Paragon Challenge Level

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This is a continuation of this thread's delve into the challenge level in paragon mods.

So far, discussion has included the topic of striker damage, especially in early rounds, the topic of monster damage expressions, and the things authors can do (terrain, delaying monsters, many lower level, minions) to compensate.

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Terrain, terrain, terrain.  This is the easiest way to challenge the PCs, especially in paragon.  Cause them to think smarter with how they implement their plan of attack instead of a barren room with monsters in it.
Matt James Freelance Game Designer Loremaster.org

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Some ideas:

(1) Add the following power to the elite monster:
 Each time it is hit with an attack, the attacker takes 5 fire damage and gains vulnerable 10 fire (save ends). Aftereffect: Vulnernable 5 fire (save ends).  [Or insert other energy type that synergizes well with the rest of the monsters in the encounter.]
* Multiple attacks - or even one while the "minions" are still in the fight - comes with a cost.

(2) Add the following skill challenge:
The BBEG begins the encounter with Resist 20 all. Each time a PC earns a success towards the skill challenge, lower the resistance by 5. (Weaken the magic field, etc.)
* The nova striker may still be able to do decent damage, but controlling effects become more useful. Needing to do something other than "kill them as fast as possible" always results in more interesting combats.

(3) Similiar to #2:
The four chanting invokers are creating a protective shield around their leader. Each has an Aura 10: One target gains resist all 5. (Or, one creature gains a +4 to all defenses?) This aura can stack with others of the same type.
* Again, encourages targeting the secondary monsters, rather than attempting a 1-turn nova on the BBEG, keeps him in the fight longer.


NOTE: In all of these cases, clear directions need to be provided for the PCs as to what the effects are. These are not meant as "gotcha" (i.e. unfun) effects to throw at PCs, but added mechanics that keep the interesting Big Bad Evil Guy threat going past a potential 1st-round damage nova.

Dan Anderson @EpicUthrac
Total Confusion www.totalcon.com
LFR Calimshan Writing Director
LFR Epic Writing Director

LFR Myth Drannor Writing Director



At some point the damage output between PCs and monsters is just too different.



Well, yes and no. As we're seeing, optimised paragon strikers can output obscene damage (kudos on that damage output out of a warlock btw, although I assume that 83 per round was a result of cursegrind/cursebite on everything in the room, rather than single target), but what happens when you sit down at a table with a Warden, a Valor Bard, a Feylock and a Guardian Druid? Ostensibly a balanced party with excellent control, but their damage output is likely to be horrible. If you build monsters to nerf optimised strikers, then a party like this has no chance of a non-grindy fight, even if they are all well built characters in a balanced party.



Darklock tactics
Uthrac has a good handle on some of the options. Cursegrind is certainly a big power to use as a Darklock. And Hexblast is used, though it isn't critical. Two Quickcurse rods and Battle harness and the twin curse feat means 4 things cursed, often plenty. You can then use some other power that has higher damage instead of Cursegrind. It has been a pretty big challenge for me to reach decent damage with my warlock. My Cursegrind at 14th level is 2d10+21 to all cursed critters in a burst 20. The 83 dmg per round was as follows: My party had already taken out two of the combatants, leaving only two combatants... (I rolled unusually low on init). Round 1, Hexblast on 2 targets for 22 each, curse on 1 for 13, 4 points from Rod of Reaving. AP, Cursegrind, missed one of them, 38 damage. Minor to use Rod of Silver Rain, 10 ongoing on both targets (resulted in 20 dmg). Round 2, Influence of Akamar for 37 plus 11 curse on the remaining foe. Darkfire on him, which caused the ranger to hit for about 85 dmg (not included in calculation).

In CORM1-6, I wrote down that I had Round 1 Hexblast for 72 including one crit, 8 reaving, 16 curse. AP for Cursegrind for 64. Round 2 was Cursebite for 57 and 4 curse and 11 aura. neither of these include Gloves of Eldritch Admixture, which I often use. And these examples apart, I don't use Hexblast that often.


In terms of what happens when you have a party without a striker, it isn't really a problem unless you choose foes with huge HPs. The only issue then is time - you get a grind. Without a striker the monsters stay up longer but still lack the damage to really threaten and now you probably have more control/healing/defense with which to withstand their attacks.

Just to be clear, I'm not advocating building encounters to nerf strikers at all. In an ideal world I would want the basic damage of all monsters to rise. Apart from that I'm asking for more XP for authors, which is a simpler fix.


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I will just say this. Please, please, please do not ruin combats by adding execrable skill challenges into them. It's just an irredemably bad and inexcusable mechanic. I can ordinarily ignore them and at least enjoy the combat and non-skill challenge story elements of the module. But if you put a "can't kill this monster until you beat the skill challenge" element into a mod, that's pretty much making it a "don't play" for me. (And before you say, "give them a chance", it's been two years and they haven't gotten any better. I think the authors and designers have had plenty of chances to make them work--it just hasn't happened).

Skill checks are fine as long as they make sense and have sensible DCs. But, please, no skill challenges.
I will just say this. Please, please, please do not ruin combats by adding execrable skill challenges into them. It's just an irredemably bad and inexcusable mechanic. I can ordinarily ignore them and at least enjoy the combat and non-skill challenge story elements of the module. But if you put a "can't kill this monster until you beat the skill challenge" element into a mod, that's pretty much making it a "don't play" for me. (And before you say, "give them a chance", it's been two years and they haven't gotten any better. I think the authors and designers have had plenty of chances to make them work--it just hasn't happened).

Skill checks are fine as long as they make sense and have sensible DCs. But, please, no skill challenges.



Fortunately, you're not the only person playing LFR adventures. Many people enjoy skill challenges during combat - they make things more dynamic. If you want to keep playing mods with boring, static combats where you can freely beat the crap out of the bad guys without breaking a sweat, there are plenty of those out right now for you to choose from.

Dave Kay LFR Writing Director Retiree dkay807 [at] yahoo [dot] com
Give controller monsters powers like:
Immediate Interrupt, Encounter: Resist all/10 until the end of it's next turn.

Instead of making the BBEG a solo, make him an elite, and add 2 standard cultists performing a ritual to give him Resist all/10.  Or those two magic pillars give him Resist all/10 or ...

(Note: As in the other thread, I'm promoting resistance as a defense, because it affects multi-attackers more than big-W attackers, and I view multiattacking as a more-powerful-than-intended approach.  A 9[W] daily does about the same damage as a 3 attack 1[W] encounter power).  One would naively expect a 29th level pure damage daily power to do more damage than a 17th level encounter power, but it doesn't.)

Cold Resistance, but that's unfairly targeting a specific bit of cheese that can easily be replaced by different build elements.

"Nice assumptions. Completely wrong assumptions, but by jove if being incorrect stopped people from making idiotic statements, we wouldn't have modern internet subculture." Kerrus
Practical gameplay runs by neither RAW or RAI, but rather "A Compromise Between The Gist Of The Rule As I Recall Getting The Impression Of It That One Time I Read It And What Jerry Says He Remembers, Whatever, We'll Look It Up Later If Any Of Us Still Give A Damn." Erachima

Terrain, terrain, terrain.  This is the easiest way to challenge the PCs, especially in paragon.  Cause them to think smarter with how they implement their plan of attack instead of a barren room with monsters in it.



I totally agree that creative and tactical terrain can make a fight much more interesting.  But in a couple of the paragons (WATE 1-6 and the first CORE that came out), the final battles seemed like they were set up to frustrate melee characters.  Ranged characters in those situations can just sit back and shoot wihtout a care in the world, while the melee characters have to slog through difficult terrain across a large distance, leaping over pits and climbing up walls or difficult staircases.  Of course that's a fundamental difference between melee and ranged characters, but does exacerbating it that much make the game more fun?
I will just say this. Please, please, please do not ruin combats by adding execrable skill challenges into them


Fortunately, you're not the only person playing LFR adventures. Many people enjoy skill challenges during combat - they make things more dynamic.


I'm with EB here... the best skill challenges I've seen in modules are the ones that are the least structured.  "Bob's trying to do X, and Phil's trying to do Y, and the adventurers probably want to do Z.  Generally use the middle DCs, and try and time it so things work out after 6 successes"

In combat, I'm very willing to discover that I really ought to be applying my dwarven lockpicks (big hammer) here vs. there (hitting the magic pillar vs. hitting the monster.  Or some other similar puzzle element), but as a player and a DM, trying to run diplomacy checks in the middle of combat is distracting, hard, annoying, and not fun.  And thievery checks that are strictly inferior to just beating on things?  Pet Peeve of mine.

"Nice assumptions. Completely wrong assumptions, but by jove if being incorrect stopped people from making idiotic statements, we wouldn't have modern internet subculture." Kerrus
Practical gameplay runs by neither RAW or RAI, but rather "A Compromise Between The Gist Of The Rule As I Recall Getting The Impression Of It That One Time I Read It And What Jerry Says He Remembers, Whatever, We'll Look It Up Later If Any Of Us Still Give A Damn." Erachima

Skill challenges in fights are tricky because the skill challenge has to be more threatening/pressing than the fight so that people will actually forgo attacking to try skill checks, and the actual combat needs to be easier because there are going to be 6 or 8 or whatever character rounds when characters aren't participating because they're making skill checks.  So those things need to be balanced out.

The only time I remember liking this in a mod is CORE 1-2. I won't cite details even though most people have probably played it by now.  It had an life or death emergency that had to be dealt with immediately, it was heroic, it was directly linked to the plot of the adventure, and fight seemed to be a good challenge level.
CORM1-6 Curse of the Queen of Thorns had some very interesting skill-challenge-vs-combat elements. (Some "evening" encounters hit on what I like in a skill-during-combat encounter.)

CORE1-11 Drawing a Blank also had a nice use-of-skills-during-combat encounter.

DRAG1-6 Night of Falling Petals had some great terrain/skill elements  in multiple encounters.

{Explicit spoilers avoided.}

From these examples, these authors are "getting on the right track" for my personal preference in play experience.  Especially CORM1-6 - (Skill checks, as well as traditional tactics, progress toward combat victory.)

Dan Anderson @EpicUthrac
Total Confusion www.totalcon.com
LFR Calimshan Writing Director
LFR Epic Writing Director

LFR Myth Drannor Writing Director

I will just say this. Please, please, please do not ruin combats by adding execrable skill challenges into them. It's just an irredemably bad and inexcusable mechanic. I can ordinarily ignore them and at least enjoy the combat and non-skill challenge story elements of the module. But if you put a "can't kill this monster until you beat the skill challenge" element into a mod, that's pretty much making it a "don't play" for me. (And before you say, "give them a chance", it's been two years and they haven't gotten any better. I think the authors and designers have had plenty of chances to make them work--it just hasn't happened).

Skill checks are fine as long as they make sense and have sensible DCs. But, please, no skill challenges.



Fortunately, you're not the only person playing LFR adventures. Many people enjoy skill challenges during combat - they make things more dynamic. If you want to keep playing mods with boring, static combats where you can freely beat the crap out of the bad guys without breaking a sweat, there are plenty of those out right now for you to choose from.




And, I will say that it is fortunate you are not the only person writing LFR modules. There, tit for tat, can we have a useful conversation now?

Skill Challenges during combat are not the only way to keep combats from being "boring, static combats where you freely beat the crap out of bad guys without breaking a sweat." In fact, there are many ways to address all of these issues separately that do not involve skill challenges. Furthermore, skill challenges themselves come with a number of unique problems that make them a poor mechanic--especially in a combat situation.

1. Skill challenge actions are different from other actions in combat.
A. In general, with a character's normal actions in combat, he can only fail to help the party; he is unlikely to end up hurting the party (including party members in area effects and then critting them notwithstanding). If the character hits and deals damage, he usually helps. If he misses, he rarely hurts the party. On the other hand, a skill challenge roll that fails actively hurts the party--it would be better if the character had never attempted the check.
B. All characters have useful things to do during combat. All characters are not useful in any given skill challenge. Yes, I suppose you could make a character who is absolutely useless in combat, but you'd have to try. On the other hand, in any given skill challenge, characters will frequently have nothing useful to contribute. For instance, you have the evil trap that is spewing cold damage over the party and the monsters, making them immune to damage by author fiat. You need to disable it with a skill challenge to continue. It requires thievery or arcana to deactivate. The fighter has neither, so he's done. He can beat on the trap, but that won't help the skill challenge. (If beating on the trap is likely to break it, the rogue and wizard should join him in doing so). He can beat on the monsters, but that is useless due to the combat design. He could use aid other, but seriously, Aid other? That's hardly an interesting or useful level of involvement. The cleric is basicaly in the same situation. He may be trained in Arcana, but this is paragon and any DC that the wizard does not automatically beat will cause him to fail (due to the 5-8 point difference in their arcana skill checks). Therefore, attempting the arcana check is actually worse for the party than him doing nothing.
C. Ordinary combat has "in between stages." If there are five monsters ina combat and you bloody one halfway through round 1 and kill it at the end of round 1, you have just seen two things happen and at least one of them made a difference to the combat. Heck, you could also knock the monster prone, mark it, weaken it, or immobilize it, all of which will make a difference in the combat. Skill challenges generally have no in between stages. You succeed or you fail. Until you succeed or fail, none of your individual checks make a difference. That is boring and makes ordinary combat options generally more attractive.
D. Skill challenges are often mystery meat quests. You see a strange device. It is clear that it is effecting the combat. It is also clear that disabling it is probably either hitting it and doing lots of damage or a skill challenge. But it is not clear what skills one would have to use in order to disable it. Sometimes DMs will tell you, often they won't. If you are not told, are you going to waste a standard action trying Arcana only to be told, "that does nothing; it's not a primary skill so, you just wasted a standard action" or worse yet, "Arcana is an auto-failure." So, are you going to take that mystery meat? Or are you just going to bash it. A subsection of this mystery meat skill can be seen in the Corm Mod, All the King's Men. The final fight featured a skill challenge of sorts, but characters needed to spend a standard action to succeed on an insight check to figure out what any of the options were. Without knowing in advance whether or not you will uncover any options and with past experience that such options are only rarely useful, a lot of parties (mine included) proceeded to ignore the option. Once we did succeed on each of the insight options, we figured out that one of them was actually useful (diplomacy could box the creature in with the motes so that it was unable to move or escape melee range) and that using it was a minor action (we certainly would not have guessed that if we hadn't been told--skill checks are usually standard actions).

2. Skill challenge solutions compete with non-skill challenge solutions in-combat. So, let's go back to the standard trap in combat skill challenge. Two party members can contribute to the trap in combat skill challenge. The other two can only contribute failures or beat-down. If both parts of the party do what they are able to do, either the beat-down boys finish the trap off before the skill challenge is complete or the skill challenge crew finishes the challenge a bit after the trap is bloodied. Either way, half the party has wasted its time. The solutions to this prevent the skill challenge from having the effect you suggested on the combat. If you give the beat down boys some monsters to kill while the challenge crew is working on the skill challenge, then obviously the skill challenge isn't preventing the beat down boys from killing the monsters.

3. Skill challenges are inherently more swingy than combat encounters.
A. Party composition. It's a social skill skill challenge in-combat. One party consists of a pacifist Wis/Cha cleric, an artful dodger rogue, a charisma paladin, a dark pact warlock, and an inspiring warlord. They're on easy street. The other party is a tactical warlord, a Str/Dex fighter, a rageblood barbarian, a whirling barbarian, and a staff wizard. Even if intimidate isn't an auto-failure, they don't have anyone who could is better at any social skill than "trained with the skill connected to a dump stat." But both parties are balanced according to role which is still more than you will often get in LFR.
B. Number of rolls required. Even in a two round combat, the outcome hangs on a large number of d20 rolls. If it's a short combat, we'll speculate that each character averages 1.5 attacks per round and action points and minor action attack generate another four rolls in round 1. Also, four monsters attack in round 1 and three attack in round 2 before the party finishes them all off. That's  26 d20 rolls to determine the outcome of a very short combat. If there are save-ends effects and extra saves happening or if the combat stretches to five rounds, there could easily be 100 rolls. That large number of rolls renders the results relatively predictable (even if paragon combats are still quite swingy). Skill challenges, on the other hand? If it's four successes, it has succeeded or failed after six rolls. Even a ridiculously complex (and doubly so for an in-combat skill challenge) skill challenge that requires 12 successes will be over one way or the other after 14 rolls.
C. Skill challenges generally have failure consequences. This makes them more swingy than simply adding another monster. Very few monsters get tougher if you miss them three times. Traps and trap-inspired skill challenges do. If you fail the skill challenge, you are worse off than if you had been stunned for all the rounds you spent working on it.

4. All of the usual objections to the skill challenge mechanic in other situations apply. Skill challenges encourage characters to work alone rather than together, etc etc.

Now, I don't think that puzzle encounters are inherently a bad idea, but they don't have to involve skill challenges. Kiltpads alludes to one example where he suggests that applying his dwarven lockpicks to the column rather than the monster is the way to go. Radiant Vessel of Thesk's option to get Braal to stop fighting is also arguably an example of this. Dungeon Siege and WoW also doubtless offer examples of this (curiously, Diablo II did not). I'm sure that they can be well done and that skill checks will be appropriate elements of some of them. But skill challenges are not a promising mechanic for accomplishing this.
My favorite kind of trap/skill challenge is where the skill check does damage to the trap. 

A trap with 100 hit points (and resist 10/all) where a DC ## Arcana/Thievery/Religion check does 25 damage is fun.  The beat-down characters can hit it, working in cooperation with the skill-check PCs.  Everyone contributes, and the result is generally fun.

I agree with Elder Basilisk in that my experience to-date with traps and skill challenges/checks in combats has been negative:  It's taught me that anything other than fighting the monsters is strictly a waste of my actions. 

As a DM, I'm trying to fight this trend.  Regardless of what the mod says, I explain the mechanic to the players, so they can make an informed decision.  I explicitly state what is a minor,move, standard action and will at least generaly state what result they can expect.

I've also altered traps with skill challenge results so that each success (step along the path) is meaningful; maybe it gives the "trap" a penalty to hit or damage, or something else.  I've seen this in some mods.

That said - one of my favorite fights to-date is in DRAG1-2 with the exploding barrels.  The PCs have 4 rounds to make six successes before bad things happen.  I've seen some parties kill the baddies first, then concentrate on the barrels, I've seen them split focus, and I've seen them hit the skill checks first.

The key thing as writers/DMs is that we shouldn't PUNISH the players for taking an intelligent action.  If it sounds reasonable, it should be HELPFUL.  And we shouldn't deny them obvious information.  If it's not obvious (how the situation works) - treat it like a knowledge check, in that it's a FREE ACTION for everyone to use Arcana/Insight/Nature/Dungeoneering/Religion to "understand" the mechanics/purpose of the special skill challenge in the combat, and how it works.

All these weird skill challenge variants are nice, but players aren't familiar with them so there needs to be more transparency.
Fortunately, you're not the only person playing LFR adventures. Many people enjoy skill challenges during combat - they make things more dynamic. If you want to keep playing mods with boring, static combats where you can freely beat the crap out of the bad guys without breaking a sweat, there are plenty of those out right now for you to choose from.



Agree. And while I may generally agree that skill challenges as a whole haven't gotten a ton better, they are improving. I actually don't mind most of the recent ones. As for SCs in combat: DRAG1-6 had possibly the best Skill Challenge in combat I've seen so far. I love that bit, I recommend it and for those that hate it, I don't have much to say other than you're (in my opinion) wrong.



That said - one of my favorite fights to-date is in DRAG1-2 with the exploding barrels.  The PCs have 4 rounds to make six successes before bad things happen.  I've seen some parties kill the baddies first, then concentrate on the barrels, I've seen them split focus, and I've seen them hit the skill checks first.



I will add that, while I have not DMed this, something that did work most of the times I played it was that characters were able to use powers to fight the fire (perhaps the DMs made this up; if they did, good for them and it's still instructive for other writers). In one run through, for instance, my warlock used armor of agathys and ran through the fire to put parts of it out. This integrated it much more thoroughly into the combat and made it more enjoyable.  The ability to use powers to solve problems made the integration much more seamless and also made it so that it was not necessarily mutually exclusive to fight the fire or fight the monsters. Dropping a slightly less efficient icy terrain, for instance, might allow you to get one one of the monsters and the fire at the same time.
... _every_ skill challenge should let powers work in it. I am once again reminded that you may have had some bad DM experiences with skill challenges.
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
... _every_ skill challenge should let powers work in it. I am once again reminded that you may have had some bad DM experiences with skill challenges.



Perhaps. I think I would argue that it is other people who may have had a few atypically good experiences with skill challenges though.

The judges I've had have run the gamut from excellent to mediocre (with one judge so bad that, upon thinking about it, I would have been better off if I had left the table, reported him to the con organizer and played in the delve or watched anime for the remainder of the slot--but he didn't make skill challenges any worse than anyone else). I would say that most of the judges I've had have been of reasonably average skill and they have all tried to work with the mechanic as best they could. There has only been two times I remember when the skill challenge did not get in the way of the story it was trying to tell and both of those times the judges veered a long way off the mechanical script of the skill challenge in order to accomodate the story.

spoilers for a core mod whose name I can't recall
In one instance, we were trying to infiltrate a Sharran monastery and rescue captive children before they could be sacrificed. Rather than fight the priestess who had the invitation we needed, we pretended to be agents from the monastery, told her that foreign agents had been given invitations and that we were here to collect the original invitations (thus implying that we would catch the person who had given the foreign agents her invitation because she wouldn't have one to give us) and give her the replacement invitation. We had the right skills and characters and got lucky enough to pull the bluff off and it was great. (But it wasn't the skill challenge in the mod and I don't think the DM used all of the skill challenge rules (I know this much at least--we were rolling against higher DCs than standard hard skill challenge DCs, as we should have been)).

The other instance was an actual skill challenge--and one of the more silly ones at that (Core 1-1). We had a group of new players at the table and I suggested an alternate route into the forbidden zone to see if our DM would run with it. He did and put specific obstacles to be overcome into our path which we dealt with in a much more natural manner than is typical with skill challenges.



In both cases, though, I think it is much more a case of a good DM making the best of a bad mechanic than a good mechanic working as intended. (Back in college I had a DM who made Rolemaster fun, but I'm not about to defend the mechanics of that system).
I'm finding (especially at High heroic and paragon) that skill challenges are typically going way "off book", and as a DM I frequently "wing it".  I treat the S.C. setup as a framework.  The PC's need to "do stuff" to complete the task, I just need to make sure they make enough die rolls along the way.

I've let people use powers and rituals in S.C.'s, sometimes as automatic success(es), sometimes in conjunction with a skill roll (Icy terrain the fire fine, but make an Arcana check instead of an attack roll on the fire so I can gauge the success; roll really high and I'll let it count as two successes).

In DRAG1-3 (another favorite of mine) the S.C. requires you to get past some guards at one point.  I've let PCs bonk them on the head, typically with an "initiative skill check" or an "intimidate attack check".  In one case a player offerred to cast Sleep;  in that instance I told the player if he used his Daily1, I wouldn't require a roll, I'd assume they both went instantly to sleep (i'd pretend it was 2e for a bit). 

I'm more willing than some (or most) to bend the rules in an S.C.  Part of being a DM is coming up with a fair and fun way to deal with players wacky ideas. 

there was a brief time where we would use DME to re-write adventures (frequently turning them into classic star wars storylines).  CCG7 or 8 nipped that in the bud with the more explicity DME rules (plus, MYRE now let us flex our creativity more). 

Unforunately, as writers - we can't aggregiously break the rules in a mod (though I've seen authors do it in horrible ways and get away with it); and we can't write down ideas for every scenario. 

I'm not sure if the OP was looking for Author or DM (or both) ideas for making H3/P1+ adventures more fun/challenging....
back to the OP comment:

Action Points.  They're just too darn frequent in LFR.  90% of adventures have enough skill challenges (or too few combats) such that players know/believe they'll have an A.P. in 90% of combats (instead of maybe 50-70%).

One thing I do as a DM now, is that I take to heart the DMG leeway with milestones.  If encounters are too weak, they shouldn't count towards a mileston (DMG 123).  With S.C., I try to think of them like real encounters.  A complexity 1 S.C. is like fighting one monster.  that's not a significant challenge.  A standard encounter has 4-5 monsters of your level to be challenging (not one).  So in my mind, an S.C. doesn't count towards a milestone unless it's at least complexity 4 (or there are multiple skill challenges that add up to a complexity 4).

this is kind of weird, but keep in mind that I've seen DM's count non-combat, non-S.C. encounters towards a milestone.  I've also seen clarifying text in LFR modules that will say in an RP encounter (that doesn't award XP) that "this encounter does not count towards a milestone".

i'd like to see that same thing on small (complexity 1,2) skill challenges as well.

Another option, is that since you can't realistically have a 4-7 fight dungeon crawl in a 4-hour LFR mod (which is sad -because most of the WOTC published material fits this description), you can simulate it by simply taking away healing surges at the beginning of the "adventure".  Example:

You're heading into the [monster-X] dungeon.  you go through several rooms that have [monster x] in them. After fighting them, you all make a [some type of d20 roll] and based on the result, lose 1,2, or 3 surges.  (the result could also be based on your role).

I did this in a MYRE setup a while back.  Players simulated multiple fights by having a post combat skill challenge (gathering information about the dungeon).  based on how well they did (and their role of defender, striker, leader, controller) they lost 0, 1, 2, or 3 surges. 
Another option, is that since you can't realistically have a 4-7 fight dungeon crawl in a 4-hour LFR mod (which is sad -because most of the WOTC published material fits this description),



Actually, I think you could do that. You would just need to run it as a two-rounder. Two MYRE mods, a special, or a two-round 4 hour core would give you enough experience.

Those of us who did the Delve two years ago at GenCon managed to get through 2-3 encounters in a half hour so getting through 6-7 in four hours shouldn't be impossible, provided that you were willing to have everything predrawn or pre-laid out and play quickly. There should even be some time left over for some semblage of a story.

Now, maybe not at paragon. But it should certainly be possible in the heroic tier.
Give controller monsters powers like:



Before people go wild: LFR authors can not change monsters willy-nilly.
There are some limiting rules. We can 'reflavor', level up, level down, apply templates, and apply themes.
But we can't simply addor change powers.

The challenge will ultimately have to come with the means at our disposal.
As Matt says, terrain is very big. It does not necessarily need to limit (only) the PCs, but it makes combat intersting and adds options.
My experience is that many authors have difficulty adding interesting terrain effects. SOme fjust don't get past 'this square is difficult terrain' - which isn't very interesting (esp not if the combat turns out to be 3D... :P).
I try, and I am sure I do not always get it right.
But we should - and can! -  be creative with  terrain and terrain powers.
SCs during a combat can be interesting when applied correctly. I think they should be used with some care though.

Gome
To be honest, I think the answer is MOAR DAMAGE.

Seriously, MM1 monsters are pitiful in the damage stakes. Even Orcus. If you take away his save-or-die, it's quite possible to put together a defender who can take him solo by attrition, because he just can't do enough damage to worry anyone, especially if you have necrotic resistance (not uncommon).

Later monsters from MM2 and Open Grave and the suchlike deliver a much better punch, as a rule.

My cleric has only once been tapped out of healing in the last three or so levels of play. Now admittedly he has a fair bit, but very few fights tax healing resources much at all. Because for all the dazing, stunning, dominating, awkward terrain and other annoyances, there are very few encounters where the monsters dish out enough. Elites that do 2d8 +8 or something are never going to worry that con-fighter.

My warlord changed out two of his powers that healed because I was never needing them... the only time I missed them was the round enders of SPEC1-2. And even there it wasn't really _necessary_.
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
Give controller monsters powers like:



Before people go wild: LFR authors can not change monsters willy-nilly.
There are some limiting rules. We can 'reflavor', level up, level down, apply templates, and apply themes.
But we can't simply addor change powers.


I think you can.  You just have to pretend they are caused by something outside the monster.  "The protection circle the monster is standing in gives Resist-all 10 as an immediate-interrupt encounter power, and prevents effects with the teleportation keyword"

"The controller is weaing the Ironskin belt, and uses it the first time it looks like he's going to be hit" (Ok, can't overuse that one, because otherwise mods will be overflowing with that one item as a treasure option)

etc.  Technically these are changes to the monsters, but as far as effective play balance goes, they are.

"Nice assumptions. Completely wrong assumptions, but by jove if being incorrect stopped people from making idiotic statements, we wouldn't have modern internet subculture." Kerrus
Practical gameplay runs by neither RAW or RAI, but rather "A Compromise Between The Gist Of The Rule As I Recall Getting The Impression Of It That One Time I Read It And What Jerry Says He Remembers, Whatever, We'll Look It Up Later If Any Of Us Still Give A Damn." Erachima

Reading this thread really depresses me, because it makes it seem like those rascally players are ruining all the DMs' / adventure writers' plans and need to be stopped.

Except that those rascally players are the whole reason LFR exists.

If players have fun building hyper-optimized strikers and mowing down the monsters in an LFR fight... great. Never forget that some people derive their enjoyment of the game by effortlessly breezing through combat. (This is why cheat codes in computer games exist and are popular, I think.)

Also, if a fight is over quickly, it's not like the DM or adventure writer somehow "failed" to do his job.

= = =

Now, some suggestions. These are more geared towards Heroic tier as I haven't played nor DM'd Paragon yet.

* Terrain, terrain, terrain. And I don't just mean a few boulders and trees, although I know the enforced use of Dungeon Tiles is a limitation.

Use interesting terrain features that encourage movement and that cause the PCs to want to approach or avoid certain areas. Even something as simple as Blood Rock (crit on a 19-20) can become attractive.

See also the solitaire adventure www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/d..." title="www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/d...">Dark Awakenings for other examples.

* Reinforcements. I _love_ having monsters arrive in the middle of the fight, both as a DM and as a player. It prevents the fight from becoming static, and it gives the players a chance to think on their feet about how to react to the new circumstances. 

The arrival of reinforcements does slightly punish players who blow their wad early, but I'm OK with that, as long as not _every_ fight has reinforcements.

Reinforcements also helps address another issues, which is...

* Avoid chokepoints. How many times have you seen this scenario: the PCs enter the encounter through a narrow corridor or doorway. Either the monsters win initiative, or the PCs don't wish to move up to engage, so the entire fight takes place within 2 squares of the chokepoint. Borrrring.

When possible, PCs should enter the battle area in the middle of the map, so that monsters can come at them from all directions. If the PCs want to hold a chokepoint, they should have to move to one and seize it, not start out in such a strong defensive position.

* Focus fire. The PCs do it to the monsters, so I think it's fair for the monsters to do it to the PCs. Lots of predator animals in nature single out one target, so the monsters needn't even be all that smart to figure this out.

Naturally, you don't want the Tactics section of the LFR adventure to suggest that DMs ruthlessly exterminate on PC at a time, and I'd personally (when DM'ing) steer clear of coup de grace against downed PCs.

But I have no problem with the Tactics saying something like, "The skirmisher monsters target the PC who appears least armored and focus their attacks on him, while the soldier monsters try to engage the other PCs."

Focused fire actually makes things like marking and various control powers _more_ useful than if the monsters split up evenly across the PCs. In the previous example, presumably the soldier monster would've attacked the fighter PC anyway, so the fighter marking the soldier doesn't really do anything... but if the fighter marks one of the skirmisher monsters, it makes the fighter's mark actually meaningful.

= = =

This is already a Wall o' Text (tm), so I'll stop.

Reading this thread really depresses me, because it makes it seem like those rascally players are ruining all the DMs' / adventure writers' plans and need to be stopped.

Except that those rascally players are the whole reason LFR exists.


If players have fun building hyper-optimized strikers and mowing down the monsters in an LFR fight... great. Never forget that some people derive their enjoyment of the game by effortlessly breezing through combat. (This is why cheat codes in computer games exist and are popular, I think.)



Well, quite true, but don't forget that a table is rarely homogenous. Some people want the challenge and will become sad and dejected if they feel useless next to the hyper-optimized striker. This does not make the hyper-optimized striker a bad person, of course; it's just something to keep in mind.
Also of note, we're not suggesting giving EVERY monster in EVERY encounter ways to slow down damage-optimizers. I've sat through more than one mod where the party walks into the final encounter, focus-fire-novas the BBEG in round one, and the fight is either called or "climaxes" with a 15-minute mop-up of the mooks.

Many of the suggestions in the thread are intended to keep the big baddie alive long enough to at leasat get a turn or two! (Feel free to "mow down" the mooks all you want!)

Also, one of the limiting factors is the XP budget writers have. This results in Skill Challenges being compressed to Complexity 1 (to save XP), and makes it difficult to "send in reinforcements."

Dan Anderson @EpicUthrac
Total Confusion www.totalcon.com
LFR Calimshan Writing Director
LFR Epic Writing Director

LFR Myth Drannor Writing Director

Reading this thread really depresses me, because it makes it seem like those rascally players are ruining all the DMs' / adventure writers' plans and need to be stopped.

Except that those rascally players are the whole reason LFR exists.

If players have fun building hyper-optimized strikers and mowing down the monsters in an LFR fight... great. Never forget that some people derive their enjoyment of the game by effortlessly breezing through combat. (This is why cheat codes in computer games exist and are popular, I think.)

Also, if a fight is over quickly, it's not like the DM or adventure writer somehow "failed" to do his job.



Well, as a player, what depresses me is when the hyper-optimized characters in the party go to town, destroy the encounter and leave little to no fun for me. That's as a -player-. Let me repeat. It sucks big fat furry ones. I want to play D&D, not who-wins-initiative. Is that wrong of me? Maybe. That's not to say that I don't appreciate a good striker or orbizard, I do. I just want to have something to do as well. It might even be one of the reasons that my most played PC of late is in fact the striker. Things that make you go, "Hmmmm ..."

As for that last bit about the DMs/writers. Sometimes you wouldn't know it to hear/read players talking about the mods. The fights are too short, we killed them too easily (AKAN1-1), or the fights are too long, the creature had too high defenses (EAST1-4). Players don't want to be stuck in 2x3 starting positions (lots), but they would love it for monsters to be in the 5x5 AOE (every?). Players hate environment affects (CORM 1-5, DALE1-4?) but love using their own. Players hate fighting Solos with 600 hp (ADCP1-1, anything with a dragon higher than 6?), but love it if they can kill one in 1 round by crit'ing. Players hate it when creatures daze or stunlock (me), but love it when they can do it (every wizard with enlarged Grasp of the Grave). There's so many different contradictory complaints, sometimes even from the same player, that I marvel (MARVEL) that there are still writers willing to do the job.

So, no, personally I'm not making suggestions in this thread because I want to make things less fun or ruin any particular type of players' characters, quite the opposite, I'd like there to be a large diversity of encounters, and I'd like to be able to help the writers address the myriad complaints and requests out there.
Also of note, we're not suggesting giving EVERY monster in EVERY encounter ways to slow down damage-optimizers. I've sat through more than one mod where the party walks into the final encounter, focus-fire-novas the BBEG in round one, and the fight is either called or "climaxes" with a 15-minute mop-up of the mooks.

Many of the suggestions in the thread are intended to keep the big baddie alive long enough to at leasat get a turn or two! (Feel free to "mow down" the mooks all you want!)

Also, one of the limiting factors is the XP budget writers have. This results in Skill Challenges being compressed to Complexity 1 (to save XP), and makes it difficult to "send in reinforcements."



Except that it's not BBEGs going down quickly that was spawning these complaints. A number of posters here seem to have an issue with any non-minion monster being killed by one character in one round unless he has leader support, spends two dailies and crits--and even then, according to at least one poster here, if the character was not a striker from level 1 (never mind if he multiclassed into a striker class and started out in a class with a very strong secondary striker role (such as ardent vow paladin)), the best they should be able to do is bloody a standard monster (with two dailies, leader support, and a crit).

If we are to take the complaints at face value then the proposed solutions really do need to apply to every monster--otherwise they don't solve the perceived problem.

If this were just an issue of keeping BBEG monsters alive, I would suggest bodyguards. A lot of monsters have abilities that can redirect an attack to an ally and for those that do not have such abilities, at least for monsters with humanoid allies, it would be pretty trivial to use the DMG NPC creation rules to stat up (for instance) a gnoll paladin of Yeenoghu to use divine bodyguard or another take the hit power and keep the BBEG alive. (Heck, even the xp wouldn't be an issue because a 5th to 9th level NPC paladin isn't going to eat up much of the xp budget at paragon). But the initial complaints were not about the big bad guy going down too quickly but rather about his ordinary soldiers and brute peons going down too quickly. And it would be a little unreasonable to have an NPC take the hit for one of the BBEG's guards. (Now, on the other hand, you could have an organized unit of soldiers--hobgoblins, for instance--who all have a take the hit power or two and who use it to keep each other alive. You wouldn't want that to be a regular encounter, but it would work in one or two mods).
I still firmly believe that authors can write encounters that create a dynamic, exciting experience for all players (optimized or not) without frustrating them too much and without making it too easy.

I will continue to write until I no longer feel this way.
Dave Kay LFR Writing Director Retiree dkay807 [at] yahoo [dot] com
One thing I do not want to see is combats written assuming that every table has an optimized striker in it. I absouletly hate 12-14 round grind combats, and I've played in some recent mods that took that long because we didn't have an optimized striker that could dump massive dmg in a round. While a DM could call a combat before it becomes a grind, many don't and play it out to the end if you're not in a strict timed environment like a con.
A number of posters here seem to have an issue with any non-minion monster being killed by one character in one round unless he has leader support, spends two dailies and crits--and even then, according to at least one poster here, if the character was not a striker from level 1 (never mind if he multiclassed into a striker class and started out in a class with a very strong secondary striker role (such as ardent vow paladin)), the best they should be able to do is bloody a standard monster (with two dailies, leader support, and a crit).
...
If we are to take the complaints at face value then the proposed solutions really do need to apply to every monster--otherwise they don't solve the perceived problem.



I believe, some of what was being complained about, was that some mods have synergies, where monsters are supposed to play off one another to be effective. The dazing BBEG with a few CA-advantaged lurkers or brutes. The Controller with slow and the ability to make the PCs wade through some sort of damage dealing mob, trap, environment or the like. Etc.

When certain monsters go down quickly, there's not a lot that can be done to salvage the rest of the encounter. And let's face it, in 4E, targetting the caster/BBEG/elite in the back is just as much of a tactical 101 goal priority as it was in 3.5. Solos can often take the beating for a round or two, very few others can.

Perhaps, when building encounters, such synergies need to be examined in the face of particular monsters dying. Perhaps encounters should rely on two or more synergy pairs (tuples), such that if any one monster dies immediately, the other synergies can still take hold, maybe not with as much affect, but with enough to make the fight interesting.

How's that for a non-gimp the PC approach?

Except that it's not BBEGs going down quickly that was spawning these complaints. A number of posters here seem to have an issue with any non-minion monster being killed by one character in one round unless he has leader support, spends two dailies and crits--and even then, according to at least one poster here, if the character was not a striker from level 1 (never mind if he multiclassed into a striker class and started out in a class with a very strong secondary striker role (such as ardent vow paladin)), the best they should be able to do is bloody a standard monster (with two dailies, leader support, and a crit).


Since that's me your talking about, that's not quite my position.  In that "this I believe" essay, I was talking about expected results, not lucky ones (so, better with crits).  And (while I didn't say this at the time) I'm perfectly willing to consider secondary strikers/built strikers as strikers as far as their expected capabilities are, and I think it's fine for a non striker to be able to nearly kill a standard monster, no crit required.

I just think the game can suffer some when one monster will be removed from the board, every encounter, before it gets an initiative pass.  And currently, that's happens with only one optimized striker in the party.

"Nice assumptions. Completely wrong assumptions, but by jove if being incorrect stopped people from making idiotic statements, we wouldn't have modern internet subculture." Kerrus
Practical gameplay runs by neither RAW or RAI, but rather "A Compromise Between The Gist Of The Rule As I Recall Getting The Impression Of It That One Time I Read It And What Jerry Says He Remembers, Whatever, We'll Look It Up Later If Any Of Us Still Give A Damn." Erachima


Except that it's not BBEGs going down quickly that was spawning these complaints. A number of posters here seem to have an issue with any non-minion monster being killed by one character in one round unless he has leader support, spends two dailies and crits--and even then, according to at least one poster here, if the character was not a striker from level 1 (never mind if he multiclassed into a striker class and started out in a class with a very strong secondary striker role (such as ardent vow paladin)), the best they should be able to do is bloody a standard monster (with two dailies, leader support, and a crit).


Since that's me your talking about, that's not quite my position.  In that "this I believe" essay, I was talking about expected results, not lucky ones (so, better with crits).  And (while I didn't say this at the time) I'm perfectly willing to consider secondary strikers/built strikers as strikers as far as their expected capabilities are, and I think it's fine for a non striker to be able to nearly kill a standard monster, no crit required.

I just think the game can suffer some when one monster will be removed from the board, every encounter, before it gets an initiative pass.  And currently, that's happens with only one optimized striker in the party.



That's a helpful clarification. But I still think you are focused far too much on role. (For example, a warlord could very well use inspired belligerence and war of attrition then action point to hit a monster with hail of steel to give everyone in the party a basic attack with combat advantage and +2+Cha to hit and +2x Cha damage; it doesn't seem out of line if that kills the monster even though the warlord is called a leader rather than a striker; after all, why would warlords get all sorts of "give the whole party an attack" powers if they weren't supposed to do high damage through their allies?)

Also, I think you overestimate how common it is for a monster to disappear before he gets to go. It will, of course, only happen when that monster loses initiative. In most of the examples that have been given, luck played a part (I think both of the actual example novas (rather than my theoretical nova--my inspiring warlord is only lvl 11 and can't do that yet) involved a crit). Also, in both of the examples given, the character spent an action point--which will only happen in 60-75% of fights. Finally, at least in the rogue example, the rogue had to start out adjacent to the monster (since he used both his move and his minor action to make minor action attacks) and that will generally be the case for melee striker novas. (It is certainly true of my ranger, though by paragon, he will probably have five squares of range if he uses attacks on the run (daily 9) as a part of the nova. Likewise, it is true of my avenger, though at paragon, he'll get a shift two when he uses oath of enmity and can pull undead creatures to him with abjure undead as a part of the nova). It is a little bit less true of ranged striker novas, but since ranged strikers tend to have somewhat less powerful novas, and the example given on this thread was a warlock knocking half the hp off of every monster rather than dropping any of them. So, what we come down to is that this actually seems more like a possibility if, in the 60-75% of fights where PCs have an action point,  they also win initiative, start off in range of monster (or are moved into range by another PC), and get a little bit lucky. I would expect that that combination of events only happens in something like 30-50% of combats rather than all of them.

Additionally, I expect that that kind of thing will also vary a lot depending upon the party's leader. Warlords will make it happen much more often than clerics or bards. (All warlords make the PCs more likely to win init, Tactical warlords increase attack and damage on an AP, bravura warlords give an extra attack, resourceful warlords give a massive damage increase on APs, and while inspiring presence doesn't do much for the nova, inspiring warlord powers are able to set them up very well). That is part of the design of the class though. Warlords favor more aggressive play than other leaders and that playstyle shouldn't be designed out of the game by module writers.

I believe, some of what was being complained about, was that some mods have synergies, where monsters are supposed to play off one another to be effective. The dazing BBEG with a few CA-advantaged lurkers or brutes. The Controller with slow and the ability to make the PCs wade through some sort of damage dealing mob, trap, environment or the like. Etc.

When certain monsters go down quickly, there's not a lot that can be done to salvage the rest of the encounter. And let's face it, in 4E, targetting the caster/BBEG/elite in the back is just as much of a tactical 101 goal priority as it was in 3.5. Solos can often take the beating for a round or two, very few others can.

Perhaps, when building encounters, such synergies need to be examined in the face of particular monsters dying. Perhaps encounters should rely on two or more synergy pairs (tuples), such that if any one monster dies immediately, the other synergies can still take hold, maybe not with as much affect, but with enough to make the fight interesting.

How's that for a non-gimp the PC approach?



I think that's a big improvement. I think we could go one step further, however, and build multiple synergies into encounters. Rather than, "we've got monster X who makes monster Y better and a bunch of monster Ys," you could have, "We've got monster X who makes monster Y better in one way and monster Z that makes monster Y better in another way--and by the way, monster Y also makes monster Z better." That way, if you kill monster X, you have accomplished something, but you haven't pulled all of monster Ys' teeth either.
That's a helpful clarification. But I still think you are focused far too much on role. (For example, a warlord could very well use inspired belligerence and war of attrition then action point to hit a monster with hail of steel


Yep, that seems fine to me too.

Also, I think you overestimate how common it is for a monster to disappear before he gets to go.


In my LFR experience, with a party with two high-heroic spike focused strikers?  No, not really.  Two monster-equivilents melt almost every encounter, one of which before it ever goes  (And then my spike-focused striker is pretty irrelevant to the encounter, but the other one has good DPR).

November's update helped out our DMs, at least until Wil can afford the replacement gear.

Also, in both of the examples given, the character spent an action point--which will only happen in 60-75% of fights.


Again, my experience is higher.  Most modules have 2 fights, and have a skill challenge between them.  So one AP is spent in each fight.  Daily powers tend to be conserved more, even at high heroic.  Again, in my experience.


Additionally, I expect that that kind of thing will also vary a lot depending upon the party's leader. Warlords will make it happen much more often than clerics or bards.


My experience does include a decent Taclord, so that certainly holds.

Warlords favor more aggressive play than other leaders and that playstyle shouldn't be designed out of the game by module writers.



"Nice assumptions. Completely wrong assumptions, but by jove if being incorrect stopped people from making idiotic statements, we wouldn't have modern internet subculture." Kerrus
Practical gameplay runs by neither RAW or RAI, but rather "A Compromise Between The Gist Of The Rule As I Recall Getting The Impression Of It That One Time I Read It And What Jerry Says He Remembers, Whatever, We'll Look It Up Later If Any Of Us Still Give A Damn." Erachima

Yeah, I'm thinking something like at least 90% AP use per encounter in most adventures. There are some where it ends up less due to having 4 combats... but even then, 4 combats, 2 skill challenges, start with 1... you might miss 1 of the combats to get at 75%, but you're unlikely to be lower.
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
I think that's a big improvement. I think we could go one step further, however, and build multiple synergies into encounters. Rather than, "we've got monster X who makes monster Y better and a bunch of monster Ys," you could have, "We've got monster X who makes monster Y better in one way and monster Z that makes monster Y better in another way--and by the way, monster Y also makes monster Z better." That way, if you kill monster X, you have accomplished something, but you haven't pulled all of monster Ys' teeth either.



If the monsters and the XP budget allow, I think that's a great target.


Yeah, I'm thinking something like at least 90% AP use per encounter in most adventures. There are some where it ends up less due to having 4 combats... but even then, 4 combats, 2 skill challenges, start with 1... you might miss 1 of the combats to get at 75%, but you're unlikely to be lower.



There are a few modules (Akan 1-1 is an example) that feature 4 combats with no skill challenges. In those, assuming that PCs spend action points with maximium efficiency, no given PC will be able to spend an AP in more than 50% of combats.

There are also a few modules that feature only two combats with a skill challenge in between. (I don't think these modules--Luru 1-6 is an example of these--outnumber the first kind of module  though). In those, and only those modules, will you ever see a single character spend an action point in every fight. (And even then, players who do not know in advance that it is that kind of mod rather than a different one may well hold back an AP in the first encounter).

There are also a few modules that feature two combats followed by a skill challenge or with a skill challenge interspersed between them so as not to allow characters to hit a milestone before all of the combats are finished. This is inherently the most difficult module structure and, like the first combat will not allow any character to spend an AP in more than 50% of the combats. (Core 1-11, Drawing a Blank is an example of such a mod).

Probably the most common module structure I have observed is three fights and a skill challenge, possibly followed by another skill challenge. This structure which appears in Dale 1-1, Core 1-2, Agla 1-1 etc, allows for the characters to spend APs in 2/3 of their fights but not all of them. (Skill challenge+combat+combat+combat leaves the charactes with an AP at the end but only one milestone before the last combat; combat+skill challenge+combat+combat is the same, as is combat+combat+skill challenge+combat. The last structure differs from the others in that it guarantees that the PCs will all have an AP to spend in the final encounter but that they will not be able to spend an AP in both the first and the second encounter; the other two structures allow the PCs to spend APs in the first and second encounters if they want, but leaves them without an AP in the final combat if they do so).

I don't know where either of you come up with any single character spending an AP in 90% of the encounters, but I suspect it is either selection bias rearing its ugly head or you have groups with battlefield archers, level 16+ adroit explorers, etc in them. Given the way LFR mods are structured, there is no way the number can possibly be higher than 75% without a non-milestone method of gaining APs, and I suspect that 66% is the most common percentage.

My uninformed feeling is that we're seeing more adventures which run two combat encounters and a skill challenge, with the skill challenge being either at the beginning or middle of the adventure; this is partially because spreading the experience points out among three combat encounters seems to provide less challenging/interesting encounters. To the degree which that becomes the norm, we'll see AP spending habits adapt.

The old model of three combats, plus one or two skill challenges, you typically had people holding their AP till the second fight then burning it immediately.

It would be interesting to actually figure out what's common. I'm not entirely sure I want to know that much about all the modules I haven't played, though. Maybe I can bribe an admin to do it for me over Christmas? I bake cookies... 

Probably the most common module structure I have observed is three fights and a skill challenge, possibly followed by another skill challenge.



My guess would have been that, for 1-4 and later modules, 2 combat/2 skill challenge adventures are by far the most common, with 2 combat/1 skill challenge being next.  In either case, as long as a skill challenge shows up before the last combat, you get an action point for each combat.

Three combat modules are tough--either one (or more) of the combats is trivial, or it's a six-hour adventure masquerading as a four-hour one, so their popularity has faded after the lessons of the first three quarters were processed.

This is the sort of thing that's easy to determine, so someone who's either very hardcore or unafraid of spoilers should run the numbers as to the encounter breakdowns.