How should you lay out enemies on the combat grid as the GM?


Advice


What I've usually seen is that the GM will ask players what their marching order and positioning is whenever they're outside of a standard town map. When they trigger a random encounter from the table, the encounter is added to the grid somewhere ahead of them or isn't immediately displayed (ambush).

In the case where it isn't an ambush, where the party sees the enemies up ahead already on the map, how should the enemies be spread out?

This isn't just a matter of flavor, as may not be obvious. An encounter made to be at proper CR can be made significantly easily or harder based on the placement of enemies.

Consider that you have a group of archers at CR. Placing them behind some difficult terrain essentially grants them a free turn of extra attacks. Martials can't charge at them through difficult terrain, so only the ranged-capable characters are taking the first couple of turns.

The contrary example is that placing them all in poor positioning that invites Multikill Fireballs and Move->Cleaves.

Now, with that in mind, placing monsters in these perfect positions will put them in a CR higher than they should be and putting them in random positions may put them in a CR lower than they should be.

How do you ensure that encounter placement doesn't negatively affect the balance of the encounter?

The Exchange

Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Increase cr if the enemy has advantageous environment. Reduce if they are at a disadvantage.

+/- 1

Set up as you feel is best for the game at the moment and is appropriate to the situation.


GeneticDrift wrote:

Increase cr if the enemy has advantageous environment. Reduce if they are at a disadvantage.

+/- 1

I was hoping for something more systematic than this. When I say that the CR varies, it seems to be way more than a +/- 1. Poor placement is the difference between a meaningful encounter and a single-round combat. Perfect placement is the difference between three-round combat and five or more rounds of overly life-threatening combat.


Right now, you're going like this:

1 choose CR
2 Calculate number of foes
3 Position foes trying to not affect CR
4 Struggle

Try instead:

1 choose CR
2 Position foes with little to no regard for CR, eyeball the number
3 Eyeball how much easier or harder the encounter is compared to the desired CR
4 add or reduce foes accordingly


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Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I would say set it up in such a way that the players and yourself have a fun and enjoyable game with suitable challanges and then don't care if the CR is occasionally too low or occasionally too high it will probably balance out in the end.
Also for Random encounters (which I never use) they are often at the rate of 1 a day and the players have a good idea that this will be the only encounter of the day . As the CR system is based around the idea of 4-5 encounters in the adventuring day a single combat encounter is no real threat anyway as the resources it strips from the pc's will be refreshed before the next encounter allowing them to burn through limited use abilities and spells and so increasing their effective power and you should build that into you calculation of CR for each fight.


Another thing to consider is the natural behaviour of your enemies. Are they on the hunt? Are they camping out? Are they in a marching order and paranoid about coming across some band of bandits? This should help inform things, too. A bandit band would be waiting in ambush if they get the chance ... or they could be caught with their chainmail down if the PCs spy ahead well enough.


CR is a really fuzzy combat anyway. There are times when terrain advantage is worth a lot more CR relative to a normal encounter (earth elementals in a stone maze at lower lavels) and times it's not. It's not a precise art, but you have the gist; great placement in the enemies favor can be worth 2 to 3 cr.


I'd argue that earth elementals in a stone maze shouldn't increase the CR. Their natural habitat would the the plane of earth or underground, which is pretty similar, and you're not supposed to increase the CR for something in its natural habitat (such as a squid in water).


Axoren wrote:
Now, with that in mind, placing monsters in these perfect positions will put them in a CR higher than they should be and putting them in random positions may put them in a CR lower than they should be.

No. CR has nothing to do with positioning. How hard or easy the encounter is will vary, but not the CR. Position is relative and will be changed during the encounter.

Axoren wrote:
How do you ensure that encounter placement doesn't negatively affect the balance of the encounter?

As the DM, you should not alter this in any way. It's up to player agency to solve this. You should not attempt to balance the CR vs positioning.

If the players are attacked in a disadvantaged positioning, you shouldn't decrease number of enemies or power of enemies, compared to if the players are in an advantaged positioning.

EDIT: Or rather, you don't have to change anything. Players should fix this themselves.


ZZTRaider wrote:
I'd argue that earth elementals in a stone maze shouldn't increase the CR. Their natural habitat would the the plane of earth or underground, which is pretty similar, and you're not supposed to increase the CR for something in its natural habitat (such as a squid in water).

There is actually a caveat that if the situation provides the monster a tremendous advantage the GM should feel free to increase the CR.

As an example fighting earth elementals in a cave does not warrant an increase in CR.
On the other hand, if they can use guerilla tactics maybe because they have reach allowing them to full attack, when the players can only get a single attack in among other things it may warrant an increase in CR.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

The most important thing about positioning is...

Make it interesting!

Use obstacles! trees! furniture! shrubberies! swinging bridges over deep chasms and more!

Seriously, anything you can add to the game map to spice up the encounter is further grist to the mill. Go wild!

Liberty's Edge

I get a bit annoyed if it is always like a video game where no matter what you do, the enemies are in optimal positions.

We have all probably played those video games where as a player if you try to put your forces in optimal positions for a boss battle you are always screwed because either:

(*) The game simply won't start the battle until you are all in a certain area. The enemies just chat or do whatever but won't actually fight you until you are all in a big blob in front of them with no cover whatsoever.

(*) Upon encountering the enemy, you watch a Full-Motion-Video. You didn't position your troops at all during this, but magically at the end of the video the enemy troops are in optimal positions and your forces are in sucky positions.

I feel that often pen-and-paper modules do similar things. They basically always let the enemy have advantageous terrain and the players always have sucky terrain.

I particularly hate those computer games when I am playing a rogue. Of course I always want to be invisible, but those f(^(^ing boss combats inevitably force me to be visible with no terrain advantage right in front of the bad guys troops.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber
nennafir wrote:
I feel that often pen-and-paper modules do similar things. They basically always let the enemy have advantageous terrain and the players always have sucky terrain.

This is the responsibility (or "fault") of your DM. Maybe he wants the encounter to be particularly challenging. Maybe he gets off on handing you your @sses. But maybe, just maybe, you can try to work around his terrain madness and turn the terrain to your advantage.

As a DM I mostly try to set things up in a logical, plausible manner, and I often also try to leave openings for the PCs to use their tactical ideas to their own advantage. It's far more interesting when the PCs are able to use the terrain to make a battle fun, and not just a toe-to-toe slugging match.

This said, if the party falls into an ambush, then they should expect to get the "sucky terrain". If they are able to spot their adversaries first, then they ought to have far more leeway in picking their battlefield.

At the end of the day, it's really between you and your DM.


Look at Paizo encounters. An important thing is how environment, terrain, and circumstances are all used in how they set up encounters.

A battle scene is more than just squares on paper, it has structure, fixtures, and environment details that all come into play.

Sovereign Court

I think the OP's question is reasonable and deserves a more thorough response. The OP wants to know about the "baseline" placement of enemies that is assumed in their CR. He (she?) is trying to GM in a fair and constructive way.

Well, at first sight there aren't very hard rules about this. There are a couple of "rules":

Favorable Terrain for the PCs: An encounter against a monster that's out of its favored element (like a yeti encountered in a sweltering cave with lava, or an enormous dragon encountered in a tiny room) gives the PCs an advantage. Build the encounter as normal, but when you award experience for the encounter, do so as if the encounter were one CR lower than its actual CR.

Unfavorable Terrain for the PCs: Monsters are designed with the assumption that they are encountered in their favored terrain—encountering a water-breathing aboleth in an underwater area does not increase the CR for that encounter, even though none of the PCs breathe water. If, on the other hand, the terrain impacts the encounter significantly (such as an encounter against a creature with blindsight in an area that suppresses all light), you can, at your option, increase the effective XP award as if the encounter's CR were one higher.

These are written a bit after-the-fact-ly; if your intent was to design an encounter with a certain CR, and you have specific terrain in mind, just pick an amount of monsters that fit the adjusted CR.

Next there's the question of how exactly to place the monsters when the encounter starts. Here it's a matter of applying "common" sense. If monsters are on guard for intruders (coming from the PCs' direction) they'd be likely to assume good positions. If they don't suspect danger, they'd be wherever their daily business takes them.

When do monsters notice the PCs approaching? This would depend a lot on terrain. The Environment chapter in the CRB has some guidance on this. For example:

CRB > Environment > Forest wrote:

Stealth and Detection in a Forest: In a sparse forest, the maximum distance at which a Perception check for detecting the nearby presence of others can succeed is 3d6 × 10 feet. In a medium forest, this distance is 2d8 × 10 feet, and in a dense forest it is 2d6 × 10 feet.

Because any square with undergrowth provides concealment, it's usually easy for a creature to use the Stealth skill in the forest. Logs and massive trees provide cover, which also makes hiding possible.

The background noise in the forest makes Perception checks that rely on sound more difficult, increasing the DC of the check by 2 per 10 feet, not 1.

So you could roll the detection distance, and then when the PCs come close enough, roll Perception checks for your monsters. Remember to factor in distance penalties. Then, when the PCs come close enough that the monsters' Perception result would beat the DC, have the monsters become aware and start taking measures against the approaching intruders.

This means that if the PCs are traveling quietly, through dense forest, it's quite possible that the PCs will bump right into enemies who have assumed no special positioning.

Silver Crusade

Normal games: Position enemies where their actions and roles would properly place them. For example, watchmen at the top of a tower will probably be standing behind or between battlements looking out over the terrain, a group of gnolls who just finished a successful hunt may well be circled around the prey's corpse while the pack leader eats first, and a group of hobgoblins on patrol will probably be spread out in a rational marching order that maximizes their chance of spotting enemies, minimizes their chance of being spotted, gives the point hobgoblin time to notify the rest of the patrol of an ambush beforethey stumble into the kill zone, protects their spellcasters (if any), minimizes the number of hobgoblins able to be gibbed with a fireball or lightning bolt, and still enables them to close ranks quickly to deal with melee threats. (Which is to say that unless there are specific considerations such as poor or exceptional leadership, significant losses, etc, their patrol formation should correspond to the regular military doctrines of the hobgoblin polity which would be shaped by the same concerns that dictate player character marching orders).

PFS: Position enemies exactly where the adventure says they are. If the adventure does not specify monster locations on the map, place them based on where the text says they are. If the PCs' actions have departed enough from the adventure's assumptions that the written/map locations do not make sense revert to "normal game" advice.(For example, the adventure assumes that the PCs defeat the river pirates in encounter 1--that didn't happen; the PCs were defeated, their boat was captured along with one of their members, and nearly all the bad guys got away; encounter 2 river pirate lair will proceed significantly differently than it is written in the adventure).


>How do you ensure that encounter placement doesn't negatively affect the balance of the encounter?

The way you phrase the post makes me think you are a very wise humanoid. Not many people get that about designing encountners. However, you are mistaken in what you should do first. I find that you could design most of the encounter before you settle down on the exact kind of enemies you will use. Decide what general theme you want, think about what general abilities the critters should have(invisibility/casting/ranged weaponry/tough/different senses/etc), play around with players attention(check out this Dark Souls game everyone is talking about for some great examples of how attention and player psychology affect the overall difficulty of an encounter), figure out how the battlefield should look like, and only then reach for a bestiary and pick the critters to fit your encounter.

The art of war isn't about picking "balanced" critters and setting them on your players. It is about balancing the conditions of the battlefield by picking stronger or weaker enemies.


Don't overthink it. Just put them on the board. Minions attack first and the BBEG waits to press the advantage.


Brother Fen wrote:
Don't overthink it. Just put them on the board. Minions attack first and the BBEG waits to press the advantage.

Or the BBEG acts first to give the minions the upper hand. Kind of depends on what your BBEG actually is.


I position my NPCs and monsters in places that are realistic for them, depending on the situation. This is an extension of the living imaginative universe we're playing in, not a transition to a tactical board game.

My players are positioned similarly.

We never worry about CR because I don't play enemies optimally and neither do my players.

Depends on game styles, I guess.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

If you can, tactically interesting positions are usually the most fun.

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