I talk a lot about “building an encounter”. Typically, this is about everything else that goes into creating an interesting encounter and not about what creatures to use for a combat encounter. Frankly speaking, that’s because all of those other parts and aspects of an encounter are more difficult to come up with and execute.
It’s difficult to judge game mechanics such as the action economy or how providing cover in the form of terrain can spice up an encounter. Yet both of those are important points to think about when designing a dynamic combat encounter.
However, the creatures you select have arguably the largest impact on the challenge and engagement a combat encounter gives your party. They’re also the easiest part of a combat counter to mathematically balance for the party’s abilities. After all, it’s not difficult to use an online CR calculator!
Although, we must remember that balance isn’t everything when it comes to designing an encounter or an entire campaign. Knowing that a medium encounter for your party is 4-5 creatures of CR 4 is a great start, but there are a plethora of creatures that fit that bill!
So, how do we go through that laundry-list of potential candidates and select the best one(s) for the job? Well, I like to filter out creatures further and use some of my criteria and requirements to narrow down the list. Let’s focus on my process for this today!
Use an Encounter Builder
I know that D&D Beyond has released its encounter builder, but I’ve still stuck to using Kobold Fight Club. If neither of those scratches that itch for you, trust me, there are plenty of others out there.
Regardless, encounter builders are useful for two main reasons. The first is that they quickly help you generate balanced encounters by aiding you in selecting (or randomly generating) creatures that are appropriate for the party to face based on how challenging you’d like the fight to be.
The second is that most of these encounter builders will also allow you to search or filter creatures based on different categories. For example, with Kobold Fight Club you can select filters for creatures that are only elementals or creatures that only come from a few select books.
This is super useful for selecting creatures that will fit within the theme of the adventure or dungeon that you are designing. Sometimes specific dungeons require specific types of creatures. It’s a hassle to sort these creatures out manually.
These filters save you a ton of time creating a shortlist of creatures that fit the criteria that you are looking for to build a specific encounter. But what should those criteria be? Let’s talk about that next!
Criteria for Selecting a Creature
I’ve identified four of the primary criteria I use for selecting creatures for my encounters. There are, of course, plenty of other criteria you can use to determine which creatures fit in with your design or theme, but mine focuses on two primary categories.
The first category is flavor which encompasses what the creature is like, how they act and how they appear. This can also bleed into how they change the overall “feel” of an encounter.
The second category is mechanics which is a much less subjective way of judging a creature. These creatures have mechanics that fit my intentions with a combat encounter and they’re likely to challenge, or at least withstand the party’s composition and combat tactics.
The encounters you create should present some form of challenge to the party. There are many, many ways that you can make an encounter more challenging such as manipulating line of sight or using elevation, but the most obvious is to simply use challenging creatures.
The easiest way to determine if a creature or group of creatures will present a challenge is to go by their CR. This is not a perfect system, mind you, but the only one we’ve got. At the very least, it will clue you in as to how powerful a creature is in comparison to other creatures on your shortlist for this encounter.
As you play more with the party, you’ll grow accustomed to what their capabilities are. Some people are great at D&D 5e’s combat and will, therefore, be able to deal with threats above their respective CR, others, not so much. Every group is different, so get to know yours!
Due to the nature of 5e, we have to keep the action economy in mind as well. The “most balanced” encounters will generally have a similar ratio of creatures to party members. So yes, while that single high-CR creature is mathematically a challenge for the party, in practice it would be better to use multiple lower-CR creatures.
My goal whenever I’m building a dungeon is to have most of the fights present a challenge to the party. This doesn’t mean that every combat is a life-or-death scenario, but it does mean that the party will have to expend resources, take risks, or suffer some damage to win the fight.
I don’t create encounters that are cakewalks… intentionally at least.
A Unique Situation
Sometimes I’ll stumble upon a truly unique creature; one that’s full of unorthodox mechanics and traits that will create a unique encounter for my party to navigate through. Oftentimes these are homebrew creatures others have made.
Other times I’ll have an idea of what type of encounter I’d like to run, sans the creatures to use to create the encounter. If that’s the case, it’s dependent upon me to either find a creature that can make this encounter happen or homebrew my own that will do so.
This is certainly a “chicken or the egg” type of scenario where the answer teeter-totters between the two regularly. However, in regards to this article more often than not if you have a scenario that needs a specific creature you’ll have to do a bit of manual digging around to find it.
Resources such as encounter builders can certainly help you find a list of potential creatures to fit the bill, but I find that more often than not skimming through the Monster Manual or another book does the trick. It’s also 2019 so asking around on social media could also help you find that perfect creature!
Keep in mind though that not every combat encounter has to be a jungle gym of unique mechanics and creatures. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a healthy dose of mechanically-simple fights. After all, unique and complex does not mean that the encounter is guaranteed to be fun and engaging!
You know me, I’m a huge mechanics person. I love using creatures with engaging mechanics and creatures with statblocks that challenge the party. However, all of that comes second to finding a creature that meets the theme or flavor that I’m going for when creating an encounter.
Combat should aid in whatever story or narrative your adventure is conveying. The creatures you choose to go head-to-head against the party should fit within the theme of the adventure, or at least be close enough to it that it makes sense for them to be there.
Creatures that have been chosen to fit within the theme or flavor of your adventure will help convey the setting to the players. It makes your job as a narrator easier if you can utilize everything in the dungeon to convey the theme rather than just relying on your narrations.
This is true even for random encounter tables. For example, the creatures I select for a random encounter in a forest will certainly differ from those I select for random encounters in the Underdark.
Theme and flavor matter first and foremost in my opinion!
Showcasing or Exploiting the Party’s Abilities
Let’s face it, every D&D party is different. Some creatures will get obliterated by say a composition with a lot of ranged attackers, but they will present a tough challenge for a party with a ton of melee combatants. Knowing the party’s strengths and weaknesses will help you design encounters that showcase or exploit these.
Here are a couple of classic weaknesses you may find in a D&D party:
- Does your party lack any sort of healing? AoE damage will quickly add up and deplete their resources.
- Is the party’s frontline nonexistent? Fast enemies will easily make their way to the casters and squishy ranged attackers.
- Mobs of creatures are difficult to take out for a party without a couple (or any) spellcasters!
For the record, exploiting a party’s weaknesses is not the same as challenging them. While this will certainly challenge them, it does so by hammering away at their flaws and weak points which from personal experience gets old rather quickly.
Don’t shy away from designing encounters that force the party to struggle in this manner, but make every combat an encounter that makes the party feel powerless. Strike a healthy balance!
Also, be sure to make encounters that can showcase a party member’s strengths! Let them show off their new spells, features, etc. to their party members and make them feel like a badass. Most of the time I find that this happens naturally, but it never hurts to intentionally plan the odd encounter with this in mind.
Picking what creatures will best suit your dungeon, combat encounter, etc. is one of my favorite parts about designing my D&D campaigns. It’s also one of the most time-consuming facets of doing so, though with time it does become quicker and easier.
It’s important to use creatures that can challenge the party or make for a mechanically-fun fight. However, I believe that ensure that the creature’s flavor matches the theme of the dungeon or adventure you’ve built is much more important. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to reflavor or reskin a creature with great mechanics to fit the theme you’re going for.
Selecting the best tools for the job is common in any hobby. It should come as no surprise that the same can be said for D&D. Make sure you know what you’re doing when it comes to important combats that will benefit from having the “right” creatures engage the party in combat.