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I'm currently running a pathfinder game and am running into balance problems with a Master Summoner.

It's a low level game (started from level 1) and the summoner is currently level 4 but about to reach level 5 and I'm seriously worried. The player has been deliberately holding back in encounters so the others get to do things but the balance is already out of kilter and it's about to get even worse.

He can summon every round. The summons last for 4 minutes (so basically a whole fight) and he can summon 9 times per day.

He summons earth elementals that tank/hit well. (Three of them together are dealing as much damage as a fairly well optimised two handed fighter is doing). He's taken Summon Good Monster so he also has access to Fauns that cast two separate disable spells each along with other monsters. He can also summon swarms of lesser creatures. He completely breaks the action economy and is ridiculously flexible at the same time.

  • Flying opponents: Air elemental, eagles
  • In tunnels: Earth Elementals (which not only have tremorsense so they know where every hostile within 60' is but can actually charge through the walls using earthglide!)
  • Mobile opponents: Mud elementals to entangle
  • High dex/low will opponents: Fauns for hideous laughter and sleep.
  • Need a tank: A Choice of Several creatures with high AC and/or DR depending on the opponent

The list goes on.

In theory already at this level he can

  • Round 1: summon a faun, have it cast hideous laughter
  • Round 2: summon a faun, have it cast hideous laughter. First faun cast sleep.
  • Round 3: summon a faun, have it cast hideous laughter. 2nd faun cast sleep, 3rd faun can do full actions.

And he can continue doing this for another 6 rounds!

Next level he gets summon monster 3. He already has a feat to boost the number of summons so each round he will be summoning 1d3+1 fauns, elementals, or whatever.

In other words on average if he followed the sequence above he would be able to cast 6 spells per round and then use them for meat shields/whatever. Or he can summon 3 elementals per round with them essentially each lasting for the full fight. If he wanted to he could field a small army of 27 elementals!

As I said the player has been holding back and not using them excessively but the others are starting to notice that he is holding back and when he advances to the next level it's just going to get ridiculous.

So how do I fix it?

A few small encounters doesn't work as he gets 9 summons per day. If an encounter is small enough to fit 9 of them into a session he wouldn't bother summoning for that encounter. We are playing Western Marches so they get a period of downtime between sessions.

I don't want to just give every encounter a way to get rid of summons, that gets old fast.

I can't effectively target him as he has good positioning and the rest of the party defend him well. He's taken damage a few times but not once gone down, and these are in very tough fights against multiple high CR opponents. He can also instantly summon an elemental to block off any enemy that does try to attack him. He can even ready actions to summon blocking monsters as soon as anything charges him or any of his allies.

I could just ban Master Summoner and Synthesist as they seem to be the two most broken Archtypes. Do some suitable in-game explanation and give him a free retraining and maybe something nice as a thank you/apology for forcing a restat.

I'd much rather let him keep the flavour of the Master Summoner without being so ridiculously broken and overpowered though so I'm looking for some simple houserules that would fix this.

For example if it allowed one summon and his Eidolon to be active at once but didn't allow the unlimited summons then that would improve things a lot. He would still be strong but not so insanely strong.

I'm looking for ideas and options really on how to stop his power spiralling out of control.

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5 Answers 5

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Your predicament is a pretty common one, and applies to any GM who has a player focused on summoning monsters. Even without the brokenness that is Master Summoner, summoning-focused characters can quickly break the action economy and make it so the rest of the group has little to do, most of the time. That said, here are a few things that you can do to reduce the power of your Master Summoner player without removing his flavour. There are basically two things to do here: carefully limit the creatures that Summon Monster is capable of summoning, and make the Master Summoner's resources matter more.

Don't add monsters to the Summon Monster list without careful consideration

The list of monsters that you can summon with Summon Monster is reasonably well-balanced as it is. However, there are a bunch of unstated assumptions that it has that can cause some serious problems if they aren't adhered to. Some of your problems come from this.

  1. Ban Summon Good Monster

    That feat is really super powerful, especially at lower levels. It gives you way more battlefield control options than you would normally get, as you have already noted. Most of the monsters on that list are fine, but no one is going to summon the well-balanced monsters off a list like that, they're going to summon the awesome, way-too-powerful ones. If you don't want to ban this list outright, then at least go through it with a fine-tooth comb and assure that the abilities that you get from it at a particular level aren't out of line with what you get from the normal list. For example, the first creatures that have any abilities that are either ranged or spells are in the Summon Monster 3 list, and those creatures are pretty terrible is a stand up fight (Dretch and Lantern Archon).

  2. Ban non-standard Elementals

    This is similar to the point above. When Summon Monster was first written, there were 4 elementals: Fire, Water, Earth, Air. Each of them is an effective tank in their environment, and are reasonably well-balanced. Allowing the player to summon the other 8 types of elementals that have been added since is adding to his versatility by a significant amount, and versatility equals power. As you've noted, some of the additional elementals have abilities out of line with what the normal elementals have. You don't have to allow the player to summon more powerful monsters (like the Mud Elemental) if it's going to mess up your game.

  3. Keep the general Summon Monster guidelines in mind when adding new monsters

    To sort of go back on what I said above, there's nothing wrong with letting your player have more or different creatures to summon, as long as you're careful about what these new creatures give the player at that level. Make sure you look carefully at what a particular level of Summon Monster gives you before adding new things to that level. For example, with Summon Monster 2, you have the following roles: melee ground tank (most of them), flying tank (air elemental), swimming tank (water elemental, octopus, squid), high damage/poison tank (fire elemental, giant centipede, giant spider). The only battlefield control options available to any of these creatures are the normal combat maneuvers, mainly grapple and trip. None of them have more powerful control options like the faun or mud elemental do. This extends through most of the levels of Summon Monster. For example, nothing below Summon Monster 9 has the ability to cast spells like a PC.

The final arbiter of what the player is allowed to summon or not is you, as the GM. If you think that a particular form is out of line for the power that a level of Summon Monster gives, then you are well within your rights to ban that form, or put it on a different level of Summon Monster. It doesn't matter if the rules say that the player can summon a particular monster; if using a particular summon is going to make the game less fun, then that summon should be banned, or otherwise limited.

Make the Master Summoner's resources matter.

The standard game rules make some assumptions about the kind of game that you're playing, and tune player resources based on these assumptions. The game assumes that the average player is going to have 4 encounters in an average day. For a Master Summoner with 18 Charisma, that means that they can summon 2 monsters in each encounter, and 3 in one of them. Adding 2 monsters to a fight is something that can be worked around, in general. If you have significantly fewer encounters, then you need to figure out a way to make your player's resources matter again.

  1. Intelligent enemies should have intelligent protections.

    For example: Any intelligent enemy that knows about the summoner is going to have a Protection from Good ready to go (whether from a potion, and item, a scroll, or a spell prepared, depending on the enemy). Protection from Good doesn't shut down your player entirely, but it does make it so he needs to use more of his Summon Monster abilities in a single combat to remain effective. Spellcasters can use Dispel Magic to quickly end a summon. More prepared enemies can use Magic Circle instead of Protection, which is a little more effective.

  2. Reduce the number of summoned monsters at once.

    Like you say at the end of your question, you might consider limiting the number of monsters summoned to two spells. The player could use one eidolon and one Summon Monster spell, or two Summon Monster spells, but no more. This means that the player can basically use the same number of Summon Monster spells that he could normally use per encounter in a 4-encounter-per-day game. You might allow the player to use extra uses of the ability to get more monsters at a time, to make the player feel like those extra uses are still useful. For example, maybe the first 2 castings take one use each, but any after that take 3 each.

  3. Reduce the number of uses per day.

    If your campaign requires only one or two encounters per day, then it might be helpful to reduce the number of Summon Monster uses that your player gets directly. In a 2 encounter per day game, reducing the number of uses to 5 or 6 would likely be helpful. This might make your player feel shafted, so it might not be the best thing to do.

  4. Use more numerous monsters, or ranged monsters.

    Basically, alter your encounter design to take the summoner into account. If there are a dozen orcs charging in that will likely overwhelm the party, the summoner can deal with them while the party deals with the rest of the encounter. Alternately, powerful ranged monsters can target your summoner, making it a priority for the summoner to send minions to deal with that threat while the other players take out the main encounter.

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Thanks to both the excellent answers here, you really helped clarify things for me and I was impressed with the detail you both went into. I wish I could accept both answers :)

I'm posting this answer with my first draft of what I'm thinking to do based on those recommendations. I'll revisit later with stronger changes if needed but I think/hope this will address my main concerns. When he hits 5 he will remain a similar strength to where he is now but the rest of the party will be able to start catching up rather than him just going god mode.

1. Make the Resources Matter

He gets 9 "charges" of summon monster per day. Summoning will now cost:

  • 1 charge
  • an extra 1 charge for each use of summon monster that still has any monsters on the field.
  • if summoning multiple monsters then an extra charge for each use of summon monster that still has more than one monster on the field.

This means that if he uses his strongest summons and summons one each time the cost would be 1 for the first, 2 for the second, 3 for the third for a cost of 6 charges. For no additional charges one of those summon could be multiple lower level monsters.

If he tried to summon multiple monsters each time (for example 1d3+1 elementals) then the cost would be 1 charge for the first, 3 for the second, 5 for the third and he's already used all but one of his summoning charges for the day.

Once he's done the three summons then before he can use the remaining charges he would need to wait until some of the existing summons have either died or been dismissed so that the charge cost of summoning more reduces.

2. Make summoning non-standard Elementals harder

I'll move all Elementals other than the four "standard" Elementals up a level. So Small Mud Elementals for example move to Summon monster 3.

3. Limit Summon Good Monster

The Diehard on summons where you don't care if they die is already very good, the extra summons too is just overpowered. As a first step I'll move some of the summons up a level, I'd rather not remove them completely unless required.

  • Pseudodragon moves to Summon Monster 3.
  • Faun moves to Summon Monster 3.
  • Grig moves to Summon Monster 3.

  • Azata, Lyrakien moves to Summon Monster 4.

  • Agathion, Silvanshee moves to Summon Monster 4.

  • Pixie is gone. Really Paizo? Permanent invisibility, DR/10, 20 magic arrows, lots of spells? Permanent Image...so I can create 9 permanent illusions per day (at least the summoner rules say the illusions go when the summoning ends)? I really don't think so...

Above Summon Monster 4 I'm not worrying about for now :)

Thanks again to both the excellent answers already given. All feedback on this idea is welcome.

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A couple of options exist for you to tone down the power of the class.

In general, when two different resources augment the same ability, the result can often be overpowered. As GM, you shouldn't feel bad disallowing or modifying some combinations -- some things fall through the cracks, and if the game designers tried to prevent any such combination from occurring, I think you'd wind up with underpowered, boring options in each splatbook.

Restrict the summon list

Several of the problematic summons you mention were not originally part of summon monster.

  • Originally, only the basic elementals could be summoned; mud elementals were a later addition to the game. Yes, technically the spell allows you to summon them, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should allow it. There's a reason the spell has a fairly short, restricted list of summons, and allowing it to be extended with each splatbook which contains elementals is a bad idea.
  • Fauns are only allowed because the player took the Summon Good Monster feat from "Pathfinder Player Companion: Champions of Purity". In my limited experience, the quality and playtesting of the player companions is well below the more "core" splatbooks. I wouldn't hesitate to disallow or modify options from them, if they seemed to be causing problems.

Alter the class features

You could limit the master summoner to two summons at a time. You could limit him to a certain number of summons within a single encounter. You could limit the total number of controlled creatures, to prevent the headaches of a battlefield spammed with small earth elementals.

Enforce the rules for communicating with summoned monsters

I've not met many GMs who enforced this, but you don't automatically get a way to communicate or command summoned creatures. If you don't know their language, all they'll do is attack your enemies in the most straightforward way -- you don't even get to choose a target.

Until the players learns the appropriate languages, this is a large restriction on what their summons can do. The fauns won't use their abilities unless he speaks Fey, the mud elementals won't entangle the right guys unless he knows Terran, and so on. A summoned earth elemental might sense and attack a powerful enemy on the other side of a wall, getting quickly taken out before the party gets through.

This is more of a temporary band-aid, though, since it'll only take a few skill points before the summoner can learn the appropriate languages or find magical means to communicate.

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Yes, he picked up Terran the same level he got the ability to summon Elementals and then mostly uses Mud and Earth Elementals. I've enforced the communications and for example on things like when he sent his elementals through the walls to attack he had to give them orders when he sent them then couldn't change those orders. They still went on a rampage through the bad guy back lines though just with the orders he gave them then. –  Tim B Jun 3 at 1:04

Given that you are considering house-ruling, I would start by removing some flexibility.

The main issue with Summon Monster, in terms of game balance, is its extreme flexibility. Even among casters, most spells are pretty focused. Some few spells can be used creatively in a handful of ways, but the summon spells in general are maybe too flexible (*).

A simple, yet restrictive, solution is to break the spell apart: from one Summon Monster II, you get a list of Summon Monster (Faun II), Summon Monster (Small Earth Elemental), ...

And now, suddenly, those spells are much closer to the other spells: you cannot just play it by ear and always invoke the best monster for the occasion; you have to choose ahead of time, and make do with less than optimal monsters.

Furthermore, since you as a GM knows ahead of time which spells your player has at its disposal, you can fine-tune the encounter to challenge him a bit.

(*) They are not the only ones, I consider all spells whose effect can be determined at cast-time among a wide variety of behaviors dubious. It's one thing to be able to shape a wall a bit, and another entirely to summon any monster you fancy or emulate any spell under a certain level, and that without a cost.

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Here is the spell text (emphasis mine):

This spell summons an extraplanar creature (typically an outsider, elemental, or magical beast native to another plane). It appears where you designate and acts immediately, on your turn. It attacks your opponents to the best of its ability. If you can communicate with the creature, you can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions. The spell conjures one of the creatures from the 1st Level list on Table: Summon Monster. You choose which kind of creature to summon, and you can choose a different one each time you cast the spell.

A summoned monster cannot summon or otherwise conjure another creature, nor can it use any teleportation or planar travel abilities. Creatures cannot be summoned into an environment that cannot support them. Creatures summoned using this spell cannot use spells or spell-like abilities that duplicate spells with expensive material components (such as wish).

Some ways to handle it:

  1. The faun can be told who to target/not target and to attack and/or disable, but the player doesn't get to pick how the faun does it
  2. If they aren't in a wooded environment, the faun can be denied to be summoned
  3. Alternatively, just because the faun can use certain skills 1/day doesn't mean they haven't already used them when they've been summoned
  4. Just because they have been summoned doesn't mean they show up in the middle of the battle ready to fight

Do not make summons extensions of the character. Make them creatures of their own. That is what they are, after all.

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Given that "you can direct it not to attack, to attack particular enemies, or to perform other actions" it's quite clear though by the rules that the summoner can command the faun to "cast sleep on that Quickling over there" or whatever. Changing that would be an interesting house rule but it would be a house rule. –  Tim B Jun 4 at 15:51

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