[RPG] How to balance encounters for unbalanced parties


I am running a D&D 5e West Marches style game. We have a pool of around 10 players, who all have one character. This game kills off a character around once every 1.5 months due to the nature and difficulty of the encounters.

I attempt to level most sessions in one of two ways:

  • Depending on the "Biome" they are in (i.e. the further away from the start, the harder it generally is)
  • Medium -> Hard encounters for the party, so that they have fun, yet still feel challenged.

To date the characters have all been within fairly similar level brackets of around 3-5 however as we continue the campaign I can see a disparity starting to occur due to some players having a little more general "survivability" than others (I generally don't attack specific members of the group with encounters)

My question is this:

How do you balance encounters for parties that have larger gaps between player levels?

For example: One 8th-level character with high AC and strength alongside three or four 3rd-level characters.

Best Answer

I think you'll always have a struggle with this as, from my understanding of the system design, the basic framework of 5e isn't designed to handle this kind of situation.

In general I think this would call for 'Hard' encounter design for the common / average level, accepting that it could be swung into much easier territory if the lone higher level PC is able to leverage their skills and abilities effectively.

Introducing 4e 'minion' style rules could help - design up some monsters that have super low HP counts so that they can be taken out reasonably easily by the lower level characters whilst the higher level ones get on with trouncing the boss monster.

You could set up encounters where there are other, non-combat tasks to be resolved, giving the lower level guys something to do. This might get old quickly, but for an encounter or two should work well. Wrecking ritual paraphernalia, rescuing bystanders, trying to stop a giant sand clock etc

Quite often the more potent abilities of the higher level characters will be resource based, so you might find after a couple of encounters they have less 'gas in the tank' to easily trample over lower encounters, so maybe trying to string more encounters between rests will lessen your issues.

It does seem though that one useful solution will be to limit the level range of the campaign - e.g for July through Sept you're in the 5-7 range, and anyone who would out-level that gets other rewards instead - narrative benefits, titles, refining their character or 'unlocking' campaign benefits - or even mentoring another character to donate earned levels back to the lower level characters.