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I'm running a Pathfinder campaign, and I frequently run into trouble setting up combat encounters that "matter" (in the sense that my players aren't just skipping through a park picking daisies and chopping the heads off of Bad Guyz) but aren't near lethal every time. I hate to waste precious game time on meaningless encounters that don't offer the PCs any sort of challenge or where success is guaranteed, but it seems like I go too far in the opposite direction and nearly kill at least one of them every time. This may work for a hack and slash dungeon crawling campaign, but we're playing more of a story focused campaign, and I'd much rather not actually be killing off party members on the regular. Death, and the threat thereof, is a pretty significant thing; I'd prefer not to overuse it so as not to desensitize my players, and I don't think my players really enjoy the high lethality either.

Trouble is, I'm not sure how to make fights feel like they matter without upping their danger level to lethal levels. Damage can be healed away in a moment, and their HP bounces around from near 0 to max so often that I don't think my players really feel concerned about damage on its own. Restricting access to healing might be one approach, but it's sometimes hard to plausibly do that (there isn't a party cleric, but they've got a couple of secondary healers in the form of a Paladin, a low-level Bard, and an Alchemist, and they're savvy enough to stock up on the standard healing items all the time*). And as far as I'm aware, pathfinder doesn't have a system for lingering wounds - just easily healed away HP damage.

In summary then, I'd like to break out of the whole win/lose dichotomy for combat by learning how to give my players intermediate outcomes: soft failures where defeat doesn't have to mean death and soft successes where they can defeat their foes but not without cost. As I see it, this requires two things that I don't have a good handle on how to do:

  1. Non-lethal consequences for failure: I'd like to broaden the range of fight outcomes and consequences I have at my disposal so that combats don't jump straight from "zero consequences" to "somebody died". My main motivator here is the fact that I'd like to be able to run encounters that are challenging and that feel meaningful to my players (because of risk to themselves, because something is at stake, etc.) without constantly putting them at risk of death.
  2. A broader range of lose- or win-conditions: I don't want the win-condition for every fight to be "kill it before it kills you". If the only way to lose a fight is to drop to zero HP, then the only way to accomplish the above is to have different things happen when players drop to 0, and this doesn't sit well with me, since it makes actually dying of HP loss seem much more capricious.

*One thousand curses on the wand of CLW

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ "Sorry, we're out of stock on health potions." \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 4 '16 at 23:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking specifically for mechanical/health related effects on the PCs? I.e., emulating the Action Hero syndrome where by the end of the movie the hero is banged up, limping and bleeding? Or are secondary and plot-related effects acceptable? \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jun 7 '16 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Novak I would welcome ideas for either. \$\endgroup\$ – Empiromancer Jun 8 '16 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ [Related] How do I signal that alternate tactical end states are possible? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 10 '16 at 17:35
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Yup!

That's the problem with powerful magic healing - just as you've noticed, it trivializes minor wounds, and so (perhaps counter-intuitively) making healing easy and cheap tends to actually increase the stakes of combat to all-or-nothing. Similarly, if you make resurrection and/or repairing crippling injuries fairly easy, it ups the stakes even more so that every battle is all-or-nothing for the entire party...

Since you're asking about a Pathfinder campaign in progress, it won't help that situation to suggest you might enjoy trying a game setting with less magic healing, however here are some suggestions:

You can contrive some situations where healing magic isn't as entirely easy and automatic as it usually is, for examples:

  • If there is a limit on how many healing spells can be cast in a given period of time, you can have situations where if the players are to achieve all of their goals, they need to limit the damage they take, because they'll hit those limits.

  • If only certain PCs can heal, then you can look for situations where the group is split or loses access to some of their healers sometimes.

  • If healer PCs have spell use limits that share with both healing and other useful spells, then you can have situations where spell use is a trade-off with healing spell use.

  • If there are situations that can prevent healer PCs from using their magic, you can throw those in from time to time (things like no-mana zones, cursed items which prevent magic use, magic attacks which prevent magic use, etc.)

  • In some game systems there can be limits on the ingredients needed to cast certain magic spells. Over-use of certain spells may cause those to run low. So could random accidental effects on inventory.

  • You wrote that the players tend to stock up. Don't over-do the limits on this, but do notice when something may cause a problem with that. Combat tends to be violent - if they're carrying potions, think of all the things that happen in combat that could possibly lead to a check for damage to potions. Also, if they are counting on their supply, if something happens to it when they were planning to have it, a seemingly ho-hum situation can become dangerous quickly if something happens to the supply.

Even if healing magic is trivial, there are other ways to make combat dangerous and tactically interesting, such as:

  • NPC allies can be a valuable resource and/or there can be reasons to need to keep them alive. Maybe the party needs some backup, but they do tend to die. Keeping the support troops alive can be needed to succeed in a campaign, either for tactical reasons (e.g. you'll get surrounded without enough bodies on the line, or you'll get overpowered, or patrons need you to get certain people, or a certain number of people, safely to a destination).

  • If you use tactical maps for combat, there are various ways to make maneuver necessary to success.

  • You can make situations where some limited resource is needed to take care of certain foes, who will otherwise overpower the party, but that resource has limits on the way and number of times it can be used, so the party has to figure out how to make due with its supply.

  • You can have effects on PC equipment from combat or certain types of foes that degrades their equipment and can't be healed. Like the previous resource suggestion, this can require them to care about those effects of combat.

  • HP damage may be healable, but critical hits and/or other special monster effects or spell effects or situation/environment/trap effects may pose threats that accumulate and threaten without being healable like HP.

  • Tactical and situational puzzles. You can have situations where there will clearly be risk of PC death or party wipeout but they can be avoided by various ways, such as not leaving enough time for the enemy to corner the party by moving and sneaking around, or using distractions, or magic, or tactics that make use of terrain or situations, etc.

  • You can use hostile NPC survival motives lead to interesting situations. Consider that many hostile NPCs may want to live, too, and when faced by the superior party, they may flee. They may flee in different directions. They may split up. They may take crazy risks in fleeing and move recklessly so that the PCs have to decide if they want to split up and take various risks to catch them, or not. If they don't catch them, in some situations they may raise alarms or live to tell more formidable foes about them. That general category has almost infinite possibilities for interesting diverse situations and decisions with later-consequences that could be almost anything.

You can have situations and/or customs where defeat doesn't mean death, for example:

  • Challenges and duels and trial-by-combat etc where other things are at stake and it's not winner-kills & loots all.

  • Agreements, customs, treaties and/or situations where defeated people or entire sides are allowed to yield, and can be ransomed, perhaps held for trial, or at least questioned and/or given some chances to escape or be rescued, or offered conditions for release that lead to further adventures. Watch/read some adventure films/books and notice how many times the heroes actually lose, but that leads to more interesting situations instead of story over.

  • Hostage situations. Fights can also end because someone is held at mercy. This can also lead to an interesting negotiation/discussion stage, where some character's life or safety may be at stake, and interesting negotiations can ensue to bargain for them. Much more interesting than just you die or they die.

  • Theft and abduction. During combat, what if some foe manages to take an item a PC is attached to, or abducts a party member, or just makes it to the party's wagon or mule and steals something or makes off with it, during combat? The players will have a dilemma about who is going to chase that down, or continue fighting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I want to give another point but it's not enough for an answer by itself: merchants and spellcasters can be rare so CLW wands might cost extra, be unavailable, or magic at all may be looked down upon. Also, elements like research, knowledge and puzzles while fighting might make combat more exciting, with monsters that might seem immune to everything or can only be defeated with specific items. \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Jun 4 '16 at 12:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the suggestions you give for making the stakes something besides HP loss or PC death, but regarding "make HP losses less erasable", I don't know that Pathfinder is especially designed to support that, nor in any case can I see intermediate HP loses ever mattering as much to characters as, say, the murder of their favorite barkeep's husband. Which is to say that I think you'd have a better answer if you focused on your suggestions for broadening options for failure like in the OP's last paragraph. \$\endgroup\$ – Edward Jun 4 '16 at 15:27
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Here are some things that I have noticed causing these sorts of combat problems in my games. Normally when I say "combat problems" what I mean is the combats end very quickly, so that none of us are really satisfied by the battle.

  • High-level play. At high levels, everything becomes much deadlier. Optimized characters have huge damage output; spellcasters have save-or-die spells. The way I solve this problem is: when my characters get to level 9 or so, I wrap the campaign up and start a new one. If you think your problems might be stemming from this, consider talking to your players out-of-character. Ask if they agree that combats have been boring recently, and suggest de-leveling everyone so that the game can be more fun.

  • Solo monsters. It's often a bad idea to have the group battle a single monster or villain. What tends to happen is the monster focuses all its damage on one character. This is very bad for that character, and it's sort of boring and anticlimactic for everyone else. I try to always have battles against multiple threats; if I absolutely have to have a battle against a single monster, I edit it to make sure most of its attacks are area-of-effect, so that the damage is spread around more evenly.

  • Spellcasters going nova. If the spellcasters know there will only be one battle per day, they can use all their spells in that battle and be much more powerful than the designers intended. If you get used to designing monsters for that situation, and then for whatever reason a spellcaster doesn't deploy all their spells in a combat, it can wipe them out. If you think your problems might be stemming from this, try to give the party more combats per day. (And make sure they know there will be more combats per day, so that they don't burn all their spells on the first one.)

  • Glass-cannon characters. Some players try to optimize their characters for high damage, planning to kill all the foes in one or two hits. This works pretty well, except that the DM notices the foes are never hitting the characters, ups the difficulty of the foes, and suddenly the party is losing badly. If you think this is happening, you might need to talk to your players and have them focus more on defense.

But: your players might not actually need to be challenged in the way you're describing. What most players want out of combat is to spend three or four rounds showing off how badass their character is by killing lots of monsters. If you supply enough monsters for that to happen (maybe adding more monsters, as reinforcements, when you need to), that might be good enough to keep them happy.

If your goal is to have more interesting combats, try adding "puzzle combats" which can't be solved just by walking up to things and murdering them. What about a combat where the main villain is flying? What about one where the villain is invisible? What if the villain is regenerating, and the players have to figure out on-the-fly what sort of weapon is his one weakness? What if the villain is in a city, and needs to be engaged very quietly in order to avoid drawing attention? What if the villain is someone the party cares about, but mind-controlled, so they need to be careful not to kill him? What if the villains are clearly too powerful to fight all together, so the party needs to draw them away from the group and fight them one at a time?

Good luck with it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the "Solo monsters" point. A fight against a large group of less-difficult foes will allow PCs to take a lot of small hits, thus wearing down their stock of potions without a huge risk of death. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 4 '16 at 23:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ If having a single monster is important, there's a great article by the Angry GM on combining several monsters into one big monster, or, if you'd prefer a quicker and dirtier method, one big monster that gets a turn after every PC turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Space Ostrich Jun 10 '16 at 2:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I saw that article but I do not think it solves this problem. I want to distribute damage across the party, but Angry GM's N snakes look like they would all attack the same target. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Jun 10 '16 at 5:54
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Just because there isn't a specific rule for lingering wounds doesn't mean you can't create them (admittedly I'm not well-versed with Pathfinder). If your players are OK with you bending the rules a little the loss of fingers/limbs/familiars etc. could be interesting as long as their characters aren't made redundant. Similarly, wounds that would make them seek out a specialised healer could be interesting.

If you want to stay away from that you could experiment with:

  • Damaged gear (this would get my players to sit up and take notice...)
  • Significantly reduced XP/rewards
  • The death/mistrust of significant NPCs that would have advantaged them
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Those are all great suggestions for non-lethal consequences, but I'm not sure how to integrate them into combat. What sort of "failure" in battle brings about a missing limb, or the distrust of an NPC? \$\endgroup\$ – Empiromancer Jun 10 '16 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Again, Pathfinder's not my thing, but it sounds like you are looking for a way for players to lose a fight without dying, presumably when retreating. If a player was critically hit under a certain threshold of health, it's not unfeasible that their armour would be badly damaged. If they're too slow, a nearby NPC could be overrun (works well in a town defence). Maybe a valuable shopkeeper was killed, or the mayor decides they can't handle his quest. Missing limbs are admittedly very extreme and hard to integrate without players feeling like they've been hamstrung for the rest of the game... \$\endgroup\$ – El High Groundito Jun 13 '16 at 8:20

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