Designing exciting combat encounters is an important skill for most GM’s. We want to make sure we challenge the party without overwhelming them. In this article, we’ll look at three ways to choose the appropriate number and level of opponents for an encounter. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The Mathematical Method

About the year 2000 (or so) games started incorporating mathematical systems to help with encounter design. Monsters and opponents each have a challenge rating. With a little math you can design an encounter that is appropriate for your players level. This can be done with some precision. You can design easy, medium, or hard encounters using this approach. You can even statistically predict how much of your party’s resources will be depleted in the encounter.

While it offers great precision, there are a few drawbacks. Such an approach takes time that many GM’s may not have. And it can’t guarantee results: some nights the dice don’t behave. The formulae are based on statistics, so the relatively few rolls made in any particular session may not follow these patterns. Lastly, it may train players to expect encounters that are exactly matched to their skills. This may encourage them always to use combat rather than alternatives fleeing or parlaying.

The “Adventuring is Dangerous” Method

Some might call this the old-school approach. In this method, the GM picks whichever monsters or opponents they like, regardless of difficulty. Players are expected to consider each encounter as potentially life threatening. Fleeing, parlaying, and retreating may occur as often as combat. This keeps them guessing, and maybe even a little worried. This method greatly reduces prep time and can allow a GM to design thematic adventures more easily. For example, you could include monsters with a “snake” theme without worrying whether they are perfectly balanced to your party.

However, this can prove quite dangerous for PC’s. This is probably not desirable for new players: you don’t want to kill them their first time out. Some newer players may have trouble adapting to this style of game. They may be used to going toe to toe with every opponent, which could prove deadly. Some GM’s may want these kind of deadly scenarios for their games, but you might need to warn prospective players first. For example, I’ve seen convention games where PC’s die in the first hour of a four hour session. And that’s it. If I were playing in such a session, I’d want to know that up front before committing to that time slot.

The Eyeball Method

This is the “In-between” approach. When planning an encounter, the GM considers the average level of the party, and tries to adjust encounters accordingly. For example, if the opponents are of a lower level than the party, the GM may increase their numbers. If they are of a higher level, he or she may reduce the number of foes. The GM eyeballs it and hopes for the best. This method is much quicker than the Mathematical Method, but can produce a more balanced encounter than the Adventuring is Dangerous Method.

This method is not without limitations. It can still lead to encounters that are either too easy or too difficult for your players. It may not be appropriate for designing published adventures or encounters for tournament play. In those situations, the Mathematical Method may have to be used.

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously these categories don’t encompass all possible approaches to encounter design. Hopefully, however, they do provide some food for thought. And they may not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps you always use the Mathematical Method, but would like to include a very difficult encounter. Then do it. Use the “Adventuring is Dangerous” Method, and perhaps warn your players if they seem to be headed for a total party kill (TPK). If you are losing PC’s left and right, you may need to adopt the Eyeball Method to bring some balance back into play. Your approach may depend on play style and your players’ preference as well.

What approach do you use to adjust the level of your encounters? What thoughts did I miss in this article? Share your thoughts below.