When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers selected a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to go. As the game matured, DMs started to design or select adventures for a party’s level. Players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level.
Of course the game always allowed a style of play that offered no such guarantees.
Gary Gygax liked monster populations that fit a habitat for a logical reason. In early D&D, the wilderness monster tables did nothing to match monsters to character levels. Skeletons appear as often as vampires. This approach made outdoor adventures particularly risky. The original rules cite the high-level task of scouting for castle sites as the best reason for wilderness expeditions.
Realistically, creatures and adventure locations in the wild would not come sorted by difficulty. At best, characters might learn about a site’s hazards by reputation.
Tomb of Annihilation follows such a natural order. “By design, the adventure locations are not tailored to characters of a specific level. If the adventuring party is relatively weak, it’s up to the players to choose whether to flee instead of fight, negotiate instead of attack, or surrender instead of die.”
This is old-school player agency at its best. Players make the choices and then bear the repercussions of those choices.
The fifth-edition hardcover adventures often let characters roam. The random encounter tables serve deadly and weak threats. Each location aims to challenge a particular level of character, but the adventures rarely steer characters to a suitable challenge. For instance, a table in Curse of Strahd lists locations and their difficulty levels. But if a party happens to find sites that match their level, then their DM nudged them along.
And DMs running Curse of Strahd and its kin probably did some nudging.
Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.
Even an adventure like Tomb of Annihilation has a story to tell and heroes to protect. “It’s up to you as the DM to be flexible and keep the story moving forward as best you can. If an encounter is going badly for the adventurers, you can have the monsters suddenly withdraw, demand the party’s surrender, or deal nonlethal damage.
“In short, there is always a way to turn the party’s misfortune into a fighting chance of survival.”
Turning a total party kill into a complication can save a campaign while adding spice. If characters make a narrow escape, they earn a tale to tell. When they level up and return for a rematch, they relish their new power. A capture takes the story interesting places. When you try to take characters captive, players notice you steering the game to force an outcome. But if players ignore the warning signs, press a fight even after they should retreat, and still get captured, they know they had it coming. Still, sparing characters with a “lucky” intervention works best as a rare twist.
When threats don’t always match the party’s power, D&D can become more exciting. But we value balanced encounters for a reason. They mix a fun challenge and a strong chance of success.
Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire locations that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level location, they can only fight to escape. If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout.
Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored, and I’m not alone. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge.
When characters lack challenges to face, time should pass in summary. So if high-level characters gearing up to storm the gates of hell meet some bandits on the streets of Hillsfar, skip the dice. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.
Despite a preference for challenging locations, an open world can still feature sites in a mix of threats, from the Caves of Chaos to the Tomb of Horrors. Deadly locations promise future adventure and make players look ahead with eager anticipation. But rumors and clues must help players measure the dangers ahead. If a bunch of new adventurers start poking around a skull-topped hill, they’re in for a nasty surprise. Princes of the Apocalypse skipped such signals and shocked a lot of players. They could easily descend from a challenging dungeon level to an overwhelming one.
Leading characters to the right mix of challenges presents a tough problem for designers of hardcover adventures. But most DMs just dream up their own content for their next game, and they probably do encounters right already. If that’s you, then you make most encounters fit the characters at your table, at least broadly. And even if you aim for just the right challenge, you create some uneven matches. Fourth edition made devising balanced encounters easy, but 5E delivers less consistent results. Even when encounters come tailored for a particular character level, some will become romps, and a few might prove unexpectedly hard.
Most fifth edition DMs tend use guesswork to create encounters—the building guidelines hardly improve on it. And that guesswork serves up a pretty good mix of difficulties.
When I design encounters, I mix some guesswork with quick, encounter-building guidelines. Sometimes, I create intentionally deadly foes because they can enrich the game. They force players to use diplomacy, or guile, or stealth. In fourth edition, when I planted a deadly foe, I chose something obviously overwhelming to overcome the expectation that every foe must be beatable. Such metagaming still leads players to underestimate threats, but I will relay what their characters know from living in the game world. “You believe this fight may kill you.”
I avoid intentionally designing easy encounters, because aiming for balance still yields plenty of easy fights.
D&D head Mike Mearls aims for flavor. “I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don’t use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.” I’ll bet Mike’s encounters still broadly suit the characters, if only because new adventurers probably spend more time in Hillsfar than storming the gates of hell.