Ten Ways to Challenge Powerful Parties

by Mike Shea on 7 December 2009

If you've been reading other Sly Flourish articles, you might have seen a common thread - challenging players. In my experience, as D&D 4e PCs get up into the paragon tier and above, it becomes harder and harder to offer them a real challenge. The game just feels a lot more deadly at lower levels than it does at higher ones.

Continuing with this theme, we're going to look at ten quick ways to keep the challenge high for your powerful party of player characters. Let us begin.

1. Run Them Through Five Battles Before Extended Rests

It is a common mistake to let players rest too often. Typical 4e encounters, however, don't scale well when players only face two or three battles between rests. Always try to find a way to keep the party battling forward without taking an extended rest. Being limited on daily powers and limited on healing surges make things a lot more dire during those end-game boss fights.

2. Use Terrain

A lot of folks talk about this as a way to keep challenge high. When designing any encounter, always consider what terrain effects you can add to make the battle interesting. This can also give an advantage to your monsters if your PCs are particularly powerful. Lava pits in dragon lairs, spike traps in bandit lairs, even pools of necrotic energy in an undead crypt can add a fair bit of challenge and excitement.

3. Use Skill Challenges to Drain Resources

Skill challenges can also help you limit the resources of your players. A failed skill challenge might impose a disease, steal some healing surges, or even suck the magic out of their weapons (removing their ability to use item powers for a battle). Think about ways to use skill challenges to drain your party's resources to keep the challenge high - but don't forget that the challenge should make sense and still be fun to play.

4. Carefully Compose the Monster Party

Always consider the mix of your monster types when designing an encounter. A proper mix of brutes, skirmishers, and controllers can bring a good challenge to your PCs. Remember that, pound for pound and exp point per exp point, normal creatures often bring a greater challenge than elites and solos.

5. Use Minions Effectively

Minions can either be speedbumps, fodder, or sometimes a powerful annoyance. Rarely can they impose real danger. Consider carefully how minions will play in your encounters. Send them in waves of fewer numbers and keep them separated to avoid blasts and bursts.

6. Use Surprise Rounds (sparingly)

Every so often, consider setting up a surprise round. Perhaps your PCs are accosted by assassins in the perfect ambush. A surprise round can really play havoc with a well positioned party. Use this sparingly, however, and ensure the surprise makes sense for the situation.

7. Mix Up Encounter Types and Purposes

Not every battle needs to be a razor's edge challenge. Over half of your battles should be quick skirmishes that let your players feel powerful while also taking some of their resources to beat them. Mix and match battles against six to nine normal opponents with some elite battles and one or two solo battles (always with extra backup - solos aren't really solos).

8. Tune Battles on Player Skill

Always keep your PCs and player's strengths in mind when designing a battle. You can use this both to challenge your PCs by exploiting their weak spots as well as giving them a chance to shine by playing to the strength of the PC. Always look to give them a challenge as well as let them show off their stuff.

9. Use House Rules

Keep a list of good house rules handy such as adding +1W when creatures become bloodied, adding +1/2 level to damage and using "tough minions" that get one free "knocked prone" instead of dying on the first hit. Use these sparingly but keep them handy when you need to make a battle more challenging.

10. Cheat

Always remember rule 0 - keep it fun. If that means adding a bit more hitpoints to the monster to keep it alive another round or fudging a d20 die roll to give the monster a chance to show off its stuff, go ahead. Just don't do it too often or there becomes little purpose in rolling the dice in the first place.

Keeping the challenge high in a higher level D&D game can be tough. Hopefully these give you some ideas to keep the challenge high in your own game.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide. Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.