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The Planeswalker Journal

Tips to DMing Large Parties, Part 2

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Building Combat Encounters
Seasoned GMs know well enough that listed Challenge Ratings for monsters tend to be a very vague indication of just how "challenging" a particular trap/encounter will actually be for a party. This breaks down even moreso with large parties. Quite often what might be appropriate for a 4-person party will be only slightly easier for a 5-person party, but a complete cake walk for a 6-person party. On the flip side of that coin, a 6-person party can often manage encounters well above their APL (average party level) and feel adequately challenged and drained of resources afterwards. Every single combat encounter will require a little more planning on your part as a GM to keep players engaged and challenged.

In both cases, this is due to the increase in the sheer number of actions the party gets every round. If you want to look at it mathematically, we can assume that each character has three basic actions every round (standard, move, swift). In a standard four-man party this equates to 12 actions every round. Naturally this jumps up to 15 and 18 actions with a five-man or six-man party, respectively. That is an increase of 33% and 50%!! To account for this increased effectiveness from the PCs, you either need to hamper their ability to use all those actions, or make the encounter able to soak up some of those actions without losing effectiveness.

Hampering the PCs tends to work better on higher level characters because it both matches the kinds of creatures the players will expect to encounter as well keeps combat moving at a good clip when it can really bog down due to mid- to high-level spells, features, and feats. Hampering either removes one or more PCs from combat, or limits their ability to be effective. Examples range from spells like resilient sphere and black tentacles, to effects like being turned to stone or stunned, to environmental concepts like bottlenecks and small dungeon rooms. The key in all of these is to make them seem natural and part of the story, not just an arbitrary means of limiting the party. So for example, resilient sphere makes great flavor when it's used by members of the local guard to immobilize a suspect while reinforcements arrive. Similarly, an old, ruined tower is more likely to have small rooms that only 2-3 PCs can adequately maneuver in--forcing other party members to try and avoid hurting their allies with ranged combat or sit out entirely (or maybe even split the party to search multiple rooms!) Keep these methods fresh and fun, and remember that they don't even have to be permanent or last the entire encounter. Stunning the party tank for even a single round can change the entire dynamic when bruisers can rush past him and bring the hurt to the softer members of the party without having to worry about attacks of opportunity.

Soak takes on many forms with large parties, but generally involves larger than typical CR encounters--either through sheer number of enemies or through stronger individuals. Increasing the total number of targets tends to work better at lower levels. With a party of 2nd-level characters, adding in more orc marauders is fine. It will add tension and excitement where otherwise it's just another combat and they will quickly eat through them all. On the other hand, simply adding more creatures to an encounter for a 7th-level party might not change anything because by that point the party has a number of crowd-control options at their disposal. As the APL increases, you will generally find yourself maybe adding one or two creatures to the encounter, but using additional hit dice, class levels, equipment, or other means to make the individual creatures more resilient to the pain the party will surely bring. As a technique, soaking is the one that you will be using more often, but it also the harder one to be definitive on. You will have to use your GM Sense to intuit and predict when you've made your creatures strong enough to challenge without being so strong that the party doesn't stand a chance--remember that as a larger than usual party they have MORE actions, not necessarily STRONGER actions.

You will notice that I tried not to use any definitive answers in this post. That is because every party is different, and when you get larger parties that is especially so. Some large parties will have two tanks, or two full-class arcane casters, or three healing-capable characters--all of these are going to factor into how you will need to structure your encounters. This isn't a science, it is really an art. Always plan on your players to throw a wrench into your best laid plans, and when it's done with style be sure to reward them--just make sure you learn from the experience as well!