I have been a DM for about a year and am trying to get better at it.

I have been using a houserule in which adjacency provides a bonus to AC. I use it for monsters too. I have 3 players. All of them have their main stat at +4. One of them even has a +3 modifier on 3 other stats. They are a Rogue (the with so many +3) Barbarian Half-Orc and Cleric. Their AC is 19 or 20.

They are at lvl 6 and to be honest, I don't think i can make anything challenging anymore. The Rogue takes only half damage if something is able to hit him (Orcs were good at it with their +4). So does barbarian. Their dmg is about 15-30 per round. But almost nothing is able to hit them or is too powerful to be able to kill them. I tried to use many not so strong enemies but it was only a matter of time for them.

For about 3 months, I have been using more and more things for the purpose of increasing challenge, because I am not enjoying the game, since they automatically win.

Right now I am trying to use more dangerous monsters, but they suddenly (except for the cleric) feel like my intention is to kill them, and that I am just trying whatever it takes to do it. I am raising difficulty, because it's not fun for me, if the outcome is clear.

In my opinion, adventuring is supposed to be lethal. That's why peasants don't do it for a living. I think that no matter what they power, good adventure should have a chance to kill them so that in order to achieve the goals of the adventure, they need something other than good stats.

Is my mindset too much "I am trying to kill the players for my pleasure" or in line with "I am trying to make a challenge that ALL of us can enjoy."? How can I increase the difficulty appropriately?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think only you can really answer that question. \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Mar 9 '17 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have seen similar questions (not duplicates anyway) better received, thanks to a more neutral formulation. Try to reformulate that and I really think this question can be re-opened. As it is for now, this is clearly too much opinion-based \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Mar 9 '17 at 17:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with @anneAunyme. You have a very broad general question, "Am I a mean DM?" that none of us can answer. You also have some specific implied questions: I feel like my players are not challenged, but I have to bend the rules to challenge them, and they don't like this. How can I challenge my players without unfairly trying to kill them? How can I have fun as a DM, if my players win too easily? Focus your question on things that we as a community can answer. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Mar 9 '17 at 17:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think we need more information in order to solve your question. For example : 'Adventure is supposed to be lethal' do your players agree with you on that one? I think your group (you included) would greatly benefit from the same page tool. Other then that look up Tuckers Kobolds if your players really want the challenge. Keep in mind though that challenges come in many forms - not necessarily combat. Make social encounters a lot tougher or more impactful or try out several riddles the players need to solve in order to start fighting. \$\endgroup\$ – Gravetow Mar 9 '17 at 17:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ One scope-note: are you solely asking about making combat more difficult/challenging, or all of "the game"? I.e. are the roundabout suggestions that skill/social encounters could be a part of it likely to be helpful, or are they off-topic for your core concern? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 9 '17 at 21:08

You maintain an appropriate level of difficulty by following the "adventuring day" guidelines from the DMG.

D&D 5e is designed such that no single combat encounter should be difficult for a freshly rested party unless that encounter is so difficult that it is likely to kill members of the party within the first round of combat. However, each encounter should drain some amount of the party's resources, such that a string of encounters without a long rest is, in fact, difficult.

Another pitfall to avoid is single enemy encounters. Unless that single enemy has legendary resistance and legendary actions, it is not designed to stand alone against a party of PCs. Always use either groups of lower level enemies or one challenging enemy accompanied by low level minions.

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One option is to let your players choose the difficulty level of the adventure.

Provide them with a list of adventure ideas of varying challenge ratings. These could be rumors/stories overheard at the local tavern. Or else make suggestive labels for locations on your game world map ("Goblin Den", "Troll Fens", "Here be Dragons", "Lair of the Lich Lord", "Tarrasque Territory", etc.) that advertise the challenge rating of the monsters.

Ideally, your players will be able to select the encounter that's right for them - not too easy (low risk but low reward), nor too difficult (high reward but far too risky).

If you give your players agency, then you're off the hook as the cruel game master and they're making their own decisions for good or ill.

Another possible solution is to subtly "tweak" the challenge rating of an encounter on the fly. If your players are breezing through the battle with the Red Dragon, then announce the dragon's much larger mate suddenly emerges from a side tunnel... The danger of this approach is that it can be pretty transparent what you're doing, and you're risking major suspension of disbelief in your game if monsters keep showing up (or running away) at opportune times.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are these methods you've used or seen in use, and can you comment on how they worked out? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 9 '17 at 23:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 Sure, I'd say The Keep on the Borderlands used this sandbox approach, albeit for low level PCs. The module included a Rumor Table which provided players with 20 clues and adventure hooks,plus a map labeled with adventure locations. Players can start with an easy encounter, The Mad Hermit, and progress to more difficult encounters like the Mound of the Lizard Men before graduating to The Caves of Chaos, which the rumor table indicates is extensively trapped & inhabited by multiple tribes of creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Mar 10 '17 at 0:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 DMs tweaking an adventure's CR during gameplay is nothing new - check out Drunkens & Dragons YouTube video on challenge tuning: youtube.com/watch?v=tfO1GWbA1M. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Mar 10 '17 at 0:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ The thing is. I tried something I thought was difficult. I was proved wrong. They took almost no dmg. And if, healer was always ready. As someone already suggested, I am doing that mistake of one combat per day. I need to learn how to deal with this design. \$\endgroup\$ – Mira Mar 10 '17 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mira In that case your encounters are too easy. Prior to a gaming session, offer your players a "menu" of more difficult encounters = bigger, more powerful monsters, and then let them select the encounter based on their previous experience. So if they say "Let's go raid the Vampire Lord's Castle" then flesh out that adventure. Basically you're creating an adaptive adventure system where the players will quickly find encounters with an appropriate difficulty level. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Mar 10 '17 at 16:30

The best way to prescribe difficulty is to simply sit down and have a conversation with your players. Do they want it to be grueling? Do they want a light-hearted game? Somewhere in between? The players are the GM's best resource. Write them a Love Letter. These are a simple, fun way for you to get information from your players regarding their preferences in the game.

In short, there is no real answer to this question. The answer will come from talking to your players =)

If they want it to be more difficult, my suggestion is going to be to look at the GM moves from the game Dungeon World. Here is a list of them for you:

  • Use a monster, danger, or location move
  • Reveal an unwelcome truth
  • Show signs of an approaching threat
  • Deal damage
  • Use up their resources
  • Turn their move back on them
  • Separate them
  • Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities
  • Show a downside to their class, race, or equipment
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Put someone in a spot
  • Tell them the requirements or consequences and ask

Most of these (with maybe the exception of the first) can easily be adapted to any game you desire, and will allow you to hurt them in ways that are more than just "lower their hitpoints". "Reaveal an unwelcome truth" and "Show signs of an approaching threat" are especially useful when you are trying to build suspense or want them as players to know just how much this is going to suck for their characters. The link I put up there will give you example ways to use each one.

Hope this helps!, Kaleb

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes I feel like they want to have Skyrim with no limit of actions. Just now my player texted me "I have good spells, shame i cannot use them that often." I responded "Limitless is your ideal for game?". He responded "Yes.".... I don't know if i am just picky... But I don't want D&D to become Skyrim :) \$\endgroup\$ – Mira Mar 10 '17 at 14:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mira This is a whole different question. In the D&D magic system spellcasters learn more powerful spells as they level up. There are other fantasy RPGs where spellcasters start the game capable of using all spells in their spellbook (eg, Advanced Fighting Fantasy), however spells cost magic pts or stamina pts to cast. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Mar 10 '17 at 16:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hurting wizards is easy. Give them more opportunities to cast their awesome spells, but make them "forget" them after they miss a roll or make them tear open the fabric of reality itself with a particularly awesome (in the sense that it strikes awe in the hearts of all viewers) spell that went horribly awry, summoning demons from the planes of Oblivion (token TES reference) or something. get creative =) \$\endgroup\$ – Kaleb Chambers Mar 10 '17 at 17:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RobertF I know that. He decided to play Warlock, so he does'nt have that much of slots as other spellcaster does. That is why he said that. \$\endgroup\$ – Mira Mar 11 '17 at 15:14

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