4e is a game of resource attrition. I can't find the quote in DMG right now, but from memory and experience, it works best with about 3-5 combat encounters in an adventuring day. That way, some of the characters will risk running out of healing surges, dailies will have been used up, etc. Methods for creating a sense of urgency to make players push forward and go through these encounters instead of taking an extended rest after each one have been discussed here and elsewhere.

My question is about tackling this issue from another angle. Consider a situation in which it only makes sense, story-wise, to have one combat in a day. Something the PCs encounter in a week of traveling, for instance. Presume you don't want to dedicate a whole gaming session to dealing with it by creating 3 encounters around it just for the sake of having 3 encounters.

How do you make this single encounter mechanically meaningful? Raking up its difficulty is not necessarily good story-wise, and unnecessarily drags out the fight. But a regular encounter will get nuked off the face of the map with dailies without ever threatening PCs.


5 Answers 5


I had the same problem in my campaign. Often there was much time passing between encounters, so the players could always take extended rests (even if they didn't want to ... but when there are some days between two encounters, they have no choice). I used to make the encounters more challenging, so the players had tough fights even if they used all their daily powers, but that was quite unsatisfying, because daily powers are much stronger than encounter powers, so the encounter powers never got used. Also, the chance of killing a character is much higher if every encounter is extreme hard.

The best idea I came up with to solve this problem was an easy, little house rule: Extended rests neither restore daily powers nor healing surges nor action points. This things will only get restored at the start of a quest (or, if your quests are quite long, after the accomplishment of subquests)

And at once all problems were solved: I split the quests into such small parts that daily powers got restored after around 4-7 encounters, as suggested in the DMG, and everything was fine again.

So one can say that we changed daily powers into quest powers. Restoring strength now worked not with some hours of sleep but with the satisfying feel of having accomplished something and regaining through this new power.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I must try this.... \$\endgroup\$ Feb 9, 2012 at 2:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the elegance of switching simulationist time to narrative time for purposes of extended rest. Other answers had some good ideas, but this is simple, effective and non-disruptive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Magician
    Feb 10, 2012 at 1:38

The first encounter of the day is only unchallenging because the players know that they can waste their daily powers on it. If you create the expectation (or better yet, the suspicion) that the encounter might be the first of a large number of fights later in the same day, then your players will be more careful to keep back some of their expendable resources, and will thus find the fight more challenging.

There's all sorts of ways you can do this, from creative monster battlecries to rumours among the peasants - the important thing is to build, and then defy, expectations. (The easiest way to start might be to always have encounters come in threes for a while, although that may be undesirable, depending on the kind of campaign you're running.)

Admittedly, your players will catch on if you do it too often. But you don't need to do it often - I'm sure that other users will suggest solutions as well, and a mix of different techniques will help keep your players guessing.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a solution that has worked well for me. If they gamble with their resources and are right, great they get to feel powerful. If they gamble and are wrong however... it only takes a few of those before at least a few players start holding a bit in reserve. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lunin
    Jun 3, 2013 at 21:17

I'd have to agree with user867 that the players shouldn't always know if they'll have another encounter that day. Wary players will then save their dailies just in case. If the players "call your bluff" and decide to blow their dailies anyway, who's to say they don't get ambushed by another group of enemies that night, before they've had a chance to get an extended rest? This kind of thing will keep the players on their toes.

Additionally, you could make the monsters do a whole lot of damage, forcing the players to go all out to kill the monsters before dying themselves. If you don't want the monsters to be that powerful, you could use the terrain or traps to give them the extra damage. An orc could be rolling boulders off a ledge above the party while they deal with its comrades on the ground, for example.

I think by mixing these techniques, you can keep your players from getting too cocky or annihilating your lovingly crafted monsters too quickly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for suggesting late-night ambushes. In addition to the benefit mentioned here, they give your players a reason to shell out for the inn instead of setting up their tents just outside town. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Feb 9, 2012 at 0:46

The right answer here is "Don't worry about it."

There truly is not a good way to deal with the nova and rest cycle, whether it is forced (like in your case) or just player choice (like in the case of many other groups). In general there are very few penalties for resting early and often and adding any artificial penalties without good reason is gimmicky and can be seen as bad faith on the part of the DM.

The ways the DM does have to deal with the nova and rest cycle are to used a timed mission or to impose penalties from resting (either through increasingly difficult skill challenges or through to hit/damage penalties) should be used very sparingly and are only useful in certain situations.

Your situation precludes either option (encounters are happening different travel days etc). In this case I'd say you have three options:

  1. ignore the problem (is it really a problem at all?)

  2. change the rules of the game (honestly I don't see the point here)

  3. change how you DM (if it really bothers you avoid this situation in the future)

Honestly I'd suggest the first or third. However, the way 4e tends to be played just stick to the first and you will be fine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ what does NOVA stand for? \$\endgroup\$
    – briddums
    Feb 8, 2012 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @briddums nova (short for supernova) in D&D (and other RPs I think) is the expenditure of significant resources in a short period of time (a round or two of combat, in this case expending all of your resources in a single combat encounter). "nova and rest" is a style of play in 4e where you expend all of your powers in an encounter or two and then take an extended rest to recharge all of your powers. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Feb 8, 2012 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @waxeagle that term is also common for an "all in" resource expenditure in MOBAs (LoL and DoTA) as well as some other CRPGs and Brawlers (Heroes of the Storm). \$\endgroup\$ Dec 19, 2019 at 20:11

Honestly, while 4e has it the worst I think, how to manage an encounter is a great general question no matter what the ruleset.

I tend to take a new spin on the creature or NPC they are dealing with, sometimes I have to tinker a little with the creature mechanics but not greatly. The players tend to then crank their use of their abilities up or down in reaction based on the level of "strange factor". Here's an example:

In one ancient monastic crypt turned dungeon, a party of 5 heroes were delving away. They had gotten the impression the big bad at the end might be some kind of necromancer but they weren't sure. they drop down some stairs, very carefully, then bam! I ambush them with a swarm of undead severed hands and some ghouls! However, a couple of turns into the combat, I have one of the characters see one of the hands issuing sign language commands to other undead hands! Then I have the hands start to work as units of NPCs! The players unloaded everything they had. In the end, the ghouls were gone, the players had captured two of the undead hands and interrogated it ( yes, they did this ) and - despite the battle cleric's MASSIVE objections - hired the hands as henchmen to help against the necromancer. It was novel enough that I went with it. However, tinkering with the concept of what was there didn't necessarily ramp up the rating difficulty. It also hinted at something really horrid that kicked up the tension/urgency, made it memorable and caused the players to feel the need to rest and really prepare before going deeper.

It may not work for everyone but it's worked with the collection of players I've got.


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