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Background

I am DMing Princes of the Apocalypse for 5e. My past campaigns (mostly 3.5 and 4e) were always quite challenging and tough, my players got quite paranoid, and understandably so.

At level 4, all casters (a warlock and a bard) chose moderately armoured as their feat, and now carry a shield and medium armour for an AC of 19, +4 AC for a single feat. But this means that they are tanks, and the supposed front line melee characters all have a lower or the same AC as the 'squishy casters'. Lowest AC in the group is 17.

Which is fine by me, but the encounters from the adventure are too easy for them now, as the casters are never really in danger because of their high AC. Unfortunately, most encounters from the book have a majority of physical attackers. The higher miss chance for monsters made fights too safe, and take too long, as the players were understandably hesitant to use limited resources (higher level spells, per-long-rest abilities) when not really in danger.

When we discussed the issue of too easy fights during a break and I suggested that I would ad-hoc beef up the encounters for this session, the player were fine with it. And I did, but now the session is over, I am planning the next one and I would like to know:

How to best deal with moderately armoured casters 5e?

Bad options that I see that I do not want to use:

  • Modify the encounters (more casters, traps vs abilities, etc)

    • Problem: Takes time, especially in a location-based, non-railroad adventure.
  • Simply give +attack to Team Monster

    • Problem: Unfair - they should not be punished for clever choices.
  • Disallow Moderately Armoured

    • Problem: I don't want to force them to rebuild their characters.

How can I best keep the fights interesting while respecting their character creation choices?

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    \$\begingroup\$ At a certain level, this is not much different from "All the casters in my party have at least a level of Cleric, now what?" \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay May 17 '15 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember that they can't cast spells with a somatic component if they're holding a weapon and a shield. Unless they've got the War Caster feat \$\endgroup\$ – briddums May 18 '15 at 1:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @briddums with the exception of those clerics and paladins whose holy symbol is part of (or is) their weapon or shield. \$\endgroup\$ – aramis May 18 '15 at 7:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ When in doubt, set the room on fire. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik May 18 '15 at 8:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ What would keep a party of all Fighters from completely dominating this adventure? That's probably roughly where your answer lies. If the answer is "nothing", it's probably a poorly designed adventure. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik May 18 '15 at 8:10
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You Can't Nerf and Respect at the Same Time

How can I best keep the fights interesting while respecting their character creation choices?

Essentially, you cannot. You're asking for, in essence, "What is my next step in the arms race?"

If you have a party of the expected level and number of players, you don't need any rebalancing to accomplish interesting.

Attempting to ratchet the difficulty up is inherently not respecting their build choice

Increasing the Attack Bonus

This is the most obvious disrespect of the choices they've made. It's an outright negation of their choice.

Modify the Encounters

This is more of the same - tho less egregious. But it's the same problem - you want to take away the advantage they paid for in feats.

Disallow Moderately Armored

This also is disrespecting their choice. You seem to have already figured this out.

Interesting ≠ More Difficult

An interesting fight isn't of need more difficult. It's often non-combat stuff that makes it memorable.

So What To Do?

Use what's there better. Assuming you're running a party of the correct levels (IIRC, it starts at 3rd for the non-encounters version), and have only 4 players, the encounters are balanced. So it's time to use what you've got.

And what you've got are a bunch of nutjob cultists. Have them making brash assertions of skill. Have them use group tactics and the 3rd dimension well. Make use of the terrain. Use the multitude of "save or suck it" spells (like the create bonfire cantrip).

And above all, describe, describe, describe. Don't say, "Cultist 1 attacks Player 2." Do say, "The tall cultist is attempting to impale Fredo upon his spear." Things will get a lot more interesting and memorable just by describing better.

Mechanical Stuff to use

There are a number of mechanical options that can increase the risks to PC's without disrespect...

Give monsters their death saves. This really does make for some tense moments.

Remember to use cover and flanking. If the ranged attacker (spellcaster especially) doesn't have line of sight to all 4 corners of the target's square, the target has +2 AC. If only one corner can be seen, it's +5 AC.

Use the Lingering Injuries option. Makes crits much nastier.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Describe describe describe - that's not the issue here, we play for many years and the narrative stuff works well. I think it's really a mechanical problem here. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala May 17 '15 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mala Your players have decided that they want to have high armour classes instead of another feat. How is that more of a mechanical problem then their deciding to know magic missile instead of burning hands? What do you think the problem is, and why does this answer does not solve it? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 18 '15 at 5:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I generally don't accept answers within a too short time frame because there might be better answers coming. This is a good answer, no doubt, but only the mechanical stuff to use is really helpful, despite the fact that it mentions flanking which does not exist in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala May 18 '15 at 7:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mala Flanking is on DMG page 251. right column. \$\endgroup\$ – aramis May 19 '15 at 0:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. I was not aware of that, thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala May 19 '15 at 6:56
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Realize that your PC's chose this play style

It may not have been what they intended, and they may not like the results, but when your PC's chose to increase their AC at level 4 they forewent the option to increase things like their damage output, their battlefield control, and the difficulty to save against their spells.

Furthermore each character had additional options available to them that would have likely proven comparable at preventing damage. The Bard could have chosen the other college and obtained the same exact abilities, the Warlock could be using things like Eldritch Spear to keep out of range (which would likely at least work for 20% of situations, which is the same amount his chance of being hit was reduced) or casting False Life at will to soak the first 8 hit points of damage (again likely worth 20% of what he might expect) per encounter.

The problem isn't access to a specific ability, and I don't think it can even be mathematically demonstrated that this specific ability is notably mathematically superior to other options. The real issue is that the players chose to be tanky yet you state:

So yes, it is a problem for us, because we like tough, fast fights, not padded sumo 4e-style.

Their choices are not lining up with their desired play-style. As far as I see it this is the primary issue that needs to be reconciled. Even removing that ability it is entirely possible in 5e to build very defensive characters and take a lot of defensive actions, so trying to adjust for one source isn't really going to fix things if they focus on other defensive spells, powers and feats.

This seems best suited for an out of game discussion that addresses expectations and desires for how the game should play out. Constantly adjusting the game to level out the numbers to a "desirable" playspeed/style is just going to further develop the idea that their build choices aren't terribly important.

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