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Thoughts about encounters...
19th-Nov-2007 03:31 pm
Since we were talking about encounter mechanics to some degree in Colin's thread, I thought I'd elaborate on the subject here. As always, civil discussion is welcome, and what's worked for me may not work for you. I'm not responsible if this post gives your first/next born child strange mutant powers.

CRs and ELs have always been, at least to me, a bit nebulous. They're estimates based on the following:

1) That a CR/EL equal to party's level (or average or effective level, I'll define those terms later) will consume 1/4 of the party's resources.
2) Said party consists of four memebers.
3) Said party covers the four basic food groups of adventuring: a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard.
4) Said party is likely to be prepared for the encounter in question.

That's quite a bit of assumin'.

Now, average level should be obvious (add up the levels, divide by the number of party members). For effective level, I figure out the party's encounter level (as per the DMG) and subtract 4. For a four PC party of equal level, the average party level (APL) and effective party level (EPL) are the same. The EPL changes if the party doesn't fit this model.

For instance, take a group of 5 PCs, all 6th level. The APL works out to be 6, but the EPL is more like 7. This tells me that I can use an EL 7 encounter as a fair challenge, although a single CR 7 foe might be a bit tough. Add a 7th level PC to the same group, and while the APL rounds down to 6, the EPL is equal to 8. Here's where things start getting tricky, and I have to look past the stats to plan out an encounter.

Not all CRs or ELs are equal. Let's take the basic party of four as listed in item #3 above, set them at 4th level and put them in two separate encounters. The first is a Minotaur (CR 4). The second is with eight Orcs (CR 1/2). Both are EL 4, but both fights will have different results.

Facing a single opponent stacks things to some degree in favor of the PCs. In the case of the Minotaur, the Fighter closes while the rogue sneaks or tumbles into position fo a sneak attack. The Wizard blasts while the Cleric heals or smacks as necessary. It'll might go more easily than the fight against the Orcs, since the PCs will have to split their efforts.

As an example, the game I'm running consist of five 2nd level characters (Bbn, Clr, Ftr, Rgr, and a Wiz). They found a smuggler's cove the hard way, and the ensuing brouhaha turned out to be two encounters. The first consisted of most of the smugglers, seven War 2 (Cr 1 ea, EL 6), and later a group consisting of one smuggler (War 2, CR 1), two Gnolls (CR 1 each) and a 4th level sorcerer (CR 4, for a combined EL of 6 as well). Just based on these numbers, there should have been PC death in the first encounter. Instead the PCs survived both, albeit very spent (which goes without saying).

This goes into what else influences the encounter beyond the numbers -- tactics and the environment, or rather, who controls the good ground. In the first encounter, the PCs bottlenecked the enemy on a stairwell, with the Fighter and Barbarian holding ground near the base and the Cleric right behind them, healing at the ready. The Ranger(who has Precise Shot) and Wizard(who has a reputation for being a hell of a shot thanks to hot dice) held the high ground and could bring missile fire onto the smugglers. Five NPCs were slain, and the other two fled.

The second fight went in favor of the PCs due to a tactical error and an element of luck. The sorcerer took the time to cast Invisibility on himself, the two Gnolls and the remaining smuggler (who was not in the bloody melee because he stopped to grab some spears to throw). They hid themselves at an intersection, waiting for the right opportunity to either strike or flee. When the Fighter and the Barbarian took point, the Sorcerer decided to strike and blasted the two with a Color Spray. Unfortunately, the DM (me) didn't plan much after that, assuming (much like the spell caster) that both of them would fail their save. The Barbarian failed, the Fighter didn't. One five foot step later, the Fighter drops the sorcerer in one strike before the Gnolls could intercede. Things went downhill for the bad guys after that.

Of course, shortly after that the party ran into half a dozen skeletons, and got real worried until the Cleric (also a halfling) walked up and nuked them with that holy thing they do so well.

For another (higher level) example, a party of four 19th level characters (Cleric, Fighter, Wizard, and Ranger), fresh for a fight, suffered three deaths in a fight with a CR 20 Dracolich. The only reason the Wizard survived was because he ran like hell and could fly faster than the creature.

While it was, by the numbers, a challenging encounter against a single foe, the party, freshly rested and fully healed, should have been able to deal with the threat. So what happened? Multiple things, really...

The first was lack of preparation. The party had been encountering nothing but undead in the Tower of the Dragonlord while looking for the Gold Orb of Dragonkind. After encountering two Red Dragon skeletons, you would think that something worse than that would be in store. But instead of focusing their abilities on slaying undead, they kept with a more versatile complement.

Then there was bad tactics. The Dracolich had plenty of room to maneuver and fly. The characters had magical flight, which evened that out, but the Cleric, the Fighter and the Ranger all closed for melee in one solid rush. When I started asking for Fort saves as the dracolich hit (for the paralytic touch), that should have struck the PCs as significant, seeing as they've faced a lich before and have high enough Knowledge skills amongst them to know what they can do. They could have retreated, and the thought did cross the Cleric's mind, but they didn't.

But what really did the PCs in was bad luck. Two natural 1s and natural 2 on the Fort saves neutralized the three PCs in close combat. Then came the coup de grace, since the Dracolich was determined to keep the Orb out of anyone's hands.

So as you can see, while the CR/EL numbers can give a good thumbnail of how difficult an encounter may be, there's more to it than just the creature stats. Terrain, tactics, preparation and even psychology all make a difference. The key to designing fun and challenging encounters (or misleading ones) is to consider the context of the whole.

Comments
19th-Nov-2007 11:58 pm (UTC)
The CR/EL system has always been based on assumptions and averages. If one of the four characters is unusual (a fighter who's poor at melee, a rogue who's a social instead of a dungeon delver, etc) the system can break down. Higher levels make those differences even more extreme.

For me, it's always been necessary to judge creatures based not only on their stats, but on what the PCs bring to the table as well.

20th-Nov-2007 12:13 am (UTC)
My method for determining proper encounters:
1) Damage. Check the monster's primary attack--how much damage is he expected to do in a round (assuming he hits). Is this enough to one-shot the weakest party member? (I like: "no, unless he crits/rolls super well") How many direct hits will the strongest party member be able to take? (I like: "3 or 4")

2) Longetivity. Check the monster's HP. How many rounds can it survive assuming the PC's bruisers continually hit it? (I like: "anything greater than 2")

3) Impact. Check the monster's AC and to hit, compared to the party's average AC and to hit. Are the PCs going to be able to hit him regularly? (I like: "more than 50% of the time") Will the monster be able to affect the PCs? (I like: "at least 30% of the time")

4) Uniqueness. Does this monster have a special ability that will make this encounter memorable? (I like: "yes"). Alternatively: will this monster work in an encounter/environment/situation/whatever that will make the encounter memorable? (I like: "yes").

But that's just me, most (well, some) of the time. Your mileage may vary depending on your play style, whether your PCs generally use smart tactics, and all kinds of other stuff. These are in no way hard and fast rules for anything, it's just what I look at before determining if I want to run that encounter for my PCs now. :)

And I think that's your point. D&D is too dynamic and has too many variables to come up with a hard and fast rule for what is a fair/good/enjoyable encounter. People need to remember that CR is simply a suggestion, and not always a very good one at that.
20th-Nov-2007 05:14 am (UTC)
These are all excellent considerations, tools that we used before CR and EL were introduced. I like this codified means of fine-tuning your EL here. This should become part of a running database of considerations a DM should make as he is designing a challenge for his party.

I had been converting the old D&D module B10 Night's Dark Terror to 3.5 to run for my players, who at the time averaged 3rd level. The first leg of the adventure has three tribes of goblinoids attacking a homestead where the PCs have come to escort a bunch of horses to market. I had in the PC party a fighter, a swashbuckler, a druid, and a healer. And the author has the homesteaders helping to defend, and there are two 5th level fighters present. I could not use the goblinoids straight from the module. They had a 5% chance to hit any party member due to extraordinary AC, and one of the PCs drops a goblinoid per round due to an effective combination of feats. I had to beef up every one of my goblinoids to give the PCs a decent challenge. Going by the CR and EL of the adventure itself did not tell the whole story. The EL ended up being, like APL+4, and the resource burn was equivalent to an EL of APL. It seems to me that you could adjust party effective level by their effectiveness if they are a bit better than slightly better than average.
20th-Nov-2007 01:28 pm (UTC)
"And I think that's your point. D&D is too dynamic and has too many variables to come up with a hard and fast rule for what is a fair/good/enjoyable encounter. People need to remember that CR is simply a suggestion, and not always a very good one at that."

Quoted for truth. That's exactly what I was hoping to get across.
20th-Nov-2007 01:43 am (UTC)
I'm not a terribly experienced DM, but here's my two coppers... as far as dragons and dragon-like things go, I think that someone (it might have been Monte Cook) actually came out and said that dragons in 3.5 are harder than other things of comparable CR. I think the idea behind this was that dragons are iconic for the game (Dungeons and Dragons, after all), then dragons should be particularly challenging. And realistically, anything with both flying and a breath weapon is a force to be reckoned with, not to mention the d12 hit dice and the fear effects.

But yeah, a lot of it really does come down to luck of the dice.
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