[RPG] Encounter design and XP thresholds


Our DM gave us what seemed to me to be a very hard encounter so I checked out the DMG to see whats up. Note this was the only encounter of the day and we generally have 1-4 encounters per day.

We are a group of four level 7 players, and we met three frost giants.
The thing is, we crushed them even though they downed some of our party members, and when I looked at the DMG it seemed like the encounter was in the average-hard range for our group if we were level 20, or hard-deadly for our team if we were level 15. He even gave the frost giants some ridiculous version of net with a DC 17 Strength check to get out instead of the normal DC 10.


7th, easy 350, medium 750, hard 1100, deadly 1700

14th deadly 5700

15th hard 4300, deadly 6400

20th medium 5700

Frost giant: Challenge 8 (3,900 XP) Hit Points 138

Please tell me if I am doing something wrong here:

Say we want a deadly encounter for our four level 7 characters.

  1. Determine XP Thresholds
    Deadly for level 7 is 1700

  2. Determine the Party's XP Threshold

  3. Total the Monsters' XP

  4. Modify Total XP for Multiple Monsters
    The multiplier for 3 – 6 monsters is *2. 11700*2=23400 (23400/4 would be 5850, more than what is budgeted in a deadly encounter for characters with twice our level)

Please help me out here, did I do the calculation correctly and if I did are we somehow ridiculously OP?

Our paladin and cleric had Gauntlets of Ogre Power; our rogue had Bracers of Archery; our fighter had Quiver of Ehlonna

If anyone is curious, the fight went something like this:

  1. Paladin used Vow of Enmity, hit for a ton of damage. His found steed also critted.
    Rogue managed to crit with sneak attack
  2. Cleric used Spirit Guardians
  3. Frost giant used net with DC 17 on paladin
  4. Frost giant dropped the paladin to zero HP in one turn (advantage because of restrained, one crit one hit)
  5. Frost giant used net on cleric and missed.
  6. Fighter (ranged) missed and ran away on horse
  7. Paladin failed death save
  8. Paladins steed broke out of the net (since paladin was mounted DM trapped both in the net)
  9. Rogue did normal damage
  10. Cleric healed the paladin with healing word and used dodge action
  11. Frost giant killed steed
  12. Frost giant missed cleric
  13. Frost giant hit cleric, he survived
  14. Fighter killed the first of the three giants.
    (something will probably be inaccurate)

Best Answer

You were just over "1 day's XP budget" (five minute adventure day)

In the Basic Rules p. 166/DMG p. 84, there's another table that lays out the estimated "adjusted XP" for an entire adventure day. For your party: 7th /5,000/ x 4 = 20,000. (Your adjusted XP calculation was correct at 23,400).

The usual adventure day is designed with "6-8 encounters of medium-hard" difficulty. You had one big encounter. From what I've seen as a DM, three hard to deadly, or one "more than deadly" is often handled by the PC's if they are tactically astute and work as a team.

  • Note: the XP encounter tables do not make any assumptions about having magic items, so your party did about as I'd expect: you could spend resources without worrying about another encounter, and your magical items were at least a small help. The dice were perhaps your friend with that early crit from the rogue.

    It was still a dangerous fight, as you described it. As I found out in the Giants module from Tales of the Yawning Portal, when a giant crits the HP come in bunches.

A deadly encounter is described as follows:

Deadly. A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat. (Basic Rules, p. 165 (same as DMG))

Other factors: luck and enemy tactics.

Yes, your encounter was deadly; there was a decent chance the Paladin dies from that crit. A couple of factors seem to have contributed: luck and the tactics involved.

  1. There is some element of luck involved in the rogue's early crit. And the steed's crit.
  2. Frost giants have a ranged attack that can allow them to do some early damage before the party closes with them (regular attack out to 60', at disadvantage out to 240'). This will depend a lot on range when the encounter starts, but a +9 to hit, 4d10+6 damage attack is nothing to sniff at; even with disadvantage if the three of them had begun with a boulder barrage some would likely have hit before the close combat occurred. The ranged portion of the attack, by the giants, seems not to have materialized.

The Adventuring Day

Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day. If the adventure has more easy encounters, the adventurers can get through more. If it has more deadly encounters, they can handle fewer (Basic Rules, p. 166)

Encounter design is an inexact science

We have a variety of questions and answers here that point to how swingy combat is, and how a given encounter's difficulty is an estimate rather than a hard and fast rule.

  1. Good tactics can make an encounter a lot easier. Bad tactics can turn into a party wipe/TPK. Also, if a Paladin's smites are a successful nova strike, that can shorten encounters by reducing the number of attacks on the party as opponents are felled.

  2. Some magical items have a significant swingy effect on some encounters. For example, in my brother's campaign the party's level 5 gnome rogue has a broom of flying. In outdoor encounters, he's a heck of a force multiplier. Indoors, not as much.