When I started DMing I've had a problem that combat was too difficult for the players. This was a while ago and was mostly connected with D&D 4e. I asked a question and received a lot of great suggestions for adjusting the difficulty on the fly. However, all of said suggestions were for decreasing the difficulty.
This time around we're playing a different system, and my problem is the exact opposite - the combat is way too easy and doesn't seem to challenge the players almost at all.
We're playing Wolsung, a rather obscure system, so I'll lay down the issues that I think are preventing me from using the usual tricks of the trade to modify the difficulty.
First, whenever there is a conflict (note - a conflict doesn't have to be a typical physical battle - it can also be a chase or a discussion) I need to negotiate the stakes with the players. This alone means I'm reluctant to throw in additional problems at the players during the conflict, at least not without re-negotiating the stakes. But if I want to "just" adjust a difficulty then I don't want to change the stakes, as such. Otherwise, I fear this could be viewed as very unfair and an obvious cheat.
Another thing is that when trying to attack (or outmaneuver, or convince - depending on the conflict type) an opponent everyone knows the target value they have to beat (there's something called "active defense" and then the values are unknown but it's severely lacking). This means I can't increase / decrease this value on the fly to make things easier / more difficult.
I think I've allowed my players to advance their characters far too quickly. I've based my first campaign off of a sample from the manual. Now that it is over, I think the manual assumed the whole thing would be played out in one sitting, while we took our time and did it over 5 sessions. The rules of the game state that players get XP and "achievements" after each session (achievements provide specific bonuses in certain cases).
Players also get a new set of tokens and cards (bonuses they can use during the game) at the start of the session and any decreased attributes (from being taken out in combat or loosing stakes) get a +1 towards the base value. This means that my players were never really weakened, even when one of them was taken out during a previous fight.
The end result is that everyone is refreshed and ready to tackle whatever I throw at them during each session. Admittedly I, as the DM, also get a fresh set of tokens and cards, but it doesn't really matter that much in my case. I cannot use "more" cards at once and I'm bound by the same rules as the players.
Finally, and this is possibly the worst offender, the game has something called "undeclared finishers". This means that if a character attacks another character and beats the target value by a big enough margin (said margin goes down as the defending character looses health markers), then the defending character can get taken out instantly. In the last session my players managed to take down a boss NPC with said boss being at full health (the player had an above average dice roll, used tokens and cards to add as many bonuses as he could while another character provided assistance). I was stumped - not only was I not able to respond, but because this happened early in the fight, the end result was terribly anticlimactic. Normally I cheer whenever my players do something awesome and I was impressed with this effort, but... well... it wasn't supposed to end like that at all and I couldn't help but feel angry.
Bearing in mind that characters in Wolsung are basically immortal (a failed conflict just means that the players need to try something else, and that their adventures are getting more complicated), I'm considering making the game way, WAY too difficult when preparing for the next session, and rather than up-scaling the difficulty on the fly I can down-scale the difficulty as needed (which seems easier - if nothing else, I can make NPCs "fight dumb"), but I'm not sure if this is a healthy approach and if I'm not trying to do this simply out of spite...
PS. I used guidelines for the enemies for my first campaign from the games manual, just as I did when designing combat encounters for my DND session. Apparently, aside from ideas, I can't really use the exact numbers any more.
A few other observations about the system itself:
- It's pretty easy to hit someone and defending is, in some cases, next to impossible. That said, it's easy to hit something if the character is "designed" for a given conflict type. I've made the mistake of taking a horde of zombies straight from the manual and didn't notice that their attack bonuses are extremely poor, meaning they didn't do ANYTHING but serve as cannon fodder during a fight.
- While base character defense values are known (both players and NPCs), NPC can have hidden abilities which don't have to be made known from the start. That said, it seems rather silly not to use any defense ability (especially passive ones) from the start, given how easy it is to be hit.