This is a reprint of my /r/dndnext 10 February 2016 article of the same title.
For some time now I’ve read post after post concerning encounter design, challenge difficulty, and the 6-8 encounter adventuring day.
In the following
sermon essay, I aim to accomplish the following things:
A) Identify the common challenges people experience when designing and conducting encounters,
B) Demystify these struggles through a careful analysis of the conditions upon which they arise and
C) Assert an alternative philosophy and framework for understanding the purpose and application of encounters in a goal-oriented DnD campaign.
And here we go.
Somewhere in the DMG it says that the average adventuring day is 6-8 encounters. Somewhere else is probably some sort of definition for the term “encounter”, and it probably says something like, “An encounter is when you and hostile forces enter into a contest conducted through combat, etc etc.” And the condition by which an encounter ends is probably something like, “An encounter ends when either there are no more hostile forces or the PCs are unable to continue the contest.”
And so it seems strongly conveyed that an Encounter is synonymous with Combat, with the specific intent of eliminating hostile forces as a means of ending the encounter.
Such an understanding imposes certain challenges.
1) It forces an expectation that a standard adventuring day has 6-8 distinct encounters, pressuring you to conceive of that many conflicts for each day that passes
2) It cramps encounters into conflicts defined by combat, forcing you to somehow generate 6-8 situations within a day that demands combat.
3) It leads one to believe that an encounter ends by a sole condition: The elimination of enemy forces, which compels you and your players to pursue that as a goal in and of itself, irrespective of the circumstances that gave rise to the encounter.
With such a combat oriented Encounter philosophy, DMs are increasingly pushed into a troubling balancing act: designing and organizing hostiles forces in such a way that the encounter is both challenging and yet winnable, though not absolutely winnable.
We see an example of how difficult this starts to be here.
This brings to my minds more questions: What does it mean to “win”? What are the conditions by which victory is claimed?
Well, if we go with the above combat-centered understanding of Encounters, then victory is when there are no more hostile forces to combat. This understanding then has the tendency to boil down into, “Killing -> winning”.Which makes things very black and white.
What happens when your PCs lose? Just kill them? You want to be fair, you don’t want to give your PCs too many easy outs, but at the same time you don’t want them to too often lose all the story and attachment they have built up just because you accidentally made the difficulty of the monsters too hard or because you managed some lucky rolls. So you’re constantly balancing precariously on a fine line between easy-peasy and deathly-skelly, the space between which defines Life and Death.
How stressful! How frustrating! How maddening! This dichotomy emerges because Encounters are understood in such a limited way, because Combat is too often misunderstood to be an end in and of itself. We struggle to make Encounters because we need them for DnD to work, but they’ve been pigeonholed into too narrow a definition for what DnD is: An Interactive, Cooperative, Imaginative Role-playing game.
So what is an Encounter? What sort of definition will provide us the understanding that will free us from the mores above?
An Encounter is any conflict that threatens the consumption of resources.Leuku, Challenging Encounter Philosophy
This obviously includes Combat, but isn’t limited to that. Anything that could demand the consumption of resources is now an Encounter. A burning building with people trapped inside, a flash flood, a disease epidemic, a chasm that needs crossing – these are all now Encounters.
One of the most frequent concerns for a DM is avoiding the “5 minute adventuring day”, which is when players expend all of their combat resources within a single encounter to overwhelm its difficulty, and then consequently seek to immediately recover their resources via resting. This is challenging because 5e DnD is apparently designed to have 6-8 encounters per day, so as to adequately drain PCs of their resources.
But unless you’re in a monster-packed dungeon, it becomes increasingly hard to justify more and more random Combat encounters forced with the sole purpose of preventing the 5 minute adventuring day. One solution to that is to establish a time pressure, i.e. “If you don’t hurry along, the Big Bad will summon the necro-army and all will be lost!” But excessive use of that tends towards complaints of railroading.
For a lot of folks, it seems that in actuality there are maybe only 3-4 actual, genuinely explicit encounters within a day, and anything else is filler. Encounters are rarely an end in and of themselves, unless your PCs’ immediate goal happens to specifically be to get into a fight with the intention of killing. Which frankly is a somewhat common player mindset, or at least an expectation of, “isn’t that how this game is supposed to work?”
But with our new Resource-oriented Encounter philosophy, we can solve this difference between Expectation and Reality. For example,
The wooden bridge is collapsing while people are still on it! A Raging Barbarian or a Wizard’s Bigby’s Hand might have the strength to hold up the cracking beams until the migrants retreat to safety. There are no hostiles and initiative hasn’t been rolled, but resources are still being expended. This is an Encounter!
Instead of a collapsing bridge, perhaps it’s a heavy sea storm. There are no monsters, but each gale force wind, every cresting 60 foot wave, is a threat that demands your resources. And such resources aren’t limited to spell slots, ki points, and maneuver dice. Never forget about good ol’ Hit Dice! Conflict that drains vitality, like being hit with a wave, or inhaling too much smoke from a fire, can trigger a Constitution saving throw against a DM-dictated DC, failure resulting in losing a hit die. You don’t have to threaten to deal damage to demand the use of resources; you can sap the very longevity of PCs itself.
So instead of looking at the standard adventuring like this:
Combat1, Combat2, Combat3… Combat7, Combat8.
Look at it like this:
- Coach wagon gets stuck – Need solution
- Combat – Goblins take advantage of stuck wagon
- Pass by village – house is burning, flames are spreading!
- Villagers are wounded – Need healing (magic, rare herbs from countryside, etc)
- Searching for healing/herbs/or just leaving village: Wildlife Stampede! – Need to escape!
- Combat – Discover Same goblins from before as cause of stampede
- Combat – more goblin fighting
- Combat – Goblin boss fight.
A full day’s worth of Encounters and only half of them involve actual combat.
Now it’s important to keep in mind your players don’t have to respond to these encounters in any specific way. They don’t have to help unstuck the wagon – they could just decide to leave on foot. If that’s the case, the PCs don’t get into the first combat with the goblins, but the PCs arrive late to a completely burning village – and hey, it was the goblins who started the fire in an effort to make the village vulnerable! So now instead of just a fire to deal with, the goblins are attacking the village.
If the players do help with the wagon, but do not help with the burning house, then the PCs don’t expend resources on saving the village, but they do lose a place where they can safely have a short rest. If the PCs don’t help heal the villagers, then the goblins report to their boss that the villagers are weakened enough, and so instead of the PCs bringing the fight to the boss, the goblins will bring the fight to the PCs.
So on and so forth.
Now this is getting a bit too long, so I’ll make my concluding statements.
Encounters defined as Combat makes life difficult for DMs. Encounters defined as “anything that threatens to drain PC resources” makes life easier for DMs. Fulfill the “6-8 adventuring day” by consistently threatening to drain the resources of your PCs throughout the day – no need to actually count the number of resource-draining events you make, so long as you’re watching how much you’re actually draining.