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[Realms of Pugmire] Encounter Building Guidelines

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  • [Realms of Pugmire] Encounter Building Guidelines

    Greetings all,

    Here's a thing I've been working, and just wrapped up: expanded guidelines for assembling encounters and estimating difficulty.
    We're told in the core rules that "a single character with the same level as an enemy's challenge rating will have a moderately difficult time defeating that enemy" (pug 178), but we aren't given any guidelines beyond that. The Guide kind of goes with their gut, experiments a little, and gets a feel for what to expect as they become more experienced - and should be ready to fudge things if it looks like it's going to be harder than they thought. Which is skill all Guides need to pick up anyway, and Pugmire is a forgiving enough system for this to all work out, but it can take a while to develop that intuition of what to expect from a system. So I wanted to expand off of that, and develop a more robust system which is still easy to use, intuitive to understand, and matches the style of Pugmire.

    Here you go:

    (huh, I can see the image when I'm logged in, but not when I'm logged out. So I put a link up as well, in case I'm the only one that can see it...)

    This system (a "Slots System") was adapted from the Angry GM's hacks for CR. It works pretty simply: every PC in an encounter adds 1 "monster slot" to build the encounter's opposition. Every monster has a certain cost (in slots) to use in that fight, based on how their CR compares to the player characters. So, as the core rules say, use 1 monster per PC if CR is equal to their level. But this provides guidelines for using higher or lower CR monsters as well. It also provides guidelines for how to build an easier or harder fight which still stays within the abilities of the party. The "Hard" and "Easy" values are not minimum thresholds - they're points to aim for, and somewhere in the middle of the range of easy or tough fights.
    Two quick notes:
    • Avoid using monsters which are more than 2 CR higher or lower than the party. Going lower requires an unmanageable amount of combatants to make it even an easy challenge; it /can/ be done, but you'd be better off using Minion rules. Monsters of higher CR (even 1 or 2 ratings higher, but definitely 3 or more) can be way too deadly, taking out a PC (or several) in a single action, and may have special abilities the party has no way to deal with. It's risky. You're better off using Legendary rules.
    • Also, keep in mind that if there's any factor which grants an advantage to one side but not the other (such as a successful ambush or particular terrain features), it moves the difficulty one step lower or higher.
    I should also say that these slots have a good deal of wiggle room. I know that the thirds and halves don't line up neatly - I intentionally decided to keep it that way. You don't have to fill all the available monster slots, and you can go over by a small amount without a problem. That's why the Min and Max numbers are there.

    I encourage people to play around with this, and welcome constructive feedback. I'd particularly like to know, if you end up using it, how well the encounter met the expectations of the system. I've been developing it for my chronicle, but it's not really playtested at this point, and some refinement is always in order.
    I hope it's useful,
    ~ Seraph

    Edit: When I checked over my tables, I noticed I fudged those lower level CR slots a little bit too low. So I've updated the numbers (and the picture/link) above.

    Still here? Cool, cuz I wanted to talk about my methodology.

    Where did all these numbers come from? In short, I took Pugmire's core guidelines (1 monster per PC of CR = level is a medium fight), I compared it against the D&D5E encounter building guidelines (DMG 81) and did a lot of math on spreadsheets.
    Here's the spreadsheet. Feel free to leave comments if I messed up somewhere. I tried to use formulas as much as I could to reduce that error, but had to eyeball it at one or two points.

    So, to break it down.
    The DMG gives us a nice chart of EXP thresholds to make encounters with. Every PC chips in a listed amount of experience points, based on their level, which then becomes the DM's budget for monsters. The awarded exp for each monster is summed, strung through a couple multipliers for number of monsters and players, and where that totals determines how challenging the encounter will be. It's a whole thing. [It also states the "quick notes" above: don't use monsters of way higher CR, even if it's in the budget, and bear in mind any factors that give one side an advantage.]

    How does this help us? Well, Pugmire tells us what a medium encounter is for a given number of players at a certain level. This chart does the same thing. So we can use it to calculate an EXP estimate for each Pugmire CR, which will tell us how they compare against each other.

    First assumption: the metrics of difficulty comparison are close enough between Pugmire and D&D that we can use this chart. This is actually a pretty risky assumption, and a significant failure point. I have not yet looked at comparing D&D PCs to Pugmire PCs, mechanically, so I don't know how bad the variance is. I do know that D&D has certain built in features and certain hidden expectations which aren't there in Pugrmire. For example, D&D PCs double their damage at 5th level (with multiattack and cantrip upgrades), and are expected to have some kind of way to detect invisible creatures.
    So, when I do get around to comparing PC capabilities, I will need to re-examine this chart. Anecdotally, it's worked out in my experience so far. And from the analysis of the DMG by other DMs across the internet, I have the impression these guidelines err on the side of being easier, and that there's a lot of wiggle room in this chart; it is no where near as accurate or precise as it appears to be. But it'll get you in the ballpark. And that's what I'm aiming for today: a good ballpark.

    Okay. So. I wrote down what a medium encounter for Pugmire was at every level, and used this chart to nail down EXP estimates. First, I used a party of 4 PCs: according to the DMG, the exp thresholds receive a multiplier if you have less than three or more than five PCs; so groups of 3, 4, and 5 get the baseline numbers at x1. I used the average of that group (4), as my baseline so that I didn't have to worry about the multiplier.
    Because Pugmire says there should be 1 monster per PC, that means we're working with 4 monsters in this encounter. According to the DMG, that doubles their EXP cost - which, effectively, is the same as halving our EXP budget. So I summed up the EXP amount for 4 players, divided by 2 to account for out multiple foes. And then I averaged the Medium and Hard thresholds, and split it between 4 monsters - this gives us an exp number for Pugmire monsters at each CR rating.... except 0. We're going to put CR0 in at the end.

    Note: I averaged the Medium and Hard thresholds because, according to the guidelines for how to use this chart, the listed numbers are the minimum exp amount to be that level of difficulty (the maximum being the next threshold up. "The closest threshold that is lower than the adjusted XP value of the monsters determines the encounter's difficulty." So I used the middle of the XP range rather than the lowest value.

    Now, we could stop here. I gave Pugmire monsters an EXP value - whoo! Now you can just use that chart in the DMG to design your encounters, no problem. (And, if you want to use Pugmire creatures in a D&D game, that could be how you do it). But the chart is a bit hard to use, it's a lot of steps and math, it doesn't really fit the style of Pugmire, and besides it requires the Guide to own another book from a whole different system! No thanks.
    Instead, we're going to keep playing with these numbers to come up with difficulty ratios between the CR's, and we're going to decouple it from specific ratings, so that we don't need a lengthy chart to reference.

    Once I had my exp values, I could do 2 important things. First, I could build encounters with different numbers of monsters compared to PCs and determine their difficulty, and I could compare higher and lower CR monsters to the difficulty thresholds!
    Since I'd be working with various numbers of monsters - which changes the exp multiplier, I decided to flush the thresholds chart, so that I could easily reference my varying exp range based on the number of monsters. Sum up the exp threshold for 4 PCs, divide out the multiple foes multiplier at each tier, and you get new targets. This lets you simply add the monsters' EXP and reference the chart, rather than deal with multipliers at the end.
    And then, I added a new column: a "maximum" exp amount, beyond which the encounter would be too deadly to pit the PCs against. The DMG doesn't have a suggested maximum; once a fight becomes "deadly" adding more just makes it more so - although they do state youcan give deadly fights to a group, if you want to challenge them or they're an especially adept group, or if you're going to include a battlefield advantage that reduces it to "hard". Or whatever reason; there's lots of good reasons to do it is my point. Technically, an elder dragon is "just" a Deadly encounter for 1st level PCs, same as 2 Animated. And having the party successfully ambush the dragon also... drops it... to hard? No. Now, they do say not to do that in other places, but we need a place on the chart which says "seriously, you're not prepared". I set that threshold at two times the value for "Hard", since deadly is set at two times the value of "Medium".

    Okay, now, I calculated the exp total for any number of monsters of the same CR, and I plotted it into a difficulty chart as compared to every level. To be thorough. It tells us how many CR8s it takes to hit the "too deadly" threshold for a level 2 party, and how many CR1s it takes to challenge a level 10 party. (But seriously, don't do that; it's only for reasons of comparison, not to actually ever use.)
    For a lot of these, it ended up with a range of values, like "7, 8, or 9 monsters all fall within the bounds for a Hard encounter; it takes 10 to make it deadly". In those cases, I averaged the numbers. If you click each cell to check the formula, you'll see the lowest and highest numbers to meet that difficulty band. Averaging them let me keep everything in one cell, which let me keep referencing them for formulas, and gives a better expectation for what that range looks like than just using the lowest number.
    The exceptions are "Too Easy", which uses the highest number before it becomes a worthy challenge, and "Too Deadly" which is the lowest number that shouldn't be used. We want those estimates as close to the boundary as we can get them, so as not to exceed them.
    Doing this, I started to see a pattern. It was easier to notice when I did my first draft on paper, but it's pretty visible in the spread sheet too. Like how medium fights when the CR is one higher than level tend to have 3 monsters. Or when CR is one step lower than the players' level, the "too deadly" amount is often 11. ish. Next, we're going to pin down that pattern.

    With all of this charted, I added a new descriptor to each CR rating which compared it against the players' level. So, instead of having "level 2 vs CR3" it became "level 2 vs CR +1". This let me average all of the monsters numbers at "CR +1" for each level. So instead of 10 charts, with each level compared against each CR, we get one chart that shows us the average number of monsters to use when you're sliding the CR up or down compared to the player's level. This quantifies the pattern we were starting to see.

    What we care about, what we're trying to find with this pattern and all the averages, is what our expectations are using a different CR compared to our known baseline (CR = level). So we divide our baseline by the higher and lower tiers to get a ratio which tells us "X amount of 2 CR lower is equivalent to Y amount of our baseline". It basically gives us a percentage. For example, our numbers per CR variance chart told us that if you're using monsters 2 CR lower than the party level, you need 7 monsters against 4 PCs to make it a moderate challenge; our proportion chart tells us that monsters 2 CR lower than the party level are worth 56.7% than a monster equal to the party level, if it's a medium encounter. Average together all of those variance tiers across difficulty, and voila - we have a good ballpark to say "in any fight, a monster 1 CR lower than the party is roughly worth 4/5 a monster of equal CR".
    And that is the basis for our slot system.

    As for how many slots to use for a given difficulty? We get that from our baseline numbers. Predictably, the baseline of CR = level has the most clear pattern to it, because that's where our exp numbers came from to start with, and because the difficulty ranges used thresholds that we are clear multiples. It means that, at level, using 8 monsters of CR=level against 4 PCs became too deadly. 8:4 is our "maximum" ratio. So, any encounters that uses more than 2 monster slots per PC is going to be too deadly. Using similar ratios from the other ranges, we can say "x monster slots per PC is y difficulty" and we can then fill those slots with monsters of any CR.


    Then I fudged the numbers around to make them easier to use. And cropped the chart to only CR of +/-2 - because you should really, really keep it to that range. And you should be paying close attention when using higher CRs at all. Friends, I one-shot my party's tank with a monster 1 CR higher. I removed it's multiattack ability for the rest of the fight to make it survivable. Seriously, be careful with that.
    I probably ought to fudge the difficulty bands as well; align them to the thirds which the monsters use. (And, then you could say that "1 1/3 is hard, and 1 2/3 is deadly", rather than squish hard and deadly together as I did.) I kind of like having them misaligned, though. On the one hand, this chart is meant to have wiggle room, so using up 2/3 slots when you only have 1/2 left should not be a big deal; our max and min values set the only firm boundaries we really need. Plus it might incentivize building encounters a little less dangerous than you're aiming for, which as I've said elsewhere, I prefer to err in the players' benefit. And 1/2 is actually the hard boundary for Too Easy; using 1/3 slots per PC will be a cakewalk, so I don't want to fudge that boundary any lower. Halves are also really super easy fractions to add up, so you can almost instantly see the adjustment you need if a player suddenly can't make session, or something like that.

    But if your mileage varies, I support that. In fact, here's the difficulty values adjusted to thirds just like the monsters:
    Easy = 2/3 Medium = 1 Hard = 1 1/3 Deadly = 1 2/3
    I do strongly recommend keeping the minimum at 1/2 and the max at 2, however.

    Have fun!

    I already have a variant you can use.
    For those rare cases where the party is not all the same level, or if you have NPCs allies that aren't the same level as the PC, you can use the monster slots to estimate how to adjust the difficulty. So, just like a monster 1 CR lower than the party's level spends 2/3 of a slot, an NPC one level lower than the party adds 2/3 of a slot to your budget. If your PCs are of different levels, then consider the average (rounded) or the mode to be the "party's level". So, if one of your players gets an advancement early for finishing a personal quest, or if a player is lagging behind because they're only showing up to half the sessions [I'm not saying I do that, nor am I recommending you should; I don't know why someone would end up a different level, but in case it happens!] than use the majority of PC's level. Three level 3s + a level 4, means the party is third level for the purpose of all comparisons, but they have a medium encounter budget of 4 1/3 monster slots.
    A neat hack for including henchmen or mentors in a story.
    I'm not definitely not currently designing an Adventure where someone's mentor shows up. Definitely not.

    Okay, one last thing to talk about: the weaknesses of this system and potential failure points. I guess I'll start the critiques off by blowing holes in my own hack to show I'm a responsible hack designer.
    As I mentioned above, it is very likely the advancement tracks for PCs are very, very different between D&D5E and Realms Pugmire. And it's even possible that Monarchies of Mau has a different PC advancement track (that might explain why some of the numbers are different on the "build your own monster chart", for instance). So it's entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the metrics for how difficulty changes across level aren't actually useful for Realms of Pugmire, in which case my exp values for Pugmire monsters, my number of combatants per difficulty, and yea, the slot proportions I assigned don't line up to how Pugmire advances. I already know that D&D PCs have significant jumps in ability at levels 3, 5, 9, 14, and 16 - or something like that - and that the monsters likewise have jumps to keep pace.
    I am hoping that because my calculations are designed to find the relations between Pugmire monsters, not between Pugmire and D&D, that this issue gets side-stepped. But there's a possibility that the jumps in exp threshold on that chart in the DMG are factoring in assumptions about player advancement, which could be absent from Pugmure, meaning that the number of creatures per difficulty wouldn't match up to player abilities very well. It's a significant flaw, and could be a major failure point. It's one I will have to circle around and address after doing a close examination of how character advancement differs in the two systems.
    I did notice some shifting patterns in the number of combatants as levels advanced. For instance, levels 8, 9, and 10 had pretty consistent patterns in most of their cells, which were pretty different from the patterns I was noticing at levels 1, 2, and 3. And there was some weird jumps that happened at CR 5 & 6.

    Averaging the levels with each other may have smoothed out some of these variance, or it may have hidden them. I used averaging a lot throughout this process, and it can be a risky tool to use. It's valuable, certainly, but doesn't always give the best picture. And it can be hard to tell when it's being useful or when it's quietly sabotaging you behind the numbers. That's why I couldn't take simple averages when converting D&D monster health to Pugmire.
    I think it gave us useful numbers this time, particularly for the range of +/-2 which is really the numbers we care about using.

    Finally, the popular opinion among DMs that have really borrowed into D&D5E is that the CR and encounter XP charts are way less precise than they appear to be. The developers didn't exactly spell out their process or make all their decisions clear, and there's inconsistencies between, for instance, the DMG and the Monster Manual. The general consensus is that the Encounter Building chart in the DMG is a useful enough ballpark, but it's not very precise and shouldn't be treated as such; DMs should always be wary for things not going the way they expect, feel free to ignore the guidelines once they have a feel for the mechanics on their own, and should tailor things more specifically to their players' abilities and skill. So the chart we're basing this off is pretty fuzzy. People also say that it errs to the side of easier fights, probably so as to avoid trampling newer players accidentally.
    I think that actually works in our favor for this hack, though, as that might help smooth out the variance in player advancement between the two systems. And if we acknowledge that our guidelines are fuzzy to start with and we're going to fudge our final numbers on the side of usability rather than alleged precision, then we make it clear that there's abundant wiggle room. Which is a good thing to have. We're trying to get helpful ballparks to build encounters with and help us estimate what to expect from them. There's already going to be so much variation in what happens at the table - from dice alone, never mind differing group composition and build choices and tactics. So there needs to be enough wiggle room in our expectations; we need to know how to get the right ball park, not the right plate.
    Plus, Pugmire's meant to be a bit fuzzier, and a lot more presentable and intuitive to use. So I think I'm okay with the margin of error.

    I think this gets us in the right ballpark.
    Last edited by Seraph Kitty; 12-16-2019, 02:40 PM.

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