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I've run a bunch of times with players that took very diverse characters. I made them use their own rolls (which often ended up giving them awesome stats for some reason).

Eventually I had to increase the difficulty of fights or challenges—they usually kicked ass, but sometimes it was obvious they were going to die (either be it for lack of strategy, bad luck or underestimating the monsters).

How can I make them survive the fight without losing realism?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Use the personality of the opposition. The easiest way to adjust difficulty is to either focus fire on a single PC or spread the damage out. Particularly in the heroic tier, few PCs can stand up against concentrated fire; this is particularly true if the enemy coordinates, delays their actions, and all go immediately after the leader has gone. Conversely, most fights will go far better for the PCs if the monsters aren't focused, because there's little chance a PC will drop before the leader can do something about it.

In order to make this work, your NPCs and monsters need to have personality, because your players need to believe that they'd change tactics. In your specific case, I'd start talking about overconfidence -- actually give the players a window into the minds of the enemy. It's all smoke and mirrors, of course, because you determine what the enemy is thinking, but that's roleplaying for you.

For example: "Oh, he thinks they've got this in the bag, he's going to go for the individual glory and try and take down that pesky mage in the back all by himself." And then the goblin peels off from the pack and heads for the mage. Now the paladin's not facing as much incoming damage, and he has a better chance to survive.

It's helpful to set this up ahead of time. From the start of a fight, I'll generally be talking about what the enemies are thinking. I'll have them picking fights with specific PCs, and so on. That makes it easier for the players to accept it when the motivations change.

If you don't provide the explanation, it won't seem real. If you do, it'll make sense to your players and they'll buy into it.

Along these lines, note that it's easier to crank the difficulty up than it is to dial it down. It's more believable that the enemy will get desperate and fight harder than it is to believe they'll get cocky and fight less hard. Overall, you should use both techniques, but lean towards spreading damage around a bit at first and dialing it into a specific PC later on.

The other easy trick for making things tougher: bring in another wave of enemies. Again, this is easier than arbitrarily deciding that a bunch of enemies will flee the field, particularly if they're winning.

Finally, don't shy away from death, because it doesn't have to be death. PCs do tend to have to run sometimes -- in the Dungeon Master's Guide, this is specifically mentioned. They don't have to win every fight. If they lose, think about why the monsters would take them prisoner or leave their bodies there. This can spawn much more interesting roleplay than a simple victory... and once they've had the relief of waking up rather than dying once, they're more likely to believe that their enemies can defeat them. And that'll make it feel realer when they don't.

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First off, I'll assume you've aware that it is good for the party to lose sometimes. If they've done something stupid, perhaps a few characters need to suffer or die. There isn't anything wrong with that.

That said, there are steps you can take before the game, and during the session to ensure the whole party doesn't suffer when things haven't gone their way.

Before the game, you can break a potentially overwhelming encounter up. Take a third of the beasties, put them in a nearby room and note that they will join the combat on a later round if they hear sounds of combat (round 5 or so).

This will enable the party to use their full potential against a lesser number of foes and they should do better. If things still go poorly for them, you can decide not to have that secondary group join.

Sometimes no matter how hard you plan, things happen. If you find yourself nearing a TPK (Total Party Kill) and you want to give the party an out consider one of these options.

  • Capture the party, the captors decide to eat the party later/ransom them back/whatever. They give the party a chance to escape when there are fewer eyes on them. Make them earn back their stuff :)
  • Unexpected allies. Bring in a nearby group that isn't necessarily friendly to the group currently fighting the party. They can help the party, or the whole encounter can grind to a halt for some negotiation.
  • Divine assistance. It sounds hokey, but if you don't do it too often it can work. Have a sturdy pillar fall over onto a couple enemies. An enemy stumbles into an unknown pit. Start an earthquake and have everyone run for the dungeon entrance.
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Also a very good answer, it was hard to choose between the two. +1 –  Moox Sep 23 '10 at 21:11
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Reducing, The same way as any other RPG:

  • by having one or more of the opponents surrender
  • by having one or more of the opponents flee
  • by having one or more of the opponents constitute a separate faction which turns on the rest of the bad guys
  • by having some environmental/scenic separation of one or more of the group.
    • works best if some "reasonable" explanation for the change.
    • best trigger is often some powerful magic spell.
  • in fantasy, by having one or more of the opponents be illusions or phantasms
    • Some of these illusions may have done illusory damage, as well.
    • in some systems, illusions and/or phantasms do real damage inherently, so damage may not need to be reduced
    • in some systems, illusions and/or phantasms can use real weapons, so some treasure may still be obtained.
  • in fantasy, or supernatural moderns or horror, have one or more of the bad guys be summoned beings, and the spell having brought them ends...
    • returning them whence they came, or...
    • reducing their abilities considerably, or...
    • rendering them cut off from any supernatural abilities.

Specific to D&D 4:

  • simply make one or more of the unhit ones into Minions.
    • The players need not know which was a minion and which was simply a clean-kill...
  • claim forgetfulness and remove one or two who were hit, claiming they were supposed to have been minions
    • this one, if used too often, strains the GM's credibility with players.

Non-mechanical solutions relying upon PC cooperation:

  • Have the leader of the NPC side call for the PC side to retreat
  • Have the NPC leader call for a parley
  • Have the NPC leader call for a surrender of the PC's

In any case, when using such techniques, it's imperative that they not come off as the GM simply saving the PC's bacon.

Increasing challenge:

  • Add additional NPC's...
    • reinforcements arrive
    • summoned monsters, possibly via expendable magic items
    • additional healing, again, possibly via expendable magic items. (Potions, etc)
  • in 4E, un-minion the minions
  • add traps that haven't been triggered
  • have a PC "trigger" a hidden door revealing additional monsters
  • add additional __ to NPCs
    • adding Damage Resistance: just replace hit points that should have been lost. Can be the "Damn, I forgot" mode
    • adding additional hit points: so long as you don't exceed maximum hit points possible, players need never know
    • magic item: NPC opens a hidden panel to reveal a powerful magic item.
    • use it brutally on the players; they're gonna wind up with it anyway
    • if it is expendable, use it up as fast as possible on the NPCs.
  • fall back
    • to constrained space if individuals tougher than the frontage of the party
    • to open space if in constrained space and individuals weaker but more numerous than the party
    • to weapons cache if armaments insufficient
    • past a defensive work that can be triggered when most of NPC party across.
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There are several points I'd like to address here.

  1. Imho 4E isn't suited for handling rolled stats. Rider effects (especially on controllers and leaders) can quickly spiral out of control if the players don't need to pay attention to their stats. If the wizard can (at level 1) have e.g. an 18 in Int, Wis and Con due to lucky die rolls balance will take a hit. In my experience the standard array (or a comparable array or the default 22pts point buy method) allow for heroic, powerful and yet diverse characters.

  2. Sometimes the player characters just have to run. To quote good old Gandalf: "This foe is beyond any of you. RUN!" Of course the DM should make it pretty obvious by using an appropriate description that the PCs are not supposed to fight. Dealing some serious damage to the environment (e.g. having the monster easily tear down the reinforced door the party fighter earlier couldn't force open even with help) or using lots of known dangerous non-minion monsters usually does the trick.

  3. If the players went in over their head, you could "accidentally" play the enemies dumb without it being too obvious. They could "forget" to move into flanking position once in a while, or "accidentally" move in to attack a certain character thus violating the defender's mark or provoking additional OAs. Or the enemies could fight not to kill but rather to take captives. Depending on whether or not you roll attacks/damage/recharge in the open or not you could also fudge some die rolls, dealing less than average damage (or turning a critical hit into a normal hit) or delaying a dangerous recharge power for two or three rounds. However, beware. This is a slippery slope because once the players overcame a very dangerous combat without obvious intervention they may expect to do it again. And sooner than you know it you have to fudge the dice over and over again or still face a TPK in the end. If it's a highly dramatic scene, you can help the PCs from behind the screen. If it was only a "normal" combat you should weight the consequences carefully.

  4. And if all else fails, let them bite the dust. Perhaps they can manage to let one PC barely escape. Or perhaps the village mounts a search operation for the missing "heroes" and after finding their corpses somehow gets them raised from the dead. Anyway, characters dying should teach the players a valuable lesson. Perhaps you could even hold some sort of "debriefing" and point out some mistakes they made (not caring for a save escape route, moving into very unfavorable positions, wasting high damage powers on minions and using low damage area powers on the elite/solo, etc. etc.).

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Just another thought, as a way to quickly level/delevel monsters, the whole +1 to hit and damage is surposed to equal a +1 to level. So if you have an encounter going badly you can add or remove +1/-1's until it feels more appropiate.

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