The Colors of Magic - Available Now

January 25, 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Monster Manual

A Primer on How to Run 5e D&D

5e is a great RPG -- probably the best edition of D&D -- but it's not great at telling you how to ::looks at camera:: run a game.

A major challenge that new and experienced GMs alike stumble over is encounter design.

Encounter design is the art of setting up a discrete, relatively isolated conflict with NPCs or monsters.

Because the conflict in D&D is usually with NPCs or monsters, there's a high risk of a fight breaking out.  At least a third of D&D encounters featuring monsters or NPCs wind up in combat, and the system for challenge rating (CR) makes estimating how hard these battles will be very difficult.

Monsters within the same CR vary wildly in lethality.  Dragons and undead don't match other monsters at their level, for different, intentional reasons.  Worse, the math you're supposed to use to determine if your encounter is Easy, Medium, Hard, or Deadly is messy, challenging, and produces wild results.

Finally, 5e D&D assumes the party will be facing two or more encounters per short rest, and more than eight per long rest, so challenge ratings are averaged out between encounter #1 and encounter #8, when we all know that the PCs have an easier time when they're full on resources than when they're down to their last spell.  Since most DMs don't create time pressure plot that demands the party fight through eight encounters a day, that assumption is broken.  It's a mess!

But that's OK.

Breathe!

You're going to be fine.

Here's why: I'm going to tell you how to GM 5e D&D without freaking out about challenge rating.


  1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"
  2. Have "encounters" not "fights"
  3. Don't make running away hard
  4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)
  5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary
  6. Threaten things they care about, OTHER than their hp or gp
  7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration


1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"

Source: Pexels
It takes an enormous, personal hatred for someone to try to murder another person, at risk to their own life.  That's even true for non-sapient creatures like snakes or tigers.  A rattlesnake might kill, but only in self defense or to hunt.  It will run away and give warning before it strikes an attacker, and it will flee prey that turns out to be able to fight back.  A tiger might kill a human for the cruel sport of it, but if the tiger's life is in danger, it will run away.  People are even more thoughtful about killing each other.  Even serial killers, terrorists, and assassins avoid fighting to the death except in very specific circumstances. 

If all you use are the D&D equivalents of serial killers, terrorists, and assassins, the horror of their single-minded violence will get old, fast.  Most encounters in your adventure should be about things that one or both sides care about, and they should care about practical things connected to the antagonists' plans.  Serial killers, terrorists, and assassins care about bizarre fantasies, zealous ideologies, and political extremism.  They make great main antagonists, but to populate a dungeon, they need the fantasy equivalent of paid soldiers, faction loyalists, friends, patsies, and guard dogs.

Characters and monsters that work for your antagonist are rarely mindless killers.  And even the mindless killers have specific instructions.

Example:  Some goblins are holed up in a ruin on a ransom scheme.  They're trying to get rich trading a wealthy captive for a lot of gold.  If adventurers show up to rescue their captive, the goblins will try to chase the adventurers off; but those goblins won't die for a cut of the ransom!  That's insane!  Goblins aren't that stupid.

Example:  A necromancer has animated some skeletons to guard the crypt where she prepares the dark ritual.  She has tasked them to stay in the antechamber and then to kill any living being that enters it other than her.  PCs can split up and have a fast Rogue attack the skeletons and draw them away, or shout past them to get the necromancer to come out.

This tip is all about what the antagonists care about.  But sometimes GMs need to frame encounter stakes around what the PCs care about - see #6.

2. Have "encounters" not "fights"

When you prep your adventure, you might be tempted to think "for this fight, we'll have three bugbears."  Stop!  How do you know it's a fight?

When you're GMing, don't push to roll initiative.  Bugbears don't spend all day laying in wait, hoping some adventurer stumbles upon them.  Unless the bugbears are specifically ordered to prepare ambush (an unusual thing to do, unless there's an immediate reason), they will be acting normally.  Describe what the PCs encounter, then ask "what do you do?"  Sometimes someone will say "I charge the nearest bugbear!  Leeeeerooooy Jenkins!"

But since fights drain their resources, the PCs are more likely to try a different, smarter approach first.  You can frame that approach as hard as you want, because failing the Stealth or Deception check probably will lead to a fight.

3. Don't make running away hard

There are no less than three different systems for retreating in 5e D&D.

  1. You can use the combat rules, stay in initiative, and have the players declare Disengage actions and movement to escape their enemies.  
  2. You can use the optional chase rules in the DMG.  
  3. Or you can narrate the result of a PC action, without using dice.  All three of those are "rules as written" ways to handle retreat.

The chase rules are pretty good.  They're a fun mechanical way to resolve a chase, which is what a retreat is if the enemy wants to pursue the PCs.  But see tip #1 - if the monsters' goal is to chase off the PCs, they win if the PCs run away. They don't have to run them down and slaughter them!

Narrating the retreat is even better:  You look at the encounter stakes (see #1 and #6) and decide what happens if the PCs forfeit by running away.  Then you narrate the result and make some notes as to what's happened while the PCs fled.

The combat system, however, is lethal.  If the PCs know the fight is too hard, staying in initiative will probably kill them, and the players know it.

Example:  The PCs have to choose between Move and Dash (and eat an opportunity attack) or Disengage and Move.  If they Move and Dash, the enemy can Move and Dash and continue getting free opportunity attacks, unless the enemy is slower than them.  If they Disengage and Dash, the enemy can move and take an Action against them every turn.  Unless the PCs have faster movement speed than the monsters, retreat is suicidal.

So tell your players that your official DM policy is never to force them to use the combat system to retreat.

"Here's my policy:  If you all agree to retreat, we will drop out of initiative and either narrate the retreat or use the chase rules in the DMG.  This means retreating is a lot easier for you."

If you do that, the players will know they can run away, and so will you.  But they won't run away unless they know they're out-gunned.  So...

4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)

In real life, there is no animal that cannot be killed by a reasonably fit "first level" person with chain mail and a spear.  A "10 in every stat" human with no special combat training can kill a tiger or a hippo or a grizzly bear if they've got a spear and chain mail armor.

The "classes and levels" system of D&D introduces "high level" threats that no mere mortal can defeat.  A Commoner with chain mail and a spear has effectively zero chance to defeat an Adult Red Dragon -- or even a Dire Wolf.

Well sure, that's just how D&D is, right?

You should feel comfortable warning your players about deadly foes.

Example:  A level 1 PCs might attack an assassin, not knowing that the assassin is the Assassin from the Monster Manual -- a CR 8 foe with 78 hit points.  She can outright kill most level 1 PCs with a single blow.  She can singlehandedly "TPK" a level 1 party in as little as two rounds.  But how would your players know that? You. You need to communicate that.

You need to make it clear to the players, out of character, that this CR 8 Assassin is way out of their league, because it is not realistic that they could all beat on an assassin with greataxes and spells for twelve seconds and have approaching zero chance of killing her.

Then, ask them how they know this information, in character.

"Hey folks, OOC, this is a CR 8 foe with more hit points than you have combined, and she can do 40 damage per attack with multiple attacks.  Engage at your own risk.  How do your characters know that?"

You recruit the players to help create an in-game justification for why they know the assassin is too deadly an Assassin for them to fight head-on.  That way they have buy-in, which supports verisimilitude:  If they come up with an answer, the answer will seem more plausible to them.

If the players (A) know how hard the foe is, and (B) they know you won't make them use the combat system to retreat, then (C) they won't feel forced to fight for their lives against a foe they can't handle.

But both A and B are necessary for C.

5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary

Sometimes the story calls for an easy encounter.  Sometimes you thought the encounter was going to be hard, and it turns out it wasn't.  No biggie!  Learn how to make encounters seem harder than they are, then always use those tricks.

Let's face it -- your PCs will probably have one or two hundred fights in a long D&D campaign.  That's a lot of fights!

Even if you're running a "killer" campaign, only 10% of them are going to be literally lethal.  And most of us aren't running "killer" campaigns (it's not a popular style).  So if 90% or more (probably far more) of the fights aren't really a threat, your job is to make them feel scary.

This is an imagination game.  Everything is make believe.  If a monster feels scary, it is scary.

There are several ways to do that.

  1. Act! This is where you try to get all Matt Mercer on your players.  Menace them.  But maybe you suck at acting.  (That's OK, so do I.)  Luckily there are a few other ways to make monsters scarier than they deserve.
  2. The second way is to describe the monsters as way scarier than their stats deserve.  Part of this is revealing as little as possible about monsters' stats before battle begins.  And when you do give away the monsters' secrets, reveal their weaknesses before you reveal their strengths.  That sounds backwards, but it's not!  Something that's unknown is way scarier than something you can predict and prepare for.  
  3. When you describe the battle, do the opposite:  Never describe a PC OR a monster as weak or fumbling.  If a PC misses, it was because the monster was tough, quick, or skilled.  If a monster misses, it's because the PC was tough, quick, or skilled.  And don't make a hit draw serious blood until the monster is low on hit points - below half at least.  (This is the book's official advice on describing damage.)
  4. The last way is Tip #6...


6. Threaten things they care about, other than their hp or gp

Remember, even a "killer DM" is only going to kill a PC off once every couple of sessions, and you're probably not a killer DM.  So you can't try to kill the PCs every encounter, or they might notice that you're not killing them.  Then things will get boring.

So threaten things the PCs care about, other than their hit points.  Threaten things that you're willing to follow through on.

Each encounter, the opposition has a goal, and that goal should very rarely be "kill all the PCs or die trying" (see Tip #1).  Choose goals for the antagonists so that if they achieve their goal, it will make the story more interesting. The most interesting goals your villains might have are goals that directly threaten things your PCs care about.

Here's a list of encounter stakes to use as inspiration, split into ascending tiers of severity.  Your monsters can win most of those stakes, and it doesn't end the campaign like "kill or be killed" stakes do.  That list has fifty encounter stakes options, none of which is "slaughter all the PCs or die trying."

But take it a step farther:  What are the monsters after?  Whatever it is, make it personal.

That's what I mean by threaten something they care about other than their hp or gp.  The thing that drives your plot is your antagonist's plan.  Make your antagonist's plan directly conflict with things each PC cares about.

If your antagonist's plan is in direct conflict with things the PCs care about, you're running a "character-driven campaign."  If not, your campaign is not driven by the things the characters care about.  Sure, they might be saving the world -- we all care about the world -- but it's not personal.  If you want the easiest way to run a character-driven campaign, here's how to do it.

In a character-driven campaign, you set the antagonists' goals in conflict with things the PCs care about.  Look at the PCs' backstories (and in a 5e D&D game, check their Personal Characteristics) for this information.

Example: Let's go back to the goblin sentry example, from Tip #1.  The goblins care about guarding a ruin where they're holding a hostage they're trying to ransom.  In a non-character-driven campaign, the PCs are hired to go save the hostage with the promise of a reward.  The hostage's life isn't worth the ransom (or the goblins miscalculated and asked for too much), so they've offered the PCs a lower amount to rescue them.  Losing the fight or running away means the PCs' reward is in doubt.  But it's just gold.

In a character-driven campaign, you play off of their passions.  The Criminal wants to become the greatest thief in the world.  At the start of the adventure, a character-driven GM insinuates that the hostage is a priest who can help spread word of their prowess.  The Acolyte cleric owes her life to this priest who took her in when her parents died.  The Soldier's honor is her life.  She promised the Acolyte cleric that she would save the priest, so retreating from this fight is dishonorable.  The warlock is wanted for a robbery from his days as an Urchin, and the character-driven GM has insinuated that the priest's influence could get him a pardon, if he can keep his dark patron a secret.

All of a sudden, fights are exciting not because of the chess game tactical challenges, but because something the characters care about is on the line.  You can screw up encounter design and wind up with a fight too easy or a fight too hard, and it doesn't matter, because what makes it exciting is that the PCs' actions could get this priest killed.

7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration

The last problem with the CR system is that the rules assume an adventuring day with a few encounters per short rest, and more than eight encounters per long rest (fewer at lower levels, and more at the highest levels, of course).

However, in practice, having ten battles a day is not how most DMs run D&D.  The only way to do that is to create a plot with time pressure, and then put ten violent monsters in the way of achieving the plot before the clock runs out.  That can be fun, but you don't want to do it every single time.

Consequently, character classes designed to make players carefully ration a dozen spells over the course of a day usually kick ass most days, because most days, the DM doesn't actually make you face more than a few encounters.

The reason it's a problem at all that the Wizard spells and the Rogue just has the same old sneak attack is that the Wizard's highest level spells are game changers that are supposed to be limited to once every handful of encounters.  They steal the spotlight.  If the Wizard doesn't have to ration their best spells, they can use their best spells every turn.  So how do you balance for this inherent problem without becoming a master encounter (and adventure!) designer?

When the daily-refresh classes don't have to budget their resources, every encounter goes like this:  The fighter and rogue did some damage, and then the Wizard cast a big spell that turned the tide, leaving the fighter and rogue to mop up what little opposition was left.

So you don't have to give Rogues powerful spells.  You have to make every PC turn feel like a critical moment in the story.  The way you do that is to start each and every PC turn with narration that focuses the action on the current stakes, in terms of that character's perspective.  Here's a thread on how to do that in detail.


In this way, the DM can make the cleric's 4 hit point Healing Word or the Rogue's missed attack into a critical moment in the story.  Sure, the Wizard's Fireball and the fighter's big Action Surge turn are what really turned the tide, but look at this example:

DM:  Rogue, two hobgoblins are attacking Bard while Ragnar is poised to finish off the direwolf.  You can finish off the direwolf pretty safely, or go take some heat off of Bard before the hobgoblins kill him.  What do you do?
Rogue: Ug, my Flaw is I don't take risks for others, but I can't just let him go down.  I go try to take out one of the hobgoblins.  Crud.  Eight.  I miss.
DM: Hobgoblins' turn.  The one you attacked swings at you...  19 to hit for 13 damage.
Rogue: Ouch!  Down to three hit points!
DM:  You have a big gash on your sword arm.  Blood is running down your hand, dripping all over the ground.
Rogue:  I think, 'That's what I get for sticking my neck out for people!'

The DM framed the turn as a choice between self-preservation and heroism.  The Rogue acted against his nature to try to help someone, and suffered for it.  It's a character-defining moment, and also a relationship-defining moment for Bard and Rogue.  I mean, Rogue tried, right?

Summary

1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"

  • Problem: Need more realistic antagonists, are you willing to follow through on TPK threatening encounters?
  • Skill: Creative stakes setting, worldbuilding

2. Have "encounters" not "fights"

  • Problem: Jumping to combat too quickly, 
  • Skill: Scaffolding encounters with multiple routes to success, improvising to accommodate creative actions

3. Don't make running away hard

  • Problem: retreating in D&D while staying in initiative is suicide
  • Skill: Good communication, setting table expectations, rules awareness

4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)

  • Problem: CR is artificial
  • Skill: Good communication, trust building

5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary

  • Problem: Too-easy encounters can be dull
  • Skill: Acting, description, and stakes setting

6. Threaten things they care about, other than their hp and gp

  • Problem: Story is more exciting if it's about the characters - less exciting if they're just along for the ride
  • Skill: Stakes setting, worldbuilding, character-driven GMing

7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration

  • Problem: D&D is designed and balanced for long adventuring days, and we don't want to be forced into those, so classes get unbalanced
  • Skill: Put little story decisions in every turn, when you can, to distribute spotlight more fairly

One final example 
(Regular readers know how I love examples!)

Let's say you make a mistake, and you make the goblin sentries too hard.  You use two hobgoblins against a level 1 party.  Hobgoblins happen to be way too dangerous for their 1/2 challenge rating; thanks to their 18 AC and their Martial Advantage trait, two hobgoblins (not a Deadly encounter, per the rules) can kill two first level PCs in the first round of a fight if the dice go even a little in their favor.  Here's an outcome set for all possible outcomes of the too-hard encounter:

  • Clear victory (unlikely):  All the PCs survive, and they kill the hobgoblins and save the priest.  A happy reunion!
  • Mixed victory:  The PCs kill the hobgoblins and save the priest, but one or more of them sacrificed their lives for this.  If the goal was just to get some gold, this is a lame outcome.  If the PCs saved the priest, but the Acolyte sacrificed her life to save a man who she owes everything to, it makes a tragic, but fitting end.
  • Mixed defeat:  The PCs killed one of the hobgoblins, but had to retreat.  Now they have to find out if the hobgoblins killed the hostage or just moved them somewhere more secure.
  • Defeat (unlikely):  The PCs failed to save the priest, and some of them died in the fight.  The survivor(s) escaped, and will have to recruit new allies and make another rescue attempt before the hobgoblins give up and kill the hostage.
  • Close TPK (incredibly unlikely):  For the encounter to end in a "total party kill," the last PC standing would have to have had enough chance to win on their last action that they thought it was better to take one last shot than to retreat.  The dice didn't go their way, they didn't beat the last hobgoblin, and they got killed by an unlucky roll.  Even this outcome is exciting, because of how close it was and how personal it was.  Also, this situation is very unlikely:  In our example, the Acolyte might die for the priest, but the Criminal and the Warlock won't die for their goals.  And the Soldier may die for their honor, but might decide it's better to retreat and try a different approach than throw their life away.
  • Brutal TPK (impossible):  If the PCs' attacks are easily rebuffed and they're getting slaughtered, thanks to #3, above, they could just retreat.  There's no reason to stick around:  The hobgoblins' goal is only to guard their hostage.  There could be other chances to mount a rescue.  There's no reason for all the PCs to die here.  A brutal TPK is not possible.

See?  I just described how a lethal fight is all-but-guaranteed not to end in a TPK if you follow my advice.  You don't even have to figure out how hard the fight is.  You don't need to know that the hobgoblins are way too deadly for CR 1/2.  You don't even need to use Kobold Fight Club or a CR calculation system.  You just pick some monsters and roll with it.  The safeguards you have in place keep things fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment