System-Agnostic Encounter Design

The Last Tavern content is system agnostic – meaning we try hard to make the encounters, dungeons, traps and skill checks fit any and all roleplaying systems. Trying to make an encounter that holds up well in Pathfinder, D&D 5th Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 3.5, White Wolf, Chaosium, and any other d20, d100, d10 or d6 system in existence is basically impossible. However, by approaching the challenge rating of encounters and die rolls as an abstract, we’re able to put a system together that not only is workable in any and all systems, but also broadly applicable to PC level.

Nearly every system has some sort of method for describing, in a single statement, how difficult a monster is. In D&D, this is usually Challenge Rating, or CR. However, the different versions of D&D have different meanings for CR. A CR8 encounter in 3.5 is vastly different from a CR8 encounter in 5th edition. Not only that, but the general difficulty of skill checks varies greatly. A hard pathfinder skill check at level 10 could be CR30, which is ludicrously impossible for a level 10 5e character.

And so using a CR system wouldn’t work. Not only would it create confusion over Last Tavern CRs vs. whatever system CR, it also doesn’t scale with level. Last Tavern content comes with a suggested level, but nearly all of it can be adjusted to fit any PC group.

Rather than CRs, we’ve gone with an even more fundamental approach. The challenges laid out in the content come with a descriptor: Easy, Medium, Hard, or Deadly.

Generally speaking, these descriptors guide combat encounters by telling what percentage of player resources should be expended to overcome the enemies. For skill challenges, they scale from impossible to fail to nigh impossible to succeed.

Easy encounters shouldn’t really use any expendable resources. Basic attack actions and cantrip spells should be all that’s necessary to prevail. Any damage taken by the PCs should be minor and not worth the resources to heal. Skill challenges should be nearly automatic, failing only on the very worst rolls, or not at all.

Medium encounters should consume a moderate amount of resources. A fully rested party should be able to complete 4 or 5 medium encounters before needing to stop for the day. A medium difficulty skill check should succeed 75 percent of the time, or 50 percent if the PC has no skill in the challenge.

Hard encounters should be a challenge, but not life-threatening to a fully rested and prepared party. 30 to 50 percent of resources should be consumed. A fully rested party should be able to complete two hard encounters before needing to rest. A hard skill challenge should fail half of the time for a PC skilled in the action, and be extremely difficult for a PC unskilled.

Deadly encounters are just that – deadly. Usually reserved for boss fights, a deadly encounter means that roughly 70 to 80 percent of resources should be consumed in the fight and it’s likely a player will die or be knocked unconscious during the course of the fight. Poor choices could lead to a party wipe. Skill challenges aren’t usually life-threatening, so we refer to deadly skill challenges as “Very Hard”. A very hard skill challenge should be impossible for someone not skilled in the action, and require a high roll from someone who is skilled, like 16-20 in a d20 system.

When stringing multiple encounters together, we try and make a day’s worth of fighting be doable. For example, 2 medium fights and a hard fight would be the limit of what a party could accomplish before needing to rest for the night. Some other possible combinations might be: 2 easy fights, 1 medium, and 1 hard. 1 medium and 1 deadly. 2 hard fights, etc.

The Last Tavern encounters use descriptions like “a medium goblin encounter”. This would mean that the DM would use whatever rules he was using to cook up an encounter of goblins that would constitute a medium challenge for the group of PCs. Because this is different from system to system, we don’t even try to provide stat blocks.

On occasion, Last Tavern encounters will use a custom monster (generally for story-telling purposes) and these monsters will have a monster-equivalency description. For these, just transpose the appropriate monster stat block and use the provided description instead. For example, in the Automata Workshop, the PCs fight against various sized mechanical automata. The small automata use kobold stat blocks, so as the DM, you would transpose the physical and mental stats, combat bonuses and die sizes, etc., but would ignore racial abilities. For example, in 5e, kobolds have a sensitivity to sunlight which would not transfer to the automata.

To finish the analogy, a medium encounter of small automata against a party of four level 1 adventurers, would be 4 automata (in 5th edition). If the players were level 2, it’d be 6 or 7 automata.

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