Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. Our Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Kickstarter is now ended, and we successfully funded! For as long as the Kickstarter has been going on we’ve been tying the newsletter to the idea of encounters and the different aspects of them. This week we are talking about scaling encounters.
There are 3 outstanding ways to scale combat that any Dungeon Master or Game Master can use. My friend Guy from How to Be a Great Game Master does an amazing job of explaining how to use Pain, Problems, and Pressure to scale encounters up or down. Not only will Guy explain it better than I could, he’ll do it with a South African accent, instantly lending authority to any topic.
There are many ways to look at running encounters of one size category or another. Sometimes you just love the way a certain monster is perfect for the encounter you want to run. It could be that the players have never encountered one before. It could be because the tactics of the monster and the terrain the characters are in are ideal. It could be all of the above, or something else entirely. But whatever it is that makes the situations ideal the challenge of the monster is not right for the party.
The monster you want to use could be too weak. If the monster is too weak then you are either going to have to use more of them, beef them up or both. Every party has a delicate balance as to how much damage they can take and how much healing they can provide to mitigate that damage. Only the DM of that game knows what its players can handle: how much they can dish out and how much they can take. So take these next tips in carefully.
If you are going to beef up a monster or monsters you can do several things. You can of course boost the monsters hit points, but this is the least interesting thing. You can increase the amount of damage a monster dishes out. Adding a single die of damage can make a big change, especially if it has multiattack or crits. You can increase the DC of the monsters abilities if it has any. You can increase the stats of the monster so it is an elite version or lastly you can give it some new abilities. See the end of my section for a revved up zombie I just used in my home game recently.
If you have a monster that is too powerful but you still want to use it there are of course things you can do. Take all the ups I just mentioned and make them the opposite. Lessen the stats, hit points, DCs of abilities, damage dice or even take away certain abilities. But it is how you describe the encounter that is going to tell the players if this is something they can handle. A wyvern with its stinger cut off, or freshly cut off, is a significantly different level of a threat. So describe it as looking injured, weak or even trapped.
Necro burst Zombie
Medium undead, neutral evil
Armor Class 8
Hit Points 25 (3d8 + 12)
Speed 20 ft.
STR: 13 (+1)
DEX: 6 (-2)
CON: 18 (+4)
INT: 3 (-4)
WIS: 6 (-2)
CHA: 5 (-3)
Saving Throws WIS +0
Damage Immunities Poison, Necrotic
SensesDarkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 8
Languages Understands the languages of its creator but can’t speak
Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Necro Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.
Necro-Burst. When the zombie dies it bursts in an explosion of necrotic energy. Any creature within 5 feet of the zombie takes 7 (2d6) necrotic damage
When we hear the phrase “scaling encounters” more than likely the discussion to follow focuses on combat encounters in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The Dungeon Master’s Guide Chapter 3 includes a fairly robust system for creating a combat encounter. There’s math involved, and in my experience it quickly spins out of whack with multiple creatures of the same kind.
Fortunately, D&D Beyond’s Encounter Builder, currently in alpha, does all those calculations for you. Since the release of alpha, the DDB team has already made improvements and it’ll only continue to get better. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition will be integrated into D&D Beyond!]
There’s even a section in the DMG about modifying encounter difficulty, and another section about creating fun combat encounters. These last two sections really caught my attention while thinking about scaling encounters for D&D. First of all there’s no math to be seen under either heading. Second, it’s another moment of rediscovery in the DMG that 5E D&D has storytelling built into its bones. And lastly, although it’s nested under Creating a Combat Encounter, the Modifying Encounter Difficulty header is the same size, and from a layout perspective this tells me it’s not limited to combat.
What this means to me is, despite the common sentiment that D&D rules by and large cover combat scenarios, this could be a big misconception. Even the D&D design team has stated the game is about fighting monsters, finding treasure and exploring dangerous locations.
But all that is just set dressing for what D&D is really about — creating an unfolding, escalating story of overcoming challenges. And many of 5E’s rules, so often viewed as rules for combat, can and perhaps are intended to apply to social interactions and exploration.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at scaling encounters that aren’t combat encounters using the guidelines in the DMG.
“An encounter can be made easier or harder based on the choice of location and the situation.”
Certainly, a battle against a remorhaz is harder when ice and snow create difficult terrain, extreme temperatures and exhaustion from traveling a harsh climate weakens characters and the terrifying monster surprises the adventurers when it bursts from the ground in their midst. All of a sudden a Medium challenge for a party of 4 11th-level characters is Hard, or even Deadly.
Take the remorhaz out of the encounter and insert Signy, an outlander chieftain the party arranged a meeting with to negotiate peace with the settlement in the mountain foothills. Getting to the meeting spot involves difficult terrain, traversing the tundra that the outlanders travel without issue. By the time the party reaches the meeting spot, exhausted, they find Signy already there and ready to start the talks immediately. Thought it was going to be an Easy negotiation? Think again. The party is late because of slowed travel, and Signy is impatient. On top of that, ability checks like Persuasion are made with disadvantage. Exhaustion makes for a poor negotiator!
This is just one quick example of how D&D “combat” guidelines can be guidelines for any pillar of play and give you new ideas for creating and scaling encounters that involve social interaction and exploration.
Scaling encounters by considering things like moral quandaries, character objectives and twists helps you create the kinds of encounters you and players will remember for years to come. Even the same sort of challenge calculations could be used. If Signy is alone, it could be easier to come to terms than if she is surrounded by her people.
Given enough complications, a simple fetch quest could become a Deadly exploration encounter. Just move the item from a basement infested with giant rats to an unstable hunk of rock in the middle of a lake of lava. Congratulations! You’re a scaling encounters master.
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