Particularly in one-shots, building battles is a bit of an art. Most crunchy games include some guidance on balancing encounters (and those that don’t should), but I’ve found some general principles that will improve almost any fighting encounter that you have. In Part Two we’ll look at the battlefield itself, but in this post we’ll look at your opponents.
For this post I’ve given examples based around 5th edition D&D, because it has guidance for balancing encounters in the DMG that is both thorough, and also a bit misleading – but the same principles apply to other games.
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Balancing Your Opposition
I’ve said this a few times on the blog already, but I’ll say it again – fights, especially in one-shots, should be easy or hard – not “medium.” An easy fight at the start of a session to help everyone learn the rules is a fine thing, or an opportunity for the players to show how awesome they are, but a ‘medium difficulty’ fight is, generally, weak. If you play D&D or Pathfinder, the majority of the fights you’ll find in published scenarios are at this level – just cut some of them out and beef up the ones that are left to make it at least “hard” by whatever difficulty metric they give.
The reason that games often give a ‘medium’ difficulty level is about attrition. The classic D&D resource management game is that you will gradually use resources through the adventuring day, meaning a selection of averagely difficult fights will wear you down and provide a tactical challenge. I don’t really agree with this approach, even in long-term play – a few big battles are better than lots of middling ones, and I think resource management like this is overrated.
You Need More Than You Think
One opponent per PC is an absolute minimum if you want an exciting battle. There’s tricks and ways to make a fight against one big opponent work, which I might talk about in a later post – but if you’re looking for an exciting fight, you probably want the number of opponents to be between 1.5 and 3 times the number of PCs.
How do you do a big fight against, e.g., a dragon then? Simple, just add in some low-level supporters. If you’ve got 4 6th level D&D characters, a “hard” fight can be a Young White Dragon (CR 6) and 5 or 6 Scouts (CR ½) – the scouts won’t be as big a threat as the dragon, but they’ll still harry and whittle away at the party’s resources ensuring that they won’t just be able to mob the dragon from the start. It’s easy in D&D to fall into the trap to think that low CR monsters aren’t suitable for mid- or high-level parties, but they absolutely are – which brings us to…
Minions, Mooks, and Hordes
If you’re going to have lots of opponents without swamping the PCs, some of those opponents might have to be quite low-level. A group of low-level minions is an excellent set of opponents to add to a challenging fight. They’ll draw the PCs’ fire, get between them and the main opponents, and give the players a chance to show their awesomeness by going down easily.
If you’re worried that there might be too many, give some thought to morale options – maybe once their leader is killed they’ll run off into the hills, or half of them hang back as they attack in waves. With lots of opponents you have a few ways to pace battles you can use depending on how it’s going – make it logical, and don’t hold back, but you don’t have to have them all charge in at once.
Make Them Individual
Give your opponents identifying traits, names, or other characteristics. On a VTT, it’s easy to drop name labels on to each of your mooks – it feels much cooler when the goblins they pick off have names. Otherwise, even just listing a characteristic of each of them – this one has one eye, this one is overweight and limping –helps it to feel like a TTRPG instead of a video game. Generally, I’d not recommend altering any of their game statistics for this – keep it simple for yourself – but you can use it in their descriptions.
Another more general way to improve individuality is to reskin monsters liberally. Bestiaries will act like they’ve gone to loads of trouble to make monsters individual, but it’s so easy to reskin monsters to make similar opponents. Need stats for Big Baz, the slow-moving henchman of the chief bandit for your bandit encounter? Baz is a zombie with no undead traits. A low-level evil sorcerer can easily be a reskinned Sea Hag with his claws a magical bolt and the Horrific Appearance a fear spell.
And one of D&D’s great secrets is page 274 of the DMG, the “Building a Monster” section, that lets you design monsters from the ground up – also perfect if you want a slightly stronger monster to lead a pack of them – just go to the next level up and increase its CR.
Putting it All Together – An Example
With this in mind, let’s set up the personnel of encounters for a D&D one-shot, exploring a group of goblins who’ve hidden in a cave and are harrying villagers. I’ll be talking about the “3 Fights” one-shot structure in a later post, but you can probably grasp the basic idea of it from the name, so for our three encounters – balanced for a 2nd level party of 5 PCs – we’ve got:
Fight 1 – The Guards (at the entrance, or patrolling) – a DMG “easy” fight, although we’ve gone a little over budget – it’s likely the PCs will get some sort of surprise on them, and they’ll be fighting them fresh, so this should be straightforward for them.
2 Goblins (CR ¼) and 3 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)
Even for an easy encounter, having enough 5 opponents will still mean that they’ll have to think about who they engage, and if they can afford to protect a ranged-based character or wizard.
Fight 2 – The Kennels – this is a “hard” fight, and again it’s a little over budget – we’ll have the worg hang back for the first round, and only arrive to defend its pups in round 2.
2 Goblins (CR 1/4), 1 Worg (CR 1/2), 4 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)
More opponents this time, and a big beast that they might want to join forces to handle – but by arriving on Round 2, they’ll already be engaged with the hounds and goblins. Depending on how the PCs are looking at this stage, we have some tactical options to balance this – we could always throw everyone in at once, or have the goblins hang back in cover and fire arrows at the party.
Fight 3 – The Boss Fight – this is a DMG “deadly” fight – we want to try to engineer that the PCs are pretty healed up and ready for this fight, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem as it’ll be the climactic battle of the one-shot
1 Goblin Tribe Leader (a Hobgoblin – CR ½), 1 Goblin Champion (a non-undead Zombie – CR ¼), 3 Goblins (CR ¼), 4 Goblin Rabble (stats as Bandits) (CR 1/8)
Nine opponents make this fight challenging, and the Rabble/Bandits and the Champion can get between the big boss and the goblins who can pick players off with missile weapons – while the bandits will be quickly dealt with, this will pace the fight so that they still have to face the main opponents – the leader and the champion.
So, now that we’ve looked at building our opposition, the next post will deal with locating this in the session – both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the actual physical battlefield.