How To DM – Building Encounters (Part Three)

Hello Everyone and welcome! Last week we discussed some numbers and mechanics. Today, I’d like to talk about some ideas I use to balance out an encounter but still leave it challenging for everyone. For me, designing an encounter and then running that encounter are two entirely different things.

So let’s talk for a minute about design balance using our 5 man party and those 52 kobolds.

How Terrain Helps. This is probably not the first time some hostiles have wandered into the kobold’s home, so they probably have taken at least some measures to build defenses. They’re small and individually weak, so ranged weapons and spears make sense to me. They’re also expert tunnellers so modifying a cave is no great task.

If I can put archers on a ledge of some kind with some cover so melee combatants can’t reach them easily, then that’s worth about an extra 10 kobolds or so. So, I reduce their numbers to 42. If they’ve also cleared out the entrance so the enemy has no cover, then I would drop their total by another 5. The melee characters can’t get to them, and the party’s ranged characters can only kill 2 kobolds a turn. 15 archer kobolds on a ledge is still plenty of firepower, and we’re down to 37 kobolds to assign.

Surely, they would have erected some barriers or perhaps dug pits to hinder/direct enemy charges. If the melee’s can only reach them single file while the kobolds attack them from cover with spears, then that’s worth another 10 kobolds to me. So, now we’re down to 27 total, and I would put 10 spearmen up front.

My party is very weak on the magic side. A kobold sorcerer with the right spells could easily be worth another 10 kobolds. We’ll talk about spells more in a moment, but a single sorcerer now brings us down to 7 “unassigned” kobolds, and I might just eliminate them all-together or just use them as reinforcements.

Spells, Spells, Spells. Boy, these can make an encounter go south quickly for the party and for your monsters. I find that most of the spell selections given in a creature’s stat block to be circumstantial or useless really. I just cut them out; it’s less for me to keep up with.

How to pick them fairly though? I usually avoid “save or suck” spells that just take a player out of the game. No one likes it when their bad-ass barbarian is just sitting there paralyzed and none of the other players can do anything about it. In my opinion, I would just be punishing the party because no one wanted to play a cleric.

I will normally choose one useful combat spell per level and let it go at that, but spells should be useful to the monsters’ community and not tailor-made to specifically counter your party.

Give Your Monster’s A Goal. Especially, your more intelligent ones. Most creatures, even animals, are not going to fight to the death unless they have no other option. These kobolds probably want to left alone. They are fighting to protect their turf and community, but they’re probably not going to be psychopathic about it. If they can drive off a threat without a bunch of them getting hurt, then wouldn’t that be the best option for them?

This also can open up great role-playing opportunities as the players try to parley for information or safe passage. If the PCs are looking for an ogre’s lair and the kobolds know where it is, why wouldn’t they give that ogre up? Murderous adventurers and hungry ogre gone.

Be Realistic in Your Targeting. This is the last point I’d like to make. I like to play my monsters as smart and prepared as they would realistically be. If a kobold can safely shoot a PC, then that’s probably who they would choose, especially if there’s no strong commander. They’re not suicidal after all. Be careful about Int 7 creatures always making the most optimal choice in who they attack. This gives me a framework to use in response to the PC’s tactical choices.

What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!

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