Another one of the changes 4e makes to encounters is that it falls back to the specific XP values instead of relative XP values that 3.x used. XP is awarded based on the creature’s level and type – sort of. They’re set up as standard, solo, elite and minion where roles like soldier, skirmisher, lurker, controller, etc. are lumped together under standard. Minions are 1/4 of the XP for standard creatures of the same level, elites are about two to three times more and solo creatures are about five times the amount of standard creatures of the same level.
In 3.x you piled creatures together and tried to build into a CR or Encounter Level (EL) that matched, passed or was under the average character level depending on how tough you wanted the encounter to be. Even ELs to the average party level were supposed to consume about 30% of the group’s resources so you might have three to four encounters per adventure day, more if the EL was lower or less if the EL was higher.
It sort of made sense but our group ran into a lot of problems with it because the CR and EL calculations assumed a party of four. We have seven. This made it tough for DMs in the past where we would overshoot the average party level by a few and assume the numbers would make up for it. At first we handled this by taking the average level and adding about two to it – this is how ELs are sort of built (if you have a CR 4 creature it’s a CR 4, if you have three CR 4 creatures it’s an EL 5).
How was that a mistake? Well, creatures CR tended to be (admittedly eyeballed by the designers) aimed at about a right level for when the party should have the means to handle or overcome the creature. For example, by the time the group has access to Raise Dead, they would start fighting creatures with instant kill type abilities. The same could be said for turning to stone or petrification abilities. You’d start seeing more creatures with these abilities.
The problem was we were running into encounters with abilities beyond what our characters were capable of handling simply because sheer numbers doesn’t easily overcome these abilities. Players would die, face really tough ACs and casters would face some pretty hefty Spell Resistance and saving throws making a lot of their magic useless.
Ultimately, it was like throwing seven Kobolds at a level 7 Wizard… the Wizard is going to destroy them with a single spell (oh hai Fireball!). Granted, it wasn’t that bad, but you get the idea.
This CR then determined how much XP the group got for defeating or surviving the encounter. Dividing this in four would be quite rewarding, but dividing it in seven, not so much. This meant facing more of these tougher encounters than designed to advance. A downside to this system is that you have a tougher time using lower CR encounters because the rewards diminish the farther below the average party CR.
We tried to fix this by putting each character level against each CR and simply dividing the reward by the number of players present. This meant a level 8 character would get more XP from an EL 10 encounter than a level 9 or level 10 character would – this makes sense and helped a little.
Eventually, we stopped calculating the group’s EL the same way we did with creatures. I’m using average level over all and building encounters to suit that. The problem there is that in some cases the encounters are far too easy, in other cases they’re not too bad. We only run into some real problems if I throw higher CRs at them or when the creatures have some pretty devastating abilities.
Downside is that advancement is slower. Upside is they get more encounters per level, at least they do when I don’t pad the XP some for RP rewards, non-combat encounters and other spot rewards.
So how is this different in 4e? 4e does not have an EL or CR. Creatures have levels which target them towards characters of equal level. They also reward set amounts of XP, it doesn’t diminish as the character goes up in level (other than it puts less of a dent in the XP req to the next level). A level 1 minion will always be worth 25 XP (then divided by the number of players).
They approach character building sort of like a point buy system. You have a design concept for the encounter and determine how much XP you want to award per character and multiply it by the number of characters in the group (obviously modules in print are aimed at a different amount, but scaling up is not too hard with this mechanic).
Let’s say I have a party of seven level one characters and I want them to each get 300 XP from an encounter (that’s advancing them 30% towards level two so it’d be a pretty rewarding encounter). I use a pool of 2100 XP (300*7=2100) to buy up creatures.
I might use a bunch of level 1 standard creatures, say about 10 of them (10*100 = 1000) which leaves me with 1100 XP to fill out. I might pop an elite into that encounter (about 250 XP) leaving 850 XP. I might decide to pop another Elite in there or maybe add some standard creatures, maybe I use a higher level creature for the Elite. Either way, I’m left with a bunch of XP which I can spent on Minions (34 of them!) if I want.
This would end up being a pretty epic battle but also be very rewarding (as I noted above, it’s 30% of the way through first level).
If I wanted to tailor the encounter to be less rewarding but also less large scale, I might target about 100 xp per character (700XP budget) and just go with seven standard creatures or I might go with four standards and one elite.
This might sound pretty generic, but it isn’t. Consider that the second encounter could manifest as seven wolves (skirmishers) or seven spiders (lurkers) or four orcs and an ogre or maybe six acolytes and an adept of some evil god. The reward and model might seem the same, but the roles you fill it with could make things very interesting.
It’s an interesting system where the only immediate flaw I see is that a DM might target the XP reward too high relative to the character’s level. There is no (as far as I read) obvious mechanic for a DM to look at an encounter and decide whether it is too tough or too weak other than the total XP reward.
They have kept the Encounter Level mechanic and it is supposed to work by comparing it against the group’s level. It is supposed to wirk similar to ELs in 3.5e with lower ELs are easier, higher ones are more challenging but I don’t know how they get that number. Looking through some of the adventures, I see several that are EL 1 and one that is actually an EL 6. Total XP rewards are pretty high, but I’m not sure where the EL is calculated from. (I’ll look at that up and post it when I get a chance.)
UPDATE: There is a table in the DMG that lists the XP target, size of the group (4, 5 and 6) and what EL it would be for that group.
Now I’m thinking about how this can be adapted and adopted in my 3.5e campaign. It’s not really easy because the XP reward for a creature is really relative (creature CR:groupCL). I suppose I could resolve the XP reward for each CL and use that for a cost to pull from the pool, but I’m not sure how that will work.