D&D 5E Non Linear Adventures and Challenge Rating/Enemy Strength

bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
Wouldn't this result in making the order of adventures meaningless?
Rather than create a mechanical treadmill where each Baddie increases power at the same rate have some go up X, others not increase, maybe one is X-1 and another is X+3.
Factional play in the background would provide more meaning to the PC's choices.
And the total power is still what you desired.
 

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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I have a feeling that it doesn't really matter, and that trying to narratively justify mechanical differentiation is not going to end up being really necessary at the end of the day.

You've set up a campaign of seven adventures. That's cool. And the fact you've made them such that the players can purposefully pick up whichever adventures they want in whatever order they want tells us that the act of character leveling is not important to the narrative of the game. In other words, the campaign does not require the PCs to become "more powerful" to take on certain enemies-- in theory you could have the PCs never level up AT ALL and still accomplish the entirety of the campaign. The leveling is separate from the story.

That is a format that makes total sense and is completely doable. These adventures don't need PCs to level to finish the campaign... the PCs instead would level for the same reason we usually have PCs level-- as a "reward" for playing. You play your character long enough and well enough, you get rewarded by the game by gaining more abilities and other abilities to become more powerful, etc. You as a player get more fun stuff to use as you play. The PC doesn't really change from a narrative point of view, the leveling is actually for the player's benefit.

Which means that within the story of this campaign, the leveling of both PCs and monsters is not what the game is about. It's about these 7 BBEGs with their 7 individual stories. And thus if the PCs "gain a level" after they defeat a BBEG, it's purely from a game perspective as a reward for doing the job and not a narrative one for the characters having this grand evolution. And as a result I don't think you need a narrative reason to level up the other BBEGs either. Each remaining BBEG is more powerful when the players select that one to follow because the game needs the adventure to be interesting and risky and challenging for the players as they continue and level up.

Is this meta-reasoning? Sure. But all PC leveling on short in-game timescales is pretty much for meta-reasons as well, so accepting one while being sniffy towards the other to me is kind of pointless. The PCs are going to gain tremendous amounts of power within very short timeframes (in-game) within your campaign, so the monsters doing to same to me is absolutely fine and you don't need to narratively justify it.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
What I am hoping to figure out how to do is avoid a situation in which the adventures in the campaign are built for APL 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 (for example) which essentially orders them for the players even they ostensibly have the choice to do them in any order.

NOT having an progression is certainly one way to do it. Leveling everything with the PCs is another way. I am having trouble figuring out a third alternative that feels more organic.
 

aco175

Legend
What I am hoping to figure out how to do is avoid a situation in which the adventures in the campaign are built for APL 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 (for example) which essentially orders them for the players even they ostensibly have the choice to do them in any order.
You still need to offer quests for what is out there. To make the kobold king and the old dragon of the swamp fit into either level 4 or level 9 depending on what the players want to tackle first is the problem. Unless you are not telling them what is there and only telling them the woods next to town or the swamp 2 days away. Then you can quantum ogre the whole thing.

I guess you can flex the whole thing depending on what the players want and then design the dungeons right before play. The players want to take on the dragon of the swamp at level 4, then you design a skeletal dragon and some goblin worshippers instead of something more dangerous if they waited until level 9. Same with waiting until level 9 to tackle the kobold king. In this case, he managed to get some giants to come over to his side. It would keep things a bit of a surprise even for yourself.

You would still need a bit of all the bad guys and some locations. Add some filler for along the road to break things a bit and allow for you to design as you go.
 

Stalker0

Legend
So there is a by the book way to do this.

Set the base CR of boss 1 compared to the party’s level to set whatever standard challenge you are looking for.

For boss 2 set the new CR to create the same challenge for a party of player level + 1. Then use the dmg stats for that new CR to give you the core HP, AC, damage of boss 2.

Then boss 3 cr is set for party level + 2, etc.

This is a nice baseline. You are likely going to have to add in more as this style of scaling only works so well, but it is the “official” way to scale up challenge.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I am not effectively explaining myself, partly because I am still trying to figure out if it is even possible. The goal is to create a non linear campaign composed of discrete "adventures" (be they BBEGs, dungeons, whatever) that can be tackled in whatever order the players like but are still part of a larger, plotted adventure. I am not talking about just running a sandbox. That's a different thing entirely.

"These five items need collected from these 5 dungeons in order to defeat the BBEG. You pick which order."

Assuming the PCs are going to increase in power (levels, items, etc) of the course of the thing, is there a way to make it so either a) there is not an inherent order because of different APL CRs of the 5 things, or b) just adjusting each to the party level when they choose that path. The latter bothers me. The former seems hard to figure out.

I guess if the PCs are in the "sweet spot" for the duration of the campaign (levels 5-9, say) you could build all the challenges to fit somewhere in those limits.
 

Voadam

Legend
The way I do this is to not sweat the specific stat blocks until the PCs get to their choice of specific adventure then make the encounter challenges mechanically level appropriate.

It is fairly easy to find an appropriate CR stat block that works thematically for the concept and reskin the description to fit your BBEG or minions and such. There are a ton of variant ghouls or trolls or whatever across a range of CRs so picking something close that is level appropriate is usually fairly easy in my experience, though I do have a number of 5e monster sourcebooks to draw from.

Narratively you give them the multiple choices in the beginning and as they go through the parts the thematics all work and are consistent. The fact that the stat blocks are level appropriate means the challenges feel appropriately easy or hard or whatever.
 

Sparky McDibben

Adventurer
The way I do this is to not sweat the specific stat blocks until the PCs get to their choice of specific adventure then make the encounter challenges mechanically level appropriate.

Mechanically, that's a great way to do it, but I have had some rough experiences weaving that into the world. For example, if I tell the PCs that one of the adventures I've set up has an adult red dragon as a boss (via rumors, etc), then they know what to expect. If they wait to take that guy on until level 20, though, they're over-leveled for that opponent and balance gets trashed, resulting in an unsatisfying fight. Admittedly I'm using a dramatic example here, but I hope y'all get the point I'm making.

I think this can be countered in a few ways:
  • Reskinning: Sure, you can always palette-swap that adult red dragon to an ancient red dragon, and probably no one will notice (or be polite enough not to point it out if they do). This feels unsatisfying to me because it basically nullifies the player's choice - they waited specifically so they could trash a bad guy and feel really awesome doing it. If I inflate the bad guy's stats to challenge them, I've just made their choice meaningless.
  • Proactive Bad Guys: The PCs don't know if they're at an appropriate level to deal with a bad guy, sure, but you do. Why not just have the bad guys come a-knockin'? If they start doing Bad Guy Stuff in front of the PCs, you're signalling to the PCs that these guys are a problem. And of course, you can always have the Bad Guys come after the PCs' resources and connections, too.
  • Smart Bad Guys: Otherwise known as the Tucker's Kobolds approach. Assume the bad guys have connections, resources, and networks of their own. They've been hearing about the PCs' exploits, and have taken countermeasures. That adult red dragon? Well, it's now hiring mercenaries to set ambushes between its lair and the PCs base, or launching full-scale attacks on the PCs' allies. Or maybe it's started lending the PCs' allies money, with some very onerous terms and conditions (like coming it the dragon's aid if it's attacked). It never faces the PCs in its own lair, either, breaking up its hoard and spreading it around to multiple lairs, each with layers of traps and defenses to slow the PCs down, not to mention false entrances, false lairs, etc. It no longer uses basic poison, it uses wyvern venom.
Just my two cents.
 

Voadam

Legend
Mechanically, that's a great way to do it, but I have had some rough experiences weaving that into the world. For example, if I tell the PCs that one of the adventures I've set up has an adult red dragon as a boss (via rumors, etc), then they know what to expect. If they wait to take that guy on until level 20, though, they're over-leveled for that opponent and balance gets trashed, resulting in an unsatisfying fight. Admittedly I'm using a dramatic example here, but I hope y'all get the point I'm making.

I think this can be countered in a few ways:
  • Reskinning: Sure, you can always palette-swap that adult red dragon to an ancient red dragon, and probably no one will notice (or be polite enough not to point it out if they do). This feels unsatisfying to me because it basically nullifies the player's choice - they waited specifically so they could trash a bad guy and feel really awesome doing it. If I inflate the bad guy's stats to challenge them, I've just made their choice meaningless.
  • Proactive Bad Guys: The PCs don't know if they're at an appropriate level to deal with a bad guy, sure, but you do. Why not just have the bad guys come a-knockin'? If they start doing Bad Guy Stuff in front of the PCs, you're signalling to the PCs that these guys are a problem. And of course, you can always have the Bad Guys come after the PCs' resources and connections, too.
  • Smart Bad Guys: Otherwise known as the Tucker's Kobolds approach. Assume the bad guys have connections, resources, and networks of their own. They've been hearing about the PCs' exploits, and have taken countermeasures. That adult red dragon? Well, it's now hiring mercenaries to set ambushes between its lair and the PCs base, or launching full-scale attacks on the PCs' allies. Or maybe it's started lending the PCs' allies money, with some very onerous terms and conditions (like coming it the dragon's aid if it's attacked). It never faces the PCs in its own lair, either, breaking up its hoard and spreading it around to multiple lairs, each with layers of traps and defenses to slow the PCs down, not to mention false entrances, false lairs, etc. It no longer uses basic poison, it uses wyvern venom.
Just my two cents.
Another option would be 3e style the adult red dragon has a template and a bunch of class levels to bring it up to an appropriate CR for whatever challenge you want it to be narratively.

"Just an orc" had a different meaning when that orc could be a 17th level barbarian.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Another option would be 3e style the adult red dragon has a template and a bunch of class levels to bring it up to an appropriate CR for whatever challenge you want it to be narratively.

"Just an orc" had a different meaning when that orc could be a 17th level barbarian.
This is still just boosting the enemies to be level appropriate when the PCs walk through the door, which is one of two things I was trying to avoid.
 

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