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Designing Encounters

Whether the party spends the night cavorting in the tavern, forging ahead through a furious storm, or subduing a camp of bandits they are having encounters. Each game session should be a mixture of three basic kinds of roleplaying that represent the pillars of Level Up: exploration encounters, social encounters, and of course combat encounters. 


Challenge Rating

The difficulty of a fight against a monster, besting an exploration challenge, or overcoming an encounter element in either is measured by challenge rating, or CR. A challenge rating helps guide the Narrator in choosing appropriate challenges for a group of adventurers and denotes the amount of experience points to be rewarded afterward.

 
Challenge Rating Experience Points
0 0 or 10
1/8 25
1/4 50
1/2 100
1 200
2 450
3 700
4 1,100
5 1,800
6 2,300
7 2,900
8 3,900
9 5,000
10 5,900
11 7,200
12 8,400
13 10,000
14 11.500
15 13,000
16 15,000
17 18,000
18 20,000
19 22,000
20 25,000
21 33,000
22 41,000
23 50,000
24 62,000
25 75,000
26 90,000
27 105,000
28 120,000
29 135,000
30 155,000

Exploration Encounters

Exploration entails traveling from one location to another and overcoming whatever challenges the world throws at the adventurers. These are primarily encapsulated by Exploration Challenges (detailed in Chapter 5: Exploration) and includes dozens of different scenarios which provide exciting and engaging obstacles provided by nature or circumstance.

Dungeons. What constitutes a dungeon can vary widely—adventurers may be trekking through catacombs and crypts, navigating a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels, or making their way through the body of a creature as big as a kingdom—but so long as there’s a floor beneath their feet, walls around them, and a ceiling overhead with danger lurking around each corner they’re exploring. 

Planar Travel. When a campaign gets the party beyond the realms material and into other dimensions they’ll encounter unfamiliar flora and fauna, denizens they may not even recognize as sentient beings, and wonders they’ll never forget. These journeys can be especially perilous and the powerful magic usually required for them will take adventurers far from their homes, but inspire tales that are retold for centuries.

Urban. Whether wandering through a village, making their way across the bustling streets of a metropolis, or sneaking in the sewers beneath a city there’s plenty of exploration for adventurers to engage in wherever civilization clusters. Settlements are also the primary places where social encounters occur, but can offer a number of challenges and obstacles that require more to be done than what a bit of sly talk can accomplish.

Wilderness. Most exploration roleplay happens between other types of encounters as the party makes their way through the world, whether by air, land, or sea. The weather and other obstacles that nature puts in the way of the adventurers depends on the regions they are journeying through, and some places can prove to be just as lethal as any dragon or fiend.

Combining Combat Encounters and Exploration Challenges

When battle breaks out in the middle of an exploration challenge as long as one complicates the other, to calculate the encounter CR add the challenge rating of each together just like multiple monsters. For example, if goblins attack the party while they’re crossing a rope bridge the encounter is complicated and increases the encounter CR, but if they can do the fight before dealing with the rope bridge each is treated as a separate encounter. Likewise, a party dealing with counterfeit goods that they’re using as armor or weapons has complicated combat encounters, but not if the counterfeit goods are jewelry or other items that have no impact on a battle. 


Social Encounters

The most roleplay-intensive part of campaigns occurs between journeys and initiative checks in the halls of royalty, courts of import, amid the market, and in the streets of settlements. Whenever the adventurers are interacting nonviolently with NPCs (or maybe sometimes just a little bit violently) they are having some kind of social encounter. There are more kinds of social encounters than any other type of encounter, but they all generally serve a few different purposes.

Coerce. A fundamental reason for the party to interact socially with NPCs is because they want something—maybe it’s help with a monster, or some information, or permission into protected territory, or one of a thousand other reasons. The primary means of coercing others will be their actual roleplaying (what the adventurers say and do), and at the GM’s discretion the use of social skills like Deception, Intimidation, and Persuasion. This isn’t to suggest that other skills (like Arcana, Culture, History and so on) don’t have a role here, but unless it’s a specific situation (such as distracting a fellow mage, an aristocrat, or an historian) they are not the primary means of achieving what the party is after.

Develop. One of the most rewarding things about roleplaying is defining and learning who the characters in the game are! Every social encounter is an opportunity for players to make it clear who their adventurer is, what they're about, and to discover how they are changed by the world around them and the conflicts they’ve endured. When returning from a year on the road where they’ve slayed a dragon and saved a kingdom, how do the adventurers view their quaint hometown? What are the reactions of their friends and family? These interactions are vital in making a group feel like they have a stake in what’s going on in the campaign, and can provide narrative resources that might become powerful motivators for other important factors in the game.

Entertain. Of course sometimes a night in the tavern is just a night in the tavern and there’s nothing wrong with having fun. Social encounters don’t always have to have hidden motives or intended goals, and giving players the opportunity to simply exist in the campaign gives the experience a certain sense of realism. There are other stories being woven around them, not every conflict bears an imminent threat, and even for adventurers there can be pleasant lulls between lethal battles and deadly dungeon delves. This can also be a handy thing for the Narrator to keep in mind—when the material they’ve prepared has run its course and there’s still an hour of gaming left to do, a social encounter with no aim but to entertain is a good way to finish out a session without having to rely on too much improvisation.

Inform. Probably the most likely reason for social encounters is to provide information to the players. This information could be elements of a campaign’s story, or an investigation with clues and leads, or surprising revelations in the royal court, or a great many other things. The important thing is that the social encounter conveys the information to the party (a royal proclamation for example) or gives them access to it (finding a secretive note on their tavern seat left there by an unknown person).

Occlude. Just as there are times when the adventurers are trying to convince someone to do something, there are occasions where adventurers will need to act so that someone does not do something by concealing important information (thus removing the impetus to act). Typically this is a matter of Deception but might also be a Stealth check or opposed Investigation check to hide a crucial report amongst easily disregarded forms, using calligrapher’s supplies to forge a document and Sleight of Hand to put it into an official’s satchel, or making a perfect replica of a noble’s prized statuette using mason’s tool’s and then Persuasion to convince them it’s the original.


Combat Encounters

There are two main ways to build a combat scene:

Challenge-Based Encounter. The Narrator may set out to prepare a fun, challenging combat encounter and chooses opponents accordingly. A set-piece battle in an important dungeon room or the climactic battle in a story arc are often built to challenge the adventurers.

Story-Based Encounter. Often the story and player actions determine the nature of a conflict. If adventurers antagonize the city watch they may have to fight guards, and if they anger an archmage they may be forced to battle the archmage. There’s no guarantee that a fight is winnable: the party must deal with the consequences of their choices. 

In either case, the Narrator will want to know whether a fight is likely to be trivial, unwinnable, or somewhere in between. In a challenge-based encounter, the Narrator wants to aim for a middle ground of difficulty. In a story-based encounter, the Narrator may want to signal to the adventurers when they’re about to bite off more than they can chew. It’s rarely fun when a crushing defeat or an easy victory is a surprise to everyone (including the Narrator).

To determine the likely challenge posed by a battle, compare its combat encounter difficulty and its maximum monster CR to the party’s capabilities.

For a short, easy-to-remember summary of these rules, judge a potential encounter by asking the following questions:

  • Is the total Challenge Rating of all the monsters close to half the total character level? If so, the combat encounter will be hard. If the total CR is lower than this, the battle will be easier; as the CR gets higher, the battle gets harder. If the total CR equals or exceeds the total character level, the combat may be impossible to win!
  • Are there any monsters with a CR 50% higher than the average character level? If so, the battle may be deadlier than anticipated.
  • Are the adventurers level 4 or lower? Keep battles on the easier side, especially against many foes! For low-level adventurers, a few unlucky die rolls can turn a possible battle into an impossible one.

Combat Encounter Difficulty

Combat encounter difficulty is evaluated by comparing the encounter CR (the total CR of all opponents) to the total character level. The ratio of these two numbers determines the challenge presented by the matchup. 

Allies. If the adventurers have monster or NPC allies, add their CR × 3 to the total character level. 

Elites. When calculating the encounter CR, double the CR of elite monsters.

Encounter challenge ratings are flexible and can allow for many different types of battles. For instance, a CR 10 encounter could consist of one CR 10 monster, two CR 5 monsters, one CR 5 leader with five CR 1 minions, and so on.

Here’s how adventurers stack up against monsters:

Easy Matchup

  • A battle in which the encounter CR approximately equals 1/6th the total character level.
  • A fight which isn't in doubt that drains little or no resources from the party.
  • An easy battle is an appropriate challenge for a Tier 1 party, which can probably handle three or four such encounters before needing a long rest. Higher-level parties can face many easy battles in a row.

Medium Matchup

  • A battle in which the encounter CR approximately equals 1/3rd the total character level.
  • A fight which isn't in doubt but may cost the adventurers a few spells or healing resources. 
  • Between long rests, the party can probably fight at most two such battles per tier (2 medium fights at 1st level, 8 medium fights at 17th level).

Hard Matchup

  • A battle in which the encounter CR approximately equals 1/2 the total character level.
  • A fight in which the adventurers must spend significant resources to triumph. Losing is possible but the odds are on the party's side.
  • Between long rests, the party can probably face 1 such battle per tier (1 hard fight at 1st level, 4 hard fights at 17th level). 
  • For a Tier 1 party, a hard battle can easily prove to be deadly.

Deadly Matchup

  • A battle in which the encounter CR approximately equals 2/3rd the total character level.
  • A fight in which winning and losing are both possible. The party must spend its best resources.
  • A well-rested party of at least 5th level can handle 1 such battle. 
  • Tier 1 parties should rarely if ever face deadly battles.

Impossible Matchup

  • A battle in which the encounter CR equals or exceeds total character level.
  • A fight which is almost certain to result in the adventurers losing.
  • A high level party of optimized adventurers might be able to routinely win some battles which are rated as impossible.

 

Low Level Adventurers and Low CR Monsters

Tier 0 adventurers are not extremely tough yet. They have very few hit points and spell slots, as well as limited access to area attacks. A low level party can be easily swamped by large numbers of low CR monsters.

When determining encounter CR for Tier 0 or Tier 1 adventurers, treat any monster with a CR below 1 as if its CR were one step higher. Thus a CR 0 monster is effectively a CR 1/8 monster when calculating encounter CR, a CR 1/2 monster is effectively a CR 1 monster, and so on. For example, a group of three 1st level adventurers (total character level 3) against two goblins (effective CR 1/2 each, encounter CR 1) is a medium challenge.

Actual Monster CR Effective CR
0 1/8
1/8 1/4
1/4 1/2
1/2 1

 

Party Optimization

The Combat Encounter Difficulty guidelines assume a party with a standard amount of magical treasure, a healthy but not overwhelming interest in tactics, and a balanced composition of classes that includes a spellcaster or two. 

If adventurers are more interested in story immersion and character than in combat, or they possess fewer magic items than usual, then they may prefer mostly easy matchups with a few medium ones thrown in. Similarly, some party compositions, like an all-rogue party, are best suited for easy combat challenges and difficult exploration and social encounters.

If a party is composed of highly experienced players looking for a combat challenge, and they’re playing optimized adventurers of 5th level or higher, the players may relish frequent hard and deadly matchups. They may even want to try their hands at impossible matchups. Similarly, battles can be made more difficult in a campaign rich with magical treasure.

Maximum Monster CR

An encounter’s maximum monster CR is the challenge rating of the single toughest opponent in the encounter.

Adventurers are rarely able to fight a satisfying battle against a monster with a CR that's much higher than a single adventurer’s level. Such a monster has a high chance of dropping an adventurer from full health to 0 hit points in a single hit, and its defenses and saving throw DCs may make it more deadly than expected. Even if a battle looks possible when comparing the total character level and encounter CR, it is an impossible matchup if the maximum monster CR is higher than 1.5 × the average character level.

For example, nine 6th level adventurers (total character level 54) have a total character level equalling three times the challenge rating of an adult green dragon (CR 18), suggesting a medium matchup. However a single blast of the dragon’s breath could potentially drop all 9 adventurers! Any number of 6th level adventurers will have a hard time with a monster of CR 10 or higher.

 

Character Level

1st 

2nd 

3rd 

4th 

5th 

6th 

7th 

8th 

9th 

10th 

11th 

12th 

13th 

14th 

15th 

16th 

17th 

18th 

19th 

20th 

Maximum Monster CR

1

3

4

6

7

9

10

12

13

15

16

18

19

21

22

24

25

27

28

30

Easy battle for 2 adventurers

1/4

1/2

1

1

2

2

2

3

3

3

4

4

4

4

5

5

5

6

6

6

Medium battle for 2 

1/2

1

2

3

3

4

5

5

6

7

7

8

9

9

10

11

11

12

13

13

Hard battle for 2 

3/4

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Deadly battle for 2

1

3

4

5

7

8

9

11

12

13

15

16

17

18

20

21

22

24

25

26

Easy battle for 3

1/2

1

1

2

2

3

3

4

4

5

5

6

6

7

7

8

8

9

9

10

Medium battle for 3

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

Hard battle for 3

1 1/2

3

5

6

8

9

11

12

14

15

17

18

20

21

23

24

26

27

29

30

Deadly battle for 3

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

24

26

28

30

32

34

36

38

40

Easy battle for 4

3/4

1

2

3

3

4

4

5

6

6

7

8

8

9

10

10

11

12

12

13

Medium battle for 4

3

4

5

7

8

9

11

12

13

15

16

17

18

20

21

22

24

25

26

Hard battle for 4

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

24

26

28

30

32

34

36

38

40

Deadly battle for 4

3

5

8

11

13

16

18

21

24

26

29

32

34

37

40

42

45

48

50

53

Easy battle for 5

1

2

2

3

4

5

6

6

7

8

9

10

10

11

12

13

14

14

15

16

Medium battle for 5

1 1/2

3

5

7

8

10

12

13

15

17

18

20

21

23

25

26

28

30

31

33

Hard battle for 5

5

8

10

13

15

18

20

23

25

28

30

33

35

38

40

43

45

48

50

Deadly battle for 5

3

7

10

13

17

20

23

26

30

33

36

40

43

46

50

53

56

59

63

66

Easy battle for 6+

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

Medium battle for 6+

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

22

24

26

28

30

32

34

36

38

40

Hard battle for 6+

3

6

9

12

15

18

21

24

27

30

33

36

39

42

45

48

51

54

57

60

Deadly battle for 6+

4

8

12

16

20

24

28

32

36

40

44

48

51

55

59

63

67

71

75

80

 

Example Combat Challenges

  • Two CR 1/2 worgs (encounter CR 2) are a hard matchup for four or five 1st level adventurers (because the Tier 1 rule rounds up each worg to CR 1). An ogre (also encounter CR 2) is an impossible matchup for this same party, since its CR is above their maximum monster CR.
  • A demilich (CR 18) is a medium battle for four 14th level adventurers. This same party will face deadly peril against the Skull of Medon, an elite CR 18 demilich.

Using Elite Monsters

An elite monster is a powerful opponent designed to provide a tough challenge to a large group of players. Often, an elite monster is a variant of another monster: a leader, champion, or even a named individual. For example, Belethias, Commander of the First is an elite pit fiend.

An elite monster has approximately twice the hit points and deals around 50% more damage than a normal monster of its CR—and it usually becomes more dangerous as the battle goes on.

An elite monster poses the same challenge as two non-elite monsters of its challenge rating. For example, the tarrasque (an elite CR 30 monster) is as dangerous as two normal CR 30 monsters. It should provide an epic fight for four or five well-optimized adventurers of 20th level, or a hard fight for six or seven 20th level adventurers.

When determining encounter CR, double the challenge rating of an elite monster (for instance, an encounter featuring the elite CR 30 tarrasque has an encounter CR of 60). However, elite monsters have attacks, defenses, and saving throw DCs that make them suitable opponents for lower level adventurers. When determining the maximum monster CR of an encounter, use its actual CR (thus, the maximum monster CR of a tarrasque encounter is 30, so it’s an appropriate encounter for 20th level adventurers).

Using Legendary Monsters

A legendary monster is designed to be an interesting combatant for multiple adventurers. With up to 3 legendary actions, and possibly extra bonus actions and reactions as well, it has the extra turns it needs to keep up with as many as three adventurers.

As with any other monster, a legendary monster is at its best when its CR is, at most, 1.5 × the average character level. A maximally tough legendary monster like this is a hard matchup for 3 adventurers, a medium matchup for 4 adventurers, and will probably be easy for 5 or more adventurers.

When designing a climactic, set-piece battle against a legendary monster, make sure to provide it some allies or minions if it’s facing 4 or more adventurers. 


The Adventuring Day

As a rule of thumb for how many battles a party can likely handle before it needs a long rest, use a daily budget of encounter points.

  • A party at Tier 0 (1st–2nd level) has 1 encounter point.
  • A party at Tier 1 (3rd–4th level) has 2 encounter points.
  • A party at Tier 2 (5th–10th level) has 4 encounter points.
  • A party at Tier 3 (11th–16th level) has 6 encounter points.
  • A party at Tier 4 (17th–20th level) has 8 encounter points

For each encounter point it possesses, a party can face one medium encounter before needing a rest. An easy battle costs half an encounter point. A hard battle costs 2 encounter points. A deadly battle costs 4 encounter points.

A low level party can face four easy battles or two medium battles before needing a long rest, and a single hard battle could drain them of resources. A high level party could expect to win through a deadly battle and still have resources to spare, though a second deadly battle might put them in a perilous situation.

This encounter budget is an estimate, and is superseded by the Narrator’s experience with a particular gaming group—some adventurers may not have the resources to meet these benchmarks, and some may blow past them. There’s no rule that says that a party needs to fight a certain number of encounters before bedtime, and the pacing of the adventuring day should be based on the desires of the players and the needs of the story.

Simplified XP

Encounter points can also be used as an alternative to standard experience points. Whenever a party fights a battle, each adventurer gains XP equal to the encounter point cost of a battle (for example no matter their level, a medium battle is always worth 1 XP.) For every 15 XP that an adventurer accumulates they gain a level.


Combat Encounter Types

One of the ways to keep combat fresh is to vary the types of battles that the players face. If a game session includes multiple combats their difficulty should be varied. A steady diet of hard encounters can be exhausting for adventurers so a few medium or easy battles should be included if the story allows for it. 

The composition of battles can vary too. Some class features and attacks (like a rogue’s Sneak Attack) are very effective against a single monster, while others (like a wizard’s fireball) shine against large groups. Varied encounter composition gives everyone a turn in the spotlight and, conversely, forces everyone to improvise when their go-to moves aren’t optimal. Here are some typical combat encounter compositions. 

Solo Fight. Sometimes the story dictates that the players battle a single enemy, such as a dragon. It’s possible to make this a challenging and satisfying battle, though the opponent is starting off at a disadvantage—no matter how much damage a normal monster dishes out, it’s limited by the number of turns it can take compared to a party of heroes. Legendary and especially elite monsters make the best solo opponents.

A legendary monster with a challenge rating equal to or 50% higher than average party level can provide a medium to hard battle against three or four adventurers. For a larger party, an elite monster of this challenge rating is required to provide the same challenge.

For example, an elite great wyrm green dragon (equivalent to two CR 24 monsters) could be a hard fight for five 19th level adventurers.

Boss and Minions. If circumstances require a big showdown with a single tough opponent, it often makes a lot of sense for this tough enemy to be accompanied by lesser monsters. An archmage or a powerful demon will never let itself be caught alone.

A tough monster with a CR equal to the average party level can keep two or three adventurers busy. For each additional adventurer, add monsters with a CR of 1/3 the adventurer’s level.

For example, a vampire (CR 11) with two vampire spawn (CR 4 each) would be a hard to medium fight for four or five 10th level adventurers.

Commander and Troops. This is similar to a boss and minions battle, but the troops (not the commander) make up the bulk of the challenge. The commander may provide boosts to its allies.

A monster with a CR of up to 1/2 the average party level can match one adventurer. Each additional adventurer can handle two monsters with a CR up to 1/4 their level each.

For example, a boggard sovereign (CR 3) and four boggard bravos (CR 1/2 each) are a medium encounter for three 6th level adventurers.

Team vs. Team. In this type of battle the numbers of adventurers and monsters are roughly equal. Depending on the desired level of difficulty, the CR of the opposition could be between 1/3 and 1/2 average party level.

For example, a 10th level party of three to five adventurers can handle four elementals (CR 5 each), although the fight would be dangerous for only a trio of adventurers.

Horde. Sometimes a party finds itself wading through an army of lowly mooks. This kind of battle will be very easy for adventurers with access to area attack spells like fireball. On the other hand, it might overwhelm a party of rogues or other adventurers that specialize in damaging a single enemy.

Depending on its composition, a party might be able to deal with a force up to five times its size as long as the total CR of all enemies isn’t higher than half the total character level (remember that for Tier 1 adventurers, fractional CRs are doubled!)

For example, four 5th level adventurers are in good stead to defeat 20 hobgoblins (CR ½ each). If the party has two spellcasters, it’s likely they wipe the floor with the hobgoblins. If the party has only melee combatants like rogues or fighters however, they might have a tough time or even be overwhelmed.


Combat Encounter Complications

There are many ways to vary combat encounters other than altering the number of combatants. Unique details of terrain, goals, and enemy strategies create story, add vividness, and unlock tactical options.

Alternate Goals. When an encounter isn’t a battle of attrition, the outcome is determined more by story and circumstance than by encounter guidelines and challenge rating. In a fight featuring a complex trap or other goal, the party is trying to perform some noncombat task while surviving an enemy onslaught.

For example, half of a party might be trying to protect the other half as they disarm a trap, or the party might be trying to survive long enough to convince their attackers that they come in peace. Two sides might be racing to reach the same objective—perhaps a magic jewel across the room, or an NPC on the other side of a city—while attacking and sabotaging each other. The party might be trying to steal something from their enemy, or guard an object from theft: a well-executed plan might avoid bloodshed altogether. Plenty of adventurers might desire a dragon’s treasure but have no stomach to fight the dragon itself!

Ranged Attackers. Ranged attackers, like archers and spellcasters, do best when they’re difficult to reach. Intelligent ranged attackers will arrange to fight behind a barrier, such as a wall or a melee bodyguard. If behind a wall or on a high ledge, bow-armed goblins can fight well above their weight class. The success of ranged opponents depends on party composition. Kobold slingers give melee fighters fits, but aren’t much good against bow-wielding rangers and spellcasting wizards. 

Shifting Alliances. Instead of two, a battle might be composed of three or more factions. The two weakest sides might form a temporary alliance in order to prevent the stronger side from reaching victory—but betrayal is likely. For example, the party and one of their old adversaries might band together to battle a demonic invasion, finishing their vendetta afterward.

Terrain and Hazards. Every conflict is set somewhere, and a vividly described location enhances a scene on a visceral and tactical level. A battlefield with high ground, obstacles, and difficult terrain allows both sides to seek advantage. Usable objects beg adventurers to interact with them. A boiling cauldron will inevitably be spilled, and a feasting table will probably be climbed on or tipped over.

Choke points like doors are tactically useful—so much so that they can come to dominate a battle, causing gridlock. When there’s a strategically important choke point like a door, it can be good to add an alternate route so that clever attackers can outflank defenders. As choke points go, bridges can be more fun than doors (creatures can be pushed off bridges).

Hazards like steep cliffs and lava pools can be treated like a combatant, boosting the encounter CR of the fight. See Encounter Elements for common combat hazards like frigid water, lava, and yellow mold.

Waves. When reinforcements appear halfway through a fight the overall combat is easier than if both groups had appeared together, but harder than two successive battles with a chance to rest in between. This technique can be used to calibrate the difficulty of a battle and to increase tension as the fight goes on. A second group might notice and respond to a conflict, or it might be scheduled to arrive as part of a regular patrol. Possibly an enemy rings an alarm bell or runs to call for reinforcements, and the second wave doesn’t arrive if the messenger is stopped.


Failure in a Combat Encounter

When preparing a combat encounter—especially a challenging one—it helps to consider what failure might look like. Not every battle is a fight to the death with no quarter given, and while failure may lead to consequences and further difficulties for the adventurers, it doesn’t need to be bad news for the players. They’re playing Level Up because they want to overcome difficulties. 

  The Narrator probably has an idea of what will occur if the adventurers are triumphant in a battle. But if the adventurers lose, what happens next? 

  • Do the adventurers escape but suffer a plot setback? What does that look like? If the party is pursuing an important item, it might mean that their enemies obtain it instead. A mission to retrieve it—perhaps a heist—could be a fun followup adventure. 
  • Does the plot change course? Perhaps a party’s ship is attacked by pirates. On a failure, the adventurers might find themselves chained to oars in the pirate galley, and the next session’s mission is to escape and recover their equipment from the captain’s cabin.
  • Are the stakes heightened? A failure may advance a villain’s plans, bringing the world one step closer to a cataclysmic event. Perhaps it results in danger to a valued NPC ally. A combat failure might give the adventurers a glimpse at what’s at risk, propelling the campaign towards a more dramatic finale.
  • Are the adventurers killed? Death does happen. If the plot demands it, failure might result in death for an adventurer or even a dreaded total party kill. However, if a battle will be difficult and failure will result in death, make sure the players are aware of the stakes beforehand. Give them a choice about whether and when to engage in the battle. Unless everyone is on board, it’s unwise to stake the future of a campaign on a battle that’s unavoidable, deadly, and difficult to win. 

Elite Monsters and Failure

A battle against an elite monster can be one of the riskiest and most taxing combat challenges in Level Up. In such a battle, consider alternatives to total victory or crushing defeat.

If a party manages to reduce an elite monster to half its hit points, they’ve already done very well. They’ve dealt enough damage to defeat a normal monster of its type. Their reward, of course, is that the monster starts hitting twice as hard. The battle becomes more dangerous just when the party may have used up its best resources—which heightens the tension, and not coincidentally, the danger of the encounter.

When adventurers are down to their last few hit points and spells, and an elite monster is bloodied but not beaten, consider whether the monster really wants to fight to the death. An intelligent creature may be ready to retreat or be amenable to a truce, perhaps even offering treasure if the party will leave it alone. After all, it’s been beaten half to death itself and it could probably use a rest! The adventurers may have earned its grudging respect, and it might want them alive as captives or even allies. There are many ways that a valiant but unsuccessful battle against an elite monster can lead to a partial victory.