I see a lot of online comments from DM’s that their players are cruising through combat, that the combat scenarios in relation to the CR rating in the Monster Manual is not stacking up to the expectations of the player or the characters abilities. This can lead to underwhelming encounters for all involved. This article will outline different ways that you can spice up encounters. 

Caveat: Many of these ideas are not RAW, rather ideas of working parallel to the rules to heighten the tension and level the playing field so the players feel challenged. I wouldn’t use all of these at the same time but instead layer them into the encounters.

Before we get into cool idea’s into how to make combat more challenging for your players, we have to understand the ‘5e Action Economy.’ Firstly, Action Economy is different to Combat Actions. Combat Actions are options that you have while combat is on (and a different article).
A great article to read explaining this is from Dungeon Solvers where they explain that, ‘Action economy is a concept that states how many attacks, abilities, etc. a creature can do on their turn.’ Dungeon Solvers actually explain Action Economy, Challenge Rating (CR) and how D&D is a numbers game REALLY well. So, I’m not going to replicate that here. 

Dungeon Masters Guide, Page 274

If you dont want to read that article though, simply put, the D&D 5e action economy goes like this: The team with the most amount of ‘actions’ usually wins the combat. That is because they can do more things, deal more damage and most importantly, reduce the amount of people on the opposing team more quickly. In truth, it is a lot more complicated than this, but if you want more I’ll again refer you to the Dungeon Solvers article above. Otherwise, read on dear traveller!

If you understand the very basics of Action Economy and the excerpt from the DMG, plan your encounter to what you think is correct. Use one of the many encounter builder websites out there (my fav is the Kobold Fight Club) and then use the best tool you have at your disposal; your judgement. As the game progresses, keep an eye on how difficult your players are handling the combat encounters. If you find that your players defeating your planned epic encounters with ease, read on……  

Making your Encounters Harder

So now we come the the crux of this article; what can you do, as a DM to make your encounters more difficult for your players. So other than just ‘add more baddies’, here are a few ideas…..

“The babies look unhappy. Add more balls!”

Monster Tactics: How intelligent is the bad guy(s)? Have they had time to prepare for the characters? Are the players invading the monsters home? Have the baddies done this before? Any of these reasons, and more, could be reasons for the monsters having tactics to use against the players. Maybe the baddies use their long range attack first. Maybe they know to take out the spellcasters or healers first. Maybe they know an area of their liar to ‘kite’ the players into that have prepared traps. Hell, maybe it’s all of these! This can make even the weakest of opponents much more dangerous. (see Tucker’s Kobolds) Usually a ‘Big Bad’ will have some sort of tactic up their sleeve – that’s how they got to that position in the first place. The beautiful thing about this solution is that you haven’t had to really do anything to the mechanics of the game to incorporate it into your game. 

Wear the PC’s down: Players love to give their characters long rests. Hit Points are regained, spell slots are restored, exhaustion levels are removed and everything becomes right again in the players world. But let me say that again: Players love long rests. If you want to challenge the characters, stop letting the players have long rests every time they want one. Push the Players more by challenging the characters into further combats and situations that interrupt long rests. Make them use up their spell slots, their hit dice and their resources before they get to the important fight. If they party has a habit of using Polymorph to turn the Big Bad into a bunny rabbit and dropping it into a Bag of Holding, get them to use up their 4th level spell slot first. Test your Players by wearing out the Characters.

Rules Note: PC’s can only benefit from one long rest every 24 hours. 

Minions and Followers: People in positions of power usually have people that worship and adore them. Is this the case with your Big Bad? Providing the bad guys with minions (1 hp creatures) and followers (lower level creatures/NPCs) allows you to balance out the Combat Action Economy and provide the opposing side with the ability for more attacks per round. These additional minions/followers can do a lot of damage before the party take them out. If the party ignored them, as they are just minor in the scale of the fight, that will make it even more deadly for the PC’s. Maybe the minions or followers are there at the start of the fight, or maybe the noise of the fight attract them into the fight. This is up to you, however adding these additional characters to the battle will even out the battlefield and provide a further challenge.

Choose to succeed!

Legendary Resistances: As monsters get harder, you will find that some of them get weird and wonderful abilities. One of these types of abilities are called Legendary Resistances. Just because a monster has stat’s in the Monster Manual, or whichever other source you choose, does not mean you cannot…. ammend them a little. You might choose to adjust the traits of your big bad and give them a Legendary Resistance. Let you monster succeed on a saving throw that they fail and give them an edge. You might not give them three per day, as per the Adult Red Dragon above, but you can still givethem one to add some extra spice to the encounter. Don’t add it to every creature that the players come across though as you still want the players spells and abilities to succeed, otherwise what’s the point of them having them in the first place.

Legendary Actions: The DMG has guidelines on ‘Modifying a Monster,’ (page 273) where it warns about changing ‘the creature’s offensive or defensive ability’, and this is now where we sit. Legendary actions provide a creature with additional actions each initiative round. The amount of legendary actions drastically changes the combat action economy and provides any creature with further ammunition for a fight against the party. You can turn almost anything into a Legendary Action; another attack, more movement, a special ability or something else. Look through the Monster Manual for examples under monsters such as Unicorns, Dragons, Beholders, Aboleths, Vampires and Solars among others.  

Lair Actions: Some monster are so cool (like Dragons!) and they have been inhabiting the grounds that they live in so long that the lair itself now protects the monster (how cool is that!) The Lair now gets to have an action in combat. These lair actions assist in keeping the party on their toes, dealing damage, providing different status effects.

Lair actions are always magical in nature and usually act of its own accord at the top of the initiative (count of 20). Typically, each action cannot be used until all actions are used, and lasting effects reset at the top of the count. Some examples include: 

  • Change Terrain: Change the terrain within the lair to make it ‘difficult’ for the players to move (half speed)
  • Change what the players can see: Obscure the sight of the players to obscure their sight. even magical darkness will stop darkvision 
  • Grapple: Have hands or vines erupt from the walls or floors to grapple the players. Have the players spend their turn getting free. 
  • Prone: Tremors and earthquakes can knock the characters prone (dex save) providing advantage (or disadvantage) to the enemies.
  • Wild Magic: Whenever a player casts a spell, use the wild magic table to change the spell
  • Antimagic Field: An area of the lair produces an antimagic field, nullifying all magic
  • Spell Dampening: Healing heals only half amounts. Add a resistance to a type of damage (fire/cold etc) or increase the damage from a type of damage
  • Enter/Exit action: Potentially the characters get hit with something on the way in AND if they try to flee from the lair! 
  • Any other Action, Ability, or Spell Effect: Anything else that you could think of. An attack, action, charm, environmental, sleep, trap or so on…. let your mind go wild!

Of course, you can also do any of these things without having them as Lair actions.

Upping HP: This one is extremely useful with larger groups and particularly when you must use a specific bad guy. Simply use the maximum amount of HP available in the Monster Manual. Another idea is to count up the amount of damage that the players have dealt, not count down from the amount of Hit Points the monster has remaining. This allows you to adjust the amount of HP on the fly without the players suspecting that anything is changing. Very very sneaky!

Upping AC or changing other stats : One cool thing about the Dungeon Master Guide (there is many of course!) is that it states this about monsters; “Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.” This means that you can change anything you like about a monster and/or invent you own bad guys. (I taunt my players with the mythical Hydra with Beholder heads!) This is especially effective if you have a player that has memorised monster statistics. Plan this before hand though, as players may feel like your targeting them if you do it on the fly. When designing for the combat however, remember these are your monsters, you can change them however you wish to challenge your players.  

Take something away: I had this DM once that loved to target magical items via using disintegrate rays, usually via beholders. The beholders would blast their D-rays towards the players and instead of using them for damage, they would hit their magical items instead turning them to dust. It was so nasty and so very awesome all at the same time. Now, instead of the fear of dying, we had the fear of losing all of our cool stuff. How does this help? Maybe your PCs are overpowering your monsters due to them having too many cool things. This is just one cool way of taking them away and weakening the party. Another way is to split the party. While this becomes more work for you as the DM, as you need to entertain two different parties instead of one, splitting a party removes resources in the form of the party members from a fight.

They may not want to……..

Change up the bad guys!: There are so many different manuals available now that include monsters and not just official ones like Volo’s, Xanathar’s and Ravnica but also non-official books such as Tome of Beasts or the Creature Codex from the Kobold Press, Strongholds and Followers from MCDM Productions and other homebrew sites like DriveThruRPG.com. Pull out something they’ve never seen or dreamt or before!

What I’m not a fan of is Surprise Rounds in favour of the Big Bad in a boss fight. My reasoning behind this is the Big Bad will usually target one character in this round and then the player of this character could spend the entire fight sitting on the sidelines. If this is an especially gruelling fight, that could be a lengthy period of time. That’s no fun for the player at all.

Remember through all of this, to keep it fun. As a DM you are not there to kill the PC’s, you are there to challenge the PC’s. Hopefully one of these ideas get’s you closer to that ideal. You can even combine two or more of them if you want to to challenge them further. Let me know what you think of them, or, if you have other ways of ‘beefing the combat.’



Other Articles:

Temporary Hit Points Q&A’s
DM Disappointment: Players Don’t Follow the Story?
Be a Better Role Player (pt.1) – What Your DM Wants From You
Session 0
DM Hints: Beefing Up Combat
Tips for New Players
Be a Better Role Player (pt.2) – What your fellow players want from you
New Years DMing Resolutions