High level and trivial encounters

n0nym

Explorer
Hi guys,

I've been running ToA lately and my players are level 9, in the 5th floor of the Tomb. We've had some fun with this adventure, but a few things really irked me along the way, one of which is how low level ennemies stop to matter after a while.

I kept rolling for random encounters, getting a few cannibals here, some jungle goblins there, and it always felt more like a chore than a real epic moment. Even now in the Tomb itself some encounters just feel like a way to drain character ressources (mainly spells, because monsters barely hit the PCs anyway).

I'm thinking of ways to make the goblins (and other lowbies) matter at high level for my next campaign and wondered if the following rules would help :

Flanking : ennemies gets +1 to attack rolls against you for each hostile creature that outnumbers you. You're considered "outnumbered" if there are more ennemies within melee range of you than the number of squares you occupy. E.g. : a medium target is outnumbered by 2 or more ennemies while an ogre is only outnumbered by 5 or more. If a medium sized character is surrounded by 8 goblins, they all get +8 to Attack.

(if needed) Cleave through ennemies : same as DMG. Your damage goes through multiple ennemies.

What's your opinion on this ?
 

Stormonu

Hero
Low level encounters draining resources are exactly what they're used for. They aren't meant to be epic battles but to become stumbling blocks the party is better suited to avoid or find ways around that don't expend resources that are needed for the bigger fights. They aren't big fights in themselves; they make the other encounters more difficult to manage due to dwindling resources.
 

S'mon

Legend
Ever since I went to 1 week long rests, this sort of 4e problem vanished. The players definitely do care about resource draining encounters when it may mean eg the Barbarians not having a Rage left when they face the BBEG.

Really 5e is built around an expectation of 6-8 encounters per Long Rest, with the majority of
those only resource drains. Officially only a Deadly encounter has a significant risk of PC death.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
I think the OP hits a very informative point - seeing "matters" only in terms of threat.

I frequently make these "environmental" random encounters matter by toeing them into stuff that matters - giving them ties to the PCs (backstory, race, background or class) or ties to the setting.

Whst if your random goblin encounter is not a small band of goblins attacking/stalking you, but instead attacking or besieging or carting back prisoners? What if those pridoners include elves or halflings like the PCs.

What if they have info thats important? What if instead of stalking or attacking thry are seeking help? What if this encounter spotlights divisions in the local area that can be exploited or just be interesting?

What if their loot includes old dwarven coins that are out of place but meaningful to one of the PCs? What if it's an elven coin with an image engraved that is meaningful to another?

Obvioudly, some of these examples wont specifically carry thru to that setting but those that dont likely have analogs that do?

Its in my experience when "random" encountered are approached from tacticalzonly blinders that one starts to see these as "not mstter" or " meaningless" and in my experience that fosters an environment where "engaging" and "combat" are treated as synonyms.

Non-life-or-death encounters are perfect places for "meaningful" encounters that " matter" a lot and tie in with the PCs.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Like [MENTION=463]S'mon[/MENTION], I use the alternate long rest rule. If you can get a long rest after every other fight, almost every fight can become trivial depending on your group.

But I also think tactics can make a huge difference. Have the goblins set up traps and ambushes. They never show up in fireball formation, they pop out of the woods fire some arrows and disappear into the jungle and show up again from somewhere else. Chase them? They've set up trip lines and snares.

Or just adjust the encounters. The random table calls for 5 goblins? Well, the goblins have heard of the group and they send 20. In waves. Add in some environmental hazards. Goblins for example are small and light. Maybe they can cross the quicksand while that half orc breaks through and sinks.

I like to think of the encounters from the monster's perspective. I'm picking on goblins a bit here, but they are cowardly and know that there are a lot of creatures out there that can take them out easily. So they only attack when they believe they have a clear advantage.

But one last thing. I generally only play out encounters that advance the game or reinforce the theme. If the fights really are trivial (and sometimes that's appropriate) I'll just narrate the fact that there were some minor skirmishes that the group easily won along the way. So if the random encounters aren't adding to the game, don't use them or modify them so that they do add to the game.
 

CubicsRube

Explorer
As above making long rests more rare can help detrivialise these encounters.

There's a rule from AiME which I think really highlights something that ahould be enforced more - not everywhere is safe for a long rest.

I would look at the maps and designate a few areas as "sanctuaries" which are safe for characters to long rest at. Make these as sparse as you need and it'll put a sense of pressure on, as they won't know when they can next take a rest.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Speed bump encounters take few resources and a few minutes. But for every minute pass, that allows the Tomb to move real resources. Moves the time closer to the dead line.
EVIL DM. IT is now 00:03 hours. You just missed the deadline by 3 minutes. OOPS.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
You could just have the NPCs or monsters do something other than mindlessly attack the PCs until slain. Perhaps they rush the PCs, try to steal something valuable, then run away. Maybe they trail the PCs at a safe distance, not making their intent known, and then when the PCs encounter something tougher, they jump into the fight to try to take out a single PC. You could also have it be a social interaction challenge rather than a combat - the NPCs have information or an item that is useful to the PCs, but have to be convinced to give it up.

But ultimately, if the encounter is dinging the PCs for a few hit points here and a few spell slots there, over the course of an adventuring day this actually starts to add up, constraining the players' choices in later, more challenging situations. That's what they're supposed to do. Not every encounter needs to have a high difficulty.
 

CubicsRube

Explorer
Thinking back on the dungeon in toa, i belive most of the levels are fairly self contained, so another option as me tioned above might be waves. If you cause a commotion by getting into a fight, then nearby monsters should respond, and some of those might want to rush in.

If you want to do this you can announce during the fight that the pcs hear sounds coming closer from nearby tunnels and even put a visual reminder if you want (like poker chips removing one each round) until the others arrive.

3 trivial encounter is very different to 3 wabes of trovial encounters happening at rounds 1, 3 and 4
 

Stalker0

Adventurer
The key is numbers. 20 creatures with bows are likely to be a threat, even crappy ones, do to the ability to focus fire.

You can use mob rules to cut down the rolling if you prefer.
 

Celebrim

Legend
One important aspect of low level encounters at high level is that they reinforce that the players relationship to the world has changed. What was once a terrifying encounter gradually becomes something that is not even relevant.

And also realistically, the world needs to recognize that the PCs have changed. Goblins bandits that previously charged into to rob, enslave, and eat the party are going to come to realize that this group of creatures is out of their league and their relationship is going to change. Instead of attempting to ambush the party they are going to attempt to evade or grovel and lick boots. As soon as the goblins realize they are in over their head, they are going to either flee or bow down and ask forgiveness with a lot of florid flattery: "Please do not slay us oh mighty slayers. We didn't realize it was you, great lords. Only allow us to live and we will serve you, bear your most unworthy burdens, clean you most noble clothing. We will be as your slaves, oh most mighty ones."

Also keep in mind that it's often a great time to change the way the PC's look at the world by having the PC's start encountering things when those things are about affairs that have nothing to do with the PCs, and force the PCs to decide how they want to relate to the world. Are they universally hostile to things that aren't hostile to them? Or are they going to consider trade in goods and information with beings that they formerly looked at only as foes?

You as a DM are not locked into trying to make the game work the same way at 10th or 15th level that it did at 1st level. The math does not need to work the same. The world does not need to work the same. The sort of encounters that the PC's have do not need to play the same.

That said, there are basically two sorts of low level enemies - those that become irrelevant and those that can still drain relevant resources. The first sort you will struggle to do anything with but Role Playing encounters at high level, but the second have what I call 'level invariant attacks'. Level invariant attacks vary from edition to edition and I'm not an expert in 5e, but in earlier editions they include things like: attacks that bypass AC, attacks that still do half-damage on a saving throw, attacks that don't get a saving throw, attacks that bypass hit points, and so forth.

A skilled DM should keep a list of the sort of things in the edition that are level invariant. For example, in many editions a splash weapons like burning oil bypass armor to a large extent so a low level creature with a vial of flaming oil can still drain resources. In many editions siege weapons bypass armor to large extent, so a crew of low level creatures with a siege weapon in the right situation can be a problem, as can low level creatures that can make any sort of trap. High level PC's are often relying on area of effect attacks to quickly clean up encounters with low level creatures, so if you instead spread the low level creatures out widely in all directions around the party, then the PC's attacks tend to be overkill. Grappling attacks tend to bypass the normal attack process to a large extent in many editions, so one possibility with low level creatures is that they just try to swarm over the PC and overwhelm them with numbers in a grapple. Each grappler may have a low chance of success, but if you allow 8-10 grapplers per PC eventually they may get lucky, and at the very least it's usually hard to cast spells and maintain concentration in a grapple.

At higher levels you have to up your game as a GM and design more involved encounters. Not only do you need to do this to keep the pressure on the PCs, you need to do this to keep experienced players from being bored. There is only so many times that you can be ambushed by monsters who have no apparent motivation on an empty stage with no terrain, who are attacking you by trying to close the range, get into melee and hope to survive to get in a few hits, before as a player you are completely bored. You might get through one campaign with a diet of that, but by campaign two you are going to need to improve your encounter design and add in weather, terrain, tactical variations, encounters with combined arms teams, three sided encounters, complex multi-stage encounters, encounters where either the PCs or the NPCs have particular goals in addition to eliminating the other side, and so forth.

Beyond changing tactics, you can also change what you use as a mook. In earlier editions I was always a big fan of mephits because they were pretty weak but they all tended to have level invariant attacks, ranged attacks, and flight - a combination that is perfect for a mook at higher levels.

As for the first solution that has occurred to you, it's not bad but I would suggest instead that you create a feat that encapsulates the idea of mooks swarming around less numerous foes, and then assume their are 'elite goblin light infantry' that have additional HD and this feat. So for example, I have a feat I often give to certain foes that doubles any flanking bonus - wolves for example have this feat as a racial bonus feat, and goblin infantry often has the feat. There is also a homebrew feat in my game called 'Pack Tactics' that gives you a bonus to hit and AC for each adjacent ally that is also adjacent to your target. For 5e, with its slightly different feat design, I'd probably combine the two ideas into a single 'Pack Tactics' feat. So at high levels you'd be encountering not just jungle goblins, but elite jungle goblin infantry with higher Dex, an extra HD, and the 'Pack Tactics' feat that gave them double the normal bonus for flanking plus a +1 bonus to AC and To Hit for each ally adjacent to them which was also adjacent to the enemy and which also had the 'Pack Tactics' feat. Then I'd design the encounter so that their was a covered spiked pit trap between the PC's and the obvious line of approach to the main body of forest goblins, and where 1 in 4 of the forest goblins also had a vial of flaming oil, and where several forest goblins had vantage points up in trees (with partial cover and partial concealment) from where they could snipe at the party with poisoned arrows, and where the forest goblins were supported by a low level spell caster such as a cleric or a bard. Or I'd have the jungle goblins try to throw weighted nets on the PC's, and have them set up to brachiate through the trees to engage in running battles where they took the high ground and had platforms with rocks on them that they'd throw down at PCs or containers of hornets that would break into mini-swarms, or vials of vegetable oil they'd break against tree boles to grease any player attempting to climb up to them.

Or have encounters like that in the dark during a thunderstorm with a flash flood going on.

Finally, don't let the dice ruin your game. If you ever roll a random encounter that you can't figure out how to make interesting, ignore it or select a different one.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Yeah, I treat random encounters as resource drains and time sinks. I also don't give full XP for them. The general suckiness of them at that point is a very strong tool for keeping the PCs moving. I use a random encounter die pool (props to AngryGM for the idea) and I find it works pretty well to keep things trucking along. The dice in the pool are tied pretty directly to PC actions and choices, not the general passage of time, so the party gets a sense of agency about the whole process.
 

CapnZapp

Hero
Low level encounters draining resources are exactly what they're used for. They aren't meant to be epic battles but to become stumbling blocks the party is better suited to avoid or find ways around that don't expend resources that are needed for the bigger fights. They aren't big fights in themselves; they make the other encounters more difficult to manage due to dwindling resources.
Yes, they should be used very sparingly; they're boring and pointless and suck up time you could spend on more exciting stuff.
 

CapnZapp

Hero
I frequently make these "environmental" random encounters matter by toeing them into stuff that matters - giving them ties to the PCs (backstory, race, background or class) or ties to the setting.
Point is, the module offers none of these things. You just meet a dozen goblin in the jungle, and lose half an hour's worth of playing time.
 

CapnZapp

Hero
Like [MENTION=463]S'mon[/MENTION], I use the alternate long rest rule. If you can get a long rest after every other fight, almost every fight can become trivial depending on your group.

But I also think tactics can make a huge difference. Have the goblins set up traps and ambushes. They never show up in fireball formation, they pop out of the woods fire some arrows and disappear into the jungle and show up again from somewhere else. Chase them? They've set up trip lines and snares.

Or just adjust the encounters. The random table calls for 5 goblins? Well, the goblins have heard of the group and they send 20. In waves. Add in some environmental hazards. Goblins for example are small and light. Maybe they can cross the quicksand while that half orc breaks through and sinks.
Or, you could just skip the encounter and have to do none of those things...?

It's not as if you're about to run out of content while exploring Chult...
 

CapnZapp

Hero
But ultimately, if the encounter is dinging the PCs for a few hit points here and a few spell slots there, over the course of an adventuring day this actually starts to add up, constraining the players' choices in later, more challenging situations. That's what they're supposed to do.
Yes, and that's boring as frak.
 

CapnZapp

Hero
One important aspect of low level encounters at high level is that they reinforce that the players relationship to the world has changed. What was once a terrifying encounter gradually becomes something that is not even relevant.

And also realistically, the world needs to recognize that the PCs have changed. Goblins bandits that previously charged into to rob, enslave, and eat the party are going to come to realize that this group of creatures is out of their league and their relationship is going to change. Instead of attempting to ambush the party they are going to attempt to evade or grovel and lick boots. As soon as the goblins realize they are in over their head, they are going to either flee or bow down and ask forgiveness with a lot of florid flattery: "Please do not slay us oh mighty slayers. We didn't realize it was you, great lords. Only allow us to live and we will serve you, bear your most unworthy burdens, clean you most noble clothing. We will be as your slaves, oh most mighty ones."
Absolutely.

Once you have done that one or three times, however, I suggest you simply stop doing it.

At higher levels you have to up your game as a GM and design more involved encounters. Not only do you need to do this to keep the pressure on the PCs, you need to do this to keep experienced players from being bored. There is only so many times that you can be ambushed by monsters who have no apparent motivation on an empty stage with no terrain, who are attacking you by trying to close the range, get into melee and hope to survive to get in a few hits, before as a player you are completely bored.
Tell that to the module writers, though...
 

CapnZapp

Hero
Yeah, I treat random encounters as resource drains and time sinks.
Funny that. I consider it good DMing to *avoid* resource drains and time sinks... When there's zero challenge, there's no fun. When there's no fun, what's the point in even playing?
 

Celebrim

Legend
Tell that to the module writers, though...
That you are running a module is no better of an excuse than "the dice made me do it". Don't let the module ruin your fun either.

Once you have done that one or three times, however, I suggest you simply stop doing it.
Might very much depend on what relationship develops between the goblins and the PCs. I've had players before that totally would be aboard going with the Evil Warlord route and think accumulating an army of goblin followers was awesome.

Otherwise, encounters of this sort tend to become summaries or handwaves where the players get the option to play them out if they want to. As in:

DM: "Late in the afternoon of the 10th day, you meet another group of goblin drovers, herding pigs through the forest. They eye you warily."
PCs: "Eh... move on? Yeah, we just move on."

UPDATE: I suppose there is a reasonable question as to why do even that much, because the answer isn't obvious.

The reason you have non-encounters is to create time and space. Right now the PC's are on a journey through territory that is new to them. And that territory is important. The jungle is an NPC in it's own right and it has a character and even the non-encounters build that character. Two minutes narrating even a non-eventful day means that the day existed and the sense of movement and time occurs. If you handwave past a large number of non-eventful days without touching on the reality of travel, they don't really happen and what you risk producing is the sense that the players have remained on a stage in the same spot the whole time, and the DM has simply changed out the backdrops.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
You could just have the NPCs or monsters do something other than mindlessly attack the PCs until slain. Perhaps they rush the PCs, try to steal something valuable, then run away. Maybe they trail the PCs at a safe distance, not making their intent known, and then when the PCs encounter something tougher, they jump into the fight to try to take out a single PC. You could also have it be a social interaction challenge rather than a combat - the NPCs have information or an item that is useful to the PCs, but have to be convinced to give it up.

But ultimately, if the encounter is dinging the PCs for a few hit points here and a few spell slots there, over the course of an adventuring day this actually starts to add up, constraining the players' choices in later, more challenging situations. That's what they're supposed to do. Not every encounter needs to have a high difficulty.
I'm very much with both parts of what Iserith says. First is that they aren't epic, but they are a resource drain and D&D is balanced around those.

But more importantly, they aren't just bags of HPs to defeat. They have a reason they are there and doing things. Maybe they see the PCs and run away to get more goblins and now it's a running chase where keeping them quiet and killing them quickly at range while rushing into unknown areas is the goal. (And goblins could be leading the PCs into a trap.)

Even non-intelligent creatures might end up using resources for a speak with animals and some food to convince them not to attack - and now they might have info for the players instead.

If you really don't like them, I enjoy the 13th Age montage system where you just got around the table and the players describe how they have dealt with a challenge, form a weak encounter to crossing a jungle. Short wall clock time, chance for the players to have some narrative chops. But it doesn't cover the D&D resource attrition that the module is expecting for a megadungeon.
 

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