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D&D 5E Balancing Around Fewer Combats Per Day

Retreater

Legend
We know that few groups follow the 8 encounter template and that makes Challenge Rating seem a little on the easy side.
My group is wanting to embark on a series of one-shots, likely facing 2-3 combat encounters per adventure. How would you adjust for that? Would you make most encounters hard or deadly?
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
We know that few groups follow the 8 encounter template and that makes Challenge Rating seem a little on the easy side.
My group is wanting to embark on a series of one-shots, likely facing 2-3 combat encounters per adventure. How would you adjust for that? Would you make most encounters hard or deadly?
I think that's a fair way to adjust!
 

aco175

Legend
Add more monsters. This makes the action economy harder since there are more targets than PCs. It also takes into account that casters will be using more spells/encounter to deal with it.

Use less rests. Some PCs are long rest and some are short rest. Having less encounters means that this 8-encounter assumption will be upset to favor one side or the other. If you have 3 harder encounters, maybe allow one rest somewhere instead of after each encounter. Have some days when there is none.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
It really depends on the level of optimizing that you allow your players, and in particular options like feats and multiclassing. If you allow them, and want only 3 encounters to challenge them, they have to be at the border between deadly and impossible, with enough adversaries in there to take care of action economy (so at least a few monsters or a boss with legendary/mythic/lair actions).
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Giving more monster lair actions and legendary actions helps too.

For legendary actions, I usually give them a single attack, a spell, and a recharge action (like a chance to knock prone, blind, etc).

For lair actions I just use spells, but flavored for the terrain. In a fight in an ancient library, a giant otyugh could summon a tornado of old pages, for which I used the spell Fog Cloud.
 

aco175

Legend
There is some great stuff on the 5-room dungeon that talks about making a dungeon with 5 rooms or encounters. Generally there are 3 fights with a trap or puzzle and a roleplay in there. I would have to look it up more myself, but it fleshes out good for a 1-shot.

Also if you make a 1-shot vary where the hardest encounter is. If there is always a system where the players can guess or metagame where the 'boss' fight is, they save their big guns to deal with that. If it is sometimes in the middle instead of at the end, it would make the encounters more fun and challenging.

Same thing with the occasional easy encounter where they wipe the floor with the monsters.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I recommend using reinforcements. You could have a med-hard encounter, with another med-hard encounter reinforcing them 1-3 rounds after the encounter starts. You could even have an additional group of reinforcements arrive 1-3 rounds after the first group.
 

Retreater

Legend
There is some great stuff on the 5-room dungeon that talks about making a dungeon with 5 rooms or encounters. Generally there are 3 fights with a trap or puzzle and a roleplay in there. I would have to look it up more myself, but it fleshes out good for a 1-shot.
Yes, I'm planning on taking a lot of design ideas from the concept of the 5-room dungeon.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
We know that few groups follow the 8 encounter template and that makes Challenge Rating seem a little on the easy side.
My group is wanting to embark on a series of one-shots, likely facing 2-3 combat encounters per adventure. How would you adjust for that? Would you make most encounters hard or deadly?
There is no 8 encounter template. There's the daily XP budget, one example of which is 6-8 medium encounters. This example gets taken as the rule, when it's an example.

If you look at your daily XP budget, that's about what a "normal" party should be capable of dealing with in a day. Want it to be harder? Go higher. Easier? Go lower. It's a guideline, and it actually works pretty well.

If you want 3 combats a day, then they should probably be all deadly -- that math is pretty close. And this works fine, especially if you allow a short rest between fights. Personally, I like chaining encounters, like having a hard fight get reinforced a few rounds later, with no real break between. I find this does a better job of pressuring PCs than just a straight up deadly, even if the XP totals are similar.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
We know that few groups follow the 8 encounter template and that makes Challenge Rating seem a little on the easy side.
My group is wanting to embark on a series of one-shots, likely facing 2-3 combat encounters per adventure. How would you adjust for that? Would you make most encounters hard or deadly?
Two things, really.

First, don’t bother with balanced encounters. Let the world breathe. If the PCs go into an orc lair, there’s a full tribe of orcs inside. It’s on the PCs to try to fight them smart, if they decide to fight at all.

Second, let the PCs take a short rest as an action during combat but limit short rests to 2 per day. This mostly balances the short rest recharge classes with the long rest recharge classes.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
We know that few groups follow the 8 encounter template and that makes Challenge Rating seem a little on the easy side.
My group is wanting to embark on a series of one-shots, likely facing 2-3 combat encounters per adventure. How would you adjust for that? Would you make most encounters hard or deadly?
Speaking about the maths, I’d use the Adventuring Day (adjusted) XP Budget as outlined in the DMG as the upper limit for what they could face in that day.

For a lower level party, I wouldn’t throw more than 30-50% of that Daily Budget into a single encounter. Then I’d gradually use a greater and greater percentage so that around 11th level or so I might start throwing ALL the Daily XP Budget into a single encounter.

Generally speaking, I would start at 1st level not using monsters greater than CR 1, then CR 2-3 for 2nd level, and gradually allow an increase in the level/CR disparity the higher level the PCs get so that, for example, pushing the upper limits the highest I’d go for a 5th level party would be CR 12, but I’d be very selective about specific monster selection & encounter selection. By the time they’re 11th+ level, I could really push that as high as CR 20 or greater, but again being selective.

Thats my straight maths answer. ACTUAL encounter design is more art than maths, in my observation/experience, but that’s a whole other conversation.
 



It really depends on your goal. For total combat for the day, you could just do one single epic combat if you wanted. Three deadly encounters would work just as well. The issue with number of combats per day is simply the disparity between short/no rest characters (martials plus warlock) and long rest characters (casters plus barbarian). If that's of no concern to you and your group, just figure out the daily amount of xp for characters of that level and divide it up as you wish.
 

This video had some good ideas


what if the goal of the combat was not just a fight to the death, but more involved? Like a several step process to shutting down a ritual, or having to protect an NPC commoner, an environment that was crumbling around them as they fought, or traps mixed into combat so that movement was tricky? I actually think boss fights in video games sometimes do a good job at making players switch up tactics, so maybe take inspiration there
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Balancing long-rest classes like Wizard with short-rest classes like Warlock becomes difficult at high tiers with 3 encounters per long rest.

The Wizard strongly benefits by going nova. The Warlock becomes underpowered.

To help balance the Warlock, allow a short rest after each encounter, probably counting about 10 minutes narratively as a short rest, including looting and cleaning up and bandaging after each combat encounter.

(I wonder about switching the refresh of the Warlock spellslots to be once per proficiency bonus per long rest?)



Three per day seems to be the bellcurve mode of most experienced gamers. (There is a blip at five per day that perhaps represents an old-school dungeon-crawl gaming style. But three is the most prevalent for todays games. Those gamers doing eight per day seem rare.)
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
There are two separate things that are going on.

One of them is encounter challenge. Risk of death/defeat and the cost of winning in terms of HPs and potentially lives. That's pretty easily adjustable by making encounters harder.

The other is the balance between at-will classes (like the rogue or the EB-only warlock) and long-rest-recovery classes like pure casters, plus there are hybrids like the paladin and the barbarian. This is the one that doesn't get addressed as much that I want to talk about.

It's not controversial to save that the average action casting one of your highest level spells does more than the average action of an at-will character. So, if all we are doing is mid to high level spell slots, the at-will characters will lose out.

It's also not a stretch to say that your average cantrip (NOT a warlock EB empowered by invocations) does less than your average at-will attack. Sure, they scale, but a rogue will have more dice of sneak attack, other classes will have extra attack and with their ability score bonus be doing more per swing, etc. So if you took all spell slots from full casters, they would be doing less than at-will classes.

So there's a ratio of spell slots and cantrips that balance out in effectiveness to what an at-will character will do. Note that it must include cantrips (or much lower level spell slots, but those often go to utility). It could be because the players don't know how many encounters are coming so they are using cantrips to save slots, but if they know the format is 2-3 enocunters per day that is less likely to happen. Which means that you need to not only get them low on slots, not only run them out of slots they are willing to cast, but have enough actions past that they they use a good amount of cantrips to balance those slots.

It gets worse because spells with durations may be more efficient in longer combats. A spiritual weapon in an 8 round combat will have more opportunities to be used than in a 3 round combat. If a barbarian normally could rage in half of the battles, having to pick and choose, is it power upgrade if to rage in every battle?

So in order to balance the at-will classes vs. the long rest classes, you actually need to have more rounds of combat, to offset the increased effectiveness of long-rest-recovery features/spells with duration. But you're doing good if you even get close, so throw in waves of enemies, bosses that have more than one form or phase, and other long, epic battles for those 2-3, designed not just for deadliness but also resource attrition.

And then there are short -rest-recovery model classes, but in a 3 encounter day you can still fit them in fairly well by ensuring they have a chance for a short rest between each encounter. That also allows the proper chance for HD spending to not overtax other healing resources.
 

Retreater

Legend
I have a bard, cleric, fighter, and ranger - 8th level. Not sure how that works out. I'm guessing it's going to be some tweaking with these ideas to get the right balance.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I have a bard, cleric, fighter, and ranger - 8th level. Not sure how that works out. I'm guessing it's going to be some tweaking with these ideas to get the right balance.
That's not the worst. Depending on the subclass, the fighter is usually a at-will+short rest recovery model, so make sure they always get a short rest after each combat. The ranger is an at-will with a touch of long rest. Give out more magic weapons and no spell boosters items to give at-wills a leg up to help balance out the nova-ing the pure casters can do. Both bard and cleric can choose support options, so them being able to take advantage of the shorter format is somewhat mitigated by that advantage might be for everyone's benefit.
 

It's really difficult to do without making changes to classes because different classes will compress down at a different efficiency gain. Barbarian for example might wind up with rage nearly all of the time in combat while long rest classes that would normally pull ahead with endurance are still limited by concentration & the action economy itself.
 

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