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  • VideoSPIEL '18 Preview: Fertility, or The Grapes of Thoth

    by W. Eric Martin

    Both designer Cyrille Leroy and publisher Catch Up Games debuted in 2015 with the tile-laying game Sapiens. I previewed that title in this space in September 2015, and while I correctly remembered Leroy using domino-style tiles to challenge players in their efforts to build a tribal civilization, I misremembered that space in which players competed, thinking that everyone was competing on a shared playing area instead of having their own boards. How quickly memory fades...

    Unlike that earlier game, the 2018 Leroy/Catch Up title Fertility does indeed feature a shared playing area, with players once again placing domino-style tiles to do things and score points. The games lasts nine rounds, and on a player's turn they must place one of their three tiles on the board next to something that's been played previously, matching at least one symbol on their tile with an adjacent symbol in play. The more you match, the more resources you receive — but everything you receive other than wheat must be spent the turn you get it.


    Nearing the end of play, with monuments starting to spring up

    Every player has their own metropolis that they develop over the course of the game, with each player starting with a few basic shops, then acquiring districts — sometimes for free, sometimes for the cost of any 1-2 resources — that bear more shops. By "spending" resources in these shops, you can earn points, increase the value of the resources you've used, collect more wheat, and record the presence of gods.

    You want to specialize as you build, but you're restricted by the tiles available for drafting, the districts available for purchasing, and the opponents who will keep you from placing tiles where they'd be the most use to you.


    My metropolis at game's end

    In addition to scoring for districts, gods, and wheat — which sounds like the name of an obscure Fleetwood Mac cover band — players can place their monuments on the game board by enclosing a single square between tiles, wheat, water, and the edge of the playing area. Whoever places the most and secondmost monuments on the board scores a bonus. Instead of competing to be a big shot, though, you can grab a resource of your choice from an enclosed area, but I hardly think that one resource is going to make up for the seven or fifteen points a monument might bring, so stick with the monument plan, I think.

    I've played Fertility only twice so far on a review copy from Catch Up Games, both times with two players. The game provides a quick challenge, with all the thinky moments that one might imagine: Which tile do you place and where? Which districts should you buy and where should you spend resources? Which tile do you grab next? It's a fine example of the genre, marred only by cardboard components that feel thin and that have cutouts too narrow to pull apart from the sprue in a satisfying manner, leaving you to pick slivers of cardboard from the monument parts in an extremely unmonumental way.


    Youtube Video Read more »
  • VideoDesigner Diary: Relatively Speaking, or Say Whaaat?! How Far Will an Idea Go?

    by Mike Petty

    My party game Say Whaaat?! will debut from Drawlab Entertainment at SPIEL '18 in late October 2018. It's the latest version of a simple game I made almost 18 years ago. I'm really looking forward this new edition, and I'll explain why at the end of this post, but first please skim along as I take this opportunity to reflect on some highlights in the game's history.

    I know most readers will not be familiar with my game. I hope aspiring designers and creative types in general will find something of interest. I will drop some names that will be recognized by those who have been in the hobby for a long time. Many friends I met along the way have gone on to enjoy a lot more success than I have, and I'm so grateful for the roles they played in the development of my game.

    I jumped into game design with both feet over twenty years ago after discovering modern games like Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, and some abstracts. I was well aware most designers never made a lot of money with their designs, so money wasn't my main motivation. I kept at it because I loved games and I got many ideas the more that I played them. When I had an idea I thought was promising, I felt a responsibility to see it through. I wanted to see how far my ideas could go.

    Also, I went into education — initially teaching high school math — hoping to encourage students to follow their dreams. I played many games with students at lunch, including ones I made. Telling them about my small successes and inviting them to take part at times was one of my favorite ways to do that.

    I ended up using this particular game in school far more than any other. (Teachers might be interested in this recent blog post about the many ways that I and other educators have used the game in the classroom.)

    2001: Einstein and What Matters Most

    I used to keep all my game ideas, no matter how rough, in a text file on my computer. When I had time, I'd skim through them and flesh out any that sounded promising. For a long time I had a quote from Einstein written in that file. I've seen it worded different ways, but here's how I remember it now:

    Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. That's relativity.

    I found that fascinating, and I felt there had to be a game in it somewhere. Over time it developed into the idea of arranging random words relative to each other in some way. I eventually made a small deck of word cards and tried the core activity with my wife. She has always been my faithful encourager and ever-willing playtester. "Light" and "chocolate" were a couple of the words I recall. The question we used for that initial test was, "Which do you need most?" For each round, we'd draw five cards. One of us would rank them, and the other would try to guess the ranking.

    There wasn't much to go on, but the idea had something to it. (Will Niebling gave a talk to the aspiring designers at an early Protospiel gathering. He called that elusive quality of promising games "a spark of life". That term has stuck with me whenever I'm playtesting games and deciding which ideas to pursue.)

    After that brief playtest session, I remember thinking the question should be changed to "Which is most important?" From then on, the design became the party game of what matters most. I called it What's It to Ya?

    In July 2001, five or six of us, all mutual friends of designer Stephen Glenn, met in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the first Protopsiel (which Stephen called "Protospiele" at the time). I didn't play What's It to Ya? there, but I learned that my prototypes looked terrible compared to the ones Dominic Crapuchettes and Greg Daigle made! I decided to spice mine up, drawing a couple characters in the shape of arrows named "Up" and "Down" and adding them to the ranking cards.

    2002: James Droscha and The Low-Budget, Low-Risk Approach to Game Publishing

    I built up the deck and kept trying the game with friends. One early playtest (again, as more of a ranking activity than a game) was with my friend Terry Carr. We laughed hysterically while we played. I was fascinated that a game about the most important things could be hilarious at times. I also saw how it could spark brief conversations and that I was learning things while we played.

    As the rules were finalized, I considered the partnership game the official way to play. Players paired up and would score points by guessing each other's rankings. I worked out rules for groups of odd-numbered players, too. I have a fond memory of testing that version with a couple of students at a Taco Bell on our return trip from a chess tournament. All the playtests with students were a hit, which was very encouraging.

    That summer I met James Droscha (who goes by James Kyle when designing) at the second Protospiel. Our guest of honor was expected to give a presentation back then, so James shared the process he went through to get his game HellRail to the world. In those days, before Kickstarter and POD services, an aspiring designer usually had to make connections with publishers or risk losing a fortune (and a ton of storage space) by self-publishing thousands of copies.

    James' method was to slowly build up attention for a game by starting with a low-budget, hand-assembled print run. He printed and cut the cards for the first edition of HellRail himself. The game ended up in Games Magazine's "Games 100", which in turn led to a contract with Mayfair Games, then with Franjos.

    I came home that summer excited to try the same thing with some of my designs. I called them Black & White Games and I sold them from Terry Carr's online game store, Fair Play Games. Near the holiday season, What's It to Ya? became the second title I produced following James' low-risk approach.

    I remember getting some copies at Office Depot. For that first run, I printed only ten for a little less than $10. The low-risk and low-budget approach was just my style! I hoped the amount of fun in the little box would be perceived as a bargain.


    Pictures of that first edition, which sold for $5

    2003: Yes, It Really Is Fun

    I made another print run of around thirty copies and sold them throughout the year. That will seem like a ridiculously slow pace, but I was always working on other games, learning what worked and hoping eventually one game would catch some attention.

    I met Kory Heath and Dave Chalker at Protospiel that year. I especially owe them and Greg Daigle a huge thanks for their encouragement to keep moving forward with What's It to Ya? I used to start with a few blank cards and ask the group to write words on them before I even explained the rules. Kory wrote "Mike Petty" on one of the cards. They all felt awkward ranking me less important than telephones later in the game, but I understood.

    About a month later, an up-and-coming reviewer, Tom Vasel, had some nice things to say about the game. Then at the end of the year Bernie DeKoven (author of The Well-Played Game and giver of the Major Fun Award) wrote a short positive review, too. I sold out my second print run at that time. One cherished memory was assembling those final copies with my family. My two children were only three and four, but they enjoyed folding the small boxes I used in that inexpensive edition.

    2004: The Games 100

    Terry Carr teamed up with me to make the second edition of What's It to Ya? He paid for a slightly better small printing of 250 copies at a local print shop. Scott Starkey (another designer who had joined the growing ranks of Protospiel regulars) provided the art for that edition, and I loved the style he brought to it. One of my favorite pictures from those cards is still my avatar here on BGG.


    The second edition, with Scott Starkey's art

    The highlight that year didn't come until November. I was overjoyed to learn then that my game had been selected for the "Games 100"! Just like my friend James, I had reached that milestone without paying a fortune. The remainder of our print run sold out quickly after that. I anticipated the next mile marker: Would a publisher show interest in the game?


    No image included, but they picked it!

    2005-2008: Making, Being Made, and Letting Go

    It turns out publishers were not interested. I tried shopping it around for a few months, but eventually Terry and I decided to publish a quality edition ourselves. He graciously put up a considerable sum of money for it, and I did the legwork to bring the production together.

    I wish I could say it was a huge success, but I soon found out I wasn't much of a game publisher. We took too long to get started and we lost momentum as the big shipment didn't show up at the Fair Play Games warehouse until late summer 2006.


    The 2006 edition of What's It to Ya?

    I had a ton of fun promoting that edition with many groups at that time. We were in local papers. I was able to watch many players have interesting conversations as they played, laughing and giving high-fives while pondering big ideas. I made videos about people playing and ran contests in the Fair Play newsletter. I used it to kick off lessons in school about values and priorities.

    Watching people play and hearing how they think (or don't think) about values and preferences made me consider my own priorities. In time it changed how I think about life. I've had spiritual discussions with people during the game or I've used it as an example after the fact. Those reflections on what really matters and why have informed my theology.

    But as much as I saw its value affirmed time and again, our efforts to promote it ended with less than stellar results. Some of our business and production decisions as well as my written rules hindered sales. I eventually concluded that print run would be the end of What's It to Ya?

    Shortly after my decision to let it go, I got a call from Tim Walsh. He had enjoyed a lot of success with mass-market games years earlier and he was working as an agent at the time. He came across my game and contacted me. When we first talked, he told me he felt God brought us together at that time. I had a lot of respect for Tim's work and his faith, so I took that comment seriously. I was excited to see where he could take the game.

    Tim was great to work with. Compared to working hard to make something happen, I only had to read his regular email updates. By late 2008, I was offered a contract from Find It Games for publication in North America.

    2010-2012: Oh, Really!

    They finally released my game in the middle of 2010 as Oh, Really!. My kids, now old enough to appreciate the significance, were excited when the big stack of designer copies arrived. They actually had never played the previous versions, so it was a memorable time for us as we enjoyed the game that day as a family.

    I was grateful for their work, but honestly a few of the publisher's decisions about the rules and components left me scratching my head. That was the trade-off for letting someone else do the hard work of publication.

    In time, we watched Tim promote the game on a morning news program. My son and I saw it on the shelf in a family bookstore that year, too. Seeing it in a store was a big deal for both of us since all of my other games sold online or through direct sales.

    During this time, I made a number of digital resources for the classroom based on the game, and the subject-specific activities and lesson plans based on Oh, Really! were a popular section on my blog.

    Though personally satisfying, these highlights didn't equate to significant sales, and the publisher eventually decided it didn't warrant a second printing. It was still a blessing to see that my simple idea had gone quite far. I realized it sometimes continued better without my efforts. I came to appreciate it as the gift that it was.

    2016 to Present: It's Still Going

    In the middle of 2016, two publishers contacted me about printing a new version of the game. I'm grateful to both of them for reaching out. I hadn't been focused much on game design in recent years and had done absolutely nothing to promote What's It to Ya? or push it to other publishers.

    The first surprise email came from Happy Baobab, asking for rights to publish in Asia, then a couple of months later Drawlab Entertainment asked to publish in all other regions.

    Happy Baobab's edition (which brought back the original title of What's It to Ya?) was released in late 2017 in Korean with English rules and translations on the cards. They were the first publisher to change my ranking mechanism. The previous editions had players use cards that represent the random words, and the player placed those cards in order from most important to least. Happy Baobab flipped that around, having the player place cards numbered 1-5 next to the word cards to signify relative importance. I had considered something like that many times, but always opted for the tried-and-true method. I agree now their new method is more intuitive.




    They also decided not to include (or possibly they completely overlooked) the partnership rules. Because of that, some graphic design choices, and some of the card content, this has not been my favorite edition. I understand it was aimed at a different market, though, and I respect their decisions. They've sold a lot more games than I have!

    I appreciated Zee Garcia's positive review of the game, but had to laugh when he said he wasn't familiar with the original game. I wondered if he asked his partner, Tom, about it. Maybe he would have remembered reviewing it fourteen years prior...

    And that brings us to the new version coming out in October 2018. I'm really looking forward to Say Whaaat?! because:

    • This is my first game officially being released at SPIEL.
    • They included the original partnership rules. Yes! (Most people tell me it's their favorite way to play.)
    • I love the look. I proofed the rules a couple of months ago, and I've been excited about it ever since. The team at Drawlab Entertainment did a great job!

    I'm grateful to see the game is still going. I hope it results in much laughter, amusing thoughts, and fun conversations for those who discover it.

    Mike Petty Read more »
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    The monster taming RPG Siralim 3 has been released: Siralim 3 The King of Siralim, tainted by an unknown force, has brought war to the lands of Rodia, capturing all of the country's kingdoms and slaughtering their people in the process. Now, only one kingdom remains that can stand against this unlikely adversary: Nex.... Read more »
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    Sly Flourish

  • Running Ravenloft

    Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.

    Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.

    With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have a fully updated 5th edition D&D version of Ravenloft. Though intended for a long campaign, we're going to strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 8th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.

    Let's take a look at how to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.

    The Party's Goals

    We'll start by stripping down the goals of this adventure to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, we're killing Strahd to prevent him from enthralling Ireena Kolyana and making her his dark bride.

    To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle. These three artifacts include the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.

    You'll notice that we replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit with the theme of the game. A paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. We can replace this with a large bowl of clear water suitable to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.

    We're also going to add a trait the Tome of Strahd that helps streamline this adventure. If Strahd is defeated, the Tome of Strahd can be burned to destroy him within his coffin regardless of where the characters are when they set it ablaze. In truth, this is the only item the characters actually need assuming they can defeat Strahd without the Sun Sword or the Icon.

    Ireena

    Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his stalkerish ways and is taking the fight right to him. Ireena is a veteran and can be controlled by a volunteer player who is already running a simple character.

    Alternatively one of the players can play Ireena. She is human but otherwise can be any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.

    Ravenloft Character Bonds

    We're going to keep the bonds between characters very simple. Instead of a whole slew of interconnecting bonds, every character has the following bond for this one-shot adventure:

    By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.

    Now every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.

    Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenoft and the Drawing

    When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:

    The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road that leads to Castle Ravenloft. As you peer out one window, you watch rocks from the road fall one thousand feet to the river below. Looking ahead you see the carriage master, his cowled face turned your way and staring at you with invisible eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back impossibly far with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.

    A raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins that make up Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins to place them on the small table in the center of the inside of the carriage.

    We will be using the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: we're going to skip the ally and just stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck:

    • Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
    • Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
    • Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
    • Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
    • Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
    • Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
    • Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
    • Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)

    Ireena places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.

    Strahd's Invitation

    The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:

    "Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."

    In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:

    "Give yourself to me now, my love, and you can save their lives."

    Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:

    "and you would allow this?".

    Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks very disappointed.

    "They are obviously not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle. Let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."

    Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.

    Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. They're not likely to survive.

    Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd

    The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever they have. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot defeat the vampire. Depending on how difficult you want the fight, he might come with his three brides, each a vampire spawn. One of these vampire brides has the casting capabilities of a mage. One has the fighting capabilities of a veteran, and one has the capabilities of an assassin without the poison.

    Strahd's Interjections

    Throughout the session, Strahd might decide to jump into a situation to harass the party if they have been having too easy a time. Strahd will arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night.

    Facing Strahd von Zarovich

    45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies.

    If we want to run Strahd on "hard mode" if the characters have been having too easy a time of it, we can use our "nastier specials" from our Running Strahd article. This includes the following:

    Use the following changes to increase Strahd's difficulty:

    • 200 hit points
    • 19 AC (mage armor from a scroll)
    • Unarmed strike does 11 (2d10) bludgeoning and 21 (6d6) necrotic damage.
    • Bite does 9 (2d8) piercing and 14 (4d6) necrotic.
    • Switch out the following spells: shield instead of comprehend languages, counterspell instead of nondetection, lightning bolt instead of fireball, and dispel magic instead of nondetection.
    • Add Beguiling Gaze.

    Beguiling Gaze. As a bonus action, the vampire fixes its gaze on a creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If the target can see the vampire, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or the vampire has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of the vampires next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for the vampires bite attack. A creature that cant be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against the vampires gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.

    A Halloween Tradition

    With Curse of Strahd in hand and our streamlined plans in place, we can make Castle Ravenloft our very own Halloween tradition. Give it a try!

    Read more »
  • A New Dungeon Master's Guide For Building Encounters

    Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the sixth in a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

    In this article we're going to dig deep into one of the most challenging aspects of running a D&D game: building combat encounters.

    This article goes hand-in-hand with my original article on Building Encounters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That article contains charts and tables to help you choose the right number of monsters for a given situation.

    Here's a quick summary of this article's approach towards encounter building:

    • Let encounters develop from the story, the situation, and the actions of the characters. We don't have to pre-define encounters as "combat", "roleplaying", or "exploration". We only have to set up the situations and let the players decide how to interact with them.
    • Choose the type and number of monsters that make sense given the situation. Sometimes this might be two sleepy guards at a cave entrance. Other times it might be an entire hobgoblin warband. Give the characters openings to take different approaches towards the scene.
    • Keep an eye out for unexpectedly deadly encounters. Understand the loose relationship between monster challenge ratings and character levels. Remember that fewer monsters are generally easier than lots of monsters. Use a tool like the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything if you're not sure. In particular, be nice to level 1 characters. They're really squishy.
    • Adjust the encounter as needed during the game. Vary hit points within the hit-dice range. Increase or decrease damage. Add or remove monsters.
    • Mix up encounters to keep things fresh. Add interesting terrain or fantastic features. Throw a mixture of easy and hard encounters at the characters. Use waves of monsters.

    We're going to dig into all of these things throughout the article.

    Develop Encounters from the Story

    Dungeons & Dragons breaks down scenes into three different types of gameplay: NPC interaction and roleplaying, exploration, and combat. In the vernacular of D&D, all of these types of scenes are considered "encounters".

    We don't have to define any scene as being a roleplay scene, an exploration scene, or a combat scene ahead of time. Instead, we can set up the situation and let the players choose how to approach it. Maybe they attack the bugbear leader of the goblins directly. Maybe they try to bargain with them. Maybe they sneak up the garbage chute and try to listen in to the bugbear's plans. We don't necessarily know what choices the players will make when they leap into an encounter and not knowing is half the fun.

    It's common to break up our game into a set number of roleplay encounters, exploration encounters, and combat encounters but consider setting those categories aside and simply developing situations. These situations have interesting things going on in them that the characters can get involved with, but we don't have to know how they will interact with it. Sure, some scenes lean one way or another. When a horde of goblins attacks a wagon filled with friendly farming families (FFFs), the player characters are not going to go investigate rocks. Many times, however, we DMs can simply set the stage and let the players act within the scene as they want. That's a big part of the fun of D&D.

    Choose Monsters that Fit the Situation

    As we described earlier, the story and situation drives what encounters takes place. The same is true when we select monsters. Choose the monsters that fit the situation. A hobgoblin war camp might realistically have twenty-five hobgoblins and fifty goblins in it. They might not all charge the characters at once but that's the size of the war camp. A single hobgoblin patrol might consist of six hobgoblins and a captain. A war party might consist of twenty goblins, twelve hobgoblins, two hobgoblin captains, and a hobgoblin warlord.

    We don't try to balance this war camp with the characters. This is the size of the war camp, the patrol, and the war party regardless of the characters. How the characters decide to deal with a small patrol or approach the war party is up to them.

    Sometimes the characters might corner off two hobgoblins who went to examine an old dwarven statue. Other times the characters might find themselves overwhelmed with two dozen hobgoblins and two captains riding on scarred worgs. The story drives the encounter.

    Determining Deadly Encounters

    Most DMs want to have a vague idea of how difficult an encounter will be. A group of level 17 characters won't have much of a problem blowing this war camp off the face of Faerun but a group of level 4 characters running up against an entire war party at once could be deadly.

    Before an encounter turns to combat, it helps if we know it's rough potential difficulty. Doing so helps us steer the situation and offer other options to the players before it becomes a surprise total-party-kill (TPKs). Understanding encounter difficulty is tricky and can cause real problems for new DMs. Most commonly, a new DM will pit the characters against monsters that are way too hard and inadvertently kill the characters.

    Accidental TPKs are much more likely to happen at level 1 than any other level in D&D. Anyone who thinks a battle between a group of level 18 characters against Tiamat will be rough hasn't seen what happens when level 1 characters fight too many rat swarms.

    Above all else, be gentle with level 1 characters. However squishy you think they are, they're squishier. If you want to throw some monsters at your level 1 characters, choose fewer monsters than characters (maybe one for every two characters) and make sure they have a challenge of 1/4 or less. Even two or three challenge 1/2 thugs can wipe the floor with level 1 characters. Be nice to these poor young adventurers and you'll have 19 more levels of delightful pain to inflict.

    The Dungeon Master's Guide has detailed instructions for building encounters at various difficulties. These are the guidelines that Wizards of the Coast themselves use to design monsters and balance combat encounters. I suggest that you ignore these guidelines. They're too complicated, take a lot of time, and don't usually give us the results we're after anyway.

    In a wonderful episode of Dragon Talk, lead D&D Designer and rules sage Jeremy Crawford goes into detail on these rules and explains that the main goal isn't to "balance" encounters but to help DMs gauge the difficulty of a combat encounter, particularly if it's deadly. The math in the Dungeon Master's Guide can give us this rough gauge but so can a number of other easier methods. I'm going to offer three different methods for determining whether an encounter is deadly or not and you are free to choose the method you like the best. Two of these methods use the same underlying math of the Dungeon Master's Guide but are easier to use.

    First, Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a much-improved set of guidelines and tables for determining encounter difficulty. Instead of attempting to calculate encounter balance based on experience budgets, difficulty, and the number of monsters, Xanathar's Guide includes charts we can reference to determine the equivalent number of monsters to characters at a given character level and monster challenge rating.

    Second, I'll offer some rules-of-thumb you can keep in your head to give you a rough idea of whether an encounter is deadly or not. This takes a little work to memorize but once it's wired into your head, you'll need no other tool or chart to gauge an encounter's difficulty. This method compares the challenge rating of monsters to the levels of characters.

    Third, you can just wing it. The more experienced you get with D&D; the monsters, the mechanics, and the capabilities of the characters; the easier it will be for you to judge the difficulty of an encounter on your own. There is, of course, a lot of variance during a fight, but as you run games you'll become better at judging the difficulty without any sort of forumlas or tables. Many experienced DMs ignore any sort of encounter balance rules and take an estimated guess at the difficulty of any given encounter.

    Comparing Challenge Rating to Character Level

    It's important that we understand what the challenge rating of a monster represents. According to the Monster Manual, a group of four characters should be able to defeat a monster with a challenge rating equal to the level of the characters. Thus, a group of level 2 characters should be able to defeat a challenge 2 ogre.

    If we reverse-engineer the encounter building math used in the Dungeon Master's Guide, we can figure out a few other relationships between challenge rating and character level. These comparisons assume a fight that is not quite deadly, but close.

    A single monster is roughly equal in power to a single character if its challenge rating is roughly 1/4 of the character's level. This increases to 1/2 if the character is above level 4.

    A single monster is roughly equal in power to two characters if its challenge rating is 1/2 of the character's level. This increases to 3/4 if the character is above level 4.

    Two monsters are roughly equal in power to a single character if the monsters' challenge rating is roughly equal to 1/10 of the character's level. This increases to 1/4 if the character is above level 4.

    Here's a small table that might help. This comes from the upcoming Lazy DM's Workook, the Kickstarter stretch goal for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

    Any encounters above these amounts, in the quantity of monsters and the challenge ratings of monsters compared to the level of the characters, will be potentially deadly.

    This system can't give you a perfectly accurate view of how a battle will go, however. Too many variables determine the difficulty of a combat encounter. These variables include the experience of the players, the synergy of the character classes, how many battles the characters have already encountered, what spells the characters have, what magic items the characters have, the environment they're fighting in, and, of course, the roll of the dice.

    Thus, any guidelines you decide to use to help you understand encounter difficulty won't be perfectly accurate. Instead, you'll have to judge for yourself by seeing how the characters fair against various types of fights throughout an adventure or a campaign. Sometimes you'll need to ease back and make battles easier. Other times you'll need to increase the number of monsters to challenge the characters.

    The more experience you get under your belt running combat in D&D and the better you understand the capabilities of the characters, the easier it becomes to see what the characters can handle and adjust accordingly.

    Adjusting Encounter Difficulty on the Fly

    There's a dirty secret among DMs. We're all cheats and liars. We do, however, cheat and lie for the fun of the game and the enjoyment of the players. We can, for example, vary the hit points of a monster depending on how the battle is going. If the battle is becoming a slog or is simply too hard, we can reduce the number of hit points a monster has. If the characters are carving through monsters too easily, we might increase them to add to the challenge. As long as we're varying hit points within the hit dice range of a monster, we're technically not cheating.

    For example, an ogre has an average of 59 hit points and its hit dice are 7d10 + 21. Thus, any ogre could have between 28 and 91 hit points. A bigger brute might have 90 hit points but the weaker ones might only have 40. We don't have to make these changes ahead of time. We can change their hit points during the battle to keep up the high energy pace of the game.

    We can likewise tweak the damage of a monster. Like hit points, we're given an average amount of damage and a damage equation. If we want, we can increase the damage the monster inflicts up to the maximum of that dice range and still be within the rules. Likewise, a hit might be less if we find that the monsters are inflicting way more damage than we expected.

    Finally, we can add or remove monsters to tune a fight. Maybe six more hobgoblins rush in when they hear their fellow soldiers being attacked. Maybe two of the hobgoblins flee to get help or become distracted by a third party.

    All three of these techniques give us dials we can turn to change the difficulty of a fight while it's happening. We don't want to do this sort of thing all the time, but the options are there if things aren't going well and the game's fun factor is dropping.

    Add Interesting Terrain and Fantastic Features

    Six hobgoblins in an open field isn't that interesting. Four hobgoblins and their four worg mounts camping out around an ancient dwarven archway is more interesting, particularly if that archway is swirling with eldritch energy.

    When we're developing the scenes in our adventure, we can add texture by throwing in interesting terrain or fantastic features. Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes two tables of monuments and weird locales we can use as inspiration for some fantastic features to include in our combat encounters. Appendix A of the Dungeon Master's Guide also includes similar tables for dungeon features. Describing them can give our players ideas about how to use these features in combat which makes the whole battle more dynamic and exciting.

    Features like this add an element of exploration and mystery to our scenes.

    Final Thoughts on Building Great Encounters

    Building great encounters is a skill, like improvisation, that gets better the more we do it. It's a skill we can improve on for the rest of our lives. By keeping some general guidelines in mind and experimenting from scene to scene, we can learn what works well, what does not, and what things we want to try out in the future.

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