I'm having a few problems challenging my players properly during encounters. I'm finding that my encounters often turn out as far too easy, or very unforgiving.
The group: 5th Level.
Summoner: Physically weak, but has a ridiculously overpowered Eidolon with an AC higher than the fighter, (I have to roll 17 or above to hit him with most things), and a very strong attack.
Fighter: Phalanx style, wears a shield and spear. Very strong, high AC, you know the gist.
Inquisitor: Shines in social situations, but has very useful spells, and has a crossbow.
Ranger/Rogue: Ranged/melee fighter. Hits pretty damn hard with the box, but also useful with a sword.
We also recently got a heal-focused Paladin, though it looks like the player won't be arriving much anymore, so basing it off this 4-player thing.
Essentially, I've found that even the strongest monsters I throw at them get beaten down in a few seconds. The Eidolon gives me a lot of problems, I've only come near to beating it once, and then the summoner sacrificed most of his HP to save it. That effort took most of the opponents beating constantly on the Eidolon.
The party composition is a bit unusual, and I'm pretty unsure of how to fight them without being horribly unfair. If I throw loads of archers/spellcasters, they're pretty much dead. I should also say that they're all fairly experienced players.
I suppose my main problem, is that players have gotten relatively high HP by now, we roll it, and their AC is considerable. Monsters are often unable to hit them often enough, and even when they do, the damage isn't enough to scratch them much. Our sessions rarely have more than 2 encounters, as we all prefer that to several small ones. Though it does differ, of course.
I was basing the campaign off the Council of Thieves, but after Module 2, the adventure spun completely off due to many events happening differently, so I decided to run it my own way from now on, so I no longer follow the books.
This is my first campaign; I'm a very inexperienced GM. If any of you could give me any sort of hints as to improve the challenge, fun, and experience of combat, that would be awesome! I'm finding the other aspects of the game to be manageable enough. Do let me know if you need more information.
PS: Nobody's died yet in the campaign. Been going on for nigh-on a year, but only a couple times a month per average, due to cancellations, and so on. I'm not opposed to doing so, but feel like the character should deserve it if it happens.
This will come with time and experience. I still struggle with it and I've been running games for over a decade. I know that's a non-answer, so let me give you two alternate pieces of advice.
1. Remember that an "average" encounter should not be that tough. It's tough, as a GM, to let the party have fun being powerful while you feel impotent because they are having an easy time with an encounter, but the party should. Unless the party is trapped or stupid, they shouldn't pick fights that are impossible. And a good GM will make sure that there are signs for how difficult the fight is, so the party is stupid for picking it, not ignorant. And when it comes to a challenging encounter, which should be rare, but not unheard of, make them realize they are fighting for their lives now. I read somewhere once that GMs make the mistake of thinking the XP and the loot is the reward for the hard work of doing the fight, and that's wrong. Your players think the fight is the candy. The loot and XP allows them to do cooler things in the next fight, but they're having fun by fighting.
2. Have combats where killing everything isn't an option. Protecting a VIP, forcing the fighter to bull rush assassins away from him, for instance. A rare item that has a 6 round casting time, so the rest of the party has to protect the inquisitor while he charges the item. As soon as you throw in alternate objectives, the challenge changes from fights for survival (which isn't always fun and is rough for both you and players) to creative ways to use the combat mechanics to accomplish objectives. Now it's a lot more challenging without increasing the risk too much. And this ties back to the end of my first point. The fight isn't a punishment or a job to get to the loot, instead, the punishment is failure to accomplish an objective. Which often can sting more than losing a character.
Essentially, I've found that even the strongest monsters I throw at them get beaten down in a few seconds.
You can fix that by increasing the number of monsters.
I suppose my main problem, is that players have gotten relatively high HP by now, we roll it, and their AC is considerable.
Some possibilities for dealing with high AC:Ethereal undead with touch attacks.
Negative energy chanelling cleric with undead allies.
Spellcaster plus guards. (If he casts mirror image before the battle and Black Tentacles on the first round, the battle might last a bit longer.)
Creatures with area effect damage attacks (e.g. a Destrachan).
Have a minion provide flanking and Aid Another. Suddenly instead of hitting on a 17, the boss is hitting on a 13.
Someone with Improved Trip.
Or just give all the enemies +2 to hit.
One of the easiest ways I've found to adjust encounters 'on the fly' when they seem too easy or too difficult is to change the number of mooks, either by having a handful flee, allowing the PC's to focus on the BBEG's or by having a second wave arrive a few rounds into combat. Either can effectively tweak an encounter to make it more or less difficult without affecting the versimilitude of your campaign - after all, the PC's have no way of knowing how many bad guys there should have been, eh?
My usual suggestion in this case is remember the encounter design specified in the rulebook is a guideline unless you're like, in society play.
Build encounters based on what would actually rationally be there.
Also, increasing the number is preferable. You have a party of five, that means five actions out of them for everyone one of yours. Six thanks to the Eidolon.
Additionally, make situations demand something besides fighty-smashy, make them have to hurry, make them have to dispatch opponents quickly, while on the move, in tight spaces, or in situations where they have to be careful about damage.
Tight spaces. Environmental issues.
Man, this sounds vague. :/
Make visibility, terrain, action economy, and expectations work for you rather than against you. Also, don't let them use 15 minute work days.
Examples for your APL 5 Party:
PCs must ford a series of stagnant ponds, parts of which are deep enough to require swim checks. As they cross, the pass into a pool containing a mostly submerged caryatid column, a leech swarm and a grappling skull swarm.
PCs will take penalties for combat in or into the water and may have to make additional swim / drowning checks if pulled into the water by the grappling skull swarm.
To increase the CR to 7 make it two columns.
To increase the CR to 8 add 4 vargouilles drawn to the sounds.
For extra fun, have this lead directly into:
Orc Ambush. 9 Orc Warriors (CR 1/3) with a Half Orc Fighter 5 or Barbarian 5 Leader and a Scarred Witch Doctor 3 or Blood God Disciple Summoner 3 attack the party utilizing intelligent tactics (such as the use of nets or "dog piling" weaker looking party members first, and recognizing that the eidolon is tied to the Summoner).
To increase the CR to 8 have both the Witch Doctor AND the Blood God Disciple and increase the # of orc warriors to 18, with 6 dedicated to melee, 6 to ranged attacks, and 6 to utilizing nets & then supporting other combatants or bodyguarding their own casters.