How To Make Your Players Feel Heroic

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 22, 2011

I’ve realized of late that I enjoy designing tough encounters. Encounters where perhaps the forces border on overwhelming. Where encounter after encounter my players are being pushed to the brink. It’s almost like a test of endurance, can they take just one more encounter? Will they prevail or will I have finally pushed them too far?

Much of my motivation for designing encounters this way comes from taking too many extended rests with daily powers unused and healing surges remaining. These extended rests haven’t been taken because we though we needed them or could get away with them. No, they came about because we had completed the adventure. In short as a player in 4e there have been few encounters that I feel have truly pushed myself and other players to the edge.

Of course what I have also realized is that making every encounter a slug fest, where at the end of the final encounter the party is completely out of resources is also boring. Furthermore, my players are beginning to wonder if I’m out to kill their characters. When the time for an extended rest rolls up they have a look of relief on their faces. Instead of a feeling of satisfaction or euphoria at completing the encounters, they are just glad it’s over.

I realize that while I’m challenging the players, I’m not creating moments for them to feel truly heroic. As a result I’ve developed a series of guidelines to assist me in my adventure design.

These guidelines aren’t rules. I’m free to break them whenever I see fit, but my hope is that they will allow my players to truly have some heroic moments while playing their characters.

Keep It Simple, Stupid (The K.I.S.S. Rule)

Everything else being equal I will keep things simple. Minimize or remove the minions and provide the players with a straight up fight with an equal number of opponents. These enemies will be of equal or lower level than the players. The encounter will be considered an easy encounter and while I don’t want to patronize my players, by having them easily defeat an encounter they will be able to see just how effective their characters can be.

The plus side for me as the DM is that while it is an easy encounter, most likely a few action points and daily powers will be consumed. There is no guarantee that the next encounter will be as easy. However, the players will feel superior and feel good moving into the next encounter. While daily powers might be used the players will likely have taken a minimal amount of damage. Damage and healing surges consumed is always a leading indicator on how difficult the encounter was. Even if all it is truly reflecting is how well or poorly the dice were rolling for either side.

More Minions Please

A combat of only minions and perhaps one solo or elite monster. The minions are dying with every successful strike as the party cuts a swath through a never ending horde. It has all the makings of an epic battle scene, the type described in many a novels or movies.

This type of encounter comes with a warning. It can get boring fast. In order to alleviate that boredom many different types of minions are needed. With many different types of effect and conditions. This makes the elimination of minions a tactical choice. There is another difficulty, if your party doesn’t have a controller or many burst or blast powers this encounter won’t make them feel heroic. Nothing is worse than making one attack roll per round and realizing you aren’t making any ground on your opponents.

Hit Them Where It Hurts

This encounter is initially evil, but I think it pays off at the end of the day. Find one weakness for each of your players. Whether it’s weakening your striker, immobilizing your defender, surrounding your archer or blinding your controller. Find a monster who can do these things and put one of each in the encounter. Then add some filler and begin to torment your players.

Now you need to be fair, the monsters wouldn’t necessarily know which character fulfills which role (initially). As a result be a bit arbitrary in your initial attacks. However, assuming your monsters are intelligent they should eventually react appropriately. You also need to make sure that the monsters you select make sense together in the same encounter. This is the part that hurts for your players. They are most likely going to be angry with you.

Cue up encounter number two. Same bad guys, smaller supporting cast. Perhaps no supporting cast at all. If your players were paying attention they will know where to focus their fire, allowing them to decimate their foes. You may not want to make the second encounter the very next one, it’s a little contrived. Just keep it ready to provide an opportunity for your players to feel superior.

Go Big, Go Really Big

Want your players to feel heroic? Throw the biggest, baddest encounter you can dream up at them. Make sure they are aware of the significance of the encounter, you don’t want them to underestimate things and get behind the eight ball. If they survive the encounter your players will feel heroic. They may even feel epic at the end of it.

The encounters your players defeat are ultimately the source of legends. Over time their exploits will grow in grandeur, each victory will garner a life of its own. Your goal as the DM is to ensure they are sufficiently challenged, that the opportunity to rise against and overcome is available. The rest is up to the dice.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 4649matt March 22, 2011 at 10:01 am

The corollary to “hit them where it hurts” is “give them a moment to shine”.
It is worth it occasionally to set up an encounter that highlights the abilities of one or more players. If they have that occasional encounter where they absolutely need hard control to lock down a monster or blast control to mow down minions the controller gets to really feel necessary. An encounter where they need to do as much damage as possible right now or they will literally all die, the striker feels like a dpr king. These can also cue players into your expectations of their roles and tactics.
4649matt´s last blog post ..Stories from Myth- The Tale of Jiraiya the Gallant

2 Geek Fu March 22, 2011 at 10:17 am

I recently put my players up against a shadow dragon. Accompanying this dragon were some nice monsters that could weaken the people they hit. They spent the majority of their time hacking away at the little guys while the dragon picked away at them. It took a long time for the PCs to realize that the shadow dragon’s darkness globes go away when it takes radiant damage. Once discovered, they felt the tide turn. The look of enthusiasm once they had the upper hand was priceless. I could tell they felt like the underdogs that became the conquering champions!

3 Aaron B March 22, 2011 at 10:30 am

I think you’re forgetting the real key to make encounters epic and heroic:
Make the stakes important and/or personal.
If they fail the encounter, really bad things will happen or some personal tragedy will occur (innocents murdered, villages razed, etc). At the same time, if they succeed they will be rewarded, and I’m not just talking about treasure or loot, but villages and whole kingdoms will be saved. Honor and glory gained.

That caged princess will be extremely grateful when rescued from the dragon. ;)

4 Wimwick March 22, 2011 at 10:34 am

@ 4649matt
I agree. Creating situations where each player gets to shine as an individual is a lesson well learned. The key is to ensure you aren’t favouring any one player.

@ Geek Fu
Those eureka moments are great. I find players get a surge of energy during these situations. As a DM it’s nice when the players unlock the secret to easily defeating the encounter.

5 Wimwick March 22, 2011 at 10:55 am

@ Aaron B
Making the personal story is just solid DM advice and it is always good to have that reminder.

6 Kilsek March 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm

I like all-minion encounters now as the 4e cinematic substitute for previous editions’ quick, random encounters. Just simple, quick heroic butt-kicking. Random encounters don’t really work in 4e with normal monsters – they just take too much time. So an ocassional minion-only fight is nice for pacing, looks and feels cinematic, is quick and easy to resolve, and makes the PCs feel like kings!
Kilsek´s last blog post ..Mount Up and Ride!

7 Glimm the Gnome March 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Good guidelines. I’ve posted a few things on my blog aimed at making campaigns feel more cinematic which ties in with making the players feel more heroic. On top of what you have here, I’d definitely suggest taking a look at reducing the number of combat encounters in a given adventure so that each fight feels significant.

You can read my related posts here: http://glimmthegnome.wordpress.com/tag/cinematic-combat/
Glimm the Gnome´s last blog post ..Upgrading to Warhammer 40k 5th Edition

8 Sunyaku March 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm

In life, and in DnD, I think we feel our greatest sense of accomplishment after we reach the brink, and return, successfully.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..DnD Community Contests- Infernal Wave of Lemming Liches

9 j0nny_5 March 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I usually have all the players level up at the same time, but entering each tier, I have players level up at different times.
I try and design an ordeal for each player that pushes him to the limit, then at the end of the encounter immediately level up. This is even more meaningful entering epic tier, as many of the epic destinies have a tangible trait about them.
I give the players an idea of what they have to do to achieve epic in the form of a quest card, unique to their destiny. The card allows them to keep it personal, secret from the rest of the group, in case their quest conflicts with the teams goals (which a few should).

Leveling instantly after a personal ordeal really makes a player feel awesome.

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