The Monster Balancing Act

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 12, 2010

Is it better to fight a few really tough monsters or a whole bunch of weaker monsters? There’s probably not a right or wrong answer to this question, but I’m going to continue searching for one. Over the past two weeks my gaming group has tried both extremes and there were many lessons learned by the players and the DM.

The Setup

The players dusted off characters that they haven’t played in almost a year. They just hit level 11 – Paragon Tier. This opened up new powers and new abilities for all of the PCs. It will take them a few sessions for the players to remember what these particular PCs are capable of, and after a few games it’ll be like they never took a break at all.

I finally got a chance to take on the responsibilities of being the DM for this long-term campaign. This is my first opportunity to do so in 4e. Until now I’ve only been the DM for one-off games (mostly dungeon delves and LFR adventures). In each case I used an adventure that was written for me.

Game 1 – A Few Really Tough Monsters

For the first game back I ran the PCs through the level 11 Dungeon Delve. I used the adventure as written. The only adjustment I made was to remove a couple of the monsters since they were only a party of 4 and not a party of 5.

The monsters in the first encounter were levels 10 and 15; in the second encounter levels 11, 13 and 14; and in the third encounter level 14. The PCs were clearly outmatched. The monsters had a lot of hit points and the PCs couldn’t hit with any regularity. The average PC attack score was around +17 and the monsters defenses were in the high 20s and low 30s. Meanwhile the monsters attack scores were so high that they only missed two of the PCs on rolls of 1 or 2.

Lessons Learned – Players

  • Work together. Don’t fall into the typical behaviour of going in different directions and engaged different opponents. Focus all of your energy on one monster at a time until it’s neutralized. (This is just one of 10 great tips we’ve suggested in Avoiding Death.)
  • Make monster knowledge checks. This party has incredibly high skill scores. The best Aracana, Dungeoneering, Nature and Religion scores are about +17. Even on a really poor roll you’re still going to learn something. Knowing its vulnerabilities may help determine which power to use on your turn.

Lesson’s Learned – DM

  • Recognize when monsters are too tough. When you know you’re going to hit the PCs every time it just takes the fun out of it. The PCs cringe when you attack them and you debate fudging rolls to give them a break. This isn’t how the game should work. It’s supposed to be fun.
  • Reward creativity. When the PCs want to try something crazy, let them. In this situation the PCs realized that they were outmatched so they tried a lot of unorthodox things. I said yes over and over again. I set the DCs pretty high for some of their outrageous suggestions, but when your Athletics score is high enough you might as well try leaping over the monster to position yourself to flank.
  • Fighting one monster is boring. We already focused an entire article on this so I won’t go into too much detail here. In short, when the PCs are down to at-will powers, call the fight.

Game 2 – Many Weaker Monsters

After the shellacking the PCs took during game 1, I decided to be an extra nice DM and allow them to tweak their PCs a little bit. After all they hadn’t played these PCs in a really long time and they couldn’t remember what all of their powers or items did. Since it’s a home game I’m not bound by the RPGA or anyone else. I also threw them a couple of lesser magic items to fill out some of their empty slots.

The PCs began the night with a skill challenge which they knocked out of the park. At level 11 the hard DC is 21. I think the average check came in around 30. We even had a couple of 40s (when the rolls were aided by utility powers or assisted by other PCs).

After the skill challenge, which involved a lot of great role-playing, the PCs ended up in two combat encounters. The monsters in the first encounter were levels 5, 5 and 7; and in the second encounter levels 5 and 10.

This time around the PCs had little difficulty hitting the monsters. I’d say they hit at least 75% of the time (which is what you’d expect when level 11 PCs are fighting level 5 and level 7 monsters). The monsters hit often, but they had to work for it. Because the monsters had numbers on their side, they were better able to flank the PCs and gain combat advantage.

Lessons Learned – Players

  • Use the terrain. This party has two PCs who are strictly ranged attackers. One of the other PCs can attack in melee but is better when attacking from range. Knowing this, I provided a lot of easily accessible areas for the ranged attackers to climb up in order to raise themselves above the melee. I also provided a number of areas that acted as chokepoints so that they wouldn’t have to fight a whole mob at once. Unfortunately the PCs stayed in the open and allowed themselves to be surrounded by the monsters.
  • Work together. I know I used this one above, but this time they learned a different lesson. The party striker, a Rogue, needed to flank in order to gain combat advantage and thereby the opportunity to use his sneak dice. Because the Rogue went so high in the initiative he acted before everyone else. This was great for the first round, but not so great in subsequent rounds. The Rogue would move in first and attack. Then his ally would move to flank. The flanked monster then moved out of flanking position on his turn. If the Rogue just delayed after the fist round he could have gone after his ally moved into melee and gained the benefits of flanking almost every time.

Lesson’s Learned – DM

  • More monsters, less variety. By using weaker monsters I was able to use more of them. And I did. The problem was that I used a lot of different monsters. I chose them specifically because they had complimenting powers. However, it really slowed things down. Every time it was the monsters turn I had to flip between sheets and figure out which power to use. Next time I take this approach I’m only going to use one or two types of monsters and not six like I did during this game.
  • Don’t go too weak. During week 1 the PCs couldn’t hit monsters with defenses in the high 20s and low 30s, and monsters with +19 attack scores hit everyone all the time. As I choose weaker monsters or downgraded tougher monsters I tried to find that sweet spot where combat was fun but challenging for the PCs and the DM. I think I missed the mark. This is something that I expect to get better at as I create more encounters.

In Conclusions

So after only two weeks of play I feel that it’s better to have the PCs fight lots of weaker monsters rather than just a few tough ones. I discussed it was the players after the game and they agreed. When there are multiple targets they PCs are likely to use a wider variety of powers during the combat.

As our campaign continues we’ll likely revisit this topic, but for now we’ve got some takeaways to consider before we meet again and play next week.

What do you think? By the time you reach Paragon Tier would you rather find yourself in the situation of the PCs in week 1 (a couple of really tough monsters) or week 2 (many weaker monsters)? If you’re the DM where do you stand on this debate? Share your thought and your stories.

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1 mthomas768 January 12, 2010 at 10:55 am

As someone who GMs more than plays, lots of small monsters imply a bit more tracking and rolling for me. Using a few major monsters means I can bring a little more life to each one. That said I think both groupings (along with a mix of both major and minor) have there place.

2 TheOmnimpotentOne January 12, 2010 at 11:29 am

Call me crazy, but level 11 characters fighting level 14 monsters or level 5 and 7 monsters seems unnecessary. If you want to find the sweet spot why don’t you try level 11 monsters…

Weaker hordes or very tough duo’s or trio’s make for fun encounters, when they are interspersed with normal encounters. They shouldn’t be the backbone of a campaign though.

3 Ameron January 12, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Thanks for your comment. Well probably see that everyone handles their encounters a little bit differently. Personally I’ve found that I enjoy using many monsters and my PCs seem to prefer it too. Of course changing it up every now and then doesn’t hurt either.

You’re crazy! (Come on, you didn’t expect me to let that slide, did you?)

Excellent observation. I too was a little bit surprised to see that the level 11 dungeon delve didn’t actually have any level 11 monsters. I agree that for the most part using monsters that are the same level as the PCs is probably the best way to go. Part of my short-term objective is to give the players a chance to field-test their PCs before they start the “real” campaign. Using monsters as low as level 5 against them was my deliberate attempt to see how low I could go and still have the monsters pose a real threat. In this case the threat was moderate, except that there were so many the sheer numbers became problematic for everyone.

4 Toldain January 12, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Well, if the PC’s average to-hit bonus is +17 and the monster’s defenses are in the high 20’s to low 30’s that means that the PCs number to roll better than on a d20 is somewhere between 11 and 16. This isn’t impossible, though it can be frustrating.

Experienced, team oriented players, who know their powers well will do a few things to give themselves better shots at hitting.

1. They will exploit flanking.
2. They will use powers that grant bonuses to teammates to hit with big powers.
3. They will figure out and hit the monster’s weakest defense, which is usually worth 2 or 3 at least.

I wouldn’t hand them “tough to hit” as a steady diet, but it’s definitely one of the sorts of things that players need to figure out how to deal with, so I wouldn’t completely avoid it either.

Of course, the point is for the group to have fun, so you as a GM have to finely calibrate the level of challenge for it to be fun. Remember that overcoming difficulties can be fun.

I like having an NPC in the group, and this is one of the reasons. So the NPC can shout suggestions, or carry out tactical moves that the PC’s will see and imitate. Don’t make them an oracle, though. Sometimes make a bad suggestion, or stick to stuff that would make sense to their class/race/experience level.
.-= Toldain´s last blog ..My MMO of the Decade, (and the other 4 top games of the Decade) =-.

5 Neuroglyph January 12, 2010 at 2:14 pm

My favorite setup is using a single boss monster that is 1-2 levels higher than the average party level (APL), then a group of subordinates thaat are 1-3 levels under the APL. It keeps encounter groups from becoming as large, as when you use only weaker monsters – that single leader counts for quite a chunk of your XP budget, especially if he’s elite or a leader/elite.

4e has a bit of a balance issue in the Paragon and Elite tiers due to the Non-AC Defenses of monsters vs. PCs – in fact, I did a blog about it after reading numerous posts on message boards – and using lower level monsters to fill out the bulk of your Encounter XP budgets really helps a DM keep encounters from becoming overly brutal against the PCs.

Besides, it feels more heroic if the PCs are cleaving through lots of little guys to get to the big bad boss!
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Secret Sects: The Ebon Cabal – Part II =-.

6 wickedmurph January 12, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I tend to do very big, sprawling, multi-phase encounters. Sandbox encounters, in a way. Maptools lets me do that pretty easily. I use one or two tough monsters, a few mid-range ones, and a metric crap-ton of minions.

That way, my players need to use all the different tactics to survive – focusing fire on some monsters, crowd control and area effects on others, flanking, using terrain. Plus, by eliminating the short rests between encounters, it stretches the parties resources more, and makes leaders and healers critical.
.-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

7 Richard January 12, 2010 at 3:21 pm

I think it also depends on how the players in your campaign are with min/maxing and such. I pulled the out the stops on my D&D group a few weeks ago and put them into the level 11 dungeon delve (they were only lvl 9) (there were 6 players though and I lowered the AC and reflex of the hydra by 2, I kept the other defenses the same, so the ranged casters did have a bit more trouble hitting) and they owned the delve. They did have a bit of trouble with the flaming zombies and immolith but they all survived. But the group I play with min/maxes everything and a few players did have a +3 weapon/implement that I had given out recently during the campaign. A nonmin/maxed group would not normally survive that delve at level 9 though.

With my campaign, I’ll toss in all different levels of monsters, and I use monster builder a lot to change monsters to the level I want as well. The balance is not easy. When I create the encounters I tend to try to make it so the monster defenses are high enough so the players do have chance to miss but not too high to make them only hit 25% of the time. I try to keep that balance at around 55 -60% hit chance. (if the average PC has a +15 to hit, the average monster defense is around 24) solos I will have higher. If they play right and get combat advantage, then it jumps to 65 – 70%.

I try to work the monsters hit chance the same way, monsters have around a 60% hit chance on strikers, and about a 45% on defenders. (that balance can get thrown off in my campaign though, we have a dwarf warden in the party that if he plays his skills right, can get his ac to between 32 and 34).

One other thing I’ve noticed, is that the monsters in MM2 seem to have higher defenses and attack scores than the monsters in MM1, so you might want to adjust for this as well.

8 Ameron January 14, 2010 at 9:38 am

You provide excellent advice. Because the party had three leaders and no controller there wasn’t much they could do to lower the monster’s defense scores or increase their attack scores. I agree that they need to figure out a way to overcome these challenges, but you’re right that I shouldn’t keep throwing these tougher monsters at them week after week.

I’m not a big fan of including an NPC as the “voice of the DM” mainly because it’s one more creature I have to work during the game. But I can certainly understand the benefits of doing so.

I plan to use this exact monster grouping for the majority of my encounters. For now I’m still trying a few different combos while the PCs get back into the swing of things. I do plan to keep using lots of minions because this group really feels powerful when they drop monsters, even if they’re just minions.

It sounds like you’ve become a pro at this kind of encounter. I’ll give it a shot. Thanks for the suggestion.

Our group is down a player so we only have 4 PCs. I’m finding that 4e D&D really requires 5 PCs or more. Playing with 4 makes balance tough.

I think your math is bang on the money. This is exactly the kind of range I’ve been striving for too. I agree that MM2 creates are tougher than MM1 creatures of the same level.

9 btorgin January 15, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I run a campaign with 4 players and don’t have any trouble with balance. Since you drop 1 monster’s xp budget for that level, it works out quite well. Note, I don’t play things beyond L +/- 1. And we’re only at 4th so things may change as we get higher level.

Now, one thing I pay close attention to is monster mix and their special abilities. Proper balance depends greatly on knowing what the monsters can do to the players. Also, pay attention to how swingy the abilities are. Does the monster have a low change to hit, high damage aoe? Be aware you could get lucky with the dice and devastate the group.

There’s a number of things to get a feel for as you play. It’s much more math based than prior editions, but it does still require the DM to understand what all the monster’s abilities mean.


10 Ameron January 21, 2010 at 12:42 pm


I’ve been playing very close attention to what all of my monsters can do. I try to make sure that their powers compliment each others. It doesn’t seem right to have one monster have fire resistance/cold vulnerability and have another monster have cold resistance/fire vulnerability.

In a game I ran after I wrote this article I used monsters that were levels 8 and 10 (the PCs are level 11). The XP math was exactly what the DMG suggested. The combat was a lot of fun, but the monsters didn’t have many cool abilities. It was just a typical hack and slash fight.

As I speculated in the article above, I think it’s just going to take some practice to get the balance right and make the encounters exciting.

11 Punning Pundit January 29, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I’m a really new gm, and am enjoying this site. One of the things I try to think about in a combat encounter is what my pcs can do to each mob-type.

For instance: a controller with lots of aoe should have a ton of minions to blast into pieces. A striker really wants to take on a big-tough baddy. Your defender should be keeping npc controllers or leaders off ballance, etc.

A well-ballanced combat (from what I cam tell) knows the strenghth of the pcs and works to give each of them a challenge. In this way all of your players are having fun, and each feels vital…

12 Ameron February 2, 2010 at 11:40 am

@Punning Pundit
It sounds like you’re getting the hang of being a DM. It’s a good idea to make your encounters fun for your PCs. If you have a controller than lots of minions should be a staple. If you’ve got a bunch of strikers then one really tough boss is probably more appropriate.

Don’t forget to play to the PCs attacks and resistances. Every now and then make sure a monster is vulnerable to one of their attack types (like fire if the Fighter has a flaming sword, that kind of thing). Likewise with resistances. If three PCs have resist 5 poison then throw some monsters with poison attacks at them once and a while. PCs love that kind of thing. “Ha ha, I have resist poison.”

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