Encounter Optimization: Monster Mix

by Mike Shea on 4 July 2011

Today we begin a new series of articles entitled “Encounter Optimization”. The intent of this series is to explore ways to build encounters that provide a fun fast challenge for D&D 4th Edition. Today we’re going to focus on one of the most important components of a good encounter: the mix of monsters.

Defining an optimized encounter

Let’s start by defining an optimized encounter. An optimized encounter is an encounter built to provide an excellent challenge for your players and create a scene of tension and excitement. It should not be easy to defeat and it should not lead them to despair. Though many of us prefer battles within an hour, it should take up as much time as it needs to keep the feeling of excitement and suspense going.

One does not have to optimize every encounter. Sometimes your players just want a room full of brutes to beat on. Sometimes they want to paralyze a big elite and beat it into the dirt without resistance. Give this to them. Mix up your well optimized encounters with encounters that let your players show off the power of their PCs.

A quick checklist

Here’s a quick checklist of encounter needs to guide which monsters we should choose for an optimized encounter:

A simple design: the single monster mix

Sometimes you want a side battle that runs fast and easy but still gives your players a good challenge. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a single monster type. Finding a single that still meets all of the above criteria can be difficult. Skirmishers, lurkers, and artillery can work well as a single optimized single monster mix. Brutes can work as well as long as they have some sort of ranged attack and enough brutes spread out to not be incapacitated by zones and status effects. Generally a single monster type should have both a strong melee attack and a strong ranged attack. They will ideally have some sort of special movement whether it’s a long shift or a teleport. Because they’ll be a little easier as a single type, you might want them to be a level or two higher than your PCs or add one or two more than the number of PCs to keep the challenge high.

A battle like this can get boring as more than half of the monster group is dead. Make sure to add a combat out to your battle such as the group surrendering or bursting into ash when more than half their number are dead.

A more traditional mix

A more traditional mix would have two or three different types of monsters filling in the proper roles. Brutes are a great base around which to build any monster mix. Players love them for their low defenses and often imposing stature on the battle field. You DMs will like them for their brutal straight forward attacks. Start any monster mix with a hand-full of brutes.

Next, throw in some artillery into your mix. Artillery will keep the threat high when those big brutes get stunned, knocked prone, and immobilized. Artillery should have a nice long range and a way to dodge away from PCs that pin them down and beat the snot out of them. Don’t misunderstand, they should still get pinned down and snot-beaten, just not on the first attempt.

Lurkers and skirmishers can go in next. These monsters can be very effective when thrown in to a battle midway through. Nothing brings up the threat like some nasty little invisible backstabbing skirmishers.

Controllers and leaders come in last. I’m not a big fan of these monster types. Instead of bringing up the threat of a battle, they mostly tend to slow it down. Controllers and leaders should mostly be delegated to the bosses in your fight.

Boss fights

I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about boss fights since I’ve done so many times before. In short, above level 8, your bosses will need a lot of protection in order to bring a good challenge to the table. Read my previous article, How to Protect your Elite Villains, to learn more about protecting elites and read my DDI articles on Shademaw and the Demilich to learn more about protecting solo monsters.

Just one part of the puzzle

Building the right monster mix is just one part of building a great encounter. In later encounter optimizations we’ll talk about mixing your monsters into the right environment without overcomplicating your battle.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. You might also check out the awesome monsters in the Monster Vault, the Monster Manual 3, and the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Good monsters need great minis. Check out the collection of D&D Miniatures from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.