D&D 4th Edition 4e Encounter Design... Why does it or doesn't it work for you?





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    4e Encounter Design... Why does it or doesn't it work for you?

    Was thinking on this recently and was wondering about it mostly from the perspective of the 4e fans who claim that the encounter guidelines "work" in 4e. What does this mean? What is the criteria being used to determine this? Is a challenging encounter usually "challenging"? If so how do you relate this descriptor to what actually happens in an encounter? Same for easy and hard as well.

    On the other hand I would also be interested in hearing from those for which the guidelines don't work and why that is... In general is a hard encounter usually a cakewalk? Is challenging too easy? How do you view the descriptors of easy/challenging/hard and do 4e's encounter guidelines fall in line or outside of what you picture these descriptors as representing?
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    Most of my encounter design is building a dungeon and populating it with monsters. These monsters might be separate encounters or they might overlap depending on how the PCs behave. For instance, a sentry might escape and alert a larger force of the PCs arrival. If the PCs kill the sentry before he can raise the alram, that makes the larger force easier to overcome. To get something similar in 4E, you have to build the encounter with the sentry as a skill challenge or some other contrived encounter. It just doesn't feel natural to me.

    That's not to say that 4E type encounter design is all bad. When I ran an adventure in a city with each encounter completely separate from the other envounters, 4E style design worked well. It also worked well for a big climatic final battle type conclusion.

    My most common case of building a dungeon and putting monsters in it and creating defenses for them didn't work with 4E though. I'd rather have it as an optional way to build encounters for special cases instead of the default way though.
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    Things that I like about them include that they're easy to balance and easy to create. The XP guidelines and monster XP values give a good indication of the encounter's difficulty in most situations.

    The thing that I don't like has been covered many times on this board: challenging encounters tend to be long, which can end up being grindy.

    Quote Originally Posted by DerekSTheRed View Post
    For instance, a sentry might escape and alert a larger force of the PCs arrival. If the PCs kill the sentry before he can raise the alram, that makes the larger force easier to overcome. To get something similar in 4E, you have to build the encounter with the sentry as a skill challenge or some other contrived encounter. It just doesn't feel natural to me.
    I'm not sure why you say that. I've run sentries as monsters before. Yes it's below the PCs expected encounter budget, but that's okay.

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    For me it's easier to access the threat level or encounter difficulty; XP budgets are easier for me to grasp than 3e's CR/EL system, which was very much more of an art than a science. Furthermore, the XP budget helps track. The same XP budget can translate to different things (an elite 7th level monster is 600 xp. 1 of them make an encounter for 6 1st level PCs, one of 6 monsters against the same group at level 12, and so on). An XP budget lets you build with a variety of different levels of monsters, while still getting the same relative oomf.

    Monster roles make it easier to grok what monsters can do quickly, and what I can expect from them/how to use them more aptly, and what I need in an encounter. Monster roles also help if I wanted to build an encounter when I have a smaller group.

    I also like that 4e has it so that 1 PC = 1 monster of equal level. This means I get to use more monsters in an encounter.

    Not to mention that I've broken down all the to hit/damage/hit points of monster roles by level on a table, and just looking at it, I can quickly assemble an encounter on the fly. With all the math done, all I have to do is think of a few quick powers to differentiate the monsters and boom.

    Edit: I found this great post by @S'mon that explains what I mean by the Xp budget and verisimilitude greatly:
    8th level guards in 1e-3e were not credible, but in 4e a 9th level guard is only 'worth' 4 1st level guards, the scaling is such that 'high' level NPCs are not a problem and don't violate any setting assumptions around demographics.

    The 4e inherent bonuses system obviates the need for magic items, likewise.

    Edit: In 4e, rather than have 9th level guards suddenly appear, they can always be 400 XP creatures and you scale the stats to the PCs - 5th level Elites, 9th level Standards, or 17th level Minions. I'd use those stats for crack troops in my Forgotten Realms game.
    Last edited by Rechan; Monday, 19th November, 2012 at 04:55 AM.

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    I find making 4e encounters pretty easy, but I don't use the official guidelines. I go with 1 monster of equal level per PC, with half of them as Elites is a fairly ordinary encounter. I have 7 PCs, so the extra synergies the big party creates overcomes the 3 Elites.

    I tend to notice that right after they level up I'm a bit behind the curve. 9th level was especially brutal, as I had no idea how awesome Blade Barrier was going to be in the cramped quarters of that particular fight.

    I gave up on dungeon crawls a long time ago, so I can't really address the OP. I've done 3 "dungeon crawls" in 4e. Two of them I did as extended skill challenges (all the exploration and mapping were skill challenges) with two or three large set piece battles. I threw small encounters in as group checks (everyone hit AC20, an at will give 1 success, an encounter 2, and a daily 3, each failure costs a surge, and group failure costs another). The third as a raid on a rival clan, and that was more traditional. I had a number of guard posts with level equivalent encounters and a roaming guard that was another level equivalent encounter that I knew was going to be added to an existing encounter - that was brutal. But that "dungeon" also had over half the complex mapped out due to scouting, so there wasn't a lot of exploration to it. The players also knew there would be no extended rest during the entire raid, so they knew they had to husband their resources.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DerekSTheRed View Post
    Most of my encounter design is building a dungeon and populating it with monsters. These monsters might be separate encounters or they might overlap depending on how the PCs behave. For instance, a sentry might escape and alert a larger force of the PCs arrival. If the PCs kill the sentry before he can raise the alram, that makes the larger force easier to overcome. To get something similar in 4E, you have to build the encounter with the sentry as a skill challenge or some other contrived encounter. It just doesn't feel natural to me.

    That's not to say that 4E type encounter design is all bad. When I ran an adventure in a city with each encounter completely separate from the other envounters, 4E style design worked well. It also worked well for a big climatic final battle type conclusion.

    My most common case of building a dungeon and putting monsters in it and creating defenses for them didn't work with 4E though. I'd rather have it as an optional way to build encounters for special cases instead of the default way though.
    You can populate a dungeon like that, using the creatures' level as a general gauge of which creatures to include (monsters 5 levels or more above party level are generally too tough, even if their XP fall within the level's budget).

    And you can have sentries that run and warn larger groups. In fact, several published adventures have that possibility, with an encounter being listed as, say, "level 8+", meaning that it is encounter 8 as written, but more creatures will arrive and the encounter will increase in difficulty if the PCs don't act on it.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
    Was thinking on this recently and was wondering about it mostly from the perspective of the 4e fans who claim that the encounter guidelines "work" in 4e. What does this mean? What is the criteria being used to determine this? Is a challenging encounter usually "challenging"? If so how do you relate this descriptor to what actually happens in an encounter? Same for easy and hard as well.
    What I love about 4e encounter design is its accuracy. This means that, yes, a 'challenging' encounter is challenging and so on. It also means that monster level is an accurate gauge of how much threat each monster adds to an encounter.

    Why do I love all of this accuracy? Because it means the risk of accidentally TPKing my party, or of boring them to death, is very low.

    Oddly, I don't have the problem that Derek has with those 'kill the sentry before he sounds the alarm' encounters. If the PCs can gank the sentry before he takes his turn, they get an easy encounter. If not, they have a hard encounter.
    Last edited by Tequila Sunrise; Sunday, 18th November, 2012 at 04:08 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tequila Sunrise View Post
    Why do I love all of this accuracy? Because it means the risk of accidentally TPKing my party, or of boring them to death, is very low.
    Unless the healer ends up in the middle of three enemies in the first round.

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    Can I just copy/paste the numerous things I've written on these boards about this precise issue or do I have to write something original?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Imaro View Post
    Was thinking on this recently and was wondering about it mostly from the perspective of the 4e fans who claim that the encounter guidelines "work" in 4e. What does this mean? What is the criteria being used to determine this? Is a challenging encounter usually "challenging"? If so how do you relate this descriptor to what actually happens in an encounter? Same for easy and hard as well.
    So, you're asking what is a challenging encounter, right? Really that depends on play style and is going to vary by group, even in 4e.

    Overall, yes the 4e encounter building guidelines are a good starting point to allow the DM to predict roughly how difficult an encounter will be for a party of five PCs - how many resources the PCs will use, whether it is likely that a PC could die, the perceived tension of the players, etc.

    However, once you start getting into larger/smaller parties, creative player use of rituals or high-level spells, start breaking the rules as a DM (eg. Lateral thinking encounters), include game-changing terrain powers or support, have alternate objectives besides "kill all monsters", and so forth, you quickly are in more advanced territory than a simple numbers game.

    IME 4e encounter design has a good math basis, perhaps better than any previous edition's encounter building guidelines, but there is still very much an art to it.

    On the other hand I would also be interested in hearing from those for which the guidelines don't work and why that is... In general is a hard encounter usually a cakewalk? Is challenging too easy? How do you view the descriptors of easy/challenging/hard and do 4e's encounter guidelines fall in line or outside of what you picture these descriptors as representing?
    I'm running five 11th level PCs through a fight with a 15th level solo dragon designed as a 3-stage boss monster. This is a very hard encounter (L+4 or 5 is considered the upper limit of what PCs can handle). They've got it to the third stage, but their leader died, and they've depleted most of their resources (healing, action points, daily/encounter powers). While the players have some NPC minions, ballistae, and had 2 hours to prepare, the dragon is heavily customized, has a series of hazards associated with it, and I played the dragon as a wicked tactician.

    We haven't finished the fight yet but it seems like an almost even match. I'd say the PCs have a 40-50% chance of defeating the dragon with more alive than dead/unconscious, depending on their tactics, dice rolls, and outside-of-the-box thinking. And maybe a 60-70% chance of defeating the dragon with 1 or 2 PCs left standing.

    So not a cakewalk by any means.

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