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.
- What Makes An Encounter Legendary?
- My Love Affair With Minions
- Eight Rules That Will Make You A Better DM