4E is setup very well for long chains of battles, especially in the form of a dungeon crawl. However, sometimes it doesn't make sense to constantly be in chains of combat. Here are but a few examples:

The party is traveling a long road and is accosted by bandits. They battle the band of bandits and defeat them, finding a letter from a nearby town instructing the bandits to steal for them. The players head for this town with ample opportunity to have an extended rest.


The party is solving a mystery. A classic who-done-it with many characters and sub-plots but only one murderer, whom they finally confront and fight. If the murderer had an army in his command, it would be incongruous with the rest of the plot.

Ignoring the fact that both of the examples could have other battles shoe-horned into them, that's not always the ideal solution. My players want to explore a world, not kill everything in it.

In these situations it would be best to be able to create a single battle with the difficulty of a series of battles. However, I haven't found anything in the DMG or DMG2 that deals with this problem.

What I am looking for here is a practiced formula (not a guess) that consistently produces very hard battles. What would be a good formula I might use given the party's level that would enhance it to be equivalent to your basic dungeon of the party's level? What I am looking for here is a practiced formula (not a guess) that consistently produces very hard battles, that don't TPK, based on the party level that can scale from level 1 to 30. The point is not to add Skill Challenges for extra XP, but to make very challenging Combat Encounters that yield large XP while still being enjoyable. The part I'm having trouble quantifying is the lack of short rests, the lack of milestone action points and such. I need the battle to be hard, get them to the brink, but not be so hard as to run a risk of TPK. And ideally be balanced enough that I'd only sometimes need to have the enemy 'call for backup.'

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a side note: make sure the players know (in-world or meta) that this is the only battle of the day. As a player, once I've realized that I'm in the expend-everything-to-win situation, combat gets a lot more fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ D&D 4e is not designed to be played this way. You can, but it's the equivalent of voiding the warranty. There are other systems that aren't built around chains of battles, you know. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yes the game was designed for chains of battles, but my players want some variety, I'm not talking about always changing it up. I'm talking about injecting a short change of pace. Adding in a new option to the bag of tricks. \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ What I mean is, you're asking for a reliable, play-tested formula for this, when it's pretty much antithetical to the very meat and bones of the way the system works and was designed to work. You should be aware that what you're asking for may turn out to not exist, that's all. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DampeS8N you can't have hard without at least a solid chance of TPK, if your party is clear that it's the only encounter that chance goes down pretty significantly though as they can burn through dailies like their candy... \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 16:59

5 Answers 5


My recommendation for making tough, major combats in 4e is to:

1) up the monster damage - I will often up the damage to WAY more than even MM3/essentials recommends - I would suggest 10 + (level x 2) as the average damage for normal attacks. If you want, you could also increase the XP award by about 50% for monsters that get big damage output bumps. The extra damage results in the players facing much more danger from all the monsters they face.

2) use elites and solos rather than regulars. This prevents you from cluttering the board with "an army". You may want to pick easy to run monsters, rather than monsters with complex power selections to make the encounter easier to run.

3) in place of minions use a (homebrew) "goon" monster type. They are worth 1/2 the XP of a normal monster. They have 1/2 to 1/4 the HP of a normal monster (they should take 2-3 hits for non strikers to kill). They hit for normal (or normal as adjusted by point 1 above) damage.

4) avoid using higher level monsters, especially soldiers as you don't want to turn the fight into a long missing with at-will powers grind with the players are hitting 30%-40% of the time. If you feel you must use higher level monsters, strongly consider gimping their defenses.

5) use terrain and environmental effects

So, putting this into practice:

I'm GMing a group at 18th level. I'm anticipating a scenario where they will be facing a "one encounter / day" scenario, with a bunch of directions that could go.

One possibility is a 3 Elder Black DragonDDI (Level 18 Solo) encounter, in a swamp, so the dragons will have terrain to allow them to retreat and strike from hiding, and otherwise harry the party. The dragon's damage expressions were 4d8+11, 3d10+10 and 3d10+5. I'm looking at an average of 46 damage per hit, so will be upping that to something like 3d10+30. Overall I would award 45000 XP for the encounter (normally, a level 18 solo is worth 10000, x1.5 for the upped damage and helpful terrain, x3 monsters)


My experience is that setting your encounters somewhere around L+3 forces the party to use most of their powers to stay alive, at least at the Heroic tier. The DMG suggests L+3/4 only once per level (~10 encounters) as it's basically the upper limit of what the party can handle, so this would be presumably the toughest encounter you can set without guaranteeing TPKs.

Of course exactly what sort of monsters combinations work better/worse will depend largely on how the hero party is put together. For small numbers of monsters consider using templates from the DMG1/2 to give otherwise normal Standard monsters more 'unpredicable' powers and more staying power as Elites.

Terrain and positioning doesn't factor into the XP allocation for encounters: ambushing the hero party while they're crossing a ricketey bridge will make them much more terrified and likely to fight as hard as they can to avoid being pushed into the river below.

I'd suggest experimenting around the L+3/4 level. If you get it horribly wrong you can quickly rescale the combat by either calling in reinforcements or weakening the current monsters. Within a few fights I think you'll have a good idea of how to plan out some sufficiently epic battles that everyone will enjoy!

  • \$\begingroup\$ This sounds great. Once I have a full bead on this tactic I will return and add in some more notes in case the 3/4 level increase better maps to a curve, or if I find things other DMs should absolutely avoid. \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 16:12

Another possible solution is to fight a battle in 'stages'. For example, maybe the bandits get driven off rather than killed, and they regroup and come running back once they've all been defeated. Once the players have defeated a stage, give them a milestone, and possibly give them some of the benefits of a short rest if it looks like the fight is harder than you wanted it to be. A GM of mine would set up all of his boss fights to be multi-stage encounters like this, and it worked pretty well.


Agree with Ioan regarding fewer, more difficult, encounters. Another tack you can take is to use skill challenges for XP gain. Environmental factors that present a difficulty can be a problem for the unprepared (sandstorms, snow or extreme temperatures). Social encounters and role-playing can also be made into skills challenges that net an XP reward. Used in concert with fights, such things can make combat more meaningful.

For instance, you can put the PCS in a situation where they need to talk their way out of something. If they role-play well then you consider their diplomacy check as a success or give them a bonus on the roll. If they're talking a lot but need a little help, prompt them for the roll but don't add bonuses. If they pass then that's a success. Figure out how many successes they require to get out of the situation. If things blow up, maybe there's a fight right then and there. If things go well, maybe they're ambushed by the members of a faction jealous of their success.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't seek ways to further challenge the players or give them XP. I seek a way to roll a day's worth of battle into one battle. Rest assured, there are plenty of skill challenges throughout, they just can't drain the party's resources like battles do and therefore more 1 battle days are too easy. No matter how many skill challenges led up to it. \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 17:18

In the campaign I play or GM will generally story tell the long journeys and will then do staggered attack after attack in dungeons and strategic points of interest. So if we were heading to a castle to grab the artifact of awesome and we were miles from the castle, he'd go into story mode saying that the trip was arduous and that we were followed by wolves and harassed by them night after night, but in the end you finally made it to the castle. You notice two guards at the front of the drawbridge and to your luck the bridge is down. They don't see you yet, what do you do? Roll initiative. From this point on we'll proceed to probably do 3 fights with short rests in-between. Then we'll get to a room that looks like we could defensively fortify to try for an extended rest, then do some more fights with short rests, and then finally kill the end boss and get the artifact of awesome.


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