Using Player Behaviour To Influence Your Encounter Design

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 9, 2011

Does your archer always shoot an arrow at the enemy furthest away thinking that monster is the leader? Does your defender always attack the first monster he sees? Do your players constantly scan the battle map for hidden pit traps? Have you noticed that your players always use the same powers in the same order during every combat?

If you’ve answered yes to one of these questions or questions just like them then you have an incredible opportunity before you. Your players have presented you with the opportunity to design encounters based on their expectations and behaviour. As a DM you are about to have a great deal of fun designing and executing these encounters.

Player Expectations

Designing an encounter around or against your players expectations can be a lot of fun. Players, like DMs, can get into a routine. Often the way we design our encounters remains the same and our players pick up on this. As a result they become familiar with how quickly they should be using resources like daily powers and healing surges. In short your encounters are getting boring.

Designing encounters that play against expectation is a great way to keep players on their toes. The formula for creating encounters that work against expectations is simple. Look at what you normally do during an encounter and change it up. If you enjoy using a multitude of minions, don’t use minions. If you place multiple traps in your encounters, don’t place any traps. Keep the players on their toes from encounter to encounter.

One way to use player expectations for and against them during a campaign is to string together some similar encounters. Then another set of similar encounters different from the first set. This changes things up week to week. By the end of a series of encounters the players are clued in to what is happening and are able to handily defeat the encounter.

At the finale of the adventure introduce encounters that have elements from each of the previous sections of the adventure. When your players realize what is happening they will feel a sense of reward as they will know how to handle the tactics of the monsters. What they won’t know is what is going to happen next.

Player Behaviour

Designing encounters based on player behaviour is simple. Examine how your players typically react to certain situations and design accordingly. Perhaps one player likes to locate an enemy who attacks from range and then engage them in melee. Simply find a monster that can attack from range, but is more deadly in melee. Suddenly your player has gotten into more than he bargained for. Most design decisions around player behaviour in combat occur within the first round or two of combat. Below are two examples that I experience week to week with the party defender and ranger.

All things being equal the defender in the party always attacks the closest enemy or the first enemy he sees. If this opponent is a minion and separated from the other opponents I have taken the defender out of the combat for one round. If this opponent is a tough monster who is separated from his allies I have taken the defender out of the fight for several rounds, perhaps the majority of the combat.

This allows me to create an encounter that on the surface, based on monster selection and experience, is balanced. However, by isolating the defender I put increased pressure on the remainder of the party. Forcing them to use more resources than they would like. The party will still defeat the encounter, I’m not out to kill any characters. However, because of the depleted resources the next encounters will hold a higher threat level for the party.

On the other hand if I design an encounter where the initial monster has plenty of surrounding allies I reward the typical behaviour of the defender in the party. He, like all defenders, loves to be surrounded.

The Ranger in our party uses the archer build. He always goes first. The Rogue competes with him, but I’ve yet to run a combat where our ranger doesn’t place first in the initiative order. He gets to roll 2 d20s for his check, so the odds are stacked in his favour. The Ranger, similar to our defender, attacks the first opponent he sees. He usually uses a basic attack or at-will, he doesn’t want to open fire in a big way on a minion.

If the first opponent he sees is a minions he’s satisfied, though he’d be happier if it was a regular mob who is now down some hit points. From my perspective if I make the closest enemy or the first enemy the Ranger sees a minion I have just wasted that minion. As the Ranger has an effective attack range that covers almost any size battle map I can’t separate him from the combat the way I can with the defender.

If I want to reward the behaviour of the Ranger I’ll place a minion close to him. He’ll most likely use twin strike which will remove a minion from play. This allows the ranger to remove a threat that could close to melee range. It allows the player to feel special and tough. However, from a design perspective it is a waste of a minion. Because the Ranger always goes first my minion doesn’t have the opportunity to attack.

I have to decide as a DM is do I reward the player by allowing him to eliminate a minion or do I place a tougher foe within range for him to attack. The flip side of the equation is also true, perhaps I place two minions as the closest opponents hoping the Ranger will attack them. Then I send in my Ranger-killer monster to lock him down.

Knowing how my players typically react to situations allows me to create encounters that either reward or punish that behaviour. I prefer to reward more than I punish. Perhaps I should say that I prefer not to punish the same player in every encounter.

Encounters require a balance of reward and challenge. Some encounters by design will be easier than others, allowing your players to feel heroic about their accomplishments. In my mind the best challenges allow some players to excel and others to overcome challenges. In the next encounter you mix up who is rewarded and who is challenged. It keeps your players on their toes, wondering what might happen next.

One word of warning about designing encounters based on player behaviour is to be careful not to mix your knowledge with monster knowledge. Most opponents your players face will not know their tactics, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Be mindful not to mix this information up as your players will resent it. Of course it is always nice to have them face a foe who does know all of this information and who uses it against them. Like when Superman fights Lex Luthor.

Have you ever used the behaviour of your players against them? What was the result? Did the player resent your actions or did it result in a memorable encounter?

Related reading:

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

1 Geek Fu March 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

The group I DM usually acts like a bunch of individuals rather than a cohesive group, much to their disadvantage. We have a Barbarian, Paladin, Sorcerer, Ardent, Bard and Psion. I try to get them to work together with the way I plan encounters, but everyone tends to take on their own monster. I can’t force them to act a certain way, but it does get messy when the Psion is trying to take down his own monster with little or no help from the others. Every once in a while they work together and blow through a fight with ease. That’s great, but rare.

2 JR March 9, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Three great examples from my table:

Early on in my campaign, my eladrin ranger discovered that he could teleport to the high ground, snipe with impunity, and then clamber down to help with cleanup. Solution? An ambush in a city. When he teleported to the roof, he discovered four crossbowmen hiding behind the gables, and suddenly he and the crossbowmen are having a swashbuckling melee and everyone else is trying to figure out how they can save him.

Similarly, our halfling wizard likes to run around in the thick of things using lots of dodge-based powers that usually protect her from opportunity attacks – so I make sure to use creatures with “special” opportunity actions that can do stuff like teleport, push, or swap places on a hit. She loves the chaos of the melee, so getting her t’ported 5 squares on a hit makes her player clap his hands with glee.

On a more mundane level, my strikers were having trouble learning to focus fire, so I would stack the deck and put them up against a small number of elites of very high relative level. The enemies hit very hard, so the PCs learned quickly!

3 Sentack March 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I was going to comment at first about the numbers of encounter and monster building but then I realized something i would like to see more in future Dungeon Masters articles.

How do I build a map.

No the numbers in terms of Exp Budget, monster roles, etc. What I’m having problems with now is the map. What kind of terrain. What kind of traps. What kind of obstacles. What kind of cover. How big is ‘too big’ and how small is too small?

Encounter building is turning into it’s own little science but it seems everyone is ignoring the big thing. Map making.

4 Geek Fu March 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm


I’m the exact opposite. I have an easy time making the maps, but I have trouble picking monsters that are just enough challenge. I usually end up making them too strong.

I use a 22″ x 34″ (approx) lined grid paper easel tablet from Office Depot for all my maps. Unless there is a need for a really long distance, in which case I use 2 sheets. The terrain, obstacles and traps tend to depend on the location of the encounter.

5 Sentack March 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm

@Geek Fu

I just find that good map building and monster layout is barely touched, I feel that good maps has to handle several things. You typically got 5 characters in the combat. The melee types will charge on the first round but some will get the option to move and attack the first ‘non-minion’ target they have identified, with his hardest hitting encounter power, may even spend his action point then and go for the quick kill or at least the quick bloody. If 2 players do this before the monsters initiative, the monster might die before it gets a chance to go and that is often somewhat frustrating, specially if it’s a key monster on the board.

Factoring player behavior seems to be just as important to map layout as it is monster selection in terms of encounter building but never covered as far as I am concerned.

6 Wimwick March 9, 2011 at 5:38 pm

@ Geek Fu
Your group sounds like mine. At the end of our last session I commented that the players had done what they always do, spread out their damage on multiple foes. As they were already outnumbered, it made for a long and painful encounter.

@ JR
Your third scenario is a great way to get the party working together. I think I’ll give it a go in an upcoming encounter.

@ Sentack
Noted, I’ll do some homework and put together a post or series of posts on maps. In the meantime you can give our article What Constitutes Difficult Terrain: A Look At Tactical Maps a read.

7 Sunyaku March 12, 2011 at 1:04 am

For the past few months I’ve been working with a group almost completely new to DnD, and I’ve been watching for trends. One trend in particular I’ve noticed is that they don’t often make a lot of information checks (in and out of combat)– so I’ve begun making a point of building details into encounters that, if uncovered by a check, clearly provide an advantage… but if left undiscovered, will make like for difficult for the players.

As the group grows and becomes more experienced, I’m trying to provide incentives for good roleplaying, exploration, and combat. In general, I think it’s always a good idea to consider providing incentives for a game well played.

8 Bleash March 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

I can’t say that I’m a very experienced DM… and I can’t help but feel that my campaign is suffering from this lack of experience.

Last week I ran an adventure where the players where supposed to face a high level evil wizard in a big oval room. This wizard was aware of their arrival.
In the middle of the room was a spell that covered a huge gap for a hole full of undead monsters just waiting for some fresh meat to fall off.
My players like to charge at things so this hole in the middle of the room was supposed to give the evil wizard time to buff up and control the battlefield with some spells.

Basically the plan was to make the barbarian charge the evil wizard, fall into the hole and spend a couple of rounds dealing with the undead inside.
The rest of the party would try to get him out and find a way to fly through the gap.

This plan failed miserably because the monk blinked right next to the evil wizard in the first round and beat the crap out of him with is stunning fists.
I dragged the fight for as long as I could but it was a totally forgettable fight to everyone but me…

I need help to make things more interesting.
I need help because I have plans for my bad guys and I find it difficult to change what I prepared on the fly, on the first round of combat.
I need help because I get caught of guard by my players far to often. I need help because I want them in severe pain because of their gung ho attack mentality.

Seriously, I try predicting their behavior but I fail.
I need help.

9 Geek Fu March 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm


My group has a “kick in the door” kind of mentality as well. I know where you’re coming from, but “wanting them in severe pain” because of it is not a good attitude. You have to learn from your experiences and move on. What I have learned to do is not put all my eggs in one basket. For example, placing a single enemy in a room and expecting them to perform exactly as you planned can far to many ways to go wrong.
My group likes to rush in and chop everything to bits before I get to react. Their greatest challenge yet has been a young shadow dragon. This dragon creates spheres of darkness which blinds everything (except the dragon) and weakens them with a bite or breath weapon. I added to that a creature that gives -5 to saves, and suddenly melee strikes are all but useless. They had to think their way out of it, and to my astonishment, they did.
You also have to accept the fact that sometimes the PCs will rape a fight you thought would be memorable, and remember a fight you thought would be meaningless. This is all part of the game in which other people interact with you to create the story. Other then that, experience will help you solve these problems. I remember being a new DM, and I feel your pain.

10 Bleash March 15, 2011 at 7:30 am

@Geek Fu

Thanks for your comment.
You are right about the not to put all the eggs in one basket.
I should have add a plan B to spice up the fight.

I just need to became better at anticipating this kind of situations.
And I need to know that sometimes it is OK to call for a short break and to run away to the bathroom with the books…

Anyway I feel better today. I still want then hurting, just not as severely as yesterday.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: