How to make a encounters fair but challenging

14 posts / 0 new
Last post

Hi all 

I've got a great group of level 6 players (five in all Sorcerer, Monk, Paladin, Rogue and Cleric and not ultra optimised) and what I'd really like to ask is for some help on making my Encounters not suck.  

We've been running a the Scales of War campaign, but I've been improving the monster math and trying to make the monsters a bit more challenging and also fit thematically better.  

The party burst in on the Dryad Queen in the Lost Mines of Karak and I put in there a couple more Satyr rakes along with what was already there i.e. five minions two cacklefiend hyenas and the Queen and took out the Longtooth Hunters.  This was meant to be a level 9 encounter.


Now I appreciate that the party got something like 6 Crits and my rolling was appalling, I couldn't hit for toffee last night.  But this isn't the first time its gone wrong.


Partly I feel I just make some really bad tactical decisions in terms of where I placed the monsters, but also I realise that when the party swarmed the Dryad Skirmisher, it was a whole round before she could escape and she got pummelled by two of the characters and was dead with no way to change this before her turn came or anyone could do anything.  And so it all went down hill from there.  What was meant to be a dramatic encounter, wasn't. 


I realised several things that just don't work for me. 


1.  When rolling the dice, sometimes bad numbers happen at the wrong time and it makes the encounter really suck.  I know encounters are finally balanced but again and again I find poor dice quickly turn even a well planned encounter into not such fun.  Perhaps then fate sometimes has to intervene or the encounter might as well not have happened, especially if the story is going to have a dramatic sense of achievement. 


2.  The party lock down certain characters really quickly (anyone they perceive as the big bad threat and focus fire really well), with being able to knock prone, slow, or other stuff even elites, leaders or controllers can end up dying really fast.  I don't want to punish them for good tactical thinking, but neither do I want to make it too easy (on account of my bad decisions) and so loose the sense of drama.


All too often I find that only a third of the party ever get hit, and I've yet to kill a single character or even bring them to zero hit points in recent memory?  So I am not a killer DM, just finding it hard to offer a genuine challenge and trying to figure out what I am doing wrong.


3.  Minions last night were a waste of space, I had five in two separate encounters, (as per the scenario) and they failed to do any damage save one, most got wiped out so quickly that it made little difference to the encounter and they might as well have not been there.  So in future Minions a plenty or not at all. 


But this aside, I am wondering what things you've learned about planning encounters.  Some of my best encounters have been accidental, things worked out a certain way because of what the players did, not me (a previous level 7 encounter with troglodyte took 6 rounds, this one above took no more than 3).  So I feel like tactically I'm terrible DM, but I want to improve. 


At the table I think part of the problem is I make hasty decisions in an effort to keep things moving.  You don't want to be the one keeping the players waiting, as you've got say, four different monster groups to resolve (sometimes initiative means that the monsters are all bunched together so the temptation to rush, through so the players don't get bored - how do you handle this)  But also I sometimes just make poor choices and the players punish the monsters mercilessly for it - and rightly so.  But how can I improve, so that level appropriate encounters are still challenging as they should be?


Your thoughts or suggestions would be most appreciated. 


Ab




Hi all 

I've got a great group of level 6 players (five in all Sorcerer, Monk, Paladin, Rogue and Cleric and not ultra optimised) and what I'd really like to ask is for some help on making my Encounters not suck.  

We've been running a the Scales of War campaign, but I've been improving the monster math and trying to make the monsters a bit more challenging and also fit thematically better.  

The party burst in on the Dryad Queen in the Lost Mines of Karak and I put in there a couple more Satyr rakes along with what was already there i.e. five minions two cacklefiend hyenas and the Queen and took out the Longtooth Hunters.  This was meant to be a level 9 encounter.


Now I appreciate that the party got something like 6 Crits and my rolling was appalling, I couldn't hit for toffee last night.  But this isn't the first time its gone wrong.


Partly I feel I just make some really bad tactical decisions in terms of where I placed the monsters, but also I realise that when the party swarmed the Dryad Skirmisher, it was a whole round before she could escape and she got pummelled by two of the characters and was dead with no way to change this before her turn came or anyone could do anything.  And so it all went down hill from there.  What was meant to be a dramatic encounter, wasn't. 




I DMed that adventure. Most of the Scales of War are pre-MM3 which means the monsters are much weaker than the builds players come to the table with nowadays. Check for updated versions of your monsters or at least up their damage to be in line with MM3 numbers. 

1.  When rolling the dice, sometimes bad numbers happen at the wrong time and it makes the encounter really suck.  I know encounters are finally balanced but again and again I find poor dice quickly turn even a well planned encounter into not such fun.  Perhaps then fate sometimes has to intervene or the encounter might as well not have happened, especially if the story is going to have a dramatic sense of achievement. 



That's just how it goes. Don't go into an encounter with particular expectations except to have fun with it, regardless of the outcome. 

2.  The party lock down certain characters really quickly (anyone they perceive as the big bad threat and focus fire really well), with being able to knock prone, slow, or other stuff even elites, leaders or controllers can end up dying really fast.  I don't want to punish them for good tactical thinking, but neither do I want to make it too easy (on account of my bad decisions) and so loose the sense of drama.

All too often I find that only a third of the party ever get hit, and I've yet to kill a single character or even bring them to zero hit points in recent memory?  So I am not a killer DM, just finding it hard to offer a genuine challenge and trying to figure out what I am doing wrong.




Designing hard encounters is hard. As DM you generally won't have a 100% notion as to what the PCs can do and randomness puts additional chaos into the mix. So, don't design "hard" encounters. Work on designing "fun" ones instead - lots of options, cool terrain, terrain powers, and the like. If the monsters go down in a heap, no big deal because there was lots of 'splosions and everyone enjoyed the cinematic fun. I include a lot of bells and whistles in my encounters because it's fun to use them against the monsters instead of the same old powers and tactics.

3.  Minions last night were a waste of space, I had five in two separate encounters, (as per the scenario) and they failed to do any damage save one, most got wiped out so quickly that it made little difference to the encounter and they might as well have not been there.  So in future Minions a plenty or not at all. 



You can do a lot with minions outside of run up, attack, die. Have them come in waves after the party is engaged with the main threats. Use them to make Heal checks on other monsters to grant saves. Or use Aid Attack or Defense on an ally. Have them operating an arcane turret that blasts the PCs from afar while soliders and controllers lock down the PCs. 

But this aside, I am wondering what things you've learned about planning encounters.  Some of my best encounters have been accidental, things worked out a certain way because of what the players did, not me (a previous level 7 encounter with troglodyte took 6 rounds, this one above took no more than 3).  So I feel like tactically I'm terrible DM, but I want to improve. 



In designing encounters, plan the scene, not the fight. Think of it as a big budget moment in a movie and reproduce that mechanically. The heroes are expected to give the bad guys a beat down. Just make sure when they do, it's as interesting as possible. "Interesting" does not always mean "hard" or "took down at least one PC." That eventuality should be left to the dice gods. You said it yourself - "Some of my best encounters have been accidental." That's no accident. It's just the way it is. Plan for it by not planning for it.

At the table I think part of the problem is I make hasty decisions in an effort to keep things moving.  You don't want to be the one keeping the players waiting, as you've got say, four different monster groups to resolve (sometimes initiative means that the monsters are all bunched together so the temptation to rush, through so the players don't get bored - how do you handle this)  But also I sometimes just make poor choices and the players punish the monsters mercilessly for it - and rightly so.  But how can I improve, so that level appropriate encounters are still challenging as they should be?



You can delay your monsters to space them out a little more in the initiative count. Players do it all the time. You should too. To improve your tactics, get to know your PCs. Don't gameplan against them (you're not trying to "win"), but know what to expect and how to get out of trouble if it's possible. But again, if you focus on making the scene dynamic and fun, it won't matter if they give everyone a beatdown. Nobody remembers taking down a dryad skirmisher in two rounds. They remember setting the barrels next to her tree on fire and watching it burst into flames like a torch and her begging for the PCs to put it out.

EDIT: Check out this blog, specifically this article:

at-will.omnivangelist.net/2011/08/why-ma...  

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Dark Sun Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Generated D&D 5e PCs  |  Re-Imagining Phandelver

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

Practice will help, obviously.

iserith is right, don't plan for an encounter to go a particular way. You can't do that and be fair, because the only way to guarantee a particular outcome is to override randomness, balance and player choice, which are the foundations of fairness. That is, you could cram in more or higher-level monsters, since they can obviously handle normal encounters, but this should be rare or they might feel as if you're being unfair. I assume you don't want to fudge dice or numbers behind the screen and I assume you don't want to just declare that such-and-such happens for story purposes.

Given that you're aware of the tactics that they tend to use, you have some options. For one thing, put in stuff that can't be locked down or outright destroyed. Terrain is one part of this, but also consider traps and skill challenges. Both can usually be countered, but it's generally not enough to "focus fire" on them. In fact, if they deal with them at all doing so will probably require that they divide the attention of the party, which will spare the enemies a little grief. If the party chooses not to deal with the trap or SC, that should be fine, but that course should make the encounter or quest harder. Don't want to disarm the trap? Okay, take some extra damage each round. Don't want to close the portal? Okay, the monster has better defenses, condition immunity, improved accuracy, stronger attacks, teleportation, or all of the above. Don't want to read the obelisk that's sinking into the lava? Okay, but good luck finding the location of the final ritual before it's too late. Another nice thing about traps is that minions can help trigger them, even if the PCs can spot and avoid the triggers.

Along the same lines, you can make the encounter about more than the monsters killing the PCs. That approach hasn't been working anyway, right, so give the monsters some other goal. Sabotage, or assassination, or infiltration, or whatever. Then is matters less how powerful the monsters are, or how effective they are in combat, because combat isn't the point. Sure, they'll want to be able to discourage the PCs and limit their counter-efforts, but direct engagement might put the larger goal at risk.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

You've gotten some good advice already, I'm going to toss in another 2 cents:

Design encountes with the party strengths in mind. Some parties are just going to outright rock certain encounters. The players I DM for have two very strong defenders in the party, which do a fantastic job of keeping the monsters off of the strikers and  controllers. If I want to challenge them, for example, I throw in monsters that keep the defenders locked down while other beasties go for the rest of the party. Lots of things hunt in packs, for example. Have two brutes keep the defender on his ass while lurkers and skirmishers go for the throat of the softer characters. You'll force the PCs to adapt their strategies and stay on their toes without making combat unbalanced or unfair via overpowered beasties.
"Contemplation is the womb of treachery." -Imperial Thought for the Day
Thanks everyone some timely advice giving me lots of ideas to think through.  Its also good to read that a party that rocks through an encounter you spent ages on - isn't necesserily a failure either.  

I'd love to hear more of what sorts of enviromental funkiness people use or how Skills Challenges work within combat, given that they can end up playing to the strengths of certain characters (with the right skills).  

Anyway all good stuff, thanks again.  

Ab 
Thanks everyone some timely advice giving me lots of ideas to think through.  Its also good to read that a party that rocks through an encounter you spent ages on - isn't necesserily a failure either.  

I'd love to hear more of what sorts of enviromental funkiness people use or how Skills Challenges work within combat, given that they can end up playing to the strengths of certain characters (with the right skills).  

Anyway all good stuff, thanks again.  

Ab 



I'm running a game tonight for some of the guys from this forum. It's going to have a TON of that sort of stuff. Check out the recaps and I'll post what I can of my notes when we're done.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Dark Sun Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Generated D&D 5e PCs  |  Re-Imagining Phandelver

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

iserith, sling me a link and I'd love to take a look, I love reading up on how other people play anyway.  Since I'm a bit of a remote part of the UK we don't have gamer groups or shops at all.  I'm very fortunate to have a group at all.  But finding out how others play, good DM tips I'm always on the look out for such info.  

Thanks again 

Ab 
community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/758...(LFP)

^ Background info on tonight's session with some character/story development linked. 

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Dark Sun Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Generated D&D 5e PCs  |  Re-Imagining Phandelver

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

I'd love to hear more of what sorts of enviromental funkiness people use or how Skills Challenges work within combat, given that they can end up playing to the strengths of certain characters (with the right skills).

That's exactly the point of using them, in fact. If a skill challenge (or trap) plays to a certain character's strengths, and the party is eager to complete it and quickly, then that character will work on the challenge, thereby using up actions he might have been using to trouble the enemies. If the best character for the task is too valuable in a particular encounter to devote to the skill challenge, then it might be a good opportunity for the second-stringer in that skill to have a go at it, giving that character a turn in the skill spotlight and taking heat off the enemies. If the entire party is needed for (or feels they're needed for, or just prefers to be involved in) the fight, then the challenge or trap has its full effect, they get no XP for it and they suffer any additional consequences.

Naturally, the challenge should not be something they can deal with after the monsters are dispatched. Or, anyway, there should be some sort of time limit, so if they want to take out the monsters they have to do it tout de suite before the challenge ends on its own.

Feel free to set the DCs low enough for anyone to feel like they can attempt them, and you probably never want more than a complexity 1 or 2 challenge in most encounters, unless you have a reason for it wanting to run long. Feel free, though, to make the challenge as impactful as you want. There are no rules for how much impact a skill challenge should have relative to its level and complexity, though there is such a thing as good taste.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Heya,


What i find usefull in my campaign ,which coincedently does have 6 players is that i do use the monster builder alot.My policy is that not every human fighter/mage/thief etc is the same so why does every goblin have to be the same.I have created quite a few odd ball characters so as to slightly dissorientate the more experienced players.Imagine them coming accross a 16th lvl dragon at 9th lvl,they would run a mile,but little do they know that 'olde red' is as blind as a bat and -5 to hit.I use this as an example .and as the DM you should taiolor the encounters according to the skill,ability and experience of your party.Also if the party are walking through the dungeon have a couple more monsters charge around the corner to join in the fray.It is meant to be challenging ,exciting and a enjoyable game.  

I like what iserith wrote and browsed that blog entry.  I definitely agree--as long as your players are having fun, it doesn't matter if they steam roll your encounter.  Fun is the number one rule.

With that said...if you are looking to up your tactical game a bit with regards to an experienced group of players I'd suggest a few things:



  • Monsters that come at the party from multiple locations on the map.

  • Know your party and their tactics.  Don't punish them of course, but after seeing them lock a big monster down every combat--don't create encounters (or at least not every encounter) that hinge on one monster that can get locked down.

  • As mentioned previously--monsters that come in waves, or show up a round or two late to a combat can be a nice surprise that forces the party to adjust to your monsters (instead of the other way around).

  • Don't let them know minions are minions until they hit them and learn it themselves.

  • Sometimes make things that look like minions not be minions in the fight (again the surprise and re-adjustment factor for the players).

  • Make sure you have terrain.  Not just a big open fight area each time.

  • Make some fights that are three dimensional fights (things above or below the party).

  • Be aware of the content (monsters) you are using--if they are early designs MM1, etc, they will be underpowered, and you probably need to increase damage or to-hits (or both).



Mis-direction, an occasional surprise, and good terrain are your friends.  All of these things can help make a fight more interesting and challenging without bringing it to the brink of TPK.
Also, on the subject of minions, there are some interesting minions like the Human Slave that do not die until the end of their next turn once they've been dropped to 0.  If you do not declare minions to be minions, you can add a bunch of those into an encounter and I suspect it will give your players quite a scare when they hit it and it doesn't die.  They start at level 1, but you can always adjust monster stats up or down to make those types of minions match the level of your party.
Two words: Tucker's Kobolds. :D
Also don't be afraid to have your monsters set the place on fire if they start losing the battle. Fighting in a burning room is always a hoot.
There might be useful stuff over in the Combat tactics forum too - worth a few-page browse.
Playing Scales of War

Rogue.jpg