My fellow DMs and I have come across a problem. It feels like the party has been doing a good job of dispatching our monsters with relative ease. We are not upset about this part, our party has done an awesome job of understanding their roles and maximising party potential. The problem becomes that the party hasn't been especially challenged. I attempted to solve this issue when it was my turn to DM and put together what I believe to be a tough fight. I put together various monsters that synergized well with each other and had lots of crowd control in attempts do slow the party down if they didn't read the fight correctly. The fight definitly became a challenge but I also noticed that I seemed to be frustrating some players. I realize there's going to be some form of frustration during a tough fight but it's not much fun for the players if I'm crowd controlling them to the point they can't do what their class is meant to do. For example, I immobolized and slowed one of our strikers throughout the fight cause she was a heavy hitting and mobile melee striker. I knew if I let her run around she'd make short work of some monsters. While this is great for the monster it's frustrating to her cause she doesn't get to do her thing. This problem gets multiplied when the player of course has a hard time rolling saves against conditions. Is there some way I can keep fights challenging without frustrating some of my players?

If people were wondering, I threw a beholder at them in attempts to throw out eye rays during their turns, putting slowing conditions on melee folks and hitting the "squishies" with more powerful eye blasts. I want to play the monster intelligently but this can frustrate the heck out of some players when they're consistently immobolized and getting hit hard with ongoing damages and have a bad day with saving throws.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's possible that your players are not motivated by overcoming uncertain challenges so much as they are motivated by the enjoyment of working together as a team, or by seeing their well-optimised strategies play out, or something different entirely. (This article on metagame rewards is useful reading on that.) Have you asked the players whether they feel insufficiently challenged? If not, then you might not have a problem to solve at all. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 25, 2010 at 15:52

4 Answers 4


Combat is frustrating when you are unable to act. Combat is challenging when you are threatened, at risk, but able to respond.

In order to reduce frustration, make things that reduce actions with save-ends effects staged. A stun or dominate should never be the first thing dropped on someone with a save-ends (End of next turn is fine, however.)

I prefer using the progression of: Granting Combat advantage, dazed, stunned for my save-ends effects that were originally stunned, and dazed -> Dominated for my dominates, especially if they originate from an at-will.

The best way to make combat challenging and exciting is to scatter terrain features that both allies and enemies can use to great (and lethal) advantage while stationing fairly beefy enemies at them. Then the combat has a sub-goals of, for example "control the [really nasty thing shooting fire at us] and reorient it so we can rain fire on the enemies" as opposed to the "clear the battlefield." By increasing tactical complexity, you increase the challenge, but also increase the opportunities for innovative tactics and player self-expression.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the first paragraph is key. I think that's a good insight, and understanding that issue is a very good start. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beska
    Commented Nov 11, 2010 at 20:34

The general sense I've realized is that players, not surprisingly, like to do things. Depending on the size of your group, having a character "Stunned, save ends" can result in tons of "just watching" for that player, which can be understandably frustrating. The same applies to any effects that reduce the player's limited move/minor/standard repertoire: Stunned, Immobilized and Dazed as noted, as well as Slowed and Prone.

This is not to say that players should not be occasionally frustrated by a status effect in an encounter, but that it seems usually preferable to have players frustrated but still able to interact. Instead of designing a combat encounter with the typical number of options (attack/attack/attack) and reducing the number of character actions, instead consider creating encounters with more things for the characters to do. Terrain effects, monster generators, traps, and integrated skill challenges can help make encounters more challenging while still giving each player a chance to contribute.

I've also experienced players sometimes simply preferring games that consist of narrative and fairly straightforward combat victories for the PC's. It might be worth discussing amongst your group - it's perfectly valid to want to sit down for an evening, away from jobs and school and stress and just bash some monsters! On the other hand, if everyone is in agreement that a game with bit of danger and challenge is more interesting, it can be valuable to remind players that it will naturally come with a little frustration.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Our group refers to these effects (as well as the thankfully-depreciated save-or-die effects) as "and-then-you-don't-get-to-play" conditions. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 26, 2010 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, there is nothing wrong with a good monster bash ;) I did throw in a few traps in one encounter and did seem to pose a bit more danger to one character. I'll look into more traps and terrain effects and see if I can't get that effect on more of them to keep them on their toes \$\endgroup\$
    – The Jug
    Commented Oct 26, 2010 at 13:55

From what I've seen of 4e, too many status effects will drag a fight down. Players are usually okay with getting one penalty at a time. When you start stacking them, the players get frustrated and lose interest.

The best difficult fights I've mustered so far have been hard due to terrain and tactics. Basically I'll come up with an environment. And then I give the enemy first dibs on picking location. Lurkers and skirmishers find hiding spots. Archers take the high ground. Etc. The fights start off pretty tough, but once the PCs figure out how to take away the terrain advantage the fight evens out and the PCs eventually win.

I'll also point out that I don't always run fights with the enemy having the advantage. First of all, unintelligent enemies don't behave in that way. Your average jungle cat may stalk and pounce, but it won't lie in wait for 6 hours until the PCs are in just the right position. Sometimes the PCs get to call the shots and lay the ambush instead of walking into it. More importantly though, sometimes they play smart. If they scout ahead or find another way around the fight they'll approach it from another angle. For instance, if they find the secret passage instead of moving straight through the dungeon, they'll enter the fight at the archer perch instead of below it. This is a quick and easy way to reward intelligent play.


Make the environment challenging

Add interesting and interactive terrain, even traps, to a normal encounter. This makes the encounter more difficult, but also more interesting. Furthermore, a smart party can learn to use challenging terrain to their advantage.

Use brutes, elites, and solos

These creatures deal larger amounts of damage without necessarily adding all kinds of status effects that bog down play.

Pile on the minions

Add ten minions of an appropriate level to an encounter. These make an encounter feel more exciting, whittle down the PCs, and give the main monsters some breathing room to do their thing.

Add or increase ongoing damage effects

If a creature deals ongoing 5 damage, make it ongoing 10 damage. If a creature doesn't deal any ongoing damage, make it ongoing 5. Don't forget to increase the level or XP for the monster accordingly (fair is fair).


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