DM Boot Camp: Running D&D 4e Combat Encounters
What is an Encounter?
• Think of an encounter as a scene in a movie or play.
• Every encounter is a story in and of itself, with a beginning, middle, and an end.
• Encounters are the building blocks of adventures; string them together to create a larger story line.
• Each encounter should have a problem the PCs need to resolve.
Types of Encounters
• Combat encounters use violence to solve the problem.
• Skill Challenges use PCs' skills to solve the problem, they can stand alone or be part of combat or role-playing encounters
• Role-playing encounters require the players to act in character to resolve the problem. Like skill challenges they can be combined with other types of encounters.
• By far the easiest to build and run, but can be boring if all you have is combat.
• First, imagine the story the encounter is trying to tell, who are the villains, who are the heroes, and who are the victims?
• Before you get into designing the encounter, picture the scene, what is the terrain like, what special features will be present, and don’t forget to add the fantasy!
• Step 1: Set the level for the encounter (no more than APL -1 to APL +3)
• Step 2: Calculate the xp budget for the encounter (encounter level multiplier X the number of characters)
• Step 3: Spend your budget on monsters, hazards, and traps. It is OK to go over or under a little, not more than +/- 10%. DO not choose monsters more than three levels above the APL, or two levels below it. Also, beware of minion and lower level monster swarms.
• Step 4: Place the monsters, traps, hazards, and features on your battle grid.
• Step 5: Tell the story, at least in your mind, paying close attention to what you can expect the PCs to do.
• Combat can be challenging, but by adding description to the die rolls, it can also be a lot of fun.
• Terrain makes the combat more exciting.
• Difficult and blocking terrain can be restrictive, use it sparingly.
• Decide the effects of any terrain on your grid.
• Provide terrain that the PCs and the monsters can use to their advantage, and make sure to use the terrain against the party.
• Good ideas: trees, walls, water, mud, and special effects.
• Special effects do not cause damage directly, but can be used to shift the flow of battle or be triggered to inflict conditions.
• Hazards are terrain features that cause direct damage to anyone who interacts with them.
• Hazards should give a risk and reward, they are easier to perceive than traps but harder to defuse.
• Be sparing in the use of hazards, they are in effect hindering terrain that can cause the PCs and the monsters a lot of trouble.
• Traps are features that cause direct damage to those who trigger them.
• Traps yield no reward, and often the monsters know about them in advance and can trigger them.
• Traps are harder to perceive than hazards, but easier to defuse.
• Limit yourself to only a handful of traps in a combat, more than two is too many (unless it’s a room full of traps).
• Use some reason in choosing your monsters, think about whom they are, their motivations, and their goals.
• Try to stick to a theme when choosing monsters, such a goblinoids, an orc warband, or a group of bandits, do not randomly mix monsters.
• Each monster has a role, and the monsters should have a broad mix of roles. Not every role needs to be present, but the greater diversity the greater the challenge and the fun.
• Controllers affect the space of the battle, creating zones and area effect powers. Use them sparingly or they become moving blockages to the flow of combat.
• Lurkers should stay hidden from the PCs until they act or attack, do not place them on the grid until then.
• Soldiers are skilled warriors and can deal a moderate amount of damage; most of your monsters should be soldiers.
• Brutes are the big baddies that can lay out the hurt, but are generally fragile. One or two is enough.
• Skirmishers are light and fast, be wary of using too many as they often can evade attacks, and this can be very frustrating for the players.
• Artillery can really lay on the hurt, and often in a large area and at great range. Like controllers. One or two is a good idea.
• Minions can be a lot of fun, but don’t tell the players which monsters are minions. Also, don’t over use minions, five is a good number, too many and the PCs can be swarmed.
Running the Combat
• Never, ever, just let the dice roll and not give a description.
• Each attack should include some sort of descriptive result; the foe is staggered and falling backwards, knocked to the ground, bleeding form a cut, etc…
• Keep the combat flowing; do not be afraid to skip a player if they are taking too long in deciding their actions. Hesitation is the bane of combatants.
• Remember that the monsters are not cardstock counters; they have feelings and motivations as well. Allow them to act irrationally, selfishly, and realistically.
• Do not give the players an even break, but also do not get too bloodthirsty.