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I am an new GM playing DnD-4E and i am looking for advice on how to compose challenging encounters.

I have played with my group ~10 times so far and what i really like is to challenge them. Not a TPK but almost.

I started with same level monsters as the players, which was obviously no challenge at all.

I tried to overrun them with a lot of minions, but found that it is quite difficult to manage to keep track of to many foes, their hp, initiative, ongoing effects and damage ect.. (so i now using cards, which helps somewhat) what i like here is that if the minions are slayed to fast there is always an infinite amount of additional which could join.

I also tried a young dragon once, hoping that its high hp and higher defenses will stress the group for a while, however i found out that it is of disadvantage to be able to do once action per round while 5-6 PC will be able to do one. If the defenses of an opponent are high enough to keep him alive for a while then players get frustrated that they waste several powers till they manage to land a hint. Also if the brute does high damage, they complain that they can be brought down in 2 hits.

I also tried compositions of foes, but the Players take them apart almost always the same way, ( the clerics, the spell-casters, the artillery, the soldiers, .. )

Last game a player (arcane striker) was missing and the game was going surprisingly well. The foes were 2 bugbears (brutes) and a few archer goblins in the back. While the players cleaned out the archers, I had enough time to land a few good hits with the bugbears to put some PC's into bloodied and make them retreat for a round to lick their wounds.

I am looking specifically for what is a good composition of foes is to challenge Players and make the encounter more interesting (not the standard round of move, attack, roll damage ). I do not want to try all possible combinations, i am looking for some recommendation what has proven to be a good mix, (e.g. two brutes in the front, 2 archers in the back and one controller on the side)

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One of the things I'm noticing is that a lot of time and effort here is being spent on answers RE: boss fights. That's awesome. Don't neglect the day to day grind fights too. Let's make sure we have good advice for designing compelling encounters throughout gameplay. –  wax eagle Apr 22 at 16:06

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Brutes And Soldiers slow down combat

A Brute or a Soldier is fine, but more than 1 of either kind is simply going to drag things out. Soldiers tend to have very high defenses so the party will miss more often. Brute's have a lot of health which just takes awhile to drill down. They can often ofter some useful forced movement abilities, but almost always as encounter powers that don't recharge.

I will always remember a combat that occurred during my first 4e campaign in which our DM put 4 brutes. It took over almost an hour and a half for a party of 5 to take out 4 level appropriate enemies.

Use Leaders with minions, artillery, skirmishers, lurkers and controllers

All of these monster types tend to create more dynamic fights. Lurkers and skirmishers are melee combatants that move around a bunch themselves, forcing players to move as well while also giving a defender some nice punishment provoking to make them feel useful. Leaders can take those wave of minions you've used and really spice them up and make them temporarily more powerful than they were before. Artillery units can hang back behind everyone else acting as glass cannons forcing the PCs to try to rush them. Controllers can seriously change the layout of combat much as a PC controller would.

There is no magic formula to use every-time

I can't give you a formula such as, 1 leader, 5 minions, a soldier, an artillery, and a controller, and say that it will work everytime. Even if it did, it would get boring and stale for your players. The beauty of the XP balancing system in 4e is that you can mix things up and still make a somewhat balanced encounter. There could be an artillery heavy ambush or multiple leaders with lots of minions ordering them around and it would work just as much as the above formula I just gave you.

Mix up the combats by adding dangers to the arena/dungeon in which they occur

Traps in general are a good tool, but adding traps and environmental dangers that are equally dangerous to monsters and PCs alike will make for some really interesting combat encounters that will leave your players with fond memories. Additionally, adding a 3rd group or single powerful monster that is also out for themselves can be really entertaining. That fight between the PCs and the goblins in the cave could be really spiced up when a wandering owlbear just happens to stumble in and indiscriminately start attacking both groups.

Create Solos that act and behave like the boss monsters they are meant to be

Solo monsters can be either incredibly dangerous and nailbitting or incredibly boring with very little room in the middle for both interesting and challenging without being a TPK. Solos fit in a weird niche in that they have the XP value of a whole encounter so they need to be tough enough to last awhile without being so tough that the Party is dropped. Quite often solo fights are too easy from focus fire (whole party dumps all their dailies on 1 target) or too hard because to counter being focused their higher defenses, ability to shrug off conditions, and big health pool make them too difficult for PCs to take down fast enough.

The Angry Dm has an excellent series of posts (Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4) detailing all of these issues and his proposed solutions (which I totally agree with). I've summed some of them up below, but be sure to check out what he's written.

Solutions:

  1. Solo's act on multiple initiatives. Create solos that have 2 or 3 initiatives during which they can do 1 or 2 specific types of actions, but not a whole turn. Suddenly Solos can interact with the party throughout a round rather than having 1 big solo turn than the rest of the party and so on. Giving each initiative roll different modifiers (+5,+10, +15) will help to ensure they are staggered or just giving fixed initiative values such as 10, 15, 20).
  2. Solo's are made up of different "parts." Take those different initiatives you've built in and they literally correspond to different parts of the solo monster. For the example you gave the dragon's tail, claws and head would each be a part of the monster. The head would have the best Defenses and HP because if it went first the boss would essentially be defeated, but players could destroy the tail or legs in the fight costing the monster those abilities and the initiatives linked with them.
  3. Solo monsters have "stages." Solo monsters transform as they are defeated throughout the fight. That wizard the party fought takes an immediate reaction when his HP hits bloodied, transforming into an abomination by drinking a potion/uttering a spell. Where he was a wizened wizard throwing spells before, now he is an 8 foot tall hulking mass of muscles and horns seeking to smash the party.

Create recurring villains that also fight in encounters†

Creating a powerful Leader or artillery type monster stat block for a recurring villain can be another way to spice up the combat and add further weight to an encounter.

†Absolutely no guarantee that your players won't cut him down in the first encounter. The ways around this are to have a valid escape route with plenty of enemies in-between him and them which he flees down and then triggers a trap/lock behind him allowing him to escape. Also, giving him a teleport power to rapidly escape is another option.

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Also note, that while a solo is called such, you can add other creatures to the fight as well. A solo of the same level as the group or a bit lower, combined with a compatible monster or two, or a handful of minions can add some more actions to the solo's side, and really spice up the fight. One of my best fights had a solo that spawned minions each time it got injured, forcing the group to prioritise between taking down the solo and thin out the minions to avoid getting overrun. –  Rubberduck Apr 27 at 14:36

I know that here, people love very long and detailed answers, but I apologize I can't afford it. Here is my two cents:

You could take a look at the dungeons boss encounters in MMORPGs. Since the developpers make a lot of research in order to make the fight challenging and yet feasible by a well balanced team, I think there is a lot of inspiration to take there, and there is even inspiration to take on the design of some packs of mobs along the way to the boss.

Among the tricks that they love using, there are often:

  • enrage timer: You have to kill the boss within 6min or so, in DnD it would be maybe 20 rounds before the goblin reinforcement arrive. Or you can be fighting on a sinking ship, or the gates to hell might be slowly opening and you have to kill the boss and close it before it is too late

  • other timer: it can be regular events like the spawn of a new monster every 5 rounds and when there are 3 of them, they fuse to something very strong, or a periodic electric arc which will damage every adventurer who is less than 3m away from the others, etc.

  • order to kill: this is something they love setting up. For example if you kill the baby bear first, its mother will go berserk. Or you can have one of the foes among those that adventurers use to take down in the last that get a little stronger every two rounds, for example a mechanical golem that does nothing at the start because it needs some time to have all its weapon loaded

  • divide in two groups: Sometimes there are two twin bosses that need to be taken down almost at the same time unless you don't want them to super-berserk, but you can't fight both at the same place because they are stronger when they are together

  • puzzle: That last one is the deadlier, this is when there are events to trigger while fighting. For example the adventurers just reached the demon lord nest and they activated an ancient artifact to drain its energy and make it weaker so that they could match it. But the demon minions try to deactivate the artifact so the PCs have to run the around the room and fight them, push the correct buttons, and fight the boss at the same time. Or you can have a boss that needs to be taken alternatively to an ice lake and to a lava cascade.

  • take the max to hell: sometime when a mob has very low hp, it just kamikazes and explode dealing a lot of damage to everybody 30ft around.

The common point in all those mechanisms is that the adventurers need to carefully gather available info beforehand to have the data that will help them know how to fight, and to intelligently adapt during the fight to any occurring event.

You said that your group is used to take out the clerics and spell-caster first. Make them be the girlfriends of the fighter classes, and give those a permanent enrage buff whenever their girlfriend is dead, and next time the adventurers might think twice before applying this strategy.

Here is it. I don't pretend giving such detailed and informed answer some will probably give you, but I hope this will help ;)

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Perhaps consider throwing some natural elements into the encounter.

Take the Players out of their element and give the opponents the upper hand.

Rain and a muddy hillside, having to slowly clamber through sand pits to reach their nemesis. A fish should be no problem for an adventure to handle, until they are in the water with it.

This will add a level of superiority to even the weakest configuration of foes

(e.g. two brutes in the front, 2 archers in the back and one controller on the side) Using your example the 2 archers would be more potent on top of said muddy hill opposed to just being in the back. And if the controller was unseen...

An unsettling feeling washes over the troupe as fog from the bog rolls toward their camp swallowing them into an obscuring shroud.

Something also to be said about Home territory. The foes may know the area and where Not to step, how to avoid the nests of deadly spiders or keep from falling to the sink holes. It is often very difficult to defeat a tornado.

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In any incarnation of D&D (and most proeminently in 4E) power goes up at the same rate as teamwork get's better. While it's true that a single powerfull character can break a game, a well balanced party can almost always throw some strategy that will crush the opposition, even on a non-optimized scenario.

Since an encounter is not exactly just a fight, and there's normally more things involved (like terrain, weather, localization), you must consider them part of the equation before formuling some "good mix" against the players. While a good battle can be fun, when things go crazy your game can suddenly become awesome. Try to think less about the "mix" and more about the "encounter". Creating a memorable, hard battlefield can be really fun, and have the added bonus of forcing your players to create new strategies every encounter.

  • Put the players on a flying castle, with lot's of dangerous falls everywhere, tons of narrow bridges and high places, and they will have a bad time fighting ranged enemies. If there's some Brutes blocking the routes to the ranged guys that can throw the fighters out of the battlefield pushing them to a death fall, things can get very, very ugly.
  • Put them to fight a thief party inside an erupting volcano, with rocks falling that can block parts of the battlefield suddenly, smoldering lava that burns people who gets to close, and the eventual fire elemental that pops out to fight both parties. Here the surprise factor can completly change the tide of a battle.
  • Put them in a situation that the fight is only secondary - like trying to run away from a maze full of undead warriors that simply don't stay dead, standing up to fight again and again until they find how to exit the place. Here you can put lots and lots of minions, but the "combat" is not the main point.
  • Split them apart and let them fight an "evil twin". Here personal strategy is more important than everything.

The message I'm trying to say here is simply "Don't worry too much about formulas, think in awesome ways". You can create awesome fights without breaking your head against enemy party compostion. The guidelines for XP in the 4E rulebooks are just that - guidelines. They can't help you to compensate for every little aspect of a fight, and you must trust your instinct when creating interesting encounters. An encounter don't need even to use monsters - you can put them inside a living dungeon full of murderous bodyparts and assassin enzymes (Viruses have rogue levels, never forget that). More than mixing enemies, think on how to create a challenge - enemies are just a small part of it.

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Use whatever combination suits you and the story, and if the combat is getting too boring or too difficult, cheat- fudge the dice rolls, and the stats of the enemies (HPs, CA, etc).

I prefer as a DM to hit a player that has not been harmed during the engagement, even if I roll a natural 1 with the monster's attack if the combat needs that.

Do not abuse of this, of course. If the Party is going to fight a Dragon knowing that it can kill them in one round, you should probably kill them in one round just because they deserve it.

Battles are as much part of the narrative as dialog and other scenes. The fight should have the tension it needs.

Not ALL fights should be staged though. It's OK that the party dispatches a group of gnolls in two rounds, but if it is a boss fight, I think is better to do whatever is necessary to make the fight exciting.

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This is not only not an answer, its also not in keeping with the style or rules of D&D 4e. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 28 at 16:32

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