I just created my first encounters in 4th Edition D&D today. I actually created a series of connected encounters: two social encounters and a combat encounter that can be avoided entirely if the social encounters go well.
The social encounters were a breeze to create, and were a lot of fun, too. The skill challenge system allows for a lot of customization, such that these two encounters, both of which are basically negotiations, have different uses for the same, and different, skills. There are a couple of things that I really like about the tools given to craft non-combat encounters. First and foremost, I love the fact that I get to reward the PCs for their choice of skills, and encourage them to pick up more skills. If you read the Player’s Handbook, it’s not immediately apparent that skills have become more important in 4th Edition. Sure, the rogue has a lot of powers that key off of skills, and some of the other classes have utility powers that improve skill use, but it almost seems like an afterthought. Until you read the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and it all clicks into place. Between skill challenges and terrain effects, there are lots of ways for a DM who is so inclined to reward skill use in 4th Edition. When crafting these encounters, I made sure to include at least one skill that each PC had, so that everyone could feel useful, but I also included some other skills that nobody has, to nudge the PCs into picking up the Skill Training feat a couple of times in the future. I love that I have a tool to do that with.
The other thing that I like about the skill challenge system is that it gives me a way to take something like a negotiation and create an actual mechanical encounter out of it, with plenty of role-playing as well as plenty of die-rolling, and an XP reward at the end. Suddenly, non-combat encounters have become just as important as combat encounters.
The combat encounter that I created took a little bit more time, but it was still pretty easy, and it really served to highlight for me the things that I like about 4th Edition encounter and monster design.
Monster design in 4th Edition is great. Monsters are tactically and thematically interesting, with mechanics that both inform and are informed by the flavor of the monster. I also really like the idea behind minions, as well as the other end of the spectrum: elites and solos. I put a bunch of minions in this encounter, a couple of standard monsters, and an elite. The fight, itself, will be big, but I don’t think it will be difficult for me to manage.
Another thing that I like about monsters in 4th Edition is that they’re really easy to customize. Only one of the monsters that I used in the fight is straight out of the monster manual. The others have all be tweaked in some way. For the elite, I took a different elite, changed out some powers and characteristics, and reduced its level to be more in line with a 1st-level party. There are four different monster types in the fight, three of which have been customized, and it took me maybe 20 to 30 minutes to do the customization work for all three. Not too bad, really, when you compare it to 3rd Edition.
Something that I really like about encounter design in general is that terrain is a lot more important than it used to be. There are some really fantastic rules for creating terrain in the DM’s guide, and the DCs and Damage by Level chart on page 42 is absolutely invaluable for scattering all kinds of improvised attacks around the encounter for the PCs to make use of.
All in all, I’m very happy with encounter design in 4th Edition. There’s some work involved, but it feels like you get a lot of bang for your buck. And, truth to be told, I find the work to be a lot of fun in and of itself.