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I did let the PCs of the game I am hosting receive too many treasures, so I would like them to lose at least some (or even all) of them. I thought about a simple ambush somewhere in the woods, where they would be stripped of their belongings.

But I have a hard time finding the right amount of bad guys, so the players won't feel cheated if I overpower the adversaries. The PCs should have a minimal chance of getting out of the ambush with their treasures.

The players' characters are like this:

  • Angel-blooded Aasimar Cleric 5 (CR4)
    • Hireling Minotaur Skeleton Warrior 1 (CL7 - CR6)
  • Human Rogue 5 (CR4)
  • Dwarf Fighter 5 (CR4)
  • Changeling Witch 5 (CR3)
  • Human Inquisitor 5 (CR4)

I was thinking about a gang of bandits:

  • 1 Human Fighter4 / Rogue6 (The leader of the bandits)
  • 5 Human Rogues 3

The five rogues would be armed with heavy maces and longbows and hide in trees, whereas the leader has a heavy crossbow and a Scizore. In my mind it's some kind of Robin Hood setup.

Is this a setup that would give the players a tiny chance of winning? I do not want them to feel cheated. What kind and number of adversaries would you recommend?

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Relevant question: Help my party isn't challenged –  Rob Jun 17 at 11:21

6 Answers 6

up vote 26 down vote accepted

'Pray I don't alter the deal further'

That doesn't seem like even a particularly tough encounter for a group of PCs like you describe, especially if they have above-average gear.

Without knowing more about your characters, their skill at tactics, their normal approach to things like ambushes, ambushing, traps, knowledge of enemies, enemies having knowledge of them, etc, it's impossible to design an encounter that will defeat them without killing them.

That's the hardest kind of encounter to make, especially if you play with players who think they are kings of the world or saturday morning cartoon heroes, and don't do things like 'run away', or 'hide'.

Generally, if I want the PCs to lose a fight, I put them up against someone who has a vested interest, even if they don't realize it until right that moment, in keeping the PCs alive. Perhaps they need a commando squad, or the recognize that one of the PCs is a Jin'Sath Guild member from the tattoo, and suddenly realizes a cunning plan to use this fact against their enemies somehow, or whatever. Or.. whatever. This can still be hard, but if executed well is believable and good.

In this case though, i'd turn to thievery. Not banditry. I'd have a thief sneak in and steal their gear. A rogue, of decent level. Say 8. With +hide and move silently gear (+10 enhancement bonus), feat to enhance hiding and move silently, good dex and full skill ranks in both and Sleight of Hand. The party is in an inn, gets drunk (even an inn in the wilderness, such things exist) or doesn't get drunk, posts guards or doesn't, casts spells or doesn't - did you know that all Alarm, Symbol etc all count as Magic Traps? Trapfinding says 'Sup, Babe. Rogue comes in and steals their stuff. Badass rogue, describe little details like a scarf worn around the neck or an odd weapon ornamentation, basically outfit this rogue like a cool well-dressed PC. Take 10. This rogue is not rushed or threatened. If one of them spots this, wakes up - good. They can be introduced to the little game I like to call 'chasing someone with Parkour level Tumble and Boots of Speed through the city's rooftops'.

Don't be afraid to drop a Stinking Cloud from a scroll, or a Solid Fog to aid escapes if things go south. Smokesticks + Tanglefoot bags + doubling back, going straight down walls like it ain't no thang, in through a window and then swashbuckle right through someone's living room, using end-tables as projectiles - this is a level 8 rogue, take the chance to just have some damn fun with it. Take joy in describing half the party's magical gear in a sack over the rogue's shoulder during this entire combat. Ready some Errol Flynn style quips to toss at pursuing party members. And escape. Don't get out-thought, don't allow some rules-lawyering bullshit. This rogue is badass, and has a pocket full of tricks and knowledge of the city. Sliding on clotheslines, ducking in front of rumbling wagons of night-soil, if this chase happens, it is epic but ultimately unless the party does really really well the rogue escapes because that is what she is optimized to do.

So, what now?

Well, the party will be keen to get their gear back.

So they will try to find out where this rogue is. Investigation time! Doesn't matter how they do it - they are PCs, they'll find a way. So you set up a bandit lair, preferably in the wilderness. A well-defended natural fort, like a cave or keep on a hilltop. There, you find out that the rogue is number 2 in the group, and there is a leader, and minions, and too many for the party to fight all at once. Then you start introducing Complications.

The bandit group has enemies, which is why they stole a bunch of magical weapons and wands and crap. What these enemies are is up to you - Ogres led by a mighty two-headed Shaman, a Vampire clan in serious decline but with serious fangs, the Elves, a local Lord with a grudge (preferably against the very rogue who stole the party's gear), even a tribe of empowered kobolds who serve a sleeping dragon. So the party has a choice - team up with the bandits to get their gear back, team up with the bandits' enemies to get their gear back, or wait until the groups clash and sneak in and steal back their gear.

You should also make the bandits sympathetic. Making people sympathetic to a group or person who has done them a wrong is a great storytelling technique. Like a do-si-do but with their emotions.

Then, as this is beginning to unfold, you introduce a third thing. A second Complication. The Bandit Leader is in love with the rogue, but she doesn't return his (or he doesn't return her) affections, instead having feelings for a party member on their first mission. There is something... /wrong/ with the bandits' enemies the party decided to befriend, some secret. The Ogres plan to blood-sacrifice the party to their baatezu overlord whose stone idol sits in a sacred cave the PCs aren't allowed near (which you introduce in some manner, say by saying they wander near it and get turned back by armoured ogre guards). The Vampire Lord is insane. The local Lord is a psychopath. The Elves are wearing weird armour that looks super archaic and only one of them talks to you, the rest speaking something that.. isn't Elvish. The kobolds won't talk about it, but something is going on with their dragon master.

So it's a slow threat that will come to a head at the most dramatic moment. By now whatever conflict is occurring has had two fights (two encounters) that the PCs have taken part in. There have been triumphs, and (offscreen) reverses. It's progressing like a tiny war, because that is what it is. That's when you bring in the third complication. This is the wildcard. It doesn't involve a third force unless that third force is overwhelmingly strong and overpowers both existing forces, like a Balor opening a Hellgate nearby and everyone has to RUN, zombie movie style.

The Bandit Leader kills the female rogue in jealous rage, the Vampire Lord takes half the vampires from an important battle, making the vampire that hired the party and is friends with them freak out as they start losing, the PCs realize that they are on the side of evil by some stark, horrible example thrown in their faces (maybe literally, nothing like having a half-eaten child corpse tossed at you to make you re-evaluate your priorities), a ritual is performed in the woods by one of the sides that creates horrible monsters, a vision is received, something happens to shake up the status quo and force the PCs to re-evaluate the decisions they have made to reach this point. They are given an alignment choice, hard path or easy path, evil path or good path. Whichever path is evil, staying with the group they chose or leaving it, or taking a third path, should be made clear. It should also be, or seem to be, the easier option to get their gear back/get extra gear/money. The hard path which is the Good one, should also be made clear that it is both morally more defensible and vastly harder.

Depending on their choice, the Second Complication might not arise. You can use it as either the thing that makes the Hard path Hard, or you can have it happen to punctuate that things aren't simple and even 'Easy' path isn't always safe. Or it could happen regardless, and create a huge epic battle ending scene.

The thing should end, no matter how it plays out, with the bandit group destroyed, with the Rogue (with or sans Bandit Leader and surviving goons) deciding to travel to somewhere a bit safer, saying goodbye to the party that they have somehow become friends with, or, with the Rogue dying on a party member's sword. Stealing goods and forcing the group to chase creates NPC Importance, and Important NPCs need to have satisfactory, emotional endings that make the players feel something - in this case, guilt, revenge, satisfaction, or, vindication, friendliness, achievement (unlocked, Turn Enemy Into Friend).

And better yet, with all these things happening, it's enough to level them a bit, which makes the treasure they have gotten more level appropriate.

Or at worst, charges get used up in the fighting, some of it stolen by (individually fleeing) bandits, or kept by an evil cackling empowered vampire lord who dares the party to 'fight him' now that he has turned most of the bandits into spawn and is even more powerful than before. 'Pray I don't alter the deal further' kind of moment.

In other words, turn it into an adventure. You've got the right idea, your execution is just too simple and likely to either end up as a forgettable encounter or the PCs dead. Anything in the world can be an adventure, if you phrase and design it right. And since adventure is exciting, it's always the optimal way to solve any problems that crop up in-game, from 'too much loot' to 'party interpersonal relationships' to 'party is super bored and just getting drunk all the time in character'.

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Wow, those are some great ideas. I hope to come up with something similar when I'm not a "new-gm" anymore. –  mawimawi Jun 17 at 8:16
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It's just a mindset. You'll meet a lot of 20 years solid GMing GMs who don't do anything but the same thing every time, and you'll meet some people who literally this is their first game and they are pulling this right out of the box. The key is just to never accept that anything you create is 'the way to do it', that there is always some new and better way, and that you have to find it. I'm a terrible GM - I hope, though, to improve with time and effort. –  Jack Lesnie Jun 17 at 8:24
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Just to emphasize the key points: 1) Take loot. 2) Let the party have a lot of fun and level up without gaining a lot of replacement loot. 3) Return loot. –  Bobson Jun 17 at 20:31

First consideration: in nearly every game I've played or ever spoke to anyone about who've played in a game, having their treasure "taken" has always felt cheap and un-fun. I highly recommend simply reducing treasure they receive until it evens out as a better option.

But if you are adamant about doing some form of treasure reduction, some options include:

Physical Damage

Instead of overpowering them with tons of enemies to steal the treasure, have the enemies use attacks that might damage or destroy it. The Rust Monster was a classic means, though I'm sure there's a few monsters that eat gold or gems that also work. Sonic spells are usually specific in destroying crystal and glass, and the classic fireball can destroy a lot of things with a failed saving throw.

(Be warned, if you use a spell to damage treasures on the PCs, the PCs will use those spells on enemies one day for the same effect...)

Abandonment

If the party is in a river, or forced to swim, they cannot carry much and will have to give up a lot. In most games, this will feel cheap. Unless you're playing an old school treasure-heist game where logistics regularly play a role, it will not be the normal expectation of play.

To a Good Cause

There's always the off chance you can get the party to spend treasure to help someone or a group in the world. The problem of this is that players usually don't expect to get anything from this, so it becomes a thing rarely played out. If they do, make sure they understand what the ramifications are for the setting and reward them for it. ("You're pouring all that gold into a new school? I'm guessing you can get free scrolls from them anytime...")

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I have to agree with the first paragraph. Players really don't like having 'their' stuff taken. It's a one-way trip to sulk city. –  Macona Jun 17 at 8:00
    
The obvious next step has been missed, though. 'Don't obviously 'take it away', then.' Even a simple list of stuff like 'give them xp but no treasure for next fights', 'give them moral choices that involve losing treasure', 'make stuff expensive' would be better than the 'old skool' 'kill their treasure in ways other than outright dm fiat and then shrug' methods listed. –  Jack Lesnie Jun 17 at 8:06
    
That's what I mean by reducing the amount of treasure they receive until it evens out. It can be minimal or zero until it reaches an appropriate amount. –  Bankuei Jun 17 at 23:56

There are plenty of answers here saying that this will feel cheap and foster resentment, which I think is exactly correct, so I won't labor the point, instead I'm offering what I would do in this situation.

Come up with something really damn cool that doesn't increase their power (Remember the DM's greatest tool: their PC's egos) and give them a way (and not so subtley suggest) that they can trade their loot to get it.

Some ideas to get you rolling:

  • Give them mayorship over a town in exchange for using their treasure to arm their chosen managers of the town in their stead
  • Some sort of 100 foot statue commemorating the coolest party of adventurers this side of the Mississippi, maybe magically imbued, and needs their magic items to extract magical essence from or something of the sort. Maybe the statue has some sort of ability, such as being an anchor for their souls in the case of their death?
  • I think it was Odin (and later Gilgamesh) in Final Fantasy 8 that sometimes came by when you were about to die and saved the day. Maybe your players make a trade with god for this favor in the future?

As you can tell I'm not much of a stickler for the rules - you're the DM so you can make godlike changes to reality whenever you see fit for the fun of your group. At least, that's my philosophy.

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+1 for having the players trade magic items for other items that are more cool but not overpowered. –  Thane Brimhall Jun 17 at 21:52

Taking stuff away from players fosters resentment

Three things almost guaranteed to annoy players is loosing magical items, losing stats or losing XP.

If your players have been getting too much loot then lower the curve for a while; your encounter seems okay-easy for a group that powerful, you're missing a lot of tricks in making the party work for their encounters.

You seem to have two key questions here so I'll tackle them separately

How do I make my encounters more challenging?

  • Tactics: You're going the right way with an ambush, but there's more that can be done that that; traps and gates that split the party, reinforcements from unknown angles.
  • Terrain: Terrain at low-mid level is an important consideration, it's a lot harder to do; if they're ambushed from across a river where the rivers pulled away, what do they do?
  • Spells: Pathfinder is BIG on magic, but your attacking force has none; the party however has three casters. Even a few low level spells can sew chaos in the partys ranks, the players should be facing spells like Entangle, bane, slow, invisibility, summon monsters, create pits etc etc all those nice little spells to make things more awkward for them; they're used to dealing with straight up fights? Well if they can use magic, get them thinking about dealing with it too.

What do I do about excessive amounts of loot

Firstly, if there's too much loot, slow down what you're giving out for a bit.

Taking away stuff with no chance to get it back shouldn't be a regular thing, at most a one time thing - players will really get narked off with that. If you are going to take their stuff, make sure there's a chance to get it back - build an entire mini-adventure around it; have them all fall asleep around a slumber tree in the woods and their gear is stolen, have them track down the thief and let them get their stuff back after a chase, when they've been beaten down by the massive gang of thirty thieves and then stripped to their undies have them go after them for revenge.

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While it is perfectly possible to create some ambush they can't possibly beat and take their excessive treasure that way, it is not going to breed a nice gaming environment. No matter how you go about removing the treasure, they are going to feel cheated out of their hard-earned loot, even if it wasn't hard-earned in the first place.

I would suggest moving away from trying to find a stat-based solution to removing the treasure and instead try to resolve it in a roleplay manner, something a lot of people seem to forget when they design encounters.

For example, have a priest of a local temple ask them to donate some of their treasures to the temple and in exchange, make them paragons of the temple. They can go there when they fall ill to get healed and you can even use this later on for story arcs and such.

What is important here is that the player feels it was their choice to part with the treasure. If they feel like they got forced into a situation where you unfairly took away their stuff, odds are they might resent you for it which could risk your campaign. If they decide to give away their stuff for some reason however, it was there decision and they will feel like you gave them a neat option to spend some of their useless junk.

Hell, if they have too much gear, why not have the city guard ask them to donate some of their spare equipment to the city watch so the city will be safer? In return, have city guards offer them more assistance in the future or even base entire arcs on it!

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The other answer covers excellently how to reduce the impact of the loot the players have. I'm going to answer the question in the title though, which is how do I make a hard challenge for my players.

The main way to do that is to give yourself flexibility.

Don't have them come around a corner and see 30 goblins. Have them come around a corner and see 5 goblins, one of which runs off. So the party lay into the goblins that didn't run, and just as they are winning the one that runs off comes back with reinforcements.

But, and here's the key. You control how fast reinforcements arrive, how many there are, what stats and equipment they have.

This allows you to fine tune the encounter to how the players are doing. If they are butchering everything then bring in a larger group, have archers take up positions on the ridges shooting at them. As soon as the players are really starting to sweat then the goblins run out of reinforcements. The players get to finish off the ones still there, finally take out those annoying archers, etc, and feel like they had a massive fight and a real threat while at the same time you had full control of just how high the peril level was turned by controlling goblins entering the fight.

The same thing can be achieved other ways, field some spell caster bad guys and if the fight is going too badly for the players then whoops - they already used some of their spells today, I'm out of power. If the players are butchering everyone then the bad guy pulls out a scroll they were saving and lays down some unexpected assistance. (If doing that then it's nice for the players to be able to find a couple of scrolls still on him when/if they take him down).

It takes practice and experience but over time you can learn to fine tune encounters so you get the players feeling seriously threatened while at the same time not killing them all every time.

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