How to balance encounters with monster NPCs as party allies? [duplicate]

I DM for a group of three players, and having only three players can be quite limiting in terms of encounter design if I want them to face some more varied (higher CR) adversaries. To allow me more freedom, in the past I have granted one of them the control of an NPC to become an ally of the party, using a monster statblock. I try to vary who gets control of an NPC, so everyone has the same amount of stuff to do, and while I try to make the encounter harder, often the NPC is much stronger that the PCs, and so the encounter ends up being easy!

Essentially, if I want to introduce an NPC monster stat block as an ally to the party, how do CR and ‘effective level’ relate for the purposes of balancing encounters, e.g: to make 3 lvl 6 players ‘as strong as’ a party of 4 lvl 6 players, what CR monster do I need to add as an ally?

As a DM, how do you adjust the difficulty to create challenging encounters when your party is well constructed (aka Power Players)

I am a newbie DM and started mastering because our current master was too lazy to bring a nice and engaging story.

I am doing really good on the role playing and storytelling, but my encounters had been nothing more than some fun for my player’s characters. I even edited some foes stats and used some high CL creatures, but it still looks like stealing candy from a kid to them.

I guess this is what you pay for allowing 3 spellcasters on your party on 3.5.

How do I balance this campaign without sending a demon from another realm that destroys magic around him and frustrating the players?

How to help new-ish players perform less linearly in encounters?

Quick encounter reference guide https://crobi.github.io/dnd5e-quickref/preview/quickref.html has so many possible options for players to take. Even then, the option for diplomacy, roleplaying, and imagination are endless in dnd.

With that said, the last couple homebrew fights have the players attacking first, asking questions later, and just running into the enemies without much thought, rolling off attacks, and using their combat spells in the exact same order each time like a recipe. They don’t even move much in the fight as positioning isn’t a concern for them. Barely surviving but them feeling like “well the fight we either roll well, or die if we roll poorly.” Rather than thinking and trying out other possibilities, utility spells, positioning, imaginative problem solving.

I’ve considered adding environmental obstacles, traps, more dialogue-related enemies, and problems to solve. Maybe them failing, and learning from mistakes is one way to help them learn.

It’s also not just about throwing a bunch of text of them to read, telling them to watch a dnd podcast to get ideas, or adding “new” things, as it is about themselves realising themselves new methods to approach encounters, and trying out new things.

What are some good strategies to help foster this imagination in an organic way that doesn’t involve me telling them to do mandatory homework?

Do mounts impact party XP threshold for the purpose of building combat encounters?

The 5e DMG has rules and a process for developing combat encounters of an appropriate level: https://www.dndbeyond.com/sources/dmg/creating-adventures#CreatingEncounters

However, mounts can take actions in combat, e.g. player with a halfling PC mounted on a mastiff could sic the dog onto an enemy, effectively increasing that player’s combat actions.

How should mounts factor into a party’s XP threshold for calculating a budget for use in balancing combat encounters?

How can I create encounters that encourage players to use non-Attack actions?

In D&D 5e, the players have lots of actions they can take within combat encounters besides attacking. I’m trying to figure out how to encourage them to use a greater variety of actions, especially Disengage, Dodge, and Help.

They’ve seen NPCs use these actions, so they know they are available, and my rogue is good at taking Disengage as a bonus action. However, it seems like these options are too weak mechanically to compete with attacking for the PCs actions.

Are there specific tactical situations that will make these options more appealing?

What is a good way to keep track of time between encounters with an ability that regenerates at a rate of 1 per minute?

What is a good way to keep track of time between encounters with an ability that regenerates at a rate of 1 per minute?

Force Ward

You constantly surround yourself with a ward of force. You gain a number of temporary hit points equal to your kineticist level. You always lose these temporary hit points first, even before other temporary hit points. If an attack deals less damage than you still have as temporary hit points from force ward, it still reduces those temporary hit points but otherwise counts as a miss for the purpose of abilities that trigger on a hit or a miss. These temporary hit points regenerate at a rate of 1 per minute. …

This gives you a pool of temporary Hit Points that regenerate at the rate of 1 THP per minute. How do would you keep track of THP gained during the session?

Example with multiple encounters, how you keep track of time between random and predetermined encounters to know how much THP you regenerate in between?

Are combat encounters during travel fluff for mid-level players?

In particular, there are 4 level 8-9 PCs who not have any travel augmenting abilities besides Fly (Warlock). They are beginning to travel longer distances for story reasons, which will take a few weeks by horse. In the past they have purchased or bartered for teleportation, but they did not choose to pursue that route in this case.

The road is certainly less dangerous than where they are heading, making any challenging 1/day encounter implausible (a wild Ultraloth appears!) – but I would like to find a way to have some meaningful combat experience in sessions without eliding over a month or more of travel.

The thoughts that had come to mind were less “two muscular men block your path” and more social encounters during travel and larger-scale problems at population centers or points of interest.

How can I stress my players’ resources while making the stressors feel natural without simply adding more combat encounters?

In a weekly campaign I’ve been running my players have recently reached levels where they are obtaining some of their core abilities. One of my players is a druid, who has chosen the wild shape-focused Circle of the Moon. Now that he can transform into a brown bear as a bonus action his character has made me notice a flaw in my session design: my characters seem to never be at a loss for abilities, spells, and the like. Encounters – combat encounters especially – are always too easy for them.

I should point out that this is my fault, not theirs – if anything they are taking fewer rests than what would probably be considered normal. I find fitting in the recommended number of combat encounters to be immersion breaking. Tossing so many random combat encounters at a group who is making a day trip to kill an ogre harassing a nearby farming village feels very manufactured. The timescale also feels a bit prohibitive – running into so many hostile groups in a single adventuring day seems odd.

The focus of my campaign is the story, not combat. Combat-heavy segments are definitely within scope, likely solving the problems I’ve mentioned, but they will not always be appropriate. I am specifically interested in solutions for when combat-heavy play is not a good option.

How can I stress my players’ resources while making the stressors feel natural without simply adding more combat encounters?