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I am new to Pathfinder, and after playing a few times all my friends voted for me to DM, so I cracked down and spent a week straight reading and learning everything. I started my first campaign exactly how the standard rules tell you to, no home brew anything. In the first session everything was easy for my group, so easy in fact that to challenge them I had more puzzles and social events then combat ones. Perhaps this was because I gave them a high fantasy start.

When the next campaign rolled around, I gave them standard dice (4d6-lowest) and made some home brew rules to combat where I see that there could be changes I might like. But ultimately I reverted back to the standard rules. But now there is a problem! With standard fantasy, even their first encounter was extremely challenging for them! I have my own custom method for making encounters and it worked pretty well for them for 4 campaigns, but now that I am using the standard method they can't handle par CR challenges (CR 1 encounter at level 1).

Should I tone down the baddies' tactics or just give them easier encounters? (easier than CR 1)

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    \$\begingroup\$ It sounds like their play habits/tactics have just been conditioned by previous campaigns and they haven't adjusted yet. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 20 '15 at 18:36
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The low levels are particularly harsh, especially because every character has so few HP and a lucky roll can kill even the most buffed-up melee wizard. Armor class is mostly given by items or low level arcane spells (while most clerical or high level spells have some scaling, low level arcane spells just front-load their defensive potential from level one, since they're meant to balance wizards not having an armor), while attack bonuses are harder to raise, meaning fights drag for long times due to the many missed attacks, which means that goblin has many chances to unload his lucky roll on your PCs.

That said, randomly rolling ability scores is making it worse. While someone might get unusually good scores, someone else is doomed to have ugly, useless 13 in every stat (13 is the most probable roll) which means not even having that one or two high scores a character really needs to be effective.

So, toning down encounters (especially AC, but varies with your party's way of dealing damage) is a good thing. Even with bad tactics, high AC is high AC.

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Pathfinder assumes a min/max mentality in characters. It is an extremely codified system that rewards deep understanding and punishes seat-of-pants play. That is to say that you really should be using close to optimal builds of core character classes and a good party build with synergies. For example the Challenge Rating assumes that you have a good party, one that might contain good versions of a fighter, cleric, mage, and thief. If you have poor builds of those keystone classes, or even poor playing of those characters, you can run into trouble.

I'm assuming that your problem centers around just combat. Have you looked at presenting the group with a social challenge and see how they fare? Might give you some more data points.

Does your custom method consistently make lower CR encounters for your group than the by the book method? If so than I would look at your group and how they play. They may not be using the symmetries inherent in the system, as is.

You might want to look at your group's tactics and their builds. Rather than just let the dice fall where they may, make sure you are helping the group see the synergies between characters and their actions. For example, make sure the cleric casts their buffs on the right weapons and characters before combat.

How do their resources look after a typical combat? The CR methodology assumes that a certain amount of resources should be used during a typical encounter, where does your party stack up?

If what I suspect is true (namely that the group might not be comprised 'properly'), you can probably go back to using the CR method from the book and drop all this home-brew stuff, you will just have to do some hand-holding to get the group there.

Oh, and don't forget that half the fun of a combat can be in figuring out weaknesses before the combat, a la investigation! Sometimes players have their characters go head first without any knowledge of what they are facing...that can lead to disaster no matter what.

I wouldn't give up on the system as is; it works, very well I might add. The first few levels can be tricky for anyone, and can swing wildly in favor of either side of the combat. I'd stick with it and adjust things as you need; its okay to fudge a die roll here and there and allow your players to change their characters and feats and skills allotment over the course of the first couple of levels.

Also, are you playing the baddies the way they should be played? Or the way you want to play them, if there's a difference? Make sure you are playing them according to their write-ups, not according to your meta-uber DM brain tactics!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah i constantly tone down fights by a large margin and try to do social encounter for the party more \$\endgroup\$ Feb 20 '15 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Where can I read more about how Pathfinder's CR system is designed for optimized characters? I always assumed it was designed for average characters. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 20 '15 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ The hardest issue I've faced with this problem is "playing enemies the way they should be played instead of want to play". I guess I try to max/min my enemies like the players do to their characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – PRX
    Feb 20 '15 at 22:10

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