log in or register to remove this ad


5E How do you create your encounters?

When do you create a combat encounter, how do you do it?

  • I use XP Thresholds from the DMG

    Votes: 9 16.7%
  • I use Xanathar's Guidelines

    Votes: 2 3.7%
  • I just wing it

    Votes: 28 51.9%
  • I use/modify encounters from adventures and random tables

    Votes: 1 1.9%
  • Other, please explain in thread

    Votes: 14 25.9%

  • Total voters


DMs and adventure writers, when you've got to make a combat encounter, what is your process to do so? If you've used different tools, which do you find most helpful?

log in or register to remove this ad


Archdevil's Advocate
I use the DMG guidelines. Not because I think they're perfect but they are a decent guideline to be on track. But huge set pieces are mostly just winged with a little DMG guidance. The in-between encounters are never deadly, rarely hard, mostly medium and sometimes easy, purposefully.

It's cool to die after surviving against the vampire lord for 4 rounds, doing significant damage that allowed the rest of your team to prevail. It is not cool to die from the vampire's thrall that only killed your character because he crit.


Small God of the Dozens
Well, I don't write combat encounters. Does that sound pretentious? Really though, I write encounters that include obstacles, some of which could be overcome by combat, but could also be overcome or avoided in other ways. I try to have an encounter goal for both the PCs and the party that aren't about swinging swords. Sure, swords out can often be the answer, but that's usually in the service of a greater goal.

As for balance, I have a serious lack of faith in the CR system and I mostly don't use it except as the most general of guidelines. If I go on the low end for CR and play it to the hilt it can still kill party members. I also like to go high sometimes so that the players don't get complacent thinking everything is leveled for their slaying pleasure. I won't spring the highball on the party though, it'll be telegraphed and the PCs get to make some choices about how lucky they feel.


I look at the DMG/Xanathar guidelines as a baseline, but I wing it and run quick 'fast and dirty' versions of the combats to make sure the balance is within reason. If you don't try to make every combat deadly, it is generally not a problem at all to wing it for most encounters.

I just wing it most of the time. I have a pretty decent handle on what makes a challenging potentially deadly encounter without killing too many PCs. I have no problem killing them if they do something stupid or the dice go bad for them. But if Ive clearly made an encounter that is well beyond their means then I'll give them clues and an out then let them escape. If theyre too dumb to take the opportunity to flee and fight another day then its out of my hands at that point. Nowadays we only play about 3 hours at a time so I only plan one larger encounter per game. When I was running longer sessions I would use the DMG sometimes to create encounters/adventures.



...I 'write' encounters based on the world particulars. I could honestly care less about that capabilities the PC's have if it's an encounter anywhere other than a "dungeon" (re: specific local that is placed in the world and not 'part of' the world, like a swamp, city, etc). If it is in a "dungeon", then, before the PC's even get there (re: weeks in advance) I say "Ok, I have 5 PC's and they're all about level 4". That's it. After that, everything I create in the "dungeon" makes sense for that dungeon.

If the PC's don't have a cleric and there is a sub-level of the dungeon infested with undead and ruled by a Specter...well, tough nilbog's to them. Not my problem. Oh, what's that? They found a door that I had be magically wizard locked and they don't have a magic-user with a means to bypass it? shrug I guess they don't get past it then. Again, not my problem. Huh? They're in a small town and they just killed the mayors a-hole son? And the mayor is a retired 14th level Thief? Well, I guess I'll just start handing out blank character sheets now, because chances are every single one of those 4th level PC's will die from his vengeful hand...unless they do some amazing talking, reasoning and roleplaying!

In short: My job is to present a believable world with a consistency to it that allows the Players to make reasonably informed decisions. It is NOT my job to make sure their choices lead to success or failure. That's all on them. In other words, I don't "build encounters" to the PC's strengths or weaknesses. :)


Paul L. Ming

the Jester

This should really be multiple choice.

I decide what makes sense for the world. "Just wing it" is close, but inexact enough that I don't feel that it really represents my answer. Also, when I'm running a canned adventure, I use or modifier the encounters in it.


I used to use the guidelines in the books, but now I wing it. I usually have 6-8 players. Charts tend to break down when you have that many PC opportunities.


When I plan an encounter I let an online encounter calculator like Kobold Fight Club do the math for me. Having different multipliers for different numbers of monsters makes my head spin.
If I have to come up with something on the fly, I usually just eyeball it.

Li Shenron

DMs and adventure writers, when you've got to make a combat encounter, what is your process to do so? If you've used different tools, which do you find most helpful?

I mostly run older editions adventures converting them to 5e.

I start by simply assuming I will use whatever monsters are in the original encounter, in their 5e MM/VGtM form obviously.

I check their 5e CR first, and if it feels too high compared to the PCs then I make a choice: either I design a favorable situation for the PCs (e.g. the monsters are easy to surprise or bypass, weaker versions with less HP, more friendly than expected, something in the environment can be used to great advantage...) or I use different monsters.

Then I calculate the XP-based encounter difficulty level as per DMG, and adjust the number of monsters up or down. However, I don't really want to fully control encounter difficulty, so in many cases I only check the CR and leave the rest be.

I don't care if I end up with some pushover, and the occasional unbeatable encounter, I value variety and unpredictability more than having a "perfectly balanced" adventuring day which feels like babysitting to me. The players decide how to manage their resources accordingly and when to rest, and it is fine for an adventure to be easy on the combat side while maybe hard on the plot, and another being the opposite. I am also willing to openly tell the players what is the difficulty level of an encounter before it's too late.


DMs and adventure writers, when you've got to make a combat encounter, what is your process to do so? If you've used different tools, which do you find most helpful?

I have my own method that's evolved which I guess you could call the "Holistic Encounter Script" method. It's a very multifactorial process that involves lots of cross-referencing between the monster's stats, the environment, and the PC's sheets. The most important part is to have a story for the prepared combat encounter – a reason for the players to care, something that changes during the combat to keep things fresh, thought about how the monsters/NPCs tactics, and a satisfying conclusion (or twist ending).

One of my favorite tools that I just found this year is the Big List of Combat Stakes. Someone did an infographic version of this that's pretty sweet, but can't locate it at the moment.

When balancing encounters – I lean toward fewer, but harder encounters – my litmus test for balance involves checking on a couple questions including:
  • Is there a monster that can, in one round, one-shot a fresh PC? In other words, is there a monster that can deal so much damage to take down a theoretical PC (whose HP value is equal to the party's approximately average HP) down to negative their HP value in one round? If so, that's a cue that the encounter may be overpowered and needs a closer look.
  • Is there a monster that can, in one round, reduce all fresh PCs to 0 HP? If so, that's also a cue that the encounter may be overpowered and needs a closer look.
  • Is there a monster that a certain group of PCs at that level (e.g. warriors without magic weapons, or spellcasters relying on magic) cannot harm? If so, then I need to include improvised options in that encounter, like a brazier or lake of fire for a low-level party facing a flesh golem.
  • Can the monster outright kill a PC by reducing them to 0 HP, inflict a permanent condition, or otherwise disable/kill a PC by circumventing hit points? If so, that's a monster I need to foreshadow or, if there's no build-up, then I need to think more carefully about how to present it in the encounter.

I design my encounters broadly using the DMG guidelines.

Before I do that, I do the really important bit that a lot of DMs dont do; I frame the encounters within the adventuring 'day'.

Basically my routine goes:

1) Start with a premise or theme. I ask myself what the PCs are doing and what happens if they fail? In this example it'll be an Undead infested tomb as my theme, with the PC mission to stop a Necromancer from completing a ritual at midnight. Failure by the PCs leads to an undead army terrorising the nearby area and a ton of undead encounters for the next month or so.
2) Map out the area the encounters will be set in (map out the undead tomb)
3) Design encounters for those areas using the DMG guidelines (encounter areas within the tomb)
4) Place areas to rest in (not really needed any more as I use 5 minute short rests/ max 2 per long rest)
5) Design hooks for the adventure

I try and make each encounter unique and dynamic, with a mix of mooks plus a 'leader' type or a 'heavy' type, or both. I also like trying to slot a Legendary monster in there somewhere. A trap or two will sometimes substitute for an encounter. Ill turn my mind to special terrain features and dynamic terrain for encounters as well.

All in all I spend probably around 2-3 hours in prep for a quest that lasts 1-3 sessions, and 1 adventuring day.


I made a spreadsheet that automatically calculates both the DMG guidelines and PEL. Then I use those to make a determination (the DMG is more accurate with creatures in a tight CR band, whereas PEL works better if there's a range). Since I uploaded it to Google Sheets, it's easy to do even on my phone.

I design areas that could be considered encounters, but they're simply placements of creatures based on the logical layout of the situation. If I'm concerned about an encounter that MUST be faced, I'll check the setup against XGtE to make sure it's nothing stupid weak or strong. In general, I err towards making something too hard than too easy.


1. I don't assume combat will happen.

2. As a DM, I like to be surprised, so I start by rolling on the random encounter tables in the AD&D 1E DMG appendices and generally follow the procedures there for dungeon, outdoor, and urban encounters, rolling for numbers of creatures. For example, for outdoor encounters, I'll roll the number of monsters appearing and check the "in lair" frequency from the AD&D 1E MM.

3. I calculate the encounter's adjusted XP using the DMG guidelines to make sure it doesn't exceed the party's adjusted XP per day and reduce the number of monsters if necessary. I use morale checks for monsters in combat and have found this balances pretty well. I've had some very close fights but haven't even killed a PC yet using this method.

4. I roll monster hit points.

4. For outdoor encounters, if needed, I randomly generate a map using "Designing For Unique Wilderness Encounters" from the October, 1977 issue of The Dragon.

5. I roll for the monster's Starting Attitude using my own conversion of the AD&D 1E DMG encounter reaction table which takes into account difference in the alignments of the monster and the party members and the basic acceptability to the monster of the peoples to which the party members belong.


I wing it. Sort of.

I decide what type of creatures would work thematically and then go from there. I look at the short list of options I've given myself, and try to build something that is tough but fair for the players. Sometimes that requires me to beef up the stat block or create a mini-boss from the 'regular' monster stat block.

Ash Mantle

When I was running games for my friends, Kobold Fight Club was the life saver and the gift maker. I'd budget encounters using that superb tool, and I'd have a premade list of encounters to roll with for the occasion, based on a prediction of what the players would encounter where they went. This is why premades were so great, I'll just insert player focused material on top of the skeleton of the adventure.
With these encounters I'd try to work in the environment and terrain as much as possible, nudging my players to utilise the environment to the best of their ability. So, I'll describe fallen logs across their path, if there was the option of cover, and I'll describe structures of varying height, if height advantage was something that could be utilised, and of course monsters could make use of all of these as well. I tended to budget my encounters towards the Deadly side, but these fights were always memorable!

Scott Christian

I really appreciate the people who can wing it. I've played under several DM's that can, and it's fun to watch. I used to be that way, but the story was always a lot looser.

I chose other. I use xp threshold sometimes, but it has to fit the story. I had a party enter a glacial cave as a back entrance to a frost giant's home. Obviously, halfway between I want a remorhaz halfway. I mean, who wouldn't? (And it fit the story line and highlighted one of the character's powers.) But, they were too strong for a young remorhaz and too weak for an adult. So I made one in between. But that locale, with the frost giant, and the logic of what was going on dictated that one would live there.

I design areas that could be considered encounters, but they're simply placements of creatures based on the logical layout of the situation. If I'm concerned about an encounter that MUST be faced, I'll check the setup against XGtE to make sure it's nothing stupid weak or strong. In general, I err towards making something too hard than too easy.

Pretty much exactly this. I also try to look at the 6-8 encounter guideline, and if I'm lowballing, I make the encounters harder.

It was very different in 4E, where the encounter-building was a thing of beauty (after the monster-math fix), so it made sense to build encounter-encounters. In 3E I had to wing it as the CR guidelines were actively misleading. 2E obviously was a case of winging it, as guidelines were very loose indeed.
Last edited:

Halloween Horror For 5E