Content of the article: "“How do I balance combat as a new GM” Here’s how I got my footing!"
I see that how to balance combat as a new GM is a pretty frequent topic here and I can't blame people! Combat balance is hard, CR is confusing, and no one likes to feel like a TPK comes from DM error rather than a fair fight.
Couple notes about how I like to run my games to keep in mind through these tips, because each DM will be looking for different things: I tend to enjoy a mix of RP and combat, with combat once per session, I enjoy running games that feel challenging to my players, I roll in the open and do not avoid player deaths nor do I seek them.
Know the rules before deciding to break them: I really, really, recommend using the 5e RAW CR system to generate encounters if you are just learning how to DM. I know this is a fairly odd take on this sub but while I agree that CR is an imperfect system, I disagree that it is useless. It does a fairly passable job on quantifying a very complicated subject in a way that will get you average results. Reading the CR section of the DMG will give lots of critical information, like the greater importance of the action economy (or total number of enemies) as opposed to each enemy's individual strength.
The best way to make encounters is to look at each monster's stats and abilities and use judgment based on your specific group about how those abilities will work with them. But when you're new you probably don't have the experience necessary to make those judgment calls yet! So start out listening to WOTC's advice on how to balance encounters and then as you feel more confident in understanding what D&D looks and feels like, start to personalize it to the extent you feel comfy. The added benefit to starting with RAW CR scaling is that it is easier to find resources for learning and preparing online. Kobold Fight Club will do all of your CR math for you and can be used to spit out passable combat for very little effort on your part.
Start easy, then ramp it up: When I first begin DMing a new group I always start them off in media res on a CR "easy" encounter. Something like a tavern brawl, a mugger in the streets, or a small bandit attack in the woods. Your characters will almost certainly decimate this encounter, but that's no problem! It starts the group on a win (which is some goof free endorphins) and allows players who may not be comfortable with the system a safe chance to learn their skills. This is where you can make sure that both you and your players have a solid knowledge base of things like modifiers, skills, weapon uses, movement, and spell casting.
You probably see where this is going, but the next encounter I run for my players is a CR "medium" encounter. Then if that's an easy win for them I move on to a "hard" one (my current group is full of smart cookies and they went all the way to "deadly"!).
The things that I'm looking for during these encounters are:
- A point at which excitement turns to frustration
- A player going down in a single round
- More than half the party going down
If one of those things happens, I make a mental note and then dial the difficulty back one notch for standard encounters and keep it the same (perhaps a tad less) for boss fights. Doing it this way ensures that your party will always have a real threat of danger, without beating their head against a wall. Each party will have different level of difficulty at which they reach those points. Some players love a challenge and will never be frustrated, and some groups struggle with tactics and need easier encounters to have a chance to live.
Gaining knowledge and personalizing combat: After you get a good feel for how combat runs/what makes a fight easier or more difficult it becomes easier to move away from the CR system and personalize combat to your groups.
A very easy way to adjust combat on the fly is to adjust the tactics of the monsters. I mentioned I roll in the open, but my players often also know the monsters AC! this means that I don't get chances to fudge on those two things (no shade if you do, do what's fun for you) and yet even with that restriction, the very simple change of "dumbing down" enemies can drastically change the difficulty of combat mid fight. Some examples of additional fine tuning changes can be:
- Selective use of abilities and spells (pack tactics and martial advantage come to mind) choosing to use or ignore monster abilities will drastically change their damage output
- Action economy! Automatic CR calculators will take this into account, but if you're hand building encounters try to remember that adding enemies increases the difficulty exponentially, not linearly!
- Battlefield positioning. More relevant if you use the flanking variant rule, but still very much an important thing to remember. A Barbarian may hit for 40 damage a turn, but they can only move 40 feet, and many spells and bows have a longer range than that. Wasting turns and losing some of that action economy mentioned earlier will make a huge difference in the difficulty of combat.
- Encounter to rest ratio: I only learned this a couple months ago myself, but 5e is balanced RAW to have 6-8 medium/hard encounters per long rest! (encounter being any situation that can drain resources, not just combat) I know many people, including me, do a lot fewer than that number. Restricting long rests or adding additional encounters between rests are great ways to ensure a consistent challenge at a campaign level. Similarly, if the going is a bit tough, reducing encounters between rest will lower that level.
A couple of notes I couldn't fit anywhere else:
Level one players die really easily, but don't let that trick you into thinking that all PCs die easily! It is actually incredibly difficult/unlucky to auto kill a PC above level 5 on a standard encounter. Remember that 0HP =/= dead and that any amount of healing will bring them back up, a medical kit stabilizes without a roll, a medicine check stabilizes on a DC10, and the players have at least three rounds to get them back up (assuming they fail every death save/are not attacked by enemies). If you allow players to flee combat and they don't want to die, it is very easy for them to choose not to die.
- Side-note on this, there are a couple of red flags (in the traditional meaning, something to be watched closely but not necessarily an automatic "NOGO) that sometimes only reveal themselves during players reaching zero HP. Keep an eye out for:
- A player who becomes genuinely angry or belligerent at reaching zero HP. Investment in your character is good, but players need to remember that it is just a game. Sometimes the dice are unlucky.
- Players who ignore or refuse to assist a downed player despite requests to do so. D&D is a game built on camaraderie amongst players even if they are RPing characters that have none. Players should be considerate and sensitive to the requests of other players.
Honestly combat in D&D is so very different table to table that a single guide is almost impossible, but hopefully this can help someone who feels like they don't know where to start.
- Use non-combat encounters in your first sessions
- Simple Combat Encounter Benchmark You Can Keep In Your Head
- Suggestion for D&D modules in the future
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