Sometimes it can be hard to adjust encounters and make them a challenge for the player characters. What to do when the player characters have attained such power that they seem to be able to tackle whatever you throw at them? Here are a few ideas on how to make encounters more challenging without adding more adversaries or traps. 

For some reason I’ve often experienced, as the player characters in my D&D games gain experience and riches, they evolve from being powerful heroes to near godlike creatures, that seem to plough through whatever dangers I throw at them. This is something that has been going on ever since I started playing D&D and I don’t think this has anything to do with the players. I believe this to be a part of what makes D&D the greatest roleplaying game.

However, this kind of power-playing can be a bit tiresome and make the sessions not as exciting as they could be. When there’s little to no chance that you suffer a defeat or fail at a task, the game quickly gets boring and not challenging. And no matter how much we might like feeling near indestructible, what makes the game fun is the fact that we might fail. Even though we accept the unwritten agreement between players and game master, that the player characters will most likely prevail, the slight chance that our character might fail that dexterity save or be eaten alive by the purple worm is what keeps the players on their toes.

There are ways to make encounters more challenging. Here are a few ideas on how to make things more dangerous, without adding more monsters, editing their statblocks or adding more dangerous traps or environment, all of which are great ways to up the game. These ideas are more about making the player characters feel vulnerable again.

Let wounds matter

Perhaps the thing I like most about the Swedish roleplaying game Trudvang Chronicles is how body points are handled. You divide your body points, which are equivalent to hit points, with four, to figure out your wound thresholds. As you get wounded and pass each threshold, the harder it is for your character to keep fighting. The Star Wars Saga System had a similar system, called Condition.

By making wounds matter encounters quickly become a whole lot more challenging. If a character suffers a wound that might seriously affect her ability to fight on, the player is more likely to make different decisions. After all, why should a person feel just as able to fight when she is at 1 hit point as when she is at full hit points. Just remember, if you implement a system like this, it must also apply to the player characters‘ adversaries.

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High damage hits

Of course, by implementing a system that dramatically affects the player characters‘ ability to fight can be a bit overwhelming for many players, especially those who revel in playing god-like beings. There are other ways to make encounters more dangerous and more exciting. And one of those ways is to let high damage hits have dramatic effect.

Many game masters use some sort of critical hit tables, some of which are a great addition to any game. I have to admit though, that I often feel that they add a level of dice rolling, which I try to refrain from, simply because I’m rolling enough dice as it is.

However, if you want to make high damage hits matter you can simply be creative and describe things as you feel fitting to the narrative. Did the umber hulk manage to sever the tendons in the fighter’s arm, rendering his shield arm useless? Was the ogre’s attack so brutal that it broke the foot of the barbarian, cutting her movement in half? Was the acid from the black dragon’s breath weapon potent enough to burn through the warlock’s arm, which needs to have it regenerated?

By making the high damage hits have a narrative and systematic effect encounters become more interesting and fun. Not to mention, that by making high damage hits have effect you make spell effects of spells like Regenerate make sense.

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Death saves

Death saves are a great tool to give players a chance to save their fellow player characters, not to mention save themselves. However, they also have the drawback that they tend to have a great impact on what decisions players make.

As written the rule states that every Death Save has DC 10. However, why shouldn’t every brush with death have an impact? You can raise the DC by one for every time that a character defies death. The save might become at higher levels as high as 15, but then again, the player characters should have more access to healing spells and potions.

By making a little change to the death saves the game becomes a whole lot more exciting, as the threat of death rises.

Leaving the Prime Material plane

challenging encounters, Challenging encounters, Yawning Portal, Yawning PortalFew years ago Wizards published a small boxed set for the Shadowfell, while D&D was still in 4th edition. There was one thing in the box that I really liked, a set of cards that each had a despair condition that afflicted the player characters, but they could overcome and reap the benefits. This was to represent the gloom and despair of Shadowfell.

This is something that can be easily replicated for other planes as well and for 5th edition. And why not? In order to make the planes special and unique this is a great way. Why not use something like this to represent the dangers and malign atmosphere of Avernus? In such an environment it might be even harder to make a Death Save or due to the inherent distrust of the lower planes the player characters can’t opt to fail a save, which means they will have to save vs. healing spells or other beneficial spells cast by their fellow group members.

Dangerous encounters… but not deadly

I have one simple rule I follow when I run games. I don’t kill player characters. However, if they do things that are rash, unwise or stupid I let the dice fall as they will. I like my encounters to be dangerous, exciting and challenging, but for the narrative to progress I need as many player characters as possible to survive.

Of course, death is a part of the game and sometimes a player character death is inevitable. But the goal of the game is to have fun and at no point can the game become a competition between the players and the game master. My role isn’t to try to kill off the characters, it is to narrate the story and make sure everyone is having fun.

Part of the fun is to sit at the edge of your seat, palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, hoping against hope that you roll high enough. Cheering when you finally push through. Even better when the characters have a scar or two to remember their brush with death by.