you CAN have to much!

I have been listening to a few Dungeons and Dragons podcasts over this last year, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to listen to actual play podcasts. While listening to one of my favorites I heard a player make a guttural moan, and for some reason I zeroed in on it. For some reason hearing that moan set off my internal DM alarms. It’s a sound I have heard before: in the really long combat encounters, or the skill challenges with too few options for success. The player in thee podcast made the sound of “not again” with out speaking a word. I began wondering what brought it on? What made the player go from having fun rolling bones to lets just get this over with in only a few turns? I had to listen to the encounter again from the beginning and when I did I began to realize something that perhaps other DMs have figured out long before me.

The player didn’t come across one single part of the encounter that made him lose interest in the here and now; no he felt it coming on slowly and finally built up to an audible tone of displeasure and disinterest. But what caused the slow build? The answer in part is over built encounters. Like a $60,000 toilet some times too much in one encounter is just too much. No I’m not telling anyone to not put time, thought or energy into planning their encounters, but I am saying perhaps DMs should be careful not to overbuild their combat. Too much terrain, to many status effect causing baddies, lots of ongoing damage and hazards around every corner. Too much everything can leave players feeling like they have no options to be heroic and must beat the mercy of the monsters and the terrain for the duration of the encounter.

I’m not going to call out the DM of this podcast but I will break down his encounter in general terms so I can make my point clear. The encounter in question contained

  1. Monsters with a immobilized, grabbed, prone status effect which required a strength check to end.
  2. Lots of monsters with ongoing damage on standard attacks.
  3. An entire map of difficult terrain.
  4. An  entire map of obscured vision
  5. A surprise round which left the ranged strikers surrounded

At the beginning of the fight everyone in the party was ready for action, but after watching one of their team mates get immobilized and basically stunned for a few rounds, everyone taking lots of ongoing damage, and having the ranged strikers negated because they couldn’t shift away from the enemies or move with out provoking attack the player in question finally let out the groan of despair.   It was a problem of simple math and I am going to use that math to try to avoid causing this kind of frustration in my players.

So how does this simple math work? It couldn’t be easier; everything is worth 1 point: Monsters with status effect causing attacks are worth 1 point. Monsters with ongoing damage are worth 1 point. Difficult or dangerous terrain 1 point. Traps and hazards are worth 1 point. Obscured vision, low light, complete darkness also worth 1 point. Acts of the gods, hampering weather, natural disasters, hidden enemies all worth 1 point. I could go on for a while coming up with things we DMs enjoy throwing at our players but I think you get the point.

Now that everything has a value I’ll give you the scale I am working with

  1. 0-4:   Enjoyable
  2. 5-7:   Slightly frustrating
  3. 7-on: Groan of despair

Using this system isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t black and white either. When looking at the encounter mentioned above I would score it like this. A monster with a Grab+Prone attack would be worth 1 point, but since it’s not a save end but a strength check I would add a second point. Why? If the attack were to be used against a wizard with a low strength it could take them out of the entire fight due to bad rolls. This could be seriously frustrating to players. Sitting out a fight due to a simple grab attack = no fun at all.

So that already brings us up to 2 points. The fight also had two types of monsters with ongoing damage attacks that give us another 2 points; bringing the total up to 4 points, still a bit to work with before it becomes unbearable. The entire map filled with difficult terrain would give us another 1 point bringing the total to 5 points. The obscured vision granting partial cover to anything 1 square away or more is also worth 1 point that’s 6 points and we are getting pretty close to a hair pulling encounter.

This brings us to the surprise round where the monsters move adjacent to the ranged strikers would be worth 2; 1 point for the surprise round and 1 point for trapping the strikers in a situation where shifting is impossible (difficult terrain) and negating their strongest attack right off the bat. The total is now at 8 points.  Last but not least I gave the entire encounter another 1 point due to the fact that the monsters were not hindered by the difficult terrain which can be very frustrating to an entire party of players stuck with a movement of 3 or less.

9 Points, or nine things the players noticed over time which made them feel like the entire fight was stacked against them. Each time the players notice something like difficult terrain, or the fact that the monsters were not hindered by it added up. After a few rounds of combat this many hindrances are bound to drag players down and combat as well. Again, I’m not saying that DMs shouldn’t use all of the great tools Dungeons and Dragons provides for us , I am trying to say try not to use them all at once.

When designing an encounter DMs should look at their end product and think about how they would feel as a player in this encounter.Just knowing how much experience an encounter is worth is not always enough to know if it will be too difficult or too painful for players. Terrain does not have an exp value, nor do status effects, cover, or DM designed obstacles. If you as the DM didn’t know everything about the monster, the terrain and the traps would you enjoy the encounter you have created or would it feel like a chore to fight through it. Encounters are not a door through which players must pass to get to the fun, they are supposed to be part of the fun. Finding a using a simple system like my simple math will help new DMs to make sure the focus of the encounter is on the players having fun.

Do you have a system for testing your encounters? Do you have a story about an overly stacked encounter? Did your DM sandbag your group at one time or another? Story time is always fun. Leave a comment with your best sandbag story or any ideas for improving my system.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.

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About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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