Planning a Challenging Encounter
The following are tips on planning a challenging encounter for your D&D or Pathfinder game. Some of the ideas may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many DMs (myself included) forget to work them in.
In no real order:
Wide open spaces
I no that a 20 x 20 room sounds large, but that is only sixteen squares in which to move, flank, run, tumble, fly, etc. Realistic architecture be damned, make your encounter area large enough for people to spread out and manuever.
Impede direct movement
Don’t place your archwizard bad guy in the middle of the room with a clear path for the melee characters to charge on their first round. Put that bad boy up out of reach. Make players work a few rounds before they get the satisfaction of shanking your evil caster.
I know you want to use all your CR on the main baddie. But in most cases one enemy versus a party will end quickly and badly for your arch villain. Though some monsters can solo a party better than others, dragons, constructs, and elemental for example, but most times you will want multiple creatures. Players tend to fall back on tired out party tropes, tank, heal, stack on the spell damage. Shake things up, make the players scared.
If you use one monster it is easy for them to slip into old routines, but if you have multiple creature all hell breaks loose. The wizard is running for her life and can’t drop bombs, the cleric is unable to heal the wizard, the fighter is too busy to tank…you get my point.
Play around with an encounter calculator, you can often times add some weenies to the encounter without changing the CR. Use these minions to harass the spell casters (see below), provide flanking to your real threats, or simply impede the characters movement.
Mix combat styles
You don’t have to have all melee combats. Think of your encounter in terms of an adventuring party. Do you have ranged combat? Do you have a caster? Do you have healing? Do you have a tank?
Why is it the players have a healer and carry potion and healing devices but every bad guys in every printed module seems to be unaware that there are curative magics in the D&D multiverse? Throw a cleric in that encounter, stock your baddies with healing potions and actually use them.
Left unthreatened a wizard with metamagic feats will nuke your best laid plans. Plan for this when you write your encounter, how can you put the fear of Orcus into those robe-wearing Nancys?
Run a simulation
Keep copies of your players’ sheets (at least the important parts, to hit, dmg, hps, AC, etc). Run your encounter ahead of time and test it out. See where you can shore up any glaring weaknesses you find. You know how your players think, what will they do and how can surprise them?
It isn’t about slaughtering your players, but it is about making sure that everyone (including yourself) has a good time. The players will feel like they earned their treasure. Shake things up. Disrupt their plans. Be unpredictable.