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I'm am planning on running a 4E campaign for a fully optimized group of five players. I would prefer to use officially published material and tweak where needed. These players love to be challenged (i.e. hardest for the PC's to overcome, mainly combat), however much the rules will allow.

  • What official rules help to maximize difficulty?
  • What strategies can I employ to use these rules in a effective manner?

I'm looking for a answer that shows experience in dealing with optimized builds and clever players.

All official material is allowed. 1 Warlord and 3 Strikers for sure. The other is still choosing between a defender who can double as a striker, a Warlord, or a Orb of Imposition wizard.

I want to avoid using house rules. I'm looking at using the best official rules that increase the difficulty. Similar to the example below.

Hard encounters are two to three levels above the party, and can include monsters that are five to seven levels above the characters. These encounters really test the characters’ resources, and might force them to take an extended rest at the end. They also bring a greater feeling of accomplishment, though, so make sure to include about one such encounter per character level. However, be careful of using high-level soldiers and brutes in these encounters. Soldier monsters get really hard to hit when they’re five levels above the party, and brutes can do too much damage at that level.

Monsters that are more than eight levels higher than the characters can pretty easily kill a character, and in a group they have a chance of taking out the whole party. Use such overpowering encounters with great care. Players should enter the encounter with a clear sense of the danger they’re facing, and have at least one good option for escaping with their lives, whether that’s headlong flight or clever negotiation. (D&D 4E Dungeon Master's Guide, p. 104)

I have also read that WotC made the monsters stronger near the end of the edition's publications, is this true?

All monsters will be ran as ruthless and tactically efficient!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure this is a shopping question.It's asking for 4e players who have used modules with optimized players and what ended up being the most difficult combat. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 12 '19 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're talking optimized builds, but what classes and what source material are allowed and currently used (and, if applicable, in what combination)? A 4E ranger can quadruple its consistent DPS by allowing 2 books on top op the core rules. \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Nov 12 '19 at 19:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Monster Tactics for 4e D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Nov 25 '19 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you open to playing the monsters smartly and using tactics? Or are you looking for a meat grinder? \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Nov 26 '19 at 4:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jgn How about both combined? \$\endgroup\$ – Zarus Nov 27 '19 at 15:32
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Let's start with the factual things first: WotC changed the math behing monsters starting with Monster Manual 3.

Follow the link for the full explanation of why there's been a change, but here's the gist of it:

  • More damage for paragon and epic monsters (still not enough in my opinion)
  • Brutes lose their reduced accuracy and Soldiers lose their increased accuracy
  • More passive effects that have the monsters do something eeven if they keep missing

So, what can you do to keep the encounters challenging within the rules?

  • Have all encounters be hard. Don't do that by increasing the number of enemies, do that using higher level enemies since they're harder to hit, harder to dodge, beefier and more damaging.
  • Avoid using Solos without some support, they will be shut down fast with some debuff.
  • Spread enemies. Make it hard for AoEs to land, especially because Orb Wizard AoEs have a tendency to clump enemies together. Sorcerers and other AoE strikers will rejoice.

These are all things my group has problems managing, so I specifically avoid them... but that's why I know they work.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would be careful about increasing the level of monsters too far. Once they hit party level +4 or +5 it starts becoming very hard for the players to hit and very hard for the monsters to miss. Player turns end up being "you accomplish nothing and then take damage" most of the time, which isn't fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Nov 26 '19 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage I have no idea how much these guys are optimizing, but if the plan is "two warlords and three essential strikers" (strikers that work with base attacks are a joy for every warlord), the fact that essential classes have extra to-hit bonuses will make that a non-problem. I have in my party a rogue and a warlock that hit almost everything on a 2 and everything on a 5. If I were to use higher level monsters they would miss sometimes, which is OK in my book. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Nov 26 '19 at 15:04
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Part of 4e is that you, the DM, set the house rules in agreement with the players. And if you have optimized players, you set the combats to the level of difficulty that's appropriate to challenge them if that's what they want.

They claim to want that, you want that, so it is fully official that you make it happen as per the house rules section of DMG page 189.

And the easiest way to do that is to keep adding monsters of levels 0 to +2 until they seem to be sweating a bit in each combat. Start with a minion(s), move up to standards if you need to, and if that doesn't work, keep going with elites or maybe even a solo.

Now that might not be what they actually want, which is why they're making optimized PCs and talking about how you can challenge them within the rules. But that's a different equation entirely.

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But wait, there's more!

As I recall from my days as a 4e player, the encounters we found the most challenging were ones where we fought some monsters, defeated them, and then... stayed in initiative timing for some reason.

Then more monsters showed up.

Our usual (and common?) strategy of first using all our most-powerful encounter abilities, then the second-most, etc etc was usually quite effective but didn't suit this sort of encounter structure at all.

(Bonus tip: use minions that have ranged attacks.)

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