I love 5e, and I don’t think I can state it enough, it has the right blend of balance and character, as well as a system that is reminiscent of the RPG’s I played when I was a kid.
However, as in all things, there are rough patches. 5e has a number of improvements over its 3.5 and 4.0 predecessors, but I have found, in a simple three adventures, that there is one place where it falls hard on its ass. Sadly, this portion of the game is also one that is crucial to a DM and to how the adventure plays out. This simple, integral, vital task is used by every DM and every adventure. I’ll stop playing coy, and just spit it out.
Encounter building sucks, and its not just bad, its really bad.
In prior 3.5 and 4 you had an EL or CR you had to hit. Each monster had a portion of that CR, and you would sum them up to get to the total. It was simple! It was close to balanced, and you need to adjust based on party composition ect, like you have to do with all games. It was easy to get there, but took some time to know that you’d gotten the total in the right area.
5e is much, much different.
I’ll start by working through the DMG’s explanation, pages 82-83
It starts with explaining that there are four, broad, categories of Encounters, to cover the challenge that the players will face: Easy, Medium, Hard and Deadly. These are the broad categories that you will end up placing your encounter within.
You start by determining Thresholds(step 1). you do this by referencing each character in the parties level. I have 6 4th level characters, each worth 125pts in an easy encounter, 250 pts in a Medium Encounter, 375 points in a hard encounter, and 500 points in a deadly encounter. Its a simple linear progression, adding 125pts each level, but its not always that way. Look at level 3, say, where it jumps to 400 for deadly. Thankfully, this is a clear and easy way to make up for lower level party member and higher ones, which is explicitly called out, indicating they don’t intend you to keep everyone at the same level all of the time.
Now I add them all together (step 2, above). This gives me Party Thresholds. For my party of 6, this is:
750 – Easy
1500 – Medium
3000 – Deadly
Again, a linear progression.
At the end of step two, it tells you to record the totals, because you can use them for every encounter in your adventure.
Excellent! We’re making progress now! we have the encounter levels of each of our Challenge levels, and we are ready to go! The next bullet even tells us so!
Total Monster XP! See, every monster has two different encounter building tools. They have Challenge Rating, which determines how powerful they are, and XP, which determines how much Xp should be awarded once they are defeated. These two are intrinsically bound together, and I have no idea why they were separated as concepts, and, its not a mathematical progression.
So, I pick that I want to have two CR3’s (700xp) and a CR 2 (450xp). They are lower level then the characters, and should be just fine!
Total: 1850xp. Huh. well, that’s not on my list perfectly, but I assume most won’t be. Working from my threshholds, I work it to be a hard encounter. 750 is the Easy Threshold, 1500 being the Medium threshold, and 2250 being the hard threshold.
This is where I hit my first stumbling block. The chart and math might be a little intimidating, but its nothing that a veteran DM isn’t used to. However, their use of thresholds here is misleading, because they are instead floors. There is a vague reference to this in step 5, but its very convoluted. Suffice to say, that if you add a “+” to the end of the numbers, it becomes more apparent.
750+ – Easy
1500+ – Medium
2250+ – Hard
3000+ – Deadly
This simple and easy to miss portion changes an entire adventure! reading threshold as the highest XP you can use within an encounter makes the entire game laughably easy! What you assume is a deadly encounter is simply hard, and it only gets worse from there.
The next step is the Kicker: Step 4 – Modify Total Xp for Multiple Monsters. This step comes with a ton of verbiage, but really boils down to one concept: multitudes are harder to fight than a solo monster. I cannot agree more. I have found that solo monsters are a joke most times and are more often trivial. So, at the end of this step, it provides a chart:
Sighs. Now that I have my monsters (see above) my 1850xp encounter isn’t actually an 1850 encounter. Seeing that its a group of 3 monsters, I would multiply this by 2, giving me a whopping 3700! that’s almost a whole category above deadly!
Ok. So, back to the drawing board. I want a medium encounter. How about 2 level 3’s? now I drop a level, so its only going to be 1.5. Whats 1400, right? x1.5? Lemme get a calculator, don’t want to get this wrong. 2100. OK! good! that’s a medium encounter for my 6 characters, Right?
nope. Because now, at the end, in a different section, it tells you that party size matters. Because of course it does. It goes on to say that parties of 3 or less should use the next highest multiplier on the chart for all encounters, and that parties of 6 or more should use the next lowest, with an adjusted rating of .5 for single monster.
Right. So. My two CR 3 monsters are now an easy challenge. Great. I’d have thought that would have been counted for in the XP I was allocated at the start due to the size of the party, but that’s not quite the case. What about my original encounter? The one with two CR3’s and a CR2. Well, thats now.. uh. 1850 x 1.5 or (calculator, because I am bad at math) 2775. So, Hard.
Lemme Get this straight
two CR3’s are easy.
but Two CR3’s and a CR 2 is hard. Does using a level 1 get it to be right?
2400. Its still a hard fight. I really wanted to use those CR3 monsters, but it doesn’t really seem possible now. Both solo and paired up they are laughable, and If I add either a CR1 or a CR2, it shoots up to hard. I’d have to add a CR 1/2 at this point, and that would only JUST be qualified as a Hard encounter, so it would be on the hard side of medium. Bah! Anything less than 1/2 CR at this point might be a threat on their own turn, but would be trivially dispatched by the PC’s. I’d have to have more than a dozen to really cause problems, and thats gonna change my XP again… UGH.
Now, I’m not very good at the application of math, so I wanted to make a chart of all the encounter levels and their thresholds based on monster quantity.
|Solo (x .5)||Pair (x1)||3-6 (x1.5)||7-10 (x2)||11-14 (x2.5)||15+ (x3)|
You’ll see that, despite the multipliers for multiple monsters, my chart gets smaller towards the 15+ end, that got the the first time, as I actually multiplied the xp budget because it makes sense: More monsters need more budget. Sadly, that’s not the case, and in order to make the chart, I had divide by decimals. Its not easy for my small, poor brain.
Anyway, I now, finally, had a chart that I could use to determine encounters by getting as close to the next higher budget as possible without going over the number of monsters and pushing it up.
To add even more fuel to the fire, I don’t like to make up actual constructed monster parties before hand. I like to have a slew of monsters I could use drawn up before hand, and then toss together a good encounter once it reaches a natural spot for combat. To facilitate that I generally try to have a couple of permutations of CR’s built ahead of time, so I can pick and choose what works best. If the encounter calls for 3 CR 2’s and 3 CR 1’s and a dozen CR 1/4’s, in order to be a medium encounter (I made all of that up) I like to be able to swiftly look at my list of monsters at CR 2, Pick one or Two, and then do the same with 1’s and 1/4’s. This has proven to be extremely difficult in 5e due to all the permutations that can rear their head.
Maybe the system works for grabbing four or five monsters, adding them together, and getting what you get, discarding it if its too high, but I don’t operate that way. It took me 4 hours to get a dozen permutations across all three functional encounter levels. Its not easy to do on a week-by-week basis!
I think the presentation should have been vastly different in order to make the creation and conceptualizing of the monster groups easier.
1. Change Threshold to Baseline.
2. Immediately after determining the baselines, explain that it is a budget for a single monster, and that the budget gets slashed (divided) based on the number of monsters in the group, presenting the Multipliers as percentage of the original number
I am sure that there are people who can come up with a better presentation than I can, but the goal remains the same: Reduce the total before starting to add numbers. It moves all the math up front.
After that, mention group size and shifting reductions based on the amount of players.
Finally, the players are given their adjusted budget to try and fit monsters into. Its much clearer on how big your encounter can be, and its easier to visualize where you went wrong, because you know the exact value of each monster, and don’t have to wait to the final step to see how close you are to your goal.
As I said, every system has its flaws. and some are larger than others.
Alphabetical Magic Items, instead of categorical, spells not having a school descriptor in their class list, and no list of Monsters by CR in the Monster manual are are things that get under my skin, but I can deal with them all. This stupid encounter system makes me want to burn my hair out!