How to prepare Pathfinder encounters

My regular group plays Pathfinder. I’m the GM. Our group really enjoys combat encounters, and I try to prepare engaging and challenging fights. Here’s my method.

I’m basing all this on the Pathfinder advice for designing encounters. That recommends a mix of encounter levels relative to the party’s average level. And, I’m following a guideline that breaks up these challenges by percentage, like so (remember, APL = Aveage Party Level):

Challenge Type Challenge Rating Percentage of That Encounter Type
Easy: APL – 1 10%
Average: APL 40%
Challenging: APL  + 1 25%
Hard: APL  + 2 15%
Epic: APL + 3 10%

 

The first thing I do is estimate how much time our session will allow, and how many players will be there. We usually play Saturday nights for five or six hours. And, we usually have four or five players. We’ve had as many as seven. On occasion, there’s an NPC character aiding the group.

So, for a typical session, I plan for 8 encounters. When I expect sessions to be longer, I plan for 10 or 12. We’ve never exceeded 12 encounters for a session. Eight encounters takes at least four hours, and that’s with only brief role-playing in between. Our last session was a real dungeon crawl, and they burned through 12 encounters in about six or seven hours. That was unusual.

We’re a straight-forward group. I define an encounter as a confrontation with a hostile NPC, monster, or trap (unsurprisingly, traps are very quick encounters).

Now, given my estimate for number of encounters, I start to build an encounter budget. Easy! I just reference the guidelines above. I have a handy-dandy spreasheet for this. Here’s the important chart:

Total Number of Session Encounters:
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
# of Easy Encounters 0 1 1 1 1 1 1
# of Average Encounters 2 2 3 4 3 4 5
# of Challenging Encounters 2 2 2 2 3 3 3
# of Hard Encounters 1 1 1 1 2 2 2
# of Epic Encounters 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

 

I’ve boxed the encounter lists for 8 encounters and for 12 encounters. I’ll focus on 8 encounters.

This means I have 1 easy encounter, 3 average encounters, 2 challenging encounters, 1 hard encounter and 1 epic encounter.

My spread sheet even goes one step more. It details the actual XP budget I have to work with under those guidelines for every Average Party Level up through level 20. This is very handy because I can mix up different challenge rating monsters as long as I’m still within budget. And, it’s also an easy reference at the end of the session to see how much XP the players have earned. Here’s a look at the XP budget chart for Average Party Level 4.

XP Budget
x1 Challenge Rating 3 Encounters (Easy) 800
x3 Challenge Rating 4 Encounters (Average) 3,600
(1,200 per encounter)
x2 Challenge Rating 5 Encounters (Challenging) 3,200
(1,600 per encounter)
x1 Challenge Rating 6 Encounters (Hard) 2,400
x1 Challenge Rating 7 Encounters (Epic) 3,200
Total Party XP Budget for Session 13,200
XP per Player for Session (4 players) 3,300

 

This makes Pathfinder session planning easier! With this chart, all I have to do is fill in the XP budgets for each encounter.

For example, I know I need to throw in a single encounter with a CR of 3, or an XP budget of 800 XP. When I see that, I think, “Oh, this is an easy one for the party. It’ll be a pack of goblins guarding an entrance. I’ll just add up goblins and maybe throw in a goblin dog until they reach 800 XP. Let’s see, that’s 3 goblins and 1 goblin dog. Done!”

Another thing I like to do is figure out “boss” type encounters. Again, the charts make it pretty easy. I usually pick the Epic encounter for this, or sometimes the Hard encounter. With an Epic encounter, I have a budget of 3,200 XP. I can go the easy route and just pick a CR 7 monster or NPC. But, I prefer to mix it up, and use my budget to create a master with some minions to help.

So, I can create an NPC necromancer wizard of level 6 (that’s CR 5, or 1,600 XP), and still have 1,600 XP left over for undead minions. How about: 1 skeletal champion, 1 skeletal champion archer, and 3 medium skeletons. All I need to do is create some interesting nooks and crannies to map this encounter, maybe give the archer a protected spot, and I’ve got a cool challenge ready for the players.

Assuming the players face every encounter  – my players usually do, unless it’s a good ol’ fashioned dungeon crawl — I already know how much XP they each receive for the session. I throw extra awards on top of that for “most valuable player,” great ideas, and other role-playing awards, too.

For those interested, here’s a link to my excel spreadsheet for all this: Pathfinder Encounter Calculator Worksheet.

8 thoughts on “How to prepare Pathfinder encounters

  1. Buzz

    I haven’t played Pathfinder, but I’ve played a lot of 3.5.

    I cannot fathom getting through 8-12 encounters in a single session. In the seven or so years I played 3e, we were lucky to do 2 a night.

    Are you pretty handwavey with the rules or something? I refuse to believe what your are doing is even possible. 0_0

    Reply
  2. Matt Snyder Post author

    No, we’re not especially handwavey. We’ve been playing 3E / Pathfinder off and on since 3E released. So, that is part if it, I suppose. Everyone’s fairly well versed (I wouldn’t call any of us “expert”).

    I hinted at the likelier cause. The role-playing (i.e. character to character, and character to NPC interaction) in our group is its big flaw, in my view. We do too little of it. It’s not non-existant. It’s just very brief.

    The result, I suspect, to outsiders would be a view of the game as a series of brief war game scenarios with a fairly basic narrative flow. When the game’s “off” it’s jumping from one encounter to another. We do very little in the way of exploring an encounter and lots of “Ok, roll initiative.”

    Now, despite my own self-critique here, the group generally likes this. It’s a very challenge-oriented group. We don’t always nail 8 encounters. Often, it’s 6 or 7, though.

    Other factors: The PC group is usually large. I mentioned 4 or 5 players. It’s usually 5. It’s sometimes 6 or 7. As such, they generally rip right through average encounters. Also, my strategies as a GM are hurried and generally not well done. That is, they generally kick my butt. I’m very straight shooting — using average hit points, usually. Too often, I miss a monster’s better approach, or forget a special ability.

    Also, we do roll everything in the open. I do no fudging whatsoever, and they know it.

    Now, all that said, it sounds like we’re talking extremes between your group and mine. It makes sense to me that the norm is somewhere in between. I can’t especially imagine only 2 encounters as an average per session. (Maybe on occasion, but as the norm? Seems thin) I have a real hard time understanding only 1. I’m assuming they took very, very long, rather than a long build up to a 45-minute combat scene. I can appreciate that “big deal” encounter approach though. My guys would probably enjoy it if the combat was engaging and complex enough.

    Reply
  3. Matt Snyder Post author

    Oh, I should add. Encounters are technical, right? So, one of the favorite sessions in our current campaign was the second session. Maybe one or two PCs were 2nd level? Anyway, the entire session was a zombie haunted housed. They barricaded themselves in a house a la Call of Duty zombie mode, and wave after wave of zombie variations came their way, which as I recall was at least 8 “encounters” of zombies pounding on the door in various ways (and with various zombie types). They players recognized it was zombie homage, and they LOVED it.

    Reply
  4. buzz

    “The result, I suspect, to outsiders would be a view of the game as a series of brief war game scenarios with a fairly basic narrative flow.”

    That basically describes both of my old D&D groups. We were insanely tactical and war-game-y. And still… 1-2 encounters a session, maybe three on a good night. One of the groups ran a 20-level campaign that lasted for years. Once we hit 10th level and up, each 4-hour session was one encounter.

    I mean, kudos to you! I’m just amazed.

    Reply
  5. Matt Snyder Post author

    Oh, I don’t know about kudos. I think it’s far to quick-paced, and not enough role-playing for my tastes. And, it should be mostly on my shoulders to improve that as GM, but I haven’t stepped up to that to date.

    In the games with slower encounters like you’re describing, how often did you level? It seems like it would take a crazy long time? Also, were you playing more frequently than we do?

    My group really demands frequent leveling. Couple that demand with the frequency of play (about every six weeks or so), and we move as quickly as we can through things, rather than savor things a bit more like a weekly group might.

    Reply
  6. buzz

    The big Monday campaign I was in lasted maybe 6-7 years and we played every other week. In that time, we went from 1st to 20th level. I suppose that is a crazy-long time.

    Our group was a well-oiled 3.5 machine for at least half of that campaign, but our DM was also a certified genius and, IMO, was a more able encounter designer than anyone who has ever worked at WotC.

    My old Saturday group was less hard-core, but no faster, honestly.

    Reply
  7. Raemann

    I really like your chart(s) . I also like the way that you were forthright and described the type of play that your crew enjoys – little to no RP, a tendency to enjoy combat. I have noticed that this “businesslike” approach is what we have to play to at cons. You have a set amount of time to go through four minor and a single major encounter before the next bash takes place. In the Pathfinder Society play there are time limits and certain expectations that we are encouraged to meet and then we have to fill out papers on each of the players so that they can get their XP, items, “renown” as it were and move on to the next event. You don’t get to come up for air until later that night in the pizza place as you recount the days events and lie to your fellows in attendance.
    The bottom line is – This lets you know what you have planned and better defines a portion of the game which has a great potential to spiral out of control and eat up a great deal of time. A crew that plays together learns to work out how they can more quickly run through an encounter. Having your basic plan on the chart or the iPad can give me the power to glance at the clock and immediately know if I can get this party through the upcoming encounters that they need to advance to the next round or if I need to “pick up the pace”. I have been gaming since 1977 and running games since 1982 and I find that despite being rather simple to follow (compared to some games like those made by I.C.E.) it does make demands on the DM to ensure that people aren’t sitting about shooting the bull, talking about their day, getting off of the game at hand. I think that is what causes people to not be able to have many encounters. Of course if the crew you run likes that sorta thing, I guess that is what you do.

    Reply
  8. Lance

    I’ve been a gm for twenty years, it’s important that GM’s control the flow of the game and not let players start up countless hours of bs. In my games there are always 7- 10 encounters per session and the players love me for it! GM’s that sit back and let players (not characters) “PLAYERS” bicker on pointless stuff will not accomplish this and will only get to 1 or 2 encounters! As a GM I’ve found two things matter the most. 1: Story, 2: 7-10 meaningful encounters per session. follow those rules and your on your way to GM stardom. My players are to caught up in the story and want to get to the next encounter quickly.

    Reply

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