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I'm currently DM'ing a high powered D&D 3.5 game with 4 PCs (Wizard, Druid, Rogue/Assassin and Bard) and a DMPC (Minotaur Barbarian) at ECL 11.

My concern is that whenever I try to create a balanced encounter the party could kill the enemies in 2 rounds: If hasted by the bard the Barbarian can easily deal 60+ Damage in one round and the Rogue can sneak attack for 7d6 +2 Str Damage four times per round. One the other hand the enemies can probably kill multiple characters in a few rounds too: Especially the rogue has barely 50 hp and only AC 23 and even the barbarian is somewhat squishy at 125 hp an AC 25, at least when compared to his damage.
The bard and wizard are similar to the rogue in defensive stats but they try to stay out of melee. However it would make sense for intelligent enemies to target them.

For example the rogue was nearly killed in one round by level 5 Flind (similar to a Gnoll) ranger. I also had to adjust the frost worm they fought so it would live more than 2 rounds but wouldn't kill half the party with his breath weapon or death throes on a failed save.

So my questions are:
First, how should I as a DM handle this? Should I let one of the players die from time to time (they can get resurrected). Should I adjust my enemies so they are more defensive and less aggressive?
Second, my players are aware of this problem so they are also interested in protecting themselves better (at the moment they don't usually cast any defensive spells before combat). What would be good strategies for them?

TL;DR my players are much better at dealing damage than taking damage resulting in very short combats and high chance of character death. What can I and what can they do to improve the situation?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not duplicate, but possibly of interest: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/22174/… rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/70995/… \$\endgroup\$ – A_S00 Mar 28 '17 at 17:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ See glass cannon. \$\endgroup\$ – Doktor J Mar 28 '17 at 21:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Answer in answers, not comments. Also, answers should leverage proven experience - anyone can write an unsubstantiated opinion that sounds good. Good answers will indicate experience resolving this issue. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 29 '17 at 23:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd also advise caution when creating a DMPC that deals more damage than any PC - some players will find that very demotivating. \$\endgroup\$ – timje Mar 31 '17 at 9:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @timje in most combat situations one of the players plays him anyway \$\endgroup\$ – 0x539 Mar 31 '17 at 11:21
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This is a known tendency of 3.5...

As KRyan correctly points out in his answer, to a certain extent this is just the way 3.5 is. There are many options available to players (Save-or-Die/Save-or-Lose/No-Save-Just-Lose spells, ridiculous amounts of damage like you've seen with your Barbarian PC, etc.) that instantly remove enemies from an encounter.

There aren't a whole lot of options for "soft" defense - there are immunities, there are things like immediate actions that protect you from a given attack, but there aren't a lot of good ways available to players to reduce the impact of incoming attacks (many of the best spells are strictly all-or-nothing; Damage Reduction doesn't scale well enough to be an effective protection, etc.).

Put those two things together, and you get what's often called rocket tag - the two sides trade blows that will end the fight if they land, they do their best to prevent enemy blows from landing, and whoever [fails a save/isn't immune to something/takes a full attack/etc.] first loses.

...but it can be mitigated somewhat, by picking options for your enemies that aren't available/optimal for PCs.

The best way I've found to mitigate this issue is to make enemies who are better at taking/preventing damage and other fight-enders than they are at ending fights. This requires building your enemies much differently than you would if you were building them to be effective PCs. Some tips for this approach:

  • Make your enemies immune or highly resistant to the standard encounter-enders. Sufficiently high saves prevent save-or-lose spells from being reliable, but if you want to be sure to prevent rocket tag, you may also want to layer on effects like Death Ward, Freedom of Movement, etc.
  • Give your enemies lots of HP. As KRyan says, this isn't enough on its own (it just incentivizes your players to use attacks that don't deal HP damage), but combined with defenses against non-damage attacks, it can result in more uptime in fights.
  • Give your enemies immediate action defenses, Contingencies, etc. One-shotting an enemy isn't a very satisfying fight outcome. Using your first one-shot move, having it countered by something like Celerity (SpC), then having your party member use a second powerful attack that lands because you've already burned through the enemy's defenses? Feels more like you've accomplished something, and less like you've trivialized the encounter.
  • Have your enemies use lots of attacks that work over time, but not very many encounter-enders. Save-or-suck spells like Bestow Curse, damage-over-time effects like Power Word: Pain (RotD) or Freezing Fog (SpC), battlefield control like Web, grappling opponents (if your PCs aren't immune)...these are all strong options that make the PCs feel like Bad Stuff™ is happening to them, without instantly knocking them out of the encounter entirely.
  • Use the terrain to make it harder for your PCs to land encounter-enders. If a competently built pouncing Barbarian lands a full attack on pretty much anything, that thing is going to die. So place obstacles that make it hard for the Barbarian to charge, use enemies that fly if your PCs have trouble with that, use incorporeal enemies that move in and out of walls to force your PCs to use readied action attacks, etc.

But isn't this unfair to PCs who specialize in the options I'm hard-countering?

If you just drop it on your PCs with no warning in a game where they've gotten used to normal enemies, yes.

The reason 3.5 has a tendency toward rocket tag is that PCs (and enemies who work roughly like PCs) are much more effective if they build toward offense than defense. In order to counter this tendency, you have to use enemies who don't work like PCs - enemies who have strong defenses that aren't available to PCs, but at the same time don't use some of the most effective offensive options that PCs do.

This may interfere with your players' enjoyment of the game:

  • If they expect enemies to be playing by essentially the same rules they are, then the fact that those enemies are immune to lots of their attacks may strike them as unfair - "If that monster's magically immune this stuff, how come I can't be?" or "I spent all these character resources investing in high save DCs for my spells, and now you're telling me the big bad is immune to everything?"
  • ...and the fact that their allegedly powerful enemies don't just kill them with encounter-ending spells that they aren't immune to might ruin their suspension of disbelief - "The evil wizard forced me to tromp through his tower full of Freezing Fog fighting skeletons before getting to him. And it was a cool fight, but Freezing Fog is a 6th level spell. If he could cast 6th level spells, why didn't he just nail me with Irresistable Dance on the first round and call it a day?"

But at the same time, you're the DM. Your enemies don't have to be built using the same toolkit that's available to the players, and there's no rule that says they have to have the same capabilities, or be vulnerable to the same forms of attack.

So, talk to your players! See which is more important to an enjoyable gaming experience for your group: enemies who play by the rules, or fights that last longer than three rounds? If you have players who feel they would be unfairly affected by these sorts of changes (e.g., a Beguiler who will be useless if all important enemies are immune to [mind-affecting] stuff), see if they would be okay with being allowed to rebuild their characters to take them into account, or if they prefer the game in its current form.

Then decide how much of this encounter redesign you want to do, with your players' needs and preferences in mind.

What can your players do?

Finally, to address your last question about what your players can do to mitigate this: nothing, unless you change how their enemies work.

The reason 3.5 tends toward rocket tag is that offensive options are stronger than defensive options in the default game. Thus, the best way for PCs to keep themselves alive is usually to take enemies out of the encounter as quickly as possible. From your question, it sounds like your players are already doing this.

If you want to make defensive options viable for them, you have to change the challenges they face - make it so that taking enemies out of the fight quickly is impossible, and then it's no longer the best way to stay alive. Make it so that enemies use damage-over-time effects or debuffs instead of deadly finishing moves, and healing/defensive buffs (besides the ones that provide immunity to encounter-enders) become stronger.

Your players are already doing the right stuff to stay alive in the kind of game they're in. If you want them to behave differently, you have to change their incentives.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 29 '17 at 23:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I spent all these character resources investing in high save DCs for my spells, and now you're telling me the big bad is immune to everything?" - In video games, it would not be at all uncommon or controversial for that exact situation to occur. Expecting the big bad to be vulnerable to any sort of instadeath spell or item is generally a losing strategy. \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Mar 30 '17 at 13:42
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This is normal. This is how the game works. Sorry?

Unfortunately, the way the numbers in the game are laid out, most fights are decided in the first 2-3 rounds. Even if they aren’t finished that fast, after that much time one side or the other has a decisive advantage that is not going to be overcome, so it’s mostly a question of whether or not the other side can escape. A lot happens in a 3.5 character’s turn, and a round involves many turns, so this is actually quite a lot of time.

And this is extremely difficult to fix. Just lowering damage values or increasing HP values does not solve the problem, because ultimately there are just so many threats that ignore HP entirely—in fact, damage-dealing is a relatively poor way to attack enemies. You are far, far better off nailing them with an effect that decides the fight—and spellcasting is so powerful that many effects matching that description are available at every level. Right from 1st level, color spray and sleep decide entire encounters in one standard action. Grease, glitterdust, haste, solid fog, and the list goes on, gets worse, as levels increase. So by nerfing damage (or, equivalently, buffing HP values), you just make those too-powerful effects even better relative to other options.

Which basically amounts to saying that 3.5 is not a balanced game, and performs poorly at mid-to-high levels. This is a well known fact. There is a reason why there is an entire variant ruleset devoted to stopping at 6th level, and why it comes strongly recommended (see What is E6? Why would I use it?). Fixing higher levels involves a ton of work, far more than anyone has ever managed to actually put together (unless, maybe, you want to count 4e and 5e as that!); no fix exists, and mostly likely none ever will.

And please note, 3.5 (or, more accurately, a 3.5/Pathfinder hybrid with lots of houserules and gentlemen’s agreements) is my primary system. That’s by-far where the majority of my experience is, the majority of my time playing is. It’s also where the majority of my answers on this site have been (and if you check, I am at the time of writing the highest-rated answerer on the site for this system). I know what I am talking about, I am not just hating on the system.

3.5 is a system with a ton of flaws, many of them nearly insurmountable. I don’t recommend it. But it’s also a system with a ton of material, just an absolutely enormous amount, and it’s a flexible enough system to allow you to mix and match that material in countless ways. That is its huge selling point, the thing it does extremely well. Unfortunately, that quantity comes at a cost, and this is part of that. It would be impossible to have that much material and for all or even most of it to be really good, really well balanced, really workable at every level of the game. I mean, after all, Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.”

So yeah, flaws like this are part of the game, that you either have to just accept, or know enough about the system to know how to avoid it—which means throwing a lot of material out. The easiest recommendation I can offer is E6; ditching the top 70% of the levels in the system still leaves plenty of crap (and throws out some decent stuff, to be fair), but it’s easily the best simple change you can make.

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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, that's a valid point/rant. But still, what could my players do to mitigate their weaknesses? Defensive Spells / tactics etc. \$\endgroup\$ – 0x539 Mar 28 '17 at 17:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ox539 OK, I see that in your question now, but it’s kind of buried and the question certainly seemed to be approaching this from a much more systemic/DM-sided point of view. Addressing player approaches would be a whole ’nother question, quite possibly one that’s much too broad for this site unless we get way more detail on their builds. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 28 '17 at 17:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Son, THIS is why you play 3.5 -- the sheer brokenness of it! \$\endgroup\$ – PrometheanVigil Mar 30 '17 at 12:38
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More, weaker enemies can help this

Encounters with a single monster tend to be much more swingy than encounters with groups. This is due to the fact that in order to stay at an equivalent challenge and threat level, the monster needs to put out a significantly high amount of damage, and your players are able to focus all their damage on it. A particularly good or bad roll on either side can end the entire fight, sometimes as early as initiative.

I've combatted this by introducing larger groups of weaker enemies to my players. The low damage of weaker enemies means my players are less likely to die in a single blow, meaning they can retreat to cover or find healing when necessary, rather than being killed outright. The larger numbers means my players aren't able to kill everything in a couple rounds, extending combat and allowing more interesting, less swingy fights.

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Note: this answer is somewhat similar to @THiebert's, but elaborates more.

TL;DR: Diversity rocks.


The problem of the solitary Big Bad Wolf is that it will quickly get stopped in its tracks (Barbarian), the Rogue will easily slipped behind to get into flanking position (Tumble), and the Druid and Wizard will be left alone, free to use their most potent spells.

In turn, this require the Big Bad Wolf to be real tough to survive just a couple rounds, and/or to have very debilitating abilities to be able to be a credible threat (knocks, stuns, teleports, or just lots of raw damage).

It can be satisfying to take a big burly enemy out by the skin of your teeth, with half the party KO and only a few HPs remaining... but the problem is that it's really complicated to get this close to death without killing. Most notably, note that getting a PC to below 0 but above -9 requires a rather precise amount of damage...

I believe a GM should tweak its rolls to further story-telling, but here that's too much work.


Diversity is a very simple measure to get more satisfying encounters for everyone involved.

By moving away from the solitary Big Bad Wolf you get multiple benefits:

  • multiple spread out foes cannot be taken out by a single PC, no matter how lucky,
  • multiple foes can have various abilities: for example a group of goblins can have a shaman (druid), 2 archers and 2 melees.

By simple encounter mechanics, multiple foes must be weaker than a single foe:

  • any PC has a chance to one-shot a foe from time to time,
  • there are less risks of PC death since the foes strike are not as strong (avoid focusing too much),
  • the encounter is less swingy as the foes' attacks are not ALL-OR-NOTHING, the more foes, the more average the damage,
  • ...

Furthermore, multiple foes, especially if diverse, allow for greater tactics:

  • they can spread out, forcing the party to use battle-field control,
  • one or two can harry the casters, putting pressure on them (and forcing them to seek cover),
  • ...

This means that the fight becomes more one of tactics than one of luck, which is more satisfying.

It also matters less in such a fight if one PC (the rogue...) is less powerful than the others; there's necessarily a role that it can play to help/relieve its allies anyway.


Once you have diversity, the second trick is waves.

There's no reason for the whole group of NPCs to appear at once (at least, not all the time).

The great thing about waves is that:

  • they put time pressure on the PCs: be too slow, and you'll be overwhelmed,
  • they allow you, the GM, to adapt the fight without a Deus Ex Machina: adjust the size/strength of the wave off-screen depending on how well the PCs are doing compared to how much resources you wish they expended,
  • they allow you, the GM, to put pressure on the part of the battle field you wish for, as the next wave arrive where you wish it to.

No need to fudge dices, or to inexplicably "flee" or "retreat". The party will never know that you had 4 orcs scheduled but only put in 2 instead since the Rogue was already unconscious.


Now, I don't mean to go full kobolds on the PC (though Tucker's kobolds are frightening), and not all encounters should be the same, but just moving from one Big Bad Wolf to two (smaller) Big Bad Wolves that attack the party from opposite sides will give you more interesting and less swingy fights.


Finally, you may wish to help your players buff up their characters. ECL 11 and 50 hp? This character needs to buy an Amulet of Health +2 or +4. Yesterday. And look into temporary HPs: a Wand of False Life would be very helpful.

I won't expend too much as it seems to be another question, but the short of it is that the game expects players to do their homework (for better or worse) and shore up their weaknesses. You need some HPs, some ways to "get out of jail", some ways to reach flying enemies, some ways to protect yourself from mind control/negative energy, ...

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As someone mentioned above, use the terrain against them.

Swamps are mucky and sludgy. Their movement would be hampered considerably, then add in the blood of their enemies and you may have the occassional Dexterity/Reflex save to avoid slipping - the same with ice.

I recently used Lava when my players snuck up on a deaf Fire Giant at his forge. Sure, the Giant didn't hear them, but he saw them when he turned around to quench the blade he was working on. Picked up the Ranger and threw him into molten lava.

Lastly, as I think others have mentioned, let the PC's be the heroes. Having a raging Minotaur kind of goes against all of my DM senses, but to each their own.

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A brief disclaimer that I've not tried this in 3.5, but I see no reason it couldn't work.

If I'm understanding your question correctly, your issue stems from the players dropping enemies too quickly and are at constant risk of being dropped too quickly themselves.

My recommendation is take a note from 5th edition and use their death and dying system instead. 5e is swingy with damage in a manner similar to 3.5, but the swings are tempered by a more forgiving death system than 3.5 uses. RAW for 3.5 are -10 equals dead, which can be just incredibly easy to hit with some enemies after level 5.

5e works differently. There's no negative numbers, you're knocked to 0 (if you go negative you're still at 0) then you're unconscious and dying. As a result, healers can cast a low level heal spell to get someone back in the fight. This can work for both sides of the fight so although your big monster was dropped in one round, they can be brought back in by a low level heal spell.

It's up to you if you want to also bring over 5e's death saving throws or if you just want to allow players to utilize 3.5's Coup de Grace rules to finish off downed enemies.

Again, I've not used this in 3.5, but when I fully experienced it in 5e I found that it can be a bit like playing whack a mole. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you're trying to do.

This won't stop players and enemies from dropping quickly, but it will reduce the lethality of combat somewhat and easily allow both sides to continue fighting.

EDIT: One last thing. This is dependent on enemies having the ability to heal themselves in some manner. I know a significant portion of the Monster Manuals do not include any sort of healing for monsters, but consider tweaking as necessary to take advantage of these rules. Not necessarily for every enemy (let zombies be zombies), but instances where it would make sense such as having several kobold priests accompany a dragon or a pack of gnolls that have a few weak healing potions on them. Even 1 hp is enough to be 100% back in the fight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ 3.5 has a lot of ways to get permanent, 1 healing per round. Divine Metamagic persist (which all Clerics should take) Mass Lesser Vigor. Entire party, if killed, simply get up 1 turn later. 3rd level spell, lasts 24 hours, chews through a few turning attempts. The formula for calculating item prices puts a ring of fast healing 1 at 8k gold. Although the formula is a guide only. Hell, even just a rod of mass lesser vigor for 11,250 for 50 charges, use one on the first round of combat. \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Mar 29 '17 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actions are among the most precious resources in 3.5, and spellcaster actions even more so. If one side's spellcasters are spending their actions reviving mooks, that side is already in a death spiral. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin - free Monica Mar 29 '17 at 21:18
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Run.

The enemies your players encounter know that the players are dangerous and can kill them quickly, so they hit and run. Sure there's lots of options for the players to track the enemies down again, but that's what you want.

Set-up an ambush along the way and run again. Don't make the enemies that hard to kill once the players catch them just make them hard to catch. Add in unmanned traps and really antagonize your players. Make them hate the people they're following. Then, let the players absolutely decimate them. Like a rabbit hunt, the players can effectively tear the enemies limb from limb without much resistance, but boy will it feel good.

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Use passive powerful beings and traps.

This is not a mitigation for the damage problem, but something you can use to avoid it.

Simply use traps, puzzles that players can't defeat by attacking and must use their wits to solve.

Similarly "cinematic" bosses are a good solution to avoid players one shooting them.

E.G. the evil wizard is fragile, but has setup a 1-way Wall of Force-ish spell (he can cast spells through it that are attenuated, but you can't.) that can only be disabled by solving a puzzle, and then the party can one or 2 shot him.

Having to steal from a sleeping Great wyrm is similar, they maybe could kill it, but it would be much more efficient not to wake it up.

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Don't reward them for dealing huge amounts of damage. That's why they do it.

So the Bard plays a Haste song. Fine. Now the Barbarian takes a scary amount of damage. The party can play for maximum damage if they want, but make it so it is unwise to do so without careful consideration. Next time, perhaps the Bard will instead play a defensive song. As an analogy, a race car can go very fast. But the driver will not go at full speed all the time. Sometimes, he has to slow down to make a turn or to conserve fuel.

The Rogue is dealing crazy backstab damage. In this world, people know about Rogues' special attacks and will call out a warning (how could they not know about an attack that could destroy a Tiger tank?!) With more enemies present, someone is more likely to observe him and call out the backstab attack. Maybe the Rogue will have to move slower and be more careful. That equates to fewer attacks.

In short, punish unbalanced risky play.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these techniques? What has been the result? I ask because punishing a PC for attempting to do what his class says it should do strikes me as a bit unfair: What's the PC supposed to instead? Also, while this may be fine advice for many systems, D&D 3e's mechanics only indirectly (a la Rule 0) support this style of play. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 29 '17 at 23:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes I have. I try to create situations where the players must consider the situation and choose an appropriate course of action. I try to avoid making any one approach the right approach every time. The result of me doing this was that the characters had to observe and react appropriately. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Mar 30 '17 at 1:32

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