Why Making Hard Encounters is Hard.

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It’s 3:30 in the morning.

I mention this to you because I want you to understand and appreciate how much I think about D&D and game design.  My newborn son is almost 3 months old, I have more work at my day job and in freelancing than I could shake several sticks at…and here I am, unable to sleep because I have to say something to you.

For the underwhelming love of fantasy deities, STOP spending time making hard encounters.  I listen to many frustrated GMs who spin me this tale (tell me if it sounds familiar):

“I spent five hours building this encounter and the players tore through it in 2 rounds. The players weren’t challenged at all, and I feel like a failure for not being able to challenge them! It was supposed to be a tough fight!”

I’ve heard this, and I’ve been there.   What I’m up early this morning to say though is that when we’re feeling like this, we as GMs are looking at our jobs from the wrong viewpoint.  We are also misunderstanding combat to a degree.

Running a game is a perverse business.  On one hand, it’s a candy store; look, sunshine and saccharine! The other hand is a punch in the mouth; why were you taking my candy?  If you give players too much candy, the whole enterprise goes rotten as you turn each PC into a candyman Fonzerelli, riding through your dungeon on a Gingerbread bike going “Aaaaaaaay!”  If PCs get everything they want whenever they want, the game no longer compels anyone to play it.

But how much face-punching can you get away with?  You can string face-punching out a little longer than you can candy-giving, but in the end, no one really wants to be on the receiving end of Manny Pacquio each session without a chance to even hit back.  Too much face-punching also makes the game less compelling.

I think all decent GMs for any game system knows the formula RPGs;  put out some candy (or the opportunity to grab it), punch some faces along the way.  If players don’t get candy, there are no incentives to get punched in the face.  If PCs don’t get punched in the face, they don’t appreciate the candy.

Combat isn’t a punch in the face in D&D. It’s candy. Fighting is a reward, because that’s how the game is designed.  Part of what D&D has always been about is the thrill of overcoming monsters and getting stuff.  It is open in other areas so is open to creative hacking to do other stuff, but every edition of D&D includes copious rules for killing stuff. It is the reward even though monsters are trying to take you out, because the monsters trying to take you out is part of the thrill of the fight.  The more the monsters come at me, the more exciting it is, and the more awesome I feel for overcoming it.

If combat isn’t a punch in the face, what is?  When the bad guy gets away…that’s a punch in face.  When he steals a sacred artifact, when we fail to protect the townspeople, when the tyrant’s army wins a key battle, when an adventurer sacrifices himself to protect the world — these are punches in the face.  When we finally get a chance to put our hands on the villain or his minions, we can best describe that as a catharsis.

Imagine you could punch out someone critical in the country’s financial woes.  There are a lot of bad consequences flowing from that, but can’t you imagine that it might feel good right before they put the cuffs on?  The central conceit of fantasy adventure is that violence works. Violence rarely fixes anything in real life, but works about a dozen times every level in D&D.  At the end of the day, we get to hit something and good comes of it.

So, back to the hard encounter.  Do you ever notice that 9 times out of 10  in your hard encounter, the players are having a good time?  That the only person feeling like crap about the whole thing is you?  You tried to build a fight that would make the characters feel fear or intimidate them, and they ran you over. That in turn left you feeling a bit abused.  You spent so much time on it!  It wa supposed to be hard!

Listen, if you want a hard encounter, do this:  Let every monster stun as a minor action, no hit roll required. Or hey, triple the damage each monster deals.  Infinite hit points? I guarantee that using one of those ideas will push your PCs right to the brink….oh, but you are trying to make it “hard but fun”, right?  Or “hard but balanced”? You want an encounter that drops characters but won’t necessarily cause a TPK?

I’m not saying that it’s not possible to do that; I’m saying it’s not really worth your time.  In games as we talk about them, there is a perfect balance to strike every time between monster threat and player satisfaction.  In games as they are played, people go on hot streaks with dice. People go on cold streaks.  People discover crazy power synergies. DMs forget auras and players abuse solos.  A few good dice rolls turn a mildly challenging encounter into a very challenging encounter or a very challenging encounter into a TPK.

Players are going to whale on encounters, and that’s ok!  The game is actually designed in just that way. As a DM, you can make the combat interesting for yourself by upselling the player and monster actions through narration.  You can make the combat awesome by adding different twists that aren’t combatants. Interesting terrain and unusual parameters for the fight are  great. You can work towards unconventional consequences to your fights.  Spend your time making your fights compelling.  I’ve run a lot of fights where players have mostly had their way, but because of cool environment or cool parameters (or both), still ended up being memorable.

“But Gamefiend, the BBEG is supposed to be super tough!”

No, the BBEG is supposed to be super INTERESTING. He threatens and cajoles; he schemes and plots against the PCs; the PC foil the BBEG sometimes, but sometimes he foils them. When they face off for the final time, all sorts of crazy stuff should be going on.  Maybe after they navigate the chaos, they take the BBEG down in a round or two, but they will remember all that chaos.

Work to make your fights interesting instead of challenging, and your sanity will increase.  Maybe not much, but hey you’re a DM, so you were a little crazy already.


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About the Author

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of this site in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e. By day he is a technologist. Follow gamefiend on Twitter