Alternative Encounter Building I: Challenge Rating

Wanting to transition from a new DM to an intermediate DM, but don’t know how? Improving your combat encounter design is the first step. Here’s the alternative encounter building budget I’ve been using for 5e. I’m a big fan of randomly rolled stuff for the DM side of the screen. Not because random equals good, but because it gets me off the blank page more quickly. I can always change things later, but nothing’s worse than staring at a piece of blank paper for ten minutes.

First, the baseline challenge for my players is a “hard” encounter for the appropriately sized and leveled party. This is my bread and butter budget. A well-optimized party will usually kick this encounter over in 2-3 rounds of combat with some hit points lost, some spells spent, but not much of a risk.

But, I like a BIG variance in my combats. I have no problem with the party curb stomping a handful of goblins. Eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way and they’ll end up fleeing a half dozen bugbears. Unless I have a very specific idea for a combat, I use a 2d6 roll table. The results adjust the effective level of the party or CR when building the encounter.

2d6 CR Table

  • 2 > -1d3-1 Party Level
  • 3, 4 > -1 Party Level
  • 5 – 9 > @ Party Level
  • 10, 11 > +1 Party Level
  • 12 > 1d3+1 Party Level

***Keep monster CRs in the same tier of play when possible. Dropping a CR 7 Mind Flayer on a level three party is a recipe for disaster***

Alternative Encounter Building Example

Here’s how those encounter levels might look for a classic four adventurer party of second level in a goblin themed adventure. Using Kobold Fight Club, or another encounter builder is extremely useful for drawing up encounters in this way.

  • -3 Level: 1 Goblin
  • -1 Level: 3 Goblins
  • @ Level: 2 Hobgoblins, 3 Goblins
  • +1 Level: 1 Bugbear, 3 Hobgoblins
  • +3 Level: 1 Hobgoblin Captain, 4 Bugbears

One of my favorite perks of this method is I can pre-make a list of related, random encounters if the party starts steamrolling the adventure or I need to downshift the next encounter. This is the first of five encounter building tactics you can use to take your encounters to the next level.

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