Updated: Oct 25
The primary goal for Dungeons and Dragons is to make it a fun, memorable experience. As a Dungeon Master, designing your encounters to make them truly engaging will make your game feel rewarding for you and your players every time you get together.
Memorable encounters that you design for your D&D game can fit into these neat categories or “pillars”. Let's expand a bit on some specific examples of each pillar.
Combat: Battling until one side is victorious, whether it be a single, tough monster or a horde of lesser creatures.
Exploration: Think of this as “world interaction”. This can include anything from investigating ruins, disabling traps, solving puzzles, and navigating foreign environments.
Role-Playing: Interacting with other characters/people. This can be in the party and nonplayer characters in the world. This can include characters sharing secrets with each other, deceiving town guards, gambling with shady locals, or talking to people of interest for quests.
The Three Pillars I’ve seen is a simple way to design your game… But is it realistic?
The Three Pillars are not Mutually Exclusive
Having defined pillars like this does make designing encounters easy, but it’s not a reflection of what happens in-game.
What if your maze puzzle involves ghosts that players can talk to? Does your combat encounter have a swinging axe trap that strikes anyone crossing a bridge? Maybe players try to avoid the combat encounter you meticulously planned by sneaking around the monster’s campsite?
These are prime examples of mixed encounters, which add a lot more depth to your game.
The image above depicts the sacred Three Pillars of D&D play: Combat, Exploration, and Roleplaying. Note here that they do overlap, making plenty of situations of “Mixed” encounters.
This guide for building combat encounters from DnD Beyond gives DM’s a sense that encounters should be designed without a specific pillar of play in mind. The players are part of the narrative, as they decide how to approach the encounters you describe to them. Any encounter that you design should always highlight the story of your game.
Be Open-Minded when Designing your Encounters
There is a lot of bleed in between these categories or pillars. I think a DM should design memorable encounters with different approaches in mind.
It doesn’t hurt to have a specific idea when designing your encounter. Planning a combat encounter in advance is great, but being flexible in-game is crucial. For instance, you could improvise a DC (Difficulty Class) for a Persuasion Check for players to talk out of a combat encounter before it escalates, especially if the enemies have questionable loyalty. Alternatively, an Intimidation Check could work as well, causing some minions to flee. A great Stealth Check for the party could have them quietly sneak around the encounter, or even listen in on a goblin conversation with a solid Perception Check.
In some situations where everyone is actively working together, consider having them make a Group Check where at least ½ of the party has to meet the Difficulty Class to pass.
Recently in my own game, I had a mechanical dragon turtle that could overwhelm the players with plasma cannon fire. Thankfully, the players were smart enough to not take this head-on. Instead, they charmed and fooled a nearby guard into letting them on the turtle, which was an enemy base/dungeon on the inside (sort of like a submarine). They proceeded to infiltrate the base, obtain disguises, and wipe them out!
Don’t have Encounters for the sake of having Encounters
Another great article from the Arcane Library is an exceptional tool to describe writing as a whole. And that’s just it, it’s not just about designing cool encounters, but making them come to life by storytelling.
If you use random encounter tables, make sure they fit your setting well. Sure, you could have a Steam Elemental spawning out of thin air, but wouldn’t it be cooler if its purpose was powering a turbine? What if killing too many of these Elementals causes a power shortage? Maybe that’s what the villain is trying to accomplish to fulfill their goals?
Balance your Combat Encounters Fairly
The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a combat encounter table to work with. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has a solid set of tables to balance combat encounters easily without using experience point values.
These tables work well if you have one threatening monster or a group of monsters of similar challenge rating (CR). But these tables fall apart quickly when you use powerful creatures mixed with much less powerful ones. The experience multiplier for enemies in large groups makes it seem like it’s too difficult for players, when in fact, it usually isn’t.
Let's use an example from my own campaign. Take a party of four 6th Level adventurers: (Fighter, Wizard, Druid, and Rogue).
I matched them against a giant Fomorian (CR 8 3,900xp) and five of his Grimlock minions (CR ¼ 50xp each). Let’s suppose we want this to be a tough boss, making it a Deadly Encounter.
According to the Dungeon Master's Guide page 82, my experience budget is 5,600xp (1,400 x 4 players). Now simply adding it up, the Fomorian & minions are only 4,150xp. But since we have multiple monsters, we have to modify the total XP because we’re making it more dangerous by making more attack rolls. So by adding 5 wimpy Grimlocks, we’ve made this combat “unwinnable” at a whopping total of 8,300xp - that’s 2,700xp over budget.
Going against the guide, I ran this battle anyway. Based on my own intuition, it was definitely winnable. I’d actually consider it only a Hard encounter with my DM experience and seeing how well the players fared.
It wasn’t much different than a Hard encounter if you take out the multiple monsters multiplier in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. To me, it’s obvious that they assume you use all of the same monsters in your encounter. In my experience, simply just multiplying the same type of monsters together is a better option.
By multiplying the Grimlocks values only (since there are 5 of them), we’d get: (5 Grimlocks: 250xp) x (2 encounter multiplier) + (Fomorian 3,900xp) = 4,400xp.
Take Party Roles & Abilities into Account
Not every party will have a high AC Fighter, shielding frontline attacks from enemies. Nor will every group have a powerful Wizard throwing Fireballs every round. This can make encounters harder to plan and scale, especially if someone fulfilling a big role is absent.
My advice is to make a variety of memorable encounters with different amounts of monsters. Sometimes a swarm of Goblins will be too arduous without the Wizard. The same thing can be said about a powerful Ogre without the Fighter to keep them occupied.
Dungeon Master Trial & Error
Being a DM is a lot of trial and error. Take some notes every session to recall how it went. Reflect on what your players handled well and where they struggled.
In tougher-than-expected combats:
Leave it to the minions: Have a tough enemy leave. It’s likely they have better things to do than fight players. Have them create an obstacle, run away, or even teleport.
Gives hints to players: An occasional wisdom/intelligence check to help signal that the enemies are too tough. Giving hints is a good tactic for other types of encounters as well.
Capture players/make an example of them. This could lead to a series of tense roleplaying/escape situations or bargaining with evildoers.
Let the dice fall as they may: Some players like a challenge. Taking the kid gloves off and letting it happen might be just what your players want.
In easier-than-expected combats:
Let players off easy: This is the easiest out, but let your players be victorious! Don’t always do this though. Combat won’t be fun if it’s always easy. Maybe check/adjust your difficulty for future combats.
Boss Phase 2: Maybe a boss acts differently after it’s lost half of its HP. Does it gain a special attack, a magical weapon, a spell or a trait?
Add more backup: Minions and more minions! There’s strength in numbers. This is what they’re hired for!
Later, I’ll go more in-depth on setting the stage for memorable Roleplaying and Exploration encounters. For now, I hope this was useful!
What are your experiences like in designing Dungeons and Dragons encounters? Feel free to subscribe and/or leave a comment below.
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