by Mike Shea on 17 June 2013
We are certainly late in the lifespan of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition yet many still play this refined combat-focused version of the game. Quite a few of us have spent a great deal of time learning the ropes of 4e, what works well and what does not. If we take all of these 4th edition tricks and stick them into a huge centerfuge, we can refine it down to the absolute best tricks for running great 4th edition games.
In this article we look at four of the best and most refined tricks for adding elements to 4th edition encounters. Since encounters often take up much of the gameplay of 4th edition, we're going to focus mainly on elements to spice up battles rather than add elements to the rest of the game.
Skill challenges were an oft-debated gameplay element of 4th edition. While some of us had great success with them, others had trouble fitting the rigid mechanics into a flowing narrative. Placing small skill challenges directly into a battle, however, is a great way to get the benefits of the mechanics and change up your battle at the same time.
As an example, an evil wizard draws his power from two arcane pillars on opposite sides of the room. These pillars grant him a bonus to damage and defenses. Each of these pillars can be destroyed with three successful skill checks. Only one success per piller can be achieved per round. When both pillars are destroyed, the wizard loses his bonuses and takes his bloodied value in damage, which may directly kill him if his hit points are low enough.
In-battle skill challenges work well with one, two, or four objects in a room to be manipulated this way. One object best works with four successful checks. Two objects work best with three skill checks each. Four objects probably need only one or two checks each. This ensures that it takes enough skill checks to matter without so many that it becomes a drag. Limiting the objects to only one success per round ensures PCs won't simply gang up on the object and skill it to death in a single round.
By changing the number of objects, the variety of objects, and the effects of these objects; you have a nice flexible tool to add to any big battle you choose.
The aura is one of the most flexible and easy elements too add a clear threat to a boss monster. Auras typically require no actions and no attack rolls. Even if your big bad boss is stunlocked in a corner, its aura will still take effect. We might even increase aura sizes or effects if our boss's actions are reduced.
Flat damage auras ensure PCs feel some sort of threat throughout a battle. Fire-shield type auras — auras that deal damage every time a creature is hit — can be extremely effective. These types of auras take no time to run and can greatly increase the challenge of a battle. A typical damage aura would do five points of damage per tier and ten points of damage when the boss creature is bloodied. Fireshield type auras might do five points of damage per tier to a creature that strikes it with a melee attack. If you want that creature to be really nasty, double the damage.
Auras also stack nicely with the in-battle skill checks above. Auras could get weaker or stronger depending on the number of objects the PCs have disrupted or destroyed.
Auras are easy to use and quick to resolve. They are a very effective tool in your monster arsenal.
We've discussed the idea behind the Combat Out many times in the past. In short, you want to put elements into your battles that can end a battle early without requiring that PCs kill every monster on the table. The in-battle skill challenge can be one way to end a battle early. If the PCs destroy the four evil pillars, all the monsters in the room are destroyed.
Another way is to tie together the life forces of your boss with that of its protectors.
Say you have a lich with two mummy bodyguards. If the Lich is killed first, the bodyguards likewise turn to dust. If the bodyguards are both destroyed, the lich takes its bloodied value in damage.
Tying their lives together lets you put more monsters into a fight without worrying that the fight will take too long to finish. When the battle has crossed over the threshold from dangerous to mop-up, the battle is over.
This is a simple technique you can use in nearly any battle with a boss and his cronies to keep things running smooth and still keep the threat high.
Minions are a mixed bag in 4th edition. They're simple to run and give you the option to throw a bunch of bad guys at your group without a lot of hassle. With only one hit point, though, they go down very fast. One way to keep the threat of minions constant is through minion generators. Minion generators bring new minions into play as a battle continues. A generator can be either a creature or one or more objects. Consider four unholy coffins that continually create vampire spawns while the PCs battle a vampire lord in his crypt.
Generally speaking, you don't want to generate more than four minions at a time. You might up this to six or eight if your group is particularly hearty but it might be a pain to handle. Minion generating objects can be deactivated or destroyed using the in-battle skill challenges we described above.
The ideas above are intended to give you some simple tools you can use to change up your battles in 4th edition. Refined over years, they provide a great balance between being easy to incorporate, fast to run at the table, and effective at providing a challenge for your group.