Combat in D&D 4th edition, perhaps moreso than any previous edition, focuses on the fight as a team vs. a team. Player characters, and also monsters, have roles designating their primary purpose in an encounter, and encounter building assumes the DM will be fielding a number of different monsters. (Compare to the encounter building guidelines of 3rd edition, with Challenge Rating, which implied a focus on party vs. one monster fights.)
Those player types are going to be doing a lot of discussing on how their powers work well together, what tactics their group should employ, and how to collectively get the most bang out of their buck. There’s not a lot of combat advice out there for the DM. In a game as focused on the tactical challenge as D&D 4th is, it’s important for the DM to push the players hard, and give them the great challenge they deserve.
In my experience with Guild Wars, which billed itself as a “Competitive Online Roleplaying Game,” one of the focuses of play was Guild vs. Guild battles which were 8 person vs. 8 person online battles. For the most part, every successful team “build” could be described as a “Spike Build” or a “Pressure Build.”
What is a Spike Strategy?
A Spike Strategy is probably the strategy you are most familiar with, and likely the most successful strategy for the players to employ. A spike involves focusing fire on one threat at a time by multiple attackers, using potent attacks to kill the target in as short period of time as possible. Once this is achieved, the enemy’s effectiveness is weakened- they are down a character that could be attacking, healing, or supporting the rest of their side. The spikers then move onto the next target.
This is usually the most effective strategy for the players. Usually the Striker(s) focuses on a single target, and receives support fire from the leader, with defenders and controllers either joining in or harrying other targets. A spike strategy is useful when the attacker can inflict a series of high damage attacks in a short period of time focused on the same target, and do so quickly enough to overcome the defending side’s defenses and heals.
As the DM, the spike strategy can be very successful. Look for creatures that get bonuses when fighting together, such as when they flank or have combat advantage, and have potent attacks. This will often mean a mix of soldiers and skirmishers. The Kobold Skirmisher, a horde of Kruthriks backed by a Hive Lord, or a potent artillery monster that attacks the same character turn after turn, like a Skull Lord with some skeleton archer allies.
However, those players have a lot of ways to combat a spike strategy. The party defender will be able to draw fire, and defenders are very robust targets- you want to be spiking the Warlock, not the plate-clad Paladin, who has higher defenses, higher hit points, and more healing surges. A controller will often have a bag full of tricks to make spiking harder for the DM.
But most importantly, healing is very potent and available to those player types. In Guild Wars, for example, when someone on your side died, you’d have to cast a Ressurection spell, which took precious time and resources away from fighting the enemy, and they’d be weakened when they arose. If the opposing team was able to counter your Ressurection spell, you were in trouble, especially if it was your healer who was dead. It’s easy to revive a fallen comrade in 4th edition D&D. Your Leader should have a couple of minor action heals available each encounter, and they start from 0 hit points and heal from there. Knocking a target out of the fight isn’t much of a setback to those player types, unless their healing is severely exhausted. Far more effective for the DM is the Pressure Strategy.
What is a Pressure Strategy?
The Pressure Strategy involves putting threats and pressure on the party on as many simultaneous fronts as possible. These threats are never as fast as the threat of a spike knockout, but they build up over time. A successful Pressure Strategy wins by slowly overcoming the opposition’s healing capabilities and defenses, draining them out over time.
Player characters sometimes use such a strategy, but it requires work to do well. Often such a strategy is focused around one or more characters with multiple attacks, such as a party with two or more controllers.
For the DM though, it is ideal. Some advantages the Pressure Strategy has is that it’s harder for the players to combat, since most healing effects target one person at a time, and it gets more players involved, since everyone’s taking damage, not just a few unlucky targets. Sometimes it’s not always obvious to the players that they’re in trouble- when someone gets knocked out after two rounds, that’s obvious, but how well are you doing if everyone has ongoing damage effects on them?
By far, the most effective tools in the pressure strategist’s arsenal are ongoing damage effects and area of effect attacks. The monster with an ongoing damage effect attack wants to attack a different target every turn, putting as many ongoing damage effects on the party as possible. An artillery character with an area of effect attack that catches more than one character in the burst is multiplying its damage and making it so more than one character will need healing.
Suppose you have an encounter containing two Tiefling Heretics, two Tiefling Darkblade, a Galeb Dhur Earthbreaker. (1450 xp, a level 7 encounter). The Tieflings have extreme mobility and at-will attacks that do ongoing damage. The Earthbreaker can often hit two or more party members with it’s Hurl Stones or Shock Wave attacks (and as icing on the cake, does not impede the teleporting tieflings as much as it will the PCs, and that Shock Wave will set up Combat Advantage for the Darkblades.)
Suppose, after the first round of combat, each of the monsters has hit with its attack. Four party members have taken ongoing damage, and two of them probably failed their saves and still are. The Earthbreaker has hit two or three party members with it’s Hurl Stones, and restricted some combat options with the difficult terrain. You’re a Cleric with Sacred Flame. Who do you heal? Who do you give a Save to? Even with a Sacred Flame every turn, the tieflings are going to be putting out more ongoing damage effects than you can cure. Better hope your Strikers are bringing their A-game! (Also fun: between a Heretic and a Darkblade, you can put an ongoing 5 fire, ongoing 5 psychic, and ongoing 5 poison on the same character.)When those pesky character types finally do drop to 0 hit points, they might be suffering ongoing damage, which is still a threat. Even when they’re healed, any save ends effects will still be active, just waiting to hinder them.
Creatures that help a Pressure Strategy include area of effect attacks, especially damaging auras, ongoing damage effects, and ways to threaten as many party members as once. Some more examples include the Drow Arachnomancer, Specters, the Mad Wraith, and most Solo monsters, especially Green Dragons.
Get out there and put some pressure on your players!