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The Dials of Monster Difficulty

by Mike on 26 April 2021

When running Dungeons & Dragons we DMs have a number of dials we can turn to change the difficulty and challenge of any monster. Some dials work best when we turn them before the battle begins, others we can turn while combat is already underway. We can use these dials to change up the pacing of our game, making things more or less challenging depending on what works for the moment. These monster dials include:

Turning these dials changes monsters significantly, giving us a lot of control over how dangerous any given monster is.

Best of all, we don't have to spend a lot of time turning these dials. We can turn them up or down in our head, making them awesome tools for improvisational play.

Let's look at each of these dials and see what effects it can have on our game.

Tune the Number of Monsters

Before a battle begins, we can decide how many monsters might be in that battle. We can start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation. Is it likely to be twenty hobgoblins in the mess hall or just four? Like many of our decisions in D&D, we start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation in-world. That isn't the final answer, though. We have another question to ask:

What will make the game more fun right now? Sometimes the answer to this question is "more monsters". Othertimes it's "less monsters". If the characters have already recently fought in a big knock-down drag-out fight, maybe we want to go with less monsters. Not every battle needs to be a challenge. Run easy battles from time to time. They can offer a lot of interest and a lot more fun than you may realize.

Start by asking what makes sense and then tune the number up or down to fit the pacing and energy of the game. If you need to, use the lazy encounter benchmark to see if the battle might be deadly.

A battle may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or one half if the characters are above fourth level.

You can also turn this dial during combat if the in-world circumstances make sense. Another wave of monsters might follow the first, for example, or another group may stray off or get distracted. It's harder to turn this dial without the players seeing it though, and they'll know if you're adding monsters just to make things harder if it's too ham-fisted.

Turn the Hit Point Dial

As written, the hit points of a monster can fluctuate between the minimum and maximum allowed by the monster's hit dice. An ogre's stat block reads 59 (7d10 + 21). 59 is the average. An ogre can have anywhere from 28 to 91 and still be within range of its hit points. We can decide, during the game, how many hit points an ogre has within this range based on how we feel the battle is going. Will it help if the ogres present more of a threat? Turn the dial up and give them up to 91. Is it time for those ogres to go down? Turn the dial down to 21.

If we're willing to break the rules even more, and I give you full permission to do so for the fun of your game, you can safely double a monster's hit point if you feel it works for the story and the pacing of the current situation or drop them down to 1 if it's time for the monsters to go away. While the hit point dial is safely turned within the range of a monster's hit dice, I think it's perfectly fine to turn the dial outside of the margins and increase a monster's hit points up to double their average or down to 1 when it suits the situation.

Being willing to double a monster's hit points or reduce them to 1 is also much easier math than figuring out the minimum and maximum values of a monster's hit dice. When in doubt, be lazy.

Change a monster's hit points up to double its average or down to 1 hit point based on what fits the story, pacing, and current situation.

Turn the Number of Attacks Dial

Sometimes it isn't just the hit points or damage that pushes monsters into the danger zone. Sometimes they need to do more stuff. Many monsters have a multiattack action. If we want to turn up the threat, we can give monsters an additional attack in that multi-attack action. If we overcalculated and things are too deadly, we can remove attacks, maybe knocking it down to just one.

Sometimes monsters with additional abilities never have a chance to use those abilities if it's simply better for them to attack. The ankheg, for example, has a bite and web attack but can only choose one. This might be completely appropriate but if we want to get nasty, turn up the attack dial and let the ankheg do both in one turn. If we have a monster that can both multiattack and cast spells, let the monster drop one of its attacks from multiattack and cast a spell in its place.

Increase or decrease the number of attacks or actions a monster can take to fit the situation, and pacing of the scene.

Turn the Damage Dial

Just like the hit point dial, the damage dial can follow the minimum or maximum amount of damage listed by the damage dice equation. If an ogre can hit for 2d8+4 it could hit for as little as 6 or as much as 20. It's rare that we want to turn this dial down, unless things got out of control, but we may want to turn it up if a monster just isn't posing much of a threat and such a threat is warranted for the situation.

If we're using static monster damage, something I recommend, it's easy to turn the dial up and down on damage. Just change the amount. Maybe the ogre's doing 18 damage on a hit instead of the 13 average it normally does. Often adding 50% more damage works well. If, like most DMs, you use dice for damage, you can add 50% more dice to the attack when it's time to turn the damage dial up. Most of the time this means dropping in an extra weapon die; two at the most.

Turning the damage dial can be tricky. We don't want our players to know we're turning the dials. If we use static damage, our players will know when we're changing it. If we use dice, we can throw in an extra die or two and likely never tip our hand.

If we're using static damage, we can, instead, come up with a story-based reason that the damage goes up. Say the characters are fighting a helmed horror and having a hell of a time getting past it's 20 AC, we can describe how the fires within the horror start to burn hotter and hotter; beams of white light coming out of its eyes; as its blade blazes with white fire. Now it inflicts an extra d8 of fire damage on its attack); maybe even 2d8 if we really want to get nasty. At the same time, its armor begins to melt, dropping its AC down to 18 or even 16.

If we know that a monster is hitting lower than we think is right for the situation, we can jam that damage dial into the red right from the beginning, maximizing its damage from the first hit or doubling the damage dice of the hit. This essentially gives the monster free critical hits all the time — obviously very nasty — but sometime's that's what fits the story.

Turn up the damage dial by increasing the amount of static damage a monster inflicts on its attacks or adding one or more dice to it's damage dice.

Grant Circumstantial Advantage

When we have weak monsters attacking stronger characters, we might come up with a way to grant the monsters circumstantial advantage. Perhaps a monument nearby fills them with violent power. Perhaps cultists drank demonic blood and can now attack with advantage until they explode into demons. Perhaps the monsters have the high ground and are able to attack with advantage from their perfect angle.

Use in-story circumstances to grant weaker monsters advantage on their attacks.

Tweaking Attributes

You can also, of course, take the path of tweaking attributes or giving monsters different armor to increase their AC. A particularly strong monster might have +2 to attack and damage. A heavily armored one might have an increase to AC based on its armor. There are lots of ways to change up monsters with just a few tweaks to its flavor.

Giving Yourself Flexibility to Run a Fun Game

We don't turn these dials to stick it to the characters (or the players). These dials give us the ability to change the pacing of the game so it's always the most fun. Perhaps we turn the dials to make things harder. Perhaps, instead, we turn the dials to give the characters a break after a long slog of battles. The tools that help us control pacing are vital for running a fun game and the ones we can use easily, like these monster dials, give us the improvisational aids we need to do so.

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