How can I make encounters more dynamic and interesting?

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Hello guys! I'm running a group with 5 friends, and I've been DMing sinc like... two years ago. I still have a lot to learn to be a good Dungeon Master, but I'm having problems with actually making some interesting encounters...

My player's like Solo and Elite encounters, and dislike enemy groups. What happens with me is that I don't really know how to direct an interesting encounter, specially when my players like videogamey stuff. Look, our battles barely have any kind of movement, enemies just stay there and attack, and the areas I make are large and filled with features and hazards we end up ignoring completely. Another mistake is the fact the battle pace can be very slow, because since I use monters from the three manuals, I have to actually check on more than a monster at once, and it can become long and tedious... plus, encounters usually end up with the players at the verge of death and too weak to go on.

I also forget to add the XP points after battle and end up giving them whatever I consider, and battles are well... very monotone... they spam the same at-will attacks, NEVER use encounter powers (and I mean NEVER), and it ends up in battles I end up rushing by dealing extra damage or letting them re-roll. We play at least 3 hours every two days, and 2 of them are spent in nearly 2 encounters...

Some tips? 
Even video game battles often have something else that needs to be done, other than killing the enemy, some task to be accomplished either before the enemy can really be assaulted directly, or instead of killing the enemy. Video game battles also often have time limits, after which something gets much worse.

One simple thing might be to have an enemy that gets progressively stronger round after round. If they don't deal with the monster quickly, it will soon overpower them. This should encourage them to use encounter powers.

Give them some task that needs to be done in X rounds, regardless of whether or not the monster is dead. If they can kill it in that time, great, but they'll probably have to get it done before that. Make the task something that requires moving around a lot, and make the monster try to stop them.

Generally, don't make battles just about whittling down hit points. Lots of video game battles are about exactly that, but it's ultimately boring.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

1. Limit the variety of monsters when you can. Or have an extra copy of the books.

2. The monster manual is just a guideline, not the monster bible. Guesstimate. Write down the monster's HP and any real cool stuff and just go with it. Be fair about it, but remember... you have to deal with the players a lot longer than you have to deal with the monsters. If a player has been hacking the enemy for a while and then gets a cool power attack critical just as he needs it... maybe cut him some slack and let the beast die. Beats another 3 rounds of swing and a miss, swing and a miss, swing and a miss. That'll speed things up a bit. Some players constantly read the books and know more about the monsters than you do. You're the DM, though. It's your world, they just pretend to live in it. Be fair about it, and all will be fine.

3. The XP tables are also just a guideline. As DM you can give levels like candy, ration them out over a set number of sessions, even cap the level they can attain in your world. If you have an idea of how fast you want them to gain levels, balance it with how fast they want to gain (generally ignoring their pleas like a child who only wants to eat ice-cream, but if they've killed 40 orcs, 20 ogres, and a pit fiend... they PROBABLY earned 2nd level. I generally ask before I give XP how close they are to the next level and go from there. Other people have their own approach. Even the rule in the books has options... this is clearly a judgment call. As DM, make the call.

4. No re-rolls. If you're going to have them re-roll until you get the result you want... skip the re-roll. If you really want speed, you can house rule aspects of combat. But keep in mind, a small change in a rule can have unforeseen consequences. I got rid of confirming criticals to eliminate a dice roll in 3.5 edition. All good, but players wisely picked their weapons differently. They also began dying more frequently. Apparently there are more monsters than heroes. Those criticals suck when they kill your fave character.

5. To make them more interesting... put them in a high place or on a moving object or in some sort of terrain. A raft, a runaway wagon, a dog-sled, inside a windmill, where there are consequences to losing a grapple... they can stick your head beneath the millstone for massive damage (ending the fight quickly), in a room with rising water. Video-gamey? Think of all the video game cliche's you can think of; rob the best ones.

6. You can't control the players, but you can sure make the enemy do cool stuff. Look at whatever enemies you have and if they are working together, make them work together. Fire wizard + halfling with flasks of oil = boom. Ogre Mage + goblin with a bucket of water to pour on the floor = boom. Prone.

7. Have intelligent monsters flee the field before dying, whenever possible. If they would do that, they do that.

8. Have intelligent monsters hurl insults as they make a fighting withdrawal. Then lead the party into their trap... or into a spider's web.. or other beast. If they beat the beast, the monsters might be alarmed and flee.

9. Think of each encounter beforehand as if it is the most epic movie ever made and this is the final fight scene, especially if they have encountered the enemy before. Have the players get to know the NPC they are fighting before he betrays them or steals their best treasure. Give them some reason to really hate the monster enough to kill it.

10. If the players are having lots of trouble staying alive, you may be throwing too much at them at once. Or you might want to discuss with them why they aren't using their 'encounter powers' or whatever (I only vaguely know what those are; 3.5 guy). If they have the means to defeat the enemy, but aren't doing it, it may be because they don't know. Talk to them about it and see what's up.
A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.
burning buildings make good combats. Smoke is choking and blinding. Time is running out. Burning stuff is falling. Floors are dropping into fiery pits.

Make a list of events and stick it into the initiative sequence. That spices things up.

Have some once during the encounter events and some other random stuff.

round 1 - normal
2 - smoke = 20% miss chance
3 - fort save or d6 smoke dmg
4 - loud explosion in next room, debris flies through room, reflex save or d6 dmg
etc. remember, this stuff affects the monsters as well... which speeds up combat.
A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.
Know your creatures; know their attitudes, know their behavior, know their circumstances.

Know your players; what excites them, what intrigues them, what engages them.

Know your setting, your world. What opportunities for adventure are there? For interaction? How can your players shape, impact the world?

Have the courage to make a fool of yourself. Everybody errs, it's how you deal with your mistakes that makes the difference.

Remember, others to the contrary, the purpose of playing D&D is to have fun. To enjoy yourselves and enjoy what the other participants do. How you have fun is your business, don't let anybody tell you you're doing it wrong. Doing it better is not the same as doing it right, so get that out of your head.

And don't be afraid to be somebody different from you.
One dagger is a plot point. A thousand daggers is inventory. Thank you for disrailing this thread.
Hello guys! I'm running a group with 5 friends, and I've been DMing sinc like... two years ago. I still have a lot to learn to be a good Dungeon Master, but I'm having problems with actually making some interesting encounters...

My player's like Solo and Elite encounters, and dislike enemy groups. What happens with me is that I don't really know how to direct an interesting encounter, specially when my players like videogamey stuff. Look, our battles barely have any kind of movement, enemies just stay there and attack, and the areas I make are large and filled with features and hazards we end up ignoring completely. Another mistake is the fact the battle pace can be very slow, because since I use monters from the three manuals, I have to actually check on more than a monster at once, and it can become long and tedious... plus, encounters usually end up with the players at the verge of death and too weak to go on.

I also forget to add the XP points after battle and end up giving them whatever I consider, and battles are well... very monotone... they spam the same at-will attacks, NEVER use encounter powers (and I mean NEVER), and it ends up in battles I end up rushing by dealing extra damage or letting them re-roll. We play at least 3 hours every two days, and 2 of them are spent in nearly 2 encounters...

Some tips? 



Seperate your combats into "stages" like you might see in a video game. Video games shift the scenarios around the enemy you are fighting and change how you interact with them.

I saw a great example before of a fight against a black dragon in a flooded city in the dragons ruinous lair.

The person had crafted the dragon so that it started the fight in typical dragon fashion by strafing and striking from the air. There was a "trigger" however where if the dragons wings were targeted (called shots and had X damage done to them) or if the dragon was critically hit for Y damage or if the dragon was lowered to Z hit-points it would switch to the next "stage" of the battle by becoming grounded due to being unable to fly any longer.

Once it couldn't fly, the dragon shifted to using the water (since black dragons are partially aquatic) by breathing an acidic fog all over the battle field to obscure vision before disappearing into the brackish water beneath the ruined battlefield. From there, it would take its time to hunt and hide through the water while the PCs were whittled down by the fog and had to deal with it. This was a relatively short but awesome phase because it added tension of not knowing just where the dragon would pop up and who it would attack. So the players would have to either clear out the fog (while being hurt just a bit by it) with magic or however or would have to wait it out and try to defend from the dragon...or retreat. Once the fog cleared and the dragon was hurt a bit more, it would be unable to swim any longer and haul itself out of the water to keep attacking.

At this point, the dragon would go full-on melee and assault individuals, trying to bull-rush and destroy whatever was in its way in its injured fury, like a cornered animal until it died.

So yeah...one fight with three distinct phases of combat.

I know this is just one example, but it's important to look at what works in it...have the enemy change tactics if its a smart foe. After all, a smart foe is often going to give the most interesting combats. Let them change up their approach drastically if necessary...have them have a back-up plan.

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3. The XP tables are also just a guideline. As DM you can give levels like candy, ration them out over a set number of sessions, even cap the level they can attain in your world.

The one asterisk I'd like to add to this is to remember that xp and treasure are linked.  If you level every session but only give out 2-3 items each session, your characters will begin to fall behind with the game math.  Inherent Bonuses are nice for these kinds of games.  I just mention it because I see it happen a lot.

One thing I like to do is have the players roll an Environment Skill Check upon initiative.  Streetwise for city fights, Nature for outdoors, etc.  These checks identify several ways they can use skills or certain terrain to their advantage in combat, and I generally make them minor or free actions so players aren't "wasting their standard."

Once the party sees the cool things they could do, they will often be motivated to go do those things, and I hope eventually they become more comfortable with coming up with their own ideas about using their skills or terrain in combat.



3. The XP tables are also just a guideline. As DM you can give levels like candy, ration them out over a set number of sessions, even cap the level they can attain in your world.

The one asterisk I'd like to add to this is to remember that xp and treasure are linked.  If you level every session but only give out 2-3 items each session, your characters will begin to fall behind with the game math.  Inherent Bonuses are nice for these kinds of games.  I just mention it because I see it happen a lot.

One thing I like to do is have the players roll an Environment Skill Check upon initiative.  Streetwise for city fights, Nature for outdoors, etc.  These checks identify several ways they can use skills or certain terrain to their advantage in combat, and I generally make them minor or free actions so players aren't "wasting their standard."

Once the party sees the cool things they could do, they will often be motivated to go do those things, and I hope eventually they become more comfortable with coming up with their own ideas about using their skills or terrain in combat.



Good point. The DMG has some example NPCs that are a fair guideline to go by on how much treasure they should have at each level, on average. I adjust the amount of XP I would give if they are under-equipped, particularly when the monster has damage reduction. Not saying that's optimal, I think the book even advises against it, but I figure the challenge rating should go up if the challenge is greater, which affects the XP divvy.

I like the idea of using a skill check to gain terrain advantage. Opposed skill checks could make this interesting, particularly for large-scale combat. I suppose a knowledge dungeoneering or engineering check could be used if the players are in a cave or a mine or on a bridge. I like the idea that the skills chosen can translate into a mechanical bonus, since they tend to just be fluff. Thanks, scatterbrained.

Another good fight idea and pretty common scenario... a fight on a narrow spiral stair... if the enemy is at the bottom of the stair they would be at a disadvantage. If the enemy is at the top of the stair, they'll have height advantage and might be able to throw vases and statuary down on the party. The turn of the stair provides cover from missile fire, so any fighting is likely to be up close and personal and attacking up the stair will be difficult for your right-hand weapon. Reinforcement troops might be seen approaching the tower via  arrow slits, giving archers and spell blasters the choice of aiding with the front line fight or trying to weaken reinforcements before they come aid the enemy. In terrain like this, the players can only have 1 or 2 people in the front line at any given time, and the enemy has the same problem, making tactics important.

A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.
Good point. The DMG has some example NPCs that are a fair guideline to go by on how much treasure they should have at each level...



I say, let them have more treasure than the guidelines say they should; means they get to be the target of lots of attention.

Let's say the party runs across a band of kobolds (I like kobolds) with an 8th level monster's amount of treasure. The players are expecting a hard fight when the kobold leader approaches their leader with an offer, "help defend us and you get half our loot."

Take casualties with no guarantee you'll get their treasue, or take casualties after getting half the loot. Oh, and I would give the PC 10XP per kobold in the gang, for making a prudent decision.

One dagger is a plot point. A thousand daggers is inventory. Thank you for disrailing this thread.
Play fast and loose with the monster stats. Use the bare minimum, and write them all down on an easy-to-use reference sheet. I always stat up all of my own enemies, to give my exactly what I need. Monsters don't need to follow any kind of creation rules or balancing - I just give them exactly the kind of stats I want them to have. I found that enemies that have solidly high attack and damage stats, while laughably low HP, make great mooks for higher-level characters to play against.

Punish the characters for not moving. I can't tell you the best way to do this - maybe a giant beast that's on fire, and runs up next to them knocking them over. Maybe it's a truckload of archers, with locations scattered around that protects the players from a good chunk of them. Maybe it's a slow-moving ooze that's not hard to escape from, as long as you pay attention to it. Maybe the floor's caving in.

Burst one of the players down. Yeah, it sucks for that guy, so don't do it very often, but it sounds like your players aren't afraid of combats. They don't need to play smart, because they're all gonna survive in the end. The enemies aren't any real danger. I had a group that played that way, and I threw a boss at them that was able to nuke the toughest player down to 0 HP in two turns. (Conveniently, that player had to leave early anyways, so it was a convenient way to write his character out of the rest of the mission.) As soon as that happened, the entire group's countenance changed. It was time to get down to business. They had to play smart, and they had to pay attention to what the enemy was doing. The danger was real now.

Reward the players for adapting to combat. Leave weaknesses in the enemy's tactics that they can exploit. Make the monster's movements predictable, so they can run it in circles. Don't have the goblins notice the rogue sneaking up the side. It's any easy trap for a DM to fall into: you see what tricks the players are doing, and you respond to them. But if the players are never able to pull anything off, then they're just gonna fall back on the tried-and-true method of dishing out damage. Help them make some inventive maneuvers in combat, and they'll become more and more imaginative. They're the encounters your players will remember, anyways.

I found it incredibly helpful to have enemies with multiple levels of offensive capability. Not powerful enemies and weaker enemies, but one type of monster that could be stronger or weaker, depending on what I needed it to be. This could be abilities that can be used or ignored, or magic abilities that they cast only when I need them to perform. The problem with flat-power-level monsters is that they're either too powerful for the lightweights, or not a threat to the tougher characters. You've got to give them an option to be stronger or weaker. This makes it a lot easier to adapt combat on the fly, and present enemies that can fight both strong and weak players. Make a Battle Mage-type mook that can swing his quarterstaff at the weaker players, but chuck some lightning bolts at the fighters. 

Just my two cents. 
Punish the characters for not moving.



A friendly rust monster does wonders there. Or a pack of blink dogs. Just woken up blink dogs out for a bit of play. Noisy play. Rambunctious Play. Use up the party's resources play.

There's tons you could do with friendly creatures.
One dagger is a plot point. A thousand daggers is inventory. Thank you for disrailing this thread.
Be more descriptive in your combat comments.  When a player hits the creature in question (or when the creature hits a player), do not just annotate the damage and move on, describe how the player hits the creature (or let the player do the describing).

Some examples:

I had a heavy damage dealing fighter in the party I was DMing.  Most of the time, in the lower levels, he would do enough damage to kill a target twice over.  So my descriptions would be something like...

"You swing your greatsword so hard that you quite literally cut the kobold in half from hip to hip (or shoulder to hip, or hip to shoulder, or head down)"

then there was the time he did not quite do twice the damage so I said...

"Coming around on an upward swing you cut deep into his hip and cut to his pectoral"

When he finally came up against creatures he could not kill in one stroke, I would describe something like...

"Your sword clangs against the ogre's chest plate armor and the momentum knocks him off balance but he quickly regains his footing."

a good side effect of this style is if you want your players to use their powers more, use the creatures' powers and describe them with more flare than a simple attack.  Then maybe the players will get the hint.

 

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Hello guys! I'm running a group with 5 friends, and I've been DMing sinc like... two years ago. I still have a lot to learn to be a good Dungeon Master, but I'm having problems with actually making some interesting encounters...

My player's like Solo and Elite encounters, and dislike enemy groups. What happens with me is that I don't really know how to direct an interesting encounter, specially when my players like videogamey stuff. Look, our battles barely have any kind of movement, enemies just stay there and attack, and the areas I make are large and filled with features and hazards we end up ignoring completely. Another mistake is the fact the battle pace can be very slow, because since I use monters from the three manuals, I have to actually check on more than a monster at once, and it can become long and tedious... plus, encounters usually end up with the players at the verge of death and too weak to go on.

I also forget to add the XP points after battle and end up giving them whatever I consider, and battles are well... very monotone... they spam the same at-will attacks, NEVER use encounter powers (and I mean NEVER), and it ends up in battles I end up rushing by dealing extra damage or letting them re-roll. We play at least 3 hours every two days, and 2 of them are spent in nearly 2 encounters...

Some tips? 


You do realize you describe like 4 distinct problems here? 

The first is MM3 and the two MVs use different monster math than MM1&2. The later maths are higher damage (avg 8+level) and better/sleeker design. Also, if you have time to prep for your games and have the Monster Builder, I recommend printing out monster stats on the same page, cause it sounds like right now you're flipping between multiple MMs. 

The second  is that your fights are experiencing "grind". There are lots of blogs and other threads I recommend looking into to resolve this. Different DMs have different solutions, including halving monster HP, including damaging terrain, using SlyFlourish's "monster defense cards" hung over the DM screen, using alternate goals in combat besides "kill all monsters", and calling a fight when the outcome seems obvious, etc. Check out Stalker0's "guide to anti-grind" on ENWorld too.

The third is that your combats  are becoming "slog fests" without a dynamic sense of movement. DMG2 has some good advice on this IIRC. Long story short: you need to out some thought into giving PCs a *reason* to move during combat. Maybe they have limited time to get thru a dungeon before the hostages are killed, maybe the chamber is filling with poison gas, maybe the monster has resist 10 all until they destroy the seals in four corners of the room, etc, etc. Get creative!

And the fourth sounds like your players are either unfamiliar with 4e and what their PCs can do, or are operating under the paradigm of an older edition. Talk to them and figure out what's going on. "Hey, why do you guys never use your encounter powers?" might be a good start.
Very good of you to notice how things have gotten stagnant with your encounters. Every one of us has had or will have this problem at one point or another.

I'm gonna get a little bit more technical for my advice.

I live and die by the Monster Builder, in the Adventure Tools section of DDI. You can easily manipulate monster powers, defenses, and hitpoints. I only bring the Monster Vault to game sessions, and I don't often refer to it. Instead, I print out the monsters I intend to use in the encounter. After I print out all the stat blocks, I add hazards, traps or something else--if necessary and then staple the packet all together. This eliminates the need to lug around 3 or more books.

Often times, I refer to the XP Budget rules in the DMG, but, failing that, as long as the monsters you use against the PCs are in their level-range (1-4 levels above or below PCs current level), you just match up the number of foes to the number of PCs.

If you don't want to keep track of all those monsters, break them up into Elite-type monsters (worth 2 normal monsters). To keep things quick (as much as you can in 4e) I'd say give the monsters 25% less hit points than their normal total.

Someone posting above mentioned limiting the kinds of monsters in an encounter---that's great advice. Keep it simple, quick and engaging. I tend to use alot of Hazardous terrain or Hazards in my encounters to give players something to do rather than "I swing my sword."

One thing that mystifies me is why your players never use Encounter Powers! Maybe use deadlier monsters (who must be prioritized and killed first and quickly) in your encounters. If your players tend to stick to one spot and "turtle" when confronting foes, use distance and area attacks on 'em. Eventually, they'll realize that if they stay in one spot, they'll get their **** pushed-in.

Use environmental damage effects. For instance, if a PC starts his turn next to the glowing green crystals, he takes 5 damage per turn. Alternatively, if, for instance, the PC moves through or starts his turn near the Far Realm anomaly, he gets slid 3 squares away.'


Hope this helps.


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