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thanson02
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PostSubject: Combat Encounter Templates   Mon Aug 18, 2014 12:51 pm

Hey Everyone.

Have some questions for you guys (also posted this on the Wizards Community Forums, so you might see it there as well).  So I have been DMing for a while now and in running my adventures, I have had a strong focus on running Skill Challenges because it was something my players preferred in gameplay and I had a ton of fun with it because it was a new mechanic for me to play with and figure out.  When it came to combat situations, what I have been doing is reskinning published combat encounters that seemed to fit the bill, or just throwing a bunch of monsters at them that seemed to make sense with the situation.  Recently however, I have decided to take a deeper look into combat and specifically the combat encounter templates presented in the DMG.  From what they look like, they seem to be really nice combat tactic formations that highlight particular monster roles.  I wanted to take a deeper look into them, see what Wizards has published about them beyond the DMG, and see what else people have come up with.  However, I have not been finding much and the little bits I have found were interesting and insightful, but not going into the depth I was looking for.

I guess what I am asking is do you guys use these templates when running combat encounters or do you just make up stuff as you go?  Do they do a little of both?  What has been your experience with using the templates in the DMG and what was your impression of them in gameplay?  Also do you have any good sources that i can look at to get a better understanding on how they run and how to work them into role-playing?

Thanks for the help!!
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Chris24601
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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Mon Aug 18, 2014 1:55 pm

My rule of thumb is about half the monsters should be the same type of brute/skirmisher/soldier and backed up by 1-2 monsters from 1-2 other roles (ex. 3 brutes back up 2 artillery or by a controller and lurker).

Any more than three monster types and it gets to be a pain to track from my experience. I also prefer to run with right around the same number of monsters as players (minions excepted) to keep things from being too clogged.

Also, I NEVER run solos alone. Even for a four man party you're always better off running a lower level solo with some support (a soldier or two with some actual stickiness work wonders) if you wanna challenge your party.

An even more important rule of thumb I use is to multiply the number of combatants by ten and that's the minimum number of squares your map for the encounter should have on it... anything less and its very easy to get clumps where AoE's become disproportionately powerful. An occasional tight room is good for variety, but even then, don't go smaller than your combatants times 5 or it will feel very cramped.

Room to maneuver and at least one interesting terrain feature (even if its just a ridge-line or some trees) are what really make encounters shine because it lets everyone use positioning and maneuvering. From my experience shoving 10 combatants (5 PCs and 5 monsters) into a featureless 4x8 square room isn't going to be particularly memorable. By contrast, a 4x20 square hallway lined with statues that fire gouts of fire from their mouths every other round while three skirmishers and two artillery at the far end who can push their target on a hit makes for a FAR more interesting fight.
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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Tue Aug 19, 2014 10:11 pm

Chris24601 wrote:
My rule of thumb is about half the monsters should be the same type of brute/skirmisher/soldier and backed up by 1-2 monsters from 1-2 other roles (ex. 3 brutes back up 2 artillery or by a controller and lurker).

I was noticing this too with how the roles work.  I picked apart The Legacy of the Crystal Shard Adventure, mainly because they had Encounter templates for each part of the adventure.  What I noticed along with looking at the templates in the DMG was that it seems that the basic type of monsters that PCs will directly deal with in melee are brute/skirmishers/solders.  I did notice that some groups were all brutes or all solders so I thought maybe you could run a group with just one of these three.  But after looking at the adventure and how it ran, one of the monsters/NPCs acted like another role, even if it was just the leader of the group.  Even with the skirmishers in the Wolf Pack Template had one acting like a solder or a brute while the others use hit-and-run methods.

Chris24601 wrote:
Any more than three monster types and it gets to be a pain to track from my experience. I also prefer to run with right around the same number of monsters as players (minions excepted) to keep things from being too clogged.

Fair enough.  Thanks for the heads up.  Smile

Chris24601 wrote:
Also, I NEVER run solos alone. Even for a four man party you're always better off running a lower level solo with some support (a soldier or two with some actual stickiness work wonders) if you wanna challenge your party.

So are you thinking a Solo with a Elite or a Solo with two standards (since a elite is worth two standards, I suppose it really doesn't matter)?  And would you run the Solo at a lower lever or the Elite/2 Standards at the lower levels?

Chris24601 wrote:
An even more important rule of thumb I use is to multiply the number of combatants by ten and that's the minimum number of squares your map for the encounter should have on it... anything less and its very easy to get clumps where AoE's become disproportionately powerful. An occasional tight room is good for variety, but even then, don't go smaller than your combatants times 5 or it will feel very cramped.

Room to maneuver and at least one interesting terrain feature (even if its just a ridge-line or some trees) are what really make encounters shine because it lets everyone use positioning and maneuvering. From my experience shoving 10 combatants (5 PCs and 5 monsters) into a featureless 4x8 square room isn't going to be particularly memorable. By contrast, a 4x20 square hallway lined with statues that fire gouts of fire from their mouths every other round while three skirmishers and two artillery at the far end who can push their target on a hit makes for a FAR more interesting fight.

Interesting stuff.  I hadn't been thinking of the relationship the terrain had with the battle yet.
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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Wed Aug 20, 2014 10:43 am

Aha, a topic that I'm very interested in!

I both reskin published encounters and also build my own from scratch. But I don't use the encounter templates in the DMG. They are really good and if you follow them, they will certainly work. I've just worked past them.

The advice given so far is solid. I'd like to touch on these things.

-Don't try to get too many monster roles in the fray.

Monsters in 4E have roles just like the characters do. But they have more roles and this allows the DM to really get into the workings. When you are putting together an encounter, those roles will help you define tactics. But, more importantly, those roles will help you choose which monsters to put into the encounter in the first place. So consider the roles and how they interact. For example, Artillery are going to do best if they don't have the PCs up in their faces ruining their chances to make the Ranged attacks. So you'll need some "front line" monsters to keep the PCs away from the Artillery. Soldiers are great at this (they have high defenses and sometimes a "Mark" ability). And that's just one example. There are too many to try to consider them all, but if you really consider these monster roles you can make very good encounters that will appear to the players like a believable enemy force.

-Never run solos alone

This I learned from experience. And this is especially true if you're running solos as written in early sources. The idea of a single enemy that is as challenging as 5 standard enemies is great. But it rarely works that way in practice. Most of my experiences with the party fighting a solo is that after about round 5 or 6, the characters have used all of their encounter powers and probably as many daily powers as they are willing to part with. The enemy is bloodied and going down, but isn't out yet. And so you get 3 or 4 more rounds of every single character, regardless of their role, doing the "move, at-will attack, done" on their turn. It is a boring grind and not fun for anyone.

Another issue is that many of the early solo monsters are highly susceptible to daze, stun, immobilize, etc. effects that will completely nullify the encounter. If you have 5 independent enemies on the board and you stun 1 of them, you've nullified 20% of the encounter (as long as the stun lasts). But if you have 1 enemy (that counts as 5 enemies) and you stun it, you have nullified 100% of the encounter with the same power. And while this may seem fun for the players, they realize quickly that this just turns the encounter into a static exercise in rolling dice. There isn't a challenge. Some of the solos that were published later have "fixes" to this, but not all of them.

So by taking a solo monster that is equal level to the party and then dropping in a couple of standards or a handful of minions, you can create a much more dynamic encounter. One of my favourite things is to have "refreshing minions" with a solo. I've done this with undead where every round a random number of minions (usually a d4+2) will come from some sort of unholy altar or portal every round. This ensures that the party has to keep on its toes during the fight.

-Battlefield area

Having played every edition since BECMI/1e (well, I didn't play OD&D, but still, I have almost 34 years under my belt), I've learned that 4E combat needs "room to breath". If you have a small space, combat will end up being a bottleneck and the tactics that are (to me) the best part of 4E combat are pretty much left unused.

I've converted a few old 1e/2e adventures to 4E. In most cases, I'll take the old maps and double the size of the rooms just to have enough room for these fights to take place. And I'll add things to the battle field just to keep it from being a 9-square by 9-square "gladiator arena" of a fight. Put in tables, chairs, fountains, statues, bookshelves, whatever. They don't have to be interactive items, but that doesn't hurt either. Anything to make a dynamic space. Difficult terrain is awesome as well.

It is also important to remember that as the party gets higher in level, the ranges of many of their abilities increases. In Heroic Tier, a range of 5 is pretty good for a lot of things. But by Paragon Tier, many things get up to a range of 10. And in Epic (which I have never run, but I have plans) it isn't uncommon for characters to have a range of 20 with their powers. This is especially true of Controllers. They will throw status effects all the way across the table, literally. I use the dry erase Tac-Tiles (that I bought years ago) that have the 1"/25mm squares on them (I really wish the US would just use metric). Each tile is 12 squares per side. So with 4 tiles, I have a 24x24 board in front of me. Usually I put 9 tiles out for 36x36 squares (and this crowds the players and their character sheets) and I'm still occasionally challenged for space in my encounter maps.

-The Combat "Out"

The only other thing I'd add is that I typically try to keep in mind situations where the combat would end even though one side isn't killed (or retreating). This is a bit more nebulous of a concept, but I always try to use it because I never want the players to think that when combat starts the only way to end it is to reduce all enemies to 0 hit points.

The way I usually do this is by figuring out why there is a combat encounter in the first place. I like to think that I don't place combat encounters just to say, "Okay, now you have to fight". I like to have more substantial reasons.

For example, in my game last Friday, the party was exploring a haunted mansion. Behind the mansion, there is the old garden of decorative shrubs and flowers with benches and statuary (all overgrown now). Some of the statues were actually animated constructs that were placed there to guard the mansion from unwelcome intruders. So, when the party came through the back garden, the animated statues attacked to fulfill their duty. Now the party could fight the statues and destroy them to gain access to the patio behind the mansion. That's a completely acceptable method of resolution. But they could also retreat and try to find another way in (the statues won't leave the garden). They could also look for other ways to nullify the statues and stop them from attacking. In this case, there is a special "password" that will identify the person saying it as authorized to be there. This password is scribed on a stone that was kept in the garden shed. It was there because the last resident of the mansion was old and forgetful and this would ensure that he could get back inside.

The party typically doesn't use these "outs" every time. But they are there, usually. And they do add an element to my table that teaches the players that every combat encounter doesn't have to be just a "hack and slash" event.

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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Wed Aug 20, 2014 11:14 am

I would rank interesting terrain as being on part with monster variety for importance in designing encounters. Indeed, the right terrain can make certain combos viable that wouldn't otherwise be.

For example, throw an elite soldier and three artillery into a big open room and the soldier is never going to be able to screen the artillery from getting ganked by the party's strikers. Put the elite soldier in the middle of a large staircase with the three artillery behind cover on the ledge above that the stairway leads to and you've got a situation where the party has to either fight their way through the soldier to get to the artillery raining down on them or find a way to bypass the soldier (risking either attacks by the soldier or suffering the disadvantage of the targets being behind cover). Likewise, if you use a large elite soldier, they can block the entire staircase, making them much harder to flank or get through without stunts or powers or taking greater risks.

Something as simple as a staircase and ledge turn a simple encounter (defender locks down the single soldier while the rest of the party wipes out the squishy damage dealers) into a much more difficult and interesting challenge.

As to using a lower level critter, my specific example was for a party of four. Let's take a level 10 party for an example. Their on-level encounter budget is 2000 XP (500x4) so just a level 10 solo monster on its own is the equivalent of a level+1 encounter (2500 XP vs. a 2400 XP budget). Even bumping it to a level+3 encounter (3200 XP budget) is barely enough to add a standard and two minions into the fight.

That's going to be quite swingy since almost all your eggs are in one basket in terms of the danger in the encounter. Neuter the solo (the newer ones have extra turns and can throw off stuns, but a lot of them lose a ton of effectiveness via just a -5 penalty to hit and the immobilized condition) and you've got an extremely easy encounter ahead of you.

So instead, my default for solos is to run with something more like a level 8 solo (1750 XP). This gives you enough leeway to add two level 9 standards (800 XP) and two level 9 minions (200 XP) into the fight and still keep it at just under a level+2 encounter (2750 out of 2800 XP). The net difference in hit rates for the monsters is only -10% for the solo and -5% for the others... but you also get four more chances to hit than you would with just the solo with only a slight increase in difficulty.

As your party increases in size (we often run with six PC's) you might slide your solo up in level a bit, but before that, use the budget to switch out minions for standards and increase the number of standards until it reaches two less than the party's size (i.e. for a six man party you'd want four standards in addition to the solo monster). This puts about half the monster's firepower into a basket other than the solo monster so they have to keep making tactical choices between locking down the solo monster and locking down the other monsters in order to win the day.

Throw in a little terrain and you've got the makings of truly memorable encounter. Even something as simple as the mound of gold in the center of the dragon's lair can be made interesting. Difficult terrain is a given, but how about balance checks to avoid sliding back a square away from the top or the sheer height of it acting as cover or blocking terrain against creatures on the other side of it? Perhaps it provides concealment for the standard monsters as well (i.e. lurkers that burst out of the mound to attack the party and drag them down into the very treasure they seek).

These are the things that memorable encounters are built from.
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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Wed Aug 20, 2014 11:38 am

Chris24601 wrote:
I would rank interesting terrain as being on part with monster variety for importance in designing encounters. Indeed, the right terrain can make certain combos viable that wouldn't otherwise be.

For example, throw an elite soldier and three artillery into a big open room and the soldier is never going to be able to screen the artillery from getting ganked by the party's strikers. Put the elite soldier in the middle of a large staircase with the three artillery behind cover on the ledge above that the stairway leads to and you've got a situation where the party has to either fight their way through the soldier to get to the artillery raining down on them or find a way to bypass the soldier (risking either attacks by the soldier or suffering the disadvantage of the targets being behind cover). Likewise, if you use a large elite soldier, they can block the entire staircase, making them much harder to flank or get through without stunts or powers or taking greater risks.

Something as simple as a staircase and ledge turn a simple encounter (defender locks down the single soldier while the rest of the party wipes out the squishy damage dealers) into a much more difficult and interesting challenge.

As to using a lower level critter, my specific example was for a party of four. Let's take a level 10 party for an example. Their on-level encounter budget is 2000 XP (500x4) so just a level 10 solo monster on its own is the equivalent of a level+1 encounter (2500 XP vs. a 2400 XP budget). Even bumping it to a level+3 encounter (3200 XP budget) is barely enough to add a standard and two minions into the fight.

That's going to be quite swingy since almost all your eggs are in one basket in terms of the danger in the encounter. Neuter the solo (the newer ones have extra turns and can throw off stuns, but a lot of them lose a ton of effectiveness via just a -5 penalty to hit and the immobilized condition) and you've got an extremely easy encounter ahead of you.

So instead, my default for solos is to run with something more like a level 8 solo (1750 XP). This gives you enough leeway to add two level 9 standards (800 XP) and two level 9 minions (200 XP) into the fight and still keep it at just under a level+2 encounter (2750 out of 2800 XP). The net difference in hit rates for the monsters is only -10% for the solo and -5% for the others... but you also get four more chances to hit than you would with just the solo with only a slight increase in difficulty.

As your party increases in size (we often run with six PC's) you might slide your solo up in level a bit, but before that, use the budget to switch out minions for standards and increase the number of standards until it reaches two less than the party's size (i.e. for a six man party you'd want four standards in addition to the solo monster). This puts about half the monster's firepower into a basket other than the solo monster so they have to keep making tactical choices between locking down the solo monster and locking down the other monsters in order to win the day.

Throw in a little terrain and you've got the makings of truly memorable encounter. Even something as simple as the mound of gold in the center of the dragon's lair can be made interesting. Difficult terrain is a given, but how about balance checks to avoid sliding back a square away from the top or the sheer height of it acting as cover or blocking terrain against creatures on the other side of it? Perhaps it provides concealment for the standard monsters as well (i.e. lurkers that burst out of the mound to attack the party and drag them down into the very treasure they seek).

These are the things that memorable encounters are built from.

As a seasoned and experienced DM of 4E, I 100% agree with this post. The mathematical evaluation given here is awesome and spot on. I do these kinds of XP budget calculations as well, I was just too lazy to throw them in to my post. So follow this example!

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PostSubject: Re: Combat Encounter Templates   Mon Aug 25, 2014 1:57 am

skwyd42 wrote:
Chris24601 wrote:
I would rank interesting terrain as being on part with monster variety for importance in designing encounters. Indeed, the right terrain can make certain combos viable that wouldn't otherwise be.

For example, throw an elite soldier and three artillery into a big open room and the soldier is never going to be able to screen the artillery from getting ganked by the party's strikers. Put the elite soldier in the middle of a large staircase with the three artillery behind cover on the ledge above that the stairway leads to and you've got a situation where the party has to either fight their way through the soldier to get to the artillery raining down on them or find a way to bypass the soldier (risking either attacks by the soldier or suffering the disadvantage of the targets being behind cover). Likewise, if you use a large elite soldier, they can block the entire staircase, making them much harder to flank or get through without stunts or powers or taking greater risks.

Something as simple as a staircase and ledge turn a simple encounter (defender locks down the single soldier while the rest of the party wipes out the squishy damage dealers) into a much more difficult and interesting challenge.

As to using a lower level critter, my specific example was for a party of four. Let's take a level 10 party for an example. Their on-level encounter budget is 2000 XP (500x4) so just a level 10 solo monster on its own is the equivalent of a level+1 encounter (2500 XP vs. a 2400 XP budget). Even bumping it to a level+3 encounter (3200 XP budget) is barely enough to add a standard and two minions into the fight.

That's going to be quite swingy since almost all your eggs are in one basket in terms of the danger in the encounter. Neuter the solo (the newer ones have extra turns and can throw off stuns, but a lot of them lose a ton of effectiveness via just a -5 penalty to hit and the immobilized condition) and you've got an extremely easy encounter ahead of you.

So instead, my default for solos is to run with something more like a level 8 solo (1750 XP). This gives you enough leeway to add two level 9 standards (800 XP) and two level 9 minions (200 XP) into the fight and still keep it at just under a level+2 encounter (2750 out of 2800 XP). The net difference in hit rates for the monsters is only -10% for the solo and -5% for the others... but you also get four more chances to hit than you would with just the solo with only a slight increase in difficulty.

As your party increases in size (we often run with six PC's) you might slide your solo up in level a bit, but before that, use the budget to switch out minions for standards and increase the number of standards until it reaches two less than the party's size (i.e. for a six man party you'd want four standards in addition to the solo monster). This puts about half the monster's firepower into a basket other than the solo monster so they have to keep making tactical choices between locking down the solo monster and locking down the other monsters in order to win the day.

Throw in a little terrain and you've got the makings of truly memorable encounter. Even something as simple as the mound of gold in the center of the dragon's lair can be made interesting. Difficult terrain is a given, but how about balance checks to avoid sliding back a square away from the top or the sheer height of it acting as cover or blocking terrain against creatures on the other side of it? Perhaps it provides concealment for the standard monsters as well (i.e. lurkers that burst out of the mound to attack the party and drag them down into the very treasure they seek).

These are the things that memorable encounters are built from.

As a seasoned and experienced DM of 4E, I 100% agree with this post. The mathematical evaluation given here is awesome and spot on. I do these kinds of XP budget calculations as well, I was just too lazy to throw them in to my post. So follow this example!

Yes Sir!!  geek 

But seriously, this is really good advice. As I have been looking at the way the encounter budget goes and the general rules you guys have brought up, it seems to make sense. I have been having flashes of different encounter mixes popping up while I have been looking at the adventures that my players are gaming in. Now I just need to get my players together and do some delves to see how they play out.

I will be posting more questions as they come up. Smile
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