Updated: Jul 29
Are you planning on running a duet style adventure for 5th edition D&D?
if so, then you may be wondering how to scale an encounter for just one PC and one DM in dungeons and dragons 5e>... but fear not adventurer, for we have written this article to provide you with 10 tips on how we have balanced encounters for our maiden campaign on our Podcast; the Dragon of Icespire Peak.
1. Role-playing opportunities:
Often, when we think of an encounter in D&D, our mind immediately goes to a combat scenario, and for that reason our first tip is to encourage and incorporate solutions that can see the player overcome the encounter through role play.
It's therefore important to remember that not all combat encounters need to be a fight to the death. Whilst not every fight can be mitigated through role playing opportunities, consider allowing the PC to talk down the enemy either through Persuasion or Intimidation. Think about why there is a combat encounter in the first place and what the PC’s adversaries want, fear or require and allow for the player to overcome this challenge through roleplay or a sidequest if it makes narrative sense. This encourages the player to think creatively outside the box and provides opportunities for creative problem-solving and decision-making.
In fact, the aforementioned Dragon of Icespire Peak actually suggests this with the first encounter at Umbridge Hill where the player(s) face the daunting task of facing a Manticore at a squishy level 1!
In our play through, Alan’s character Shrew, avoided a fight with the Manticore by doing just this, and later on in the campaign he avoids a fight with a small group of orcs by agreeing to clear out a mine for them in exchange for their support in fighting the dragon.
Have a listen to Episode 2 - Adabra-Cadabra or Episode 27 Hiiii Hooo to hear how these encounters played out.
2. Action Economy
Action economy refers to how many actions enemies are able to take in a round, and how much influence those actions can have on a battle. Simply put, the more actions and special abilities each side has, the more things they can do and the greater control they can take of the battlefield.
If we plan the encounter out by thinking about action economy, as opposed to simply using an encounter generator or encounter rules, it encourages us to consider the type of enemy the Player is battling and any special abilities or spells it might have such as pack tactics for wolves, multi attacks, grapples, hold person to name a few, are all going to have a significant impact on the action economy of your encounter.
So how can we build encounters that are challenging and balanced for your sole PC and their hero?
i) The first thing we can do is simply to reduce the number of enemies in the encounter. This can help streamline combat by requiring less rolls, and less enemies for the PC to focus on. However, if overused, this can sometimes feel as if the world isn't believable, particularly if there is an omnipresent threat looming over your campaign as is the case with the Dragon of Icespire Peak. With a large number of displaced beasts from the arrival of the dragon, and the new alliance being forged between the Orcs and Half-Orc Anchorites, it is unlikely that your hero will always just face a sole foe or small group of enemies.
ii) Whilst the above may not be suitable for all encounters we can always add in enemies in waves who have been alerted by the noise of the battle, or by an enemy running off for help. Episode 25 of our Podcast - This Little Piggy went to Phandalin had one of the Orcs in the encounter blast on a horn to call in reinforcements which then came in a second wave of the battle. We found that this kept the encounter more balanced than throwing all the orcs in to the combat from the get go
iii) Spells or a magic item like a Horn of Valhalla or Conjure Animals can help balance the action economy in your PC favor. For example if your PC has summoned two animals to aid them, they now have three actions per turn instead of one.
iv) Similarly to iii) above, using sidekicks, or allied NPCs can add action economy to your PC’s favor whilst simultaneous providing further opportunities for roleplay out of combat. More on this below.
An example of considering the action economy in our ongoing campaign on the podcast, are episodes 37 & 38, Owl By Myself & Owl Night Long. Shrew managed to clear this encounter on his own thanks to a great stealth check which gave him a surprise round as he caught all enemies off guard.
This encounter was built assuming Shrew would be accompanied by his sidekicks which would have been a Medium encounter using DnDBeyond's encounter generator, but in practice would have been a walk in the park given the party's abilities and immunities.
Adjusting this for just Shrew, without considering his wildshape and AOE abilities, nor his current immunity to various damage as a result of being cursed with lycanthropy, would make this a deadly encounter on DnDBeyond. However, in practice the worst case would have been a temporary restrained condition which he could have escaped from with his wildshape, as at one point actually happened during the battle.
The key takeaway here is that when we’re balancing an encounter for a Duet game, action economy, which includes not only the number of actions but the "value" or influence that these actions and abilities bring to a battlefield, can be a more important consideration than the CR balance of an encounter.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore the CR entirely, but we should consider that in 5th edition D&D, a sole adventurer can have a hard time if they find themselves greatly outnumbered, even if they are a powerful hero and facing lower-level creatures because of the action economy, or on the reverse, a large number of enemies may have a hard time against a single character because of the value or influence the PC's abilities and actions can have in battle.
Watch this space for an upcoming article which will deep dive in to action economy coming soon!
3. Sidekicks & companion NPCs
Why use sidekicks and companion NPCs? Because it’s dangerous to go alone!
As briefly discussed above, a sidekick or companion can help balance out the action economy of your encounters. The Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure included in the Essential’s kit is a great starting place as it includes official provisions for “Sidekicks” to help you play through a DnD Duet in 5th Edition. This is further aided by suggested adjustments for the written encounters by specifying “x” Orcs per PC not including sidekicks, or “x” Monsters for each PC including Sidekicks.
This kit introduced sidekicks as a set of characters and stat blocks along with leveling mechanics so that they level up alongside the PC. In playing through the Dragon of Icespire Peak we found that as written, the sidekicks work fine at the initial levels (1-2), but beyond this they become little more than an inefficient attempt to balance the action economy and are essentially reduced to cannon fodder or damage sponges at higher levels.
However, the rules included for the Sidekicks are sparse and don’t offer any detail or advice on how to run these sidekick character...but don’t fret we have a separate blog article on this coming up very shortly!
In our current campaign, Alan plays a halfling druid who is accompanied by Favian a human warrior, and Fenna a gnome healer using a slightly modified version of the Dragon of Icespire Peak sidekicks. In using these sidekicks Nich (the DM) runs them in roleplay whilst Al runs them in combat to keep the player more engaged in whilst simultaneously providing greater immersion for the player by giving them someone to talk to on their adventures. (more on this in an upcoming article)
Throughout the adventure, we have also used NPC allies such as Big Al, no…not I2TD’s co-host and current player, but Big Al Khalazore and Falcon the hunter at Falcon’s lodge. Allowing these characters to temporarily offer their assistance to the PC for certain quests helped balance what would have been otherwise deadly encounters for a sole PC.
Have a listen to Episodes 11 - the Adventure prOGREsses and 16 - Manse-slaughter to see how we played out these allies in our podcast.
4. Use of Commoner stats
Another tool we have made use of in our play through of the Dragon of Icespire Peak is to have some of the enemies use the Commoner stat block. The logic behind this is that not every Orc should be a battle hardened veteran, ferocious in combat and a potentially deathly threat. Some Orcs may be cooks, smiths, hunters, scavengers etc.
Whilst this tip may seem in conflict with our advice on action economy, when used right it can give the player an initial sense of danger due to the number of enemies on the field, whilst also providing an overwhelming sense of heroism when a single area of effect spell or attack takes out more than one enemy at a time.
5. Bonus Actions - Potions
The official Rules as written state that drinking a potion during combat—or any other circumstance in which things are done in rounds following an initiative order—takes an action in 5th edition D&D. To quote the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg 139):
“Most potions consist of one ounce of liquid. Potions are consumable magic items. Drinking a potion or administering a potion to another character requires an action.
However, Critical Role’s Matt Mercer, allows characters to drink potions as a bonus action.
Makeaskillcheck.com takes this further by suggesting that characters could choose to use healing potions as either an Action or a Bonus Action. The difference being:
As a Bonus Action, you have to roll the dice as usual, potentially netting you the lowest amount of healing possible.
As an Action, get the maximum healing.
We have recently added this homebrewed rule to our campaign and are finding that it works great and also helps balance the action economy by making bonus actions feel more useful and mitigating the issue of feeling like you have wasted your turn.
To read more on this home rule we suggest reading this great article on https://makeaskillcheck.com/5e-potion-action-or-bonus-action/
6. Use Conditions
Use of conditions on enemies is also a fun way to not only help balance an encounter, but also to make the world feel more alive and meaningful. Using our current campaign as an example, Episode 2 - Adabra-Cadabra sees Shrew, our hero, face the daunting task of fighting a manticore at level 1.
Whilst, Shrew ultimately avoided combat by negotiating with the manticore, the Dragon of Icespire Peak sets the stories scene by explaining that the arrival of the dragon has displaced a number of beasts and monsters around the surrounding area.
Using this information, we can make some assumptions that the manticore is in a new area it is unfamiliar with and competing with others for food and resources. Nich therefore described the manticore as looking tired, skinny and generally looking to avoid a fight, and unbeknownst to Alan, had a couple of points of exhaustion to help balance the encounter had a battle broken out.
7. Adjust rewards and experience
Given that most pre-written adventures are written assuming a party of adventurers, the rewards and experience handed out as written may feel a little stingy when running the adventure for a sole hero. By balancing out rewards such as potions and magic items, and perhaps accelerating some levels if using the milestone rules we can help ensure that the PC can progress and feel rewarded. We would recommend thought to use this in moderation to avoid making the hero overpowered.
Throwing in additional potions of healing along with the above suggested home rule can help balance out the encounters your hero will face in their adventures.
8. Tailor challenges
Designing or modifying encounters and puzzles to cater to your sole hero’s abilities and strengths can also help balance these for your party of one. Allowing for alternative solutions and opportunities to those written in a published adventure, or considering your hero’s unique strengths can encourage for creative problem-solving, and make them feel like a true hero.
For example, if your PC is a fire wielding sorcerer consider having some flammable or combustible environmental opportunities for them to play to their strengths and help balance the encounter. Your PC may also be a rogue or a druid, and by allowing them to stealth in or infiltrate an area in wildshape will allow them to scout out the potential encounter enabling them to pick off enemies in smaller waves / encounters.
9. TPK doesn't need to mean PC death
The risk of a TPK in a duet is greater than when DMing for a full party given that you only have one hero at the table, potentially with a sidekick or two if using the above tip.
However, it's important to remember that a TPK doesn't necessarily have to result in a PC death. Get inside your monster's/enemies heads. If they are intelligent creatures surely they would want to know why the hero was in their camp or cave and instead of killing them off they have tied them up for questioning or perhaps as a snack for later on.
This opens up new opportunities for roleplay and potential new side quests if the enemies decide to negotiate their release in exchange for information or a favor. Be wary of overusing this though as you may make the PC feel that death is not a possibility in your adventure.
10. It's a duet; not one-on-one
Remember one of the key concepts of D&D; it's not the DM vs the players, or the player as is the case in a duet. This isn’t a one-on-one game, but still a collaborative storytelling experience where you are creating a world and game together. By using the above tips we are confident that you will have the necessary tools to plan and balance your encounters for a sole PC.
So there you have it, our top 10 tips to successfully run a duet style encounter.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please give us a listen on your podcaster player of choice, and consider supporting us on www.buymeacoffee.com/i2td. Here you can make a one-off donation by buying us a potion which will appear in game along with a shout-out, or you can join the adventure and influence the stories we tell by purchasing a magical item which will also appear in game.
We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter, Threads and Instagram, if you don't already.
Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again soon as we delve in two the dungeon! – Nich and Al