October 16, 2016

[Unearthing the Arcana] Encounter Building

This column is to study the design and thought process of the latest Unearthed Arcana rules put out by Wizards of the Coast. This column aims for me to point out some observations I've made on the rules, imagine its impact at the table and raise discussions of how it would be used or played if it becomes official.

Encounter building, while one of the most fundamental skills to master as a Dungeon Master, is highly reliant on the tools provided to the DM at every edition. For 5th edition, I have seen DMs who either cannot comprehend, let alone utilize, the encounter building guidelines as provided in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Not only it may take some time to understand them, but even after learning how to use them, it can come up with some questionable results with large degrees of variance than what the DM can be expecting. So it was a pleasant surprise that the designers at Wizards had come up with an alternative set of guidelines to perform one of these essential tasks.

Although this new encounter building guidelines have some significant differences in its approach to creating encounters, the good thing is that it still relies on the underlying math of 5th Edition that uses the party size and level and the Challenge Rating and number of monsters, without adding another subset of math to make it any more complicated than it already is.

So to start off this examination of the new Encounter Building guidelines, let's see what this new guideline is aiming to achieve:
This encounter-building system assumes that, as a Dungeon Master, you want to have a clear understanding of the threat posed by a group of monsters. It’ll be of interest to any DMs who want to emphasize combat in their games, who want to ensure that a foe isn’t too deadly for a specific group of characters, and who want to understand the relationship between a character’s level and a monster’s challenge rating.
After creating a few sample encounters with the same party size and levels, using both the guidelines from the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Unearthed Arcana, it would seem that this new guidelines do achieve what it is made to do, but not without losing a few things in exchange.

So here's a few things I've noted.

It's easier to scale for smaller or larger party size

The encounter building guidelines from the Dungeon Master's Guide is built on the assumption that the party size is between 3-5 characters. Although it has adjustments for smaller or larger party size than 3 or 5, it can make the calculation of the appropriate encounter level more confusing. This new guideline, however, has already have different party sizes taken into account in the tables, whether its picking the right monsters for a party of 6 or even a party of 1. This is mainly done with the benefit of its second advantage...

It's easier to find a combination of monsters with different Challenge Ratings

A major drawback when I was using the guidelines from the Dungeon Master's Guide is that it tends to have a lot of grey areas that doesn't fit perfectly with the party size and level. Once you have calculated the XP threshold for the party for the various difficulties, it becomes a time consuming process to try and find the right combination of Challenge Rating in the right number of monsters, which can modify the XP threshold. This often leads to frustration for me when I have to test each combination to match within the threshold of the difficulty that I want it to be, and either come up short to match the XP threshold perfectly.

In this new system, you can easily create encounters with different challenge ratings because the number of monsters of a certain challenge rating has a ratio to the number of characters. This allows you to mix and match any combination of challenge rating and number of monsters until it matches with the party size,  so it becomes far less time consuming to find the various right combinations. The other benefit is that it has a separate table for Legendary monsters since they are almost effectively one-and-a-half monster with two initiative counts. Although this would be unlikely to appear at the lower levels, but it's more accurate to gauge the right challenge rating for legendary monsters against the party. 

There is more fine-tuning and DM assessment needed

Off the bat when reading the new guidelines is that it is not built on a baseline of characters' power level at any given level. Before and after selecting the monsters that will be in the encounter, it cautions DMs to make their own assessment of what the monster is capable of against the characters in the party. Although the places to look are pretty standard (hit points, saves, attacks and damage), but from here you can tell that this system is not designed to be generic and able to cater for many situations without much of the DM's input. This may be an additional hassle for newer DMs who don't know how to assess a monster's capabilities beside its Challenge Rating. 

It is more difficult to decrease or increase the difficulty of the encounter

This is where the tradeoff between the new and old guidelines come in. You get more precision in exchange for flexibility. In the guidelines from the Dungeon Master's Guide, the DM can decide the difficulty level they want for the encounter and calculate the XP threshold from there. In this Unearthed Arcana, the difficulty is presumed to only be 'challenging', which by and large equals to a slightly more difficult composition than a Medium challenge in the Dungeon Master's Guide

There are ways to increase or decrease the difficulty of an encounter by assuming a larger or smaller party, but again it falls into the vague territories as in the original guidelines where it could result in the encounter being overpowering or underwhelming than expected. I may suggest DMs using the new table to just use the next higher or lower Challenge Rating instead of the 'right' Challenge Rating to make it easier or more difficult, but I don't know how accurate that would be compared to increasing or decreasing party size.

It runs on different extra-circumstances

It's hard to have a really fair comparison between both encounter guidelines beyond the number crunching because they run on different assumptions. The guidelines from the Dungeon Master's Guide also assumes you can use it to built encounters with multiple parts or waves, and also certain modifiers that could make the encounter more difficult (e.g., monsters having Surprise, environmental effects, terrain, sight, etc.), rather than just the number or Challenge Rating of the monsters. 

On the other hand, this Unearthed Arcana has an additional step for the DM to consider the personality and relationship of the monsters which could end combat earlier, and assumes there are terrain factors and traps in the encounter. It even has an added consideration for random events that could happen before or during the encounter. So the encounters using this guidelines is not made to end solely through combat but gives a little more depth to it.  

Final Thoughts

It's fairly hard to conclusively say if this Unearthed Arcana guideline improves what is in the Dungeon Master's Guide. How I see it is that it is an additional tool in the Encounter Building toolbox, and it is a much needed tool for a more precise encounter building. I would definitely use the Unearthed Arcana guidelines for a more tailored encounter for the party, but would probably stick to the Dungeon Master's Guide when building a more open encounters or encounters in a campaign where players are not expecting everything to be tailored. It would be interesting to see if it is possible to mesh both guidelines together, and I think they might benefit from referencing each other in order to find the right level of challenge.

The more important part out of this Unearthed Arcana I will say is, know what you want your encounters to achieve and use the appropriate tool to make them. This is definitely a welcome set of Unearthed Arcana rules and I also like that it provides more insight into party size and levels and Challenge Ratings, which if better understood can help a DM to do away encounter building guidelines altogether.

See you in the next Unearthing the Arcana!

Last Updated: 16/10/2016

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