Adjusting Encounters to Appropriate Difficulty on the Fly


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion


I've found that with Pathfinder, I end up adjusting encounters a lot on the fly. When you are running for a well optimized party, sometimes modules, or even home brewed games, can end up feeling a little like a walk in the park.

Now, I'm with everyone else when it comes to saving a player's behind from some bad rolls. For example, say a rogue does his job and hunts for traps just ahead of the party, doubles up on failed rolls, and then suffers a critical hit from the monster in the next room that was waiting for him. WOOPS!

In that case, I'll do something sneaky like look at the players sheet like I want to see if he passed his saving throw for sure, but really be double checking his HP. Then I'll just award damage that is like 4-6 off from killing him, instead of causing his head to come clean off.

That's not really an issue most of the time though. Most of the time, I'm sitting there ADDING special powers to monsters, bumping up their hit points, or secretly giving them some DR or automatically letting them pass an opening saving throw or two. No one likes to win a fight just because the wizard color sprayed the BBEG or the fighter went first and critical hit its head off.

The important part is gauging when the players feel like they are having a challenge. Most of the time, it is only coming off as a challenge if the party blew through most of their spells and spread some damage around. Dropping a PC counts as well, as long as the monster gets off two good rounds of action.

The real difficult part is deciding just how much experience you want to award. If the party was against a CR 8 when they are APL 4 and they would have trashed it in the first round without spending much, you just got to bump that down to a CR 4, because that's what it is. On the other hand, if you drop an extra 60 HP or a couple hero points and free saves on the CR 8, is he a CR 10 or 12 now?

In my opinion, no. He's just a CR 8 because you made him feel like an 8, whatever you had to do to get it there.


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I'm generally against being too heavy-handed with the adjustments on the fly. If a trap can one-shot a rogue, for example, it just means the rogue should have known he wasn't in any condition to go scouting for them. Maybe he had a head wound or something, and wasn't thinking clearly...

Or when a fighter walks up and the planets align just right for so that he one-hit-crits the BBEG; don't take that away from him. Players don't get to experience many of those moments, both good and bad, so you really should let it sink in. The rogue will get rezz'd and hopefully the player puts more thought into future actions. The warrior gets a story to take home with him, or maybe decides to use that encounter as a reason to justify the leadership feat or something. Who knows.

What I am all for is long-term adjustments. If you see a trend where your players are walking through encounter after encounter without a sweat, then go ahead and bump up the difficulty. Because truly, that's what the actual BBEG would do anyway, if he noticed he was being chased by a deadly group of adventurers who are cutting through his ranks like butter. Maybe their sheer power is enough to push him into bargaining with a demon or something.

Whatever you do, just make sure the adjustments you make are explained in a way that makes sense to the characters, not necessarily the players. And do not get in the habit of fudging rolls (good or bad) because players pick up on that. At best, they'll just get more brazen and stupid with their actions knowing you'll pick up the slack. At worst, they'll resent you for it because they can't count on the rules actually being used consistently.


The APs, as far as I know, are designed for an average built party of 4 characters using 15 point buy. If you go outside of that, you're going to need to pump up everything to account for it. I usually just go with hit points, I max them then pump them some more. Except for if one of the PCs manages some spectacular attack, then I'll let them have it. I usually don't fully flesh out the BBEG or his lieutenants until the week before the party is going to get to them just so I can properly gauge their power going in.

Sovereign Court

I'm okay with traps being actually dangerous, but every trap will follow one of these rules:

A) It's quite possible to not notice the trap or trigger it even if you did, but the damage won't kill a healthy PC outright. If the PCs are walking in it already wounded, that's their mistake. Healing is usually available. In this case the main challenge is making sure you notice the trap before it happens.

B) The trap can be totally deadly, and even hard to deal with. But it will be obvious, so that it won't be triggered by accident. The problem isn't to notice it, it's to figure out how to deal with it.

I follow a roughly similar policy on monsters.


Cranefist wrote:
The real difficult part is deciding just how much experience you want to award. If the party was against a CR 8 when they are APL 4 and they would have trashed it in the first round without spending much, you just got to bump that down to a CR 4, because that's what it is.

That's right. Punish the party with diminished experience returns for being good at what they do. /sarcasm

No, it was a CR 8. They just kicked it's #$%. They should be entitled to a CR8 worth of exp, regardless of it it was easy.

You don't punish your players for being good at being players. You step up your game as a GM. You use intelligent creatures with advanced tactics, terrain effects, pre-buffing, minions for increased action economy, etc. Or you up the CR and suck it up that your players are leveling faster than you'd like.


thegreenteagamer wrote:


You don't punish your players for being good at being players. You step up your game as a GM. You use intelligent creatures with advanced tactics, terrain effects, pre-buffing, minions for increased action economy, etc. Or you up the CR and suck it up that your players are leveling faster than you'd like.

I don't know if you are playing APs and modules but i do and the reason i buy them is because i don't have the time to make my own campaign, so when the PCs reach the point that they cakewalk everything; i will do what i can to make the game more challenging but i will do so in such a way that i don't have to rebuilt everything from scratch because that defeats the purpose of be buying the APs. If that means ignoring some rules about xp because i don't want to deal with "xp problem" so be it.

That said i really don't like cranefist's "on the fly" way to increase difficulty, i know that this doesn't make a lot of sense but i find it a lot better to actually make the changes beforehand and not on the fly.


Pathfinder Adventure Subscriber

I'm running an AP for a similar reason; I don't yet feel competent to build an adventure, let alone a campaign, from scratch. But I still have to do a lot of adjustment.

I do preliminary adjustments before the game; increase monster HP, throw advanced on some enemies (as we get further in, it will be all enemies, I suspect), add an enemy here or there, work out how enemies may cascade into the encounter, and so on. This, along with basic prep like making sure I have the stat blocks and either know how abilities work or have easy access to the necessary references, does most of it.

But sometimes I need to do a little more on the fly. Perhaps lucky rolls on one side or the other are swinging the combat too far in one direction. Perhaps I made a mistake in my original adjustments. In these cases, I tend to tweak enemy hp, and occasionally AC or attack bonus.

It's a little harder, since I'm playing online, and the enemy rolls are generally public (though there's no reason I have to do it that way). At least, it's a little harder to quietly mess with attack bonuses.

My general, broad rule, is that if things are going badly for the PCs because they're doing something stupid, they can pay the price for that (though I would like to avoid any campaign-ending events). If things are going badly for the PCs because of something I did (incorrectly estimating the adjustments I need to make, for example), I will do whatever I can to give the PCs a leg up, and if necessary, that will include rewinding and redoing the encounter from the beginning. That hasn't happened yet, but I have had to tweak enemy numbers a bit.

I've also knocked down enemy hp a couple of times just to streamline things. After two consecutive rounds of both sides missing every attack, I reduced enemy hp just to speed up the encounter, and try to reduce wasted time. Shifted them from taking 3 hits to finish to taking 2 hits to finish.


I have decided that if I gm again all enemies will get at least +10 more initiative.

Also I shall blatantly cheat more so I can make the pcs feel at least kinda sorta threatened maybe.


I'm not so fond of cheating rolls or defenses in the middle of the encounter, 'cause it defeats the whole purpose of randomly generated values for a battle. Besides, you'll be unjustly punishing your players for being good at it ( inventing new tactics, trying new spells...).

But let's go to the point at hand.

Since Pc are tailor-made and standard monsters usually aren't, it usually ends in the "walk in the park" scenario more often than not when you don't have the time or the skill to work it out a bit before the actual game session(bit of advice: change the feats and spells of your monsters, 'cause they only use the core rulebook ones -in case there's someone without access to new materials or srd- making whole species clonics and thus boring as hell) . When you try to apply the few basic rules they give you to optimize "on the fly" an encounter (basically, the templates on the bestiaries), you may found you still fell short or did a massacre because the two basic concepts involved are so meagerly expressed: ECL and CR. ECL is an average, cr it's an estimation of the danger and level of resource depletion it involves. The difference tells you the level of the encounter, along with the appropriate xp reward they deserve. But at least one of them (ecl) is blurry ( as I said, tailor-made pcs tend to be out of the standard... there's nothing wrong with that), so you have to fine-tune the cr to acomplish the adecuate level of danger. You have the basic ecl, the stated CR of the monster, and then add or substract a few new conditions to modify the difference. There are the usual fast templates (under monster advancement in the basic bestiary) a few under "designing encounters" in the gamemastering section of the core rulebook ("ad hoc adjustments") and a few other that can be extrapolated from the very system or experience. It's what I call the "1/2 level tuning" rule

Here there are a few basic 1/2 level ecl modifiers:


  • level of magic: every step up or down in the magic level of your campaign ( It determines the general level of equipment they own) not counting the extra on a fast advancement play . +1/2 or -1/2.
  • every pc beyond 4. +1/2
  • every pc less than 4. -2/2
  • Higher than average stats. That's difficult to ascertain, but you may say that for every 4 extra points of bonuses (beyond 4) on average amounts to +1/2 to ecl. Check over your players pc's .

And here we have a few basics 1/2 level cr modifiers:


  • Adding +4,+4,+2,+2,+0,-2 to the monster's stats ( the same that if you were giving him a Pc class) +1/2
  • ambush conditions: monsters got surprise round (+1/2 or -1/2 when they are ambushed)
  • readiness: +1/2 if they are fully prep beyond their normal conditions ( the ones they say are already counted on their stats)
  • equipment: for every step up or down on the listed treasury for that level (if they can actually use it) +1/2 or -1/2.
  • "0 or +1 cr" templates. Add 1/2 intead of 0.
  • extra feats: this is tricky and have to be carefully considered, but you can add 2 feats for a +1/2. Some feats are more potent than others, obviously, so if it feels too good a combo to be true, it probably is. I usually recommend using two of these( all feats without prerequisites): improved initiative, toughness, combat reflexes, dodge, greater fortitude, iron will, lightning reflexes, fleet, magical aptitude, skill focus and the like, weapon focus, vital strike... but you can use anything you think would be addecuated and plausible ( it's your group, you know them better than anyone)

How all this works? What is important it's the difference between cr and ecl. (0 diference amounts the pxs of a unmodified average encounter for their unmodified ECL, +1 for an unmodified challenging etc, etc...) Let's say that you allow your five players ( +1/2 to ecl) play with high average stats (+1/2 to ecl), your campaign is one level richer than the standard one ( +1/2 to ecl), all of them 5-level characters. We are actually talking of an ecl of +3/2 ( for a total of 6.5 ecl), so you need add that amount to CR to compensate on your encounters. Take the basic Cr of the creature listed in your printed adventure, and for example, add the advanced template ( +1) and perhaps improved initiative and tougness (+1/2). If this was an average combat, you will give them xp for an average combat of their level for a four pcs' group ( take the px amount given in the monster and divide it by four: every pc must win this ) no matter if the monster was actually a cr 6.5

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