Making it organically harder?


Skull & Shackles


I've been running Skull & Shackles for two sessions, as my first attempt at DMing. The group itself has only one player who's experienced, and four who aren't. I was hoping that their inexperience would be enough to offset the presence of a fifth player, and that I could always tweak the numbers up a little for enemy numbers to offset that.

Having played halfway through the third adventure in book one tonight, I've seen that it's really not as simple. Even with a bump in sailor numbers, they cleared the Man's Promise in nine turns and without taking a single point of damage among them. Lots of lucky crits, but it really showed a problem brewing.

They gotten up to the Grindylow cave when we called it a night, and they trivialized pretty much everything they came across there, too. Even when I doubled threw four Giant Frogs at them and had them grapple the party down, it didn't do very much to stop them. Even playing every monster at max HP didn't do much because there's too much DPS going around.

It's partly my fault, because they asked for help building their characters and what I ended up giving them were really good builds, but they've really picked up party tactics and their roles, and now are kind of threatening to turn the campaign into the easiest thing in the world.

Are there any areas I should be looking at for making the game a more difficult experience beyond just throwing numbers at them? That seems very boring, and with what they've been pulling out it feels like it would only draw combat out an extra round, round and a half to double up on enemies. Problem is, I have DMed precisely two sessions and don't know how far is too far on trying to tweak anything, so I'm hoping someone out there more experienced can give me some tips.

If it's any help, the party is:
-Stormborn Sorceror, the only character I didn't build because the player knows what he's doing
-Undine Cleric of Besmara
-Human TWF Rogue, who is responsible for dropping the Officer and Ankheg both in one hit.
-Human Monk who can also hit for unreasonable damage
-Human Ranger specialising with bows. Yep, high damage.

Sovereign Court

I'm not a PF specialist but in another system 3.5 I would often pare up the encounters as the party progressed. First encounter x, second 2x, and so on. Someone did this to my home group and we were at 3x APL with 4 players by the last fight. We handled it, but it was a nail biter.

The Exchange

Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

as an experienced player I've found this AP to be challenging. Although I think I'm 2 levels behind in wealth at the moment (level5).

The parts you've mentioned we're not hard on us though, so maybe they will become more difficult.


Don't be too worried, with the right builds some parts of S&S can be easy.

I would wait till after the Grindylow caves and see how easy they handle that before any serious tinkering.

Just be sure to carefully read what the monster can do, and their combat tactics before the game starts.

Get a feel for how they fight, and use where they fight as well, the Grindylow have set the caves up as their stronghold, be sure to use that on your party.

I'm running S&S and our party are all veterans of role playing, some parts that people have said are hard, my party has waltzed through, other fights have had them sweating and crying.


I'm having problems with a barbarian steamrolling everything. Aside from Bonewrack Isle, it's been mostly 1 encounter per day. So he just rages out and demolishes... without really having to deal with the drawbacks of rage.

Anything he can't smash is handled by a very effective gunslinger and Rogue archer combo.

But next session, they'll be confronted by Inkskin and they just made lvl 5. So I'm hoping she can finally put a hurt on them .


They havn't met the swarms yet them LOL....they are a killer

Are you alerting the CR's to match the party? and what point buy are you using?

Don't forget the AP's are built around 4 PC's at 15 point buy for the stats. If you have 5 players you need to adjust the encounters to match the number of players and either add more levels to the NPC'S or add more monsters. Also if you have more than 15 points for stats this will also make things easier for them.

I have a party of 3, 20 point buy, we use hero points and are on book 3, they players have said book 1 is amoung the hardest and most brutal games they have played (and we are 1st ed verterans). We had countless near deaths and 1 actual death in the caves at the end (hero points brought him back).

If you are finding it easy (look through the thread...its not by any stretch of the imagination) you will need to adjust the encounters to fit, its NOT an AP for a beginner GM, but by jove it is a really good one.

You need to ramp up the enounters in the cave, play tactics more (ambusing with the Grindys) and remember the underwater rules (this is pretty difficult too). It's the environment that adds to the danger level.

Although do be careful, I'm one of those GM's that try to keep the players alive as much as possible after all whats the point in spending all that time and money in getting the game together and just killing the players off for the hell of it?

Punish them, knock them down to minus HP but don't kill them (unless the are stupid) and you have the foundations of a great game.


On Bonewrack : As said, use the caves against them, especially if they do not attack at low tide, drag them underwater, use the penalties for slashing/bludgeoning and the fact that they can neither throw stuff, nor use most alchemical connoctions. I don't see the ranger doing much in the water, neither do I see the Rogue being very helpful (unless he is armed with daggers, which would then be strange because in that case I do not see how he can do enough damage to drop the officer/Ankheg). So that is two guys out of it.

Do you actually keep track of arrows anyway ? Because I can't remember there ever being any in the first few parts of AP#1...

Use the environment - the Grindylows can stay underwater and see the PCs struggling above, reaching for air. The intervening line of water breaks percepton quite effectively, and should give surprise to the goblins, as well as limiting te characters in the use of Dex ( and most characters should be low on armour in the heat and swimming around ). Also consider grappling (and submersion ) with the Devilfish. Grappling, throughout the campaign and espeially in water remains a constant danger

The stirges on Bonewrack might also prove deadly, espeially if roused at night.

The AP is not really "too easy" on the PCs (even with 5 players) if you play the opposition up correctly (like the decidedly unfunny mosquito swarms on Bonewrack - they must have they been to the field so what kept them from stirring up a few of the nigh inescapable swarms ?) and with some forethought...

Later encounters also feature a lot of poison use, and in an emergency for the weaker opposition use volleys of crossbow bolts and aid another actions to actualy hit the characters (What AC are they at anyway ? Can't be much more than AC17, right...we are talking tropical heat here ! Level information might be useful to judge the situation as well...) and actually checking the use of spells, or rather, them running outdue to timing considerations (such as mage armour, or combat buffs..)

and yes, the "Man's Promise" is mostly a cakewalk and there more for setting a certain mood for the Wormwood, Harrigan and the entire business of pirating (nevermind the nicely timed handout of gear and extra items... ).


don't forget those snare traps in the caves as well, one pc's gets snagged then the Grindy's will ambush enmasse.

That Devilfish too..its deadly if played right. Don't forget the grapple attack and its ability to spray unholy blood making it nigh impossible to see (it can see out though). Oh and don't forget the immersion in salt water for the undine once a day if he has that trait (on the isle it may prove a problem).

As deathbydice said the Man's promise battle is more of a set piece to showcase the power of Harrigan than anything else.

The hardest parts are the days on the wormwood (it should have been a real slog, punishments left right and centre, fatigued, the players should have been constantley beaten or tired every day in order to gain their hatred for Plugg and Scourge), the isle (swarms, ghoul fever) and the caves.

Liberty's Edge

GMing this I learned the water rules from my first character death to the reefclaws. go unconscious and dead in 2 rounds. learned this from the guy whose character was drowning. Also if they dont have swim speeds than it is a "move" to move 5 feet, so no free five foot step. After the devil fish and the "whale", lets see if they think it is so easy

Silver Crusade

I am having a very similar problem as Nidoran. I am DMing a live weekly group for S&SH but they have made combat rather trivial. I admit to being something of a cakewalk DM as I don't like seeing characters with dynamic backstories die but perhaps I've overdone it?

Group setup:
  • Human Samourai(Sword Saint) focuses on power attack and quite literally 1-hit kills.
  • Human Scarred Witch(Hedge Witch; human with alt. orc ancestry racial). Uses his +5 CON to stay alive and make his Sleep hex hard to resist. Has been purposfully NOT using it because he knows how much it annoys me.
  • Human Summoner(No Archetype) Focuses on buffing her cat eidolon with pounce and energy attacks. AC is 24 gets 3 attacks, 4 if she Hastes.
  • Sylph Druid(Sky Druid) Least optimized and the only one who has faced death so far. Has been outright killed by massive damage once and used her Hero points to save her.

Hero Points:
I am using hero points as a guard against insta-deaths and I like their use. The issue lies in their not coming anywhere near death, nor do they ever feel the need to use them so they just keep accumulating. I believe they are all sitting with maximum hero points atm.

Plot Twist Cards:
I am using plot twist cards to promote roleplaying in my somewhat roll-playing heavy group. They haven't worked as well as I like because it just seems to give them a "get-out-of-this-specific-situation-free" card and they only vaguely touch on WHY that card is being played. I may have to take them out entirely.

My first example is Bonewrack Isle. My PC's fought the blood bugs all at once, summoned dolphins and invaded the caves at high tide. Despite each grindylow squad having a grindlylow cleric and a TWF ranger to support the 4 or so other normal grindylow the PCs emerged victorious and nearly unscathed.

The trap failed to catch even one of them, the devilfish got one lucky crit before being reduced to less than half HP by echolocating dolphins and a blindly swinging samourai. They enter the throne room, web everyone, sleep and coup de grace the Whale, finish off the devilfish while sending summons to kill the ghasts. The queen couldn't even target the PC's due to the web and was forced to retreat through a secret passage she had in an attempt to fight again another day. They are taking time to replenish their air supply between combats and the samourai has the heart of the sea trait.

You're looking at the above and thinking Ok, they got lucky and had a really good plan. Nothing broken here.

Because the summoner has the Ghol-Gan archaeologist trait and an Indiana Jones kinda background I had the secret passage actually be a dangerously fluctuating, stationary Ghol Gan relic that can teleport short distances but with a risk of random magic (used wild magic table from magic of the Inner Sea) and risk of mis-teleportation.

Queen teleports onto Man's Promise (rolled randomly for it) and Plugg is now aware that he might have potential invaders. He also suspects (correctly) that the PC's might be behind this and drugs all of the friendlies on board with the remains of the oil of taggit. So It's just the PC's vs. plugg and about 12 others. This prevents the advantage of the PC's surprising Plugg in his own cabin.

They then proceed to board the Man's Promise (tilly and sandara are the only ones to get mistransported) and slay everyone on deck despite a magic missile wielding crewmember in the crow's nest, 6-8 mook pirates using flanking maneuvers, a catapult sized alchemist fire lobbed at the samourai, a lv 5 Rahadoumi Summoner with a TWF flying biped eidolon and Mr. plugg successfully disarming the samourai at least twice. Their healer (the Witch) got brought to neg HP once during this encounter and the samourai was maybe half hp.

They iron-manned all of this in one in-game day! this is the closest I have come so far to actually making a challenging encounter for them.

We are in book 2 and loving the roleplay that's developed in Senghor but the boarding combats I'm not even running now because there is no point in them facing 6 chelish marines that are supposedly CR 6 (they are LV 5 atm). They hardly ever hit (Samourai's AC is 18 the Cat is 24 when it has mage armor cast on it) and the 1d8+3 or 1d6+3 damage when they get lucky hardly dings their HP. Lowest HP of the group is the cat at 30 HP. Can't bypass the fighters becasue they'll provoke AoO's which one shot them. Can't just focus fire the healer because he has more HP than the fighter.

Are the naval boarding encounters supposed to be cakewalk? Should I actually have all of the Book 2 naval combats happen on the same day to wear them down and force them to spend resources? Do I just increase the CR of everything (and therefore give them more equivalent XP and rocket them to next level?). My experience in PFS have all been much more challenging and very likely to kill characters and I was expecting that from arguably the deadliest AP I've read about.


ahhh I see, now I see why everyone says the summoner class is broken. Summon monster 3 + char times per day and last for 1 min not 1 round per level?

What point buy do you have? 15 as its meant to be for a 4 man party or more? That can have an affect too.

I think in you're case its the summoner that is the problem, its too overpowered I think. For each encounter and creature he summons I guess its like having 1 extra npc in the party. You may need to ramp things up to compensate

Naval combats are pretty much a cake walk sometimes, it depends on what the players do most of the time. Again cahnce it up a bit if its boring, add a mage on the ship and sling spells at the parties ship before boarding, that should make a difference. Stonecall on the ship if rolled high enough can decimate a crew (then watch the players panic as the crew starts to dwindle nad they cant man the ship).

I agree with you, I try not to kill players off unless they are really stupid, it's a waste of everyone's time and effort. Just knock em down to minus every other encounter lol.

Silver Crusade

It is 15 pt buy and like Nidoran I love to be involved with the character creation process (maybe too much!). It does feel like they are 6 manning it (The druid has a Roc animal companion) but is it really ok to make the CR higher knowing it'll boost their XP gain?

Last night's naval combat was more of the same cakewalk but with a tragic (from my standpoint) twist. I ran the Upon the Famished Mane encounter but knowing those 6 marines were that much puppy chow I added a "Hellknight Signifier". In reality it was just a lv 7 Spellbreaker Inquisitor I set up without any actual Hellknight prestige class levels.

The PC's were on a job for Helise Solu (Senghor's rather corrupt leader) and had been ordered to sink the Famished Mane with all hands.
Helise doesn't want the Chelish navy to establish a permanent base in Senghor and thus disrupt the influx of Sargavan goods. Having to keep up appearances he signed the Chelaxian treaty then hired the PC's to take out the ambassador's ship. The PC's know nothing about this until after the battle.

Again, storywise I am able to spin intrigue without an issue but the combat went like this...

According to the setup, the PC's get a surprise round in addition to being able to sail up alongside the Mane with no shots being fire. So they get one action to board. The PC's see a hellknight on deck and begin to freak out. Witch cast's web, samourai barely makes it on deck by swinging over using the rigging, druid starts Call Lightning, summoner picks nose while cat gets on deck.

Round 1:

  • Samourai: Misses with magic harpoon due to webbing
  • Marines: 1/2 are stuck in web. other 1/2 close to 10 ft melee. One hits the samourai (only hit the baddies get in the entire fight!)
  • Summoner: casts haste; cat full-rounds 2 marines and kills both.
  • Witch: walks on deck and vomits spider swarm (Signifier and 2 marines take damage but are otherwise ok)
  • Druid: casts lightning at noncombatant captain (DECOY! it worked!)
  • Signifier: uses free hand to drop an alchemist fire on the webbing and burns away a splash radius area of webbing. She casts her one short duration buff, Divine Favor. The other buffs are already up as she has been in combat against the Vorsfang recently. Has resist 10 Fire from Fire domain.

Round 2:

  • Samourai: closes with and kills marine
  • Marines: retreat to inner circle surrounding signifier(one throws a alch fire for 1 fire vs. samourai since he can't see him)
  • Summoner: Cat moves into webbing and attacks trapped marine; summoner casts magic missile from her wand at Signifier
  • Witch: heals samourai to full hp with healing touch
  • Druid: casts lightning at noncombatant captain again
  • Signifier: Fire has burned away enough webbing that I ruled the web spell collapses (since it took out an entire side of the webbing it didn't have enough anchor points.) Signifier has Expedituous Retreat, Shield of Faith, Human bane and +14 Will save (rolled twice) vs. enchantments. Walks up to Samourai...and rolls a nat 1. The crit fail card caused her to be dazed for 1 round.

Round 3:

  • Samourai: Fails to hit Signifier's AC and forgets about hasted attack. (we all did)
  • Marines: Force feed cure light wounds pot to Signifier
  • Summoner: casts magic missile; cat closes and kills marine
  • Witch: hits captain with mace
  • Druid: casts lightning at noncombatant captain again
  • Signifier: Dazed

Round 4:

  • The samourai ijauitsu strikes for 31 hp (hitting the Signifier's 24 AC) and then finishes her with his hasted second strike for ~19 damage.(also hitting the AC 24)

I would normally just chalk it up to bad luck...but this KEEPS HAPPENING. The PC's have the devil's luck and my mooks get really bad rolls. The Signifier failed her perception to join the surprise round AND got a nat 2 on her Intiative. Maybe I'm just cursed?


Well, you are using two optional sub-systems to make it easier for the PC's: hero points and plot twists. Furthermore, you introduced a magic teleport to the Mans Promise, thus skipping a couple of rounds of missile fire by Pluggs allies.

Ship-to-ship is really that easy. It's the only battle of the day, meaning the PC's can nova it, and they'll most likely know that. If you want to challenge them, send in a sahaugin ambush (with beefed up sahaugins, as the standard CR 2 critters are really easy) after they have allready blasted everything at a random ship-battle. Don't worry about xp, just give them something... after all, if the PC's never was threathened, they never knew they were fighting CR 4 marines and not just CR 2 sailors.

Silver Crusade

Thanks for the advice ferrinwulf, BzAli, and everyone. I will be sure to apply some changes in the challenge for my group along these lines.

Liberty's Edge

I think you should have fun with miss "INK". I had her summon water mephits which dropped stinking clouds through the arrow slits while she attacked from above. See how they like they ambush by summoned critters.


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Thanks for everyones input. My Party (alchemist, twf rogue, fighter, skill monkey rogue all level three) entered riptide cove last night and faced the challenge of having no healer amongst them. They like it ! They call it 'the real feeling' and that makes it easy for me to let them beat up my monsters.
Entering the cove at high tide is a risk, but they are willing to rescue sandara and giffer tibbs from the grindylows at every cost.

I think its always the question if you and your players have fun. They had fun with every encounter so far and we had 9(!) four hour sessions so far!
If the mood is 'bloody' I am willing to give them their fights. But most of the time they like to roleplay and that's why I let them run from the swarms.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Summoner : broken. That truth has been out since the APG and Ultimate Magic were in print. Even the managment (ahem JJ ) agrees to that

Human taking a dedicated Orc Witch class simply though a freaking trait ? Honestly I don't care what a lot of the people on the forum claim that trait does ( I have MASSIVE doubts about it ), that is a broken claim almost on the level of the summoner .
Nevermind anything like a good backstory for that character,... oh us Orcs trained the young and puny human as a most cherished witch doctor.. and the Orcs patrons choose him as one of their agents! /irony off

Power attacking Samurai - is this pirates of the Tian Seas ? Nevermind character description like honor....

That is 3/4 rather broken/badly fitted concepts in one book

The crew composition is what really happens if one lets the players play "whatever you like", without regard to any backstory.

And stuff like that breaks the game - Usually a surefire way to kill the longterm enjoyment at the table.

Besides :
Learn/try to hit them with stuff that they cannot resist, but obstructs them. Sight obstructions, webbing their ship (and its steering), take the environment into account. Hit their ship with fire and use pyrotechnics on that. Use some guys with aim actions to help fire that Ballista for more effect. Use webs/nets/tanglefoot bags, use silence (on said tanglefoot bags)

And IF you are loath to elminate the broken concepts... well, hit them the same stuff and go ALL OUT .
Welcome to scarred "Hellknight" Havish, of "Orcish" ancestry and his two younger brothers..... Or don't you think the chellish cannot get hold of a master summoner ? Or a Druid summoning a fire elemental into the PCs rigging ? Or a water elemental tearing off their rudder ?

Last : the ship to ship combats are pushovers (from the PCs point of view).


let me add : doublefeaturing two encounters (uexpectedly) into the same day really puts the characters into a "restrained" mode.

Just had a "random" Kuru war canoe out to gather some fresh meat, aka in "Reaver" mode (say round 30 paddlers, a shaman and a chieftain) hit the becalmed vessel during the day. Not much damage, but several hundred (1)crossbow bolts expended, same for their entire repertoire of second level spells ( the highest the group currently has)

In the same night, the Sahuagin swam up to the becalmed ship (attracted by all the shark activity from the dead Kuru ). Being boarded at bow and stern, that midnight battle turned out "not so well" for the PCs, making them lose one character (killed and tossed overboard) and several crew.

And yes, I carefully asked them some days ahead to tell me where their characters are actually shacking up on the "Man's Promise", and whether they would spend their night sleeping or drinking. Hence : everyone was divided, asleep and prettily surprised.

Nevermind still "out of spells" from the previous encounter.

Watches have now been re-adapted, to secure player presence on deck at all times.

Kudos to the group,though - they also played "honestly unaware" of what was happening outside their field of view.


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Rules for not breaking APs:
1)Learn to say no to players.
2)Disallow most rulebooks options outside of CRB and APG. See 1. above.
3)Allow only 15 point buy characters.
4)Only allow for 4 PCs unless you know exactly how much to scale up an encounter to account additional PCs (There's a great how-to guide that someone on the boards put up about challenging encounters for PCs, it is much better than anything Paizo has published as it breaks down the math better).

I see so many players come to the boards asking how to make APs harder when they have broken one of the rules above. Most of these issues would go away if the things above were adhered to.

Allowing a PC Undine in Skulls AP, bad idea. It destroys so much of what makes the AP unique and challenging in parts.

Allowing classes that have pets in any AP where you have more than 4 players is just making more work for yourself. Druid animal companions and Summoner pets might as well be a 5th part member, because they are just as strong as another PC.

This AP for most portions are NOT set up to avoid the 15 min. adventuring day. In fact, half of the first half of the AP is designed with exactly one encounter per day expected. After lullying your players into the tempo, a wondering monster or two have they have shot their load of abilities and best spells is a way to change things up and temper that kind of playstyle.

To sum up, most of the work in making sure your PCs don't break an AP comes during character creation and what GMs allow to be brought to the table. The work the GM must do to up encounters can then be dictated by how many players they allow to play in the game. And finally if things are still easy by way of adventure design with PCs that have super abilities that are short-lived, modifications can be made in how encounters are run and wandering monsters are added. Failing all of those things (character creation being the biggest) that leaves you with just adding more numbers to encounters.


I would wait until they've gone through the grindylow caves before you change anything too much. My PCs had a pretty easy time of the first module too until they got there, and then things got quite a bit harder.

That being said, if you gave them fairly powerful characters you'll probably still have problems.

I'm a big fan of the Pathfinder adventure paths, but they have a really bad habit of making very underpowered NPCs(Druvalia Thrune as written has levels of aristocrat for example). This becomes especially evident in the 5th and 6th books of most adventure paths when the PCs are above 10th level. If you have 4 mediocre PCs, then it should be decently challenging. If you have more than 4 PCs, or they're playing more powerful and/or well optimized characters, then you're going to have serious problems. If you have that kind of party and you don't want your PCs steamrolling everything, you'll need to make major changes to the enemies they face.

For example, I'm almost done running Skull and Shackles for a party of 4 well-optimized 3.5 PCs (with 2 cohorts). They are:

A barbarian/frenzied berserker
A druid
An evil cleric
A warblade (the cleric's cohort)
A sorcerer/stormcaster
A cleric of besmara (the sorcerer's cohort)

All are moderately well optimized and are played by experienced players. I was able to leave the first two books mostly alone, with a couple exceptions. The 3rd and 4th books I rewrote some key NPCs (in many cases simply giving them better spell selection) and mostly just added more minions to keep the action economy from being stacked too far in the PCs favor. The 5th book required rewrites of most every key NPC and a few of the less important ones. The 6th book I rewrote nearly every NPC they fought, including all of the lower-level minion NPCs in the caves under Lucrehold, and added in several nasty monsters in some of the key encounters.

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