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%|
|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:|
|# 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.
|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.