Unearthed Arcana Unearthed Arcana Presents Alternative Encounter Building Guidelines

WotC's Mike Mearls has posted the latest Unearthed Arcana, presenting an alternate set of encounter-building guidelines for D&D. "Though this approach uses the same basic math underlying the encounter system presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it makes a few adjustments to how it presents that math to produce a more flexible system. These guidelines will be of interest to DMs who want to emphasize combat in their games, who want to ensure that a foe isn’t too deadly for a specific group of characters, and who want to understand the relationship between a character’s level and a monster’s challenge rating."

It's four pages, and includes various tables divided into a series of five steps - Assess the Characters, Encounter Size, Determine Numbers and Challenge Ratings, Select Monsters, and Add Complications. The latter step includes d8 monster personalities, d6 monster relationships, terrain, traps, and random events. Find it here.


Original post by MechaTarrasque said:
At the D&D website:
 
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Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
High-level encounter guidelines are completely borked, and probably always will be. Recently, I threw four CR 10 monsters at a group of three level 12 characters. They didn't even break a sweat. According to the DMG, this encounter was 3-4x harder than Deadly. No one was knocked unconscious. No one was even badly hurt. The thought of throwing ONE CR 12 monster at a high-level group and expecting a challenge is laughable.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
They actually have the gall to say it's simple to build a solo encounter. What utter crock.

Once more a pseudo-scientific approach involving tables and numbers that somehow does not take into consideration the party's makeup and individul capabilities. Sigh.

It should be criminal to unload such profoundly unhelpful BS on new players :hmm:
 

delericho

Legend
High-level encounter guidelines are completely borked, and probably always will be.

Well, yes. They're now at a point where they face two big problems:

Firstly, during the playtest they chose to focus most of their effort on the low levels, taking the view that they could get the high-level stuff working later. Unfortunately, you can't add quality into a system; you have to design it in, so now that the game is out there it's too late. (On the other hand, it was probably a wise choice - the vast majority of play is, and always will be, at low levels, so better to make those rock solid. A great many people may never get to high levels, and a lot of those who do will simply respond to the problems by just starting a new campaign. Since they didn't have an infinite playtest budget, better to focus where it would do most good.)

Secondly, though, as levels go up, the capabilities of characters become ever more divergent - a high-level party of two Fighters and two Rogues is inevitably very different from one with a Wizard, a Cleric, a Druid, and a Bard (and moreso even than the low-level equivalents). Building encounter guidelines to focus on that is probably a fool's errand anyway.

It's four pages, and includes various tables divided into a series of five steps - Assess the Characters, Encounter Size, Determine Numbers and Challenge Ratings, Select Monsters, and Add Complications. The latter step includes d8 monster personalities, d6 monster relationships, terrain, traps, and random events.

The article sounded interesting, especially the "terrain, traps, and random events." It's just a shame that the advice on these three items amounts to, "yeah, maybe have some?"
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
High-level encounter guidelines are completely borked, and probably always will be. Recently, I threw four CR 10 monsters at a group of three level 12 characters. They didn't even break a sweat. According to the DMG, this encounter was 3-4x harder than Deadly. No one was knocked unconscious. No one was even badly hurt. The thought of throwing ONE CR 12 monster at a high-level group and expecting a challenge is laughable.

I'm not saying you've done this (I don't have any details on how you ran this encounter), but most of the times when I've seen arguments like this ("the encounter should have been super deadly but was a cakewalk!!), often the monsters and/or environment were ran by the DM to the benefit of the characters. E.g., many times the monsters were treated like bags of HP that just waltzed into battle without taking into consideration how said monster would normally act if it were a real living being, or they completely ignored any factors of the environment that would have given them an advantage in battle.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Secondly, though, as levels go up, the capabilities of characters become ever more divergent - a high-level party of two Fighters and two Rogues is inevitably very different from one with a Wizard, a Cleric, a Druid, and a Bard (and moreso even than the low-level equivalents). Building encounter guidelines to focus on that is probably a fool's errand anyway.

This is exactly right. It's why encounter guidelines are only just guidelines, and there is no substitute for knowing the game and having the experience to know what feels right for your gaming table. I've never used encounter building rules since I started in 1981. In fact, I don't recall there even being rules until 3e, is that correct?
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
So, commentary on the new stuff:

  • Numbers and Challenge Ratings: A weak element is that they don't tend to define what "deadly" or "appropriate" means - appropriate after 5-7 other encounters have sapped party resources? Appropriate for the only encounter in the day? Deadly in that it is probably going to kill a PC? Deadly in that it might kill a PC? Deadly in that it might be a TPK? So much of encounter design is making sure your rules give DMs something similar to what they expect will happen, but "deadly" might mean very different things to different DMs in different contexts.
  • Solo Monsters: I'm glad that they're explicit that you should use a Legendary creature to challenge an entire party, if it's being fought alone. It's also interesting that they're recommending going above-CR, which is counter in some ways to the DMG advice.
  • Multiple Monsters: super dang useful. This is like the meat of this article. This brings me back to 4e's easy peasy "1 monster = 1 PC" rules, with more granularity and a broader level range. You can see 5e's preference for MORE MONSTERS pretty clearly here. Yes, go ahead and throw CR 1/8 creatures at a level 10 party.
  • Monster Selection / Party Assessment: man, this is a lot of legwork. I get that there's no efficient way to lock down party performance to a number, so this step is always at least a little necessary, but I guess this is where I diverge from the intended audience of the information: I'm totally comfortable not doing this work and letting the dice fall where they may, one-hit-kills and all. Someone more concerned about combat balance might not like that, and so telling them explicitly, "hey, if you want to get granular about this, don't let the CR calcs do all the work for you, get in the weeds and DO this" is probably useful.
  • Complications This section is gold, and I'm using it tonight. I love the advice to "consider white might happen in an encounter area if the characters were to never enter it."
 

timbannock

Adventurer
This is exactly right. It's why encounter guidelines are only just guidelines, and there is no substitute for knowing the game and having the experience to know what feels right for your gaming table. I've never used encounter building rules since I started in 1981. In fact, I don't recall there even being rules until 3e, is that correct?

Certainly not in any form that even attempted to "mechanize" the process. I recall AD&D 2nd edition having some words on the subject, but it was extremely vague and amounted to a little bit of "comparing hit dice to PC levels" and then a whole lot of "wing it!".

3E was my first experience with a more codified system, and like nearly everything else, I think they want too far in one direction with it, creating expectations on later editions (and in other games) that simply cannot be met. They are called "guidelines" in almost every instance, but they are criticized and pulled apart as if they are supposed to be a science, which is an illogical position.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
It should be criminal to unload such profoundly unhelpful BS on new players :hmm:

If they are new players, they won't have the CharOp and min-max knowledge of the system to necessarily create characters that will cakewalk over the encounters the document presents.

Just because you and your table have played and worked the game to the point where you can slaughter everything in your path in no way means the default or new player can accomplish the same thing. Hell, I have a table of relatively new players that have been playing for a little less than a year and who still forget handfuls of combat abilities they have every combat. So I couldn't assume how they would do in any of these encounter builds if I tried. So let's let actual new players run and play through these guidelines before determining whether they are useless.
 
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AaronOfBarbaria

Adventurer
...involving tables and numbers that somehow does not take into consideration the party's makeup and individul capabilities. Sigh.
It is genuinely impossible for the tables and numbers to successfully apply to every party makeup and set of individual capabilities - that's why these tables and numbers are accompanied by an explanation of how to use them successfully, which includes this under Step1: Assess the Characters:

"But though character level is important, you should also take note of each characters' hit point maximum and saving throw modifiers, as well as how much damage the strongest combatants or spellcasters can inflict with a single attack. Even though character level and challenge rating are useful tools for defining the difficulty of an encounter, they don't tell the whole story, and you'll make use of these additional character statistics when you select monsters for an encounter in step 4."

(emphasis mine)

And step 4 tells you, to paraphrase, to make sure the damage to hit point ratios aren't obviously not what you are looking for.
 


I tend to think any encounter building guidelines are doomed to fail. Especially in 5e, which has such power variability between characters.
Perfect encounter guideline would have to take into account the number of daily resources remaining to the party, the number of magic items, the optimization of the characters, the synergy between the characters, how lucky the players are, the tactical skill of all players, the terrain, encounter distance, surprise, and more.

An encounter at medium range with a melee heavy party in the middle of an adventuring day will unfold vastly differently compared to that same encounter at the beginning of a day for a party focused on ranged combat.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
High-level encounter guidelines are completely borked, and probably always will be. Recently, I threw four CR 10 monsters at a group of three level 12 characters. They didn't even break a sweat. According to the DMG, this encounter was 3-4x harder than Deadly. No one was knocked unconscious. No one was even badly hurt. The thought of throwing ONE CR 12 monster at a high-level group and expecting a challenge is laughable.

If we want to analyze this by the new rules, let's get a character assessment and a monster assessment, too. We'll need each characters' HP maximum and saving throw modifiers, as well as the highest damage they could inflict with a single round (let's say "round" to take into account extra attack) going into the fight. We'll also need the monster's hit points (compared to that damage), attack damage (compared to those HP totals), saving throw DC's (compared to the party's saves) and saving throws (compared to the party's save DC's).

It would probably also be relevant to look at any magic items the party might be holding (since those would put them ahead of the curve).

Or more briefly, like the article points out, "Even though character level and challenge rating are useful tools for defining the difficulty of an encounter, they don’t tell the whole story."
 

Shadow Demon

Explorer
It is my belief that if a DM wishes to completely ignore step 1 then none of these guidelines are going to work unless the party is comprised of 4 characters (fighter, rogue, thief, and wizard) only with no feats and no multiclassing run by group of new players.
 

I've never used encounter building rules since I started in 1981. In fact, I don't recall there even being rules until 3e, is that correct?
I started the year earlier, and that's how I remember it. There was some advice in the 1e DMG, and there were implications about monster 'level' here and there, in summoning spells and encounter tables, and many thing keying off HD/levels as if they were equivalent. But nothing like CR until 3e, and nothing that 'worked' in the least dependably or simply until 4e.

It's perhaps ironic that 5e, in trying so hard to be (or at least feel) 'simpler' in other ways (particularly BA) has managed to saddle itself with such a complex-seeming set of encounter guidelines. But, ultimately, most of us probably don't need them, anyway - experience and the freedom 5e allows us as DMs is enough to handle 'balancing' encounters (and adventuring days and divergent PC power levels, etc) - whether intuitively or on the fly or more carefully beforehand, with or without such guidelines (though having them, even if only to give a once-over or ignore, is better than not). It all just becomes part of the art of running a good game, and that becomes second nature.

It is my belief that if a DM wishes to completely ignore step 1 then none of these guidelines are going to work unless the party is comprised of 4 characters (fighter, rogue, thief, and wizard) only with no feats and no multiclassing run by group of new players.
That just might be exactly the situation that a new DM sits down to run. New players, with basic pdf characters.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Its a step in the right direction. Easier to use then what is in the DMG, no over-correcting for multiple combatants, and a much more robust approach to solos.

But there is a discrepancy between the multi-monster tables and the solo one. Which is probably on purpose--solos need all the help they can get--but that should probably be clearer.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
I'm not saying you've done this (I don't have any details on how you ran this encounter), but most of the times when I've seen arguments like this ("the encounter should have been super deadly but was a cakewalk!!), often the monsters and/or environment were ran by the DM to the benefit of the characters.
I got into D&D through turn-based strategy games, so I know how to utilize tactics and terrain to my advantage. This particular encounter (four CR 10 monsters vs. three level 12 PCs) was definitely NOT stacked in the players' favor, nor was it atypical. In fact, I've been throwing nothing BUT Deadly encounters at my high-level group for a while now, because they're the only ones that are remotely challenging.

My low-level group, meanwhile, almost TPK'd against three bugbears, and then again against a band of orcs (we're running Lost Mine of Phandelver), so it's not that I don't know how to run encounters. It's that the encounter-building guidelines are really only useful for low-level groups. After level 9 or so, they are so off-base as to be completely useless, especially for players who have optimized their characters with feats and multiclassing (which REALLY pay off after level 9).

I'm not complaining, though. I like building encounters, and I know my group well enough to challenge them without the help of guidelines. But it's worth pointing out -- especially to newer DMs -- that you can't rely on these guidelines for high-level groups.
 

If we want to analyze this by the new rules, let's get a character assessment and a monster assessment, too. We'll need each characters' HP maximum and saving throw modifiers, as well as the highest damage they could inflict with a single round (let's say "round" to take into account extra attack) going into the fight. We'll also need the monster's hit points (compared to that damage), attack damage (compared to those HP totals), saving throw DC's (compared to the party's saves) and saving throws (compared to the party's save DC's).

It would probably also be relevant to look at any magic items the party might be holding (since those would put them ahead of the curve).

Or more briefly, like the article points out, "Even though character level and challenge rating are useful tools for defining the difficulty of an encounter, they don’t tell the whole story."

This is exactly right. Really, you need to tailor your higher level encounters to the party. Choose monsters that you think will be a challenge for your group. Have Tanks with high AC? Target their weak saves. Have mages who can attack from a distance? Find ways to counter them. Don't let the group fight the solo mob when they are fresh! Soften them up, make them work toward the boss.

In one group I'm running, the party is 10th level and I placed them against a solo Blood Elemental (custom monster...I'm A Banana is in this group). According to the chart in the Unearthed Arcana, this was a moderate encounter. I very nearly killed the group; one or two of them went down during the fight, and almost everyone was out of resources.

It really is familiarity with the rules. I've had a few encounters that I thought would be a cakewalk for the group, but turned out to nearly be a TPK. Conversely, I've had encounters I thought would be extremely difficult, but the group was able to walk all over the encounter with hardly a scratch.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
It is my belief that if a DM wishes to completely ignore step 1 then none of these guidelines are going to work unless the party is comprised of 4 characters (fighter, rogue, thief, and wizard) only with no feats and no multiclassing run by group of new players.
So, a group of newish players following baseline expectations (possibly even Basic D&D) and no optional rules. Sounds like the type of group who could use serious help building encounters.

After all, I think those of us who are more seasoned have a better sense of how to gauge our groups and account on-the-fly for issues that arise during play. I know that when planning encounters for my campaign, I am capable of thinking in terms of what tactics my players are likely to employ. I have no problem with most "official" help being aimed at players who lack my level of familiarity, comfort, and/or expertise with the rules. By the time most of the issues described in this thread appear, hopefully the DM will have had a chance to develop end get a better feel for things themselves.
 

Optimized groups always steamroll encounters if they are allowed to play on their battlefield. But then it stops being a real roleplaying game and starts being a wargame. The borders are blurry though and there are groups that enjoy both. If you balance the game for optimizers then average players who don't spend time on these forums are hopelessly lost.
Also if the DM also optimizes and picks monsters carefully, even lower level encounters may be deadly. But that is seen as unfair by optimizers because the DM exploits weaknesses...
 

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