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Making waves

Erica might have started Storytelling later than I did, but she’s now had years of experience running games. Even more impressive, though, is that she’s always had this odd superpower — the ability to balance combats perfectly. She’s like “Well, I’ve never done D&D 5e before, but I guess I’ll use the D&D Beyond encounter builder and totally ignore the challenge level. Flashing deadly? Yeah, let me add a few more enemies. Perfect.” And whatever magic she does, it works. Always. Her combats are great! After going through a problematic battle in another game, I asked her how she did it and she was actually able to articulate how this thing she does instinctively gets done. Now I know a little bit of her secrets — and I’m going to expose them!

Let’s start with talking about combat difficulty. How hard you want an RPG fight to be is entirely up to you. Maybe your table wants life-or-death struggles in every encounter, and feel that nothing less than deadly is realistic. Maybe your friends want more variety in challenge. That’s up to you and your players’ preferences. You want a fun challenge, however dangerous you like it to be.

Then what do I mean by difficulty? Specifically, I’m looking at the difficulty curve of a fight, the level of challenge over the scope of any combat scene. So, let’s look at a couple of different ways to structure a combat, and what their curves typically look like. Of course, a streak of bad or amazing rolls can change the flow of any combat, but you can tweak the challenge level using things like crises to make sure the party’s not going into a fight fresh if you want them a little beat up.

Descending difficulty

Many fights are a group of enemies pitted against the player character party. In a lot of mass combats, the initial rounds are hard because the Storyteller has to throw enough at the player characters to make it a challenge. The difficulty starts high. If it’s very high, the characters might start off getting their asses kicked. But you probably want to make sure that your players don’t end up feeling hopeless right out of the gate — that’s not a great tone to set for most combats. But then the PCs kill off a few enemies and the balance starts to shift. The difficulty curve trends down and down until basically the characters are just mopping up one or two baddies who aren’t really a threat any longer. That can be pretty anticlimactic.

Some of the nice things about throwing a mob at the party is that they get the chance to use area of effect and crowd control abilities. After all, crowd control requires a crowd. Dispatching a dozen little antagonists can also make the players feel powerful because their characters might have been outnumbered and get to be the last ones standing. But the shine on that can fade pretty fast if the back half of every combat drops off to a trivial level of difficulty without ever varying.

Flat difficulty

When you’ve got a big boss enemy, the difficulty curve is usually more or less flat. The villain starts off powerful and pretty much doesn’t get any less dangerous until it’s defeated. If you make it a hard fight, it stays hard; and if it’s an easy fight, then it stays easy.

It can be good that the difficulty doesn’t peter out. Whatever intensity you set in the beginning, it more or less holds. A nice big chonker also gives the PCs time to use all of their tools and abilities, and gives damage over time effects the chance to get your money’s worth. But it can be better.

Rising difficulty

But the most dramatic fight scene would rise in difficulty wouldn’t it? The stakes go up, the scene builds to a crescendo and then a dramatic finish. Erica has got this weirdly intuitive understanding of how to give her combats that little bump to keep things from just trailing off or staying static.

I already knew one of her secrets — D&D 4e used to trigger some abilities when an enemy hit half their HP. I know a lot of people hate on fourth edition, but Erica and I have always been fans. It had some great ideas like this, but unlockable stuff can work in any game system; you just add an ability that the antagonist can only access once it’s taken a beating. It works especially well with the big monsters to unflatten the difficulty curve. The closer the PCs get to victory, the harder the battle becomes.

You can do that with group fights, too. Erica has become a master of using waves of enemies, just like in video games. It gives her lots of options for playing with the difficulty curve.

Image: Floating stone disks marked out with glowing runes hovering high above nighttime clouds below.

Let’s say we throw a batch of five enemies on the board at the beginning of combat. On a certain round — or when the first wave is almost beaten — we can bring in another five. This means that just as the difficulty is dropping off, we give it a boost to keep the back half from becoming a mop-up exercise.

We can also start with five antagonists and then bring in a second wave of ten! This not only brings the difficulty back up to the starting level, but then jacks the difficulty up to a higher level toward the end. This also works with a batch of minions and then a big bad on the second wave. The minions soften the PCs up a little, and by bringing in the BBEG later, it keeps the players from focusing on it and whittling it down right off the bat. Personally, I hate it when the PCs — including a group that I’m playing in — take out the flagship enemy of an encounter before the minions, making the second half pretty anticlimactic.

And if things are going too well or too fast, why not add a third wave? When you don’t show your whole hand right up front, you give yourself options for keeping the tension high instead of letting it dwindle.

Making waves make sense

Of course, you can’t use waves every time. Any over-used tool will eventually lose its effectiveness. You also don’t want this tactic to feel like a video game. Enemies shouldn’t spawn out of nowhere just because you need more. But you can dress things up so that it doesn’t just feel like a second wave, it’s more organic.

Giant space battle? Easy. There’s a new enemy squadron coming in at three o’clock.

Evil wizard? No problem. Summon a new batch of villains out of the bone pile or hell portal. As a bonus, you can make it a mid-battle crisis to close the portal.

Wild monster fight? The creature’s death throes alert its nearby mate or pack. Or maybe the noise of fighting bandits attracts the attention of an owlbear or something. Now you’ve got a three-way fight if you want to really mix things up.

You can also use battlefield objectives to create additional waves. If the characters are defending a fort, they might have a battle at the main gate and defeat some enemies — only to hear someone shouting that there are scaling ladders on the back wall! The PCs rush up to the ramparts to repel the besiegers there. In a space battle, they might shoot down a squadron of fighters only to spot a capital ship that’s been left exposed and make a run at its bridge or engines! Running to the aid of an NPC who’s being attacked by more enemies? Boom! That’s another enemy wave, too.

By changing up the combat difficulty level, you keep the dramatic tension up. And by varying how you do it, you can give your players a variety of challenges. Waves aren’t always the answer, and there’s definitely a place for a mob up front or a single big baddie. But it’s easy to make waves make sense in game and all the different options keep things interesting.

Erica, I know your secrets! I will likely never be as good at balancing combats as you, but that’s your superpower. I’m just glad to benefit from it.



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