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I'm having trouble balancing my combat encounters because my party is able to ditch too much damage in a round. It's a party of 5 lvl 9 but anything with less than a 100hp and high AC doesn't live long enough to pose a threat. I can live with that for the trash encounter but it's sad for my climax encounters to end this fast. I feel like all the hard work designing them is futile.

Do you have any tips on how I can solve this without resorting to making encounters 3 or 4 level higher than me party?

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    \$\begingroup\$ 100 HP for 5 lvl 9 seems a pretty easy monster to kill; what is the CR of your boss monster? Does it have any lackey or a special environment to help it out? For example, see d20srd.org/extras/d20encountercalculator: input the CR (and number) of monsters, the number of members and their ECL (5 lvl 9) and it will classify the encounter. A single CR 9 monster and 2 CR 3 lackeys is classified as merely "Challenging" for example. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Nov 10 '15 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ The comment was removes but I did read the angry dm encounters tips. Very informative but doesn't really help with the balance aspect. \$\endgroup\$ – Francois Gagnon Nov 10 '15 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm currently using the encounters calculator to elect my monsters. I'm looking for different strategies to counter burst damage. \$\endgroup\$ – Francois Gagnon Nov 10 '15 at 18:57
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CR is very nearly useless. The designers of the game had no clear idea of what characters were supposed to be able to do, what they were supposed to be able to handle, and that means that, even when nominally the same level/CR, 1. characters have wildly varying capability, because class designers were not on the same page, and 2. monsters have wildly varying threat value, because monster designers were not on the same page with each other or with the class designers.

CR inaccuracies go in both directions. A 3rd-level party can kill the Tarrasque, at absolutely no risk to themselves, if they have the proper preparations. The CR 3 monstrous crab, on the other hand, is a walking TPK to a 3rd-level party (and while you can prepare for it as you can with the Tarrasque, it is notable how similar many of those preparations are, though you do get avoid dealing with ghosts). The CR 9 adamantine horror has at-will disjunction and disintegrate (and just “preparing” for that is a lot, lot harder).

So the solution just about every DM takes is to just try to compare monsters to the party. It’s tedious and the best CR can do is (maybe) narrow down the list somewhat. In the end, you still need to consider what a monster can do and how it will fight, and what the characters can do and how they will respond. Unfortunately, there’s just not really any better option in 3.5. It wasn’t until 4e, really 4e’s Monster Manual III, that Wizards really got a decent handle on encounter design (4e’s DM tools for encounter design are widely considered the best features of that system).

For guidance on how best to gauge monster threat levels accurately, rather than relying on CR, I suggest you read this answer – the context there is how the lack of magic affects CR. There, as here, I point out that CR itself is unreliable, but I also dig into the details of what makes a given monster a threat and how to try to judge that yourself.

Also, another thing is that 3.5 fights just do not last that long. Most fights are decided in the first round; subsequent rounds are just mopping up or chasing after those who retreat. Two rounds is not so uncommon; three is a fairly long fight. More than that is quite rare. The damage, and non-damage methods of removing threats, are just too potent; the game is referred to as “rocket tag” for a reason. Inflating HP values, or otherwise mitigating damage as a threat, does little when it would be even more effective for the party to apply some crippling debuff.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I suggest adding some examples of what he should be looking at when trying to determine the "real" difficulty of certain monsters or battles. What is a game-breaker, and why? What might seem powerful, but is really meh in reality? For example, simply adding more health to the pile won't make the encounter much more difficult. \$\endgroup\$ – Joninean Nov 10 '15 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the Tarrasque to be an effective example for readers who don't already know what it is, it might be worth mentioning its CR of 20. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Nov 11 '15 at 3:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ CR is meaningful for creatures without special abilities, multiple natural attacks, or with special abilities that don't contribute significantly. Where it falls short is Improved Grab/Constrict four arm creatures, ability damage, and other abilities that can significantly enhance a monster's difficulty, but don't translate to an increase in CR. \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Nov 11 '15 at 21:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Wyrmwood Fair enough, I’ll link to my detailed description of what CR does and doesn’t mean. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 11 '15 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB I chose the monstrous crab for two reasons: 1. it’s notorious, and 2. the CR 3 was a nice parallel to the 3rd-level Tarrasque kill. The adamantine horror (from Monster Manual II, not an obscure column) is definitely a better example there. Examples of weak monsters abound but most don’t get a lot of attention; the Tarrasque does because it’s so strongly not supposed to be. I’ll try to scrounge up something else, though. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 11 '15 at 21:21
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When my players are capable of ganging up on and killing a single monster no matter how powerful he is, I don't use a single monster, I use a pair of monsters. Or three. Or four.

Gamemasters tend to have this annoying tendency to make their final encounter a single Big Bad rather than a Group of Big Bads and Their Henchmen, and it makes combats way harder to balance in favor of the enemy.

Sure, your wizard can annihilate anything he touches with his fireball. Does he have thirty of them to handle the goblin horde? Whether 20 hp or 200 hp, the goblin is just as dead and now his buddies are twice as hacked off.

This does require you to be be willing to run lengthier and more complex encounters, but it's generally been the best solution for me.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, the Wizard isn't really the best example, since the answer is "Yes. Also I only need like 5". +1 anyways, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Nov 11 '15 at 23:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I wasn't thinking about how fireballs are area attacks. But the concept is the same. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandalfoot Nov 12 '15 at 0:57
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Because you have not provided any specific details on your party it makes the question pretty darned broad, but what I would suggest is that when I see high-burst parties I usually also see that they're limited in the number of times they can actually dish out that much damage in a day, so the best way to counter them is to not give them the option of resting and replenishing themselves.

One possible way to make the boss fight tougher is by forcing them to fight it when they're low on and running out of resources. Another way is to not make it too obvious when the fight is coming and have him appear during another battle, supposing those baddies live longer than the first round or two. You could also design the baddies specifically to use items, spells, and the environment in ways that counter the party. If they have lots of range then close the space down, have a lot of walls or barrels and things to hide behind and make it easier for him to either sneak around or otherwise close the distance on them. If they're all melee then make them use skill checks and non-normal movement modes to close the distance while he fires at them. Minions are always important for soaking up damage and slowing down the PCs.

It can take very many hours to design a good boss fight, and that's not just making the baddie himself.

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You can plan your fights to happen in waves. The party attacks something, and two rounds later the monsters get reinforcements from nearby allies who heard the battle, and two rounds after that there's more reinforcements, et cetera. This lets you include a very large amount of monster HP in the fight (so that your party's high damage output has somewhere to go) without having the threat of all the monsters attacking your party in the first round.

Some fights can have "ad-hoc" waves, meaning if the party seems to be winning too handily, you just duplicate the monsters and announce that reinforcements are arriving. Other fights can have preplanned waves, meaning the party can see the reinforcements coming a long way off.

I'd also like to second Dharenis's suggestion: parties with high burst damage tend to be limited in the number of times they can do that per day. Try to put your party in a situation where they can't rest (because there's no safe place to rest, or because there's something they need to do before nightfall). Make sure they know in advance that there will be several fights today; otherwise they'll blow all their burst damage on the first encounter and be sad for the rest of them.

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