How (Not) to Make a Hard Encounter

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!

More Damage

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.
    Challenge: 2/10
    Annoyance: 7/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 6/10
    Annoyance: 3/10
  • “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.
    Challenge: 8/10
    Annoyance: 4/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 6/10
    Annoyance: 9/10

Status Effects

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.
    Challenge: 4/10
    Annoyance: 9/10
  • 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…
    Challenge: 6/10
    Annoyance: 4/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 3/10
    Annoyance: 2/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 6/10
    Annoyance: 5/10
  • 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!
    Challenge: 2/10
    Annoyance: 1/10
  • “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.
    Challenge: 7/10
    Annoyance: 4/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 7/10
    Annoyance: 2/10

Distractions

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.
    Challenge: 6/10
    Annoyance: 3/10
  • 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.
    Challenge: 8/10
    Annoyance: 4/10

Conclusion

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!

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9 Responses to How (Not) to Make a Hard Encounter

  1. Kilsek says:

    Tremendous article! Love the challenge and annoying ratings scales. It’s true, Stun is just awful and boring, for a PC and for the DM playing the monsters and opposition too. Other threats and moving parts in the environment definitely seem to be the biggest hitters as far adding the most and causing the least annoyance or admin.

  2. Jason Dawson says:

    This is such a great manifesto of Encounter Design. Thank you.

  3. Alphastream says:

    Good analysis! A home campaign rule I like to use is to change Dominate so that the dominated creature is treated as dazed. However, the controller can on their own turn force the dominated creature to take a standard action. What this does is move the dominated action to the dominator’s turn and still let the dominated creature do something. It avoids skipped turns. It also allows for a new condition, Greater Dominate, where the dominator can choose any non-daily standard action…

  4. TheClone says:

    Just wanted to add one think: Status effects may not be that challenging at all. In fact more than a few of them really suck. You can’t protect yourself form them, they almost every time strike at least once before you can do anything about them. So you just have to endure them and that’s really annoying. I once had a fight in which I had a status effect on my character about half of the rounds or more. That was one the worst fights I ever had.

  5. James Hamblin says:

    There are lots of things you can do to protect yourself from nasty status effects. Improve your defenses so you don’t get hit by them in the first place. Take utility powers that grant saves or bonuses to saves. Look for magic items that grant saves, save rerolls, or save bonuses. Use feats like Superior Will, which lets you make a save at the start of your turn against daze/stun effects, even if they’re not save ends effects!

  6. TheClone says:

    Yeah and then I can’t do anything else. I was a Barbarian. I wanted Iron Armbands of Power and all that stuff. And there was no f**king way I would have been able to raise my defs by more then two points and that was still 3 or more below the fighter. Yes, it is only a striker and he should keep out of the line of fire, but if the GM wants, he’ll get you. It simply was a pain in the ass and the other (significantly more experienced) players and the GM didn’t have any idea what significant difference I could have made on that point with different items or abilities.

    I just wanted to point out: Using too much status effect can be a reason for massive frustration, so be careful with that. It might help, but it can prove to be a tricky solution.

  7. Aaron says:

    Nice ideas and I (roughly) agree with the various ratings – with one key exception: The annoyance factor on Daze is easily a 9/10 (or even a 10/10) if you hit a defender with it. Remember that a Dazed creature cannot use immediate or opportunity actions, which completely destroys a defender’s ability to use any of the powers that make them a defender… and for many of the defenders, it prevents them from even placing a mark on any of the monsters unless that is the only action they take.

  8. gregwa says:

    Some great ideas, such as the terrain damage of an acid pool. One small disagreement is on the annoyance factors of “dominate” versus “slow.” I’ve generally found that slow and even blind fighting are taken by players as part of the game. In fact, they have enjoyed finding ways of dealing with it. On the other hand, I’ve received some very real hostility from players when I’ve dominated their tank. Of course, the player’s face lights up with joy when I hand back his character sheets. DM feels the joy makes the suffering worthwhile. Player is not convinced.

  9. Yes!
    The challenge vs. annoyance factor is genius and should definitely be added to the design lexicon.
    Annoyance is fine, but like any spice, use annoyance sparingly or it will overpower the encounter and leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. If you’re leaning heavily on more than two of those techniques to make the fight challenging, I think it’s probably too much… but I might just be too close to this topic since a friend of mine who has been running a game (and is otherwise a fantastic DM) has an uncanny knack for creating encounters that consistently rank very high on the annoyance scale.

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