Why Unbalanced Combat Encounters Can Enhance Your Dungeons & Dragons Experience

By RJ on 19 February 2023. 

Many Dungeon Masters fret and worry about the balance of their combat encounters. I'm here to tell you there is no need to lose sleep or overprepare battles in Dungeons & Dragons, at least when it comes to ensuring they are mechanically sound and balanced. Simply balance your combat encounters and any encounter really on what makes sense in the context of the campaign.

However, suddenly swapping to this style of play isn't right. If you are the type of DM or GM who looks at challenge rating, experience budgets, average damage, and the exact action economy, let your players know you are switching to a new style of preparation when it comes to combat. It's cordial. It's kind. Players of DMs who prepare adventures in the heavily-balanced style usually know the encounter is beatable when it begins. When you begin to use what makes sense in the greater adventure or scenario and toss what is rules-as-written balanced, this may not always be true. The players may pit their characters against unbeatable foes that require more than what's clear to overcome. That's where the fun begins!

Let's explore this method of D&D prep together.

Create What is Right

In the Tuesday night Bannerless campaign, the group sought the help of a true cleric of the Sage. Magic as a whole is a rarity in the setting of Golgifell, and the presence of divine magic is slowly fading as the good gods seem to depart entirely. Thus, when Virag Deepdeath, a cleric of Larani offered to cure a fatal curse in exchange for a heist into a nearby buried site, the party agreed.

The cursed gunslinger, Revan Talo, was cleansed of his curse (a literal ravenous mouth on his body that needed flesh) and the group asked Virag what she knew about this buried site. She told them it was an underground temple of the Devourer, one of the evil deities of Golgifell. Inside, a sacred relic of another good god, the Protector, was being guarded by a demon. Demons in this setting are scarcely found mighty monsters. Battling it would be suicide. Regardless, the party accepted Virag's holy quest.

As the Dungeon Master, I knew this demon would easily overpower the party. When we were playing D&D 5E, they were only level three upon accepting the mission. Though not identical, this demon, named Dorgantheu, Crusher of Kings, was similar in power to a balor. A homebrew balor versus a party of four third-level adventurers. Who would win? The homebrew balor, of course. Yet that didn't stop me from including it as a foe.

Path of Exile 2 concept art by Mike Franchina.

I decided to use Dorgantheu because it made sense in the context of the story and world, plus it fit well with what one of the players wanted to confront. By the time the party reached the Devourer temple and came face to face with the demon, his threat was well-known and the scene revolved around that fact. The combat encounter with Dorgantheu was no mere battle. Instead, it was a powerful roleplaying moment turned chase turned momentary fight turned chase that ended with an epic battle and foreboding send-off for the party and Dorgantheu.

You should create what makes sense for your campaign. Ignore the rules if you would like to and it makes sense for your current adventure. Some of my favorite moments in D&D only occurred because I tossed out what should work rules as written and decided to go with what I thought was right for my game.

Let Your Mind Run

Once your mind is no longer hindered by encounter building limits, the possibilities become endless. I've found over the past year my mind has changed places when it comes to limits on character creation and how no-limit character creation hinders creativity, but my opinion on encounter construction remains the same. Unlike crafting compelling, unique characters, limits on crafting encounters greatly limit my imagination.

When you craft an encounter without limits, ask yourself four simple questions:

    1. What is this encounter about?
    2. Who is in this encounter?
    3. Where is this encounter?
    4. What's a twist this encounter might take?

These four questions are all you need to build a great combat encounter. None require you to follow any kind of balance or experience budget. Last week's Orrery session in the Bannerless campaign contained a combat encounter that used this exact format. The group was infiltrating a cultist hideout at the bottom of a misty gulch. Concurrently, the cult was conducting a ritual to summon a demon into the mortal world. As the party entered the hideout, they saw the dark ritual ongoing, and combat began.

    1. The party sought to stop the ritual. The cult wanted to finish the ritual and defeat the intruders.
    2. The party (Revan Talo, Mia Stark, Moolock, and Tarzany) versus 20 cultists, a half-summoned demon, and four cultist warriors.
    3. In the ritual chamber of the cult hideout, mid-ceremony to summon a demon from Ghorgath.
    4. If the sacrifices aren't removed from the altar, the ritual might finish. In addition, the cultists are not true warriors; they are commoners and can be knocked out to be shaken from their trance.

Altogether, it took me about five minutes to prepare for this encounter. My group had a fantastic time and it was a dramatic battle. I didn't balance it. I thought about what made sense in the campaign and moment, then ran with it. Especially since I'm the least confident with my combat encounters, I'm pleased my relatively-new method of encounter creation seems to be working out.

Demon by remarin-de6qnxq.

In Summary

When you stop balancing your combat encounters by the books, everything becomes more fun and wild in your D&D campaigns. Trust me. Remember:

  • Alert your players if you've strictly followed the encounter budget outlined in the rules in the past. A sudden switch from finely-tuned, well-balanced encounters to swingy, context-based battles might violently surprise them.
  • Create what makes sense in the context of the story and world, with a dash of what the players would like to see.
  • Unleash your inner creativity when it comes to battles, carving them around the setting and your wildest ideas combined.

In case you missed it, my last article explored how to create rogue-inspired foes for your D&D campaign, adventure, or world. Give it a read now.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please send all inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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