D&D 5E +What Tricks and Shortcuts Do You Use To Make Monsters and other Hazards More Challenging?

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Overly long title says it all, really, but to get more specific, I'm wondering what people do in their games to make the game more challenged, specifically without changing PC abilities at all.

Just "DM side", what are your tricks and shortcuts? Do you use enemies from 3pp, have you built a set of templates to give monsters combat roles, do you add special events to certain points in initiative to represent things like backup, or terrain hazards, etc?

Please don't crap on anyone's ideas, though. It's a sharing thread, not a harangue people who play differently than you thread.
 

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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
More hit points is one place I start. A little more to stats to improve a bonus here or there. Companions (adding black abishai to an encounter with an adult black dragon, for example) is something I use a LOT because I have up to 11 players in one game if they all show up.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
More hit points is one place I start. A little more to stats to improve a bonus here or there. Companions (adding black abishai to an encounter with an adult black dragon, for example) is something I use a LOT because I have up to 11 players in one game if they all show up.
OH wow! 11 is wild!

I like giving legendary creatures a collection of mooks, as well, and I add legendary actions tothem that lets them command all their mooks, making them move, or attack, or activating some bonus or other either representing a magic boon or a different tactical approach they're adopting on their bosses command.
 

Smackpixi

Adventurer
Give them abilities they don’t have. My baddie MUers can summon stuff if needed. Like maybe they have some Orb that can bring in a Demon. The Monsters Know What They’re Doing is an obvious reference so you know the full potential of your monsters, whether you use or not. I prefer more surprises than more HP, but if I was billd91 with 11 players, might change my tune there. Reinforcements is another big one, let’s not pretend the whole dungeon isn’t woken up by the first encounter...so I’m often having to justify reasons the first fight in room one of dungeon isn’t and endless Oldboy style scrolling fight. I have to back that off in my logic, if you need it worse, don’t.

New and varied monsters, as many books as you can get, there’s a 100 takes on orcs out there, you can theoretically have each enemy one as unique as an adventurer in weapons and techniques with just indie published stuff Before you even have to get creative on your own.
 

dave2008

Legend
It depends, I don't really need to much. Here is what I do:
  1. For fights with multiple monsters: a variety of monsters works best. Have some ranged, some melee, and some magic. Also, have them spread out.
    1. A range of CRs for the monsters is good too.
  2. For fights with solos: High CR legendary monsters is the way to go. Depending on how difficult / dramatic you want it to be, and whether or not it has helpers, it should be lvl +5 to +10. +10 if it is a true solo (and your group is level 7-8 or more).
  3. Any fights: terrain actions. Think lair actions for everyone. I don't do this a lot, because it takes some work and I tend to improvise a lot. But give the battleground "terrain actions" that both the monsters and the PCs can use (with an action, bonus action, or reaction). The only limit is your imagination!
 
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pogre

Legend
I tend to use waves of monsters. I also use challenging terrain - I have added a lot of vertical spaces to my game lately. The manticore comes out of its cave fires tailspikes from the ledge and then retreats back into the cave. Archers firing from behind a portcullis. Invisible magic-users that cannot be countered. That kind of stuff.
 


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I also give boss monsters and solos legendary actions a lot. Even at relatively low levels.
Legendary actions are a great resource. If I’ve got, say, a martial enemy that has a bunch of attacks and is supposed to be an expert combatant, I’ll reduce the multi-attack a bit and give them legendary actions, or even just add the legendary actions without taking anything away, to make a combatant that is at ease fighting 5 people by themself.

Also actually using the full action economy for enemies. Anything with a speaking role has bonus and reaction abilities.

I also changed Dodge to make it more attractive, and it helps the enemies as much as the PCs, at times.

When you Dodge, you can move up to 5ft any time an attack misses or you succeed on a dexterity or strength saving throw. The movement doesn’t use your movement or trigger OAs. This makes it possible for enemies to get out of tight spots, and turn the tables.
 

cbwjm

Legend
I've made some bad guys elite. This gives them max hit points, the ability to make 1 attack at the end of a player's turn (like a legendary enemy) and grants advantage on some saves. Basically it just makes them a bit more of a threat for the players. I might also combine other templates with it that I have made up, based on the 4e roles.
 

Ondath

Adventurer
Overly long title says it all, really, but to get more specific, I'm wondering what people do in their games to make the game more challenged, specifically without changing PC abilities at all.

Just "DM side", what are your tricks and shortcuts? Do you use enemies from 3pp, have you built a set of templates to give monsters combat roles, do you add special events to certain points in initiative to represent things like backup, or terrain hazards, etc?

Please don't crap on anyone's ideas, though. It's a sharing thread, not a harangue people who play differently than you thread.
This is an area on which I tried a lot of approaches, primarily because... to be compeltely frank, I'm not good at tactical combat. I run games to create interesting stories and explore strange new worlds, and I do enjoy a good setpiece battle, but most of the time I won't be able to run monsters to their full efficiency. That said, here are some things that worked:

  • Stealing 4E's monster roles to design monsters with specific combat roles which then allow them to use some basic tactics. Things like a Guardian monster blocking the way for the players while glass cannons in the backlines harangue the players with annoying missile attacks/spells.
  • Adding some sort of puzzle element to the encounter. At some point I tried reworking Legendary Resistances so that they weren't just a limited "I succeed the save" button, but instead allowed a monster to succeed all saves until the puzzle element in the encounter was handled. For a fight with a Green Dragon, for instance, I said that the green dragon had an aura of poisonous clouds surrounding him, and the players either needed to find a way to disperse the cloud (any wind-creating spell would do), or break the green dragon's power as the embodiment of betrayal by making a coordinated attack and make their teamwork metaphysically rattle the creature. The need to find a different gimmick for every boss battle got a bit tiring though, so I returned to the usual LRs for now. I saw MCDM add a new spin to this by adding in-fiction explanation for the monster's LR (their not-beholder sacrifices an eye anytime it succeeds on a save, for instance), so I might try that.
  • Either designing a monster with a specific tactical algorithm or using monsters that have that has also been helpful. For instance, A5E's Lich entry in their Monstrous Menagerie has a Tactics section that explains how the Lich would fight, which spells it would select given the circumstances and so on. Having a set algorithm like that for the monster to follow during the encounter is usually really helpful.
 


Li Shenron

Legend
Overly long title says it all, really, but to get more specific, I'm wondering what people do in their games to make the game more challenged, specifically without changing PC abilities at all.

Just "DM side", what are your tricks and shortcuts? Do you use enemies from 3pp, have you built a set of templates to give monsters combat roles, do you add special events to certain points in initiative to represent things like backup, or terrain hazards, etc?

Please don't crap on anyone's ideas, though. It's a sharing thread, not a harangue people who play differently than you thread.
Mainly two things:

1) using tactical suggestions from "The Monsters Know"

2) adding feats to monsters and NPC: my favourites are Martial Adept and Magic Initiate because they open up lots of options, but also a good old Great Weapon Fighter or even Lucky work wonder
 

DeviousQuail

Adventurer
Using opponents that have "stages" as challenges. After they take X damage they immediately interrupt the players turn. When this happens they undergo some kind of visual change to clue in the players. It can be as simple as shedding a piece of armor or as crazy as morphing into a completely different form. The monster gets a new set of hit points and any directly harmful effects on them are ended. It doesn't end something like hunters mark, flanked, prone, etc but would end most other spells and conditions. The monster then gets one action before the interrupted player continues their turn.

I've never had a bad encounter with these monsters and I find it a much better way to handle save or suck effects than legendary resistance. They don't get to just ignore your efforts, which is good. They also don't get steam rolled due to one bad roll, which is the problem legendary resistance was trying to solve. Solo fights are also more tenable since you know a monster with 2 or more stages is guaranteed to get at least one action in. There's nothing worse than an anticlimactic fight where the players kill the big baddy before they do anything.

From my first 5e campaign that I ran all the way back in 2015: the L-01 Construct. This construct had three stages and each stage was designed to be CR 3. Each stage of the construct has an AC of 15, 50 HP, and the standard immunities of construct creatures.
Stage 1 - The Heavy. It looks like a metal statue with electricity running in the crevices like veins. It is Large, has a 15ft speed, 10 foot reach, resists lighting and slashing, and has a stone sword attack that deals 2d6+5 slashing damage.
Stage 2 - The Spider. When reduced to 0 HP the Heavy throws off it's cumbersome armor and sword. Nine legs unfurl and the Spider (a metallic drider in appearance) breaks one off to use as a longspear. It is Medium, has a 25ft speed, 10 foot reach, resists lightning and piercing, spiderclimb, and has a spear attack that deals 1d10+5 piercing.
Stage 3 - The Core. When reduced to 0 HP the Spider's metallic bits mostly fall to the floor leaving a lightning and metal core floating in its place. It is small, has a 40ft speed, hovers, resists lightning and bludgeoning, has a lightning attack that deals 2d4+5 lightning damage (20/40 range), and when hit it sends out a force wave that pushes back all creatures in a 15 foot radius 5 feet and deals 1d4 force damage (DC 14 Strength save to negate).
 

Sentient creatures usually always have magical items, as do their steeds, and use them too. Terrain hazards during a battle always ups the ante on a fight. Dangerous walkways over a lava pit in a red dragons lair are always fun for example. Sometimes I'll give more mundane monstrosities some extra power the PCs aren't expecting.
 

Horwath

Hero
More HPs are good, but to a point that target is just non threatening bag of HPs.
That is bad.

Extra attack or two if damage is low.

Also some area attack is always good.
Single target damage increase can knock out a single PC in a round and that could be non-fun for some, but having 5 PCs losing a 1/3 to 2/3 Hp from AoE and see them scrambling for healing and Dodging is better.
 

Hussar

Legend
One simple tactic for 5e is to remember that a grappling character (not the target, but the grappler) can still move. Nothing will freak out parties faster than having some critter grapple a PC then move back ten or fifteen feet. Definitely grabs attention. No pun intended.

Three dimensions is a big deal as well. Having stuff that can climb, hang on walls, that sort of thing, can really help. Makes choke pointing a bit trickier if multiple baddies can gang up, one "on top" of another.

Light if you can do it. Tracking what can actually see and at what distance is easier on VTT (I think) and it can really add interesting dimensions when you suddenly cannot see stuff.
 

jgsugden

Legend
1.) Environment: Use the environment. There is a huge difference between three orcs with battle axes and three more with bows in a 30 foot by 40 foot room and those same orcs in a forest where the archers are up a cliff and the battle axe orcs are hidden in bushes by the road. There is a huge difference between fighting a dragon in an empty cave and fighting in in a cave with high ledges, an underground lake, and pacthes of green slime or grey oozes.

2.) Intelligence: Pay attention to how smart the monsters are: And then use their smarts. If the enemy should be capable of making great plans, find ways to use great tactics for them. Alarms, traps, positioning, fodder allies, etc... are all methods of using their intelligence.

3.) Homebrew: The more you introduce homebrew, the less your players will trust that they know what they're facing, even when they face monsters from the books. After all, is that a normal beholder, or one with varaint eye rays? Is the Ogre Mage going to unload on us with cone of cold, or does this one have Wall of Force, Hold Monster or Antilife Shell? When your 10th level party is on a ship and a dozen 60 foot long tentacles start to wrap around the ship, are they dealing with a giant beast, an aberration, or something(s) else? What is your party's opening salvo against a 10 foot tall demonic creature with a giant rhino horn on their head and two axes for hands?

4.) Skilled magic use: Monsters that have access to magic have been using it a long time. They should use them as if they are experienced with the magic. Before I use a monster that has magic and spells, I always look at their expected situation and think about how they can best use their abilities. There is a huge difference between a wizard that just tosses out their lightning bolt and one that sets up the ligthning bolt by maneuvering enemies into a line.

5.) On the fly adjustments: Not every battle needs to be a life and death encounter, but sometimes the PCs need a wakeup call if their attention is waning. It can happen in any group. I usually have a couple story elements in place where enemies might be pursuing or messing with the PCs. I usually have a couple 'assassin' encounters on the ready and if the PCs are wading through an encounter I intended to be harder, it might be an ideal time for one of these assassin groups to try to catch the PCs unprepared. If the PCs are in the Dungeon of a Mad Mage, that mage might muck with their plans by throwing some chaos at them. If one of the PCs is a warlock that has not been attentive to their patron, the patron may pick that moment to deny the warlock their magic, or choose a different target for a spell.

6.) Merge encounters: If there is a nearby encounter available, I will let the next encounter flow into the current one by having them be alerted and join the battle. This is also one of the techniques I use to prevent the 'long rest after every battle' or even 'short rest after every battle' problems some DMs face.
 


Jer

Legend
Supporter
I actually find I don't have to do much extra to make things challenging - but I suspect that's partly because my standard for 5e has been "double strength" encounters for a while now - using double the XP budget for a standard encounter given in the DMG (and then planning on having fewer encounters per long rest - it fits our playstyle better to have 3-4 combat encounters per long rest instead of 6-8, which is really why I made that change).

I also tend to look at the number of attacks the monsters in the encounter are making per round rather than the number of creatures in the battle. At the start of combat the monster pool should be doing slightly more attacks/round than the players are, so if I have to add a bunch of "mooks" (i.e. low hp/low XP monsters) to the pool to increase the number of attacks I'll do that. (I actually do that more for excitement than challenge, but the two blur together sometimes).

I also have brought over a lot of the terrain stuff I was using in 4e and try to make the dungeons more interesting so that there's some terrain for the monsters to use against the PCs (and for the PCs to figure out how to use against the monsters). Again that was more for excitement than challenge, but it ends up providing both.
 

ART!

Legend
Pretty regularly, I will give the current monster an attack or feature from another monster. I just kind of brainstorm about the monster and what other monsters are similar or remind me in some way of the one I'm looking at. I've been known to make non-undead monsters into undead ones, too. That kind of thing.
 
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