Designing Combat Encounters

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Sometimes, you should just run.

This page describes how GMs should set up encounters in Epic Path. A number of encounter design rules are unique to this game, compared to other fantasy RPGs.

One Monster Per PC

Epic Path uses an encounter design philosophy that a party of characters should typically face a party of monsters. Thus, an even-CR fight consists of one monster of even-CR for each member of the party. This design goal is meant to create combats that last roughly three full rounds from start to finish. This makes the game master's job of running the encounter somewhat more difficult, but brings several advantages. First, the GM actually gets to have some fun running the monsters, instead of plopping another giant bag of hit points and XP on the table and letting the players bludgeon it to death. And second, every player will have something to fight, and some way to contribute, in every combat.

GM's can use this model as a starting point to determine encounter difficulty, and easily tweak it to make each encounter more or less difficult, as desired. Encounters can be tweaked by raising or lowering the CR's of some or all of the monsters in the encounter, raising or lowering the number of monsters present, or including one or more monsters with Roles. GM's which use these methods to tweak an encounter will find that treasure and XP awards are already adjusted for them, simply by adding up these values for each monster present.

Higher and Lower CR

It is sometimes useful to use monsters with a higher or lower Challenge Rating in encounters, in order to modify the difficulty of the encounter. The following guidelines can be used to create fair encounters using off-CR monsters:

  • -4 CR or lower: These monsters are effectively just terrain, soaking up PC attacks and getting in the way. Mix in a couple of even- or higher-level CR monsters to keep your players engaged.
  • -2 and -3 CR Monsters: These provide a good challenge if you double the number of monsters (i.e., two per PC). This makes for some VERY big, crowded fights, so be prepared!
  • -1 and +1 CR Monsters: Use one monster per PC as usual. The -1 CR fight will be a bit easy, the +1 CR fight will be a bit hard, as you might expect.
  • +2 and +3 CR Monsters: Treat +2 and +3 CR monsters should generally appear in fewer numbers; approximately one monster per two PC's will keep this from being overwhelming.
  • +4 CR Monsters: One by itself can often give a party of four PC's a good fight, with perhaps a couple of lower-CR monsters to help out.
  • +5 CR or higher: NOT RECOMMENDED!! You will most likely kill your party.

Status Conditions

Epic Path adjusts the way status conditions work, especially for monsters, to prevent encounters where a bad die roll means one or more players have to sit out the whole fight because they've been petrified by the basilisk's gaze, or panicked by the dragon's fear aura. These things still happen, but the player nearly always has to fail two or more consecutive saves for the truly debilitating effects to occur. PC's will tend to inflict stronger status conditions on monsters more easily than monsters do to PC's. This is okay, since there are now, usually, multiple monsters for the GM to run. Losing one of them to that 'Hold Monster' spell doesn't just end the encounter.

A monster can never be afflicted with more than one condition at a time. However, effects are are resolved instantaneously and do not require any tracking after the effect is resolved do not count toward this limitation (a good example being forced movement). If a creature is already suffering from a condition, and a player successfully uses an ability on the creature that would apply a new condition, any damage that ability (or spell, or attack, or maneuver, etc.) would inflict is resolved normally against the creature, but the player must choose whether to inflict the new condition, replacing the existing condition, or leave the existing condition alone, and not inflict the new condition.

Some abilities (in particular, some spells) that lay a condition offer a special feature called a 'synergy' which is triggered if and when some new condition overwrites the condition applied by the spell, before the condition wears off or is resisted by the monster. Synergies can generally be triggered by any condition at all, even weak conditions, such as dazzled, making teamwork attacks that are designed to make use of these synergies quite effective, if players (or monsters) can pull off the timing correctly. If a synergy requires some specific severity of condition (i.e. moderate or strong), it will say so in its description.

Monster Roles and Patterns

GM's can also make use of the Monster Patterns and Roles to 'fine-tune' encounter difficulty while still staying with the 'one monster per player' model. Some monsters have roles built in -- Dragons, for example, are always 'Threats'. This means that a single dragon counts as four monsters, but also deals out more damage, has more hit points and more attacks per round than any single monster would normally have. Frequently, monsters with roles can ignore the first several status conditions that are inflicted upon it. This allows GMs to create encounters where the party fights only a single monster (akin to the classic Pathfinder encounter model) but removes the danger of stun-locking the big bad and pummeling it to death. It's the boss fight at the end of the dungeon, and it should be challenging and memorable!

Dynamic Settings

Encounters are more than just a few monsters in a room. Setting the fight in an interesting place can also radically change the enjoyment of the fight. A fight with brigands can be pretty dull, but a fight with brigands in a busy marketplace, dodging horse-drawn wagons, people carrying crates of produce and the town watch, well, that's pretty interesting! The point is to make each encounter fun. While there is a time and place for the "six monsters in a room" fight, it's just as important to have those fights where you have to get that unholy relic out of the lizard cultist's hands before he can complete his sacrifice to the elder god, all while sliding around on an ice-covered lake that's being bombarded with cannonfire from off-shore pirates.

Another useful aspect of clearly describing the setting of a fight is it tells players what kinds of things are available for them to interact with. In every Errol Flynn movie ever made, he has to fight backwards up a staircase and then swing on a chandelier to a balcony on the other side of the opera house. If you don't describe your scene, your players will never try crazy stunts like yanking a tapestry off the wall to temporarily entangle their foes. And crazy stunts make for more fun fights.

I'm sure I don't need to mention that, as a GM, you should generally let crazy stunts work. Sure, make them roll an Acrobatics check, but if they don't completely tank the roll, let them do that cool thing. The more you reward players for creative play, the more they'll play creatively.

GM's are encouraged to evaluate the effect that terrain and settings have on the difficulty of an encounter and add (or subtract) XP and treasure accordingly. Terrain and effects which give the monsters a big advantage should equate to a larger reward for beating them despite the odds.

Changing Up What "Winning" Means

Another useful consideration for encounter design is to occasionally set up encounters where the victory condition isn't just "kill all the bad guys". This is especially useful if you have a villain you'd prefer the players not kill. It's bad story-telling to have the villain get away for no other reason than you need to use him later. You need to give the players something to do that lets them "win" the fight, while still allowing you, as the GM, to keep your bad guy alive. This can mean rescuing the hostage seconds before the pendulum axe-blade cuts her to ribbons, or keeping the bad guy from successfully stealing a McGuffin and forcing him to flee. It can also mean a fight where the players have to use non-lethal tactics or they'll be tried for murder (though, given the -4 penalty to deal [Non-Lethal Damage]] with most weapons, you should use this one sparingly). Stopping a ritual, turning off some terrible golem-spewing machine, getting the king out of the burning building or destroying the evil book are all great ways to turn a fight into something other than a murder-brawl. Of course, there's nothing wrong with murder-brawls in gaming. In fact, most encounters should just be "kill the bad guys". But sometimes it's nice to change things up a bit.

Keys to Encounter Design

  1. Each encounter should include a number of monsters roughly equal to the number of party members.
  2. You can vary the CR by 1 or 2 to make encounters easier or harder.
  3. The status array rules are optional but very strongly recommended.
  4. Occasionally use Roles and Patterns to create interesting and varied combats.
  5. Don't forget your environment. A fight on a burning, sinking ship is a lot more memorable than a fight on a grass field.
  6. Occasionally run a fight where the victory condition isn't "kill all the bad guys".

Creating New Monsters

Epic Path includes a bestiary with quite a few monsters that are ready to run, but there will always be a time when you need to create your own creatures for your campaign. We've tried to make this process as simple as possible, but there are a few design concepts that you should be aware of, before you begin.

Monster Blueprints

On the bestiary page, the first entry of each CR is a blueprint for monsters of that CR. The blueprint includes to-hit numbers, recommended damage numbers, saving throws and other numerical data which reflect the appropriate power level for monsters at that CR. While it may seem a bit soulless to have every monster at CR 5 have a +10 to-hit, and deal 1d8+6 damage with a weapon, the key is that those numbers are derived from a LOT of numerical analysis of what PC armor classes and hit points will be for level 5.

Rather than striving for each monster's base numbers being unique (a fact that most players will never notice), the design of each monster includes one or more special abilities which the monster uses during combat. These special abilities are what make each monster unique. Frequently, if a monster is one of a race of monsters, such as kobolds, they'll all share one or more abilities that are common to that race of monster (in this case, they all have the 'shifty' ability, which lets them take a 5-foot step as a free action once per round, regardless of whether they've already moved or taken a 5-foot step that round). This creates a theme for those monsters that players will associate with those monsters, making them memorable and distinct. It doesn't matter that a CR 3 Kobold Warrior has the exact same number of hit points as a CR 3 Crocodile, because the Kobold Warrior behaves nothing like a Crocodile in combat.

Using the Blueprints

To make a new monster, decide what CR it will be, and copy the blueprint for that CR into a new page. When you look through the blueprint, you'll see a bunch of field names followed by an equals sign, such as:

| MonsterName = 

In most cases, the name of the field tells you what should be put after the equals sign. In other cases, comments have been added below the field to tell you what the valid values for the field are, or how to use the field. If values are listed for a field, they are probably caps-sensitive, so copying and pasting the desired value is probably the safest bet.

In the case above, you would fill out the field with the monster's name, like this:

| MonsterName = Stripy Aardvark

Most of the fields in the template are optional. You could give the monster a name and a quick description, hit save, and you'll have a monster (albeit a fairly dull one). For that matter, if you change the CR value at the top of the blueprint to any other CR up to 40, all of the monster's relevant stats will update (once you save it) to the new CR. This makes it very easy to take an existing monster and add a few levels to it. (You should probably save the monster of the new CR to a different page, however, rather than overwriting the existing monster entry.)

A lot of the fields in the blueprint have the word "nudge" in them, and allow you to tweak the baseline numbers for the monster in relation to its CR. You could raise or lower it's Fortitude Saving Throw value by +2 or -2, for example, just to make it different from another monster of the same CR. Try to avoid large changes in these numbers, or you will make the monster more difficult (or easier) than is appropriate for its CR. The baseline numbers were chosen for a reason and represent a good challenge for players of that level.

Special abilities in the blueprints make use of variables (listed in the comment below the special ability description) which replace the numerical values for to-hit, damage and saving throws, for that special ability. This allows the template to update the numbers in the special ability to the standard for the CR you want, and dynamically changes those numbers of you change the CR. Of course, if you want them to be higher or lower than normal for whatever CR they are, you can also nudge them using the "Nudge" fields below the description section of each special ability.

Monsters can have up to 9 special abilities, if you want, but in most cases, two or three is more than enough to establish a unique shtick for the monster, and make it feel distinct from other monsters the players have fought. Having more than 5 special abilities will probably make the monster harder to run, since it won't be as clear what it should do. Of course, if the monster needs 5 abilities, or even 9, then that's what it needs. Be creative, and make some fun monsters.

Don't Adjust Derived Stats

The creature's base attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc.) are values you are expected to provide. These can be copied from another monster's stats (Pathfinder, D&D, etc.) if you wish, but are in the blueprint to provide completeness and to give you a chance to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the creature's attributes. A sneaky monster will likely have a high dexterity, for example.

However, derived stats that already have a value filled in, such as Maneuver Offense, Maneuver Defense and saving throws, already assume average stats for creatures of that CR, and should not be adjusted based on the creature's base attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc.). Derived values may be tweaked a little, generally +/- 1, to suit the theme of the creature being converted. However, significant adjustments, even at high levels, will unbalance the encounter.

The exception is for size modifiers, especially to AC, Maneuver Offense and Maneuver Defense, which may be added to the custom monster's blueprint, if desired. The blueprints assume medium-sized creatures, but these adjustments are optional. If you forget, or don't feel like updating your custom monster for size modifiers, your encounter won't really suffer for it.

Special Defenses

Some types of monsters, such as Oozes or Undead, have their own set of special defenses which apply to all members of their type. These special defenses have been called out for the main monster types on the Monster Types page.

  • Note: Despite the name, creatures with "immunity to precision damage" actually take half damage from precision damage. In addition, Rogues have the special ability to flank creatures immune to flanking, which allows them to qualify for sneak attacks against such creatures, though they do not receive the +2 flanking bonus to hit against such creatures.

Monsters With Spell Resistance

Spell Resistance is not terribly fun for players, but sometimes a monster is just immune to magic. To represent this, rather than just telling the sorcerer to sit this fight out because he's worthless against this opponent, there's spell resistance.

Spell resistance should nearly always have a value of 10 + the monster's CR. This gives most PC's a roughly 50% chance to succeed in casting a spell on this monster. While you may not feel that a 50% success rate really represents "immunity to spells", remember that failing this roll means the PC just wasted his whole turn and lost his spell. This is a very big deal, and is similar in nastiness a monster inflicting a strong status condition on that character as a free action.

Also remember that the PC's are heroes. They're not your typical town drunk who happened to pull on a leather jerkin and decide to go smite some evil. They're the main characters of the story because they're special. A PC who overcomes a monster's spell resistance has just cast a spell on a creature who is immune to magic, because the PC is JUST THAT BAD-ASS! He bullied that magic onto that monster through sheer force of will!

While you can make monsters which are totally immune to magic, we feel this is very bad design. The recurring theme of Epic Path is, even if it's crazy, the PC's should have a chance to try it. So, let your PC's blast through that spell immunity 50% of the time. It's a lot more satisfying to your players than being told to sit quietly in the corner until the golem is dead.

Skills and Feats

It's okay for monsters to have a couple of feats, and a couple of skills, but you should choose those feats and skills carefully, based on what you think they will actually get to use in the 3 rounds they'll get before the party cuts them down. A monster that relies on ranged attacks for most of its damage will likely have the Precise Shot feat, just to avoid that -4 penalty to attacks into melee (which always comes up). On the other hand, if that monster's ranged attacks are all ranged touch, maybe they don't really need that Precise Shot feat. Telling the players that the monster is picking off the folks who aren't in melee because it doesn't take a penalty for those attacks is interesting. It lets the players adjust their tactics to the monster's weaknesses, which leads to a more fun fight.

The key things to remember about choosing feats or skills for a custom monster are: only pick things they'll actually get to use, and try to keep it as simple to run as you can.

Choosing that "Leadership" feat might seem like an interesting role-playing choice for that Orc Warlord you're designing, but you'll spend half the fight reading the six pages of rules for the Leadership feat, only to find it doesn't have any practical application in the fight anyway.

You should always assume your creatures have skills and feats that aren't listed, which are only usable outside of combat. There shouldn't be limitations to your monster's role-playing just because a feat isn't listed in its combat stats. Similarly, spellcasting monsters will always have more spells available to them than the ones listed on their monster writeup. That "mending" cantrip is darned handy, but it's completely irrelevant to combat, and distracting to look at when you're running the fight. Leave it off the writeup, and if you must detail everything they can do outside of combat, put it in the "Out of Combat" section at the bottom of each monster entry, for your convenience.

In the fight, you want the monster writeup to be as succinct and easy to read as possible.

Note that monsters follow the same rules for skill checks as players:

  • On a roll of a natural 1, a skill check is always a failure.
  • On a roll of a natural 20, the monster may add 1/2 their CR to the skill check's result as a critical bonus.

Designing Special Abilities

A monster's special abilities are where it really shines as a distinct creature, rather than just a set of numbers. If you're making your own monsters, you should spend some time thinking up new and interesting special abilities, and those abilities should map to the overall feel you're trying to create with the monster. An big hulking brute of a monster, for example, shouldn't get a bunch of oddball magical effects, they should have big powerful attacks or unusual defenses.

The blueprints contain a few recommendations for how much damage special abilities should do at the CR selected, as well as a saving throw DC that should be used for any special ability which requires one.

A useful rule to follow is that no special ability should ever do damage without either the monster or the PC getting a die roll to mitigate it.

If a special ability inflicts a Status Condition, GM's should make sure that the status condition's severity is appropriate to the CR of the monster. In general, moderate and strong status conditions, especially those conditions which completely take a player out of the action (e.g. petrified), should require more than one action from the monster to inflict (the first action inflicts the weak or moderate condition in the array). A second action on the same target, if that target is still afflicted with the lesser condition, could then inflict the strong condition (overwriting the lesser condition). Epic level monsters may break this rule, since players should have more ways to escape from stronger conditions at that point.

Attacks which have a to-hit roll and only inflict a status condition (or those which inflict a very low amount of damage for the CR) should not permit a saving throw. Attacks which inflict normal damage and a status condition should offer a saving throw for the status condition.

Similarly, if the special ability is an attack that requires only a move action or a swift action to perform (instead of a standard action), it should either be weaker than a normal attack, or offer a saving throw in addition to the to-hit roll (save for half is a good option). Conversely, special abilities that require a full-round action or a full-attack action should generally be stronger than normal attacks.

Finally, realize that monsters don't actually need very many special abilities, even for complex uniques like Orcus. Your monsters probably won't live more than about three rounds. Listing every spell your demi-lich memorized this morning is pointless. Just pick a few really interesting special abilities to make the fight memorable. You cut down your prep time, and you won't have to stare at the monster stat block for 10 minutes each round trying to figure out what it should do next. 'Interesting but simple' should be the mantra here.

Touch Attacks

Sometimes a monster will have an attack which targets the touch AC of its opponent, rather than that creature's standard AC. Often times, these attacks are not as powerful, or are debuff attacks rather than damage attacks. Other times, the monster will have some means of ignoring the physical armor of its target, perhaps because it is incorporeal or is delivering a spell effect via touch.

To calculate the attack bonus for a Monster's touch attacks, simply reduce their normal attack bonus by 4.

Applying a Pattern or Role

The rules for applying a pattern or role to a monster are detailed on the Monster Patterns and Roles page.