Building Encounters On A Budget

Does anyone really level with experience points anymore? In ttrpgs I mean. Every game I see just goes by plot point or achievements or something like that. Outside of video games, xp just seems needlessly complicated, right? 

Well, Pathfinder 2e actually has a use for experience other than leveling. Kinda. The “encounter budget” found in the Core Rulebook is actually super useful and easy to use. Creatures and hazards are worth a certain amount of xp based on level compared to the party’s. Encounters have an xp budget based on their difficulty and how many characters are in the party. You just “spend” the encounter’s xp on creatures and traps and hazards and the like.

Simple Addition 

This makes it super easy to throw an encounter together on the fly. For example, let’s say I want to make a low threat encounter for my party of six level 5 adventurers. Low threat shouldn’t be a pushover, but it should let them feel powerful. Such an encounter starts with 60xp and gets 15xp more for each player more than four, so I get 90xp to spend. A creature of a level equal to the party takes 40xp, so I can use two of them. With 10xp left, I can either add a very weak creature four levels lower than the party or a simple, one-off trap around their level instead. 

Now, all I have to do is get two level 5 creatures and a level 6 simple hazard. I like to pick the hazard first so I can choose the creatures based on its effects. Level 6 has a fun hazard called “Ghostly Choir” that deals mental damage and frightens the party. Simple enough. I look at the back of the bestiary for fitting creatures, choosing harpy since they have singing abilities themselves to go with the choir. 

Now, that explanation might seem long, but it all holds down to this: 

  • Low threat encounter for 6 people = 90xp
  • Two creatures same level as party = 40xp × 2 = 80xp
  • Simple Hazard level+1 = 12xp
  • Hazard 6: Ghostly Choir
  • Creature 5 (×2): Harpy

That’s the entire process. I’m 2xp over, but that’s close enough. For a low threat, going slightly over isn’t a huge deal.

All that’s left is the presentation. I imagine the souls in the choir are victims of the harpies, trapped by their song and doomed to repeat it. When the hazard goes off, the harpies swoop in and attack. That’s it. Encounter built. 

Adjustments and Levels

What’s so great about this tool is you can adjust it super quickly. Let’s say the above encounter didn’t get used because the party circumvented it somehow, but I want to use it again later. The party levels twice before making a return trip through the area, so now the encounter as it is would be below trivial. 

How do we fix this? Just pull up the budget table. Harpies are now two levels lower than the party, making them worth only 20xp. The hazard is only worth 6xp. We are at 46xp and want 90xp. We could simply double everything in the encounter to fill the gaps to keep things simple, but two of the same haunt can be kinda weird and four identical harpies would feel bland.

Time to use the bestiary again. The very front of the bestiary gives a handy little tool in the elite and weak adjustments to increase or decrease a creature’s level by 1. Elite harpies would be worth 30xp each and hold up in a fight a bit better due to higher defenses and more hp. While it isn’t technically written for hazards, the same adjustments actually work fairly well for less complicated hazard entries, meaning we can make the Ghostly Choir level 7 by adjusting the DCs and modifiers as if it were a creature. It’s also worth 8xp instead of 6xp, but this is more to make the hazard at least kind of keep up with the party.

With 68xp, we need 22 more for a low threat encounter. That’s about a creature at party level -2, so we could just add another standard harpy and be done with it. However, I still have space in this post so let’s ignore that option. 

Rather than limit ourselves to level 5 creatures again, let’s look at anything from 4-6 that can fit our musical-wild-creature theme, keeping in mind the level adjustments we can use. Satyrs, for instance, are usually level 4, but an elite satyr at 5 works great. 

Now, our updated encounter looks like:

  • 2× elite harpies (30xp each)
  • “Elite” Ghostly Choir (8xp)
  • Elite satyr (20xp)

The set up is the same. Just add in the satyr, maybe using suggestion to lure a party member into the haunt to start. Then it can use inspire courage repeatedly to help the harpies while fighting. Quick, simple turns are important for larger sized encounters, so having a basic routine is best. 

Scaling Up

Even if you don’t want to design a whole new creature, the creature creation guide in the Gamemastery Guide lets you extend this process to any level by delving slightly into the creature creation. Each statistic has a chart so you can look up what value would be appropriate much more accurately than the weak or elite adjustments. Furthermore, those adjustments aren’t meant for repeated applications. The numbers don’t hold to the formula of everything else in the game. Re-leveling a creature with the Gamemastery Guide is much more balanced and still pretty easy.

To do a quick re-level, just find where on the chart the base monster is, then bump it up to the desired level at the same degree. Lets upgrade our level 5 harpy up to level 10. To find the AC of a level 10 harpy, just look up how good a harpy’s AC is for a level 5 creature. At 22, a level 5 harpy has “high” AC according to the chart. My level 10 version would also probably have “high” AC, which is 30 at that point. Repeat this for any relevant stat you use, and you get yourself a beefier harpy. Still, just upgrading numbers doesn’t feel like it’s enough, does it? 

Dynamic Additions

When you add more than a couple levels to a creature, it’s usually good to add new abilities as well. At level 5, creatures and characters both spend most actions getting in position for attacks and then swinging their weapon as hard as possible. You have one, maybe two weird abilities that come up in combat, usually only once or twice before everything is done. At level 10, that would get boring very fast. At this point, players have items, spells, skills, feats, and more to shake things up in combat. The same should be true of monsters, to some degree.

Creating brand new abilities from scratch can be much more complicated, so it goes beyond the “fast and easy custom encounter” idea. However, it’s still very straightforward using the charts. For some quick examples though, you can add on an existing item, a class feat, some spells, or copy-paste a fitting ability from a different creature. In this musical encounter, there’s lots of easy finds:

  • Weapons with sonic damage or auditory enchantment effects
  • Bard feats like well-versed and dirge of doom
  • Spells like heroism or blistering invective
  • Abilities like Hostile Duet and Retune from Melody On The Wind

With only a few minor additions, this upgraded harpy feels way more interesting. It’s not just a leveled up version; it’s a fancy, song-focused, leader of harpies now. Just make sure you adjust any values to fit the level of the creature and you’re golden.

If you want to make the encounter more dynamic without completely redesigning things, you can still use the parts you got or look to add something new in. Since a satyr is usually not evil like harpies, maybe it stops fighting if the party can prove themselves musically or something. Maybe the harpies are forcing the satyr to work with them with some magical object, and by destroying it they can have the satyr change sides and buff the party instead.

This can also be a great step for making your players feel like their choices matter. No one wants to play a character with big defining characteristics that never come up. If the champion in the group takes a bunch of undead-related abilities and you never have undead in the campaign, they’ll likely feel shorted or useless. For the above encounter, you could give the harpies the animate dead spell. At that level, they can even summon harpy skeletons for even more thematic tie-ins.

Summary

Overall, using the encounter budget system is a wonderful way to build a custom encounter without having to worry about power levels. In a future post, I’ll go in depth about hand-crafting a creature from the ground up to fit in such an encounter. For now though, I’m going to figure out how to add this encounter to the campaign I’m running because I actually kinda like it.

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