Deconstructions & Dragons

Running more and more of 5e, and I'm questioning a lot of the assumptions of D&D. Volo's plays around with how some of the monsters work and their statblocks, so last session involved some monsters that were easy to hit (low AC) with a decent amount of HP and multiple low-damage attacks (making them likely to strike and whittle away at HPs). The monsters had a bonus to some ability scores and a penalty to others, and it suddenly was apparent to me that it didn't really matter.

Does a monster having a +10% chance to succeed on a saving throw actually matter? What about a monster with an Armor Class of 15 vs. 13? Does that design component really add anything to the gameplay experience? In theory, yes; in practice, possibly.

On the players' side of things, mechanical fiddliness matters. In the course of a campaign and many rolls, the mechanical complexity creates a noticeable difference. Mechanical distinctness between characters matters to some players. Likewise, Power escalation is a core principle of D&D, and I think that removing it would be a mistake (the zero-to-hero arc).

Yet there's a part of me that wonders if the game of D&D would be missing anything if it stripped away the majority of this complexity from the DM's side of things. To reframe the question: how much of the "D&D experience" is based on the numerical treadmill? You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.
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Comments

  • This goes further than D&D. The whole "target number" and "numerical scale" simulation apparatus seems like an old joke to me. Don't "many rolls" put randomness between brackets in the end ? Managing "charges" could be enough, but are there not more efficient pacing mechanism ? (and so on)
  • edited June 4
    It depends.

    I think the "D&D experience" is different depending on when you played it.
    I mean, AD&D is different than 5th Edition. And it depends on the DM.

    For me, not much. I mean so much is hand-wavy anyway.

    I prefer asking whether all that math and detail made play seem valuable.
    I play board games, where math and fun, don't seem like terrible bedfellows, but story and math, I think are separate, or at least two very different modalities.

    Oh, and there's many stripped-down versions of D&D.
  • And I think the heroic arc that people think happens in D&D is pretty lousy.
  • edited June 4
    In theory, ratcheting up numbers allows for "more stuff" instead of just the exact same experience with higher numbers. This has a variety of practical impacts, though. In 3e, this resulted in magic-users going bonkers and destroying non-magical class niches at higher levels. "More stuff" happened in all kinds of ways in 4e, and you could see encounters often stretching out a lot as soon as you hit paragon.

    That's not just restricted to D&D. Most people I've ever played with or talked to about Burning Wheel tend to play 3-5 lifepath characters, often restricted to humans. There are a variety of fictional and personal reasons for that, but just in general, the game can get kind of overwhelming with huge exponents, very large skill lists, resources to have very powerful relationships or gear (like armor), and dealing with different shades.

    I don't really question that principle/feature of games, though. At least not across the board.

    The kinds of things I continually come back to and question are arbitrary difficulty numbers and the nature of 1d20 (I also deeply dislike Disadvantage). Interestingly (perhaps?), I think Apocalypse World's system does a hell of a job of addressing not only those issues, but also your interest in stripping away clutter/complexity on the GM-side.

    That is NOT to say the games are interchangeable or that someone should just play Dungeon World if they want a D&D experience. But as time goes on, my interest in D&D (especially in running it) is more directly related to the number of illusionary constructs I can do away with. That's also not to say I'm into hacking and homebrewing and still calling it D&D, but I do think the game is pretty much intact if you have, say, a transparent, non-arbitrary system for skill-check difficulties.
  • The numerical increments I care about are the ones which demarcate levels of challenge.

    If I can handle an enemy with a bunch of stats X, but I can't similarly handle an enemy with a bunch of stats X+Y, then Y is a relevant increment.

    In D&D, I've generally found +2 to be relevant on this scale, and +1 a satisfying step on a journey toward a +2. But that really depends on how combat-dependent your adventures are, and on how your combats are run. If by-the-numbers fights are rare, then I'm less likely to care about a +1, +2, or even +3.

    how much of the "D&D experience" is based on the numerical treadmill? You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.

    As long as the +1 armored monster and the +3 damage monster are on the map to be anticipated, I think the dynamic you describe is quite central to the experience the D&D rules facilitate.

    In my groups, this usually consisted of players flipping through the monster manual with lots of, "Whoa cool!" reactions. "I would really feel like a badass if I beat this thing! Let's keep leveling up so we can get there!"
  • I am largely of the opinion that D&D has too much numerical precision, and this has historically encouraged counter-productive directions of design. For example, the various build bonuses and circumstance modifiers are very nearly too fiddly in many D&D treatments, precisely because the dicing mechanic encourages throwing in little +1s and +2s everywhere. There are a few old wargaming techniques that favour those small bonuses, but for the most part D&D gamers are not benefited by spending time and mental energy on the small stuff.

    An interesting observation in this regard is to note how reliant on 1d6 rolls original D&D is, and how the combat checks are more of an exception to the rule. While modern D&D is all about the d20, the most common rolls in more old-fashioned play are 1d6 rolls at various odds. This is largely an advantage for the old game, as a +1 for a d6 is a pretty meaningful thing in a way that it isn't for a d20 roll. If I had to drop one of those dice from a Basic D&D treatment, I'd definitely drop the d20 and run the whole thing off the various d6 roll techniques the game uses anyway.

    My go-to home D&D treatment deals with this in the opposite way, though: I make all the numbers bigger than usual for official D&D rules texts, which helps modifiers and such actually matter as much as they should. This isn't a simple formula (couldn't be, of course), but generally you may expect that something that traditional rules score as a +2 will become the equivalent of a +5 with me. Handling shields, for example - the main tradition has a petty +1 for a major defensive implement, while I prefer giving a shield-user an active defense roll (a much greater boost to defense most of the time).

    Yet there's a part of me that wonders if the game of D&D would be missing anything if it stripped away the majority of this complexity from the DM's side of things. To reframe the question: how much of the "D&D experience" is based on the numerical treadmill? You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.

    Yes, D&D can easily accomplish its goals even without all of that noise. I would even argue that the kind of play mainstream D&D shoots for these days would benefit from simple, generic and static monster stat blocks. Not only would that help the GM bottleneck, but it would also make the variable stats on the player side more meaningful when the baseline monster competence wouldn't get lost in the noise all the time.

    As an example of what I could well see myself doing in the new school context: just set up standard stat blocks for monsters at any given HD, such that all monsters at e.g. 3 HD are mechanically identical. Then add on top of that by giving each monster 1-3 distinguishing traits. For the most part these should be qualitative special abilities like "Invisible" or "Drains Blood" or such, or dramatic weaknesses, but I guess some could also pertain directly to basic combat stats - 50% HP than the typical monster of this HD, for example. But most of the time do the same stats for everybody, and if you deviate, make it a big deviation rather than a piddly +2 HP.

    (I could see myself adding a little bit of formalism to that trait allocation thing, like maybe every monster should have 1 trait per 5 HD rounded up, plus two extra if they're an "elite" monster - who also should have an explicit name and motivation. So at low levels every monster has 1 trait and elites have three, while at level 11 it's 3 and 5. Perhaps something like that. I would also decide that if you have a particularly powerful trait in there - whatever that means, e.g. spellcasting - then one of your traits has to be a disadvantage.)

    I would expect this type of approach to improve the experience all around: the different types of monsters would have clear, thematic distinctions thanks to their different traits, but the GM wouldn't get crowded by the endless and useless stat lines. Monster design would be encouraged to rely on meaningful distinctions. The players would barely notice anything different in the monster stats, except perhaps that for once they can actually predict a bit about what the monsters can or can't do, because they're not facing an entirely different set-up in every fight, and the parts in which the monsters are different from the baseline really are dramatically different.
  • @David_Berg: My personal perspective is in line with yours. +10% matters to players. There's some psychological principle (name eludes me) saying that people only perceive a change once it meets or exceeds 10% of the original value. This can't be applied directly to a system of dice rolls, I don't think, as numbers are intangible, but the concept could apply. A +1 on a d20 roll is a satisfactory incremental increase in some cases because, again, you will be rolling the dice numerous times, making that incremental progress more valuable.

    This, in particular, has been my own experience:
    In my groups, this usually consisted of players flipping through the monster manual with lots of, "Whoa cool!" reactions. "I would really feel like a badass if I beat this thing! Let's keep leveling up so we can get there!"
    The matter then becomes: how much of the incremental advancement is required to get to that point? I find the Dungeon World treatment of the lauded "16 HP dragon" unsatisfactory, as the difficulty is almost entirely dependent on how hard the GM makes the fight, but in that same vein, I find the numerical bloat of modern D&D needless.

    @Eero_Tuovinen:
    An interesting observation in this regard is to note how reliant on 1d6 rolls original D&D is, and how the combat checks are more of an exception to the rule. While modern D&D is all about the d20, the most common rolls in more old-fashioned play are 1d6 rolls at various odds. This is largely an advantage for the old game, as a +1 for a d6 is a pretty meaningful thing in a way that it isn't for a d20 roll.
    This is exactly something I've noticed, also, especially with the 2d6 combat table. Interestingly, a +1 on a 2d6 is about a 10% increase on a straight 2d6 vs. 7.
    As an example of what I could well see myself doing in the new school context: just set up standard stat blocks for monsters at any given HD, such that all monsters at e.g. 3 HD are mechanically identical. Then add on top of that by giving each monster 1-3 distinguishing traits. For the most part these should be qualitative special abilities like "Invisible" or "Drains Blood" or such, or dramatic weaknesses, but I guess some could also pertain directly to basic combat stats - 50% HP than the typical monster of this HD, for example. But most of the time do the same stats for everybody, and if you deviate, make it a big deviation rather than a piddly +2 HP.
    This is in a similar vein to what I was considering. 5e tortures monster ability scores and HD to come up with its numbers. (Orcs, goblins, and kobolds have the same HD, but orcs have twice as many HP as goblins and thrice as many HP as kobolds. What purpose does this serve? Just give kobolds 1 HD, goblins 2 HD, and orcs 3 HD. Any changes to AC and damage can be handled by the equipment system as-is.)
  • D&D and games of similar complexity made me end up asking myself what was the point too. Especially if all you care about is if something cames to be or not, how difficult it is for the characters and how long (in narrative pacing terms) something will it take.

    It ended up making me design a system where levels are completely virtual, as you don't actually need to make numbers go higher as the PCs level up, just narrate how past challenges are now trivial and new difficult challenges appear. There's actually no need to fiddle with tons of numbers to balance encounters or make numbers tell that this enemy is unbeatable for the party right now, or that the guards that were so though before your character leveled up are now dying on a single hit.

    Well, at least there's no need unless you can't sleep without numbers to back you up on that.
  • edited June 5
    Small distinct (discrete) units make for a better thought interaction of the various parts. Specially for a game based on challenge. #articulategameplay.
  • You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.

    Yes, it's a treadmill. But you cannot hope to fight that more powerful monster until you, too, are more powerful.
  • edited June 5

    The matter then becomes: how much of the incremental advancement is required to get to that point? I find the Dungeon World treatment of the lauded "16 HP dragon" unsatisfactory, as the difficulty is almost entirely dependent on how hard the GM makes the fight, but in that same vein, I find the numerical bloat of modern D&D needless.

    I think the relevant numerical adjustments are relative to the possibility space represented by the game's monsters (or other challenges). So, like, if "16 HP dragon" is the pinnacle of combat, after which you should retire your character in triumph, then you should probably design the path to that pinnacle with some gameplay goals in mind.

    Two example goals:

    A ) This game should run about 10 sessions, so getting from noob to killer of 16-HP dragon should take about 10 sessions.

    B ) The 16-HP dragon should feel special in the world, so getting from noob to dragon-slayer should seem like an impossibly daunting challenge for every denizen of the world except for uniquely adept and determined PCs.

    The first goal probably requires fewer numerical increments than the latter, I'd say. :)
  • edited June 5
    It sounds like a lot of fun from the player side, but from the GM-side it's an impenetrable barrier. I can do math in my head, but I don't enjoy it and I don't think I can do that plus all the other stuff a GM does.

    EDIT: Who am I kidding? I can't handle it from the player side either!
  • Adam_Dray said:

    You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.

    Yes, it's a treadmill. But you cannot hope to fight that more powerful monster until you, too, are more powerful.
    Unless ya know, your name is Bilbo, and by fight you include drive mad.
  • edited June 5
    (deleted)
  • edited June 5
    I find that OSR monsters have little detail already and a higher HD usually means a better AC and attack too, movement speed is the only thing that isn't completely linked with most pre-orc monsters being slower and most post orc monsters being slower too.

    While 1-3 points of AC does not matter much there is an important aesthetic difference between "this monster fights naked" and "this monster fights naked except for a shield and a leather loincloth" and I think at least humanoid monsters should follow the same rules as the players. The larger difference is of course fighting say, skeletons who use no tactics and never flee and orcs who do use tactics and flight even though their stats are almost identical.
  • Hi everyone,

    I'd point out that its only a "numerical treadmill" if you only ever face off against monsters the same level as you. There's a difference between fighting goblins at 1st level as opposed to, say, 5th level. I think its important to occasionally throw "unbalanced" encounters against the players to highlight this feeling of numerical growth and progression.

    The numerical increments I care about are the ones which demarcate levels of challenge.

    If I can handle an enemy with a bunch of stats X, but I can't similarly handle an enemy with a bunch of stats X+Y, then Y is a relevant increment.

    This reminds me somewhat of a substantive hack to D&D 4E I came across several years ago:

    http://ponderingsongames.com/2012/03/25/4elite/

    The crux of the hack is that players and monsters stay more or less the same mathematically (other than hit points and damage, I believe) but depending on the difference in "tiers" you may face the equivalent of a minion (1-hitter), regular monster, elite monster (double hp), and solo (quadruple hp). It has some similarities to the "16 hp dragon" in certain respects.

    As an example of what I could well see myself doing in the new school context: just set up standard stat blocks for monsters at any given HD, such that all monsters at e.g. 3 HD are mechanically identical. Then add on top of that by giving each monster 1-3 distinguishing traits. For the most part these should be qualitative special abilities like "Invisible" or "Drains Blood" or such, or dramatic weaknesses, but I guess some could also pertain directly to basic combat stats - 50% HP than the typical monster of this HD, for example. But most of the time do the same stats for everybody, and if you deviate, make it a big deviation rather than a piddly +2 HP.

    Interesting. This almost exactly describes how monsters are designed in both 4E and 13th Age (if you substitute "HD" for "level", that is).

    ~ Trent
  • edited June 5
    I'm gearing up to run a 4th edition campaign this summer, and as it's set in an independent setting and I don't care for D&D fluff anyway, I'm probably going to just do what I suggested above for the monster stats. Drop Abilities, skills and all that excess bull; a complete enough 4th edition monster should be defined by its level, role and a couple of tactically relevant special abilities. More like Gloomhaven or some such, that's what 4th edition D&D essentially is.

    imageGoes without saying that I'm rather fond of the "Monster Manual on a business card" from the Blog of Holding. It's not actually elegant due to how messy the 4th edition math is inherently, but definitely much better than the stat block disease the new school D&D has been blessed with for almost 20 years now.
     
     
     
  • What about the problem with PCs removing opponents' turns? Fine versus minions/standard/elite, needs special handling versus solos. Multiplying their HP by 4 (or 40) won't help much. Giving them extra abilities helps kind-of, in that with so many, you'll probably pick some "extra action" abilities or "shake off the stun" abilities, but keeping it as tribal knowledge is inelegant.

    I mean if it's just for one GM then whatever but it's still inelegant. :D
  • It depends on the solo. The later monsters in 4E (the ones published from MM3 on) have a variety of abilities that protect them from action denial --- everything from they act twice during the round (which 5E inherited as "legendary actions" for some of its monsters) to flat-out immunity to certain conditions to when-they're-dazed/stunned-it-activates-a-nasty-aura-that-autodamages-everything. All solos, of course, have a +5 bonus to saving throws which helps somewhat.

    In my own games, I have a houserule where *any* character can, as a minor action, take damage equal to 10/20/30 (heroic/paragon/epic) to ignore a condition or status effect until the start of their next turn. Elites and solos, having so many hit points, can take great advantage of this. Its a good way to speed up fights (blows through the hp) while still making elites and solos a decent threat to the players.

    Eero, the MM3 On A Business Card is quality. 13th Age has something similar and doesn't have the "abilities, skills, and all that excess" that D&D does:

    http://www.13thagesrd.com/monsters/#Baseline_Stats_for_Normal_Monsters

    ~ Trent
  • Isn't "solo" in 4th edition just a good example of the "fond wish" school of game design? I mean, the solo monster definition and specification is literally nothing more than the game designer stating that "hey monster designer, you should make some monsters that make for a fun fight against a party all on their lonesome!" Because the solo is alone, you can't really call it monster design even - it's just encounter design, and just like the GM needs to design the encounter by choosing the appropriate threats, they need to design the solo.

    As you know, I haven't GMed 4th edition much, but from what I've read about it, it seems that the only reasonably solid approach to doing solos is to just treat the "single monster" concept as color: you give that solo monster the resources and capabilities of 4 (or however many) normal monsters, in whatever manner seems appropriate to the concept, and that should make them roughly gameable against a party of four characters. People seem to prefer dressing this up into "extra actions" and "extra saves", but how is that not just fooling yourself? You want the solo to be able to act and shake off attacks like four normal monsters, so clearly the simplest approach to making that happen is to give it the stats of four normals.
    Trent_W said:

    In my own games, I have a houserule where *any* character can, as a minor action, take damage equal to 10/20/30 (heroic/paragon/epic) to ignore a condition or status effect until the start of their next turn. Elites and solos, having so many hit points, can take great advantage of this. Its a good way to speed up fights (blows through the hp) while still making elites and solos a decent threat to the players.

    Ha - we had that long discussion about the "hit point cancel" a couple weeks back in the OSR context. It's a good rule for D&D.
  • In the old school hack/homebrew that I run, I use static monster stats almost exactly like @Eero_Tuovinen suggests. It works great.
  • Eero, be aware that that business card thing was updated / caveated with later posts on that page
  • how much of the "D&D experience" is based on the numerical treadmill? You find a +1 sword so that you can fight a monster with +1 armor. You gain +3 hit points so that you can fight a monster that does +3 damage. And so on.

    This "treadmill" is one of the things that was drastically reduced in 5e. Bounded accuracy is the idea.

    And it's not just about fighting stronger monsters. You can fight MORE of the monsters. A level 1 character might be killed by two robbers. A level 5 character might kill a gang of robbers on her own. That's the point. Not just "numbers go up" for the sake of numbers going up and the enemies changing name from "goblin" to "orc" to "bugbear" to "ogre". Your impact on the world goes up.
  • Comparing a zombie to a skeleton. Both 50 xp enemies but they have a different feel.

    Zombies are easy to hit with their AC 8. They take several hits to go down; if they keep making their con saves they have in practice infinity HP, so you need one good hit to take them out.

    Skeletons are sturdier with their AC 13. And with 13 HP, they too will need a couple of hits – unless you’re using bludgeoning, since they are extra vulnerable to that! Look alive, clerics! Bring your maces! And also 13 is juuuust enough to make critical hits make a difference.

    This is good design♥

  • Like it's interesting to see "oh is this a weak willed monster that we can try to affect with Tasha's Laughter or do is it perhaps a clumsy undextrous one that we can try to trap with Burning Hands" etc. Variety in monsters ftw
  • edited June 6
    Since VSK asked how much of the incremental mechanical climb is necessary, I figure a counter-example might add some food for thought.

    In Delve, the way I handle the "build up to facing bigger and bigger threats" dynamic is:
    • Provide partial maps of threats out there in the world with approximate reward/danger/difficulty info as judged by the imperial government, based on how many soldiers/adventurers each has stymied/killed etc.
    • No humans know magic. The PCs slowly learn bits and pieces of magic through adventuring. This knowledge is cumulative, with Discovery C joining Discoveries A & B to unlock abilities more than the sum of their parts.
    • All monsters are magical, and the best way to defeat most of them is through magic.
    • The greater your magical knowledge, the better your odds against the more dangerous/difficult stuff on the map.
    No numbers are required for any of this.

    What's required is a system of magic which is:
    • initially hidden from the players/characters, and
    • tied into how monsters work and how they can be defeated.
    This obviously takes some effort to design. But there might be other ways to achieve similar results.
  • Isn't "solo" in 4th edition just a good example of the "fond wish" school of game design? I mean, the solo monster definition and specification is literally nothing more than the game designer stating that "hey monster designer, you should make some monsters that make for a fun fight against a party all on their lonesome!" Because the solo is alone, you can't really call it monster design even - it's just encounter design, and just like the GM needs to design the encounter by choosing the appropriate threats, they need to design the solo.

    As you know, I haven't GMed 4th edition much, but from what I've read about it, it seems that the only reasonably solid approach to doing solos is to just treat the "single monster" concept as color: you give that solo monster the resources and capabilities of 4 (or however many) normal monsters, in whatever manner seems appropriate to the concept, and that should make them roughly gameable against a party of four characters. People seem to prefer dressing this up into "extra actions" and "extra saves", but how is that not just fooling yourself? You want the solo to be able to act and shake off attacks like four normal monsters, so clearly the simplest approach to making that happen is to give it the stats of four normals.

    Hi Eero,

    I wouldn't get too hung up on the term "solo" here. Even as early as the DMG1, the encounter templates clearly show solo types being supplemented with other monster types (typically 1 or 2 groups of minions) or perhaps a hazard/trap, depending on the encounter. Actually one of the more interesting encounter templates is to use a solo that is a few levels lower then a party in the same encounter as a standard monster that is several levels above the party (and perhaps has the leader sub-type). It leaves the question open as to which monster is the "real threat" in the encounter.

    The salient point is that a solo is a "quadruple monster" in terms of its XP value --- which isn't necessarily to say you should have one fight 4 PCs by itself, but that in terms of encounter budgeting its worth 4 monsters of the same level as itself. I actually don't think just giving a solo 4 times as many attacks and a large bonus to saving throws is actually a great approach, as the increased attack/damage ratios could easily lead to party wipes (a typical 4E monster can drop a same-level non-defender PC in 3 hits, so quadrupling that would lead to one-shotting PCs). What you typically see in the better designed solos (some of examples of which can be found in things like the Monster Vault books or the Dark Sun Creature Catalogue) is exactly what you outlined in the post I originally quoted you: special abilities and traits that make them more difficult to fight than regular monsters. As an example, when the MV black dragon gets bloodied it gains an "acid blood aura" that deals acid damage to every character in melee with it whenever it takes damage. Another example might be immediate action powers that trigger whenever a PC, say, moves into melee or casts a ranged spell or dazes them or whatever. This is a lot more interesting than just having a monster make 4 attacks each turn --- I mean, you *could* do that, of course, but its a lot more boring and uninteresting than the solutions the 4E designers came up with when the game really started to hit its stride.

    (Although I don't actually care for the "quadruple monster" design here so much. Rob Heinsoo was the lead designer for 4E and in the 13th Age that he and Jonathan Tweet designed years later they only go up to "triple monster". I think there is good reason for that other than simplicity. In my opinion, putting 4 monsters' XP budget onto a single creature is too burdensome and can create problems. Limiting that to only 3 monsters' worth is a good alternative.)

    The interesting thing about 4E's monster math --- and this is important in regards to "static monster stats" we've been discussing thus far --- is that the assumption seems to be that for every 4 levels' worth of difference you "upgrade" the monster to the next category. So, as an example, a 1st level solo = 5th level elite = 9th level standard = 13th level minion. Not that you should be throwing 9th level or 13th level monsters at a 1st level party, but if the fiction called for what would be a "9th level" monster by the books you could convert it to a 1st level solo instead. This does create a pretty tight range where monster stats should be within +/- 3 of the party's expected values.

    5E of course has its solution for all this with its "bounded accuracy" design, although I disagree with Sandra here that it significantly "reduces" the numerical treadmill. Instead, it just frontloads it all onto hit points and damage. There is a reason 5E characters have significantly more hp than same-level 4E characters beginning around 4th level or so. It also has the side effect of greatly diminishing the sense of character progression that is intrinsic to D&D (a 20th level character is only about 25% more accurate than a 1st level character in 5E). Of course, dumping most of a monster's mechanical weight into hit points and damage is also more difficult to balance for and one doesn't have to google for very far before one finds that many groups just toss 5E's encounter design rules as they're almost worthless for constructing moderately challenging battles for many tables (I suspect that, just like with 3E, most 5E GMs just eyeball encounter balance instead of actually using the pretty useless guidelines that are provided).

    ~ Trent
  • 2097 said:

    Comparing a zombie to a skeleton. Both 50 xp enemies but they have a different feel.

    Zombies are easy to hit with their AC 8. They take several hits to go down; if they keep making their con saves they have in practice infinity HP, so you need one good hit to take them out.

    Skeletons are sturdier with their AC 13. And with 13 HP, they too will need a couple of hits – unless you’re using bludgeoning, since they are extra vulnerable to that! Look alive, clerics! Bring your maces! And also 13 is juuuust enough to make critical hits make a difference.

    This is good design♥

    Hi Sandra,

    Monster diversity is certainly important and good design, but having a solid baseline from which to diversify from is even better design. This is definitely a weak point of 5E's design and makes it extremely difficult for novice DMs to construct moderately balanced encounters in the game.

    ~ Trent
  • To add to your point, @Trent_W, an ultimate balancing factor is the entire encounter design rather than just monster design. You can significantly over or under-shoot by-the-book XP values depending on what else is going on. And a single enemy is a completely different proposition if the players have to simultaneously save people from danger or, say, interact with some infernal machine. 4e's skill challenges can really shine in such a context, but it's very apparent that so many people's experience with the game is, sadly, wading through monsters without much else going on because it's Time For A Fight.
  • I agree with your response to Eero re four normals as solo

    When it comes to how 5es monster design — and PC design — makes it hard to construct balanced encounters, that is a great feature of the game that i love very much.♥

    If it were easy to create balanced Magic the Gathering decks the game would also be easily solved. or balanced chess openings. The fact that any given party, or any given monster group, is hard to figure out is one of the things that make the game interesting and rewarding for me.

    Like, I put things like 3d6 Wolves into the game.
    3 wolves can kill a weak party. 18 wolves can die to a strong party

    the pretty wolves
    i love them

    what DMs need to know is how to roughly compare monsters to each other.
    then place easier monsters closer to the village and harder away from the village and inside the earth
    they don't need to balance them. they just need to (roughly, and with some amount of errors that's fine) stack rank them so they can put the toughest ones in the dangerousest places

    then let the PCs loose in the world
    the PCs can negotiate or hide or kill or divide or funnel or group or command or turn or eat or trap or glue or smoke or befriend or manipulate or shoot or flee from the monsters
  • i have never created a balanced encounter i my life ♥♥♥♥
  • This is a bit off-topic, but only a bit because these issues would be salient even in a somewhat deconstructed D&D:

    The main reason people have trouble gauging proper encounter difficulty is that the book isn't sufficiently clear on what an encounter that is "properly challenging" is actually supposed to *do*: it's not supposed to threaten the PCs with a TPK or even a single party death. All that's supposed to happen is that some resources are drained. The fight doesn't actually have to feel "hard" in the usual sense. If the Fighter took 20 points of damage, and the Wizard spent a 2nd-level spell slot, then the encounter has served its purpose. Because 5E (and several other editions) rely on there being a strategy level, not just a tactics level. Managing resting and healing and all that is where much of the real challenge of the game lies.
  • I think what many are after when they are dreaming of the balanced encounter are a couple of different things at the same time.

    1. The players should risk TPK while there being no chance of TPK. They should get right up to that edge, be scared, and then there should still be no TPK. (This one is incoherent in and of itself, let alone contradicts the others.)
    2. The DM should be able to push it and make an interesting strategy game for both sides (a la Descent 2 / Gloomhaven [well, in Gloomhaven they are programmed, but… Also I’ve held that the rise of Gloomhaven is a sign that people want non-fudging play!]).
    3. The combat should be quick and not drag out! (contradicts 4)
    4. The pretties should not be one-shotted or downed “too quickly”! (contradicts 3)
    5. Dramatic things should happen!

    Like… let go of all these “shoulds” and let the game surprise you, is my motto.

    I see 5e as a game of glass cannons, fights are usually over quickly, look completely one-sided, and if you replay the same fight again maybe it’ll look one-sided from the other direction, with the other side winning. It’s less about your choices in battle but about what you bring to bear — your gear, your ‘build’, your position.

    And also since “the balanced encounter”, in regards to 1, 2, or 5 at least, is pretty much a pipe dream, then I need to realize that my responsibility isn’t to give them balanced encounters but to give them a world to explore. The challenge is the world, the quest, the dungeon as a whole or the hexmap as a whole. That’s the riddle, how do they solve it?

    Deliverator is completely right that a fight that eats up some slots and HP was a fight with consequences. I’m never dissatisfied with a quick fight that does that.

    [As discussed in other threads] I’ve had some fights where it’s been clear that one side is too slow and has no ranged attacks that the only outcome from the fight is that the other side looses arrows. And I’ve charged them some arrows and said “No need to roll this out, you win”. Because all I need in order to play is lack of clarity. And then we play to get clarity.

    Do they lose slots & HP? Can they make it without that? Or do they lose whole party members? Do they drink their potions? Do they lose time because they have unconscious sleepers to wait for awakening? Etc. Lots of meaningful outcomes.

    Some of the fights from my recent sessions:

    1. The party (consisting of some level threes and one level two PCs and two level 9 NPCs and one level 2 NPCs) sought out a CR 21 enemy in their very remote lair. And picked a fight. And one NPC and one PC died. And the rest of the party surrendered and it got into a hostage situation, the game devolved into My Life With Master, it was pretty awesome
    2. The party colonially routed a tribe of Batiri. The bird tribe is now extinct and their cultural heritage and folk lore are lost forever. This was a fight that took a while because whiffs on both sides but they managed to defeat them without taking casualties. It cost them a lot of HP but not many slots.
    3. Two PCs (both level threes) went off on their own in the jungle. They ran into another, bigger tribe of Batiri [yeah I love it that you randomly roll how many there are]! They started running [I love the chase rules so much] and using spell slots on longstrider and using inspiration and what not. It took time because we had to resolve so many dice rolls with disadvantage but it was a resource expendatory fight. I didn’t think there ever was any real chance that the Batiri would’ve caught up to the two PCs. But I saw that they could hurt them, i.e. meaningful consequences, and that there was a lack of clarity as to how much.

    In all of these cases…

    • I could not have predicted that they would’ve picked a fight with this NPC.
    • I did not know how many Batiri would be rolled in the “no appearing”. Nor that the PCs would want to destroy them.
    • I could not have predicted that two PCs go off on their own in the deep jungle.

    It’s not a sequence of encounters that I as DM present to them. I don’t know what level they’re gonna be, how many of theme are gonna be there, if the party is split up, if we have absent players, if someone died in a previous encounter, if they have picked up some powerful NPC, etc etc. It’s not Dungeon Chess, It’s a chaotic floorful of loaded rat traps. Hope you survive the experience♥

  • I think "balance" as it's most commonly used is a pretty poor illusion and also puts undue pressure on a GM to do things like over-prepare, coddle players, and fudge numbers.

    Balance, for me, is about stakes. If the players are strolling along and ninjas attack, a deadly encounter tends to feel satisfying only if there's something more to the event than, "oops, those guys were mean and life's tough!"
    Is it satisfying because, for example, it's an illustration of how dangerous this place is and there's a lot more potential meat on that fiction bone? Okay, cool. But if there are just some random deadly brigands and that's pretty much it, screw that. I'm all for a sandbox, but not swords & sorcery Minesweeper.

    It's not entirely trivial to prepare a handful of encounters that suit a variety of stakes and then reskin them on the fly, but it's not difficult to learn, either.
  • Paul_D_L said:

    swords & sorcery Minesweeper

    That's a great analogy for it, I've never heard that before

    Just like minesweeper, you sometimes accidentally.

    But most of the time you can sort of suss out that Here Be Mines, and navigate around them.
    Paul_D_L said:

    more potential meat on that fiction bone?

    Yeah, you're right, that's important. Using the encounter tables to reflect a reasonable fascimile of what this place is actually like. Putting in weird artifacts to find. The one I'm running now has a whole subtable of dead bodies and clues to find.

    Last session they stumbled across a dead tabaxi in a particularly gruesome state. An NPC guide who is also tabaxi started sobbing & wailing over seeing that, and the PC cast a heroism spell on him. And he became stoic, started work on the burial etc, but he was also like... "you know... as much as I know that you expending that considerable resource on me came from a place of caring... couldn't you let me have my grief? There's nothing wrong with reacting strongly to an experience like this." Etc etc. Going for the whole Hillfolk validation schmaltz which I love so much, it became awesome

    thank you for this post paul
  • Paul_D_L said:

    prepare a handful of encounters that suit a variety of stakes and then reskin them on the fly

    I don't get this part. (I think the confusing word for me is suit as in suit the stakes.)

    To my players: If my players read this please know that this is not going on at my table.
    Sometimes the fate of a kingdom can rest on defeating a level 0 commoner and sometimes you'll go up against a dragon for a crumb of bread, and die hungry and roasted. That's not something I choose, that's just what happened to happen in the game

    As is life...
    For want of a nail♥
  • edited June 7
    I like when things that are normally used for logistical benefit (Heroism) have emergent character impact. If you go strictly by 5e's book description, Heroism just makes someone brave and prevents them from being frightened. I think that means they could still be be deeply sad and grieve at the same time as being brave, but I dig an interpretation that it short-circuits the process. It could even say a lot about that character's culture - that bravery manifests via stoicism. Another character's culture might default to stoicism and Heroism would give them the bravery to show those emotions.

    Imagine that backfiring spectacularly when a player character casts Heroism on soldiers who, unbeknownst to the players, only fight for their country out of fear and they needed that extra bravery to abandon the battle and escape the capital with their families.
  • 2097 said:

    I think what many are after when they are dreaming of the balanced encounter are a couple of different things at the same time.

    1. The players should risk TPK while there being no chance of TPK. They should get right up to that edge, be scared, and then there should still be no TPK. (This one is incoherent in and of itself, let alone contradicts the others.)
    2. The DM should be able to push it and make an interesting strategy game for both sides (a la Descent 2 / Gloomhaven [well, in Gloomhaven they are programmed, but… Also I’ve held that the rise of Gloomhaven is a sign that people want non-fudging play!]).
    3. The combat should be quick and not drag out! (contradicts 4)
    4. The pretties should not be one-shotted or downed “too quickly”! (contradicts 3)
    5. Dramatic things should happen!

    Like… let go of all these “shoulds” and let the game surprise you, is my motto.

    I see 5e as a game of glass cannons, fights are usually over quickly, look completely one-sided, and if you replay the same fight again maybe it’ll look one-sided from the other direction, with the other side winning. It’s less about your choices in battle but about what you bring to bear — your gear, your ‘build’, your position.

    And also since “the balanced encounter”, in regards to 1, 2, or 5 at least, is pretty much a pipe dream, then I need to realize that my responsibility isn’t to give them balanced encounters but to give them a world to explore. The challenge is the world, the quest, the dungeon as a whole or the hexmap as a whole.

    That list of 5 things is solid fucking gold. You're 100% right that it's the "impossible thing before breakfast" of specifically D&D encounter design since around 2000 with the advent of 3.0.

    Where 5E really suffers is that the officially published adventure material often contradicts the "you need 6-8 encounters for the strategic layer to matter" (here "encounter" means any situation with a likelihood of resource expenditure necessity, not necessarily just "combat"). I've seen so many 1-easy-fight adventuring days in 5E; it makes me sad. Because it's a problem I've solved! But only because I know how to.
  • thanx matt♥
    i think instead of the 6-8 thing, adding time pressure makes it so that the PCs themselves have to find their sweetspot between pushing hard vs resting a lot

    right now we're in an area where there are three encounter checks per 24h period so there CAN'T even be 6-8. the whole 6-8 was them just smoking crack

    i think what i need to do is to be always remind the players to take short rests. because the only thing i've really found with the adventuring day is that warlox/witches and fighters get the short straw since the fullcasters can nova because they can burn their dailies whereas witches and fighters are more based on encounter powers

    the whole 1-easy-fight days... well... yeah, it's what it is. and then they die from one of those fights
  • Medium rests is the solution! Nova-ing spellcasters are the thing that really ruin those 1-fight days, and as you say particularly screw over the monks, fighters, and 'locks.

    Spellcasters should *not* be getting their full allotment of spells back every night during wilderness travel. This fixes *everything*.
  • Sometimes I wonder if everything in D&D combat is just a substitute for this:
    2097 said:

    The players should risk TPK while there being no chance of TPK. They should get right up to that edge, be scared, and then there should still be no TPK.

    The thing is, that experience is possible, just not via static rules.

    I have much sympathy for the illusionist GM striving for this sort of drama-danger, as I think it has a higher upside than unbiased, emergent drama-danger.

    You just need a group of players that wants illusionism.

    Personally, I feel like I've found a functional in-between, where the danger and difficulty is what it is (and often potentially TPK-threatening), but there are lots of opportunities for the players to effectively raise (risk the TPK) or fold (flee), and the GM makes very sure that these opportunities exist and are communicated. I don't fudge dice rolls, but I will improvise whatever fictional content needs to be improvised on the basis of maintaining choices and opportunities for (a) victory or death and (b) defeat and survival. E.g., rather than rolling a die for when the badguys' reinforcements arrive, I'll probably declare that they arrive at a moment that seems best on this basis.
  • edited June 7

    Deliverator: we did the “a long rest is 7 days” think which was awesome. What’s a medium rest?

    we have three levels of rest rn:

    1. short rest. varies from campaign to campaign, we’ve had one night. current campaign: 1h
    2. uncomfortable sleep. as long rest (below) but you only get back ¼ of expended hd (minimum one) (that is ¼ of expended(sic) rather than ½ of total(sic)) and you don’t lose exhaustion levels (this is the big one)
    3. long rest. again varies from campaign to campaign, current campaign 8h.
    Since uncomfortable sleep was introduced in XGE, this is the first campaign that uses it. But it's solved a lot of problems for us. In fact I'll go and update the old tent/bedroll thread.
  • edited June 7

    E.g., rather than rolling a die for when the badguys' reinforcements arrive, I'll probably declare that they arrive at a moment that seems best on this basis.

    That would be a violation of our group's explicit, clearly stated social contract.

    Luckily, I disagree strongly with this:

    I have much sympathy for the illusionist GM striving for this sort of drama-danger, as I think it has a higher upside than unbiased, emergent drama-danger.

    So we're golden

  • The uncomfortable sleep thing is basically my medium rest. It's a little different, but same idea. Introducing an intermediate level of resting is something 5E badly needs. I use 24h long rests, which I think works great. The problem with weeklong long rests is that any sort of time pressure basically makes long rests impossible. Whereas with the "day off" model, you're essentially losing one increment from your time limit, but not more than that.
  • However, on "uncomfortable sleep" as per XGE you still get all slots & hp back. Does Deliverator-medium-rest (DMR) do that? Or what?

    The resting rule we used for CC was that in some zones (basically inside Yawning Portal dungeons since they were built for 5e) a short rest was 1h and a long rest was 8h. And outside those zones, i.e. city and wilderness and dungeons built for 2e, we had the longer rests. For a city campaign, even with time pressure, the week long rests were awesome. They were good for wilderness too, for different reasons.

    We're doing ToA now which I think is built for the 1h/8h schedule even though you don't get 6-8.
  • It was a politics / Hillfolk style campaign and the weeklong rests were AWESOME. You couldn't just nova the entire corsair council to death
  • @2097:
    Like… let go of all these “shoulds” and let the game surprise you, is my motto.
    @Paul_D_L:
    I think "balance" as it's most commonly used is a pretty poor illusion and also puts undue pressure on a GM to do things like over-prepare, coddle players, and fudge numbers.
    @Deliverator:
    Where 5E really suffers is that the officially published adventure material often contradicts the "you need 6-8 encounters for the strategic layer to matter" (here "encounter" means any situation with a likelihood of resource expenditure necessity, not necessarily just "combat")
    All of these are things I agree with, and to some extent @David_Berg here:
    I have much sympathy for the illusionist GM striving for this sort of drama-danger, as I think it has a higher upside than unbiased, emergent drama-danger.
    This is all based on group preferences, of course. Some of my players want to be spoonfed a story with a beginning, middle, and end. They want the quest giver to show up, tell them what to do (in a funny voice, of course!), and they want to kill some monsters, fight the boss, and rescue the damsel. All according to guidelines for balanced encounters with the appropriate expenditure of resources.

    The others want to do their own thing. It's a balancing act between the two.
  • Yeah, that's always tough :no_mouth:

    The best I can do is to sprinkle questgivers into the sandbox.
    Some of them have damsels and mcguffins. As the dice fall as they may, some of the encounters will be perceived as boss fights. Hopefully.
    (And you never really know which of the fights are gonna be that.)

    They'll come across as story even tho you know that whatever the players do is gonna be fine, since you have sandbox. The players betray the questgiver or vice versa? All fine. Something else "derail" [that would derail a rail] the "plot" [if there were a plot]? All fine. It's the best of both worlds


    We did this in our current campaign and they had an escort mission and their employer got killed. And one of the players started freaking out, like, was the plot now cut off etc etc etc. He forgot that it was sandbox? It's more like Elite/Traveller than anything else, there are many jobs on offer.

    All according to guidelines for balanced encounters with the appropriate expenditure of resources.

    This doesn't really exist. You can check the opposition according to the encounter math, we did that afterwards for a while. Like "OK, this was a 'hard' encounter" or "this was a 'deadly' encounter". But it doesn't say much. We pretty much checked for fun because the players knew IDGAF. They could laugh at some encounter that seemed hard and be like "wow, that was deadly!!! yeah we could tell" and be happy that they survived. Or they could be sad about wiping and it'd be like "that only was hard? huh."

    good luck vsk
  • not meant to imply that you believed that it does exist
  • As another alternative, I really like @Adam_Dray's rule where a long rest has the usual requirements but more strict downsides: in his game, you get bonuses as you gain XPs (before leveling), and any time you take a long rest, you're giving up any XP you've earned, as far as those bonuses are concerned.

    This creates a nice choice for the players, where you don't want to take a long rest until you REALLY need it (even if you have all the time in the world). I like it.
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