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I've been running a pathfinder game for some time. Up until now I think I have done a fairly good job of balancing encounters, the party is about to reach level 7 and there have only been 2 deaths but many many close calls. This is exactly the kind of risk level I want in this campaign.

The party has consisted of a barbarian, bard, druid, paladin and wizard. A fairly balanced party composition that have learned to synergise reasonably well. The barbarian and paladin are the main frontliners with the other supporting them with spellcasting and ranged attacks.

Typical combat strategies for my characters are:

  • Barbarian: Rage, rush the biggest bad guy. Smash it in the face. Repeat.
  • Bard: Start Inspire Courage first round. Shoot enemies with magic crossbow.
  • Druid: Summon nature's ally, Wild Shape, and cast most entertaining spells available (big fan of fire sneeze and tree shape).
  • Paladin: Smite Evil and hit the biggest guy until someone needs healing. Then alternate between heals and big damage.
  • Wizard (Evocation): Cast Web early, then fireball/magic missile everything in sight. Use vanish or daze if combat gets too close, if that fails, shocking grasp.

My issue is the barbarian was killed last session and the player is most likely to replace them with an oracle instead. Additional my paladin player informed me that he will be moving overseas for a year next month so he is out as well.

With those changes my new party will look more like:

  • Bard: Start Inspire Courage first round. Shoot enemies with magic crossbow.
  • Druid: Summon nature's ally to tank/distract enemies, Wild Shape, and cast most entertaining spells available (big fan of fire sneeze and tree shape).
  • Oracle: ??? Unknown, likely focus on healing and de-buffing enemies.
  • Wizard (Evocation): Cast Web early, then fireball/magic missile everything in sight. Use vanish or daze if combat gets too close, if that fails, shocking grasp.

What changes do I need to make to my encounter design to allow for the loss of the frontline fighters?

I'm looking for advice from GMs who have experience similar situations, or have run campaigns for parties that are lacking in melee characters.

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This may seem more like an alternative philosophical approach than an answer, but I do not design encounters with the makeup of the party in mind beyond their level & party size.

If a group of players choose classes that aren't "balanced" with each other, in my opinion it's up to them to adjust their tactics, not you. They might choose to start being more careful and set up ambushes instead of leaping into the fray. They might choose to hire some muscle or build a golem or find some non-player thing to fill the role of "tank." They might choose to avoid combat every now and then. But I personally believe that you needn't make too many adjustments on your end, and instead keep focusing on designing encounters that are logical and consistent with the game world. Every time I run games for an "unbalanced" party, they always figure it out with no intervention on my part.

The usefulness of this answer may be entirely dependent on your group, but in my experience you should never underestimate your players' ability to adjust on their own to new circumstances.

All that said, if you're still worried that your players aren't equipped to adjust to their new circumstances for whatever reason, then I suggest testing that hypothesis. Scale down the challenge of your encounters just a little—without changing the actual mechanics—and watch them learn the lessons they need to learn in a somewhat less lethal space. Use the same monsters, but maybe reduce their numbers or their HP or their damage just a little. When you feel comfortable that they've figured out their new limitations, you should be able to confidently crank the difficult back up to the level that you normally would design to.

In my experience, players are smart and resourceful. As long as the world you are all imagining together is consistent, they should be able to figure things out before too long.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the advice, this is the first campaign for all of my players and their tactical skill isn't that high. I agree that in time they will adjust, but if I don't make some changes initially they may be killed before that can happen. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 18 at 0:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin That's fair. I added an addendum to address this. \$\endgroup\$ – Alaric Sep 18 at 16:20
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You don't need frontline martial classes to have decent frontliners

Oracles, Wizards and Druids can summon stuff, and there is a good guide about it out there. In fact, a Wizard built around summoning makes more effective frontline than a properly built Fighter, and a Wizard can do more.

But you have some already

Bards, Oracles and Druids can be built to become somewhat effective in melee combat, especially if they work together for it.

So, what if only the Druid has frontline options?

In your example, the Wizard uses blasting, which is usually a very weak strategy compared to e.g. disabling enemies. Especially if we talk about spells like Magic Missile. Your Bard shoots his ranged weapon. But your Druid still summons, and can do it quite well. At least compared to the optimization level of your party as I perceive it.

Paladin's player might be leaving the party, but the Paladin can stay

It is a common practice for some groups that if a player permanently leaves the group, their characters can stay and be controlled by either the GM or another player. Thus, you will have at least two frontline characters: the Druid and the Paladin.

You don't even always need proper frontliners

Many battles in Pathfinder end in 1-2 rounds. Properly prepared casters can often reliably finish encounters with one spell way before the enemies even have a chance to act. Tell your players that they might need to adjust their tactics, especially the Wizard -- but it might not be the solution for everyone.

NPCs may help

OK, so nobody wants to play the Big Stupid Fighter, nor to optimize not to need one, nor do you want to keep the Paladin around. Maybe you can introduce some NPCs who will help the party on the frontline? Some parties might not like this solution, but I have seen it work, and multiple pre-written adventures feature NPCs who help you.

OK, nothing written above works! My players don't like such solutions!

Have a Session 0. Perhaps, your expectations from the game differ from what your players want. A Session 0 will help to clarify this and to understand what you can and what you cannot do.

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No matter the system, you now have a group you feel is unbalanced for your kind of game.

How can you deal with that ? There are multiple ways. I've personally used many different ways, throughout the years in "similar" situations. I sometimes had to change, or refuse to change, the nature of a campaign after a character's death but I also have had to do so for other reasons like a player simply wanting to change character or changes around the "table".

As a DM, what do you prefer ? What do you believe your players would prefer ???

You basically have three choices.

Do not get me wrong, you have way more than 3 choices. But you have two "easier" choices, which in my experience make for better/easier story telling.

  1. Adjust the campaign to your group
  2. Adjust the group to your campaign
  3. Status Quo

In the past, I used all 3 solutions in similar circumstances.

About adjusting the campaign to your group or adjusting the group to your campaign

Before doing any of that, one would need to first discuss with the players and see if they have the same worries about the new group composition vs the “style” of the game so far.

Maybe they feel totally fine and feel like they can still prevail with the same level of difficulty you have given them so far. If that is the case, then keeping status quo seems like the way to go.

Or maybe they are worried that they cannot logically continue in this game with the group composition they now have vs the “style” of the game so far.

In this case, two choices: adjust the campaign or adjust the group.

First ask them if any of them want to roll a new character if that is something you are okay with. Of course this is not a very efficient solution if they end up replacing another important role, like the Wizard who is normally a heavy damage dealer or very efficient enemy disabler rerolling a fighter might not be a big help to the group’s balance vs the challenge rating of your encounters. If your game is not heavy on social interactions, then maybe the Bard would be the best candidate for a character change.

If they are attached to their characters (which is totally legit), then maybe you can better adjust the game. There are multiple ways you can achieve that.

Adjusting the challenge rating of your encounters is one. You might be able to lower that easily enough and still be able to give good challenges to your group.

Adjusting the focus of your game is another. What I mean by that is maybe you can change the focus of the game from “combat centric” game to a “political intrigue” or “horror investigation” game.

Giving less fights between rests is yet another way to do that. It ensures that your heavy hitters (higher level spell slots on your casters, mostly) can be used more frequently.

You could also make your fights more tactical. Makes your maps more tactical, so your players can exploit tactical advantages to their advantage. By allowing your players to exploit terrain to their advantage, by allowing them to gather more information on their enemies before they have to engage them, you tip the scale on their side, if they are smart enough to exploit those.

About status quo

Sometimes I would keep things as is, keep the status quo. It all depends on the nature of your game and imo is riskier to do in combat heavy (aka ‘difficult’) games. There’s always the risk of a TPK in those game, more so with a suboptimal group.

In a more combat heavy/difficult game, if I wanted to keep the status quo, I would sometimes create a NPC that would fill the missing important role for the group. Sometimes I would control it, sometimes I would give control of it to a player or the whole group. But beware, these kind of NPCs can quickly turn into cannon fodder, with certain groups.

What can be done, concretely, with this group composition to maintain the balance now that they lost their frontline fighters ?

You clearly seem more interested in continuing the game with the current group composition without changing the group composition and also clearly worried they might not be able to pull it off.

You can allow your players to “retcon” choices they had made previously, if some spell/class features/items they got would be better if replaced by others, now that the group has changed.

The Druid can be an efficient tank, with summons and wild shapes. I once was the main tank of my group (actually on my last PF game ever). It was not always easy, but it got a whole lot better once I got a magical armor that would still remain active in wild shape (I think it was called Darkwood armor) ... that did help a lot in giving me survivability. You should consider giving a magical item to boost the druid’s AC a bit if he becomes the main tank.

The Wizard should keep doing what he does and nuke the enemy as best as he can. A dead enemy is one that does not hit the tank or anyone. He might also want to get more crowd control besides Web. If you allow for more rest and refrain from racing them against the clock too much, then the Wizard can have fun blasting away every fight.

The Bard. I feel like he is going to have to switch his focus from constant, but probably low, damage from ranged attacks to more crowd control/disables and rely on his usual combo as a last resort. But I would also let him figure it out by himself.

The Oracle, is harder to size up. It all depends on the secrets/revelations and spell chosen. Some buffs for the druid, some heals, some damage will all be useful. Going from paladin to oracle, I’m guessing he has a plan.

I’ve mentionned magical items for the druid, but everyone in the group would benefit from those. I’m mentionning this possibility not because I think it’s the best idea, but you can pinpoint their main weaknesses and help patch them up with items, giving them more survivability.

I’ve tried to condense my answer, getting rid of some useless fat that you mentionned.

Good luck with your game !

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is some good advice buried in this answer but there is also a lot of stuff that isn't relevant. The advice under "So, what can you do concretely as the GM to adjust the the game for this exact group composition ?" is the kind of stuff I was looking for. Can you focus your answer more on that and provide some support for your advice? Have you dealt with something like this? How did it work out? \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 17 at 4:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, sure I'll add details to the question. My comment was more about that the first half of the answer is a bit rambly on the topic in general and it makes the good points you make stand out less. It's just a suggestion but I would find it easier to read if you condensed things down a bit and focused on the parts I mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Sep 17 at 4:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin deleted my comments, will look at your edited answer tomorrow. Good luck with your game ! \$\endgroup\$ – Catar4 Sep 17 at 4:44

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