The Encounter Level system that was instituted for 3.0 and carries through 3.5 and Pathfinder is based on a very simple concept: an equal level encounter should use up about a fifth of the party’s resources. The first encounter of the day has very little chance of resulting in failure, but each successive one becomes a little bit more dangerous, and five equal level encounters should have ground them down and have a real chance at killing one or more party members.

Of course, judging an encounter level is far less precise in practice, and you can go up and down in difficulty in various ways, but the consequence of the system is that modules tend to include, in MMO parlance, trash encounters. These are fights that are not particularly hard, and have an almost negligible chance of seriously impacting the party, but serve to wear down the party a little bit to make later encounters more of a threat. Even an encounter that doesn’t successfully damage a single PC may have caused one or more players to blow a per day ability or expend some spells, leaving less resources available for later encounters.

The problem with these things is that 3.x combat is not particularly zippy. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that your players are going to kill the creature in the first round with very little effort, there’s still a chance that it’ll manage to do something before it dies. So you have to set up the map and minis, roll initiative, and have the players start making tactical decisions as if this was a major fight (which, as far as they know, it might be). Even a total rout, thus, takes session time.

Geek Related has a post on experience points that suggests a neat idea: have the players level up on a schedule fixed on real time (where they meet the max level for the campaign in about as much time as you want to run it). If they’re having a hard time with a section, they take it slow and level up earlier than the adventure series expects, thus making it easier to get through difficulties. If they’re having an easy run, they’ll get ahead of the expected level and start having to slow back down as they become increasingly underleveled. But all of this assumes that outleveling something would allow you to “catch back up” due to the ease of encounters, and I think there might be a point where the minimum time to set up and play out even incredibly easy encounters may put you further into the hole than you’d like.

And even if you’re not using a system like that, playing with limited time for a session means that you’d probably like to end on something interesting for the night. I frequently find myself running into “well, we have about half an hour left, and that’s probably not enough time if you start a fight in the next room, so let’s break until next week.” And that’s often due to “wasting time” on trash encounters.

So this is a system that attempts to abstract encounters that are only threatening in the aggregate so they have an effect on the PCs’ resources without taking much time to play out.

The System

As a GM, you can use this system for any combat in a module that you feel would take more time to play out than it justifies. That is, it’s not particularly interesting, doesn’t advance the plot, and/or is little more than a speedbump to the PCs. This uses Encounter Level and treats the entire combat as that single number, rather than using the individual enemies and CRs in the fight (and if the EL isn’t attached to the encounter for you, you’ll need to use your edition’s math for determining the EL from multiple creatures’ CRs). It will usually be used for ELs lower than the Average Party Level (APL), but includes notes for equal or higher ELs (for if the fight is really boring and unlikely to seriously hinder the party).

Subtract the APL from the EL:

  • -4 or worse: 0 checks, no experience points (this isn’t even a speedbump)
  • -3: 1 check, half experience
  • -2: 2 checks
  • -1: 3 checks
  • 0: 4 checks
  • +1: 6 checks
  • +2: 8 checks
  • +3 or greater: You should probably play this out, even if it’s boring

The checks listed are per party member, and represent a chance of that party member taking damage or expending resources.

For most monsters, they’re simple attacks vs. AC, using the EL as the attack bonus. If the attack hits, it does twice the EL in hit point damage. Like normal attacks, it misses automatically on a 1 and automatically hits and has a chance to crit (doing double damage) on a 20 (don’t use expanded critical threat range, as that’s probably paid for somewhere else in the EL).

Before they are rolled, party members can choose to take attack checks due other party members onto themselves. For example, the party tank might choose to just have all the checks rolled against him. The balancing factor is that, in their normal distribution, the checks are usually unlikely to kill any one party member unless already seriously injured, but if you take a bunch of them thinking your high AC and HP will save you, you could still die to a string of lucky rolls.

If there are enemies in the encounter that use spells or abilities that call for saves, you can have one or more of the checks instead be an appropriate saving throw. This is rolled by each player, and is made at a DC equal to 10 + EL. A successful save means only half damage (equal to EL), while a failure is normal damage (double EL). Evasion and similar effects apply normally. Party members may not choose to take one another’s checks for saves (as they often indicate AoEs or ranged attacks that are hard to interpose against).

For both attack checks and save checks, players may choose to expend resources instead of taking the checks:

  • Highly limited per day abilities (such as Smite Evil or Wild Shape), remove one check from all party members.
  • Abilities with many uses per day or rounds per day (e.g., Bardic Music, Rage, Ki Pool, bloodline/school/domain basic attacks) require that the players spend uses/rounds equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Casters may expend total spell levels equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Players can mix and match between these options, each contributing uses, rounds, and spell levels to total up to a certain number of checks removed.
  • If there is a mix between attack and save checks, the players can specify which they’re removing (but have to remove the same ones from all players).

For example, the players are fighting a single Gorgon (EL 8) when they are 9th level. It’s -1 to their APL, so they’re owed three checks. The GM decides that two of those are attacks, and one is a Fortitude save from the breath weapon). The paladin expends a Smite Evil* to reduce that to two checks (removing the save check). The bard uses two rounds of music, the barbarian two rounds of rage, and the wizard a 2nd level spell, a 1st level spell, and a use of his school ability to eliminate another check. The party is left with one check each, and the paladin and barbarian each take two attacks, leaving the bard and wizard to take none.

This system may not always make perfect sense on a per-encounter basis (e.g., a monster with only single-target attacks that would probably focus on one target manages to do a little damage to everyone), but it should even out in the long run. The goal is ultimately to provide some kind of structure to: “this is boring but somehow related to the balance of this adventure so we can’t skip it entirely; so lose some resources, gain some experience, and let’s move on.”

* The paladin in your game doesn’t blow his smites reflexively on seeing a scary monster even if it’s not evil? The one in mine does.