D&D 5E Adjusting to 1 encounter per Day: Putting the XP Budget into a single fight

Stalker0

Legend
So with all the talk of game balance of late, something that keeps coming back up is the notion that players that get to rest more often and fight less encounters in a day will find challenges easier than a party that gets the full 6-8 encounters.

So the real question is: Well how much more can a party take on?

So we could start with a simple premise: What if the DM just pushes the entire daily adventuring budget into a single encounter. Aka its expected the party will go hog wild, throw every bit of juice....and be completely spent by the end. So what would that look like in terms of challenge?

So lets take 4 level 7 characters. They have a daily adventuring budget of 20,000. So here are some example challenges that would fit their entire budget. I had to go a bit under or over much of the time, as often adding just one more of almost any monster just shoots the encounter XP way up.
  • A Demilich (CR 18)
  • Two Young Red Dragons (CR 10) - 17.7k
  • 3 Githyanki Knights (CR 8) - 23k
  • 4 Mind Flayers (CR 7) - 23k
  • 5 Flesh Golems (CR 5)
  • 8 Black Puddings (CR 4) - 22k
  • 200 NPC Guards (CR 1/8)
So just taking a look, what do people think? Do you generally feel like these would be really challenging encounters for such a party who is going "all out"? Would this crush them into the dirt, would you expect them to win with no problems?

If this produces reasonable results it might be the way to go for people who just want to do 1 "big combat" a day, and help them understand what you really need to throw out to challenge such a party.
 

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Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
First, I'd point out that it would probably make classes that rely on short rests to feel less powerful o2n the long run, as they would be overshadowed by the PCs that can nova each fight (if they notice the pattern of not having a string of fights in a day. That may or may not be a problem with your group.

Second, I think the CR system can't really be precise enough for this kind of assessment to work out well with extreme CR differences. Here's my impression :

1. High CR monsters can be a hit or miss thing. If the PCs get the drop on them, alone, they can usually kill them off in a round or two even if they are very low level compared to the threat... but the monster may be able to kill off a PC with a single attack if he gets an action... and can possibly be totally untouchable if he plays right. In this category, I'd place the Demilich. It's immune to non-magical attack & flying. Unless your martial characters have a magical bow or crossbow, they can't do anything to the Demilich who could kill them by floating over them. With 3 legendary resistance and life drain, there is a strong possibility that casters won't be able to kill it before they are life drained. Same goes with the red dragons. with superior mobility they can go in, breath fire (probably roasting the squishier characters) and fly out of range until they can breath fire again.

2. At the other end of the spectrum, the 200 NPC Guards can either kill the PCs off with the action economy OR be wiped from afar by area of effects spells. If closely packed, 3 fireballs will kill them all before they can even notice the PCs. Same with black pudding. They are slower than the PCs and can be killed at no risk with arrows. Not the most heroic of fights and it would produce a goofy encounter instead of a deadly one.

The more "balanced" results would be against enemy with a roughly identical number as the PCs, without hit-or-die powers. That narrows the range of possible encounters.

The 4 mind flayers one should be in that range, but if they use their powers right, it's a TPK. For example, they should open with 4 mind blasts. There is a strong possibility all characters will fail one of four DC 15 INT save and be stunned... which exposes them to brain extraction on the subsequent rounds (10d10 damage on an attack with advantage...) That or have the possibly remaining active character be subjected to Dominate Monster, taking him out of the fight as well.

In real play, I often use "deadly" encounters but that's by mixing one BBEG with a number of lower CR minions. Those are not deadly (just challenging) but in my experience achieve the result you're looking for.
 



Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
The notion that 200 average guards isn't automatically a TPK for four adventurers of any level makes me sad. :(

I know DnD is a fantasy game, but I still prefer it to give at least a perfunctory nod to realism.

I am no military expert, but I am pretty sure in real life 200 people charging with baionets from afar are no match for a party of machine gun wielding soldiers. I won't lookup engagements in the late 19th century in Africa but it should be close to that result. Any sufficently reliable magic is undistinguishable from technology.

With a good commander that knows the PCs capabilities and can select the battlefield, the PCs are toast, though.
 
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Asisreo

Patron Badass
So with all the talk of game balance of late, something that keeps coming back up is the notion that players that get to rest more often and fight less encounters in a day will find challenges easier than a party that gets the full 6-8 encounters.

So the real question is: Well how much more can a party take on?

So we could start with a simple premise: What if the DM just pushes the entire daily adventuring budget into a single encounter. Aka its expected the party will go hog wild, throw every bit of juice....and be completely spent by the end. So what would that look like in terms of challenge?

So lets take 4 level 7 characters. They have a daily adventuring budget of 20,000. So here are some example challenges that would fit their entire budget. I had to go a bit under or over much of the time, as often adding just one more of almost any monster just shoots the encounter XP way up.
  • A Demilich (CR 18)
  • Two Young Red Dragons (CR 10) - 17.7k
  • 3 Githyanki Knights (CR 8) - 23k
  • 4 Mind Flayers (CR 7) - 23k
  • 5 Flesh Golems (CR 5)
  • 8 Black Puddings (CR 4) - 22k
  • 200 NPC Guards (CR 1/8)
So just taking a look, what do people think? Do you generally feel like these would be really challenging encounters for such a party who is going "all out"? Would this crush them into the dirt, would you expect them to win with no problems?

If this produces reasonable results it might be the way to go for people who just want to do 1 "big combat" a day, and help them understand what you really need to throw out to challenge such a party.
I've done this before (and plan on doing it again fairly soon), and from my experience, you may be alarmed by how quickly party members can just die, especially if the enemies are given any leeway.

From one side, the demilich is a foe that can heal itself up to 63hp every round fairly easily. A wizard that thought "maybe I should pump my dex and wis rather than con" will have 30-36hp, but the demilich can reliably do 31hp of worth of damage reliably while also just reducing that HP maximum in the process.

Even magical weapons don't do full damage and avoidance makes any real damage hard to land consistently. It also has legendary resistance so no matter how unlucky the DM is, the Demilich will at least survive to round 2 from any spell.

Wizards aren't nearly as versatile, either. No wall of force, no disintegrate, only one banishment. The best party member to fight this is either a cleric or paladin and even they will have massive trouble putting this down without nearly TPK'ing.




On the other branch, 200 guards could be easy if squeezed into a nice tight radius, but if they are given the chance to take their turn at least once, I can guarantee that 2 party members are guaranteed to go down and a TPK is actually very likely before round 2. Mob combat is the only way to play it practically and since all identical monsters take turns all at once, they'll all stack with one-another. Now, even if your character has AC >24, if they all gang up, they'd be able to do 40 damage. That's, again, if you're tankier than how its usually possible.

An AC of 19 or 20 gives you 200 or 160 damage and could easily kill you.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I wouldn't throw all that against a party in a single encounter. IMO, that would probably be a TPK, with a possible exception for a party that is well optimized and utilizes good tactics (as well as good luck).

That said, I've had a lot of success recently with chaining encounters together. My default is a deadly encounter with hard encounter reinforcements arriving around round 3, but that's calibrated for my group, half of whom did not optimize their characters to any significant degree (the other two did optimize a bit, but didn't go overboard). That's usually enough for them to require a short rest in order to push on. A deadly encounter into a deadly encounter is oftentimes enough that they feel they need to immediately take a long rest. Also, you can add multiple waves of reinforcements, such as a hard encounter with another hard encounter reinforcing it on round 3, and then an easy/medium encounter reinforcing on round 4/5. Obviously, this needs to be calibrated to the party in question. My other group was able to handle a bit more, IIRC, but we haven't played in over a year, so I no longer recall the particulars.

I think throwing an entire adventuring day at the players at once is likely to be too much for many parties. If you space it out by having reinforcements arrive, however, you can push the envelope. That said, I suspect that even a half adventure day's worth of XP would be a challenge for most unoptimized parties, even if spaced out as reinforcements.
 

The notion that 200 average guards isn't automatically a TPK for four adventurers of any level makes me sad. :(

I know DnD is a fantasy game, but I still prefer it to give at least a perfunctory nod to realism.
Actually the bonded accuracy of 5E gives mobs their best chance that D&D has ever given them. In earlier editions high level characters could wade through thousands of low level foes and never break a sweat.
 

I am no military expert, but I am pretty sure in real life 200 people charging with baionets from afar are no match for a party of machine gun wielding soldiers. I won't lookup engagements in the late 19th century in Africa but it should be close to that result. Any sufficently reliable magic is undistinguishable from technology.

With a good commander that knows the PCs capabilities and can select the battlefield, the PCs are toast, though.
While the Maxim Gun proved a deadly weapon in the colonial wars of Africa it never had odds that lopsided. In the Battle of the Shangani, 700 soldiers fought off 5,000 Matabele warriors with just five Maxim guns. It was very effective at enemies that just charged in but less effective against more modern tactics and I think a lot of its effectiveness was the psychological effect on enemies unprepared for it.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think you can drop an entire day's XP budget into a single encounter, but that doesn't mean you should, at least on a regular basis. As has been pointed out, it can screw with the balance between classes, especially if you have a class that can just nova (Paladin, I'm looking at you ...) and it can be really easy for a turn of dice luck to render party members dead in a hurry.

That said, you can make memorable fights by dropping Deadly+ combats on the party, and IMO they work well as climaxes to long combat-oriented story-threads. I also have to admit that I've only ever calculated XP value retroactively--looking back on a combat. At this point I just kinda trust my judgment of what the parties I'm DMing can cope with.
 

I think that such encounter would require DM assistance, which is like the opposite of the goal looking for.
Cant let the monster have the surprise, or terrain advantage.
So it should require DM benediction to scout, prepare and choose the timing of the encounter.
 

LoganRan

Explorer
Actually the bonded accuracy of 5E gives mobs their best chance that D&D has ever given them. In earlier editions high level characters could wade through thousands of low level foes and never break a sweat.
This is true (about 5E) and it has always bothered me in every edition.

Edit: thinking about this more deeply, I am not sure I agree with the notion that four 7th level characters could wade through "thousands of low level foes". I did not play 3rd or 4th edition, so I can't speak to those games, but in Basic DnD or 1E, it seems incredibly unlikely that four PCs could hold off 200 regular folks.

If a natural 20 is always a hit, then the 200 guards would have an expected 10 hits in the first round even if they needed to roll a 20 to hit (which they likely would not need against a magic user or thief whose AC wouldn't be that great). They could do enough damage in that first round to kill a magic user or thief pretty easily...possibly both in the same round.
 
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LoganRan

Explorer
I am no military expert, but I am pretty sure in real life 200 people charging with baionets from afar are no match for a party of machine gun wielding soldiers. I won't lookup engagements in the late 19th century in Africa but it should be close to that result. Any sufficently reliable magic is undistinguishable from technology.

With a good commander that knows the PCs capabilities and can select the battlefield, the PCs are toast, though.
I did not bother to set the circumstances of the scenario but I was thinking in terms of 200 guards against 4 adventurers wherein the parties are already engaged in close combat. My fault for not making that clear.

Edit: Even if the guards were at range, if a DM were to play them with even a modicum of intelligence said guards would not conveniently line up or bunch up allowing the party wizard to toast them. Presumably, they would approach from all different angles and the sheer volume of guards would overwhelm the PCs.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I am no military expert, but I am pretty sure in real life 200 people charging with baionets from afar are no match for a party of machine gun wielding soldiers

So, does the listing above say, "200 complete dimwits"? No.

Take those guards to be at least vaguely intelligent. They have missile weapons - pretty much anyone can wield a crossbow. They can tell the difference between a wizard and a barbarian. They know how to use cover. They know how to arrange a basic ambush.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
There are several balance points of multiple encounters, and they adjust at different rates.

The most obvious is deadliness. We can increase the toughness and/or number of foes, add hazards and traps, and otherwise increase this pretty well. This is what seems to be addressed in the OP. That's do-able.

The other is class balance between the at-will characters like the rogue and the long-rest recovery classes like full casters or hybrids like the paladin and barbarian, and the short rest recovery classes (often hybrids as well) like the Monk, the Warlock, and some others like the Battlemaster Fighter.

Casting high level slots will do more in a single action then one at-will Action. This shouldn't be a surprise. If all we have is enough rounds of combat to exhaust a caster of high level slots (and use low level slots on things like Bless and Shield and Absorb Elements that all scale well), the output per action for the casters is a lot more than for the at-will classes.

And we can look at the flip side - if you took all spell slots away, a caster just using cantrips should average less effect per Action than an at-will character doing their thing.

So really, what we need to do to balance the effect per action is get casters to use a good number of cantrips, to bring down their average effect per Action.

Considering that most spells are an Action to cast, that means that even if we reduce the number of encounters, we really can't reduce the total length of the encounters much.

It gets even harder when you look at effects with duration. An action to cast a spell/activate an ability that is only effective for 3 more rounds before the combat ends with a normal combat but might last more rounds in a longer combat will be more effective for the same Action. Look at Spiritual Weapon. What's more powerful - a barbarian who can rage every combat or one who only has enough rages for 1/3 of the encounters? Even concentration spells can last longer (and are no weaker lasting the same), and they often have a big effect like Spirit Guardians, Call Lightning, or Animate Object. So to balance the greater effect, that's more rounds of cantrips to balance out.

This isn't even addressing the classes with significant short rest mechanics. Reducing down to three with guarenteed plot ways to get a short rest between them is about as tight as you can get without going and nerfing those classes. Doing only a single or two encounters on a regular basis will be a bad thing.

To sum up, in order to reduce the number of encounters but still have the effects of more encounters we need to balance both the deadliness (for the threat), the number of rounds (to keep the inter-class balance), and the number of short rests. Just making them deadly will unfairly boost long-rest recovery classes over others, and cutting out short rests per day will nerf those classes that need them.
 

Honestly DnD don’t have the mechanics to play an encounter with 200 token monsters.
it will be gross approximation and house rules.
So we could stop hitching on this case.
 


Stalker0

Legend
So, does the listing above say, "200 complete dimwits"? No.

Take those guards to be at least vaguely intelligent. They have missile weapons - pretty much anyone can wield a crossbow. They can tell the difference between a wizard and a barbarian. They know how to use cover. They know how to arrange a basic ambush.
Actually these guards (looking at the NPC stats) do not have a missile weapon per say, they can make a spear throw though.

Also just to make to make sure, as a few comments concerned me, so I wanted to clarify. I am saying that EACH bullet above would constitute the entire days worth of combat...not those points combined. Juuuuust making sure people understood we aren't using 200 NPC AND 4 mind flayers AND a demilich...etc, its one or the other.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
Actually these guards (looking at the NPC stats) do not have a missile weapon per say, they can make a spear throw though.

Also just to make to make sure, as a few comments concerned me, so I wanted to clarify. I am saying that EACH bullet above would constitute the entire days worth of combat...not those points combined. Juuuuust making sure people understood we aren't using 200 NPC AND 4 mind flayers AND a demilich...etc, its one or the other.
Fair enough. I did assume an AND relationship, rather than OR.

That said, I'd nonetheless recommend using waves of enemies. I think a big part of it is that if you use an entire day at once it'll be very swingy.

In the case of 4 mind flayers, that could easily be a TPK if the PCs all have to save against 4 mind blasts in the first round. Even a PC with a fairly strong save is tempting bad luck, and a PC with a weak save is pretty much guaranteed to fail. Whereas if you stagger them a bit, the PCs have a bit better odds of not all being stun locked. It'll still likely be a tough fight with multiple party members stunned every round, but a bit more forgiving in terms of RNG.

Conversely, if the PCs have some awesome ability that can disable all 4 mind flayers in round 1, the fight becomes a cake walk. But if only two mind flayers are around in round 1, and more show up the next round, then they could still have a real fight on their hands.

Other encounters just don't work well in this setup. 8 black oozes is either fairly easy, if your party is well set up to deal with them, or a nightmarish slog if they aren't. A single powerful enemy could get locked down before they ever get to act (assuming they don't have legendary resistance), or TPK the party with an above average damage AoE (like a breath weapon).

I think that if you're only going to run one fight a day, you really need to put a bit of extra effort into the encounter design to make it interesting (since they won't be getting a typical variety of encounters over the course of the day). Obviously, the examples you gave were simply for what you can do with the daily budget, as opposed to what you should do. Just thought it bore mention.
 

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