How to Balance Combat Encounters in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

One of the big questions that I get asked a lot on Instagram and Facebook messenger is how to properly balance encounters in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. After all, failure to improperly balance an encounter in D&D 5e can lead either to the players getting killed by a non-BBEG encounter or easily handling something that should have been more exciting.

Of course, the Core Rulebooks do a pretty good job of explaining how to balance everything. However, they can be somewhat confusing to the uninitiated.

In this article, I’ll explain the process I use to balance encounters in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

Step #1 – Understanding Design Basics

The game of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition and its encounters is balanced on two basic premises.

  1. Each adventuring day, a party of three to five adventurers should be able to handle six to eight Medium or Hard encounters (DMG, page 84).
  2. Most combat encounters should last 3 rounds on average (DMG, page 274).

This means that the characters playing the game should have enough resources–including hit points, spells, special powers, etc.–to last roughly 18 rounds of combat. In addition, the party should take at least two short rests per day to recover a portion of their spent resources.

So now that you understand the basics, you’ll need to know just how much the party can actually handle in terms of experience.

Step #2 – Determine the Party’s XP Threshold per Adventuring Day

An “adventuring day” is more or less those 18 rounds of combat I mentioned above. It’s the period that the adventurers go out and do their thing before they need to recover with a long rest.

adventuring-day-xp
The Adventuring Day XP chart helps you build encounters on a budget.

Page 84 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide shows the Adventuring Day XP chart. To determine the total amount of adventuring XP the party can accept in one adventuring day before it needs a rest, find the level and adjusted XP per day per character for each character in the party and add it together.

 

For example, my current group has six 10th-level characters (one is an NPC) and one 9th-level character. Using the Adventuring Day XP chart, I see that my characters can handle a total of 61,500 experience before needing a long rest (9,000 + 9,000 + 9,000 + 9,000 + 9,000 + 9,000 + 7,500).

This is effectively my encounter budget for a day.

Step #3 – Understanding XP Thresholds

Next, we turn one page back to page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Here we find the Encounter Difficulty XP Per Character chart. It tells us how difficult certain encounters are based on the adjusted experience levels for any given encounter.

Admittedly, this is where things can get a little complicated. But bear with me, once you understand it, it’s not so bad.

encounter-difficulty-chart
The Encounter Difficulty XP per Character Chart helps you build balanced encounters.

You’ll remember from above, that I’ve got 61,500 experience to play within an adventuring day. That’s about 8,785 experience per character. If there are 6 encounters in a day, then that’s 1,464 experience per encounter per character.

If I look at the chart on page 82, I see that 1,464 encounter experience is roughly a Medium encounter for 10th-level characters and almost a Hard encounter for 9th-level characters.

If we take a moment to look at the other columns, you’ll see that 600 encounter experience is an Easy encounter for 10th-level characters while 2,800 is Deadly.

Now that we kind of have an idea of how much experience my group can handle. Let’s build an encounter.

Step #4 – Building an Encounter

Let’s say that I want to throw some fire elementals at my characters. How many fire elementals can I throw at them to be a Medium challenge?

Looking at the chart on page 82, I know that  Medium challenge for 10th level characters is 1,200 per 10th-level character and 1,100 for the 9th-level character. That’s a total of 8,300 experience for the encounter.

fire-elemental
Fire elementals are worth 1,800 XP. But their adjusted XP could be higher.

If I reference page 125 of the Monster Manual, I can read that the fire elemental is a CR 5 monster worth 1,800 XP.

What if I throw just one fire elemental at them? Will that be a Medium encounter? If you said no, you’re right! And here’s why: if we divide 1,800 experience among the seven characters, that’s only 257 XP each–that’s not even considered an Easy encounter! In fact, with a group of characters that size, it’s even worse than that (more on that in a moment).

So how many fire elementals do we need to make it a Medium encounter? Your first thought might be to take the 8,300 XP that we have to budget for this Medium fire elemental encounter that we’re building and divide it by 1,800. That’s almost five elementals, right? Not quite! And here’s why: multiple enemies make for more difficult encounters.

Therefore, we have to turn our attention to the Encounter Multipliers table also on page 82 of the DMG.

Each time you add in a monster to an encounter, the amount of adjusted experience increases by a multiplier. For example, two creatures in an encounter multiplies the effective experience by 1.5, 3-6 creatures by 2, 7-10 creatures by 2.5, 11-14 by 3, and 15 or more is worth 4 times the normal experience.

encounter-multipliers
Don’t forget to multiply the adjusted experience by the Encounter Multiplier.

But that’s not all. If we look over at the Party Size entry on page 85, you can see that if the party containers fewer than three characters, you multiply by the next highest multiplier. And if the party is bigger (like mine) you go a slot down and also use 0.5 for a single monster.

So in reference to our single fire elemental, the adjusted experience for the creature would actually be half of 257 or 128! Pretty lousy, right?

One huge note: adjusted encounter experience is not the same as actual experience. You only use the adjusted experience values to build your encounters but you still give your players a portion of the experience shown on a monster’s stat block. For example, if a party of four characters fights five harpies, the adjusted XP is calculated as being 2x the harpies 200 XP, or 2,000. However, the characters still only earn 1,000 experience for the encounter.

Okay, now that you understand encounter multipliers, let’s figure out how many fire elementals it will take to get to our 8,300 experience mark and make it a Medium encounter.

This can sometimes take a little trial and error. So I’m going to first see if four will do the job. With four fire elementals, I use the 1.5 encounter multiplier (remember, I have a group of seven characters, therefore the multiplier is one less than it’d normally be). That means each elemental is worth an adjusted experience value of 2,700. If I multiply that number by the number of fire elementals in the encounter, that’s a total of 10,800 experience. That’s pretty close to the 8,300 number, but still a little high.

But just to be sure, let’s try three elementals. With three elementals, we use the same multiplier of 1.5, so they’re still worth an adjusted experience value of 2,700 points. That means three are worth 8,100 experience points. Perfect!

So let me break this all down:

  • There are seven characters in the party: six 10th-level characters plus one 9th-level character.
  • The Party’s XP Threshold for a Medium encounter is 8,300 XP (1,200 + 1,200 + 1,200 + 1,200 + 1,200 + 1,200 + 1,100).
  • I want to create an encounter with fire elementals which are worth 1,800 actual experience each.
  • An encounter with three creatures participating would give a 1.5 multiplier to each fire elemental in the encounter.
  • The total adjusted experience for three fire elementals is 8,100 XP, making it a Medium encounter.
  • When the players fight and defeat the three fire elementals, each will only earn a portion of each monster’s actual experience, or 771 each (1,800 * 3 / 7).

Step #5 – Adjust the Encounter Budget

We just built our first encounter with three fire elementals. It was worth an adjusted experience value of 8,100. Way to go!

Remembering back to Step #2, we have a total 61,500 to spend on encounters for the whole adventuring day and we’ve just spent 8,100 experience, leaving us with 53,400 more experience to play with.

All we have to do is go back to Step #4 and build out some more encounters until we use up the whole budget.

And that’s pretty much it!

Bonus: A Few Extra Encounter Building Tips

Here are a few more pointers for building good encounters in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

  • Solo encounters will always get beat fast. Make sure your prized BBEGs have plenty of minions to back them up and don’t forget to adjust their encounter experience, too. It’s okay to scale these up a little, too, just be careful with creatures that have insta-kill powers and tough saving throws (like, don’t throw a beholder at a party of 3rd level characters).
  • Even if you don’t give NPCs and Sidekicks experience, they still factor into the difficult of each encounter. So don’t forget to include them.
  • A good mix of all four encounter difficulty types makes for a good adventure.
  • Don’t forget to change up the terrain and situations in combat encounters. If it’s just the party versus a bunch of creatures in a flat playground, it starts to get boring after a while.
  • Young players and new players should probably be considered a level lower than what they are when they’re starting out. It’s okay to throw a few easy encounters at them early on to make them feel good about the game. Save the tough shit for the experienced guys.

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Art and graphics by Wizards of the Coast.

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