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My NPCs are tougher than I thought. Luckily I'm finding this out before the game is starting (in 2 hours), so I still have a bit of time to adjust, but if anyone is willing to help, I'd be interested in advice.

3 dire rats (CR1/3 each), and 1 Ratling (CR2). Seemed fine to me until I looked up what a Ratling is, they have fear, dimension door, bleed, sneak attack... pretty mean stuff! - The players are currently 2 lvl 2 goblins (alchemist and ranger) and perhaps another player is coming (1st level goblin of some sort), but not the typical full party the module is expecting. Then again these two goblins have managed to beat the We Be Goblins final battle by themselves as well.

I feel like besides changing the enemy characters involved, if I come up with a good way of adjusting the behavior such that it leads to a long epic fight rather than character death, it could still work... Probably if they set his house on fire or something creative they could get him good, but there's still something in the house that I would like them to find.

What would be some good one use items that might help them make it through this battle?

Additional info: Fight happens here. The dire rats are in the smaller building, but will be called as soon as PC's are noticed.

Edit - AFTERMATH: I did include some suggestions made, I also recruited more players. The combination was a chaotic mess as more and more players joined. A rogue joined them before the battle, then a cleric got dropped off nearby - but the cleric had abandoned them before so they threw bombs at him and might have started killing one another, but they got the attention from the ratling which distracted them from that pursuit. But now there was a fair bit more of them and no one to flank with. He scared them a bit, but evaded them by burrowing under the walls. Then another player joined who got to be a ratfolk samurai who's sickly and psychologically tormented by the endboss. He got joined before he had stats (which he wouldn't need if not participating in combat due to being sickly) - then one of the goblins wandered off and I saw my chance for the ratling. He snuck up and took a good bite out of the wandering rogue, the rest of the party catches up quickly and what follows is a show down between the new player ratfolk and his master. With new courage from having company (even if goblinoid) and having gotten his weapon back in the chaos, and the master's house burning in the background, he challenges the master and they chop away at one another. Without sneak even with a limited HP pool from being sickly he kept up long enough for the rest of the party to join. The ratling was overly confident and suddenly there was so much flanking going on that he dropped from barely wounded to 1 hp! He then vanished in front of them and the ratlings last strike (to make sure he wasn't just invisible) goes through the air but at the end of the movement seems to cut something just before it vanished. - The master vanished leaving only his cut off tail behind, but fell below 0 just as teleporting, so he'll have to stabilize and then try to heal himself and swear revenge for the destruction of his home and killing of his slave dire rats. The tail made a good trophy. The Samurai might have his revenge eventually. The ranger collects heads, so he's pissed that this one got away (even with one of his arrows).

The object I wanted the players to find (a map) was almost missed but the visiting cleric found them. He almost wandered off with them too, so I encouraged the alchemist with a grudge against the cleric and with slight of hand to pickpocket the cleric as he was leaving. They got what they wanted but for stealing his food rations one rolled a 1 and got caught, so he knows they were "trying" to fiddle with his pack, so once he checks on his stuff he'll see what's missing and have a good idea for where that's at.

And everyone seemed to have fun. Goal accomplished. :) Thanks guys!

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The best weapon is information. If they know what they're up against, they can use creative solutions. –  Dakeyras Mar 28 at 19:36
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Good call. And goblins are sneaky little bastards, and one is a ranger, so I'll let him see tracks quite early. –  Julix Mar 28 at 19:38
    
related rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/27712/… –  Eric B Mar 28 at 19:43
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@Dakeyras you might want to make that a proper answer - it's short and sweet, but I think it is an excellent suggestion –  Phil Mar 28 at 19:58

3 Answers 3

Problem one is that the CR2 means it's meant for 4 2nd level characters (defined as "they should use 20% of their resources on it"). You're already going to be shorthanded by a fair bit. (Two level-2 characters are ECL 1 - the equivalent of four first-levels).

The ratling and the dire rats together are a CR 3 encounter, so let's split them up:

Send in the dire rats early. They're a CR1, so just right for your two guys. If it works out to be a fair fight, they can take a moment to rest before the ratling makes his appearance, which progresses to a CR2 "boss fight".

If they're doing really (read: too) well against the dire rats, you can always pull the ratling in early to push the challenge up a bit. But this way you have some options.

An alternative is to set up the ratling as a bit more of a "boss", letting the dire rats do the fighting, and then making a Dr. Claw style retreat ("I'll get you next time... NEXT TIME!") as the conclusion of the encounter. (And again, you can scale his participation to keep things interesting.)

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Give them the Drop

Getting the drop on enemies is an intense force multiplier. Tracks are a good idea, as you've already noted, but you could also alter the terrain slightly, or have the encounter occur in a slightly different area. Make sure to give your players a surprise round, and then you can show off the Ratling's cool abilities as it dimension door's out of dodge, but while still giving them the upper hand.

Introduce a Third Party

If there is someone with a reason to be against whichever side the Rats are on, have them show up here. Ideally, you don't want someone showing up to 'save' the PCs ever, but having the PCs show up to save them? Hell, that's pure Saturday Morning Cartoon Heroism.

If you DO need to save the PCs, though, here are some handy tips;

  • Use someone who is antagonistic to both the PCs and the enemies they are fighting, but whose presence allows the PCs to get away, or at least makes the battle more confused and gives the PCs the upper hand
  • Have someone come in to save the PCs, but screw it up and get into trouble. It may look like they're not helping, but another target for enemy attacks is another target for enemy attacks.
  • Have the environment itself help the PCs. Sudden Earthquake? Ledge crumbles? Magical escalator stairs? Why not!

A Barrel of Oil is like a Barrel of Monkeys - Great Fun!

When giving the PCs an item that can help them in a fight, nothing encourages them to use it early and often like making it just too damn bulky to carry (for long). A barrel of oil is perfect for this - not only does it make a fiery surprise (especially if the PCs have the Drop), it's not overly valuable and is too large and awkward to carry around for long.

Similar things include:

  • A trap in an opportune location to lure the enemies into
  • A pit or chasm placed in a good spot to bullrush foes into
  • A bomb on a timer or similar item that has to be used quickly (quickly losing potency potion, etc, although be careful of this as it is easily turned into a hackneyed obvious dm-help trope)
  • Tools or information that other enemies used to control mindless or trained creatures (verminbane on a vermin handler, whip and whistle for a trained bear, etc, password to give to the orc mercenaries)

Red alert!

The thing the PCs are fighting is waaaay too strong and nothing you do will actually fix this? It gets called away! Either by a trained command or some sort of signal, it gets the message that it needs to vamoose to a larger, bigger emergency - the only caveat is that you need to provide a real explanation for why it ran off! I like to have the PCs later wander in on a scene of massive destruction that explained why they were treated like small fry.

The Behind the Screen Solution

Drop the creature's bonuses by half it's CR. -1/2CR to attack, damage, AC. -CR if it's far too strong. Most of your players will not notice, and those that do simply say it was too strong so you altered it 'on the fly'.

Also, if you think an encounter is too strong before the PCs actually engage it, feel free to drop the nerf-hammer. Nothing is a bad end-note like PCs dying ignominiously in an encounter with what should have been mooks. You want it challenging and fun, but if you're unsure, err on the side of caution. You'll have time later to amp up the challenge.

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I think the difficulty for this encounter is going to come from being surrounded by the enemies. Surrounding the party gives the ratling a chance to flank and the dire rats to bite and deal damage while limiting the parties escape/withdraw options.

So, give the players a way to dispatch at least some of them at range. An alchemist with 18 int, would be able to dispatch all rats within splash range of 1 bomb. They have 5 hp, and a bombs splash damage would be 5. All he needs is a chance to spot them before the party is surrounded.

If you are worried about the ratling's invisibility and sneak attack, give the players a way to see him even when invisible. A simple bag of flour could do the trick. Without sneak attack, the ratling is basically reduced to 2-3 damage a turn. (1 from his attack and 1 from the bleed on each party member)

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