I originally intended for this to be a two part series where I would draw a map in the first part and fill it in with encounters in the second part. While I was putting together everything that would go into part 2 I discovered that covering how I make my encounters might help to give a better understanding to the overall map. So I would like to take some time to talk about the process I go through to build my encounters. While the focus will be on combat encounters, I will also cover making puzzles and skill based encounters.
Now there’s Ogres okay!
My first experience as a DM was an disorganized mess filled with linear dungeons, NPCs who didn’t have names, experience and loot that I would give out next week (experience and loot was never given out), and drastically over, and under, powered encounters. After getting organized I found out that there are several factors that impact the difficulty of a fight.
In the Dungeon Master’s Guide there is a section that details how to “purchase” monsters for a fight and adjust for difficulty. Unfortunately, even under their “Hard” category players will find clever ways to subvert all of your plans. The first way to adjust your encounters is to diversify your monsters. When planning a goblin fight remember that you can mix in some hobgoblins and bugbears to change the fight. Many of these monsters have abilities that synergize together so rather than rolling for hits and getting stomped on, the enemies can actually execute strategies with each other.
Not all creatures have these natural groups but you can use their characteristics to change the individual monsters. Kobolds are known trap makers but a kobold den may only be filled with simple traps and the creatures themselves. But if we make an adjustment based on the fact that kobolds are mechanically minded, the players may find themselves fighting a couple monsters while a pair of kobolds fire ballistae from the corners creating a different type of monster. The best thing about this solution is you can make the encounter a little bit more difficult as the players will most likely kill the shooters and take over the ballista to use against the enemies balancing out the encounter.
Read the Terrain
Now we get to the part that is important for mapmaking: always remember that fights don’t have to take place in an empty field or room. Every game type has an option for making the area more difficult to traverse by limiting the movement of the characters. It could be as simple as a collapsed cave or as intricate as a lava pool. If characters who rely on charge or even just melee combat are presented with a challenge just to physically reach the characters the difficulty increases without just adding more monsters. There are plenty of DMs who worry at this point about limiting the player’s carefully crafted characters but remember that if you put a lava pit in the middle that the players have to traverse, they can use it later to deposit enemies. Everything stays in balance and your players want to be challenged, even if they complain.
Elevation, Elevation, Elevation!
Continuing on the “avoiding an empty room” ideas, elevation and cover are huge things that you can adjust to make the encounters more challenging. If you are in the basement of an inn being attacked by bandits, use barrels of ale as props to break up the room and use posts that hold up the inn to break line of sight. Ranged players can be powerful and limiting where they can stand or how many enemies they can hit at once adds challenge to the encounter. Remember that the goal is to challenge the players on how to defeat a threat and the more challenging the encounter the more fun it will be.
Also think about what is in the goblin cavern or what the place was before it was left to ruin. Was it an old temple with upper levels that have crumbled away? Maybe it was a grain storage location to an empire long lost to time. In each of these places, you will find different ideas for elevation, crates stacked up or scaffolds. Maybe the ceiling of a multi level place has crumbled away allowing enemies to perch up higher in the ruin. This separates the players to shine in their unique roles by forcing the range players to take out the higher elevation enemies while the heavier melee characters hold off a brute on the lower level.
There are plenty more things I could come up with for unique encounter design but I think we will hold off until we fill in our map next week. I would like to just leave you with one thought. Tabletop RPGs are not a competition between the DM and the players, it is a shared storytelling experience. But the best stories arise when the characters are up against impossible odds. For this game to be fun for everyone there must be appropriate challenge. The best quote I can remember about D&D is “it’s a big world out there, and not everything is at your level”.