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For Plot Reasons, the PCs challenge, or are challenged by, a vastly higher-level opponent to an exhibition match(1) of some sort. Maybe an elder gold dragon wants to test the PCs' mettle before giving them a quest; maybe the local gladiatorial arena has a prize too good to pass up; maybe an arch-lich will only hand over a critical artifact if the PCs demonstrate they're strong enough to handle it.

Whatever the reason, the PCs need to fight an opponent of a far, far higher level than them. The opponent will face the PCs themselves; they either don't want to send a minion to fight in their place, or don't have any. However, the opponent's intention isn't to wipe the floor with the PCs; they genuinely want to see what the PCs are capable of.

How can I build a winnable encounter against a vastly overpowered opponent in a way that's fun, challenging, and mechanically interesting for the PCs?

Note: This question is about Pathfinder 2e, which does not have bounded accuracy like D&D 5e. A typical PC will miss most attacks against a creature only a few levels higher than them, and since a nat20 is not a guaranteed success in PF2e, it may be impossible to hit the vastly overpowered opponents in this question under ordinary circumstances.

I've tried various methods in past campaigns, but none of them managed to be all of fun, challenging, and mechanically interesting. Fighting directly isn't challenging or mechanically interesting, since the PCs have effectively no chance to even hit, much less win; while the opponent is likely to take out the whole party in a round or two. Leveling the opponent down isn't challenging, and sacrifices the fun of facing a powerful opponent while also breaking immersion. Fudging on the fly isn't mechanically interesting, since the players can't collect reliable information to strategize with; and worse, it can feel patronizing or like the PCs didn't earn their win, taking away the fun of the match.

I've also tried making the match not a battle to KO, but rather a strategy challenge such as reducing the opponent to half health, reaching a goalpost first, capturing a flag, etc. This isn't a solution on its own, since even if the PCs have the most brilliant strategy in the world, the opponent will likely still brute-force a win thanks to vastly higher stats. However, it can reduce the impact of some of the most unbalanced mechanics, like the PCs being incapable of landing a hit except on a nat 20, or the opponent's high HP making the fight a slog.


(1) For the purposes of this question, an exhibition match:

  1. Is not a fight to the death; the participants do not want to kill each other
  2. Is not used by the powerful opponent to merely curb-stomp the PCs
  3. Allows the PCs to demonstrate their skills/prowess/strength/whatever to the opponent
  4. Must be between the PCs and the powerful opponent, not a minion or other stand-in
  5. Must be possible for the PCs to win, if difficult.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like it's necessary to emphasize: Pathfinder 2e does not have bounded accuracy. The opposite is true - players and monsters add their level to offenses and defenses. The question asks for a winnable, mechanically-interesting, overpowered encounter in Pathfinder 2e. Answers should probably address PCs missing 95% of the time (or how to make that mechanically engaging and winnable). \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ The title's already quite long, otherwise I'd be tempted to add "in a system without bounded accuracy". Maybe that's too 5e-centric a phrase, but a lot of people are used to the 5e design of still being able to at least hit reasonably often against enemies that outclass them. Perhaps add that to the bolded paragraph in the question body, if not the title? (I was aware that not all systems are like 5e, and upon seeing the phrase no chance to even hit scrolled down to see the tags, since I hadn't had any previous clue of that fact until 1/3 of the way into the question.) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2022 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Thanks for the suggestion - added some info to clarify! \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jul 18, 2022 at 17:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good edit, especially since this question is in HNQ it'll get readers that wouldn't normally look at Pathfinder questions, so it's appropriate to spend a whole paragraph on that aspect of the system. (I hadn't realized that a nat20 could fail to hit!) \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2022 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the more casual readers: PC = Player Character \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19, 2022 at 11:13

12 Answers 12

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Run it not as a combat, but via a Victory Point Subsystem (from the GMG)

If you want to run it like a combat, then @user2754's answer is probably the only way to make it work. So don't run it like a combat - use a subsystem! The Gamemastery Guide (GMG) has many example subsystems. We can use the framework established there to create one for your cinematic encounter. We know this is a good time to use a subsystem, because (from GMG's Deciding to Use a Subsystem):

Subsystems are best when used for a component of the game that’s meant to be at least a significant portion of a single session. Think about whether you want a different style of play than normal before you decide to use a subsystem, since that’s what subsystems are best suited for.

And that's exactly what we are looking for - a significant moment with a different style of play than normal.

The System

We'll create a system really quickly here - they are pretty easy to set up, as explained in Victory Points in the GMG. We'll call our victory points Trial Points, and the arch-lich/dragon/etc. the Trial-Giver.

Step 1: Diminishing or Accumulating Trial Points

You can use Diminishing Victory Points to emphasize "well, no, you can't actually beat this thing. Your goal is to impress the trial-giver by staying in the 'fight' as long as possible." If you go this route, be clear with your PC's up front that the goal is to last as long as possible. This is the route I would prefer to take - I would then scale rewards based upon how many rounds they last.

You can also use Accumulating Victory Points - this is what most subsystems use. You then have the feeling of "How quickly can you impress the Trial-Giver"? It doesn't convey the overwhelming superiority of the Trial Giver as much, so I prefer the Diminishing Victory Points here. The rest of my suggestion will be with Diminishing Trial Points in mind, but it's pretty easy to flip around.

Step 2: How Long of an Encounter

See Setting your Scale - this seems like a good option for Long Encounter, where the once the VP threshold is reached, the trial-giver goes for different tactics, shaking up the DCs. I'd probably opt for a starting pool of 2 VPs per party member - that'll give you several rounds unless everyone critically fails right off the bat.

Step 3: Set Your DC's Based on the Trial-Giver's Expectations

This allows you to bypass the question of "well, you'll never be able to hit that AC, so what are we even doing." The trial-giver knows you can't beat them or even hit them. But given they are looking to evaluate the adventurers, this allows you to set the DC based upon expectations. (See Difficulty Classes for DC info). Here are some basic recommendations:

  • Phase 1: The Trial-Giver is mostly being defensive
    • Hard DC of level for Attack Rolls - this will hopefully encourage alternative approaches or teamwork
    • Normal DC of level for Maneuvers, Knowledge Checks
    • Easy DC for relevant Lores (Dueling, Warfare, etc.)
    • Easy DC for checks that creatively use the trial-environment (e.g. I redirect the shiny rack of shields in the corner to try and blind the dragon by reflecting the sunlight while my Allies distract it - an Easy attack roll)
  • Phase 2: the Trial Giver goes on the offensive
    • Normal DC of level for Attack Rolls
    • Allow for "AC checks" - roll against a DC with your AC minus 10 (e.g. a check to try actively defending)
    • Probably the same Easy DC's as before

In each phase, I'd increment the difficulty level of any repeated check (but separately for the phases) - so the first attack roll in Phase 1 is Hard, then Very Hard, etc. This makes your PC's try new things, and is easily seen as the Trial-Giver trying to test the limits of their abilities.

Step 4: Determine Rewards

I'm guessing you'll always want to give them the quest, so I'd suggest giving them that as long as they last one round. Then I'd give them bonuses based on how long they last that in someway reflect the Trial-Giver's favor, so something like this:

  • 1 round: the quest
  • 2 rounds: above + access to an uncommon or rare spell/feat relevant to the Trial-Giver
  • 3 rounds: above + a shiny piece of loot
  • 4 rounds: above + a very helpful hint or future ally
  • 5+ rounds: above + one more piece of loot for each round

Step 5: Run the Session

Have fun! Be clear with your PC's in advance of what's happening, reward clever thinking or use of feats, get really into the narration (and let your PCs as well).

An Option to Convey Even More The Overwhelming Power of the Trial-Giver

Terrible title, not great, but this idea came to me when thinking more about @arete's comment on using multiple pools of Trial Points. Paizo discusses something similar in Multiple Point Subsystems. Depending on the nature of the trail, you could run it like a "race". If you want it to narratively be like a combat, have the PC's continue as above, but instead of just having X rounds to accomplish it, have the Trial-Giver get a turn instead. Have the Trial-Giver roll against the same DC the PC's roll against - given their overwhelming superiority, they should basically always critically succeed. If that's the case (more likely if the Trial Giver is 10+ levels ahead of the PCs), then you can really just use it as a round marker - the Trial-Giver will get two Trial Points every round. If you have the party race them to 9 Trial Points, that gives the players 5 rounds (as long as you have the Trial-Giver go after them), assuming the Trial-Giver doesn't roll natural 1's. Regardless, seeing the Trial-Giver critically succeed at everything should leave the PC's in an appropriate amount of awe, without having to nerf the Trial-Giver at all - we're just taking advantage that 10 over the DC and 30 over the DC mean the same thing.

My Experience

I've used subsystems a few times before, and they've worked well for my games. This seems like a golden opportunity for one. They tend to be more successful if you are more transparent with your players how they work.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like this idea! If I was going to run this I would probably use a combination of diminishing and accumulating, where the party is trying to land as many blow/impress the trial giver before they run out of diminishing points. But this might slow things down to much in practice. \$\endgroup\$
    – arete
    Jul 18, 2022 at 20:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @arete that gave me an idea which I've edited into this answer - thank you! I actually quite like it. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Jul 19, 2022 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for - interesting mechanics which allow strategizing, while keeping the fun and challenge of squaring off against an opponent that's otherwise out of the PCs' league. Thank you! \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jul 20, 2022 at 2:59
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Stop Trying To Hit Me And HIT Me

In this scene in the classic sci-fi film the matrix, Morpheus takes Neo into a virtual training dojo to try to teach him. He does so by the classic 'master sparring with apprentice' trope, where a master 'fights' an apprentice - and even hits them, tosses them about - but without the intention of seriously hurting them, using their greater skills to control the fight so it's challenging, scary, even painful - but not lethal or serious.

The basic idea behind this is that simulating real combat by introducing fear and minor injury will better prepare the student for actual combat, or cause them to be more diligent in learning fighting skills. In Morpheus' case, he's trying to unlock an unconscious or emotional ability to affect virtual simulations in Neo's brain, the fighting isn't even the main point (since they can upload martial arts to the user's brain directly).

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In a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where individuals can gain power almost exponentially (as much of an abstraction as that is), this is even more notable than in our world where skills are gained generally more incrementally and less spectacularly than where geniuses and prodigies can exhibit the power to literally move mountains with their minds.

Ergo, use this scene (and the others like it) as inspiration. Think 'drillmaster' or 'sensei', not opponent. The gold dragon or whoever is pulling their punches. When the party rolls well and lands a glancing blow or nearly does, they are pleased. Good, good! Now do it again! When they attack, they do so at quarter strength or less. They might even attack, then stop right before their enchanted god-trident hits the wizard in the face, then exhort the party to start acting like a team and less like a collection of individuals, etc.

Basically, unless the powerful entity pulls out a minion (an echo of themselves at 10% power, a lieutenant, a servant, etc) or somehow magically nerfs themselves for the fight (which is potentially dangerous unless that same nerf also makes sure they won't die or be inconvenienced by eg. the loss of a wing), with the premise you gave of 'testing' the party this is the best way I see to do that. Intentionally not fighting at their best, but still not entirely pulling their punches, laying some weak hits into the party to test their mettle and judge their capability.

How To Implement This Mechanically

Have the actual stats of the more powerful creature. We'll call that the Morpheus. Then, map the mechanics to the narrative of the scene. If the Neos (the party) manage to get the Morpheus into a grapple, the Morpheus uses its full stats to escape - much as the sensei in a kung fu dojo would effortlessly escape a grapple after letting a student try one to see how their grabbing and holds were. If the Morpheus feels the Neos are getting complacent, roll with those stats for one attack, and then either roll less damage (you don't punch a student full force) or halt the attack inches from them.

Then have a second set of stats, of a 'nerfed' version of the Morpheus, which is a more reasonable challenge for the Neos - much better than them, especially in AC, but at least hittable, and with a chance to miss. 'You dodged! Well done!', 'haha, you managed to hit me! Better than I expected'. Note that actual hits against the Morpheus should be narrated as 'slipping past his guard, but at the last moment he dodges with impossible speed/other method of negating the attack'. The sensei is not actually getting hit. Natural 20s or clever teamwork resulting in an actual hit should be very rare and probably the climax of the scene.

Intersperse these two statblocks as narratively appropriate. If the Neos hit the Morpheus with a save or lose, it will use its real stats to resist. If they put it in a grapple or some other situation it needs to resolve to continue the fight properly, it will use its real stats. Otherwise it will present the weaker set of stats - that is above them, but not so far above they have a zero % chance of hitting or affecting the Morpheus.

This is effectively 'fudging on the fly', but with pre-set numbers. Where appropriate, you will need to make up new numbers or change the numbers - such as when the Neos turn out to have some buff or ability that increases their skills, and the Morpheus is forced to compensate by slightly upping the difficulty of the sparring.

How you win against Morpheus isn't that you beat him. You win by earning his respect. You lose by disappointing him. That's the narrative stakes. Treating it as just a combat encounter is going to miss half the point and most of the possible fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I like the spirit of this answer, the question I'm asking is how to do this - i.e., how do I actually make the opponent not fight at their best? Like the question says, simply leveling them down or fudging rolls on the fly doesn't work for various reasons, so by what means can I implement this? \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jul 18, 2022 at 5:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please, images should be attributed to their creators, and from public domain or with license compatible with Stack's Creative Commons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jul 18, 2022 at 11:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this would be improved by doing the math on some real examples. If a level X PC tries to grapple a level X+10 monster (or whatever), how likely are they to succeed? How many rounds will the fight have to be for the PC to have a 90% chance to succeed at least once? \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:44
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The master fights 'with my hands tied'

A typical trope in showing off how badass a character is is for them to fight hamstrung or with a clear handicap. If the master fights, he actively tries not to use his power in a way to rebalance the fight. In movies, this typically takes shapes like these:

  • He doesn't attack the PC on his own. No, he uses counter maneuvers or punishes bad moves ("misses") by the pupil. Only if the pupil gets too cocky, they give them a good smack, then return to passive 'Come and get me' mode.
  • He might actively not use features that make it harder to hit until he has been hit (calculate the master's AC without any such features - though he might re-engage them at any moment)

This takes care only of the superficial level though: the moment the master unleashes their power, they still curb stomp the PC, and they have typically double or more the HP of the PC. So how can we make this still interesting?

Smackdown is not the goal!

The goal of the combatant shouldn't (and couldn't) be to drop the master's HP to 0 or any other arbitrary number. So to make it safe the master might hand out specially treated weapons or other training devices. In game terms, any weapons inside the ring possibly do minimum damage always, or just imaginary damage - the moment the person leaves the ring, the damage is healed.

A Game of targets

Instead, the goal is to show what the pupil can do. To do so, they need to achieve different, smaller goals:

  • One of the most stereotypical "goals" for a pupuil in a faceoff is to "Land a proper hit". From my own Kendo training, even with the trainer perfectly not-reacting and allowing you to land any hit, landing a proper hit with good execution still is very hard - think of it as an attack maneuver that needs to not just hit the [deliberately lowered] AC (that's a "sloppy hit") but surpass it by a certain amount. Remember, our master doesn't actively use part of his skills to full effect - he can tell if it would have hit him had he defended with even a modicum of effort. However, this quickly devolves into a game of luck, unless the player has ample options to modify their attack roll with maneuvers.
  • Maneuvers can be demanded. If the pupil learned a certain maneuver with trigger circumstances, the task is less to hit but to set up the trigger circumstances without getting an attack of opportunity from the master, who uses only 5-foot steps and any AoO that presents itself to try to counteract the movement of the pupil. This might need a battle map and might become more of a game of strange chess as the player attempts to set up a charge or other maneuver.
  • Not every combat is about smacking the opponent. Sometimes, the win is not in reducing the enemy to 0 HP, but in achieving different goals while surviving. The goals in such a challenge are things like maneuvering through a trap field or evading the smacks of the master while reaching certain positions and then using different skills. This turns into a strange game of wits with the GM if you use a battle map.
  • If you really want, you could take inspiration from the rules on Show combat from Pathfinder 1e - The sensei is representing the onlookers though, and it takes a certain number of good maneuvers to sway him.

F*** dice, Narrate cinematically!

There's a different route though: Narrate. Hold all dice rolls. Instead, just have the player narrate what they try, then estimate what the master can and will do, and how the things resolve. Let me craft an example (using a couple of Samurai as stand-in):

P: Kakita Mamorou enters the ring, and after following the formalities, draws his Bokuto facing the master. With slow but testing steps he circles counter-clockwise, holding the center stance, the tip of his wooden sword on the eyes of the old master. As he notices what might be an opening on the elder Kakita's left arm, he strikes for it, an ear-shattering Kiai on the lips...

GM: Kakita Toshimoko smiled as the pupil dashed at him, the wooden blade raised in the proper fashion to strike at his arm. But before it could make so much as contact, his own blade of silver greywood did a sharp jolt to the side. It wasn't a loud clang of wood on wood as his tip hit the side of the blade, but it was enough to steer the pupil's blade to just pass his body. "Good attempt, but you can do better, Mamorou-kun! You lost eye contact!" With the last sentence, the greyish blade of the master dashed in, breaking just at the shoulder of the younger samurai to rest on it a split moment, before it returned into the base stance, the old man retreating two steps to give his student another try.

P: Growling a short moment at the showmanship of the Grey Crane, Mamouru likewise returns to the start, this time going in clockwise steps. One by one his eyes focus on the whole picture this time, trying to read his sensei's intent all the while. Then, it's not his eyes that tell him the change, it's his feet. The edge of a tatami mat. Altering his steps, he pushes his almost locked movement with the opponent towards such a strip's edge, focussed on the one moment when the old man would have to adjust the footing for the tiny alteration of the ground. That is the moment he strikes forth with a quick blow at the stable back leg...

GM: It's a moment chosen well. As the foot of the old man raises a tiny bit more to get onto the mat's edge, the dark bokuto of Mamorou slices hissing through the air, on a great course to hit true. With a loud clank, wood hits wood as Toshimoko manages to ever so barely get his own wooden blade's grip in between the bokuto and his leg, having released half of the hold on it. "That was a good one. If this were real blades, you'd cost me a leg there." There's a smile on the lips of the old man, just as he uses his free hand to give his student a push to the starting point. "But these are not. Once more!"

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    \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca those are too many screws to turn: we don't know the PCs level at all. Also, it depends a lot on the classes involved - Some features after all ignore the armor class in the first place. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then some clarification may be helpful in the question. Alternatively, it might be enough to look at the best case scenario (a fighter, presumably) at 5, 10, and 15 levels below an ancient gold dragon (given the example in the question). \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 15:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish I deliberately didn't put PC level in the question, because as far as I can tell, the mechanical problems are essentially the same whether the PCs are level 5 or level 15. That may not be true in other systems, and even in PF2e higher-level PCs at least have more options to work with, but overall the problems boil down to the fact that due to how PF2e works, the PCs will fail up to 95% of rolls while the opponent will succeed up to 95%. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jul 18, 2022 at 15:34
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Have them compete by fighting other enemies

I've been playing Hades recently, an action-heavy roguelike. Occasionally, you come across a character called Thanatos, who challenges you to a competition. You clear a room as normal, except Thanatos is also fighting the enemies; whoever kills the most wins. Now, Thanatos is obviously above your league. His attacks deal orders of magnitude more damage than yours do, and he instantly vaporizes enemies that you spend seconds on. What makes it fair is that his attacks have several seconds of telegraphing before they vaporize an enemy. So, it's not uncommon to kill more enemies than him and win the competition, even if you wouldn't stand a chance in a straight fight against him.

You can apply a similar strategy for this exhibition match. Pick a set of enemies that'll make a Severe to Extreme encounter for the party. Make sure they're lower levels than the party; you want quantity over quality in this case. Then, in either half of an arena, match the party and the high-level opponent against that set of enemies. The competition is for the party to clear out their set of enemies before the opponent clears out theirs.

In theory, this should bring the fight closer to being mechanically fair. Each of your PC's actions will be significantly weaker than the opponent's, but they'll have four times as many. On top of that, the opponent is likely going to be inefficient with their damage. Critting every attack and dealing 100+ damage each time is impressive, but if the enemies only have 50 HP, then four PCs dealing 25 damage each attack will clear out the enemies twice as fast. Depending on the levels, the amount of overkill probably won't be quite this extreme, but it still should be a small factor giving them advantage during the contest.

Despite being mechanically fair, this type of fight will still make it very clear that the high-level opponent is out of their league. Since you based the enemies on an Extreme encounter, or close to it, the party should come through it battered, bruised, and nearly dead. Meanwhile, the opponent will have never been hit, will have critted on every attack, and generally will have blown through the enemies without any issue. Despite that, it still gives the party a chance to show off their fighting prowess to the opponent. If the party wins the fight, the opponent will be impressed with the party for outpacing them. Even if they party loses the contest, it would have been difficult enough that the opponent can be impressed that they held up as well as they did.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I particularly like how this answer considers the interaction between overkill and the action economy. The overpowered opponent will need to only have (or use) single-target attacks, but that's much less of a restriction than changing their stats. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 23:02
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Encounters Beyond Limits

By the encounter building rules for smaller parties, a single equal-level foe against one party member is considered an extreme threat encounter (160 xp - 40 * 3). Having a fight with something more powerful than this is going to end poorly.

In such situations it would be more interesting to have the powerful entity try and make it a fair fight by adjusting the circumstances, or making is something that their opponent has a chance of succeeding with. Great ways to do this have been described in other answers more thoroughly, such as having the more powerful creature "fight" by intentionally reducing their stats to allow teaching/counterplay or by using the Gamemastery Guide's Victory Points subsystem.

But there is another way to approach this that has some precedent in the official adventure paths offered by Paizo, specifically in Fists of the Ruby Phoenix where you encounter a creature of power far beyond what the encounter guidelines support, and even beyond the current maximum creature level of 25 (A CR 28 creature in Pathfinder 1e).

Modelling Attacks as Hazards

In the case above, the creature's interactions with the world are defined as simple and complex hazards that have powerful effects similar to the standard abilities of such a high-level creature while also allowing them to be interacted with by the party more directly.

Comparing the creature- and hazard-building rules, the divide between a given creature's attacks and an equal-level simple hazard's attacks show how this could be used to represent the standard abilities of a higher-level creature.

As an example, a level 2 simple hazard (+14, 2d10+7) could reasonably approximate the attack from a level 5 giant (+13, 2d12+7) while allowing lower level creatures to directly interact with and disable the giant's single attack like by sliding under it with an acrobatics check. Or comparing to that original example in the official adventure, using legendary deception to temporarily distract the creature from using its terrifying flame breath.

The broader encounter in the book gave four of these hazards for dealing with interactions with the creature, but how many would be needed to feel like the party is actually encountering something so strong will vary. This option feels more appropriate where the creature has other goals beyond the party and just wants to devote a small portion of their time/effort towards squashing them.

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To make it winnable, you need a victory condition other than take the Big Good Friendly Guy to zero bit points, because as you've noted, that's impossible without considerable shenanigans of the sort you're not interested in. To maintain narrative and mechanical interest, you'll want something that can't be resolved by spamming dice roles until the conditions are met (eg: hit me x times, counter spell x successfully, stay standing after the gold dragon breathes weakening breath, etc.). So what could that be? Here is one idea using the gold dragon you suggested....

Carry a gold coin from my hoard past the threshold of my lair before the next full moon.

Something like this is really fun because the PCs can approach this in an infinite number of ways, and fail as many times with little penalty (until the clock runs out). At times the PCs are caught, the dragon uses spells or her weakening breath to disable/remove them. Should it come to blows, the dragon deals subdual damage with her physical attacks and if the party is has to be wiped ensures the PCs wind up somewhere safe to recover (and probably leaves a note to tease or encourage them). There are spells and traps to overcome along the way. The dragon is watchful during this time but still has to go about her normal life, eating, patrolling her territory, etc, leaving times where the PCs can possibly slip in unnoticed (provided they overcome any alarms that the dragon put in place). You can set this up by imagining what a dragon of that age category would do to protect their layer in earnest, and then think about how they would modify that to not kill their new friends. Non-lethal wards are going to be your friend here (lesser geas: make friends with all the chickens in town and convince one to lay an egg in your hand). You have a lot of options here and it can be a lot of fun for everybody involved.

Good luck!

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Proficiency Without Level

Pathfinder 2e has an optional rule to minimize the gap between higher and lower level challenge. This is intended to be for an entire adventure, but you could probably get by with implementing it for just one encounter. This would still give the enemy as advantage as their proficiency ranks in weapons and armor would still be higher, but not by as much. This would avoid you having to directly nerf the creature's statblock while introducing an element of bounded accuracy to the encounter.

The downside of this is it would require the the players to update their numbers to remove their own levels as well. If you wanted to save them this work you might be able to approximate Proficiency Without Level by simply using the PCs level for the enemy's proficiency bonus, but this is getting closer to the kind of straight up nerfing you're trying to avoid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You're right that this is effectively the same as a nerf (and probably isn't what the asker wants), though I do find it very interesting that the system has an official optional rule to address the problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 16:55
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The master is distracted

  • During the exhibition, a rebellion breaks out among the master's normally-loyal audience. Now the master is working to defeat both the PCs and their own henchmen - ideally without killing either. If the PCs can cycle through healing & different avenues of attack when the master is facing the other opponents, they can possibly find good options for a better than normal attack. PCs can use the minions for cover or assist them indirectly.
  • Perhaps the master is being assaulted through other avenues - mentally / magically / psychically. Their actual opponent isn't in the ring with them, and they're trying to figure out what's going on while the PCs are. Ideally, there'll be some hint to the PCs that something else is going on, and that they should attack at particular times or in particular ways. Maybe a colored glow emanating from the master or striking at empty space or verbal complaints (about hallucinated attacks) can be used to signal to the PCs what types of attack are more likely than normal to succeed. If the players follow-up, they get a bonus to hit or bonus damage.
  • The master is trying to demonstrate a particular ability or resistance for their romantic (or professional) interest, and is thus telegraphing their attacks and/or over-using an interesting-but-less-effective ability.

Direct combat is not the challenge

Even if the master could win a straight fight, this is not one. Perhaps the nature of the challenge is:

  • A scavenger hunt
  • hide & seek
  • a riddle or out-think-your-opponent game (see where Morpheus takes on Choronzon in the Sandman series, or Merlin's shapeshifting game in Disney's Sword and the Stone.)
  • Capture-the-flag or similar

The singular master taking on a whole group of PCs here may let them leverage their ability to split up to good effect. Choosing which PC goes for which target, and how they can coordinate & support each other at a distance can also add interesting mechanical bits.

Single-use or situational magic items

  • A sword that gives a significant (but not decisive) bonus only in the full moon.
  • A damaging or restrictive spell that can only be cast on a willing subject

These options can also be combined to let the players play with the interactions or tradeoffs between them.

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  1. Make liberal use of revival and similar powers. Higher level monsters like golden dragons often have access to powerful magic and similar spells. This allows you to extend a fight, as it forces the golden dragon to waste an action reviving someone taken down. Alternatively you have have the arena itself resurrect players. There's less fun in having a fight vs a much higher level enemy if they don't use their more dangerous powers.

  2. Have a reduced form. For example, the dragon might stay bound to their human form, where you might give them a single attack so they can only gib one player a round. This allows them to use their full impressive power, without killing all the players every round. The fun of this is a dragon slowly chasing down your players and exploding them once a round, and you giving dramatic descriptions of how the dragon does bloody and brutal deaths of players.

  3. Make them give the players extensive prep time. If the players need to buff up or think up a new strategy don't have the monster press them too aggressively.

  4. Offer extensive verbal commentary and advice on methods. This adds a diplomatic element to the fight, and works well with point 2. It's a strong motivator to a player if the enemy beats them to death with their own torn off arm while discussing the finer points of combat and offers a chance for players to gain some advantage with verbal commentary.

  5. Give them a useful lesson in the combat session. Higher leveled beings have a great deal of ability to predict the future. Think up a challenge that they could reasonably use in their next mission. Could they use an elemental weakness, like a weakness to cold, to do more damage? Could they buff up a fighter to hit an unhitable foe? Could they use the environment to trap enemies somehow? Consider their abilities and plot a mechanically possible way for them to do something, adding in magical items, environmental conditions, or weaknesses as needed. If they find an alternative way to win, great, but make sure there's some way.

  6. Have interesting artifacts or items that can change up the fight. The fight might work well with a weird elemental setting, or the magic users might need to respec their spells to win. A very high power character may well have the ability to change these things usefully. As such, given them items or spell like abilities to fix the game as needed. More power often makes a fight easier.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Re 1: Alternatively, have the foe deal subdual instead of real damage, that way revival is not an issue and players always have the opportunity to heal each other to get back into the fight, up until the whole party is down and they get to sleep it off and try again tomorrow. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Jul 18, 2022 at 22:49
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I experienced a situation like this once, it was a non-D&D game system but the general idea should still apply.

An extremely powerful entity wanted to test my party's capabilities but would have wiped us all out with a sneeze. Instead of direct combat, he proposed a sort of living chess match. He gave each of us an orb that we could channel at one of the statues lining the walls of his throne room to bring it to life and control it. Once we took control of a statue, the GM handed us a brief character sheet showing the stats, gear, and abilities of that particular statue. It felt somewhat like a mech battle, with our low-rank, squishy selves being put in the driver's seat of a huge, powerful fighting machine that could trade blows with this seemingly-godlike opponent.

This approach had a couple of big advantages as far as mechanics go:

  • The players weren't in mortal peril because the enemy wasn't attacking them and had no desire to. That didn't lead to the party being fearless, though, because the entity's overall opinion of you (and thus your rewards) were affected by how many statues survived.
  • The players fought with a completely different set of stats for the event. That scaled them up to where the event was reasonable (but still challenging), while preventing any of that extra power from being used outside the event. Overall difficulty level was roughly that of a boss fight.
  • Having the statues' character sheets made up in advance made it straightforward to implement during play. We found it easier to keep track of things using miniatures, but that's certainly not a requirement.
  • Letting the players temporarily control a high-level, endgame-caliber character is more fun and exciting than bringing the enemy down to their level. The enemy is still wielding scary weapons and throwing high-level spells. The difference is that you now have a fighting chance, plus a few scary spells of your own.

What made this encounter particularly fun to play was that it gave the GM incredible leeway for customizing the event. Part of the key to winning each trial was selecting statues that could accomplish the task. The statues in the enemy's chamber were statues of legendary heroes from ages past, and each had stats and gear matching that hero at their finest. Most of them had been mentioned previously in conversations with NPCs, songs sung in taverns, books, etc. Players that favored the storytelling part of the game remembered more of these details and were more likely to make good choices (hard mode: abilities are limited to whatever the controlling character remembers about that hero). The GM gets to customize each statue's spellbook and ability set - limited somewhat for simplicity - so you can force players to solve complex problems using only simple tools, or can see whether they can solve a time-limited puzzle using abilities that they have no experience with. Customize the encounter to test exactly whatever it is that you want to test, even if their skill choices or team composition would normally make that difficult.

Our particular encounter started off with our warrior controlling a warrior, our warlock controlling a warlock, etc. (the obvious choices). Winning the encounter, however, ended up requiring our four-man party to fight using six statues, swapping between statues based on the enemy's actions and rotating who is taking which role at any moment in time and which statues are temporarily dormant. It was a true test of teamwork, thinking on your feet, and being able to play more than just a single type of character. We impressed the entity enough for him to trust us with a series of quests and at the end of the campaign, we noticed he had started sculpting a new statue for his gallery (he admitted it was of a future version of one of us, but declined to specify which one). It ended up being one of the most fun encounters I experienced with that game group, definitely the most memorable.

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Have the opponent lend them some enhancing items in the spirit of competition

If your challenger is vastly more powerful than your PCs, they could well own a selection of enhancing items just for this purpose. For example "boxing gloves" - gauntlets that give the wearer +5 to hit, but only allow them to deal non-lethal damage.

Most players love being powered up - even if they know it's only temporary, and a win where they're fighting well above their normal power level will feel more earned than one where they're fighting a weakened opponent.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE, and thanks for you answer! Be sure to take the tour if you haven't already. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Jul 19, 2022 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of powering up the players instead of powering down the monsters - it's worth noting that to make it work in Pathfinder 2e (the system under question) without just having your players level up their characters 10 levels (or however many) would be tricky though. Items alone would make most Spell DCs useless. Simply increasing the level used for calculating proficiency would work okay, but the players will still be missing the increases to master, legendary, etc, and spells of a higher level. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Jul 19, 2022 at 18:22
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I recently did exactly this as part of the very first session of my current campaign, about a month ago. The party was being hired by a local activist to ferry medicine from a nearby city, but she was unconvinced by the party's capabilities (especially since some members of the party didn't lead with the best foot forward and made themselves look untrustworthy). So, she asked her assistant, Ludwig Richter (pronounced 'Ludvig'), to take the party to the training yard behind her warehouse, and challenge them in combat to make sure they were capable of the job.

The fight ended very close, with four party members unconscious and the remaining party members at very low health. Able to reduce his hitpoints all the way down, Ludwig called off the fight and praised the party for having fought him so well, and the party carried on with the job they were being hired for.

So here's my notes, both from planning the encounter during session prep, and from having actually executed the encounter.

Make the encounter a little more powerful than you think you'll need

I understand this question is specific to Pathfinder, so Hit Points and attack damage will be the order of the day, but regardless of the system, the biggest thing is that, since this encounter is [intended to be] non-lethal, it's okay for the encounter to be just a little bit overpowered. If no one is worried about their characters dying, then they aren't going to panic when someone goes down.

Depending on how the encounter resolves, even if the PCs lose the fight, they can still be awarded accolades for how much they did manage. My original plan with the fight was that if they were able to bring Ludwig's health down below 50% before all being taken out, he was going to applaud them for managing to achieve that.

The big thing is to just make sure the fight isn't over too quickly. The worst thing that could happen is the players surprise you with some burst damage you weren't expecting that ends the fight before the challenger even got to retaliate―and of course the second-worst outcome is if the challenger does that to the PCs.

But, if the encounter ends up being way too powerful, you always have the option of just dialing back their strategy. At one point early on in the fight, two PCs were already down and Ludwig had barely taken any damage, so I had him make some less optimal choices about which PC he attacks and where he moves around the yard so that the party had time to get some healing out and rally for the next round of combat. I didn't have to fudge any numbers: I just made things a bit less intense for a round.

Make sure the encounter is regularly advancing, even between the turns of PCs

In the fight against Ludwig, it was 6 Player Characters vs Ludwig on his own. Under normal circumstances, this would result in a very asymmetric battle, where the six players take their actions, then Ludwig does whatever, and repeat. Balancing that fight isn't necessarily difficult, you can just give Ludwig extra actions, but it can feel kind of static, which is why you don't necessarily want to go that direction.

My campaign is in D&D 5e, and in D&D 5e, the usual solution to this problem is a fight mechanic called "Legendary Actions". Legendary Actions are a set of "points" the creature gets, which refresh at the end of their turn, and can be spent at the end of another creature's turn to take one of their designated actions. The actions they may take are usually pretty simple, ranging from taking a single melee attack, to moving their movement speed without provoking opportunity attacks. For spellcasters this might mean casting a cantrip or a low-level spell.

I'm not familiar with Pathfinder 2e, so I don't know if the system offers a similar or identical set of mechanics to apply to NPCs, but I think it's a very simple mechanic to transpose if it doesn't already exist, and if it does, I extremely encourage using it.

In this battle specifically, one of the legendary actions I gave Ludwig was the ability to throw creatures at other creatures to damage them both (he's a half-orc and a very strong boy), pending the results of a saving throw by the creature he's throwing. This ended up being very effective at making the fight more dynamic, because in between character's turns, there was a chance that allied characters would get moved around the fight, or take additional damage, which would force players to have to update their plans for their turn on the fly.

Give the encounter some quips to yell at the party

One novel choice with Ludwig was the fact that he had a preexisting relationship with one of the party members, someone who had assisted him in the past for various jobs (hence why the party was being scouted to assist with this new job). So that means I can leverage that. For example, whenever Ludwig's turn came up, he'd offer some kind of playful taunt towards the PC he was familiar with, like "you've managed to make some great friends since I last saw you, but I wonder if they can handle this!" or "I hope you had more than that prepared!"

Lines like that give the party something to banter with, and since the stakes of the fight are relatively low (again: intended to be non-lethal), it can give the players who are waiting for their turns something to interact with, especially if (as it is for my group) you have a large number of players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In this case, it's hard to have a system agnostic answer. Pathfinder 2e doesn't have bounded accuracy, so a level X+10 foe will crit a level X PC on most attacks, while the PC may only be able to hit on a natural 20. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:57

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