Every game ever played in the history of everything has one thing in common: you play AGAINST something. In chess it’s a mirror of yourself, as your opponent can do all the same things you can. In Super Mario it’s a weird giant spiked turtle thingie that kidnapped your girlfriend. In Magic the Gathering……. OK let’s not talk about that one. Anyhow, just like a good superhero story, it’s all about the enemies that must be defeated to save the day. D&D has amassed the largest pantheon of baddies ever, and by the time you get thru levels 1 to 20 (every campaign starts out with that intention) the DM can and will throw all of them at you. That can be a daunting task, but for me it’s one of the most fun. Giving life to all the various baddies, from itty bitty goblins to vengeful evil gods, gives DMs a chance to have their fun. Then we get to kill you!!!!
Ok, Ok. We’re not really trying to kill you, just get the players to the BRINK of defeat. An encounter that the party barely survives is one they will never forget. It is also when player character relationships are forged in steel. The barbarian that doesn’t believe in “the gods” might change his tune and stop calling the cleric “dummy” after that clutch healing spell (or raise dead if the healing wasn’t enough!). The rogue who nailed that critical back-stab might not have to endure the paladin’s nonstop lectures of right and wrong. No one will tell the wizard to shut up after that Wall of Force spell blocks a tidal wave of acid. Battles aren’t the most important part of this crazy role playing game but they are a lot of fun. As the DM, you get to come up with all the different ways the forces of evil will try and crush our heroes into powder. It’s up to them to work together, turn the tide and maybe get rich in the process.
So, how do you put together an encounter? What do you throw at them? When is it too much for them to handle? This is where Monster Manuals come in. If you’re using a pre-written module or campaign book a lot of the creature/enemy stats will be included. However, sometimes there’s holes in the materials and you as the DM need to be as prepared as possible before the session starts. You by no means have to have these things memorized, but nothing slows down a battle like trying to throw creature stats together because they were missing in the book. Also, if you’re adding your own personal flavor to a pre-written story you’ll need stats for those enemies as well. Monster manuals have all the sexy little details about the various bandits/beasts/creatures/demons you’ll have at your disposal. Info about their history, culture and behavior you can incorporate into the story or fully ignore and just use them because they look cool. Oh yeah, they have DRAGONS TOO!!!!! All different types, shapes and sizes. Because they’re in the name of the game, Dragons get a lot of attention! Info about their demeanor, the climates they inhabit and even what their lairs are like. You’ll be tempted to thrust your players right into one of those juicy pits of death right away, but that brings us to the next factor in any D&D encounter: difficulty.
You have this group of adventurers, they’re heck-bent on saving the world and ready to leap into the fray. Of course they think they’re unstoppable killing machines, and depending on how their character is built they very well might be. It’s up to you as the DM to construct battles that will challenge powerful PCs while at the same time giving opportunities to weaker PCs to contribute and not be immediately murdered. I call this process scaling the encounter. Now, not every battle will test the limits of your players, sometimes it’s just a quick fight to get their frustrations out from that puzzle that totally wrecked their brains. Or the bane of any adventuring party: the locked door. These fights will be with enemies they can easily handle, maybe with some fun environmental hazard to make it interesting. These smaller encounters can be used by the DM to get the players to burn thru some of their abilities/spells so the “boss” fight later can be that much more difficult. Or you could just want to keep the fights simple this session to focus on role playing. It’s all up to you. Now, the system for determining a creature’s difficulty level in 5th edition D&D is called Challenge Rating. Located in the creature’s stat block, Challenge Rating lets the DM know what “level” the creature is. For instance, a Shadow Mastiff (page 190 of Volo’s Guide To Monsters) has a challenge rating of 2. That means four PCs at level 2 can handle a fight with it. Although the CR system is a great starting point, you’ll find that a group of 2nd level PCs would basically kick the crap out of that poor beast. He’ll get one, maybe two turns to swipe at the players at best. I find the CR system focused too much on how much damage the creature can do, not so much how much it can TAKE. PCs can dish out a lot of damage, especially when focused on one enemy. I tend to give creatures extra hp, and def always have multiple enemies on the field. Basically, that group of 2nd level PCs would face 3, maybe 4 Shadow Mastiffs depending on how much damage they are capable of dealing on average. You’ll get a feel for that “handicap” after a few battles. The first few levels of D&D are a getting to know you phase for the players and DM, so don’t be discouraged if your players nuke every battle at first. You’ll know what they can handle, so you can SEE what they can handle later (cue malevolent DM laugh here). Remember those Dragons? Yeah a group of 2nd level PCs won’t last a round facing an adult dragon in his/her lair. The lair alone might kill them!
So, where do you find these creature stats anyway? Well, there are a lot of great sources out there. Most if not all the published 5th edition campaign books from Wizards of the Coast have most of the stat blocks in the book, plus a free PDF of additional materials available free on D&D’s official website. I encourage all new DMs to download them regardless of what you’re running as they might come in handy. Can’t go wrong with free, right?! In addition, no DM’s overstuffed gear bag is complete without the Monster Manual. I feel, alongside the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual is a must have for any group looking for long term play. The DM’s Guidebook, while filled with great stuff is less important as the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual have all the guts of the game in them already. Recently Wizards of the Coast published a book called Volo’s Guide to Monsters. It has a ton of great baddies but is roughly half filled with monster lore and tips on how to create custom lairs for your game. Great stuff no doubt, but for the most bang for a beginning group’s buck the MM is a must. In fact, before looking into Volo’s I’d recommend two other products for a DM. Kobold Press has a fantastic book called the 5E Tome of Beasts. It is a huge book filled to the brim with great stuff. I’ve been taking creatures mostly from this book ever since I got it. Not only are the baddies interesting (and in my opinion more challenging) but most of my players are experienced, so in battles with traditional creatures in the MM they kind of know what to expect. Creatures in this tome are unknown challenges for them, and they have really been enjoying being in the dark on what they’re facing. Another great source is Necromancer Games’ 5th Edition Foes. It came out very closely to the MM, and you can see where there were some “hurry up and get this thing out there” decisions but for a few bucks there are some really challenging creatures in it. Unlike the Tome of Beasts the art isn’t terrific but again if you’re just looking for different creatures to give you ideas and options I’d check it out. You can never have too many options.
So in closing, always be ready to shift difficulty on the fly. I can’t count how many battles I thought my players would blow through that ended up a real knock down-drag-out fight for survival. Then there was the fight with the Beholder that I thought might have been too much for them. Yeah they schooled that floating hunk of poo. A good DM knows how to adapt, and you can too with a bit of practice. Don’t be afraid to kill someone, but that shouldn’t be your goal. Remember, the BRINK of defeat……..
P.S. My D20s have still been torturing me. No progress on that front sadly………