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Static vs. Dynamic Encounters: A Design Problem in 4e?

“Set Phasers to… Torture…”

One of the best things about a buddy of mine, who has played in many of my D&D games since we were in college together, is that he’s a rabid Rules Lawyer.

Now I’m not suggesting that my friend is frothing at the mouth and biting people in a frenzy of Rules Lawyer mania.  He’s actually one of the most cool, calm, and collected guys you’d ever want to meet – he just tends to be very very logical about game rules.  So playing any RPG game with him can sometimes be like DM’ing to a Vulcan – pardon the mix metaphor here:

DM: “… but the rule is pretty clear on that issue – check out page…”

Vulcan: “I see… so you’re comfortable with the way they attempted to impose game balance by sacrificing what would seem logical and realistic?”

DM: “Well, it IS a fantasy game, and uh…”

Vulcan: <raises one eyebrow> “Fascinating.”

DM: “Dammit, I’m the DM, not the Game Designer!!!”

On the upside, if you do happen to DM to a Rules Lawyer from Vulcan, you are often inspired to come up with good House Rules for handling those pesky “illogical” rules.  Sometimes, you can’t though, because some rules are just mandatory to keep game balance, and poking at them can be the proverbial slippery slope, and you end up creating more problems than solving them, down the road.  The trouble is that it’s not always easy to realize what counts as a focal point for game balance.

So when my Rules Lawyer comrade asked me how comfortable I was with the 4e Encounter system, where each almost all encounters are compartmentalized and separate from every other encounter, I felt had to step back and take a look.  

Dynamic vs. Static Encounters

As I am designing an adventure, and planning my encounters, I decide fairly early on if the encounter will be set-up as Dynamic or Static. 

Dynamic encounters are designed to have a great chance of causing other encounters in a geographical area to “add” into the encounter.   Usually this occurs by the combat sounds attracting the attention of nearby group or groups of monsters, or by having one or more monsters in the encounter raising an alarm (like banging a bell or gong) or fleeing to get help.

Static encounters, on the other hand, tend to be remote geographically, where there are no allies nearby that the monsters can call for help or can “add” by hearing the sounds of combat.  Many “wild” beast-predator encounters tend to fall into this category, because many predators are solitary or fight in a distinct pack, and don’t socialize with other solo beasts or packs.

Oddly enough, most Encounters in D&D 4e tend to fall into the category of Static, if you look at how many official modules and adventures are written.  Each encounter is compartmentalized, with no interaction between the creatures from one encounter to the next.  Even if there are intelligent monsters involved, there is no attempt to warn the next encounter that the big bad Characters are on the way to kill them.

Because of this tendency toward Static Encounters, mapping a dungeon is almost a useless gesture in D&D 4e, beyond creating a Dungeon Tile for where the Encounter will take place.  Adventures seem better suited to flowcharting rather than mapping, and there are even programs like Masterplan specifically written to design a module this way.  The software is nicely designed, by the way, and I must admit that I find the idea of using it very appealing, as flowcharting a dungeon is a lot easier than drawing in and detailing a huge map on graph paper.

But old habits are hard to break, and after three decades of D&D experience, I am not quite ready to give up on Dynamic encounters.  Dynamic encounters just feel more real – ok then, if not real, then at least more action-movie like. 

So what drives the encounter system of 4e to be so Static?

Two words:  Healing Surges.

Blame the Surges

Healing damage in 4e is unlike any of the previous versions of D&D.  If you’ve only D&D experience is from playing 4e, then you might not realize that healing used to be accomplished mainly by casting healing spells, which healed a random amount of hit points, based upon the spell level.  There were a few other methods for healing, such as a Paladin’s Lay on Hands, but otherwise it was up to the Cleric to spend his spell slots casting healing spells.  Unless the Cleric had a wand or staff with healing abilities, he pretty much spent 80% or more of his daily spell selection healing the party.  The downside was obviously that the player that volunteered to run a Cleric didn’t get to use many spells as combat effects such as attacks, defenses, buffs, and debuffs.

But there was one advantage to this system of healing: an unlimited amount of healing spells could be cast from the Cleric and his charged healing items both during, and then after a combat.   This meant that multiple waves of foes could come at the adventurers, and as long as the Cleric could keep casting healing, everyone else could keep fighting.

Obviously in 4e, that cannot happen anymore.

The number of healing surges that can be invoked during an encounter is quite limited.  After everyone takes their Second Wind, it becomes the task of the Leader class to invoke healing surges, which is a fairly finite resource, because many healing surge exploits are Encounter Powers.  Throw in an implement with a Daily Power that causes a healing surge, and then it’s pretty much done.

So if you ran that Dynamic encounter, with wave after wave of enemies charging the adventurers without getting five minutes of breathing space to cause a Short Rest, you’d almost be guaranteed to be looking at a TPK situation.  Or at least the party being forced to flee, and probably subdued and captured, if the DM felt merciful.

So how can we make some encounters Dynamic without it becoming an unrealistic challenge for the adventurers?  Tons of Healing Potions maybe?

Healing Solutions, not Potions

Many people have no problem with the Static Encounter approach, so these solutions might not be for them.  I was reading the RPG Net Forums the other day and came across a post entitled: Healing Surges per day still necessary?.  The logic was that if Static Encounters are the norm, and everyone can take their Short Breaks when needed, and then an Extended Break when they want to refresh their Daily Powers and their Healing Surges, why bother having a limit on Healing Surges at all?  Tracking healing surges is useless bookkeeping at that point, because the adventurers have all the healing they ever need.

But there is a very real conflict when you examine a Dynamic Encounter versus Healing Surge Management.

WotC has obviously begun to take a look at the Static Encounter issue, based upon more recent releases.  In DMG 2 for example, there is a concept called “Long Fights” which merges two moderate encounters together, possibly with a Short Rest between, but not necessarily.  This would then be considered a Dynamic encounter, with at least two waves of foes attacking the adventuring party at intervals.

It’s similar to an idea that I had called “Half-Fights”.  It involves breaking up a large encounter into two (or more) waves.  In a two wave Half-Fight, the starting wave consists of about 70% of the non-Minion forces, and then after 2-4 rounds, the remaining troops and all the Minions come rolling in.  To really up the challenge, use “Long Fights” and then break them into “Half-Fights”, and you’re essentially creating a four-wave Dynamic Encounter without totally burying the party.  But that doesn’t completely fix the Dynamic Encounter vs. Healing Surge Management issue entirely.

Another way to fix the DE vs. HSM issue is with a House Rule that I am trying out called a “Short Rest Phase”.  A “Short Rest Phase” is the same as a Short Rest but phased over the magical 5 Minutes, rather than it be all or nothing.  If the Characters are in no danger of being interrupted, then a Short Rest will happen normally.  But if there are more enemies approaching, determine how long it will take before they engage the adventurers, and then apply the cumulative effects of the appropriate Phases.  Each Phase is one minute in length, with increasing benefits the longer you can rest uninterrupted.

  • End of Phase 1 – Refresh Second Wind and Can Use 1 Healing Surge
  • End of Phase 2 – Can use 1 Healing Surge
  • End of Phase 3 – Refresh 1 Encounter Power and can use 1 Healing Surge
  • End of Phase 4 – Refresh 1 Encounter Power and can use 1 Healing Surge

So if the adventuring party ends an encounter and begins a Short Rest, but then is interrupted after 2 minutes and 30 seconds, then they will get the cumulative benefits of Phase 1 and 2: Refreshed Second Wind Encounter Power, and 2 Healing Surges.  Perhaps if they had barricaded themselves in a room, or hidden in some overlooked place, they might have bought themselves an extra 30 seconds, which would be an additional Healing Surge and a refreshed Encounter Power of their choice.

There is no reason that all Encounters in D&D 4e have to be Static affairs, and adventures can take on all the “Die Hard” thrills of enemies sounding the alarm, and then coming in at the Heroes in waves with only a brief respite between.  With a little tweaks, DMs can create much more exciting pacing for the game, and a lot more fun and challenge for the Players.

So until next blog, I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


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