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My Problem

My players all seem to have +5 defenses and attacks over the monsters, in addition to the health and more deadly abilities... and they're in appropriate gear for their level (+2 gear at level 10).

On top of this, my luck is terrible. I'll go entire encounters rolling <=6 on a d20. When I do finally hit, the monsters do very little damage which gets mitigated significantly by player abilities.

The only time the encounters feel remotely challenging is if the enemies are all 3-4 levels higher than the players, but then the damage output is too skewed and the enemy defenses are too high for some of the less striker-ish players to penetrate.

Our encounters are extremely drawn-out, but they are also very one-sided. There is no challenge for the players, only tediously long fights they are guaranteed to win. And that's even for encounters with enemies 2-3 levels lower than the players.

Is there some easy math fix to make things more interesting? Is there some way to make fights go faster and also challenge the players at the same time?

I don't think we can learn a new system at this point. Is there anything we can do to fix these problems in 4e? I'm pretty sure they're only going to get worse once we hit paragon tier.

Some Details

For those of you who think this is probably just generic complaining about my rolls or the system, here is some of the math at work.

I have a level 10 Assassin in my campaign whose base AC is 23 and Reflex is 21.

On top of this, he nearly always has the following bonuses to defenses:

  • +2 All Power Bonus from ally's Sentinel Bear Companion Aura
  • +1 AC Shield Bonus from ally's Devout Protector Expertise
  • +2 All (effective) from Cursed Shadow feat granting partial cover (multiclassed warlock)
  • +2 All (effective) from defender aura and various enemy-hindering penalties

So that's an effective AC of 30 with bonuses and a reflex of 27.

He also has the Cloak of Translocation, which has the property:

Property

When you use a teleportation power, you gain a +2 bonus to AC and Reflex until the end of your next turn.

Since he has a number of teleport powers and uses Shadow Step every turn, this bonus is nearly always at +2 and would frequently be at +4. Adding the +2 from Cloak of Translocation gives 32 AC and 29 reflex. If this stacks to +4, he's at 34 AC and 31 reflex passively.

This means a level 10 enemy, with a base attack bonus of 15, needs a 17 or higher JUST TO HIT if the player uses even one teleport power on his turn.

... And then on top of this he has abilities that grant him invisibility/total concealment as minor actions or part of his attack, boosting those values by another +3 or so. Finally, he has Shade Form, which can make him insubstantial on top of all of that. And let's not talk about the fact that he can hide from just about any enemy because their passive perceptions are below his Stealth skill modifier.

The defender has around 28 AC passively and 30 with the bear aura. He's got a piece of armor that grants +1 AC every milestone they achieve. Since the party takes fairly small and uneven amounts of damage, they can go many encounters without needing an extended rest, and this bonus keeps stacking.

TLDR: With the near-constant bonuses they have, players hit on ~3+, Mobs only hit on ~16+. What do I do?!

Other Factors

They have so many crowd-controlling status effects that mobs are almost always dazed, immobilized, or prone. With Eldritch Strike and a Staggering Khopesh on the defender, leaders that can grant basic attacks VERY regularly, and - on top of that - countless other abilities to rearrange the battlefield, the enemies are tightly corralled from going near anyone else.

They only really expend their daily powers on solo monsters and bosses (since they do not need them for normal encounters), which tends to make the boss fights extremely anticlimactic and often easier than the normal encounters.

On top of this, they have plenty of healing abilities which go mostly unused except right before they rest - so they're hardly spending surges or needing healing in combat.

... And this doesn't even begin to address the complicated math and situations arising from all of the situational modifiers the party can apply.

This is an ongoing problem that I really want to remedy before we pick up some new players and head into our next big campaign.

Please help! I'm worried the players are as bored as I am with the drawn-out combat encounters!

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I really don't want to tell my players they made their characters "too good", but I'm worried that's where we're at. –  Corion Dec 20 '13 at 7:57
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These issues would practically require me to fudge every die roll, all the time. The players know how powerful their characters and tactics are, and they follow the math like hawks. It would never work with my current group. :( –  Corion Dec 20 '13 at 8:29
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I'm not voting to close your question as a duplicate, or implying that these other questions will solve all your problems. I'm suggesting that you look at them, because they're related to your struggles. You'll always run into unexpected situations and you'll find these concepts useful tools to know about. In the spirit of Brian's answer, you may even want to broach these topics with your group too. –  BESW Dec 20 '13 at 8:32
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There is an easy fix for the problem (real or perceived) that you have bad dice luck: have your players roll the attack and damage dice when a monster attacks them. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 16:06
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Having been here (in the player's seat, but... been here) the best solution is two-fold

  1. Customize your monsters. Make sure you're using level 1 equivalent damage and the latest errata'ed defenses and attacks. This will help, slightly, but will simply lead into the next bit.

  2. You've entered into the optimisation arms-race. Having been in this race already... it kinda sucks for everyone involved. Congratulate your players on winning the optimisation game, and then sit down with them and figure out some requirements for their new retconned characters. Explain, very clearly, that there exist no interesting adjustments you can do on your side of the screen and that, to make battles interesting, limits need to be added.

Specifically, this must be a conversation with your group. You need to get consensus on what is allowed and not-allowed. For my own characters, it was requirements like "could not do more damage (with my defender) than the strikers of the group" and "Must not do more than half the enemy's health" in damage per turn1. These voluntary requirements represent an intentional "hard mode" in character design to make the game more interesting. You may want to engage in a group retcon such that everyone enters into hard mode (avoid the word "nerf") at the same time.

Regarding perma-dazes, you may want to discuss some house rules from here. But again, much of this can only be solved by conversation and mutual agreement. The arms-race is fun theoretically, and pretty damn crap in the middle of a long game.

1Your group may derive benefit from articulated requirements using my theoretical framework.

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If somebody would have told me that there were theoretical papers about D&D optimizations, I wouldn't believe that. Well, thank you for proving me wrong and for that resource! –  STT LCU Dec 20 '13 at 8:10
    
I should also probably note that we used the Same Page Tool and the players said they wanted a campaign where they "win", so I don't want to over-correct in the other direction. I guess I should discuss with them whether they actually like face-melting incapacitated enemies 100% of the time. I sure wouldn't. But it has gotten to the point where if they get injured even a little by enemies they feel cheated and protest whether I broke any rules ... which slows down the game even more. –  Corion Dec 20 '13 at 8:39
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Now that seems to point to a different, perhaps even underlying problem, which won't be solved if the encounters become more balanced. If the players are getting annoyed if they take any damage at all, then its going to cause nightmares for you as a GM. –  Phil Dec 20 '13 at 10:26
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@Corion It's worth reviewing the Same Page Tool and noting that there's no "we want to win" choice there. There is "the game is played to win. The win conditions are..." option, but that's about fair contests that aren't foregone conclusions. Are you sure guaranteed winning (which is a contradiction, really) is what they want? –  SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '13 at 3:01
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If you haven't already you may wish to make more use of monsters from MM3 and later, where the core 'maths' was tweaked to produce monsters that hit harder, have less HP and are generally less 'grindy' - they avoid super high pools of HP and defences, but typically have higher attack bonuses and damage - specifically to address the sorts of issues you've seen in play.

http://blogofholding.com/?p=512 has a description and 'cheat sheet' for how the new formulas work, I would recommend giving that a go and seeing how things work out.

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Combining the MM3 numbers with Brian's L1E damage and his other advice is how I ran my 4e games. –  BESW Dec 20 '13 at 8:34
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I think what you need isn't some easy trick to turn things around (I don't think there is one) but you do have a few options:

Don't be hindered by the rules

The rules are there to provide a basis but are not there to limit you. If you need to modify a monsters hit points, give them an extra chance to recharge a power, or give them a higher attack/defense bonus then do it. And certainly don't feel bad about it, because you need to put your players at risk to keep them from being bored.

Tailor encounters for the party

If your party keeps a tight defensive formation hit them with zones, blasts and bursts. Multiple attack rolls grant you more chances to hit someone.

Give monsters interesting forms of mobility. A tight formation down a narrow tunnel means nothing when your opponents can phase through walls to target your squishy characters. Swooping attacks from flying creatures can keep melee specialists from doing too much damage, and teleporting enemies can do things most of your party can't.

Use the powers monsters have to their best ability, or give them some additional powers. A combat full of Kobold Dragonshields can be dangerous when one player is surrounded by a few of them, because they gain +1 to attack for every other Kobold adjacent to the enemy. That means a totally surrounded player is essentially -7 to all defenses against them. Similar abilities grant AC bonuses to monsters in a formation (I've seen this but can't remember if it was from one of the Monster Manuals, or one of the official adventures).

Set up difficult, damaging or impassable terrain features to hinder, block and prevent too much player mobility, and target them with dazing, stunning and immobilizing powers. This will tie down your Assassin and stop him Shadow Walking every turn, and may prevent tight grouping around the bear for the defense bonus. It may also help you keep the defender out of the fight.

Don't ignore animal companions and NPCs in your targeting - putting the hurt on the bear will force your Druid to reassess how much he lets it in the front row as every time you take it down will cost him a healing surge to bring it back. Also doing energy draining attacks such as Wights do will directly drain healing surges from the Druid.

Occasionally throw mind-controlling or redirecting effects on monsters that suddenly force the players to target each other.

On rarer occasions prevent the characters from having a good night's rest. If at the end of an extended rest they haven't slept for 6 of the past 24 hours then they gain no benefit form the extended rest, including healing and memorizing spells.

And most importantly think about where your attacks are targeting. Fortitude attacks are useless against fighter-types, as are Reflex attacks against rogue-types and Will attacks against caster types.

Don't be too generous with magic items

The characters aren't supposed to fill up every slot (at least not by level 10), and they certainly shouldn't be given every single piece of gear they ask for. You also need to take into account magic item rarity (most villages won't stock +3 chainmail of awesome doom, but they might have +2 chainmail of potent mediocrity), and sometimes they should just find something they don't want and thus sell it or deconstruct it for astral diamonds, or find something with a power they want on an item they don't, so they pay for a transference.

Check their character sheets

I know this sounds a bit untrusting, but just make sure they aren't stacking bonuses that they shouldn't be. The rule is: typed bonuses (armor, feat, item, power etc.) do not stack, untyped bonuses stack. Thus any character with a shield cannot benefit from Devout Protector Expertise, and any character with a power bonus to Reflex cannot also count the bear companion's bonus on their Reflex - they are both the same type, so only the highest bonus applies.

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+1 for checking the sheets for erroneous math: I once had a player who was adding 1/2 his level again because he didn't know it was already part of the Character Builder's math. (Based on his comments here and conversation in the chat, "GM fiat" adjudication answers don't seem like a solid fit, but your advice on that note is very solid for anyone else.) –  BESW Dec 20 '13 at 12:14
    
I've done it myself as a player. Oftentimes it is accidental, and sometimes it is through misreading a feat, power or ability. For a few months I was granting other characters flanking through the Polearm Flanker feat and a halberd until I re-read it carefully. –  winterblood Dec 20 '13 at 12:18
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I urge you to re-consider your gear recommendations in light of the system. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 20 '13 at 12:22
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"Give monsters interesting forms of mobility" -- +1. My 4e party was completely steamrolling encounters midway through Heroic tier, and then we encountered a pair of dragons on the edge of a cliff. Suddenly the Warden couldn't keep the marks going, and the squishy ranged characters' health started dipping low... D&D is a tactical combat game, so use tactics. :) –  Brian S Dec 20 '13 at 14:38
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Brian Ballsun-Stanton: items are an essential way to keep up with game balance, but if the players are already ahead, there is no harm in restricting availability. –  András Dec 20 '13 at 14:53
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Have you asked your players if there is a problem? You say that you would be bored- are they? And, to a different point- are you bored? It seems that you are having a problem with the situation more than your players.

One last, less than obvious solution- you talked about adding players. Perhaps, before the players are added (possibly during character generation, i.e. make it a gaming exercise rather than develop on your own), let the other players sit in on a couple of sessions with combat and such. Then, pull them aside and get their opinions.

This solves a couple of problems:

  1. Perhaps its just your perspective.
  2. Making sure that the new players like the direction your old players are already headed in.
  3. Integration of the new characters and the way that they are build with the old characters, to make them not underpowered or not matched to the campaign.
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most of the things ive seen suggested generally boil down to "cheat for the benefit of everyone". When that isnt an option, the next proposal is "complain until the players stop optimising". Both of these things work for some groups and not others. The problem though is this. You are thinking like a player, not a dungeon master. You are looking for a quick easy fix to a problem that doesnt have a quick fix.

If you dont want to cheat(and i dont suggest it, we have rules in these games for a reason. Rules tweaks arent necessarily a bad thing, but should be a last resort) and i dont suggest forcing your players to tone it down, then your one option is this. Remember how you are the dm, and therefore have ultimate control of the world. Start using that. Make encounters occur in places that actually favor enemies. Also, play up, dont dig down. Your players are optimizing, so they are inviting you to the fight, come at them with stuff thats designed to be hard to kill. Not swingy damage, but intelligent enemies that fight just as dirty as the players.

Basically, the long and short of it is this, stop playing to make a great story, and start playing your monsters to win, because if they arent out to win, then they are suicidal. The players have made characters that set a standard for your world. They are saying "the heroes in this world are tough mother#######". The appropriate response to that is "The heroes are tough BECAUSE the monsters and enemies are tough".

Final note. Better encounter design takes practice and effort, it is not a quick and easy fix, but it will help. Start lurking on Giant in the playground in their 4th ed forum, go looking for dnd blogs like the angry dm. Basically, stop looking for a quick fix and blaming the players, and realise the problem is entirely in your area, not theres. You have ultimate power to build whatever needs to exist, as long as it follows basic rules. You, unlike them, dont need to spend weeks levelling up, so don't try an knee cap em "for the benefit of the story". It isnt fun for you in the long run, and it's unlikely to be fun for them in the short term.

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I think you raise a good point here, but it could be a bit better executed, would it be too much trouble to link specific GITP threads or Angry DM blog posts? Both are great resources, but pointing to "here, this is a good place to start" would make this answer a good bit better (remember that we aim for specific advice as often as possible, right now this answer is very general. –  wax eagle Dec 22 '13 at 12:27
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As a player and a DM I feel your pain.

Personally I feel the best overall solution is talk with your players. When a couple people in my group mentioned optimization, our DM told us if we get to optimize, so do the enemies. Apart from that there are a few things you can do to make your adventures more fun.

Anything a PC can do, You can do Better

One rule my groups tend to run (and it works really well too) is that if a PC can have it, an enemy can have a better version of it. If the PC are getting aura bonuses to defenses, then the enemies get them too. If the PCs are perma dazing enemies, give the enemies some save ends daze effects or a "daze at start of turn" sustained zone that also has a chance of making the PCs attack their allies. Or auras that deal typed damage (FREE damage per round! and they STACK!)

Controllers are Your Friend

Typically my party runs the standard Tanks in front, squishies in the back set up when we enter an encounter. Most times this works for us and it gets the job done with minimal downs. However, if we walk into a controller, all hell breaks loose.

Controllers are designed to CONTROL THE BATTLEFIELD by dazing, stunning, teleporting, and blasting the PCs from afar. If your PCs stick to staying in a tight group, drop a couple of controllers into the encounter and watch the chaos ensue as your Assassin is pulled right into the middle of the enemy lines with no way to teleport to his allies.

Also keep in mind that some movements work in THREE DIMENSIONS not just two. If your monster can teleport a PC five squares, try dropping them from 25ft up! Not only is that an EXTRA FREE 2d10 damage, but if they aren't trained in Acrobatics, the PC is now prone and has to spend a movement action to stand back up. Make falling damage a threat whenever you can, it's always FREE damage for you and if there is a hazard (lava for example) they'll really start to be scared (and enjoy the encounter more).

Super Buff Your Solos

Solo monsters are designed to be an encounter all by themselves. If the PCs are tearing them down too quickly, don't be afraid to super buff your solos. My favorite example of this is in the first adventure for my party (Scales of War adventure path). My DM was running two groups on the same path and modifying it to make it more interesting. When the first group fought the first solo, Sinruth, they didn't even know he was a solo because he was so weak. When my group got to him, he was super buffed. His Hobgoblin Resistance power was turned from an Immediate Encounter "roll saving throw" to an Immediate At-Will "give up Standard to END any" (including some class features which I do NOT advise doing unless they are at-will [Assassin's Shroud]). Not only that, but his hit chance and damage went up significantly while his defenses and health were dropped to compensate. Not only that, he also had several standard and minion allies to aid him (which by level 10 is VERY common).

Change the STATUS Quo

Status effects can be the bane of any PC. Most conditions cause PCs to grant combat advantage, some impair movements, and all of them can be used to your advantage. By level 10, the PCs are probably running into a lot more stuns, dazes, and even some dominating effects. Apart form these devastating effects, try mixing it up by adding some more conditions that can hurt some PCs more than others.

Weakened is perhaps one of the wost conditions for a striker (half damage) second only to insubstantial (hint hint) and stunned or dazed can devastate a leader (one heal per turn, or move, or grant attack/buff). Don't forget too that most monsters can provide benefits to themselves and/or their allies making it easier to hit and apply those nasty effects. Also, don't forget that some attacks have a miss effect! This can be as tiny as half damage or as devastating as stunned till EOT. Put status effects on your misses to put the PCs in a troubling situation where no matter what, they're going to get that condition.

Know your PCs

Take some time to look over your PCs character sheets every time they level up. Every character has a weakness, even more so for optimized characters. Find out what each character is good at and what they are not so good at and exploit those weaknesses.

Defenders, while great at taking damage and...well, DEFENDING the party, are terrible at dodging attack due to very poor Reflex.

Strikers, while very mobile and able to deal a lot of damage per round, are very bad at soaking damage and easily draw agro with the damage they can deal. It would suck if they suddenly got surrounded by a lot of big, tanky, soldiers.

Controllers are great at controlling enemy positions and locking the priority targets down for the strikers to beat on. However, put them on the front lines and you'll quickly see that wizard really wasn't much of a threat after all.

Leaders do a variety of things and have a variety of play styles. Some use ranged attacks to hinder their enemies while other fight on the front lines to buff their allies. The best part about leaders though, is they all can heal. Too bad they can ONLY do it TWICE PER ENCOUNTER (heroic level). Burn those up and watch as the party starts to dwindle.

You are the DM

All in all, at the end of the day, YOU are the DM which means you have the power to make the encounters more fun for your PCs. The rules are really more of a guideline to help newer people along. As you gain more experience as a DM or even as a player, you can go above and beyond those rules in order to make your games more fun and engaging.

In my example with Sinruth, my DM changed what was written for him so that everyone could have more fun playing the game. He enjoyed beating the crap out of us, and we enjoyed the feeling of beating what we felt was a really tough boss.

You control the game, so do what you think is right to to make it fun for you and your party.

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