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Before I elaborate on the question let me first tell you my situation.

I've started to DM a D&D 5e game last weekend, and thats my first D&D 5e game ever. So I kinda lack the intuitive gut feeling for balancing I have in games I'm more familiar with.

The 4 Players have formed a group with an average AC of 17.75, A paladin (med armor+shield) a cleric (likewise), a barbarian (shield and 18 con) and a monk(19 dex and 18 wis). We got these stats by doing 4d6 drop lowest stat rolls. I call it the Panzer Batallion.

After taking only 2 damage from a medium and 4 from a hard encounter I chucked something about 30% over the "deadly" treshold at them. The Paladin and the Cleric had to pick someone unconscious up, but they made it without having more than one unconscious party member at a time. And the cleric still had a spell slot left.

I was pretty surprised, as far as I know that is pretty unusual.
Even more so because they were level one - which doesn't leave a lot of room for error.

Now the problem I need to solve:
Next weekend the rogue will join the action, and I'm fairly certain he will have a lot less AC.
I fear that everything that will challenge the tanks will kill the rogue outright.
And anything that would be appropriate for the rogues level of staying power would bore everyone because the tanks would just slug through it and be done with it, so the rogue doesn't really get to do something either.

As of now I have only one idea to deal with this:
Pinning the tanks down with weak but numerous enemies while some ranged foes pose the real threat. The rogue could sneak around the melee and backstab the ranged guys to get his spotlight and save the day.

Unfortunately that would get old pretty fast...
What else can I do to make combat engaging for everyone?

Any advice is appreciated, even more so if you can crunch some numbers why it would work.

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Overall, I don't think you need to do anything differently.

5e's bounded accuracy tends to ensure that all things are hittable regardless of level. At level 1, those sorts of ACs are high, but it's not that big of a deal and not unhittable (just unlikely). You'll find those tanky players will be hit more regularly by the time they reach level 5 and enter the next tier provided you aren't handing out shields and armor with high pluses on a regular basis. Those players will be able to endure because attackers need to roll better than a 12 to hit them (but that'll still be pretty regular) and they'll also have a larger hit point pool.

As for your rogue, this player will do as a rogue does and interject themselves to make high damage attacks then slink back behind their heavy hitters. At level 2, this will happen all the time as the rogue gets arguably their most useful ability, Cunning Action, which allows them to hit and run with ease in combat. Furthermore, it should be noted that a rogue doesn't need to melee an enemy in order to easily sneak attack them. All they need is an ally with 5' of the enemy (and not be disadvantaged) to attempt a sneak attack, so ranged sneak attacks are almost always on the table.

The reason your Deadly encounter didn't go too badly was because of the game's bounded accuracy and preference for multiple encounters in a row as opposed to just 1 or 2 fights a day. You do have to be careful about spiking the CR, though. An enemy with a +6 attack bonus or better combined with multiattack, can pose a real threat of punching through that armor very quickly. Combined with the limited hit point pool at level 1 means that almost any hit can be devastating quickly. Personally, I often recommend getting your players to levels 2 and 3 quickly as that's when they get a lot of their features that promote their survival as well as gives them a hit point buffer for you to rely on in case of enemy's lucky crit.

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There are a lot of ways to get around AC. There's traps and spells to create an area in which the characters will have to fight.

Some examples:

Difficult terrain, Slippery surfaces, Traps, Spells / Runes which trigger effects, Make a room flood with water and let them swim, Combine your enemies with tactics which players would use too. Like a shove to the ground to gain advantage or a grapple. So many options. Combat does not always have to be straightforward.

I once had a suicidal orc who lost 3 brothers in combat to grapple a pc and try to jump off a cliff. They had to stop him or else the pc would die with him as well.

Think outside the box of a standard encounter. Use environment / magic / traps / conditions / actions.

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I think it's not your problem. A rogue is not a character made for tanking, so I expect the player who is playing it won't try to do it. He'll sneak around the enemies your panzer batallion is fighting, then stab them at the back. As long as your tanks are still standing up he'll be fine.

I also find your 1st-level characters to have an AC too high for its level, but in any case, the rogue is going to have a lower AC, even if it's higher than normal. In any case, that's a problem with the class, not with your game. Nobody expects the wizard to lead the charge.

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Since your goal is to make things tougher for your party, give them a few encounters in a row between rests. That will force them to manage their resources more effectively.

There are plenty of ways you can do this: having them fight a large mob or waves of enemies (orcs attack the village) or put them in a time-crunch (the princess will be sacrificed to the kraken at dawn).

How do you design combats?

  • Height: villains on different height firing down at the PCs
  • Unsteady Terrain: fighting on an unsteady ship
  • Dangerous Terrain: Fighting in a lava field
  • Difficult Terrain: Fighting in a stream
  • Fighting in the open: Tanks don't do as well when the enemy can go around them
  • Faster/ mounted enemies

I will say this. Variety is the spice of life. It is fine for the PCs to get a few easy encounters because of their composition. Then the game should be about resource and ability management. Having a tank in front when you are always in 5-feet wide corridors creates a monotonous and repetitive pattern.

Good luck

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great ideas. Using "waves" of enemies works really well. Players usually achieve a tactical equilibrium by the second round (casters positioned in safe areas, tanks engaging and blocking, etc). Add some of the enemies forces in the 2nd or 3rd round, positioned advantageously, to force the players to adapt to the new threat. \$\endgroup\$ – hideous-laughter Jun 10 '17 at 13:40
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Your party is strong with physical combat in mind. So it makes sense that they were able to power through a physical encounter that was more powerful than they should be expected to face.

Somethings you can do to make it more interesting:

Spread em out: Your party is strongest when fighting a as a group together. Do things that force your party to separate to engage targets. You do this by choosing opponents that are strong in ranged combat and decent in melee. They should try to focus on the most dangerous and that is going to be the rogue. So if the party leaves one or two uncovered have them focus on the rogue.

Grind them down: sure they can plow through a half dozen goblins... but how many times before they are able to rest. Do not give them a chance to rest before a fight. This will force them to be more strategic about their uses of spells and abilities. Throw different monsters at them to make them use their abilities up. and force them to choose to flee rather than always fighting to the death.

Play the monsters smart. When it becomes obvious they monsters are going to loose have some flee and come back with reinforcements. When the players are on the run do not give them a chance to regroup and rest. If your monsters are intelligent have them gang up on one or two pcs instead of trying to spread out. Have them target the weakest or most vulnerable.

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