When designing encounters for DnD we typically think about the enemies, their stats, and area they’ll be fought in. These are the basics of any combat encounter, but there’s tons of room for improvement. If you want to really take your encounters to the next level you’ll need to add complexity. Today we’ll be discussing complex encounter design.
What Makes a Complex Encounter Complex?
The difference between a complex encounter and a basic one is in the fine details. The layers of detail, puzzle, and possibilities take a basic encounter and transform it into something greater than the sum of its parts. At its simplest, an encounter is some monsters in the bounds of a combat space. At its most complex, you might have synergies between monsters, traps in the room, diplomatic solutions, escape routes, puzzle challenges, story development, and so on.
While it might sound crazy to stuff all of that into a single encounter, remember that not everything you design will get used. Additionally, you might think that more complex is always better, but this isn’t the case. Not every encounter needs to be extremely complex, just some encounters to keep things interesting.
Encounter Complexity Tool Kit
The first way to build more complex encounters is to get to know your monsters. There are a ton of great resources for this ranging from The Monster Manual to blogs like The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Once you find monsters you like and understand how they work in combat scenarios you can pick combinations of monsters that augment any given combat scenario.
For example, pairing an imp with an iron golem gives the golem a healer through the use of the Heat Metal spell. Similarly, pairing simple skeletons with oozes provides some zone control and makes for a much more challenging fight.
Not every monster combination has to be about difficulty. Some combos are more thematic. You can look at bugbears or orcs having dominion over smaller creatures like goblins, which establishes a story backdrop to combat. While we’re on the topic of domination, using mind controlled individuals in combat makes for an interesting conundrum, as players won’t want to hurt the innocents.
Augmenting Monster Stats and Puzzle Mechanics
Sometimes combat isn’t about being stronger but about knowing how to handle things. Giving monsters particular strengths and weaknesses allows you to build combat encounters that the players need to prepare for.
You could add a handful of normal weapon resistances to a creature and then give it a vulnerability to something like fire. In your game you can set up ways for your players to learn about this before combat. This alters the way they need to handle the situation. Did they bring torches? Can they cast fire spells? If not, what’s their plan? This kind of combat augmentation is also a great way to get different players more involved in combat by building encounters that play to their strengths.
When augmenting monsters, be sure to lower their total HP every time you give them resistances or immunities to damage types. Players can quickly get in over their head if the only source of the vulnerability damage type gets knocked out.
Better Battle Maps
We’ve all seen big empty dungeons before. Square rooms with nothing in them. This happens because filling rooms with stuff is time consuming. Some DMs avoid fully furnishing rooms because their players are pack rats and will pick up anything that’s not glued down.
It’s a better idea to make your battle maps contain sources of cover, situationally useful items, and various close or open spaces. By fleshing out the battle map you have made combat more tactical. Players will need to think about positioning more and will interact with their environment.
In Room Traps
Traps are something we talk about a lot here at Master The Dungeon. Typically we don’t consider traps within other combat scenarios, but they offer a rich assortment of tools to make a challenging encounter. Traps can even be used to a player’s advantage once they know they exist.
Examples of useful in-combat traps are arrow traps and pressure plates. You can have arrow-launching statues along the walls of the room and pressure plates that trigger them when they’re stepped on. If the players know the pressure plates are there, they can wait until an enemy is lined up with the trap before moving over the pressure plate to use it as a source of damage.
In this same scenario players still need to be aware of the plates when they move on their turn, which can zone them out of areas they might want to be. Tank characters might even step in the way of traps so that other players can get through.
Often neglected, non-combat solutions are a great thing to add to any encounter. Your players may come up with a million different ways to try to circumvent combat. But you can also bake in a few that have a better chance at success if they can be uncovered. Guards can be bribed, stealth routes can be utilized, differences can be talked out. Don’t forget that peace is sometimes an option and consider what non-violent ways a scenario might be able to be overcome.
Sometimes combat cannot be won. When this is the case, giving your players escape routes makes for a interesting a complex part of a fight. If the players start losing, they might each take a round trying to exit combat. This is stressful, difficult, and engaging, especially if they are trying to drag out wounded comrades.
One of the best ways to use escape routes is to make them risky. Let’s say combat is on a second story library in a city district. The players might opt to jump out a window at great personal risk. This could lead to a cool scene and set up a chase, or it could end badly. Let them dice decide! In this same encounter, the villain might also try that escape route when low on health.
In other encounters, escape routes are built for specific sizes. Kobolds make escape tunnels the average adventurer can’t follow through. When fighting giant creatures your players may take escape routes those monsters cannot follow. This type of challenge can add a neat wrinkle to any scenario.
Verticality is hard to build into an encounter without terrain. It’s not impossible if you don’t have the set pieces for it, but theater of the mind combat in a vertical space gets very hard to keep track of very quickly. If you are set up to use verticality in your games, you can add a whole new level of combat.
Using perches and flight really allows for your players to flex their ranged attacks. These are great for rangers that put everything into bow fighting. Making combat more concerned with height also highlights positioning in ways that might normally be overlooked. Players might make use of Athletics much more than they otherwise would and attempt to climb, jump, or otherwise scale walls to reach foes.
A good example of how to use verticality is in a sinking tower. As combat goes on, the tower sinks further into the mud and players need to keep ahead of it or risk being sucked into an early grave. Mix in a little combat and you have an exciting and challenging event that will keep your players engaged.
Improved and Relevant Loot
Loot is not always just a table and some random boons. When building more complex encounters it’s a good practice to carefully curate the loot available. This takes a lot longer than just pulling up a table, but can lead to a more rewarding experience.
The point is to include relevant items that make any encounter feel more real and purposeful. Maybe you encountered a room of drunk guards, there should be a lot of half drunk alcohol in the room, a deck of cards, and perhaps some orders that lead to the guards deciding to get drunk. We’re not proposing that every encounter should have good loot that the players really want, but instead that it should have thematic items that help immerse your players in the world.
The story is always an important part of DnD, but it often feels like it’s put on pause for every encounter except the boss fights. To fix this you can wind a lot more of your tale into context clues. Examples of this exist in modern video games like Dark Souls, which gives most of its story through item pickups.
You can also build in story through enemy dialogue, giving players a chance to eavesdrop, or in the set pieces you use in the room. Leave behind journals, notes, and letters. Have particularly telling paintings, statues, or books. All of these things can help build up a more immersive and fun world and are worth the inclusion. In the cases where the players miss some of the story elements, you can create redundancy or just simply recycle whatever they missed into a later part of the session.
Build Better Encounters
The methods described are just a few of the ways to can set out to make rich complex encounters for your players. You don’t need to use all the suggestions we listed, but by adding a few to each encounter you make you’ll end up with something special. The goal is to build something that is fun and memorable so your players will want to come back again and again. Build the excitement for the players and never let them be bored of slogging through combat.