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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?