Tips For Making Encounters More Interesting

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 6, 2012

How many times has your party faced an encounter that was basically the heroes on one side, the monsters on the other side, and then the two forces bashing each other’s brains in until one side (usually team heroes) ends up destroying all of the opponents? I’d hazard a guess that most players see this kind of encounter most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with it, but if you play a lot of D&D this kind of setup gets really boring really fast.

Encounter design is one of those things that only gets better with practice. To help you get better at encounter design we’ve listed a few tips that we think all DMs will find useful. There are plenty of ways to make a regular encounter more interesting and more exciting. Little things that the DM can add or actions the DM can have the monsters take beyond just rushing the PC and try to kill them. Most of these tips will likely seem like common sense, but seeing them listed should remind DMs that using any or all of these tips can easily put an end to boring encounters once and for all.

  1. Waves of Monsters

When players see a set number of monsters on the board they make certain assumptions about the battle. Depending on how many monsters there are they often try to gauge the monsters’ power level. Lots of monsters usually means minions galore. One or two monsters usually means a solo or an elite. By bringing more monsters into the combat after a few rounds have passed you keep the players on their toes. They might only see two or three monsters for the first couple of rounds and assume they’re really tough. This kind of thinking usually leads PCs to use powers with more of a kick, like daily powers. But if a few more of the same monsters come out after the battle’s in full swing the PCs will need to change tactics and reassess.

Another advantage of bringing monsters out in waves is that the controller doesn’t wipe out all the minions in one easy attack. Bring in a few minions every couple of rounds and let everyone enjoy the thrill of mowing down a bunch of minions. This is a good way for the DM to get an edge on PCs with incredibly high initiatives. By bringing more monsters out mid-fight the DM can insert them into the order where he wants. This often lets minions actually pose a threat and get at least one attack in before they’re destroyed.

See My Love Affair With Minions.

  1. Use Monsters with Complimenting Powers

There are a lot of monsters that impose a condition with their first attack and then, if the PC is still affected when the monster goes on the next round, a second type of attack will do something incredibly horrific and usually deal and obscene amount of damage. When you use monsters that have complimenting powers they can work together to get that really powerful attack off faster and more often. If a monster does extra damage to grappled opponents, throw in a few monsters that are really good grapplers. If a monster does extra damage to PCs that are immobilized add a monster that has an area burst that immobilized. Remember that you’re trying to meet the conditions to get that second attack to work, so the first attack doesn’t have to be deadly, it just has to work. So in the immobilized example the monster that immobilizes might not even inflict damage. Once PCs realize that the monsters are working together for maximum effect they’ll likely reassess the biggest threats on the board.

See Should Monsters Employ Smart Tactics?.

  1. Let Players Feel Heroic

Pay attention to the type of damage that the PCs can inflict and the types of resistances they possess. Be sure to let them feel heroic by pitting monsters against them that they’ll have advantages fighting. For example, if more than one PC can deal a lot or radiant damage then use monsters with radiant vulnerability. If some of the PCs have fire resistance, then have some of the monster use fire-based attacks. Every encounter I try to use at least one monster with a vulnerability the PCs can exploit or at least one monster that deals damage the PCs have resistance to. It may seem likely a little detail but the players feel good when they can shrug off damage or deal a little extra. It rewards PCs with versatility and makes the fight more interesting.

See Improve Your Defenses With Energy Resistance.

  1. Traps and Skill Challenges

Use traps sparingly, but be sure to use them. A lot of DMs are uncomfortable using traps because they’re not sure how to run them. The best way to figure it out how to use traps effectively is to learn by doing. Traps should factor into your monster XP budget so be mindful of how deadly you want your traps to be. I like to use traps about once every ten encounter or once per level. The traps are usually capable of inflicting some serious damage or do something that will otherwise remove one or more PCs from the heart of the fight.

All traps should have some way to be countered, bypassed or destroyed. Be sure to change-up how the PCs can overcome your traps. If they need to constantly roll Perception to spot the trap and then Thievery to disarm it you’re only challenging the Rogue. Be mindful of the skills all your PCs are good at. If some have good Athletics but poor Thievery then traps should have a counter mechanism that can be overcome by brute force and not necessarily require only a Thievery check to bypass or disable.

Often I use mini skill challenge in a combat encounters. This can usually be classified as a trap because it’s something that can hurt the party. It might be an arcane rune that will explode, a door that’s slowly lowering at the other side of the room, or a summoning ritual that will bring in reinforcements. The skill challenge will often yield as much XP as defeating a monster so remember to keep the XP budget in check. After all, if you plan to have two PCs removed from fighting to overcome the skill challenge it had better be worth two monsters, otherwise the rest of the PCs will get creamed.

See Traps: Challenge the Players and the CharactersHow To Use Traps To Make Combat More Intense, and Making Boring Skill Challenges More Exciting.

  1. Terrain

This one might seem a bit obvious but terrain can make a huge difference to an otherwise normal encounter. One of the things I really like about 4e D&D is the tactical nature of combat. A 100 x 100 ft room with no terrain features is boring. Throw in some pits that PC can push monsters into or some large obstacles they can climb on top of. If there are areas that PCs and monsters can hide behind it forces some exploration and mobility. I’ve seen more encounters over the plat year where an archer Ranger and ranged attack Wizard stand at the back of the map, well out of harm’s way, and just fire into melee. Adding some interesting terrain features forces these PC to be an active part of the battle and not just artillery reinforcements.

See What Constitutes Difficult Terrain: A Look At Tactical Maps.

  1. Retreat

Monsters with a strong survival instinct or decent intelligence will know when the tide of a battle has turned (or is about to turn) and they’ll cut their losses and run away. However, in D&D most DMs have the monsters fight it out to the bitter end. By having some or possibly even all of the monsters run away, an otherwise standard combat instantly becomes more interesting. Do the PCs give chase or do they call it a victory and take their short rest? If the PCs were looking for a specific treasure and the monsters flee with it then the heroes are pretty much forced to chase them. This is a good time for a DM to have intelligent monsters lead the PCs into a trap. It’s also a good way to bring the next wave of monsters into the fight faster. After all, the reinforcement were expecting that they’d have to run for another three of four rounds to get to the fight but what do you know the monsters brought the fight to the reinforcements first.

See Retreat Is Always An Option, At Least It Should Be, and Don’t Fight to the Death.

These are some of the easiest ways for DMs, new and experienced, to make regular encounters more exciting. Use one or more of these tips when you’re designing your encounters and you’ll find that combat becomes a lot more interesting. By changing the details the players will have to assess each battle one at a time and stop making generalizations about what they can expect the next time they fight some baddies.

What other some other tips for DMs to consider when they’re creating encounters and want to make things more exciting? What have you tried that’s worked or not worked?

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1 Alton March 6, 2012 at 9:38 am

Cool, good tips that I try to use every session. No minions though for 3.5. (sigh!).

Starting to like minions!

2 Ninja'd-M March 6, 2012 at 11:34 am

In the same vein as the terrain tip having monsters or PCs fight through a chokepoint allows many controller and defender builds to really be able to strut their stuff. Open areas allow mobile striker builds to get around and flank and lets ranged attackers run around and kite their enemies. Any time I have a player who seems to be falling by the wayside I try to build a map that will let them shine.

Another big idea that I think I stole from Chris Perkins is the concept of a “chandelier”. Every encounter should have one thing that exists for no other reason than to let the PCs do something cool (swing from it, drop it on foes…).

3 The Unlucky Paladin March 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I like the wave and running ideas… might employ them…

4 Sunyaku March 7, 2012 at 1:47 am

Here’s another one– roll passive checks behind the screen for chances to give characters “false positives”… misinformation, misleading information, etc. An encounter can become very amusing when a character becomes convinced that there is a trap in a really awkward place.

I don’t recommend using false positives often, but they can be fun. The current 4e system does not handle them well. E.g., if a thief rolls poorly on a trap check, the party just assumes the area is still dangerous… instead of the thief becoming convinced that something is a trap when it really is not… or vice versa.

5 Victor Von Dave March 7, 2012 at 1:47 am

@Ninja’d-M – love that idea, and I love even more that it’s called the ‘chandelier’ – you immediately know that it’s all about the awesome, heroic action moment that’ll have everyone’s fists in the air after the encounter. My only addition would be to make sure that the chandelier feature is mechanically attractive – or it won’t get used. A few years ago, when I ran Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for my group, there was an encounter in a mine against a green dragon, complete with mine-cart and rail track. I was super excited for this, and had images of Indiana Jones in my head. I ran the scenario as written, but using the mine-cart was so sub-optimal that the PCs just walked along the track – what a let down (the players were kind of bummed out too). If I were to run it again I would make the mine-cart much more mechanically attractive to encourage the players to use it.

6 Ninja'd-M March 7, 2012 at 10:20 am

I started using a similar idea about 3 months ago. Instead of rolling behind the screen I let the players make their own rolls and keep the DC value a secret. If they pass they obviously get the desired result but on a failure I might create a false positive, true positive or reveal nothing at all.

For example on a recent adventure my PCs wandered into a dragon’s lair who’s location had been revealed to them after they forced it from its bloodied owner (who they released as part of the deal). For obvious reasons they suspected a trap and made active perception check every 10 feet to search for literal traps. On a success they obviously detected traps (if they existed) or didn’t (if they didn’t) on a failure they may have detected traps that didn’t exist, detected traps that DID exist, not detected traps that did/did not exist or been unsure whether there was or wasn’t a trap.

I like the idea because it turns a failed check into a story opportunity instead of the customary “you fail” that knocks (at least according to what I have seen) players out of immersion.

great- now I have to figure out how to work a mine and mine cart into my campaign to take advantage of that awesomeness.

Also, I usually stay away from writing it up my “chandeliers” mechanically. If I write it up it becomes one of my (the DM) fantastic terrain, trap, hazard, terrain power, etc.. The idea of the “chandelier” is that they are just lying in wait for the PCs to try something awesome and I find that as soon as I try to anticipate what that could be (by writing up mechanics) I start limiting the players’ options by default.

7 Sunyaku March 8, 2012 at 12:51 am

@Ninja Keeping the DCs a secret is fine, but PLAYERS still know they failed when the roll very low. How do your characters get around that with the story? Or is your group just awesome enough that they can always separate player and character knowledge? My group really struggles with this aspect of the game.

8 Ninja'd-M March 8, 2012 at 10:40 am

That’s why I tell them the truth occasionally on low die rolls. In that way a low roll becomes more a measure of uncertainty and less of a “take the opposite of what the DM just said.”

Plus the only thing that is funnier than PCs avoiding a trap that isn’t really there is when they think a trap isn’t there because they failed a check and I said one WAS there and charge into its teeth…

Like most groups sometimes my party can keep this info separated and sometimes… not.

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