D&D 5E – Old School and Encounter Balance

Recently, I’ve been talking about using D&D 5E for an “old school” campaign style.

Sandbox Gaming

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking so much about old school play lately is that I really want to run a full sandbox game.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’m going to quote Ben Robbins from his ars lundi blog, who inspired a lot of gamers with his posts about his West Marches Campaign.

“There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.”


“The game was set in a frontier region on the edge of civilization (the eponymous West Marches). There’s a convenient fortified town that marked the farthest outpost of civilization and law, but beyond that is sketchy wilderness. All the PCs are would-be adventurers based in this town…The whole territory is (by necessity) very detailed. The landscape is broken up into a variety of regions (Frog Marshes, Cradle Wood, Pike Hollow, etc.) each with its own particular tone, ecology and hazards. There are dungeons, ruins, and caves all over the place, some big and many small. Some are known landmarks (everbody knows where the Sunken Fort is), some are rumored but their exact location is unknown (the Hall of Kings is said to be somewhere in Cradle Wood) and others are completely unknown and only discovered by exploring (search the spider-infested woods and you find the Spider Mound nest).”

But most important is the following:

“PCs get to explore anywhere they want, the only rule being that going back east is off-limits — there are no adventures in the civilized lands, just peaceful retirement.”

Now, none of this absolutely forbids the use of pre-published adventure modules in the campaign. But the key element is that the players decide where their characters are going to go, what rumors inspire them to investigate further, what job offers they want to accept, and which direction they want to explore.

So if the DM has an adventure that he feels is interesting and would like to run, then he or she drops it into an appropriate area on the campaign map and feeds the characters the hooks (rumors, job offer, requests for aid, etc.). They players may or may not show any interest. If they decide to go in another direction, then the DM doesn’t move the adventure over to where the PCs are headed, because that’s not how the real world works.

What this means is that the DM needs—at the very least—a campaign map with major terrain features on it, and a bunch of potential adventure locations (which might be settlements, ruins, dungeons, monster lairs, or interesting geographical features). The DM then sprinkles a few adventure possibilities in the town where they start, and the game begins.

I have to admit, I’ve never run a fully sandbox game before (often referred to as a hexcrawl for the fact that most large overland maps tend to use hex grids instead of square grids). And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’m really interested in starting a brand new campaign at first level and exploring the possibilities in such a campaign.

Now, early editions of D&D were certainly well-suited to such a campaign. But I’ve been exploring how the current edition of D&D, fifth edition, would work when combined with old school play. And so the idea of combining the general precepts of old school play with a pure sandbox campaign has grabbed me and won’t let go.

Encounter Balance

Since one of the core elements of a sandbox/hexcrawl is that the world exists independent of the player characters, it means that not everything will be balanced against the current level of the characters at the time they encounter it.

Ben Robbins had this to say about the West Marches campaign:

“The environment is dangerous. Very dangerous…PCs have to work together or they are going to get creamed. They also have to think and pick their battles — since they can go anywhere, there is nothing stopping them from strolling into areas that will wipe them out. If they just strap on their swords and charge everything they see they are going to be rolling up new characters. Players learn to observe their environment and adapt — when they find owlbear tracks in the woods they give the area a wide berth (at least until they gain a few levels). When they stumble into the lair of a terrifying hydra they retreat and round up a huge posse to hunt it down. The PCs are weak but central: they are small fish in a dangerous world that they have to explore with caution, but because they are the only adventurers they never play second fiddle. Overshadowed by looming peaks and foreboding forests yes. Overshadowed by other characters, no.”

In Ben’s campaign, he set up his map into specific areas (a particular set of woods, a mountain, a swamp, an old battlefield, etc.) and then gave each area a particular “level” of challenge. Areas nearest the character’s home base were generally of low level, and the challenge increased as the characters proceeded farther away from “civilization.” This maintained a certain level of verisimilitude in the game, as the players were on the edge of a settled empire, so areas closest to it would be the least dangerous.

It also had a bit of a balancing effect, as the players’ first-level characters would likely explore closest to their home base, and then branch out farther as they gained in level.

However, Ben also put individual locations within those areas that might be more dangerous than the surrounding area would indicate. A crypt with a bunch of wights inside could be in the middle of the goblin-infested forest. As long as the wights were trapped inside the sealed crypt, the surrounding forest was only as dangerous as the goblins. But the characters could find the crypt and decide to break into it…

One of the keys to making this work is that the DM provides some clues to the players that they are entering a more dangerous area. The tracks of an owlbear are mentioned above. The entrance to the wight-filled crypt might have (cryptic) warnings on the outside. If the players are paying attention, they should have an idea that they are about to enter a more dangerous area, and then they are making an informed decision if they choose to do so. Or perhaps they aren’t paying attention and rush their way into an area without scouting it out or otherwise trying to find out some information about it. And then, when they encounter monsters that are too tough for them to beat, they can learn how important it is to run away when you’re outmatched.

What this all amounts to is this: the campaign world map is designed as if it is a real place with real adventure locations on it. Some of those locations will be somewhat dangerous, and some will be downright deadly. It will be up to the players to determine how much of a challenge they want to face, based on the information they can determine about the world through exploring, scouting, and otherwise seeking knowledge. But the campaign world never throws “level-appropriate” challenges at the characters. The decision as to what encounters to face is ultimately on the players’ side, not the DM’s side.

5E and Challenge Ratings

So how does the use of the D&D 5E rules support or prevent such an approach to a campaign. Well, 5E has a couple of tools in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual that helps DMs judge the lethality of a particular monster or set of monsters.

In the Monster Manual, all monsters have a Challenge Rating. The MM defines the Challenge thusly:

“A monster’s challenge rating tells you how great a threat the monster is. An appropriately equipped and well-rested party of four adventurers should be able to defeat a monster that has a challenge rating equal to its level without suffering any deaths.”

This is a nice tool. It tells me that I probably shouldn’t place the lair of an ancient red dragon in the region next to the character’s home base, as that is going to be far too difficult a challenge for low-level characters (and the in-world explanation is that the empire from which the characters hail would probably have already sent in soldiers to deal with a powerful red dragon right on their doorstep).

The second tool is in the DMG and shows the DM how to combine multiple monsters into encounters, and figure out how dangerous those encounters will be to the party of characters.

Again, this is a great tool that provides good information to the DM.

Now, at this point I have to point out that some people look at the information under “Creating a Combat Encounter” in the DMG and think that they are somehow required to always abide by the charts and advice in this section. But that is silly—no one from Wizards of the Coast cares in the slightest whether or not you use the information in the DMG to develop the encounters in your campaign. It’s there for two reasons:

  1. Advice for those who have never played the game before and are looking to balance the challenge to the party of player characters.
  2. Information for DMs so that they fully understand how challenging a particular of monsters will be to a party of a certain level.

But just because that information is there, doesn’t make it a rule that a DM is required to slavishly obey.

Personally, I prefer to have more information than less. If I’m creating a sandbox campaign, I want to have a rough idea of how challenging the various encounters I build and drop onto the map are going to be in actual play. This way, I can ensure that I’m not throwing truly deadly challenges into an area when I’ve intended the area to only be mildly challenging…and vice versa.

These tools are just like the pile of actual tools I have in my toolbox at home. Just because I own about fifty different tools doesn’t mean I have to use them all whenever I need to do some work on my home. Sometimes, I just need a screwdriver. Sometimes I just need a hammer. And sometimes (on a big project), I need most of the tools in the toolbox and I’m glad that I already have them.

The Challenge Ratings in the MM and the tables in the DMG are like that. I can use them when I want them, and they stay in storage when I don’t need them.

The Sandbox Campaign

So how does this all tie together?

For this sandbox campaign, my plan is to develop a campaign map, just like Ben Robbins did for the West Marches Campaign. I will have a series of regions on the map, most likely divided by appropriate terrain features, and will populate them with potential adventure locations. Those regions nearest to the characters’ home base will tend to be less dangerous (with individual locations perhaps being far more dangerous than the surrounding area might indicate), and regions farther away will be more dangerous.

Further, I will develop rumors, legends, and other clues that observant players will be able to pick up on in order to gain a better understanding of the different regions and what kinds of things they might find as they go exploring in a particular direction.

I will use the tools in the MM and the DMG to make sure I understand how challenging particular areas are. But it will still be up to the PCs to decide if (and when) they approach those areas and face those challenges.

And then the campaign will be ready to start.


While the phrase “balanced encounters” gives many gamers—especially old school gamers—the willies, it is important to keep in mind that the tools in the 5E MM and DMG are there to provide information to the DM, not to put a straightjacket on them. A sandbox/hexcrawl campaign is just as viable in 5E as it is in previous editions of the game.

2 thoughts on “D&D 5E – Old School and Encounter Balance

  1. Good piece.
    A group of us just recently got a “West Marches” style game of the ground. We have a pool of about 2 dozen players with several of us also DM’ing. It’s working really well in that people can play at a schedule that works for them without concern that they’re missing content from a broader campaign. There are folks playing every other week and some who play every few months all sharing the same environment.
    The social aspect had also been a big plus since anyone who has interest can give it a shot. This has led to a lot of friends of friends connecting.

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