View Full Version : So how do you put together good challenges?

2010-03-10, 03:06 PM
I'm just curious what everyone's method is, like if they follow the DMG to the letter or if most people wing it. I'd also be curious to know if you have any shortcuts to figure out good CRs and such on the fly (I don't care for the DMGs listed ones, they never seem to work out properly for me.) It's probably because our groups power level is higher than the DMG assumes. But simply adding +1 CR or something doesn't seem to work well for us. Sometimes its still easy, and sometimes the monsters can 1 shot a tough party member, even if the monster is only alive for 1 round. So just wondering if anyone has come up with any elegant math solutions to figuring out sliding challenge ratings on the fly?

2010-03-10, 03:59 PM
I start out playing at CR. When that's too easy I add one. Most groups I play with usually end up at +2 CR for normal fights, +4 for bosses. But it's important to start at 0 and let the CR grow. Group syngery is something that takes more than a few sessions to emerge, so I like to start out at a normal baseline and assume that the group will function as 4 individuals. When they become a cohesive unit is when the CR goes up.

Other than that, reinforcements. I'd rather have the cavalry run in 3 rounds too late than fudge up an NPC's HP. Going into each fight I usually have a good idea of who the optional NPCs are. If the PCs are low on resources I'll cut the optionals. If they're doing well I'll increase the optionals. If the PCs do well at the beginning, more optionals enter as reinforcements. Note that optionals can also be traps. If nobody hit that tripwire and the fights too easy, maybe there's another one around that corner.

I know other GMs would rather balance the encounter in advance. I'm okay with doing it on the fly though. Less prep time is nice. It also means my fights can be more dynamic. Reinforcements shouldn't just show up next to the bad guys - make them come from that third hallway nobody looked in. They can totally change up the battlefield once the players have positioned themselves.

-- addendum --

Terrain is also a nice way to make encounters more challenging. Give the enemy a terrain advantage. If they got to choose the battleground it only makes sense that they'd choose a spot they could exploit. The nice thing about terrain is that it can make the same fight play out it different ways. 4 archers on the ground is different than 4 archers on a rooftop is different than 4 archers on 4 different rooftops. Set it up so your NPCs have the advantage and then let the players figure out how to take that advantage away.

(Note that this terrain goal is difficult. I don't succeed at it in each fight or even each game session. But it's something to strive for, and when you do it right will turn out awesome.)

2010-03-10, 04:23 PM
If you're unsure about CR, why not simulate the fight by yourself ahead of time? Of course your players might think of something you didn't, but it should still give you an idea.

2010-03-10, 04:34 PM
If you're unsure about CR, why not simulate the fight by yourself ahead of time? Of course your players might think of something you didn't, but it should still give you an idea.

Yes, Playtesting it, and asking for other's opinion's of it is always a good idea. Also, try to consider your party's make up. The CR is designed for a party of a straight fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard. Of course, this doesn't stop certain monster's possessing completely borked CR's. Secondly, a party of said composition fighting a monster with a CR identical to their APL should deplete 1/5th of their resources but not seriously endanger any of them. Some monsters defy this rule, such as the Adamantine Horror, which can wipe the floor with a level 9 party if they did not prepare ahead of time for it. So playtest any monster that seems to be a bit strong or weak for it's given CR. The Gray and Corpse tearer Linnorms for example, are grossly over-CRed.

2010-03-10, 04:39 PM
I light my players on fire before every combat encounter.

Really makes them focus.

Critical hits = you get the water bucket early!

2010-03-10, 04:51 PM
I light my players on fire before every combat encounter.

Really makes them focus.

Critical hits = you get the water bucket early!
First, I make everybody a milkshake.
Then I say "What you just drank is a powerful toxin, it will kill you in an hour. The antidote is in the safe, it has a five number combination. There are six enemies, each one gets you a number, the sixth gets you the order they go in".

But serously folks.
CR is a good guideline, but you have to adjust it for the situation. Think "How much does the situation benefit my PC's" and "How much does it benefit the monsters".
A group of Ogres in an enclosed space is very tough, a party of meleers in an open field against centaurs is also very difficult.

Personally, I find that good games don't come from challenging encounters but interesting ones. Throwing bigger numbers at your PC's isn't as fun as throwing something new at them. Let them control some NPC allies to mix things up. Every three rounds a trap goes off in a predefined place, let the PC's work that into their strategy. A wave of bad guys comes down the corridor, then, after two rounds, another group blasts through the wall. The evil wizard seems to have bound a Stone Giant to the wall with enchanted chains, I wonder what would happen if the party rogue slipped over and picked the lock.

Try to get away from "You walk into a room, there is an EVIL THING, it wants to kill you, kill it". CR is handy guide, but it's a totally incomplete system.

Also, know your party, figure out how much you can count on them being strategic. If so far their tactics have consisted of "Hit it till it dies", don't plan an encounter that's reliant on the Sorcerer using Disintegrate on the pillar causing it to fall and crush the evil wizard's CR 28 bodyguard.

2010-03-10, 04:51 PM
Stop adding HD when the encounter calculator tells me the encounter would be overpowering. That's with my poor optimization skills though.

2010-03-10, 05:40 PM
The encounters I make are often higher than the party level by 1 or 2. With my semi-optimized (with my help) 5-man party, I can throw tougher challenges at them.

I keep the following in mind:

1. Terrain, terrain, terrain. While I ALWAYS forget the modifiers from concealment, terrain is a good way of forcing the PCs to rethink their tactics without adding more actual threats. It also makes the encounter stand out more in their memory.

2. I prefer using humanoids who have a decent level of intelligence to command less intelligent bruisers. Especially in the context of a campaign where the bad guys can pretty much expect the PCs to come (or even stage an ambush to draw the PCs in), this edge gives verisimilitude to the archers all automatically going for the casters, etc.

3. Give the PCs extra baggage. What more to keep the PCs from recklessly charging than 20 frightened villagers in their midst? Warning: Doesn't work with an evil party.

4. Variety. I avoid throwing more than 4 of each kind of monster into the encounter. I normally go for organizations like 1 heavy bruiser, 4 grunts, 1-2 casters/long range attackers. Something I learned from 4E.

5. Have an environment the players can interact with. This can be as simple as a bunch of low walls the PCs can hide behind to vines to swing from to a ship's complex rigging or a puzzle room. The players are more likely to enjoy an encounter they can find creative solutions to.

2010-03-10, 10:32 PM
Another thing to keep in mind is exercising all the PCs' saving throws. An aerial bombardment will force Reflex saves. Venomous vermin will bite and force Fortitude saves. A dragon's frightful presence will force Will saves. Many PCs will have lots of magical defenses, but still come up short on at least one save.