Many DM’s struggle with making encounters for their players that are challenging, but not too challenging. What are some of the tools that are available? How can you challenge your players without discouraging or annoying them? It can be tough, but in this article I’ll discuss some of the methods I’ve seen that work well, and also many that don’t work so well. For each method I’ll give a “challenge” rating and also an “annoyance” rating. A high challenge rating means that the method increases the challenge a lot, but a high annoyance rating means that the method has the risk of just making your players mad at you.
Keep in mind that all of these tips can have varying degrees of success depending on your individual players. Experiment with some of these ideas, and use what works!
Making the party take more damage is a good way to make things more challenging, but there are many ways to do that.
- More Monsters. This one is easy: just put more monsters on the table. However, more often than not this just slows things down. Combats in 4E can already sometimes take a while, so adding more things to keep track of can make your job as a DM harder. Also, since there’s more stuff to kill, the fight will last longer, too.
- Harder-Hitting Monsters. Instead of using more monsters, use the same amount of monsters, but just make them hit harder. Add an extra damage die to their attacks, or increase the frequency with which a big attack recharges. Or make the monsters get “enraged” and do more damage when they get bloodied. You have to be careful not to increase the damage too much, as you may end up just killing everyone. But more damage flying around definitely ups the stress level, usually in a good way.
- “Auto” Damage. Use aura or terrain features that do damage to players every turn. This really ratchets up the pressure. I would recommend making the auto-damage avoidable (or at least reducible) somehow, as this lets the players feel like they have a chance to strategize. For example, they might use forced movement to drag the monsters out of the toxic pool, or a few brave PC’s might brave the lich’s necrotic aura while the others work on his zombie minions.
- Monsters that heal. Anything that keeps a monster alive longer usually translates into more damage. Use this one sparingly though; it can be discouraging to the players when all their hard work disappears by the monster healing itself.
Usually the reason PC’s might have an easy time in an encounter is that they effectively use their abilities to deal with the threats you put in front of them. So an effective counter-strategy would be to deny them their abilities. The worst status effects (from a PC’s point of view) are those that prevent them from taking the actions they want to take.
- Stun. Sadly the most effective status effect is also the most annoying. When the player doesn’t get to play the game, he/she is probably not going to be having fun. I’m not saying that you should never stun anyone, but just realize that you’re going to be making someone unhappy. And keep in mind that you’re probably just lengthening the combat without really increasing the fun.
- Dominate. Switching a PC onto the bad guy’s team is a great way to increase the challenge. I would recommend allowing the player to make the rolls for his/her dominated action, since that at least keeps the player involved. Depending on the personalities at the table, that player may even have some devious suggestions for what you can have them do…
- Daze. As a player, being dazed is way better than being stunned. At least I get to do something, even if it isn’t really what I would like to be doing.
- Slow/Immobilize. This one really varies. Getting slowed or immobilized can be crippling for melee characters, though well-built melee characters will often have ways of dealing with these conditions. On the other hand, a ranged character probably doesn’t care about being slowed or immobilized.
Challenge: for melee 7/10, for ranged 1/10
Annoyance: for melee 7/10, for ranged 0/10
- Blind. This one is usually pretty challenging unless you have a lot of characters with area attacks. To keep down the annoyance level, make sure you let the players know where the monsters are (unless the monsters are actively hiding). There’s not much that is more annoying to a player when your character is taking damage and you don’t even know where it’s coming from.
- Ongoing damage. This fits more in the “more damage” category above, but personally I view this as the least challenging status effect, unless it’s a lot of ongoing damage. Ongoing 5? Who cares? Ongoing 25? Oh snap!
- “Unable to use encounter/daily powers.” This one is pretty rare, but it’s pretty challenging when you realize that heals, racial powers, etc. typically fall into this category too.
- Effects that get worse if you don’t make your save. I like these a lot, both as a player and as a DM. To avoid angry players, make sure you let them know that there are consequences for failing the save (though you don’t need to tell them exactly what the consequences are). Once someone fails their save against being slowed and becomes immobilized, and then is told that there are further consequences if they fail again, their imaginations will do the work for you. This usually leads to players using various powers or skills to grant saves or bonuses, which is always fun.
Something that can make a routine encounter a lot more challenging is to give the players something else they need to worry about in addition to the monsters.
- Save these NPC’s! Put some helpless NPC’s on the table that the monsters want to kill. This makes the PC’s have to focus some of their efforts on corralling the monsters or healing NPC’s.
- Complete a skill challenge! These can take various forms, but since using skills in a skill challenge is a standard action, the PC’s will have to decide how much time to devote to the skill challenge. Ideally, make it something that can’t wait until all the monsters are dead; you can do this by adding a ticking clock element, or you could keep spawning monsters until the challenge is complete. Keep in mind that it may take your players a round or two to figure out what they need to do.
So these are some of the many tools you can use to turn up the heat in an encounter. The best thing you can do is to not be predictable. The more your players have to figure out, whether it’s how to turn off an auto-damage aura, or identifying the biggest threat on the monster team, the more fun they’ll have. I typically don’t let my players obtain too much information from monster knowledge checks, since that pretty much ruins the fun of figuring out how an encounter is going to play out. You’ll have to adjust that to your particular group.
So, what do you think? Disagree with some of my ratings? Did I miss any good ways to challenge PC’s? Leave a comment below!