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Creating adventures is one of the great joys of being a Dungeon Master. It's your way to express yourself through imaginative elements of your own design. When you design an adventure, you call the shots.
At the same time, you'll usually want to design adventures that aren't too easy, or too deadly, for your players. When you decide on the locations your players will explore, the NPCs they will encounter, and the monsters they will fight, it's best to do so with a plan of what you want to accomplish.
Building Combat Encounters
Building a combat encounter is a matter of choosing threats appropriate to the characters - generally monsters and other dangerous creatures - and combining them in interesting and challenging ways. Encounter building is a mixture of art and science as you combine these threats together.
When you set out to create a combat encounter, first decide how challenging you want it to be. Easy encounters are speed bumps on the characters' path as they make their way through adventures, while tough encounters often form the climactic moment of an adventure. The bulk of the encounters in an adventure should fall in the average range.
The difficulty you choose for the encounter, combined with the number of characters in the party and their level, gives you a target experience point (XP) value for the encounter. The sum of the XP values of all the threats in the encounter should fall in the neighborhood of this target, so you can select threats until you reach that target number. You can think of this process as spending XP against a budget. The difficulty you choose gives you an XP budget, and you "buy" individual monsters or other threats to build your encounter until you've exhausted your budget.
To find your total XP budget, multiply the number of characters in the party by the XP value shown on the table below. For example, if you want to create an average encounter for four 3rd-level characters, use about 280 XP (70 x 4) for the encounter.
If the characters in your party are of different levels, you can either use their average level or choose the appropriate number for each character and add them together, as you please. So, if your party has two 3rd-level characters, one 4th-level character, and a 1st-level character, an average encounter for them would have about 320 XP (70 + 70 + 160 + 20).
Spending Your XP Budget
As with a financial budget, be wary of spending your entire XP budget at once. A budget of 520 XP is fine for your 3rd-level characters, but a single troll worth 520 XP might be too difficult for them to face. Compare the characters' level to the level of the monsters and other threats in the encounter to make sure you're not overbalancing the encounter in either direction.
- Easy Encounters: Use monsters whose average level is equal to or lower than the characters' average level.
- Average Encounters: Use monsters whose average level is the same as the character'; average level.
- Tough Encounters: Use monsters whose average level is no more than 2 levels higher than the characters' average level.
- Single Monster Limit: A single monster whose XP value is greater than the XP target for a tough encounter has a pretty good chance of killing every character in the party. Steer clear of these monsters when designing normal combat encounters.
- Very Weak Monsters: Monsters whose level is 3 or more lower than the characters' average level don't take up as much of your XP budget as their XP values indicate. Count them as only half their normal XP value. (So you get two for the price of one!) The actual XP value of these monsters, awarded to characters who defeat them, is unchanged.
The Adventuring Day
When you're designing an adventure, you rarely have the ability to predict how much or how little the player characters will accomplish in any given stretch of time. As a rule of thumb, you can figure that the characters will probably get through four average encounters, six or seven easy encounters, or two tough encounters before they have to take a long rest.
Since you can't predict the path your players will choose through an adventure, you can't really design an adventure around this daily target. But it might be helpful to bear it in mind, so you don't force the characters into three tough fights in a row or send monsters to close off the dungeon behind them after they've already fought their way through four average encounters. Keep the adventurers' need to rest in mind as you set up your adventures.