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


Yeah, I agree @MNblockhead - it's a meaty topic with a somewhat vague ask.

I know I've posted this in the past, and I've developed new tricks since posting, but here are my dials of adjusting combat difficulty:

Dials of Combat Difficulty

There are multiple "dials" to make combat more challenging. Diversity is the spice of life and D&D. So sometimes it's OK to have easy combat – it breaks tension, lets the players flex new powers/spells they've gained, and lets them feel like heroes. Don't consistently use all these "dials" at once, rather mix-and-match them to keep it fresh and interesting.

1. Don't let the players always be in control over when they rest, particularly when they get a long rest. For example, if they're on a time sensitive mission, taking even a single short rest before the mission is over could spell disaster.

2. If the party does take a long rest after beginning an incursion on a monster lair/dungeon, have the inhabitants spend those 8 hours bolstering defenses and making appropriate preparations.

3. Define party goals in combat besides "kill all monsters" which offer a different way to use resources/actions. For example, defend an emissary from assassins. The great thing about this approach is that it immerses the players in the game and makes victory independent from hit points.

4. Use tactics suiting the monster types, their Intelligence, and any recon they have on the party. For example, goblins are well known for retreating out of line-of-sight into an area where a lot more goblins lurk with readied attacks...potentially killing a foolhardy PC in pursuit. Whereas cunning NPC mercenaries might use the player's own tactics against them. Keith Ammonn's The Monsters Know is a good starting point.

5. Attack unconscious PCs when it makes sense for the monster in question. For example, an intelligent gladiator who realizes the party has access to healing magic...when he KO's a PC with one attack, he'll use another of his Extra Attacks to stab the PC while they're down, causing 2 failed death saves, and upping the pressure on the PCs to heal that PC immediately.

6. Create scenarios where the PCs may end up out of reach of buffing/healing spells. For example, a chasm with enemy guards watching a wall on the far side who can be easily assassinated by the rogue, but doing so puts him out of range of the cleric.

7. Make the environment favor the monsters. For example, salamanders (immune to fire & able to "swim" in lava) near streams of lava emanating intense heat. Alternately, you can come up with Lair Actions shared by an entire tribe of monsters.

8. Make the environment dangerous. Opportunities to fall seem to be the #1 killer in my games. Kobolds don't stick around to fight unless they have traps. When fighting in a mine, spells like thunderwave or shatter or booming blade might run the risk of triggering a collapse.

9. Increase the number of lower CR enemies, but introduce them in waves. However, be prepared with a way to quickly & clearly track their hit points/conditions. If there are truly a lot, consider using the Handling Mobs rules in the DMG.

10. Don't be afraid to use monsters of significantly higher CR if it makes sense for your story (and you're foreshadowing the monsters). I had four 6th-level PCs (all were fresh) just barely take down a CR 12 titanoboa (from Kobold Press' Tome of Beasts) without any casualties, but they came very close.

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