Guidance – GMing 101: Variety is the Spice of Life

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about varying up the CR of your encounters.

Hello, folks! Today I’ve got a bit of a short article for you. Today is a follow up on the first articles that wrote for Guidance: the Math Behind CR and XP Rewards for Fun and Profit.

Today we’re going to talk about Variety.

The Spice of Life

When reading my articles, I know that it can be dangerously tempting to say, “Gee whiz, Alex! I’m going to use your advice ALL the time on EVERY encounter that I ever build!” To that, I need to say, “Whoa, there, tiger! Slow down, you don’t want to drive your players into the dirt.”

“But don’t I?” You ask? Well, that’s the golden question. Do you? To some GMs, the answer might be a resounding, “Heck yes!” but I write these articles for any one particular reason, its to play devil’s advocate. But honestly, the answer to this question is, “Heck no!” You absolutely need variety in your encounter design if you’re going to have a successful campaign.

Why Have Variety?

When you watch a movie with a lot of action in it, what are you looking for? Fast-paced battles where the heroes mow over enemies, were bodies are flying through the air and enemies are falling faster than the story can give them names? Or slow, nail-biting combats where two sides seem evenly matched, or in some cases the hero is losing badly, only to clench a victory at the last possible section?

If you’re like most people, you probably said, “I like them both.” A good story needs action at different paces in order to keep the reader in suspense. If every combat is easy and effortless, the audience stops feeling like there’s anything at stake. If every combat is massive, the audience gets lost in the grandeur of it all and loses focus. If every combat is filled to bursting with nail-biting suspense, then the audience is stressed out and begging for the story to end so they can stop and catch their breath for just one moment. These are all reactions that you want to avoid instilling into your players, because not only are they your main characters, but they’re also your audience. And to an extent, you’re your own audience too, and what emotions affect your PCs are going to affect you to some degree too. In the case of encounter design, balancing the difficulty and types of combat is the essence of variety.

Ways to Inject Variety

So, let’s talk about the two biggest ways to “balance” the types of encounters you throw at your PCs.

  • Big Bad vs. Strike Team vs. Untrained Army: Since an encounter has a flat XP value to it, you have a seriously potent tool in your toolbox to designing encounters: hordes versus strike teams. For example, a team of 16 CR 1 monsters is going to have the same XP value as a lone CR 7 monster, which is going to have the same XP value as two CR 5 monsters. (Author’s Note: All of these combinations have a total XP value of 3,200 XP.) If your PCs were, say, CR 5, then each of these encounters possesses a very different type of challenge to your party, The swarm of low-level monsters is not likely to cause much harm to the party unless the combat takes too long, so the PCs might be tempted to burn resources using area attacks to dispatch them quickly. Likewise, the CR 7 monster may be tougher to hit and make for a more climatic battle, but it will have all four PCs ganging up on it, and as a result it will be on the receiving end of more firepower thanks to the Action Economy. Even though the CR stays the same, the feel and flow of the encounter feels drastically different based upon what the encounter is comprised of. Players will feel very powerful mowing through hordes of enemies while they will sweat and play more tactically against the more worthy opponents.
  • Varying CRs: I know that I’ve made the CR +4 model VERY tempting for many GMs because of how it represents a perfectly balanced, anyone-can-win model for the PCs. That said, you DON’T want to be constantly throwing the same CR of encounter at your PCs all the time. For one, the CR mechanic is designed to represent how much of your party’s resources the encounter should burn through, and CR +4 is 100%. If you are burning through all of your party’s resources (including hit points) with every encounter, don’t be surprised when your party has to constantly stop and refresh themselves via rest and similar tactics. Unlike the scenario mentioned in my 15-Minute Adventuring Day article, this constant resting will be YOUR fault, not the PC’s fault. Varying the CR of the encounters so your PCs can burn their gas more slowly as they trek through whatever adventure you’ve set before them, which is much more satisfying than being forced to set up camp after every encounter or two.

Remember that as the GM, the manner that you choose the pace of your story is through what encounters, traps, and hazards you throw at your PCs. As a final thought, here’s the cardinal rule of variety: “fast” does not exist without “slow,” “easy” does not exist without “hard,” and “skirmish” does not exist without “battlefield.” One cannot exist without the other.

That’s all I have to say on encounter design for this week’s installment of the GM Guide. What do you think? What strategies do you use when instilling variety into your encounter design? Do you have any rules or guidelines that you follow? What’s your encounter breakdown typically look like? Leave your answers and comments below. Look forward to a new encounter design next Monday!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune timethief, and he personally prefers fast-paced, moderately dispatched encounters with a sprinkling of soul-crushingly difficult ones splattered here and there.

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at, or support him personally on Patreon at

1 Comment

  1. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    Watch the faces of the players and look for signs of stress and/or fatigue. If they look unhappy after some hard encounters, consider tossing out some easy ones, or roleplay encounters so they can ‘recharge’ their combat batteries. Burn-out is a thing to keep an eye out for.

    Same advice for the opposite, if they start cracking jokes about how easy everything is or start complaining about destroying all the encounters, consider tossing in some tougher ones to make them sweat a little.

    But, be cautious of the PCs getting too used to your tactics. For example, if they’ve had a lot of tough encounters recently, they may expect your easy encounter to be tough and blow all of their powers to win it, not realizing they could have handled it with minimal expenditure of resources. Or they might expect everything to be easy, only to not bring anything good into a hard encounter because they’ve gotten used to dominating everything.

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