4E 4e Encounter Design... Why does it or doesn't it work for you? - Page 2

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

1. First off. I'm assuming here that you are referring to combat encounters rather than non-combat encounters (as an extension of your debate with Neonchameleon in the other thread). Working off of that premise, here goes:

1 - Codified, Constrained Reliable Output:

The encounter formula in 4e is predicated upon knowing what I can consistently expect from PCs and monsters/hazards/traps (individually and as a collectively for both) regarding their mechanical output. Each sides' deployable resources have their upper and lower bounds heavily constrained. Having these things squared away means I can reliably, consistently predict each party's "output in" with respect to the outcome of their suite of actions, round by round, and in the aggregate for the encounter.

2 - Encounter Formula Balance:

So, as above, I have predictability of PC output versus challenge output. Trusting in that, I can move onto the Encounter Formula Balance. So a standard encounter is Level n PC output = Level m Challenge output. With that balanced encounter formula, I can perturb m up and down (m - 1, m + 1, m + 3, m + 5, etc) and consistently achieve the results I'm looking for from *** walkthrough encounters, to standard encounters, to Boss Fights, to inevitable TPKs that the PCs should work around, strategically circumvent or walk away from. After 4 years of this, unequivocally, I can consistently achieve the results I'm looking for in all of the above.

3 - Tactical Dynamism and Thematic Depth:

With bounded, codified, resource parity and a predictable encounter formula, I don't have to worry about things going absolutely haywire due to the entropy loaded into the system by a loose/fudged encounter formula that expects me to fudge/force my way toward output in-line with my expectations. I am freed up to focus all of my creative energies toward tactical dynamism and thematic depth. Do I want a lot of terrain features or limited use terrain powers (p42)? Do I want a mobile fight with enemies and terrain that are constantly in motion? Do I want some kind of catch-22 synergy between enemy units that must be figured out and undone? Do I want the PCs defending a bottleneck, with hordes of enemies (swarms) falling upon them in waves? Do I want a specific stake that is involved (defeating a hazard and freeing a powerful ally, protecting a borderline helpless minion)? I can focus on all of these things and the advice and the mechanics support all of it.

***

Walkthrough (m -1): 2 - 3 rounds of combat. The group need not spend anything more than a few Encounter Attack and Utility Powers and will likely not spend more than a Healing Surge or two (if that).

Standard (m to m + 2): 4ish rounds of combat. The group may deploy a Daily Attack Power or 2 (though possibly unnecessary) or they may spend an AP. Often, they need not spend anything more than their suite of Encounter Attack and Utility Powers and will likely spend somewhere between 3 - 6 Healing Surges.

Boss Fight (m + 3 to m + 5): 5 - 8 rounds of combat. The group will deploy all Encounter Attack and Utility Powers, multiple Dailies (Attack and Utility) per PC, whatever APs are available, and double digit Healing Surges.

Inevitable TPK (m + 6 or more): The PCs should work around, strategically circumvent or walk away from this. The Monster/Hazard is clearly beyond the scope of the PC's ability. However, their will be some situations whereby the monsters/hazards are clearly of level (a horde/swarm of orcs, barbarians, etc) and the stakes are such that the PCs either have to engage or find an extraordinary strategic answer to the problem/stakes. Here, if the PCs must fight, a Skill Challenge is created to provide the PCs with resources (if the SC is successful) commensurate to turn the challenge into an m + 5 ("Boss Fight") level of difficulty.

2. Honestly Manbearcar said it better than I ever could. The short answer for me is that 4e makes me feel like my encounters can be more creative than other editions.

3. I didn't say you couldn't do the sentry, just that it didn't feel natural to me. My dungeon crawls are designed as multi day mini campaigns not a series of encounters. The problem is not just the encounter design system but also the focus on encounters and resources tied to them. I hoping D&D Next will keep the good and get rid of the bad by focusing on the adventure day.

4. I found that the 4e encounter guidelines allowed me to make encounters that I wanted. I like big, sprawling encounters with lots of baddies. I could do that in AD&D since the baddies were, relative to the PCs, very weak. So, it's quite possible to throw twenty kobolds at a 1st level party and expect the party to win.

4e gave this back to me. I tend to use skirmishers most heavily in encounter building and typically vary up the level of different npc's in order to gain more baddies as well. So, my typical encounter with a party of 5 PC's would feature 10-15 baddies. And, because the baddies are most heavily skirmishes, tactical movement becomes a real element. Almost all the baddies have some sort of movement power, simply because they're skirmishers. Chuck in a couple of brutes and a handful of minions and I get a 4-5 round encounter.

Works well for me.

5. It's by far the best encounter balancing mechanism I've found. It's not perfect - I think minions are overvalued by mid-Heroic, and the difficulty "slips" a bit as levels progress - but I'm able to get a very good idea of how hard an encounter will be.

I'll echo the above that I find "roles" very helpful as well.

This wouldn't be possible without 4e's outcome-oriented monster design rules. Which I also would find it hard to live without in a future version of D&D.

Why is it important? Because I like fun, exciting sessions. We only have so many hours a week to play, and I'd rather not hide the entertainment behind a wall.

6. Originally Posted by Quickleaf
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 (deg. 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.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have to consider your group. If you have two hybrid classed PCs, no real capable leaders, poorly built PCs or some players are just not good at using their abilities well, then an average encounter can become harder and more tedious.

The thing I don't like about D&D encounter design is that a level-appropriate average encounter isn't much of a Challenge to PCs. The level-appropriate challenge (i.e. a CR 1 or 1st level encounter for 1st level PCs) assumes the players will walk through it with minimal resource loss. I prefer all challenges to be, well, hard, instead of victory being pretty assured unless something horrible goes wrong.

7. Originally Posted by Rechan
On the other end of the spectrum, you have to consider your group. If you have two hybrid classed PCs, no real capable leaders, poorly built PCs or some players are just not good at using their abilities well, then an average encounter can become harder and more tedious.

The thing I don't like about D&D encounter design is that a level-appropriate average encounter isn't much of a Challenge to PCs. The level-appropriate challenge (i.e. a CR 1 or 1st level encounter for 1st level PCs) assumes the players will walk through it with minimal resource loss. I prefer all challenges to be, well, hard, instead of victory being pretty assured unless something horrible goes wrong.
But, that's the problem. In D&D, you are presumed to go through dozens, if not a couple of hundred, combat encounters over the course of the campaign. What should be the chance of fatality in a standard encounter? If it's ten per cent, say, then you should have PC deaths just about every level. That's probably too high for most groups.

So, you drop it down to one per cent. But, now it seems like most fights are a foregone conclusion. Which, honestly, they are. The only thing is, they always have been. The only difference is that now, because the math is right there in your face, it's glaringly obvious. It was always true, in most D&D. At least since AD&D was released. Individual encounters are meant to be defeated. That means that the chance of death cannot be too high.

8. Originally Posted by Rechan
The thing I don't like about D&D encounter design is that a level-appropriate average encounter isn't much of a Challenge to PCs. The level-appropriate challenge (i.e. a CR 1 or 1st level encounter for 1st level PCs) assumes the players will walk through it with minimal resource loss. I prefer all challenges to be, well, hard, instead of victory being pretty assured unless something horrible goes wrong.
I don't see how you have a problem here. The default is just a baseline that produces predictable results. It actually aids your interests here. You can set your own default to m + 3 or even m + 5 if that is your wish...and be assured that it will produce reliable results. A baseline must be chosen somewhere. So long as it produces predictable, reliable results as you move up and down the spectrum, what difference does it make what value m is? The default encounter at my table is m + 2...it doesn't bother us one bit that m as default is a relative walk-through. If I want that (and I do now and then), I will use that value.

9. When I think of combat encounter-building guidelines in 4e, I think of a few interrelated elements:

* XP values for monsters;

* XP values for encounters;

* advice on the use of terrain, role composition etc.

On the whole, XP values for monsters are a reasonably reliable guide to their effectiveness, but (as the rules note) if you go too far outside the PCs' level band results may vary from those advertised! Minions are also fairly variable in their actual compared to advertised punch.

Encounter XP values are often a good guide for the difficulty of an encounter, but there can certainly be variation. And terrain can make a difference. The beholder fight that I ran, for instance, was harder for the players than its level would suggest because of the incredibly punishing terrain.

For me, what is really the key to 4e's encounter-building guidelines is that they are tightly connected to core features of the system's NPC/monster build rules and its action resolution rules. Mathematical swinginess is low - the surprises that occur aren't generally numerical surprises ("Oh look - we one-shotted the beholder") but plot surprises ("Uh oh, two out of five PCs have fallen 200' to the river below - how are they going to get themselves out of that?").

As @Hussar describes, the game supports large numbers of opponents pretty well - especially once minions, swarms etc are brought into play. It's rare for me to have fewer opponents than PCs in an encounter, though not unheard of (the beholder fight had only 3 opponents for 5 PCs).

I also prefer to embrace the "epic" orientation of the system, rather than push against it. So for quicker encounters I tend to use skill challenges or free roleplaying, while for combat it's rare for me to use an encounter below level +1, and most commonly I go for level +2 to level +4.

As to whether these are "challenging" - they take a while to resolve, and require the players to deploy their resources cleverly to achieve what they want (including exploitation of terrain, of items, and of page 42). So I'd probably say "yes, they're challenging".

Conversely, an encounter of par or lower level is pretty straightforward, and can typically be handled using only encounter and at-will powers. The only challenge it poses is minimising healing surge depletion (and so an encounter at that level can be challenging if the PCs are very low on hit points and/or surges and/or healing capabilities).

10. The main problem I had revolved around the PCs being so much better than their foes, that the foes were often laughable. Reading through Manbear's post, all I can think is that the "walkthrough" category seemed to cover everything unless the GM severely stacked the deck against the group I played 4E with most often.

I liked a lot of the encounter design ideals such as having more moving pieces in combat. I disliked that there was such a disparity between the numbers the PCs could generate, what the monsters could generate, and the vastly different relationships those two sets of numbers had with the 'physics' that the 4E world was built upon. Something simple such as breaking through a door which might be a cakewalk for a low level PC could at times be a struggle for even the mightiest of foes. That disparity sometimes created oddities which were difficult to ignore. I'm fine with monsters and PCs being built differently, but I feel I would have been more happy with the results of the system had the two sides (monster/pc) interacted with the game world in a way which was more consistent.

While I found encounters very easy to build, and I do feel I was able to be very creative with them, I also feel that it was more difficult to get the game to work as expected for someone (me) who didn't want to break their world down into 'encounters.' In past conversations, this topic has lead to conversations about scene framing. While I understand what scene framing is, it is still somewhat alien to me when I think about how I want to design a rpg world because -to me- the world itself is the scene. Once the pieces are set in motion, I prefer for them to act naturally and grow organically with as little input from metagame concepts such as level and encounter as possible.

When designing my stories for 4E, I needed to bend my vision to the desires of the system more than I felt I was able to use the system to create the vision I wanted to create. I still enjoyed the system, and I have run games which were very successful, but I still feel as though I never truly was able to run the game I wanted to run with 4E. It may be that I'm at fault for trying to use a screwdriver as a hacksaw. Whatever the case, I found that --as said-- I had to bend my vision to the desires of the system more than I felt able to have the system serve the desires of my vision.