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Recently my players decided to make the game as hard as possible for themselves by planning a jailbreak that will make them fugitives before they complete their mission to spy on the King. To make matters even harder the minotaurs in the world are supposed to be jailed and killed on sight by order of the King... and it just so happens the person the group is saving is a player character that happens to be a minotaur. So, the group of fugitives with a minotaur is going to have to stealth around a highly populated city and the surrounding areas spying on the King of all people.

When the players decided that was the best idea I told them that I was going to make the game as hard as I possibly could (while still giving them a chance to succeed). Now I am faced with a level 5 party of a Minotaur Shaman, Dwarf Cleric, Human Wizard, Human Sorcerer and possibly a fifth member depending on his schedule.

So this leaves me with about 4-5 players at level 5. What is the hardest encounter I can throw at them that still gives them a chance to survive? is a level 8 solo creature to strong for 4 level 5s? is there anything in the DMGs I am blind and am missing regarding this?

NOTE: Everyone is agreed that the challenges are likely to be deadly, so I am looking for a way to supply enemies in my encounters that have a good chance of killing the players and will be hard to take down.

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Keep in mind that solos, especially solos published before MM3, tend to be easier than their XP value indicates. –  Oblivious Sage May 16 at 23:20
    
Note that your party has no "tank". Your group is probably going to have a more difficult time against a group of 8 guards level 5 than against a single level 8 solo monster. Plus lots of guard probably fit the story better. –  Tobold May 17 at 6:35
    
@Tobold thanks for the suggestion, and you are right lot's of guards was definitely on the table, the solo monster idea was more or less for the King himself (check out my chat room here on the site MC Hambone's Rap Session if you are curious as to why they might be fighting the King) –  MC_Hambone May 18 at 0:11

2 Answers 2

Check out this related question Is a high level Elite the same difficulty as a low-level Solo, as XP suggests?

use the xp encounter guidelines laid down in DMG2 to craft an appropriate encounter and only use enemies within 1 lvl of the party (4-6 in your case)

The key reason enemies should only be within a lvl of the party is that 4e's very planned progression/math expects certain numbers for to-hit, defenses, health and damage for both the PCs and monsters. If either side is too high compared to the other they will avoid being hit and land lots of hits dealing a lot of damage to the smaller health pool of the lower level side.

XP Budget Chart

As you can see for 5 lvl 5 PCs an encounter budget of 1000xp is considered standard. A lvl 5 solo would perfectly match that xp budget.

Once you've found the standard XP for your party size and lvl then look at the difficulty table to increase or decrease the xp budget accordingly

Scale it up, make the budget 1250 or 1500 and use a lvl 5 solo mixed in some other enemies to really put on the pressure.

Use the standard budget, but pick enemies that prey on the party's weaknesses

The party might be too ranged-centric, rely on too many power combos or have a specific NAD that is quite low. You can make things more difficult by creating encounters specifically to undermine their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.

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Just to make what you've implicitly said explicit, the xp award for a solo is designed to be equal to that of a standard encounter for its level, i.e. a level 5 solo gives standard xp for a level 5 encounter, level 6 for 6, 7 for 7, etc. –  Travis May 20 at 19:15

I can only suggest going to an encounter builder, such as: Kassoon's 4e Encounter Builder (which, by the way, says that a level 8 solo's difficulty is "extreme" for a party you've described).

Otherwise you'll just have to solely rely on knowing your player's play-styles, game rules, and best practices for making encounters without the guiding hand of an encounter builder. As always, your judgement is key to making successful encounters, but encounter builders help. (Warning! Subjective Input Follows!) This is especially true in 4e, where the level of monsters seem to be fine-tuned to provide certain challenges for balanced parties, although exceptions still occur.

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