I have never been fan of systems that dictate building encounters in roleplaying games. I’m the kind of GM who has always relied on the “eyeball it” method that comes with enough experience with games. While this gave me great freedom in how I approached things it also meant that I was often adjusting stats and scores during the encounter when things turned out too tough or too easy. I thought this was the best way to do things because, let’s be honest, any balancing system is going to have trouble accounting for the near infinite possibilities that can happen in an rpg.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered how much fun I was having building encounters in 4e using the standard system. Let me start by saying that it’s no holy grail of encounter design systems, but it is very, very robust and, most importantly, consistently gives good results. And by good results I mean really fun encounters, of course.
I think a lot of the breakthrough here is that monsters aren’t just given a power rating, like Challenge Ratings in 3E, but are given a role along with it. By looking at creature’s level and role you instantly know what it’s going to be doing on the battlefield and how tough it’s going to be for the players to take down. This means you don’t have to have a lot of experience with either the system or the creature itself to know what it should be doing in a battle. While this is by no means rocket science, this simple bit of explicitness makes designing an interesting encounter fairly easy once you know how to apply all the new information.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide does a fantastic job of walking a Dungeon Master through the ropes, even giving example encounter setups that one just needs to plug the monsters into. The later advice on customizing monsters, particularly about reskinning and adjusting levels just adds more tools to the toolbox. Using these is an excellent way of getting familiar with what works and what doesn’t in scenario design. Really, as long as you take in the advice in the DMG, it’s pretty tough to run a really poor encounter.
That said, experience still plays a huge role, as does group composition. A party with a bunch of strikers may have a great time taking on a monstrous brute and his crew while one made up of primarily defenders and leaders would find that fight a long grind. The DMG is a great guide, but it doesn’t tell you that nor a handful of other useful encounter tidbits. So, here’s what my experience as a 4th Edition DM has taught me:
1. Variety Is The Key: Monster roles are there for a reason. Use them. You don’t need to use every type of role in every encounter, but having a few different ones keeps things dynamic. An encounter using all soldiers and skirmishers is going to pile up somewhere in the middle and form a scrum that’s going to severely limit movement. It’s going to fall into the old D&D trope of just standing at one place and swinging away. Why not add some artillery that can pose a threat from the rear? A leader that can shift and heal allies? A lurker to pop up from the flank of rear and really put the hurt on? Much like the adventuring party itself, encounters are much more interesting and balanced when the monsters all have different methods of defeating the party.
2. Make Sure Everyone Has Something to Do: This is kind of an extension of the first rule. All the PC roles have different strengths and weaknesses, make sure that your encounters have something for everyone. A controller is going to want to fight minions and a battlefield with dangerous terrain to slide enemies into. A lurker is going to want interesting ways to get the flank on the dangerous opponents. A defender is going to want enemies that challenge his skill in keeping them threatened. Think about what your players like to do and give that to them. That said, remember this is a dial and not a switch. You don’t have to give everybody lots to do every fight as that’s going to lead to repetitious encounters. Different types of encounters make different classes the star. Spread the spotlight around.
3. Minions: As a big fan of Savage Worlds and Feng Shui, I think minions are one of the best additions to the game. They let the players face a horde of bad guys without bogging the game down one bit. Use them liberally. Still, there are a few issues. One is that the base assumption that four minions are the equivalent of on standard at-level monster is off. A six to one ration is a little closer, actually. The other thing is that their damage ratings aren’t often a big enough threat. One rule I’ve seen to fix this is that minion damage is always equal to their level. It’s a solid change and one that put the balance more in line of the 4 to 1 range, but just be aware that it tends to make minions far more deadly, particularly once you get into the mid-paragon tier.
It’s always good to make sure you have some minions that do something other than just attack. Exploding zombies, demons that give bonuses to allies when they die, and hanging corpses that can easily immobilize are all good examples of this. Monsters that can create minions are always fun,too.
Remember, minions are like bacon bits, sprinkle liberally to make everything better.
4. Terrain: With all the movement around the battlefield (slides, shifts, pulls, and teleports), terrain features are more important than ever. Fighting in a 20×20 room with one desk against the wall just doesn’t cut it anymore. When you’re making the encounter remember to check to see if there’s obstacles to break up the battlefield for the purposes of cover. Is there difficult terrain to make movement options tactically interesting? Did you add pits, spikes, traps, and other dangers to keep the players on their toes? Have you thought about multiple levels to make movement dynamic? Are there features that can be interacted with that can change the battlefield (levers that release water, steam valves, etc.). Again the DMG has a good listing of interesting terrain features but it is by no means exhaustive. Think of the environment as a character itself.
This is another point that’s more of a dial than a lever. Having deep pits or traps every single encounter gets old. Not every encounter needs fantasy or fantastic terrain. Good use of mundane terrain can turn the battlefield into a veritable playground, too. In fact, you’re going to want to use mundane terrain more often than the fantastic stuff lest the fantastic terrain start to seem mundane. You catch my drift there?
Mundane terrain can be as simple as a thorny hedge in the forest, a fallen tree or column, natural cliffs, strewn boulders, a fire that grows every turn, a sandstorm or snowstorm, or a crumbling bridge. When in doubt, look to the movies for set piece battles that make good use of environment.
5. The Solo Problem: The classic D&D image is of a part of adventurers squaring off against an angry dragon. It’s iconic. The trouble is that it’s not as simple to make that encounter fun as it used to be. See, Third Edition had the problem that encounters ran best when they were focused on a small number of creatures. It was just the way both the system and the encounter math worked best.
The Fourth Edition designers recognized this as something they wanted to change and overall, they did a fantastic job of making sure fights against lots of creatures was fluid, fast, and fun. The only trouble is that the fight against one big bad monster got left in the dust. While the game includes many solos for just this purpose, I’ve found that they tend to be the least interesting fights. The reason for this is that 4E PCs have some big guns at their disposal and if everyone is focused on one creature they can whittle it down really quickly. Even worse are conditions like blind and weakened which are usually spread around to multiple combatants. When heaped on one creature it basically neuters them right out of the gate. This typically leads to the fight being a foregone conclusion where it’s just about spending round after round reducing the creature’s hit point while it can do little back.
While I find the “4E is WoW” comparison just as stupid and uninformed as I did the “3E is Diablo II” comparison back in the day, here’s a point where the tabletop could take a cue from MMOs. In many MMOs, the big bosses are immune to common conditions and effects so that they can’t be stunlocked into a position where they’re just a sack of hit point sitting there taking a whupping. Having all solos in D&D have immunities like that would be pretty lame, though, since it would make some builds useless. So how do we fix the problem?
I’ve found a few ways to handle this. The first is to make sure your solo is a few levels above the PCs. Anything near their level is going to be smashed quickly. The second is that most solos in my game save at the start of their turn, usually at a bonus. This still gives conditions a chance to effect the solo without it being a guaranteed wasted turn. Another things is that I rarely make solos solo. I almost always give them at least some minions to serve as a distraction for the PCs. I also will occasionally give my solos a couple more action points. You have to watch this, particularly if they have some really nasty attacks, but it’s a good way to make them more viable without drastically increasing their power level. Lastly, use the environment. A solo is a lot deadlier if it can fly and the party is attacking it in its lair. Sculpt the environment to utilize the advantages of each creature.
WOTC seems to be aware of the issue as the solos in Monster Manual 2 are a bit beefier.
Solo fights take a little more work than the average encounter to make interesting and fun, which is a complete reversal of previous editions, but it certainly can be done.
4. Conditions: Monsters that give conditions to the player are fun. Conditions are almost always more interesting than straight damage and can really force the players to adapt their strategy. The trouble is that certain conditions can be really, really frustrating. Weakened, Immobilized, Dominated, and even Slowed are all conditions that the DM needs to be very aware of when looking at creature abilities in encounter building. The reason for this is that all of these conditions tend to cause the fight to drag out either by limiting what the PCs can do or by reducing the amount of damage dealt. I can tell you from experience that it is no fun being taken out of nearly an entire fight just because you can’t save against a condition.
Now we see that some of the most interesting abilities for DMs to use are also the most frustrating for players. How do we reconcile that? Doesn’t the DM get to have fun, too? Of course he does. The answer here is to enjoy busting these abilities out but to make sure that you use them sparingly. Also, if you’re going to use several creatures with these abilities then it’s a wise idea to scale the encounter level back to make it go a little faster.
The same thing goes for swarms and insubstantial creatures. Both can be really frustrating to fight since both take half damage from most sources. They can be great fun to use now and again but expect the combat to take much longer since the PCs are going to be dealing out much less damaged.
Now against parties with Wardens, Clerics, Warlords and certain other classes with the right build, this isn’t as big of an issue, so know your party.
I hope my experience here helps you to improve your game. If you end up putting these tips into practice, make sure to let me know how it goes!