Moments of surprising difficulty


Advice


My players have weird moments of difficulty sometimes, and sometimes I can't really tell why. Once in a while an encounter I expect them to fight through without much trouble turns into a matter of life and death, with the PCs pulling out their biggest moves all at once just to stay alive through each round.

Now the issue here isn't so much that some encounters are tough. It's that I can never tell beforehand which ones will be, and that afterwards I can't often tell why they had so much difficulty.

As an example, A level ago (8th) they came across a Witchfire (Will-o-wisp allies and all). I'd heard lots of comments that Witchfires can be death-sentences for a party of that level, but they're above average and tend to not have trouble with most encounters. As I expected, it took them about four rounds and a communal protection from evil spell to make short work of that encounter.

A level later, they faced a Yuki-onna as a random encounter. "Looks fairly similar to the Witchfire" I thought. "Probably a bit easier to beat in fact." And then they only barely got out of that one alive, and that was partly because I pulled my punches at a key moment where all but the most badly-rolled of cone of colds would have killed three of them in one shot. They basically survived that fight by way of the other PCs sprinting in three different directions while the barbarian went toe-to-toe with the monster. The barbarian himself had fully expected to die when he shouted "I'll hold her off" and the players fled in different directions because the rest of them expected that too. And they expected her to follow after he died and kill the next one of them too. What I thought would be an easy encounter for them turned into a game of "How can we get out of this with only half the party dead?" and it was frankly a miracle-streak of rolls that let the barbarian win his 1 on 1 fight, getting out alive with no deaths.

And the same thing happens once every 2 or 3 sessions, it's weird. Their first dragon killed effortlessly, but they were pushed to the limit against a pair of Chardas. Nearly a dozen advanced variant wights smashed to dust before they can get an attack in, but a single troll nearly kills a PC.

I wish I had a better way of predicting what's going to be a deadly battle is what I'm saying I guess.


Do you have this problem with more traditional melee battles without a lot of spell or spell-like abilities to contend with?

When PCs fight enemies that can make use of powerful magic, especially powerful area of effect magic, the fight can get real "swingy." By "swingy" I mean that the outcome of the fight can be drastically altered by just a few key rolls (two PCs missing a save, for example).

Whenever you are putting the party against magical attacks, you need to carefully consider the party's magical defenses. Some parties have exceptionally high or low average saves in one area (frequently fortitude). So if the attacks are hitting that save, the CR isn't really a good measure of the difficulty of that encounter.

Other considerations are what sort of tactics the party applies. Do you notice any tactical patterns when the party struggles vs when they do well? For example, do they do well when they get a chance to cast buff spells, but do poorly when thrown directly into combat? Do they do OK against multiple smaller opponents, but struggle against single dangerous ones?

It's hard to provide much help without knowing what their strengths, weaknesses and common tactics are.


The fight against the Chardas was pretty much entirely melee and they had a really tough time. So it can happen in either situation.

The group is a Dwarf (Invulnerable Rager) Barbarian (with a 1-level Ranger dip), an Oread (ranged combat focused) Inquisitor, a Suli (melee focused) Summoner (with a 1-level weapon adept monk dip), and a Gnome Master Summoner. At the moment they're just a few encounters worth of XP short of 10th level. The only situations they consistently have trouble with involve fighting in water, or in very narrow corridors when a fight breaks out at the back end of the group, away from the barbarian. Incorporeal enemies gave them trouble for a while, but in response to a few tough fights the barbarian took the ghost rager rage power, and now it's not really a problem for them.

The group's "low save" is reflex, which I hadn't noticed before, but even still, only the Inquisitor and the summoner/monk's eidolon have completely terrible reflex saves.

Their most common two strategies are to buff the barbarian (and the summoner/monk's eidolon) as much as possible and then let those two wreak havoc while the others stand back and cast spells/fire at range, or to summon a lot monsters at once, usually whatever type of elemental is most suited to the terrain/enemy. Generally they don't have difficulty being thrown into combat without a chance to buff ahead of time, as they manage to fire off the majority of their most-used buffs after the first round anyways. When they get warning of what's coming they're essentially unstoppable, especially against level-appropriate encounters.

Liberty's Edge

At times I have seen similar results myself. Part of the reason may be out of your control. Ive seen parties buff and prep for 'boss' fights so well the boss went down in a few rounds. On the other hand Ive seen parties under estimate the 'trash' fights.


I've noticed a string of bad rolls followed by a string of bad decisions when a player throws a hissy fit. Our rogue had a string of missing with his attacks for three rounds then on the fourth round seemingly attempted suicide with a really bad selection of actions.

Do you use hero points? They might make fights less of a chance and smooth out the saves, at level 3 i hit a party with colour spray and they won the encounter just because the cavalier had the foresight to get +8 on his save, he basicly solo'd the illusionist.


I tend to use traits instead of hero points. Especially since as of late we've been playing more and more published adventures, and things that have campaign traits.


So, you have two in melee and the rest of the party attacks from range?

Do most of the troubles happen when the ranged characters are engaged directly?

If I'm understanding your party makeup, you've essentially got a 2:3 melee to ranged ratio. That's going to probably be pretty swingy combat if the ranged characters can't full attack or cast effective spells every round. Taking one melee character out of the picture, either by restraining them or getting them out of position, could potentially leave your ranged combatants exposed.

Having a low reflex save can be a problem since a lot of AoE spells target reflex. It also implies that the characters have a low touch AC, leaving them open to touch or ranged touch attacks.

If the Oread Inquisitor isn't doing more damage than your melee characters, you might want to look at improving his ranged output with additional magic items or different feats.

Typically I hate buffing in combat beyond the first round. There is almost always a better action economy choice once you are in battle than buffing, unless the fight is going to be a long bruising battle.

When you've got limited melee and multiple casters it's usually a good idea for those casters to focus on battlefield control to keep the melee characters from being outflanked. How much battlefield control does the group do?


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Gluttony wrote:

They basically survived that fight by way of the other PCs sprinting in three different directions while the barbarian went toe-to-toe with the monster. The barbarian himself had fully expected to die when he shouted "I'll hold her off" and the players fled in different directions because the rest of them expected that too. And they expected her to follow after he died and kill the next one of them too. What I thought would be an easy encounter for them turned into a game of "How can we get out of this with only half the party dead?" and it was frankly a miracle-streak of rolls that let the barbarian win his 1 on 1 fight, getting out alive with no deaths.

But I bet that the barbarian felt awesome after that fight.

My 2 cents:

I totally understand where you're coming from, I once played in a game with an incompetant DM (This is not a comparison to you, btw, he was just not someone who should run games.) who got the players so beefed up that by 10th level, the only encounters we faced went by in about two rounds, ending with in-game pondering like "I didn't know you could turn a stone golem into paste in under 10 seconds." The only way that he could formulate anything that came even close to a challenge, was to make something that would do the same to the party in the same amount of time, ergo party paste in 2 rounds.

Could it be a simple matter of you roll high and they roll low in certain encounters? I've also played with a DM who would routinely roll about 2-3 critical hits per session with the Crit Deck and turn a puny fight of 4 level 1 goblins into a struggle for survival for a 3rd level party.

Personally, I think that a tough encounter now and again is fun, it keeps us PC's on our toes and we learn to treat every new monster with the fear and respect it deserves. Tough encounters are also generally the most memorable in my mind, they make the party feel good about being able to overcome something that was a bit more powerful than them. When you have to work for a victory, you appreciate it that much more when you get it.

Am I saying you should ignore the problem you have stated in the OP? Not at all. I'm simply saying that a really tough fight now and again isn't terrible. Your party sounds fairly well built to me even without a healer, and so the only thing I can think of that might cause problems are rolling issues or previously stated things like tactics breaking down. I think I've rambled a bit too long so I'm gonna stop now.


Adamantine Dragon wrote:
Do most of the troubles happen when the ranged characters are engaged directly?

I imagine if the Gnome Summoner got up and close in melee there would be trouble, but that hasn't really happened. She's good at staying out of trouble. The other two ranged combatants can handle a couple rounds of melee, they're just better suited to range

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If I'm understanding your party makeup, you've essentially got a 2:3 melee to ranged ratio. That's going to probably be pretty swingy combat if the ranged characters can't full attack or cast effective spells every round. Taking one melee character out of the picture, either by restraining them or getting them out of position, could potentially leave your ranged combatants exposed.

It's kind of a 2:2:1 composition, that being melee:ranged:flexible. The Suli Summoner is built for melee and buffing, but he's squishier than his eidolon and the barbarian and knows that if he falls, his eidolon is out of the picture as well and the group is suddenly at a major disadvantage. So he tends to stay back, which means they've pretty much always always got someone in a "protect the casters" position who is decently capable of melee.

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Having a low reflex save can be a problem since a lot of AoE spells target reflex. It also implies that the characters have a low touch AC, leaving them open to touch or ranged touch attacks.

Yep, their touch ACs are all rather low. 10, 12, 12, and 13.

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If the Oread Inquisitor isn't doing more damage than your melee characters, you might want to look at improving his ranged output with additional magic items or different feats.

She's actually got the best magic weapons and armour of all the PCs already. Her Dex isn't high enough for several of the normal ranged feats though, so she tends to rely on lots of buffs + enchantment bonuses to hit. She's also the party healer.

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Typically I hate buffing in combat beyond the first round. There is almost always a better action economy choice once you are in battle than buffing, unless the fight is going to be a long bruising battle.

Generally if they're taken by surprise the first round involves Haste, Prayer, and Mass Enlarge Person, occasionally forgoing Haste in favour of summoning 3 to 6 monsters to provide support. After that they're usually set well enough that further buffing isn't necessary anyways. Usually. Sometimes a second round is necessary to put Fly on the barbarian, but that's the only situation I can think of, really.

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When you've got limited melee and multiple casters it's usually a good idea for those casters to focus on battlefield control to keep the melee characters from being outflanked. How much battlefield control does the group do?

Almost none. I'm not entirely sure of all the battlefield control spells their classes have access to, but right now they've got exactly one on their collective spell lists: Spiked Pit, which the Master Summoner knows.


Nakteo wrote:
But I bet that the barbarian felt awesome after that fight.

I think that all of us did. Even I as the GM was thinking "That was so cool". :)

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I totally understand where you're coming from, I once played in a game with an incompetant DM (This is not a comparison to you, btw, he was just not someone who should run games.)

Haha, thanks for specifying that.

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Could it be a simple matter of you roll high and they roll low in certain encounters? I've also played with a DM who would routinely roll about 2-3 critical hits per session with the Crit Deck and turn a puny fight of 4 level 1 goblins into a struggle for survival for a 3rd level party.

I generally spot long strings of criticals (we all do), but it's certainly possible that a string of missed attacks or failed saving throws might occasionally escape my notice.

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Personally, I think that a tough encounter now and again is fun, it keeps us PC's on our toes and we learn to treat every new monster with the fear and respect it deserves. Tough encounters are also generally the most memorable in my mind, they make the party feel good about being able to overcome something that was a bit more powerful than them. When you have to work for a victory, you appreciate it that much more when you get it.

Am I saying you should ignore the problem you have stated in the OP? Not at all. I'm simply saying that a really tough fight now and again isn't terrible. Your party sounds fairly well built to me even without a healer, and so the only thing I can think of that might cause problems are rolling issues or previously stated things like tactics breaking down. I think I've rambled a bit too long so I'm gonna stop now.

Definitely. My concern is more about my ability (or lack of) to see a tough encounter coming. I have no desire to stop the occasional tough fight from breaking out, they're tons of fun after all.

...And the Inquisitor is a healer, just sayin' ;)

Grand Lodge

Just as a minor side note I think almost everyone has complications with water combats. Very few people ever buy items that help with that unless they're regularly encountering it or the campaign is centered around water. So I wouldn't probably worry about that too much.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Wow! I'm actually kind of scared of this party. I wish I could pit it against the beefed up party to see what would happen. I mean, you've got buffs, tanks, ranged peoples, summoningness, and flying barbarian shenanegins! This party sounds awesome! ^.^


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Madclaw wrote:
Just as a minor side note I think almost everyone has complications with water combats. Very few people ever buy items that help with that unless they're regularly encountering it or the campaign is centered around water. So I wouldn't probably worry about that too much.

+1

And yeah, I read the message right after mine and felt a bit dumb for not realizing that the Inquisitor might be a healer. Oh well. :)


I dunno... it sounds like a pretty nice party. I would encourage them to investigate more battlefield control options, just because that seems like a gap. Keep in mind that many spells that don't initially seem to be battlefield control spells (like gust of wind, for example) are actually very good at it.

What I'm trying to avoid saying is that based on what you have described, apart from your ranged archer perhaps being below par in that role, the problem could very well be related to the party's tactical expertise. Not sure what to do about that.


Madclaw wrote:
Just as a minor side note I think almost everyone has complications with water combats. Very few people ever buy items that help with that unless they're regularly encountering it or the campaign is centered around water. So I wouldn't probably worry about that too much.

True. I think I've only ever seen one party that was actually good at underwater combat, and it wasn't this one.


Gluttony wrote:
Madclaw wrote:
Just as a minor side note I think almost everyone has complications with water combats. Very few people ever buy items that help with that unless they're regularly encountering it or the campaign is centered around water. So I wouldn't probably worry about that too much.
True. I think I've only ever seen one party that was actually good at underwater combat, and it wasn't this one.

The worst disasters my current druid's party has endured have been either underwater, or in waist-deep water. The underwater encounter vs. three giant crocodiles almost led to the death of our sorcerer, and the only way my druid could save him was to risk losing my animal companion, and sure enough, that croc rolled a crit and bye-bye AC...

Most parties will have major problems if fighting in the water.


Adamantine Dragon wrote:

I dunno... it sounds like a pretty nice party. I would encourage them to investigate more battlefield control options, just because that seems like a gap. Keep in mind that many spells that don't initially seem to be battlefield control spells (like gust of wind, for example) are actually very good at it.

What I'm trying to avoid saying is that based on what you have described, apart from your ranged archer perhaps being below par in that role, the problem could very well be related to the party's tactical expertise. Not sure what to do about that.

Oh, I'm not looking to remove the difficulty of tough encounters. What I want is to be able to better predict which encounters will be tough, and why.


Gluttony wrote:
Oh, I'm not looking to remove the difficulty of tough encounters. What I want is to be able to better predict which encounters will be tough, and why.

I get that. What I'm saying is that the more you describe the party, the more it seems to be a problem with party tactics. I'm not sure how you predict when the party will use poor tactics.


Ah, fair enough. Well then I suppose I'll have to get better at reading them.

Humm... That sounds difficult. -_-


Ouch, speaking of surprising difficulty... (Although the reason behind this one was obvious, and not something that could be predicted ahead of time)

They walked into a room that had some hiding wights. A few of them rolled high enough to notice, but they were all lower on initiative than the undead. Two of the wights lunged at the master summoner as she entered the room.

I roll: 20, 20. (And both confirmed)

Actually the combat itself wasn't that hard after that, but she's now got 4 negative levels, and will probably have difficulty making the fortitude saves to keep them from becoming permanent. And the inquisitor is still about 20000xp away from the ability to cast restoration. And they're in the middle of nowhere and will have essentially no opportunity to buy scrolls or potions until they're 10th level anyways.

As I understand it this drops her summon monster SLA from V to III (Unless I've misread something). Normally that would really hurt against the difficult opponent they've got coming up, but in this case said enemy is protected against most of the things she can summon anyways. So it won't make too much of a difference (The negative level rules are vaaaaague and confusing in regards to casters... Might have to take that over to rules questions).

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