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Author Topic: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!  (Read 1591 times)

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Offline Scud.NZ

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GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« on: October 30, 2008, 01:09:48 AM »
My gaming group consists of 5 (sometimes 6) very experienced players. We're playing 4th edition D&D, and I'd like to give them a combat encounter where they are going to have to work hard to win. One of the criticisms I have of the current edition of D&D is that it is geared towards having multiple encounters per day. How many of you run campaigns that are like that, combat after combat...sure sometimes it's fun (the occasional dungeon crawl), but not all the time.

My players are like that and enjoy the roleplaying aspect. So, when there is only one combat encounter in a day (for example during a extended journey) the encounter goes something like this.

Roll initiative...monsters come somewhere in the middle.
The PC's attack. They pretty much always use their action points during the first round (so get two attacks to the monsters one), wizard uses two area effect spells which affect at least a couple of the monsters (pity the poor solo monster that gets mobbed by this crew - I made up a solo "Fey Troll" for them and they gutted the thing in one round.). This usually limits their mobility and allows the melee PC's to use their daily powers, in the pretty likely knowledge that they won't need them later on.
The monsters attack...tink tink...a couple of hits, but several of the monsters are down to 60% or less hit points already.
It's already looking bad after 1 round that is supposed to last 6 seconds.

If I were the monsters I'd pretty much run away! Within three rounds (18s) things are looking dire. The PC's have focused their attacks and one of the monsters is down. Within five rounds (30s) it's all over bar the looting. The PC's have used their daily and encounter powers, and are whittling down the final few monsters with their at-will attacks.

How can I make better combat encounters?

Offline Ancient Gamer

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #1 on: October 30, 2008, 03:54:56 AM »
Okay, MoonHunter should enter some of his tips here, for he writes long, detailed and well about matters such as this. Also: look in the articles section on the main site. Chances are he already made some articles about this topic.

To me it sounds like your battles are really predictable, so you need to change that. Hit them with a series of encounters the same day, slowly wittling their powers away without giving them pause. First a minor group, but major enough to make them spend their abilities. Then, another and another, until they are low on super abilities.

Then you hit them with some major, difficult battles. Perhaps make some of them go unconscious, create life and death scenarios, making them regret their eagerness to spend everything at once. Do this a couple of times to really drive home the lesson: Be spendthrift and suffer, or think tactically and survive.

I've done this in the past and I got what I wanted. However, something odd happened while I did this: The players grew fearful. They became paranoid, frustrated and annoyed. This lasted for a couple of sessions, until they learnt how to cope. It is not easy to go from being all but divine, to being hard pressed and hunted. But, by all means: Nowadays we have memorable battles and everything is balanced the way I'd like.

Oh, and remember that your players probably LOVE the way they rock. Give them the chance to totally rock once in a while.
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Offline Dragonlordmax

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #2 on: October 30, 2008, 06:16:30 AM »
Quote
To me it sounds like your battles are really predictable, so you need to change that. Hit them with a series of encounters the same day, slowly wittling their powers away without giving them pause. First a minor group, but major enough to make them spend their abilities. Then, another and another, until they are low on super abilities.


From what I know of 4th Edition D&D, I don't know that this will work. As I understand it, almost all powers recover after each encounter, and the ones that don't are the powerful ones the PCs are fairly likely to save for the tough fights anyways - if they don't, then the tough fights have a decent chance of killing them all. Hit Points are, as I'm led to believe, also fairly easy to regain outside of combat. I haven't actually played, though - this is simply what I've heard, so I could very possibly be wrong.

While I generally encourage people with fairly generic gaming questions to come here, I think you almost might be better served checking out a more D&D-specific forum for an issue like this. I like Giant in the Playground, personally. The primary ideas I see there for making a few fights more difficult on the PCs is to 1) Use weird terrain to force/allow interesting strategies (I think people should generally be doing this anyway, if they don't use frequent combats) and 2) Alter the Extended Rest rules / how one recovers one's powers.

Here's an example thread, based on changing the game towards being about one big encounter per day (though by big, I think they mean equivalent to a couple of normal fights).
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Offline Chaosmark

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #3 on: October 30, 2008, 12:57:50 PM »
Indeed, it does seem that part of the issue is the very system you're using. D&D is based around multiple encounters per day, as you said. Therefore, the system is going to be built for allowing the PCs to survive more than one encounter. It has to, by definition. Thus, one encounter a day isn't going to be a challenge, if the PCs know for a fact that they don't need to hold back for later. You'll have to hit them with something insanely dangerous for a single-day encounter to be challenging. (might I suggest The Mogrolyth?)
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Offline Wulfhere

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #4 on: October 30, 2008, 02:57:26 PM »
While it's good for the players to periodically show off what combat gods they are, you can still mix things up to challenge them.  To wear them down whithin the limits of the 4e system, you might want to stagger opponents' arrival on the battlefield.  Enemies from nearby chambers may wander in after two or three rounds of battle, mystic rituals may summon extra monsters, or foes may wait until their minions start dropping before they deign to join combat.  I've seen scenarios that actually said "Creatures keep arriving until the party is down to single-digit hit points or three are down at the same time."  While you might not want to go to that extreme, you can often pile on more foes.

Channeling the party's movement can make pedestrian encounters into lethal threats.  As an example, say the party took a boat to the Isle of Vacant Souls, only to have it holed by jagged coral reefs as they reached the shore.  They need to repair their craft or discover another means of escape if they hope to survive.  Even weak foes can be deadly when no retreat is possible.

Taking a page from Call of Cthulhu, they may also occasionally face foes that can't realistically be beaten.  The goal of such a situation becomes simple survival and escape, or perhaps their researches can discover some blasphemous ritual to put down the invincible horror. (... Until next time!)  To be fair to the party, offer forewarning:  Villagers fleeing in terror ("OhMiGawd!  It's Dire Galmafinin!  Run for your lives!"), entire groups of slaughtered soldiers ("You see a troop of 30 horsemen charge into battle.  Moments later, a dented buckler rolls from the cloud of darkness.  It settles at your feet and all is silent."), or metagaming hints ("Scud, why are you putting the soundtrack from Godzilla on the CD player?")
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Offline Hrofgar

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #5 on: October 30, 2008, 07:53:58 PM »
From what I've read your party seems to be fighting way too easy encounters. If they use powers that come back after the encounter than it didn't challenge them enough. I suggest you send something that can get around either some or most of their special attacks, or a group of enemies that are smart and fight smart. They know that magic-users are frail and do a lot of damage so they ambush the party and knock the wizard/sorcerer/warlock/witch/mage-thingy and put the party at a disadvantage. Also use more encounters per day. Or have a feeble encounter that is still strong enough to warrant the special abilities being used and then the other set of monsters comes that now threatens the party's HP in some near lethal form.
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Offline Scrasamax

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #6 on: October 31, 2008, 12:04:56 AM »
Let me throw you some basic ideas:

1. Throw the PCs a Chaff Encounter.

A chaff encounter is a moderately tough battle, but there is really no doubt that the PCs will win. The main purpose is to have them blow through their once a day powers, this softens them up by taking away their heavy attacks. Something big and brutish should work nicely, such as eaither a handful of trolls, a band of heavily armed knights, etc.

2. Let larger monsters have smaller minions. This lets the minions soak the hits, like meatshields. A variation on this is to use the meatshields to prevent PCs from getting line of sight for attacks against the larger foes, forcing them to face the smaller foes first while the big foes get into position. Dont forget to use ranged attacks on the monster's part.

3. Use Enviromental factors.

Have the monsters attack in the fog, should work well with those with enhanced senses. This could also work at night, in the rain, etc. Alternately, you can slow and restrain PC movement with difficult terrain, like knee of hip deep water, sight obscuring tall grass, a rough boulder field, etc. Example with the boulder field, give the PCs an obvious target to attack, but have something nasty like a pit trap between them and the monster.


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Offline Scud.NZ

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #7 on: October 31, 2008, 02:25:25 PM »
Thanks for all the replies,

Your suggestions seem to confirm my own opinion about how I was going to handle this.

#1. Multiple encounters are necessary if the players are going to learn the lesson about not using all their resources at once. [Thus making the one encounter per day more challenging].

#2. Making house rules about regaining powers seems like a fix, but I'm loathe to go fiddlin' with a game system that may very easily become [more] unbalanced because of it.

#3. Minions make good meat shields, sure...but they really fall easily to area/blast attacks that do even the smallest amount of damage. In my case the problem is the spell Thunderwave. It's 3x3 effect, and he has a (predictably) large attack bonus (well, if you were a wizard, wouldn't you put points in intelligence). Plus it's an at-will spell, so he can use it whenever he wants.

#4 Terrain and environment does matter. In one recent dungeon encounter I managed to neuter the mage somewhat by placing the monsters on a 30ft ledge and giving them crossbows. My minions could retreat backwards and come forwards to attack, had defensive bonuses. Sure, it became a siege effectively, but it was an interesting one-off encounter. The players resolved it by agreeing to a ceasefire, whilst their opponents withdraw from the dungeon. Then, promptly breaking the ceasefire they filled the leader full of crossbow bolts. They enjoyed it.   :D

Let me give you some specifics now. Maybe that would prompt some more ideas.

I have (5 or) 6 players. There is a fair spread of classes, wizard, cleric, rogue, paladin, ranger and (occasionally) fighter.
They are level 3. Wizard has the daily spell Sleep (5x5 area), and Encounter spells Icy Terrain (3x3) and Colour Spray (5x5). The Cleric routinely casts Shield of Faith (11x11 centred on cleric) to give the players +2 AC at the start of the encounter.

What I've got in my mind already, for an encounter that is important to the ongoing campaign, is this.

To the north-west is a region occupied by goblin tribes. One of these tribes has been contacted by the major antagonist of the campaign seeking lackeys. They have refused to submit to the will of the bad guy, who has blighted the crops and animals of the tribe as punishment. Winter is fast approaching and so the tribe has sent out warriors to steal food and animals from the human lands to the south-east. As well as raiding outlying farmsteads they are ambushing travellers on the road. That's the background.

The PC's are escorting a group of 20 pilgrims (old men, women, children and babies) to a shrine to the north. They are passing through the region currently being raided by these goblins. My plan is to ambush the group at a river crossing, hopefully splitting the PC's. The objective of the goblins is not to kill the PC's or pilgrims, but to steal their food, mounts, etc... I see them using some of the pilgrims as "shields" against the PC's. The paladin "picked up" a ring that translates goblin that I planted in an earlier adventure. He'll be able to communicate with the goblins. I want the PC's to have a tough decision to make (especially with regards to protecting their pilgrims - they refused to rescue some farmers, letting them die, in our last game session after realising that they couldn't deal with the ghouls attacking the farm if they split up the party, and they refused to leave the pilgrims defenceless). If they choose to fight, I want it to be a tough fight that either ends with them being captured, or the capture of some of the goblins (I can fudge this by having a pilgrim knock one or two of them down). Either way, there has to be some communication after the combat where the goblins will let drop the clue that will players will immediately pick up [having encountered this blight elsewhere]. What they do after that develops the campaign story (and given my players, is completely unpredictable so I shan't even try to guess).

Can you fantastic people come up with more suggestions to make this a really memorable encounter? I'm looking for ideas about how the goblins might use terrain and environment (temperate, edge of civilized human lands, autumn.) and tactics that might be used to avoid the problems mentioned in my initial post. If you can think of a believable chaff encounter that'd be great.


Offline Wulfhere

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #8 on: October 31, 2008, 03:41:59 PM »
#3. Minions make good meat shields, sure...but they really fall easily to area/blast attacks that do even the smallest amount of damage. In my case the problem is the spell Thunderwave. It's 3x3 effect, and he has a (predictably) large attack bonus (well, if you were a wizard, wouldn't you put points in intelligence). Plus it's an at-will spell, so he can use it whenever he wants.
When we use the term minions, we're not all using it in the 4e rules sense of "1 HP Mooks".  We just mean that the players can be lured into expending their dailies on lesser threats, only discovering they face additional danger afterward. 

(I'll need to review my 4e monster manual before I can suggest encounters that appropriately threaten a 3rd-level 4e party.  My campaigns still use 3.5, so I'll have to get back to you next week.)
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Offline Hrofgar

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #9 on: October 31, 2008, 05:16:22 PM »
The goblins could have two trees nearly cut, one in front the other back aways so that the pilgrims are trapped between the two. The goblins hide and when their quarry is in position the trees fall. Goblins with crossbows/bows hide behind the felled trees while more jump out from either side and grab a few innocents. This way the goblins with the ranged weapons have cover and the others have protective pilgrims by their side. You can then decide if the goblins demand surrender or just start taking what they want.
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Offline Michael Jotne Slayer

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #10 on: November 01, 2008, 08:13:22 AM »
Presuming that the Goblins in your world are stereotypical and generic there are a few things you can do to sprite things up a little. Start of with a comic relief, an option could be to let the encounter start with the PC's spotting Goblins on a small hill. The goblins chatter, make noices and prepare for their genious attack(They are still too far away for the PC's to engage them). They strap one of the goblins with a spiked helmet and kick him(catapult him) downhill. The result is a goblin pinned to one of the PC's shiels(perhaps the Paladin). The Goblin manages to release himself and scutter of. The remaining goblins situated on the mound curse and make rude gestures. This will seem like a comic encounter, but if you make things grim and realistic from this point on the players might be caught by surprise by the sudden mood change.

Just an idea.




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Offline Cheka Man

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #11 on: November 01, 2008, 01:23:24 PM »
I wonder how your players would do against an [Urn Beast] ?

Offline Scrasamax

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #12 on: November 01, 2008, 02:23:48 PM »
How to counter Thunderwave:

1. Elementals
If encountering a band of goblins, let 3 goblin hexers summon a storm aligned elemental to fight the PCs. A bit of logic can say that the summoned beastie is immune to Thunder type attacks, or takes only half damage from them.

2. Divine Protection
Let some middling foes carry magical talismans that offer limited protection from Arcane magic, or a certain type of element. To keep this trinket from upsetting the game and from being abused by PCs who will invariably get their hands on some, limit the uses of the trinket. It could reduce damage from a certain class of magic or spell by half, but might only work once or twice before breaking. Another variation is to make the talisman out of something the PCs dont want to advertise, such as the being made of a human or deminhuman skull.

3. Storm Giants
Like elementals but no need to summon. The giant in question might even be fascinated to find the wizard who invokes his very element time after time.

4. Golems
Big, heavy, Logic could let you reduce the distance the Thunderwave spell pushes old Stompy. Also, can take a solid beating.

5. Precarious Footing
Thin ice atop a melting lake, a brittle precipice easy to tip, or a mountain valley where a loud sound might be enough to trigger an avalanche. Casting Thunderwave will guarantee a massive torrent of rocks, snow and other debris.


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Offline Kassy

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Re: GM requires advice - How do I make combat encounters rock!
« Reply #13 on: November 05, 2008, 04:46:23 AM »
I like MJS's idea.

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