August 17, 2016

Balance of Power

It's the Dungeon Master's job to keep things fun and fair for everyone. But what do you do when the party has too much power?  What if someone in the party is too strong? Too weak? Let's talk about the way you can balance the game against the party in the current edition.

Party Almighty

They killed the boss you sent after them in two turns, and only one of them was hit. Clearly, something must be done. Unfortunately, this situation is all too common for DMs who converted over to this edition. So what gives?

In all editions, a single creature with a Challenge Rating equal to the party's level is intended to be an appropriate challenge, but what the game means by 'appropriate challenge' seems to have fluctuated. Fifth edition is most like D&D 3.5, where having CR be exactly on the party's level meant a 50/50 chance of party success. Of course, as time went on, the 3.5 edition succumbed to a condition called Power Creep, wherein the core books were gradually outclassed by newly published material, and it became generally understood that CR needed to be shifted upward accordingly if newer material was in play. In 5th edition, however, setting the CR of an encounter to a party's level typically results in a pretty comfortable encounter for the party (unless everyone rolls badly at critical moments.) If you want an encounter to threaten your party in this edition, you need to shift CR by three or four levels right at the beginning.

In most published Wizards of the Coast adventures, this is exactly the case. The Challenge Rating of many bosses, as well as other challenging encounters, is well above the party's expected level. And, often, they are still expected to avail in these circumstances. I've discussed why that is before -- reasons range from the more forgiving and drawn-out death mechanics, to the prevalence of magic items, which are never accounted for in the party's effective level and are simply more potent in this edition -- but the reality is that DMs need to be aware of this issue, and plan their encounters accordingly.

In addition to presenting the party with higher CR creatures, consider adding other circumstances to combat that might hinder the party. Poison gas that deals 5 damage each round might not sound too deadly, but it goes a long way to making the party feel much more challenged.

Strong Man in the Party

Everyone's had that 'one guy' in the party who simply has the best character. He deals the most damage, has the best skills, and somehow has the best AC and HP to boot. Some of this might have been due to the DM or player meddling with less than tested homebrew, but the situation is here to stay: how do you deal with it?

As the DM, check every rulebook and online ruling you can to make sure the player isn't exploiting some sort of rule accidentally. You'd be surprised how often an incorrect ruling can cause this entire problem in the first place.

If that proves fruitless, there's two different options to try out at the table: curse or cheat.
*Note: Only curse or cheat if you think, within your group, no taboos will be crossed and no feeling will be hurt.*

You can curse the character in a variety of ways. Simply put, find a story reason for an assassin to be hired, for a villain to come back to life, or for a powerful god or devil to get involved. This malicious entity takes aim at the most powerful character because of something they've done in the past, and hinders them in some critical way. This could be an actual curse, or some other hindrance, like blinding the character in one eye, which constitutes a -X penalty on attack rolls.

Cheating is exactly what is sounds like. When the monster rolls, you just make sure it has better rolls against the offending character. Now, a lot of DMs are completely against this on an ethical standpoint, but I counter with this reasoning: sometimes you have to cheat to do your job. If your job is to keep everyone happy at the table and one character is ruining the fun, then you have to cheat.

Last, but not least, you can just pull the player aside and ask them to lower some values on the character sheet. D&D is a social game and it sometimes demands the simple social solution.

Weakling in the Party

So one guy decided his character was going to have an AC of 9, specialize in knowing lots of languages, and only knows utility magic. He's going to get murdered the second he steps into a fight. What do you do?

The answer to this one is actually built into the edition already: inspiration! Characters that are deeply focused on roleplay can survive quite of bit of combat if they have a frequently replenishing supply of inspiration. As the DM, you just have to remember to keep doling out the inspiration to the character in question. If that doesn't work, a magic item with the character's name on it is in order.


  1. Astonishingly enough myself and a frien who also DMs a lot encounter this sort of situations quite a lot. Our solutions are very similar to yours. We recently "rebooted" our campaigns for the sake of less "powergaming" and more "roleplay". We handled it like your last idea for the strong man... we talked with the players :D

    Strangely enough everyone was quite happy with the idea of tuning down the power level a bit.

    1. People often are. We play D&D to have fun, and people think its going to make for a better game, they'll often happily take the scenic route to get there.

  2. I feel the need to interject here-

    An at-CR encounter is nearly garunteed success in both editions, because it isn't meant to kill the party. The point of an At-CR encounter is to drain approximately 25% of the parties resources. This might be smaller in 5e where your expected encounters per long rest is 8 and not 4, but that /significantly/ depends on how many of your party function on short rests.

    The biggest issue many DMs will face with a single of-CR creature is actually action economy. I would only suggest a boss being the 7th or 8th encounter, where high level spells are at a premium. 5e does this better than 3.5 with Legendary Actions, Lair Actions, and Legendary Resistance, but it is still /extremely/ wise to put a slightly lower CR boss on the field and fill the rest of the encounter with mooks or enforcers.

    The above has a caveat in that some monsters are absolutely not meant to be used at their listed CR. Intellect Devourers come to mind immediately as something you should never pull out for their numerical CR as they are simply put, ridiculous. No save instant death the player can only mitigate during char creation!? Too much HP to use Sleep, Color Spray, ect? They are actually meant to be the aforementioned mooks to a Mind Flayer encounter.

    1. I don't know about an at cr encounter being a nearly guaranteed success because as you said action economy in 5th is a problem and as the day goes on it you have no one in the party that gets stuff back on short rests, which is highly possible, well they are going to start horribly losing.

    2. Well the action economy in both editions has always been an issue for at-CR encounters. If you remember, in 3.5, you could pretty easily play a minionmancer with the Leadership feat, and basically double your party size, or do the same thing with necromancy rather easily. In 3.5, at-CR was more dangerous at lower levels, and laughable at higher levels, when the quadratic power increase of some classes ran away from the CR system, especially as power creep began to show its head.

      So the situation is a little more complicated, but largely due to the death saving throws, 5e is a lot more forgiving, which begs the argument for more threatening encounters.

  3. I DM for an unusual group. On the one hand, I have 3 brand new player, and on the other there is a powergamer. My solution to this was simply to ask the power gamer to tone down his build so as not to overpower the others. Worked fine. This was during character creation though, so it won't work as well in the middle of a game. Great guide! If I might add, the Thieves Guild has always been a favorite of mine for leveling the playing field. Players with particularly powerful magic items often find themselves the target of particularly skilled thieves. Magic items are rather valuable after all. This also opens up further quest lines to recover stolen items or investigate.

  4. I have to disagree with curse or cheat, because one cursing the character can makes them not want to play at all, and two if you are cheating and are found out say good by to your playgroup. I've cheated as a dm once and that was when a cr 2 zombie orge was going to tpk the lvl 2 party because of rolls, and I had set a hard rule of no deaths till 5th lvl. Honestly the easiest way to deal with a "strongman" is always send high cr stuff at your party because of them.

    1. Yeah, this changes from group to group. I went ahead and added a disclaimer on the matter. We kinda expect the DM to cheat from time to time in our campaigns, just to keep things on a smooth track, so things work out pretty well. Cursing, on the other hand, needs to be worked in a player's backstory, or into the evolving story. It will be picking on the player if you just say 'a devil appears -- your Strength is 10.'

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  6. Thank you for addressing the issue of power creep in the game, especially when porting games from 3.5 or pathfinder to 5e.
    I am a decently experienced DM but I only 5e. Recently I have begun a Kingmaker campaign from pathfinder to 5e and I constantly find myself in a very one sided battle on the loosing end of the battle. What methods would you suggest to counteract this?

    1. If you're going to put only one monster against the party, make sure it has a /lot/ more health than it would normally, to compensate for the action economy being highly in favor of the players, and also think about giving it legendary actions.

      To keep the players on their toes, try applying a combat modifier to each battle, something like the battle taking place on a narrow walkway, the battle taking place in for or heavy rain, or the battlefield having a ton of hazards or traps. One of my favorites is to do a chase sequence before a good combat, having the players make ability checks to succeed in the chase. Then, they trickle into combat, one or two at a time, which puts the action economy in the enemy's favor.

      I've found that the environment, and the goal behind combat (like 'save this person/object' or 'don't kill your foe'), are far more important than the actual monsters to making things feel unique and challenging. Use some creativity on it.