Making a Fight Dynamic and Memorable

By my estimation, I’ve run about 150 to 200 encounters in D&D 4e in the two years since it came out.  Maybe one tenth of those are truly memorable.  When I say “remember that gnoll fight?” I’ll get a deep groan from everyone in my party, and when I say “how about the fight with the larva mage with the masks?” I’ll get a laugh.

A good encounter requires a clever design and a unique twist.  But beyond that, it requires a certain snappy feel which gets the players to sit up and take notice.  Here are some techniques I’ve collected over the years to make fights really memorable.

Monsters with Personality

A Larva Mage

One of my favourite fights was with the aforementioned larva mage.  The larva mage artwork has him holding a mask in front of his face.  Why a mask?  A blank, expressionless face wasn’t any better than a blank, expressionless writhing blur of worms.  Maybe it was to help him have expressions so people could understand what kind of mood he was in?

From there, the idea of a larva mage who carried around a bunch of masks with different “faces” came about.  So when the players showed up, he turned around, and put on his “angry face.”

The players loved it.  That little touch of flavour made him a memorable character… for the three rounds he lived before they slaughtered him.  Like most monsters, he didn’t have a lasting impact on the flow of the game, but they did have fun trying to make him angry by breaking his masks.

Other little touches of memorable personality have included a party which started infighting amongst themselves while trying to kill the players, goblins who spent rounds bickering about who would head out from behind cover first, and a beholder who, when the players rolled a natural 20 on a bluff check to taunt it with cookies, exclaimed, “I love cookies!”  Unusual for a beholder?  Probably.  But they remember him a lot more than the other beholder fights they’ve had.

The next time you put together an encounter, ask yourself, “What makes this monster different from all the other ones?”

Monster Dynamics

If you send a bunch of brutes at your players, the combat will be slow and boring.  If you’re designing an encounter, lurkers and artillery should always formulate a good chunk of your monster team, protected just enough of a front line to work.  The high damage and lower defences of artillery mean players notice getting hit, and have great incentive to cut through the front line and end the battle quickly.

A battle like this hinges on the ability to break the line.  That kind of strategic victory is hard to pull off, stunning when it succeeds, and fundamentally more satisfying than feeling like you out-rolled a sack of hit points.  When combined with the hit point and damage tweaking I talked about before, it can be downright terrifying.

Pay attention to the role of the monsters you put into combat, and focus on monsters which need to gain position for maximum damage.  Anything which requires your players to think will be more interesting than merely rolling attacks.



You can use terrain to shake a fight up.  A fight in “a forest clearing” isn’t as interesting as one fought in a twisty canyon bend.  Make sure that there’s lots of options for cover and some difficult terrain, at the very least.

Terrain which moves adds a lot to a fight.  For example, a river raft fight is a simple concept but it adds strength requirements to accelerate or decelerate the rafts, acrobatics checks to stay on them as they hit bumps, and athletics leap from one to the other.

Other possibilities include portals in the wall which play with the overall layout, drifting, floating masses of land in the elemental chaos, and twisty narrow caves where everyone is squeezing.

You can add high risk terrain, which punishes a player or monster for being knocked into it, like bramble bushes or a fireplace.  Now, it is possible to go too overboard here.  A pit of instant death might be tolerable at epic levels depending on the destiny chosen by the players, but it has no place at heroic.

You want the damage to exceed typical at-will damage, without being so high players ignore their encounter and daily powers.  Because players regularly have more encounter powers than monsters, the use of high risk terrain favours monsters more than players.

The DMG is full of hazards that you can use to make interesting fights, but remember that these are building blocks, not a finished piece.  A pit trap in the middle of a room is boring, but placing it above a hanging ladder which leads to defendable terrain that the zombie horde cannot climb is pretty cool.  Ask yourself, “how and why will the players interact with this?”

The Players

There are some players who go out of their way to make fights interesting, usually by doing something crazy like leaping onto the back of an ogre and trying to extract its fillings instead of playing it “straight” with ordinary attacks.  While these guys can be a handful, they also help you by grabbing onto the hooks of an interesting battle with gusto.  You want to encourage them.

If your players don’t take the bait or bypass the interesting part of the encounter, don’t get upset.  Unique ideas work only a few times anyway.  There’s always another chance.  A fight not used is better than a great idea which turns out dull anyway because your players aren’t engaged.

What are the most memorable fights that you’ve had or run?

[tags]4e, combat, D&D,Dungeons and Dragons,Role Playing Games, rpg, encounter design[/tags]

6 thoughts on “Making a Fight Dynamic and Memorable

Add yours

  1. A fight not used can be used again later, so its ok if your players bypass your clever setup.

    I agree whole-heartedly about working to keep fights engaging. There is nothing as boring as presenting the monsters and then having a simple bash-fest. Therefore I now try to some unique twist to each fight; this usually consists of some interesting bit of terrain or effects. I prefer effects that change the course of a fight; things that force the players to change their plans each time their turn comes up. Some examples I’ve used are: effects that randomly move the players and enemy or dangerous areas that appear randomly and must be avoided.

    One trick I’ve learned; the best time to run an encounter that is nothing more than a slug-fest is right after the players level and gain a new power. Players will be itching to try out their new toys and the fact you are running a sub-par encounter will be lost on them.


  2. Great article Maplealmond!

    Callin is absolutely right, if you miss an opportunity to use a planned fight or even a non-combat idea, just bank it. If the players don’t know, who cares if it comes up in a different context!


  3. I don’t know if it qualifies as a fight, per say, so much as a move, but a lizardfolk ranger I once played ran up to a group of goblins our druid had trapped in place with roots, grabbed the spears of the front two, disarmed them, and then killed them both with their own weapons.

    After which I was criticaled for all but 6 of my hit points.

    Nice ideas here, and yes, it can be awesome when the DM adds elements of risk and chances for badassery rather than leaving it to the players, or worse letting it never happen at all.

    PS: Heh. Cookies.


  4. I’ve only played 4.0 once so far. But One of the best fights I’ve had was basically a timed fight.

    There was a large lava furnace / forge that had been broken, and started spilling out onto the floor. Each round it extended another 5 feet in all directions.

    2 Boss type Monsters with a few minions. 1 NPC laying helpless on the other side of the room.

    The party had to defeat the mobs and save the NPC before the lava took over the room.

    I was playing a cleric. The controller was able to put down the minions quite quickly, and I scored a really nice push spell on the caster Boss. Pushed her right into the lava.

    The Fighter Boss closed with out 2 warriors and warlord. They mananged to knock him down. Every time he attempted to stand, Attacks of Opportunity and they knocked him down again. While the rogue made a mad dash to get the NPC.

    Eventually the lava crept up and washed over the Boss Fighter and we were able to escape.

    That fight was mean, and if it wasn’t for some lucky rolls it could have gone very differently. We survived, but I do wonder what kind of nice loot was all burnt up. /sigh. fun though.


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