Dungeons & Dragons: How To Keep Low-Level Encounters Interesting

Oh no, another goblin encounter…

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Keep Low-Level Encounters Interesting

The worldbuilding of Dungeons & Dragons is defined as much by the small as the grand scale. Bandits, kobolds, and recent undead all play a big part in making a world of engaging characters and fun combat. Keeping the combat with these low-level enemies can become challenging after a while.

The simplicity of low-level encounters can start to work against the system when players know everything an enemy can do, and it becomes clear that the same CR1/4 grunt has been copy and pasted until the encounter tracker said it was ready. Here's how to keep the early fights from getting stagnant.

Keep Encounters Varied

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Keep Low-Level Encounters Interesting

One of the more common things that can make low-level combat feel same-y is that most creatures play the same. A stack of hitpoints, two attack variations, and perhaps a special ability that forces a level-appropriate saving throw.

A group of five bandits are indistinguishable from each other unless you give them names and personalities when planning the session. That's a rather time-consuming process for characters that might never speak in-game or lead your characters to believe they're meant to be diplomatic because you otherwise wouldn't name them.

There are a couple different approaches to making low-level enemies distinct from one another without needing to spend a lot of prep time.

Approach

Method

Example

Adjectives

Give each creature in an encounter a single adjective. You can even put together a random table to save time. This one-word description can influence their strategy and how you describe them to players.

After initiative, you describe the highest rolling kobold as headstrong. They charge in ahead of the group and are easily caught out of formation.

Different Weapons

You can often swap out the weapon a character wields with minimal change to their stat block. Changing the damage type between

A polearm-wielding guard will deal a different damage type to their club-wielding allies. They can also position themselves differently to make use of this expanded range.

Weaknesses And Strengths

With some extra prep time you can make templates that can be applied to any humanoid enemy to give slight changes to stats.

A gnomish mercenary will have advantage on spell saves but move slower than a generic human.

Group Strategies

Create circumstances that change how enemies behave in combat. This can also tie into the broader narrative.

A pack of goblins forms a defensive formation around a prisoner they are escorting.

Applying these variations can also encourage the players to change their approach. A martial character might prioritize the magic-resistant gnome while the spellcaster focuses on the polearm-wielding enemy hiding behind other enemies.

Keep A Quick Pace On Weak Encounters

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Keep Low-Level Encounters Interesting

The eventual outcome of many fights in D&D is predetermined and merely a question of how much time and resources the party and players will need to spend. You don't want these fights to linger for a long time.

There are different ways of handling this.

  • Design routes for non-combat solutions. If the players don't feel like doing a low-level encounter, allow them to intimidate or sneak past.
  • Have enemies surrender or be routed when sufficiently bloodied. You can choose the amount of losses where a group will flee or declare a battle won when the players start getting distracted.
  • Reduce the HP of creatures so they go down quicker. Some tables will use mook-rules from Fourth Edition for especially weak enemies: Mooks have one hitpoint but ignore any effect that would deal half-damage.
  • Appoint a stronger creature in the fight as the leader. The other creatures scatter once their leader is defeated.

Using Low-Level Encounters At Higher Levels

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Keep Low-Level Encounters Interesting

Once your party is past their low level adventures, this doesn't mean you get to discard that part of the monster manual. There are plenty of ways to keep those kobolds and goblins relevant at higher levels.

Approach

Method

Reuse Old Encounters To Show Growth

Using an old encounter as it appeared previously helps your party realize how much they've improved since then. It's not a method to be overused but can feel impactful if done once or twice in a campaign.

Reuse Old Bosses As New Minions

A staple approach in dungeon-crawling video games is to save development time by recycling old boss fights as minions and random encounters at higher levels. This keeps them relevant and felt while still allowing the challenge to progress upward. You might want to streamline the stat blocks: It'll slow down the game if random encounters start throwing out legendary actions.

Create Swarms

Using rules from the swarm of rats and other creatures, you can make a high CR creature that represents an army of weaker creatures working together. Allow your level ten fighter the thrill of fighting an entire army of CR 1/4 skeletons without the pain of rolling for each individual enemy.

Non-Combat Obstacles

Weaker characters can still make good non-combat obstacles. A party might opt to sneak past a group of low-level minions to avoid alerting their more powerful leader.

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