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While I've been running my campaign, I'm starting to get stumped. I am playing with a party of four, and we recently switched from 3.5 to Pathfinder, but the problem was the same in both situations.

No matter what I throw at the party, they seem to have no problems. Even if I put them up against something that is supposed to be 'Epic' or 'overwhelming' in terms of CR, they make out just fine. The one exception to this is when I had several encounters in one day that taxed them to near death. Usually I have about two encounters a day, but that day I had four encounters, with two of them being APL+1 and the other two being APL+2, and that was challenging. But other than that nothing seems to faze them!

How can I make the game more challenging without making it harder?

Just for reference, the party is fairly standard, and low level (level 4):

  • Wizard (tends to resort to mind-affecting spells, or grease if the creature is immune)
  • Cleric (heals a lot, but always has spells / healing left over)
  • Rogue (sneak attack, of course, which is more potent in Pathfinder)
  • Fighter (gets enlarged and in-charge'd)
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Sounds like you might need to work on your tactics :) –  wax eagle Aug 23 '11 at 19:17
What does "more challenging but not harder" even mean? –  mxyzplk Aug 23 '11 at 19:38
@mxyzplk: as a glib answer, it means the same thing as "work smarter, not harder". As a more concrete answer, the game could be more challenging if I put the party up against higher CR monsters; that would also make the game harder. It could also be more challenging if instead of a CR 1 undead, I put them up against a clever CR 1 rogue. According to the game, that is equally hard, but arguably more challenging. –  NT3RP Aug 23 '11 at 19:56
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7 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Make It Harder

This is definitely something I've had happen. I wrote a whole blog post about the exact same thing - while GMing a fourth level Pathfinder party, I found that I had to make bosses eighth level to challenge the PCs. So you're probably going to need to up your CR/EL expectations. Pathfinder PCs have higher damage output therefore old 3.5e wisdom is somewhat out of whack (same with 3.0 to 3.5 - in general for 3.0 CR X you need 3.5 CR+1 and Pathfinder CR+2). You can see this in the encounters in Pathfinder Adventure Paths as well, the CR of capstone encounters is often like APL+5. So I'm afraid you're going to have to go for some "harder." Also, solo opponents in Pathfinder are meat for the beast because it allows the PCs to exert tactics without resistance; give bosses some help even if they are just a wad of mooks.

Play Harder

Now you can also push opponent effectiveness by improving their tactics and not just beefing them up - but I already do this, and it doesn't completely close the gap. But yes, try to come up with effective tactics for the bad guys, especially if they are on their home turf. No one plays too fair when their life is on the line. Random orcs aren't going to be brilliant but they don't just charge lemminglike into the blender either. Look at their preparations from the point of view of "if I were doing this to be effective." I like recruiting actual people to play main bad guys - they are a good 30% more effective than when your attention is split between running them and doing all your other work. Try some of the player-oriented tactical advice from this question on your NPCs/monsters. In a wilderness setting, people who have any warning will use terrain to their advantage - "Shoot at them from up in the trees," "Get in the canyon so they don't see us from far away," or whatever.

Goal Jiujitsu

Also if you're not having many fights a day, consider that challenge doesn't have to be all combat. What is the party's goal? Unless it's "harvest souls because we are serial killers," it's likely their goals involve finding things, saving things, building things, helping people, or whatnot where the challenge is more skill and roleplay oriented and not solved by killing. For example, in the Kingmaker adventure path, the PCs are in the wilderness trying to build a kingdom, and if they slaughter everyone that faces them then they don't have much of a kingdom once the fights are over!

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+1 for RP encounters being meaningful. –  Pulsehead Aug 24 '11 at 1:24
"harvest souls because we are serial killers" – so have to run that as a campaign… –  Paul Hutton Apr 29 '12 at 20:24
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The Assumptions Behind Challenge Rating

I don't have my 3.x DMG handy for a page reference, but somewhere in there it states that D&D 3.x operates on the assumption that players have multiple encounters in a day.

Very few encounters with a challenge rating in the same ballpark as the average party are going to be likely to kill the party on their own. What makes an encounter "hard" is that it burns a large amount of resources... Magnifying all future encounters.

Consider this: A single human with class levels has a CR roughly equal to their level. This means that a level 4 fighter is an "appropriate challenge" for your entire level 4 group (at APL + 0).

Is one fighter going to have a chance at stopping another fighter, plus a rogue, cleric, and wizard? No. But he will do some damage before he goes down. He will force the cleric and wizard to use spells, or the fighter and rogue to use consumables.

The same applies to Pathfinder, except that a single fighter is CR3 (APL-1). For the sake of the argument, consider a level 4 fighter plus a level 4 cleric (total CR5, or APL+1).

The "standard formula" that D&D's CR system is balanced around, is a number of small (at-, below-, or barely above-level) encounters, followed by some number of larger, more challenging fights. Hit points, spell slots, consumables, etc. all are built to support this slow war of attrition.

Challenge Rating in Your Campaign

Even in the wilderness, you can still pack in multiple encounters around a given combat, as long as the players have purpose. Defeating or circumventing guards, wandering creatures, and other hazards can be stretched over several encounters.

If the players are backing out to rest after each encounter, remind them how much time is passing and adjust the world accordingly. Did they spend a full week working through a day or two worth of encounters by resting until the next morning after each one? Well, by that time the big baddie should be dug in, or long-since escaped.

Alternatives to the "Standard Formula"

There are certainly a number of ways to work around these assumptions. Using superior terrain and tactics, as Chaosys suggests, is one way to do so. Just remember that in doing that you're essentially creating an encounter of a much higher CR than what's printed in the book... I'd be pretty irked if I went through that hell, and only got rewarded for a handful of 1/4 CR opponents! :)

Another option is to simply inflate CRs... However, when doing this you should focus on including many "appropriately" CRed creatures over a few creatures with inherently high CR. High-CR creatures are more likely to become unhittable/unkillable/one-shot/otherwise frustrate players.

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You might want to check out Tucker's Kobolds. It's not so much about how powerful the foes are, it's how well you use them that can really make a battle challenging. Look at terrain, positioning, situational modifiers... the actual combatants are only a single factor.

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+1 for the kobolds. Those are horrifying little wretches. Never play fair. –  IgneusJotunn Jul 6 '12 at 19:27
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The one exception to this is when I had several encounters in one day that taxed them to near death, but other than that nothing seems to faze them!

I think this quote is a big key. Putting full-strength players against a single monster doesn't always work out. You can do a lot of CR/EL math or you can think about some basic problems and solve those.

#1 - Your party is fresh

You definitely want to "soften up" the party a little bit before boss fights. If you think of the classic "dungeon crawl", the boss may be at the end, but there are things in between.

#2 - Your party has more actions

This is a really big one for "boss fights". Your party gets 4 actions / round and your boss only gets 1. If you have a couple of bad rolls on the d20 a party of 4 can get 8-12 actions/attacks and the boss may have hit nothing.

To get around this, I would steal some ideas from 4e.

  1. More actions: let the boss go twice / round, just give him two initiatives with a player in between. Some bosses in 4e actually have 3 fixed initiatives. Give him a 20 & a 10 for early level players as typically someone will fall between those two numbers.
  2. More fodder: a boss can be made twice as dangerous with a handful of creatures accompanying them, think "minions". This helps balance out the number of actions b/c these creatures take extra actions from the player and let your boss get more actions overall.

Idea #2 can be implemented in a couple of ways: bodyguards, summoned servants, undead servants, traps in the encounter room, etc.

One nice idea from 4e is the concept of "minions". For PathFinder, treat the minion as a creature with 1hp that must be hit for it to die. If it's affected by an Area of Effect it must fail a save to take damage. So if your wizard shoots a fireball at a group of minions, only the ones that fail the save will die.

In 4e the minions also have a static damage (i.e. deals 4 damage on successful attack). This makes the math easy for larger fights and it's relatively easy to calculate how many minions you need. Minions with an average to-hit can keep a party very busy.

#3 - Field advantage

If your party is invading the boss's turf, give him some prepared battleground. Put the players in unfair tactical positions:

Possible preparations:

  • Attackers from on high or with cover (stage, dais, hill, flying creatures with no range). Something to make the party think about how they're even going to get to the boss.
  • Triggered trap that can be used against the party (think of the classic trapdoor)
  • Alarm that will bring more minions
  • Defensive wards in place (spells can't cross the middle of the room)
  • Escape routes (even better with an alarm)
  • Obstructions that the boss can ignore (amphibian in swamp, flyer in enclosed ruins, fire elemental in lava pits)

Basic premise here is just to give the boss a tactical advantage because he knew that someone could be coming. If you're the type of person who gets visits from an armed adventuring party planning to slay you, you probably figured this day would come and you prepared appropriately.

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Do you conclude that your players aren't challenged because YOU think they aren't challenged, or are they complaining about being bored (or that the fights aren't difficult)?

If the former, talk to your players. In my most recent DM experience, I thought the good guys were running all over my bad guys with ease. Typically, one character would get hurt significantly, but the others would frequently not lose more than 5% of their hitpoints. I kept ratcheting up the challenge to no avail, and finally made a comment before game like, "hopefully the combat I'm planning tonight will be a challenge unlike the last few milk-runs". A player told me that even though his character (an archery-heavy ranger) had not lost any hitpoints, he knew that if someone fell in battle, he'd have to charge in and try to extract the downed PC, so HE was stressed by the encounters solely because he would have to extract/cover another PC who extracted a fallen ally.

If the players are complaining, you should read up on strategy/tactics. I'd recommend The Art of War by Sun Tzu (or Sunzi), or other venerable texts on tactics. Study the tactics of Hannibal and other famous generals. Use terrain (the PCs are in the bottom of a ravine, and the evil Kobolds attack from both sides. Use weather (they wait for it to start snowing before attacking so the PCs will be hunkered down and not expecting trouble). Use misdirection (scout force that the PCs think they can easily beat which withdraws to a main force of rested warriors).

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Play your monsters to their strengths.

If they fight against intelligent opponents, build and play them like a party would.

Grease the party with a wizard, entangle them with a druid or make a cleric buff his buddies. Have the enemy rogue hide and sneak-attack them, and use lots of minion type monsters to flank your party.

Build your monsters as you would a player character.

Choose some appropriate feats for your monsters. Spellcasters need improved initiative, rogues combat reflexes, etc. Spend some thought on spell selection. Spellcasters in e.g. the Paizo Adventure Paths often have a terrible spell selection (from a CharOp viewpoint). Feel free upgrade them to something more reasonable.

Roll openly

One thing that also helped my group feel more threatened: Roll everything in the open, don't cheat. Accept that bad things might happen to the party. Don't protect them. It's better for both DM and player if they know you don't hold your punches during combat.

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It's possible you're allowing the rules a greater role than they deserve. When this problem cropped up in my first 3.5e session, I ran across a little statement in the DMG that said an average encounter should take about 3-5 rounds (or something like that - I don't have the text available) and should soak up about 25% of the party's immediately available resources. My encounters were working out about right according to that, but still my players were having too easy of a time.

So I turned to an older version of the DMG that allowed DMs to "cheat". Instead of allowing the rules and numbers on the page to force my hand, I began adjudicating encounters according to the impact I wanted them to have. For example, if I wanted a given encounter to be easy, I ended it after a couple of rounds. If I wanted an extremely difficult encounter, I'd drag it out far longer, with appropriately added dramatic effects. The overall idea was to gauge my players' reactions and have the encounter play out accordingly.

Note that I've gotten a little criticism from the gaming community for advocating such a system. Some say I'm "not being fair" or even "cheating". Remember, though, that D&D is not about competition, it's about entertainment. I never use this approach to kill off a party or to give them an unfair advantage - I only use it to achieve the desired dramatic effect.

Further, such a system requires a bit of skill and flexibility. For example, if I've planned a very difficult encounter but the players come up with a novel/brave/creative/better-than-average solution, I still allow them to win quickly. On the other hand, if they're not playing well or making good choices I may let them lose even if the encounter was supposed to be easy.

In practice, it works like this. You play out the encounter according to the rules, keeping track of hit points, AoOs, etc. If the players are losing, let them lose as the rules dictate so that you're not unfairly picking on them and no one can say you're being a jerk. On the other hand, if the players win, go for dramatic effect. Think about how difficult you want the encounter to be and what effect you want it to have on them. If you intended it to be an easy encounter and it was, then go with the die rolls. If, on the other hand, you intended it to be an easy encounter and your players are being stupid, let the encounter run on a bit and then end it. If you wanted it to be a difficult encounter and your party got through it too easily, keep the fight going until you've achieved the desired effect and then have the monster(s) die or surrender in a fittingly dramatic way.

And always remember: it's not about cheating, railroading, or abusing the rules; it's about showing your players a good time.

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