Thoughts on Unearthed Arcana's Encounter Building Guidelines

by Mike Shea on 17 October 2016

On 10 October 2016, Wizards of the Coast released a new set of Unearthed Arcana encounter building guidelines as part of their series of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition playtest documents.

These new encounter building guidelines are a huge improvement over the encounter building guidelines found in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide. They're simple, straight forward, easy to use, and give us the same output as the standard encounter building guidelines in the DMG.

The default encounter building system in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide present a system with two problems. First, they're too complicated, with too many variables that must be continually cross referenced to build a "balanced" encounter. Second, it doesn't build balanced encounters even when you do it right.

Next to limited rules for narrative combat, poor encounter building rules are one of my main criticisms of the 5th edition of D&D. Here at Sly Flourish we've attempted to address both of these problems with our guide to narrative combat and our own encounter building guidelines.

WOTC's latest Unearthed Arcana playtest document for simplifying encounter balance brings a welcome addition to our 5e DM toolbox. Let's dig into them.

A Single Step to a Roughly Balanced Encounter

These guidelines make it much easier develop a roughly balanced encounter without resorting to the overly complex system in the Dungeon Master's Guide. While the original system required that we match an experience budget based on character level with the experience budget of the monsters we chose multiplied by a modifier based on the number of minsters. This resulted in a constant back-and-forth tweaking of two dials that, frankly, I imagine few actually use. These new guidelines only require that you compare the characters' level to the challenge rating of a monster to find the number of monsters that make a roughly balanced fight.

This table format matches the way DMs build encounters, by discovering the number of monsters they can use given a monster's challenge rating and a character's level.

These guidelines also give us more than just simple encounter math and include other variables that can make an encounter interesting such as the motivations of the enemies, terrain and traps, and other random effects. This gets into what makes each battle unique and interesting, which is as important as the math.

The Wrong Order of Steps

In a query on Twitter regarding the steps DMs take when building encounters, most DMs who responded said their process for building encounters starts with the story. We tend to start our encounters by picking out sets of contextually relevant monsters before we even begin noodling through the math.

Once we know what sorts of monsters the characters might encounter, we really only have one important question: how many. This is actually the only mathematical system we need. If we know that the characters might run into goblins, bugbears, or ogres; all we really need to know is how many goblins, bugbears, and ogres would make for a good but challenging fight.

If we think hard about it, it turns out we might simplify encounter building to simply two steps:

  1. Choose monsters contextually relevant to the story that the characters may fight.
  2. Figure out how many monsters we need for the difficulty of fight we want to run.

While these new guidelines are much improved, the five-step process they outline is probably overkill for building quick and interesting encounters and also feels out of order.

Too Detailed for an Already Inaccurate System

The truth is, any encounter building guidelines will have wild variance in actual results. The mechanics behind player and monster power is too widely varied to guarantee any particular outcome, regardless of their challenge rating. There are lots of variables not accounted for in these or any guidelines. These include character group composition, damage output, saving throw and DC variance, resources previously expended, player skill, and a host of others. Since we know no system will be very accurate, a simple system that gives us a rough guide is better than a complicated system that is harder to use.

The new encounter building guidelines are definitely simpler but they still give the false impression of precision in a system that is anything but precise.

We really have no idea how a battle with forty ogres will go against a group of five level 15 characters.

Likewise, the multiple monster chart can be confusing when we look at high challenge monsters that account for four or more characters. I asked Mike Mearls on Twitter about this and he confirmed that the intent is that any monster on the multiple monster chart will always have at least one friend, even if it's 6:1. That's why the challenge rating is lower for a 4:1 monster on the multiple monster chart than the solo chart.

Of course, at the highest ends, this only makes sense if you have seven or more characters and, really, all bets are off in that case. No chart is going to tell you how to balance an encounter for seven level 17 characters.

I don't think the chart should bother with encounters that set a monster up against five or more characters. If we're running groups of five or more players, it's far better to add another smaller monster than it is to use a bigger one.

Solo Guidelines Fall Apart at Mid to High Levels

The solo guidelines give the impression that a single monster can handle a group of five or six characters. This might be true up to about level 7 but after that characters have so many resources and so much synergy with each other that very few legendary monsters will, by themselves, withstand a full group.

In my experience, every solo or legendary monster should have one ally for every character above four, and maybe more at higher levels.

Only if a legendary monster has a challenge rating significantly higher than the level of the characters will it stand a chance and that will result in an extremely swingy battle one way or the other.

Challenge Ratings Are Here to Stay

One criticism often mentioned across the net is how much easier encounter building was with 4th edition. It definitely was but the whole system in 4e was significantly different than 5e. There are no minions or elites in 5e. Monsters are intended to remain a challenge to characters for a greater number of levels, going from solo to elite, to normal, to minion as the characters raise levels.

Regardless of how we feel about it, 5e's challenge ratings are here to stay. The books are printed. The system is set in stone. WOTC isn't going to go back and come up with an entirely different way to compare monsters to characters. Challenge ratings are what we have so any solutions we come up with will have to use them. Such is life.

Choose Your Favorite Imperfect System

With two different encounter building guidelines available from WOTC and numerous other systems proposed by fans, including the Sly Flourish encounter building guidelines, and fantastic tools like Kobold Fight Club we have a lot of options available to help us build encounters.

We can each make the decision about which system best supports the type of preparation we do and the game we like to play. We must, of course, keep in mind that none of these systems are perfect and we're likely to see some difficulty variance in our battles no matter what system we choose. Regardless, having a lot of options makes the whole game stronger. Try them, use them, and choose the one that helps you the most.

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