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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.
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I'm not familiar with the system you're using, so hopefully someone who is can weigh in later, but since you said the system is obscure I'll take a crack at it anyways, just in case.

You mentioned that each "fight" has pre-negotiated stakes, which seems to imply that the characters are fighting to gain something that is set at the start of the fight. Perhaps, if a fight seems to be too easy, you could offer to up the stakes of the fight, basically offering the players more reward, at the cost of also increasing the difficulty of the encounter significantly.

The trick here is that you probably don't need to increase the stakes very much to get your players to buy in, while you're free to increase the difficulty dramatically to reach the desired threat level. Since your players chose to fight this increased threat, they'll be happier about fighting a tougher fight compared to if you simply threw a bunch of extra stuff in after. Even if they lose, they'll likely see it as them being too greedy and biting off more than they can chew, rather than you punishing them for doing too well.

Of course, they may decide against the increased stakes, but that's fine too. Not every conflict has to be nail-bitingly close to be fun. Instead of dwelling on how easy the enemies were, play up how cool they got to be and how awesome their reward was, with perhaps a warning that their enemies are learning and their next fight might not be so easy...

More generally, probably your best solution is to simply plan things out more. Plan for ways to increase the difficulty of the fight on the fly, such as a group of guards rushing in that may or may not make it in time, or a neutral NPC with unknown allegiance that may side with the players, or against them, or stay neutral. As long as the players know of these uncertainties before the fight begins, it won't feel so arbitrary when things go wrong.

And of course, if you're not sure if an important fight is difficult enough, play it out! You don't necessarily need to do a full simulation, but just roll a few dice, compare numbers, and try to see how things might go. If you test it out and find that your BBEG usually dies before he can even really do anything, then you'll know he needs buffing before the players ever see him.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll +1 this for mentioning that renegotiating stakes can be useful (good thinking!). But besides this the answer feels a bit too vague to be of use. \$\endgroup\$ – Shaamaan Nov 24 '14 at 8:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I come from StackOverflow where answers tend to be a bit more binary - either they're good or they're not. ;) In this case the questions and answers are a lot more open, and if a question contains something that's useful I feel it's OK to upvote it. That said, I don't think this is an answer worth accepting. \$\endgroup\$ – Shaamaan Nov 24 '14 at 8:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shaamaan: Hopefully you're not expecting an algorithm/flowchart type of answer. I agree with this answer, that the best way to increase difficulty on the fly is to prepare in advance--have a group of enemies ready to join the battle if things go poorly (for you), plus have a plot-related reason for why this happened (rather than "you killed the BBEG in one hit, hence, random baddies are here to make the fight challenging). Prepare these bad guys to make an entrance "You have slain our master! blah blah blah prepare to die." Playing the fight out is also a brilliant suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Nov 24 '14 at 13:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Khashir Flowchart? No! But it's difficult to "prepare in advance" for something you need to do on the fly. ;) Note the suggestions for lowering the difficulty on the fly from the linked question - quite a few can be done efficiently right then and there, on the spot. I'll definitely plan better from here on out, but I'd like to have some kind of backup mechanic should the planning... fail. \$\endgroup\$ – Shaamaan Nov 24 '14 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ LOL, not really! That's the backup mechanic you're looking for: plan a complementary 'encounter' that can step in, should your party roll-over your original encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Khashir Nov 25 '14 at 15:14
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While this doesn't technically answer the question "how to increase difficulty on the fly", I think I did find out what I did so horrendously wrong in my Wolsung sessions...

I misread the rules and grouped extras (think "minions" or "mooks" in other systems) a bit too much - that is, I've given them too many shared values, particularly only one, shared attack.

So, as odd as this may sound, one solution for managing the difficulty is make sure you understand the rules of the system.

I'm not sure if I should accept this as an answer or not... While this definitely solved my current issue, it doesn't seem like the ideal answer to the question "how to increase difficulty on the fly?"...

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