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So recently my players realized that they can spam poison-based Con damage on my bosses to effectively nuke them down in a couple rounds. This is basically ruining the challenge of my fights, but they seem to love it. I'm not sure how to handle this without basically saying "No, you can't do that." Or making the bosses suddenly immune for some reason. Their entire tactics rely on lowering the enemies saves, then spamming Con Damage to lower it more, which allows easier Con Damage spam, until it's dead by round three.

I don't know how to handle this. I don't want to be an ass and just start doing it back in a "Well fine, if you do ima do it too" fashion.

This sucks...

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9 Answers 9

up vote 46 down vote accepted

Don't make all of the bosses suddenly immune, but you can certainly add in strong henchmen with immunities. If I were a big baddie in your campaign (and had a pulse) then I'd be recruiting bodyguards who didn't care about con damage. Especially if the PCs aren't shy about their strategy. Even if so, some divination here and there wouldn't be game-breaking.

Depending on what ways your PCs are delivering con damage, you might try shifting the battlefield around. Is it the melee battlers? The next bad guy is an archer with some serious high terrain advantage. Magic? This would-be tyrant invested in some spell resistant cloaks.

Basically, the answer boils down to this: Your party is relying heavily on one strategy. Villains who don't prepare for that strategy die, and the rest thrive. Ever heard the phrase "there will always be somebody stronger?" Add in "survival of the fittest," too.

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@Stanning Golems are particularly good for this. You can't con damage that which has no con to begin with. –  Zibbobz Nov 9 '13 at 16:35
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Absolutely so. Let them enjoy their triumph. Let the bards sing of it. And the next smart bad guy they face... listened to the bards, and hired a necromancer. –  Tynam Nov 9 '13 at 22:25
    
@Zibbobz Vampires also have no Con (and I believe any undead). –  called2voyage Feb 19 at 22:16

First (assuming your PCs are using poison to do this, but I wish you would clarify this in your question), make sure you understand the poison stacking rules - if you suddenly hit someone with three doses of a 1d3 CON poison (or the spell poison) they are NOT taking 3d3 points of CON a round; they're taking 1d3 with a +4 to the DC and double duration.

Second, CON poisons are expensive, like 3000gp+ per dose, especially if you want a DC high enough that it's going to bother a boss. And they normally wear off after one hit. Even if you're not artificially restricting their availability, that means a lot of money spent and they can't be obtained in smaller locales. If they're relying on wands of poison, there's still high cost/not super high DCs. If they're using the spell - there's a lot of fourth level spells that if you spam them jack up an enemy. (I prefer blindness at third level myself as a combat-ender).

Third, people's reputation gets around pretty quickly unless there are never any survivors or witnesses (or anyone looking at the dead bodies or any scrying or the PCs run their mouths...). Poison use is naughty in most people's eyes and this'll make the PCs persona non grata in many places - even if not criminals, definitely regarded as sketchy and low class (even more so than the average adventurer). Also, enemies will know that the PCs use poison, and while of course there's fully immune creatures (undead, constructs) even simple remedies like antitoxins are cheap (50 gp) and effective (+5 to saves) and last for an hour, so everyone can drink one as soon as it's clear someone's broken into the dungeon/fort/whatever.

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About the first point: does it also apply if the poisons used are different? –  Cristol.GdM Nov 10 '13 at 22:11
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+1 for the reputation with normals. Many people underestimate how much of a consequence this can be. –  wraith808 Nov 11 '13 at 1:21
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@Scrollmaster no, not if they're different. But CON poisons (especially ones with nontrivial DCs) are mighty rare. –  mxyzplk Nov 11 '13 at 2:56

The first recommendation I have is to limit the availability of the poison.

  • Your party has accrued a nasty reputation and merchants are reluctant to sell the reagents necessary.
  • Your party is so renowned for using poisons as a method that the enemy keeps antidotes on hand.
  • Regardless of the party's reputation, the boss sends some thieves in and steals the party's major weapons or poison doses.

Next is the obvious: Increase the boss resistances. Yes it may seem a little harsh to make people specifically defensive against this tactic but Baron Von Evil might start hiring specialists anyway.

Alignment can be a huge restrictive constraint. Good-aligned PCs are far less inclined to use "underhanded" tactics, and while there are the Ravages and some poisons that are designed for good against evil, then the enemies don't always have to be counter-alignments. Plus, if you describe a poison as having agonizing symptoms, it could have some severe effects. Allies of theirs might not want to work with people that are so inhumane.

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+1 for allies saying "hey wait, who is the villain here..?" –  LitheOhm Nov 9 '13 at 7:19
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Make it so expensive that they will only buy one "just in case". Add a danger of self poisoning themselves each time they use the poison. 25% is enough. They will fail once then calm down. –  Discipol Nov 9 '13 at 19:36
    
+1 for limiting the supply. You know what is dangerous to harvest? Venoms and other toxins. There aren't likely to be poison merchants, just organizations that have no interest in sharing their secret weapon and highly paid poisoners, who have no interest on pouring themselves out of business. –  cr0m Nov 15 '13 at 4:58
    
@Discipol I seem to remember Poison Use being a class feature in Pathfinder that eliminates the risk of accidentally poisoning yourself. This also means that there are already rules for accidentally poisoning yourself. Feel free to make an answer dealing with Poison Use and possibly failure to roll poison mishap. and –  Metool yesterday

Another option is to use the story to both protect your bosses and raise the challenge instead of relying (exclusively) on a system-based solution. Sure, as others have pointed out, the bosses might get wind of the PCs' tactics and prepare and ready combat countermeasures - but you can, if it fits your RPing style, go for a subtler approach as well. It shouldn't always be necessary, or even acceptable to kill a "boss", especially if said boss is an intelligent creature. Plot your story in a way that practically requires the boss to be alive for a truly successful resolution.

I think this can be shown best with some examples:

  1. An unintelligent creature as a boss: A powerful fence, a contact of the party requires a live bullette for a gladiatorial combat to be held in an arena tomorrow, because the previous one got poisoned by rivals, and tons of money depend on the fence's creature winning a few matches. However, the only known bullette in the area is under the control of a kobold tribe's shaman. In practice, the bullette is the boss - but the fence needs it practically unhurt. Healing potions and simpler spells can heal its HP losses... but they won't give back its CON, and the fence won't be happy if it loses tomorrow. Capture it.

  2. An intelligent creature: The boss is a Dark Knight, a Lady of the Iths - however, a few days before the party would set out to confront her, they learn that this Lady might in fact be the mother of the party's leader. (Heck, maybe the Lady herself told her this in a previous, foreshadowing confrontation: "I'm your mother, Sook!") It's obvious now that there's hope for turning the Lady of the Iths back to the path of righteousness, which would be a huge advantage for the Good Guys (and the leader should find it kind of impossible to kill her own mother too, unless she's a psychopath or something.) Unfortunately, everyone knows what they till recently considered an advantage: that the Lady's health is pretty fragile. She might die of losing a few CON points. Also, if she dies, her apprentice, a way more ruthless bastard with tons of CON (because he's a half-dragon or something), a 0 in diplomacy, and a thousand miles between him and the party will take her place in command, and order, through magic, the Lady's 100k strong orc army to raid the city the heroes live in - a move his mistress, the Lady didn't take, being the wise evil she is. (Even though she could win, why waste resources on such a grand scale? She used subtle manipulation and kidnappings.)

See my point? Make some of your bosses bad to kill. (But don't overdo this either. Don't punish your PCs for inventing and utiziling good tactics - just remind them, as others have also said, that the world rarely follows a single pattern all the time.)

If you like this answer (which I hope you will, obviously :)), consider combining it with all the great tips of the other answers.

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Undead and Constructs are both immune to ability damage and drain (not to mention poisons and disease). Using creatures of those types will remove this strategy as a viable option. Once the players have moved on, you can go back to normal critters...

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+1 for distraction. The technique they discovered maybe new now, but after the players are confronted with a different challenge, they will stop this particular kind of spammming. Furthermore, you can limit the players ability to do CON damage in a more natural way later on, so it doesn't feel as if you are simply raining on their parade by saying "No." –  Anaksunaman Nov 14 '13 at 3:33

If the PCs have really gone all-in on this, then they should start getting famous (or infamous?) for it. You can start hinting at this in towns. Once they get famous for their tactics, it starts to make more sense that the villains would hear about them and, if they know the PCs are the ones following them, prepare accordingly.

I'm assuming that the players are using poisons with a short onset time (or no onset time at all). If that's the case, One possibility might be to introduce this concept using a villain who heard the PCs were following him, and came prepared with a good stock of antidotes. The thing about this is that it won't save him: short-onset poisons won't leave him any time to stop primary damage, so eventually he should still lose to the same tactics the PCs used before.

But it should make the fight noticeably more difficult and/or tedious. With only primary damage to rely on, the PCs will need more doses of poison than usual, and they'll waste more time applying it to their weapons. At some point, it should also be clear that this villain heard the PCs were following him, knew their reputation for using certain poisons, and tried to prepare. His particular scheme was intuitive and sensible, and although it didn't work out in the end, it wasn't totally ineffective either. It's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to improve upon it. Or even if it was ineffective, it sends the message that villains are starting to get wise to the PCs' tactics, and are trying to develop a way around it, even if they haven't succeeded yet.

The idea behind this is to maintain the players' sense of agency. They changed the world, not some random piece of DM-fiat falling out of the sky.

One other thing to consider is copycat adventurers. The most literal version of this is absolute gold as recurring comedic rivals if your campaign is into that sort of thing, but it also makes sense that if the PCs are so successful with this tactic, other adventurers might start to try it too. This makes it more sensible in general for villains to start preparing for.

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A lot of the other answers have covered most of the salient points but I wanted to pick up on something that others have only touched on tangentially. When making the boss immune to con damage it gets pretty dull if enemy casters who normally have less that stellar constitution suddenly have a whole bunch. That's just not cricket. Instead, you need to make the reasons for the enemies resistance to this tactic of the PCs seem legitimate. Using undead or constructs as minions is a very easy way to do this but probably gets dull pretty quickly, not to mention both of these monster types are going to leave any sneak attack happy rogue in the party feeling rather left out.

Other legitimate ways of defending against constitution loss are exactly the same as what the party might use. If the PCs are known for using poison any sane enemy is going to be buying a bunch of antitoxin potions for his guards and/or minions. The PCs will probably come across a stash of them at some point as loot so when they see enemies drinking out of similar bottles as they ready for a fight it won't be that surprising that they're suddenly less susceptible to poison. Depending on the level Delay Poison or Neutralise poison may also be something a boss will happily throw down.

For religious enemies having a cleric on hand is going to be pretty easy and while casting healing spells in combat isn't normally a great option some restoration spells cast when the party thinks they've almost won basically resets the battle to the start, just with the PCs hopefully almost out of poison.

Another tactic that I don't think was mentioned is having a dummy boss. The players can spend their poison taking down the hulking brute who seems to be leading the bandits only to find themselves attacked from the shadows by the real enemy after they've already spent their fortitude debuffing spells and poisons.

I also wanted to touch on how they're getting the poisons they're using. If they're a good party it should be hard for them to obtain such things. Poisons are largely evil in the D&D world (some people say all poisons are evil, others allow non-damaging poisons such as Drow poison to be neutral) and if a paladin walks in to a hive of scum and villainy looking to pick up a batch of black lotus extract you can be darn sure they won't get very far. That looks far too much like some kind of sting operation for anyone to risk selling stuff to them.

Another common way to get hold of a large amount of poison is through abuse of the psionic Minor Creation power (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=209176). If this is what they're using you're probably going to have other problems. It's a pretty overpowered abuse of the rules at the level it's available and I have no qualms about banning it in my games. If you don't want to ban it, I'd at least say it's fair game for the enemies to start using similar tricks against the party. All's fair in love and war.

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I would not try to think as a DM who cares about his encounters too much here but try to reason what would happen in the world that you have designed. Let us assume that your party has been going around killing a few 'respectable' baddies and assuming that they did not kill everyone any remaining baddie will know of the tactic of your party and try to prepare for it. The preparation could mean either bribing all vendors of materials for poison (removing the access to it) or acquiring some form of immunity/protection magic against the party's chosen magic.

I do wish to stress the survivors part as there are still ways of inferring the parties tactic even if they left no survivors. Any criminal examination organization might receive critical information from merchants about the goods they sold prior to a certain key figure disappearing.

The final point is that if the party was truly smart and they got their poison from natural sources and if they never left any survivors than the tactic should still be working as the remaining 'baddies' have no way of knowing how their fellow 'baddies' got disposed of.

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"Have to think carefully what combo we use against enemy, because GM can use it against us later", said my fellow player once.

There are always survivors or spying and divination spells if GM wants. Players don't necessarily know about them. Also someone can investigate battlefield and make conclusions. Villains often have other enemies in addition to PCs. They can be good guys, like paladin or rival villains or even boss of the boss. So word spreds as mentioned above. Villains not only prepare to deal with poisons but learn to use them to their own advantage.

If players want to use poisons, let them, but feel free to use poisons against them as well.

In game you can tell that villain drinks potion or cast spell recognized as delay poison or remove poison... or have cleric to do casting, it won't feel so arbitary for players then.

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