Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Help! My Encounters are Too Easy

So here's a common question DM's face: "Encounters in the game I'm running are too easy and it's making for a dull game, combat-wise. What can I do?"

I've had this problem in at least two of the games I DMed and I've also heard 4 other DM's struggling with the issue at various times(I remember Nathan collecting suggestions for dealing with this problem in his Somewhere North campaign, but I can't find that post...). So, let's look at some possible solutions:

Give Me MOAR!

I ran into this problem at some point when I DMed my first game. My solution was simple:

  1. Develop a feeling for what the party can handle
  2. Adjust any encounters that seem too easy with more/tougher opponents

And it basically worked, though step 1 took some time for me to really get a feel for.

This also worked fairly well for one member of our group when he was running WFRP and our party was just steamrolling whatever he threw at us. His solution was simple yet effective: start throwing in some extra Chaos Warriors. (My solution was to throw in some poison and laser beams!)


The problem with just scaling-up the baddies mechanically is that, at higher levels, combat becomes this long battle of attrition, where each side tries to wear the other down first(also happened to us in WFRP 1e with heavily-armored adversaries).  So, you're back to dull combats, but of a different kind.

I remember reading this great blog post(which of course I can't find now) where the guy described a long-running campaign he played in. There were many nasty monsters, but the worse were...Kobolds!

No, the DM didn't use 10HD kobolds. Instead, the kobolds played smart and used tactics. They would ambush the party in a narrow corridor filled with arrow slits in the ceiling. They would lay nasty traps and then attack when the party triggered them. They would cut-off the magic user from the rest of the party and then pepper him with arrows. He described how, going back out of the dungeon, the party would take a huge detour to avoid the Kobold-infested areas. (UPDATE: thanks, Jay Rutley, for pointing me to Tucker's Kobolds from Dragon 127, pg. 3)

So it's not just monster mechanics that matter, but monster tactics. I once wrote a post on better monster tactics while dealing with too-easy combat in WFRP, so read that, if you want...

The Difficulty Roll

So we have mechanics and tactics, but there's another level--the psychological level. Until now, the DM has been trying to guess the perfect difficulty for a combat, but it's an imprecise process. Sometimes the players end up with too easy a fight, and sometimes it's too difficult. What I've found, is that I tend to try and err on the side of caution. No one wants to be the DM who accidentally TPKed the party because he overestimated them.

So instead, what I generally do when rolling-up a random encounter, is have a relative difficulty roll on 1d6:

  • 1-2 an Easy Encounter- the party shouldn't have too much trouble wiping the floor with these guys.
  • 3-4 an Evenly Matched Encounter- it's a toss-up who's going to win this one. The players better bring their best.
  • 5-6 a Difficult Encounter- the party had better flee or come-up with some really out-of-the-box trick if they want to come out of this one alive
This takes a lot of the pressure off of me as the DM to find a perfectly matched encounter for the party. For one, I only am trying to do that about 1/3 of the time and secondly, the players learn very quickly from the hard battles to choose their fights wisely. I think there's also better DM/Player communication since I've already determined ahead of time how sure I am that they will be able to handle the fight (very sure, somewhat sure, not at all sure). As such, I describe it differently and we end up with better DM/Player communication.

This approach worked quite well for me during our Polish Resistance campaign, where, after the first PC deaths(it was almost a TPK), the party was happy to skip encounters that sounded high-risk, unless the rewards were just too tempting.

On the Other Hand

On the other hand, one could argue against this whole approach. Aren't randomness and player choice the king and queen of DnD? I reject out of hand the idea that every combat should be perfectly balanced for the PC's. That takes away all the game's dynamism and much of the onus for players to think creatively. At the same time, lull periods of dull combat occur and my intention with this post is to, hopefully, give my fellow DMs tools to deal with this eventuality.


  1. I half-remember that too... Will have a look and see if I can find a link!

    1. Maybe it was this?

    2. I think that must be what I'm remembering. What you do in the end? Did it work?

  2. Good one! I like the idea of randomizing the difficulty. I see at least one more dimension to this, though: the buffer. There's a variety of solutions about how imminent a characters death has to be, the harshest of them being that he dies as soon as his hp fall below zero. Yet, the more wiggle room you leave to this, the more control you have with how a fight turns out (at least there'll be lots of room for miscalculated encounters ...)!

    Hackmaster (4E), for example, gives more hp in the beginning (+20 hp to almost everything), but a wider variety to the amount of damage, too (dice will "explode"), resulting in a game in need of a lot of "hacking" on the one side, but a dangerous uncertainty about the amount of damage on the other side, which lengthens fights a bit and makes them a bit more controllable (without making them dull, I might add). Then there is the "Threshold of Pain rule", that knocks a character cold as soon as he gets more than half of his hp in damage with one blow and endurance rules that may end a fight through exhaustion before somebody gets killed. Even if a fight goes south for some reason or another, characters aren't killed very easily. They only die if their (already extended) hp fall way below zero (up to - 10) and may sacrifice their honor to avoid getting killed entirely (which will give them lots of penalties later on, but dead they are not ...).

    That's, of course, a whole lot of crunch, but the beauty of it is that a DM is always able to decide the amount of complexity he allows in his games and any one of those rules will allow for a variety of encounters without threatening a TPK to a degree where (if all of them are used) it becomes a very rare exception.

    1. I guess a mechanical death-buffer is another way to deal with the GM's fear of wiping out the party. At the same time, however, you've also made all combats easier, which brings us back to the original problem "My Encounters are Too Easy"

      Ultimately, I agree with you though--it's nice to give a little bit of a buffer. I just like for that buffer to have consequences. The 'sacrificing honor' idea sounds interesting. So are mechanics where an extended rest is required to get the character back in shape. My favorite, though, is definitely the Death and Dismemberment table, both for it's color and it's lasting effect. Hence, my disturbing obsession with coming up with my own versions of these.


    2. It wouldn't do HackMaster justice to say encounters were too easy (and it really wasn't the impression I wanted to give). It is a pretty detailed and brutal system that will leave an experienced character with lots of scars and the stories to go with them.

      But I have to admit: if done wrong (and this is a thin line) it certainly will have a negative effect and make encounters too easy. It's just the matter of finding out how hard you can press them without killing them and a buffer will help while your trying to find that sweet spot ...