Monster encounters are the heart of Dungeon & Dragons, but even after years of DMing I was still struggling to create thrilling encounters. However, once I realized what I was missing, everything changed.
How do you create balanced encounters in Dungeons &Dragons 5e? You should carefully consider these areas of encounter building to keep combat fun, interesting and balanced:
- Monster Challenge Rating and Abilities
- Your Party Level and Size
- Encounter Challenge Level
- Terrain and Maps
- Impact and Purpose
If you are looking to build encounters that make your party’s hearts skip a beat, (I am talking about encounters that are the stuff of legends in your campaign) then you need to consider these aspects carefully. Some of these you may already know, but some of these you might be leaving out, like I was. Ignore even one of these and your encounters will never reach their full potential.
Monsters by Terrain
The first thing to consider before you start building an encounter is the terrain in which your party will be fighting. The terrain will determine the monsters your party could encounter. The most common terrains are:
Here nature rules supreme. Among the thick foliage and tangles of vines, adventurers are sure to find wildlife in its most natural forms. Common to normal forests are wolves, giant eagles, ankhegs, and bears. However, forces of evil often like to corrupt forests, twisting them into places of horror. Common in these types of forests are tree blights, giant spiders, and dire wolves.
Jungles are home to more tropical creatures, such as snakes creatures like Yuan-Ti and frog types, like Grungs. Creatures like these and many others rely on the thick, uncharted jungles to protect them from prying eyes and provide them the water and warmth they need to survive.
High above the earth in rocky outcropping and perilous cliffs, monsters scrap a living out of stone. Here Peryton rule the sky, searching disparately for human hearts on which to feed and Stone Giants create works of art within the mountain’s stony face. Here your party is sure to encounter a harpy, chimera, troll, or maybe even a dragon..
Wide, flat, grassy plains can give players a sense of security. After all, they can see for miles! Nothing could seek up on them here. What they don’t see, stalking towards then in the tall grass, is the swishing tail of a lioness getting ready to pounce, or the bandits patiently waiting for night to fall..
A variety of creatures and people roam the plains. From buffalo and farmers, to Rocs and bandits. Weather is also especially dangerous in the plains where there is no place to hide. Strong winds and storms often sweep through the plains, leaving destruction in their wake.
Whether you are running a nautical campaign, or your party just wanted to try out their new “Water Breathing” spell, you should know that it is a whole new world under the waves. Under water is the hunting grounds for Merrow and Merfolk alike, as well as the domain of Sea Hags. Some creatures your party could encounter under water include sharks, dragon turtles, Kuo-Toa and Sahuagin.
If you need a complete guide to under water combat, you’ll want to check out this article I wrote, Everything You Need to Know About Underwater Combat
Adventuring below the surface world? Your party will find fresh horrors every hour they traverse the Underdark. Here, everything is out for blood. From Giant Fire Beetles to Intellect Devourers, everything is poised to kill. Depending on how deep your party goes, they could run into Purple Worms, Piercers, Ropers, and bats toward the surface. Deep below is the realm of Mind Flayers, Fire Snakes and Fire Giants.
Even cities boast their share of monsters, though they are better hidden. Underground sewer systems are a great place for swarms of disease carrying rats (see more on disease in this post of mine! 5 Deadly Diseases for Your Campaign in D&D 5e)
Walking the streets of cities, or posing as chief politicians are doppelgangers, devious shapeshifters who can be found in every land and culture. Of course, your party will also have to watch out for pickpockets and drunks looking to start a fight, which are a bit more typical.
Of course, what would Dungeons & Dragons be without dungeons! Encounters in this terrain are especially fun as a mad mage could have put anything in a dungeon! Not only are your monster choices unlimited, but so are your terrain choices! You build the dungeon, meaning you can include whatever elements you want. It’s good to be the DM!
Some of my favorite monsters for dungeons and castles include Oozes and Gelatinous Cubes (classic!), Shadows, Rug of Smothering, Mimics, Beholders and Hell Hounds.
Each of these areas has it own set of monsters and creatures, a few of which I listed. You can find even more monsters for each terrain type in the Monster Manuel and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Don’t have these yet? You can pick them up on my DM Must Have page.
Each terrain also has its own unique set of limitations and perks, which I will get to later on in this article.
Understanding Monster Challenge Rating & XP
Each monster encounter you create will have a difficulty level for your party based on the monsters’ Challenge Rating (or CR). The higher the CR, the more experience points (or XP) players will receive from defeating it and the more difficult it will be to bring down.
The CR and XP of monsters can be found in the box just below the stat box (circled in the picture below). When building encounters, you will want to use XP to get an idea of how difficult the monster will be for your party. But more on that a little later.
Understanding Monster Abilities
Every monster has unique abilities it can use. In the example above we see the Nilbog can cast several spells at will, without components, and can charm creatures that try to harm it. Nilbogs also have the reaction “Reversal of Fortune” that allows it to reduce incoming damage to 0 and regain 1d6 health.
The Nilbog on its own doesn’t look like that tough of a creature, after all, it only has 7 hit points (HP), but these abilities make Nilbog difficult to deal with, thus giving it a higher challenge rating than your typical goblin.
When picking monsters, you need to pay attention to the monster’s abilities and use them. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in games where the DMs didn’t understand or use monster abilities, and then wondered why the encounter was so easy! Often times monsters have high CRs because of their abilities, not just their HP.
If you want your encounters to be challenging and interesting, use the monster’s abilities! These abilities create epic moments in campaigns by bringing surprise, fear, and anticipation to the table.
Use the Unusual
Encounters can get a bit stale after the second or third time your party has encountered a monster. If your party is having to fight off wolves every night while traveling through the woods, you can bet your next wolf encounter will be met with groans, not excitement.
As a general rule, I try to not have my party encounter the same monster twice in the same story arc. I also like to scale up my monsters with my party, so instead of using the same low CR monsters in greater numbers, I use less of the higher CR monsters.
While this method certainly takes more preparation on my party, it creates excitement every time I bring out a battle map, because the players don’t know what they are facing. There are plenty of monsters available, so there is no fear of running out. If you do though, you can always create your own!
I also try to avoid the usual fare, even at low levels. While there is a place for kobolds and goblins, they can get repetitive and boring. Don’t know what to use for low level players? Check out my post on 10 Monsters for Your Level 1 Party (that aren’t goblins). Just looking for something new? Try my post on 5 Monsters to Encourage Role Play
There are tons of cool and unique monsters out there for your players to encounter. Don’t get in a monster rut, try something out of the ordinary!
Consider Your Party
While monsters are one half of the equation, your party is the other. You can’t just go through the Monster Manuel and pick out a bunch of cool monsters and throw them at your party willy-nilly. You need to know what your party can handle. To do that, you have to do some math (I know! Just stay with me! We will make this as painless as possible.)
Calculating Your Daily Adventuring Budget
Adventuring is hard work and, most likely, your party will have multiple encounters between each long rest. To understand just how much your party can take in one day, you need to do some math.
Wizards of the Coast provides a chart, based on experience levels of your party, which will give you the experience per level per day for each member of your party. Here are the first 5 levels, for higher levels look on page 56 of the “Basic Rules” guide here:
Adventuring Day XP
|Adjusted XP per Day per Character
Adding up each player’s daily XP limit and then adding all the players’ together will give you your party’s XP budget for the day. Every encounter you throw at the party will deduct from this pool. When the party has no more XP for the day, they will likely be out of spells, out of hit points, and in need of a long rest.
Knowing your party’s daily XP limit is very helpful when planning encounters. This is the number your will refer to when looking at monster XP while building encounters. This number tells you what your party can handle each day. This can help to balance not only individual encounters, but the pace of encounters as a whole.
The bigger your party, the more XP in their budget for the day, the more they can handle. A party of 8 first level players can handle more or tougher monsters than a party of 4. Keep this in mind when building encounters!
Using the chart above, we can see that a party of 8 first level players will have an XP budget of 2,400 XP vs. the party of 4 first level players with a total of 1,200 XP. Just because a party is 1st level, doesn’t mean they can’t fight higher level monsters.
Party size has a large impact on what kinds of encounters you should be creating. Larger parties can handle more difficult monsters, while small party of any level can’t handle as much.
Understanding Your Party’s Abilities
Running an appropriately challenging encounter is far different from running a balanced encounter. To be balanced, you shouldn’t set up your encounters so that the wizard’s cool new spell isn’t effective at all, but you also should be keeping track of spells and abilities that can completely negate a carefully crafted dungeon.
You want your party to feel like heroes, but you also want them to earn the title. Here’s an example from experience:
I was running a mini campaign where all my players made one shot characters at level 10. They were all heroes of the Platinum Dragon and had been called together from the four corners of the world to defeat a great and raising evil.
Drow had kidnapped an entire village of gnomes and taken them, alive, into the Underdark.
The party pursued and it led them to the temple of Lolth in what looked like an abandoned, rotting city. As they entered the temple, they faced a long room with a raised platform at the other end. On the platform was an alter attended by a Priestess of Lolth, two wizards, two Driders. Along both sides of the room ran raised platforms, each held 10 Drow (for a total of 20 Drow), each with 2 gnomes chained beside them. As the adventures entered, the Drow killed all the kidnapped gnomes as a Priestess of Lolth chanted a dark incantation.
The party charged in and managed to kill the Priestess, but only after she had completed her spell. The warlock stood on the platform and saw that as the Drow drew on the platforms with the slaughtered gnomes blood, arcane symbols began to light up on the walls and floor of the chamber. The other party members killed the wizards and Driders, one party member falling in the fray.
All out of spells, the warlock focused his energy on the remaining Drow on the platforms and proceeded to cast Eldritch blast… for the next hour…knocking each of the Drow off the platforms and keeping them off before they could complete the ritual.
He was able to do this because he took the warlock ability Eldritch Evocation which makes Eldritch Blast push enemies back 10 feet.
I had neglected to look at this feature when creating this final encounter, so I was completely unprepared and had left my Drow in the open with nowhere to hide from this attack.
This led to a very unbalanced fight where the fighters and barbarians were dying, but the warlock didn’t even take damage because he sat in the corner blowing everyone away.
This campaign ended disappointingly and certainly lacked the epic nature of a true boss fight, all because I failed to make my encounter balanced. The CR rating was right on, it was a deadly encounter, but I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to my party’s abilities and ended up sorely disappointed by the results.
Remember, a deadly encounter rating doesn’t automatically make for an epic fight.
Wherever you are fighting, you need to know the terrain. Plan out (preferably on paper or in a map builder) exactly what the area looks like. Plan out the features, know what is in the area, this is critical to making epic encounters, not epically frustrating ones.
Know the Limitations & Perks of Your Terrain
Is the area cramped, limiting movement? Is the party fighting precariously close to the edge of a cliff? The terrain of the battle greatly affects player options, choices, and possible outcomes, and can be a source of great frustration if not explained.
Each type of terrain will have its own limitations and advantages. Its your job as the DM to know what they are in your specific situation and adequately explain them to your players. Set the stage for the encounter. Describe the details of what the players see around them that they could use or that they need to avoid. If they are in an enclosed area, such as underground, tell them (or draw for them) exactly how much room they have from side to side and from floor to ceiling.
Players like to be, and should be, creative in how they deal with monsters. By telling them exactly what they have to work with, you will encourage that creativity within your confines, not create frustration by constantly telling your players what they can’t do.
Using Terrain for Your Advantage
The terrain may be foreign to your players, but it certainly isn’t to the monster. The monster has lived here its whole life and is perfectly adapted to life here, what might that look like?
Does it have a cave nearby it could retreat to if hurt? If intelligent, has it set traps? Does it know of a certain area it likes to lead prey that is filled with sinking sand or poisonous mold? The possibilities are limitless!
Truly great encounters use the terrain as much as they use creatures. The terrain can give even weak monsters the upper hand in combat, especially if the players are not familiar with the area.
Using Terrain to Help Your Players
Occasionally, you may have an encounter in mind that you know will be difficult, even deadly for your players. Perhaps it is just a little over their limit, and you want to give them every advantage you can to win. Terrain can be a great way to do this without fudging rolls (cause, who does that? ha. ha…)
Creating terrain that your players can use both encourages their creativity and could give them a place to hide if things go way south. Whenever possible, I love to include places for my rogue to hide, boxes, crates and barrels for my wizard to fling around (and loot later) and objects dangling from the ceiling for the ranger to shoot.
These aspect of the terrain add life to my battle map and options for my players. You can do this a variety of ways, but in the end, what you want is a place for them to get 3/4 cover and objects for them to use as missiles. The objects themselves change based on where the encounter takes place, but the purpose remains the same.
Some monsters are powerful enough that the terrain responds to them. These “Lair Effects” cause the ground to shake, air to freeze or torrential winds to blow depending on the monster. Here are some monsters whose lairs have their own effects:
- Part of the ceiling collapses above one creature that the dragon can see within 120 feet of it. The creature must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take 10 (3d6) bludgeoning damage and be knocked prone and buried. The buried target is restrained and unable to breathe or stand up. A creature can take an action to make a DC 10 Strength check, ending the buried state on a success.
- A cloud of sand swirls about in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point the dragon can see within 120 feet of it. The cloud spreads around corners. Each creature in the cloud must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or be blinded for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
- Lightning arcs, forming a 5-foot-wide line between two of the lair’s solid surfaces that the dragon can see. They must be within 120 feet of the dragon and 120 feet of each other. Each creature in that line must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or take 10 (3d6) lightning damage.
- One creature the hag can see within 120 feet of her must succeed on a DC 15 Charisma saving throw or be banished to a prison demiplane. To escape, the creature must use its action to make a Charisma check contested by the hag’s. If the creature wins, it escapes the demiplane. Otherwise, the effect ends on initiative count 20 on the next round. When the effect ends, the creature reappears in the space it left or in the nearest unoccupied space if that one is occupied.
- The hag targets up to three creatures that she can see within 60 feet of her. Each target must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or be flung up to 30 feet through the air. A creature that strikes a solid object or is released in midair takes ld6 bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet moved or fallen.
Legendary creatures have an effect on the area around them, causing regional effects by there mere presence. Such effects could be any of the following:
Make an area within the lair difficult terrain until the top of the next round.
Make an area within the lair obscured until the top of the next round.
Objects appear that ensnare creatures within the lair (or on hostile action). Dex save to avoid, Str (Athletics) / Dex (Acrobatics) to break free.
The lair shakes or does something that knocks characters prone if they fail a Dex save.
Magical darkness or light that can block normal and darkvision, etc.
Stop a target, or targets from healing for the round.
Make spell effects act as if targets have advantage on saves, or resistance to the damage type.
Effect on Enter/Exit
Perform a single action, ability, or spell effect on entrance or exit of the lair.
Using Maps & Miniatures
As much as I LOVE theater of the mind, some times a map is just necessary to fully convey the scene. Whenever I can, I use battle maps, miniatures and models during my encounters.
While Dungeons are amazing (learn how to make your own here!) For every day encounters, I simply don’t have the time to create full battle models. Instead, I rely on my trusty old, grid battle map. Using wet erase markers, I can draw out the confines of the encounter area and my players know exactly how far they can move, who will be in the path of fireball and where the monsters are located.
I love to use monster mini’s, when I have them. I get WizKids unpainted minis and paint them myself to save money. (See my top recommend miniatures and paints on my DM Must Have page as well as check out my painting tutorials here!)
However, because I like to us unusual monsters, it can sometimes be hard to find the miniatures I need. When I don’t have what I need, I just use marker beads to represent the space the monsters would occupy and go into detail with my description.
Finally, I use hand molded and painted miniatures of barrels, crates, and other objects as needed. I love to use these because they add flare to the scene, but they also let the players know exactly where things are located around the room.
To see how you can make your own, check out my Crafts & Mini’s page!
Encounter Challenge Level
Here’s where we bring it all together. To know just how much your party can handle, you will need to do some math using your character’s experience point budget and the monster’s CR and XP.
There are four levels of encounter difficulty:
Easy: doesn’t tax the player’s resources and holds no real threat to the players
Medium: Usually has one or two scary moments, but you and the players know they will be fine.
Hard: This could go badly if not done well. Weaker characters will struggle and one or two players be downed.
Deadly: Just like it sounds. This encounter holds a real possibility that one or more players might die.
To know which category your encounter falls, add up the XP for each character by their level, and you will have a one encounter XP threshold for each level.
XP Thresholds by Character Levels
This process can get a little complicated, so let’s look at an example.
A party of 4, 1st level players would fine an encounter with a total of 100 XP (4 x 25 XP) to be easy, 200 XP (4 x 50 XP) to be medium, 300 XP (4 x 75 XP) hard and 400 XP (4 x 100XP) deadly.
Deadly is the MAXIMUM single encounter your party can handle. This is a one-time boss battle when they are fresh. Anything below that will fall into easy, medium or hard encounters. If you run an encounter at the party’s max, someone will probably die. It is considered a deadly encounter. It is perfectly fine and even encouraged to run deadly encounters at critical moments, but keep in mind they carry serious consequences.
Understanding Monster Multipliers
If your encounter includes more than one monster, you will need to apply a multiplier to more accurately judge the difficulty of the encounter. More monsters means more chances to hit, thus raising the difficulty of the encounter. Use the following chart when calculating encounters with multiple monsters.
|Number of Monsters
|15 or more
1 wolf = 50 XP
2 wolves= 125 XP (50 + 50 x 1.5)
3 wolves= 300 XP (50 + 50 + 50 x 2)
Encounter Examples by Difficulty
So, what does this mean in terms of enemies? In the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pages 306-309) Some basic monsters are listed by CR and XP. Using this, we can see possible encounters at each difficulty level for our party of 4 players, all at level 1:
Easy encounter (100-150 XP): 2 wolves (50 XP + 50 XP x 1.5) or 3 Kobolds (25 XP +25 XP + 25 XP x 2 )
Medium encounter (200-250 XP): 1 Bugbear (200XP), or 2 zombies and 1 kobold (50 X + 50 XP + 25 XP x 2).
Hard encounter (300-350): 1 Hobgoblin and 2 Giant Rats (100 XP + 25 XP + 25 XP x 2).
Deadly encounter (400-450 XP): 1 Wererat (450 XP) or 1 Dragon Wyrmling (450 XP)
Remember, each encounter you run during a day of adventuring pulls out of your daily budget. At level one, a party of 4 would have a daily XP budget of 1,200XP.
If you used both easy encounters listed above, this would take away 300XP from this budget, leaving me with 900 XP for the day. This means, in theory, you could still do 2 hard encounters during this day. However, consider your party’s resources before maxing out the daily XP budget.
Unless your party is comprised of veteran Dungeon and Dragons players, this amount of combat in one day will be exhausting to everyone. Just because the party, could handle it, doesn’t mean you should throw it at them.
Keep in mind that sometimes your players roll poorly and take more damage than they should in an encounter. Sometimes they will simply not think and the combat will be more difficult, other times they will have a brilliant idea that makes a medium encounter easy.
Use the XP budget as a guide, not as an end-all-be-all on what the party will face in a day.
Make it Meaningful
Finally, if you want to build better encounters, you need to make them meaningful. I don’t just mean profitable, though encounters should provide some kind of loot, that shouldn’t be the only motivation for them. Each encounter you create should have a purpose.
Using Encounters for Plot Twists
Sometimes you want to shake the status-quo or throw in a wild twist, encounters can be a great way to do that! After battling and capturing the leader of an enemy tribe, your party might find out they are being lied to and used by the village elder. Or perhaps they find out a monster they have been sent to kill, isn’t really that monstrous at all..
Encounters don’t have to solely focus on killing, they can be great plot devices that provide shock value and even change the course of your campaign!
Using Encounters for Story Progression
My favorite way to use encounters is as story progressions. I plan major encounters throughout the course of the story. During or after the encounter, players get the next piece of the puzzle they are trying to unravel.
This helps me have guideposts to the main story line, lets me plan my battle maps and miniature purchases (#DMbudget) and provide meaningful encounters regularly. But, this isn’t the only way I use encounters to progress the story. I also have my PC (player characters) stories I want to grow.
Each encounter, even if “randomly” triggered, has some kind of purpose in my campaign. If I can’t see a purpose to it, I don’t run it. Simple as that. The purpose isn’t always as grandiose as revealing the villain of the story, but there is always a purpose.
For example, if my level one party enters the Dark Wood for the first time, they will encounter wolves, spiders and other low level creatures. Why? Because they are need to know that the wood is full of danger, but I don’t want to kill them…yet. After this first night in the woods, I won’t use these low level creatures again, there purpose has already been served.
The secret to creating better encounters is to give each encounter its own purpose.
Building encounters is both the blessing and bane of every DM. When they go well, it makes you feel like a champion, when they fall flat, there isn’t much worse. If you are looking to build better encounters that your players will be talking about for years to come, this is a great place to start.
Until next time,
may your game have advantage, my friends!