and run said encounters. The result of this is either a complete absence of minor encounters or a series of uninteresting minor encounters the party slogs through using minimal resources so they can dump those saved resources on whatever unfortunate boss crosses their path. I’m not the first to recognize this issue, folks like Matthew Colville and Nerdarchy’s own Out of the Box Encounters do a great job coming up with ways to make a campaign’s encounters more interesting. However, I’d like to approach this issue from a different direction with an idea for an alternative encounter system.

5E D&D encounter system
Encounters in 5E D&D create drama, tension, action and excitement. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

The system

Instead of attempting to make every 5E D&D encounter more interesting, something that can still be difficult regardless of support material, I’ve created a system for abstracting encounters. This system serves several important functions: preserves the encounter’s purpose as a resource drain on the party, allows the players to make interesting decisions and get use out of normally under-used abilities and items, and massively reduces the time each encounter takes. To make use of this system, each encounter is broken down into four steps:

Step 1: Select encounter difficulty

The Dungeon Master selects a difficulty for the encounter, which determines the base number of damage dice each character will suffer from the encounter. Below are the values I used for my party of level 3rd-8th characters. Once they hit 9th level I increased all the values by 2d6 to make sure encounters didn’t get too easy.

Encounter Difficulty Base Encounter Damage
 

Easy

 

4d6

 

Medium

 

6d6

 

Hard

 

8d6

 

Deadly

 

10d6

 

Step 2: Decide the defensive attributes for the encounter

Next the DM selects the defensive attributes for the encounter. This could be AC, Dexterity saving throws or any other appropriate statistic. A secondary stat can also be added if the encounter makes use of it. A good rule of thumb for selecting the primary stat is took look at how an encounter would damage the characters, while the secondary can be selected from an additional saving throw or skill that would normally be helpful. If the enemy mostly attacks with physical weapons, you’d probably pick AC as the primary stat, and if those weapons were poisoned, you could pick Contitution saves as the secondary stat.

For each of these the DM chooses a baseline value. During this step no active abilities can be used to boost defense stats; use of those abilities takes place in the next step. Characters who meet the primary defensive value reduce their damage by 2d6, and an extra 1d6 for every two points they exceed it. Characters who meet the secondary defensive value reduce their damage by 1d6, and an extra 1d6 for every four points they exceed it.

Step 3: Determine the amount of resources each character will spend

With the encounter set it’s time for the players to enter the picture. They will be spending a currency called “resource points” (RP) These points are an abstraction of how a character’s abilities would assist them in an encounter. As characters expend their abilities, they gain RP to spend on the encounter. It takes 5 RP to reduce an encounter’s damage by 1d6. This can be done any number of times provided they have the points required. A player can, free of cost, take other character’s damage dice upon their own character, receiving the damage rolled instead.

Long and short rest abilities

For this system I sorted any character abilities with a recharge time into long and short rest groups. Given their faster recharge, short rest abilities are worth 5 RP, or 1d6 damage reduction. On the other hand, long rest abilities are worth 10 RP, or 2d6. For abilities with multiple uses per rest, each use is spent individually. For example, a 3rd level Battle Master fighter has 4 superiority dice, all of them recharging on a short rest. During an encounter the fighter could spend 1 superiority die to reduce their damage taken by 1d6, or up to 4 to reduce the damage by 4d6. In my game I have put very little restrictions on which abilities characters can spend in a given encounter, even if they would normally have a tenuous relation to what is happening in the story. This is mostly to keep the system simple and make sure every character has abilities to spend.

Passive abilities

When it comes to passive abilities, I decided to treat them like short rest abilities I mentioned earlier. Each applicable passive allows the character to reduce an encounter’s damage by 1d6. Unlike activated abilities I am a bit stricter on when a passive ability can be used. For example, a ranger’s Natural Explorer ability wouldn’t be applicable during a fight with goblins, whereas the Champion fighter’s Improved Critical wouldn’t be applicable while traversing hostile terrain. The reason for this increased strictness is simply that passive abilities cost the character nothing, so I’m not reducing the player’s agency by disallowing them in some situations.

Spells

For spells, I decided using a slot reduces the encounter damage by a number d6 equal to that slot’s level. I specifically avoided breaking down dice reduction based on a spell’s effect, as the whole point of this system is to keep things fast and simple and the breadth of spell effects would could result in a lot of time spent debating the relevance of a given spell to the encounter. In my experience this genericizing of spell slots allowed my players to quickly make their decisions and gave them something to do with their lower level slots even in high level encounters.

Items

In my eyes items are the trickiest inclusion within this system, especially non-attunement consumables. Some items are handled easily enough, depending on their effect simply slot them into one of the ability types listed above. For example, using a staff of frost to cast cone of cold would count as a 5th level spell slot, reducing the encounter’s damage by 5d6, whereas using Oathbow’s Sworn Enemy would count as a long rest ability and reduce an encounter’s damage by 2d6.

However, there are many items that don’t neatly fall into one of these groups, such staff of striking’s smite-like ability. There’s also a possible issue with the party using mass amounts of cheap consumable items like 1st level spell scrolls to render even high-level encounters harmless. The easiest way to solve this is to talk with your players and come to an understanding where they don’t abuse the system. However, this is not always possible, so restrictions such as a limit on or complete ban on non-attunement or consumable items in encounters is a simple enough ruling. As for items like staff of striking, my advice would be to tinker with the number of charges spent to reduce an encounter’s damage until you find a value you and your players are happy with.

To summarize this information, here are a couple of tables you can quickly reference to remind yourself how each ability type will be used in this system.

 

Ability Type

 

RP Generated

Primary Defensive Stat >= Baseline Value 10 + 5 for every 2 points above the baseline
Secondary Defensive Stat >= Baseline Value 5 + 5 for every 4 points above the baseline
Long Rest Ability or Item  

10

Short Rest Ability or Item  

5

 

Passive Ability

 

5

 

Spell Slot

 

5 x Slot Level

 

Action

 

RP Cost

Reduce Encounter Damage by 1d6  

5

Receive Another Character’s Damage Dice  

0

 

Step 4: Roll damage

The final step is to roll however many damage dice each character is receiving. This damage cannot be reduced or prevented in any way, as those reductions would have taken place in step 3.

Example encounter

With the description out of the way, let’s look at what an actual encounter looks like using this system. As the DM I want my party of 3rd level characters to fight a pack of dire wolves. Given their level I decide this is a hard encounter, meaning each player receives a base damage amount of 8d6.

Next I decide which stats are the most important in avoiding damage. Looking at the dire wolf stat block, the two values that matter most are AC followed by Strength saving throw. Given the average attack role a dire wolf makes is 15.5, I round it up and set the primary defensive stat at AC 16. For the secondary defensive stat I do the same thing with Strength saves, setting the value to a +4.

With those values set the rest is up to the players. They spend abilities and let me know how many dice of damage they end up taking. The Champion fighter with AC 18 and +5 Strength saving throw already reduces their damage taken by 4d6. Add in the classes’ passive bonuses such as Improved Critical and it’s possible the fighter winds up taking no damage while expending minimal resources. However, the wizard with AC 14 and -1 Strength saving throw must contend with the full 8d6, meaning they either expend some of their spell slots or rely on their party to absorb the damage meant for them. Once these decisions are made I wrap up the encounter by rolling damage for each character, and the game moves on.

Pros

In my eyes this system has two great strengths. The first is its time saving abilities. In a four hour session I can throw as many encounters as I’d like at my players without them taking all our game time. I can add encounters easily if the players do something to warrant it, and creating encounters on the fly is extremely easy, as I only need to come up with up to three values and some narration to accompany it.

The second major advantage to this system is its flexibility. In my own game I’ve primarily used it to simulate combat, but it has also worked for things like enduring hostile weather while climbing a mountain or solving trap puzzles in a magical vault. This system also gives me an easy way to let normally underused stats or abilities shine. Climbing that mountain could use Survival as its primary stat, while solving the puzzle could use Investigation.

This system also allows characters to gain value from items or abilities that never see use in 5E D&D’s normal encounter systems, as they are almost always sub-optimal uses of a character’s actions. For example, my party found a trove of low-level spells scrolls like magic missile and acid arrow. Normally these items would be of little use to a 9th level party, but within this encounter system these scrolls could be used to absorb several encounters worth of damage the party’s sorcerer would have otherwise taken.

Cons

The biggest issue with this system, as with many homebrew rules, is the initial investment of time and energy needed to learn it. Even veteran players will have zero experience with this type of mechanic, meaning the first few times it’s used it will mostly likely feel a bit clunky as players try to remember how each of their abilities and items fit into the system. Another issue is because it’s not official content, nothing Wizards of the Coast produces is balanced with this system in mind, meaning the DM will have to make some on-the-fly rulings as situations arise. However, the system’s flexibility does mitigate that, and even with some time taken for DM deliberation, encounters still take a small fraction doing them traditionally would.

Conclusion

I love encounters in 5E D&D, especially ones involving combat. They let me put the hours I spent tweaking my character to the test and see if it performs. A well designed combat can make a session a blast in the moment and a great story down the line. This system is intended to accompany those well designed encounters, freeing the DM from having to make the fight with 10 goblins interesting so they can focus making their bugbear leader even more exciting. I’ve implemented it in my own game and the response from players novice and experienced alike has been very positive, I hope it proves equally useful for anyone reading this that decides to try it in their own game.

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Follow Ari Ashkenazi:

I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was 12, beginning with second edition Dungeons & Dragons. For me D&D represents not just a tool for engaging storytelling, but a playground for mechanical puzzle solving and build optimization. With far more ideas than time to play them, I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring my thoughts on the game to the Nerdarchy community.

If you like what I’ve written here, you can find more of my work on mythcreants.com, an online magazine with articles, podcasts, and Q&As for writers of speculative fiction. As their resident D&D goblin, you can find more of my thoughts on the game, as well as any other work I’ve written or spoken about.

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