Feb 25 2011

Encounters, Resources, Difficulty, and Uber PCs

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Feh … bad sleep for two nights in a row makes The Gneech an unhappy camper. -.- But that’s not what this post is about! This post is about my Pathfinder game.

The characters hit 12th level after last session, right in the middle of their assault on the hill giant fortress. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as they will gain extra resources (in the form of new hit points, spells, and so on), and I was a bit concerned that this scenario would use them all up ‘cos they don’t get a rest until they rescue Lord Jaarmath from the giants’ clutches.

On the other hand, this means I also have to refactor the rest of the scenario to account for the fact that I’ve now got a 12th level party instead of an 11th. I could just leave it as written and let them faceroll through it (after all, it’s the same giant fortress they were in 5 minutes ago, right?) … but I know from experience that my players generally prefer to be chewed up, and they tend to tear right through anything I throw at them anyway.

Some of that is due to the nature of traditional D&D encounter design: the idea is that instead of one or two “do-or-die” encounters, you have several different encounters that eventually use up your spells, hit points, healing, and so on. This model worked fine in the context of going down into self-restocking dungeons of rooms connected by corridors populated by wandering monsters … but it doesn’t really go quite so well in a story-building context. In a game where you’re making quick strikes into monster territory to achieve a specific goal, then getting out again, it suddenly becomes a much more effective strategy to pour everything you’ve got into every encounter, then get the heck out and rest up.

Thus was born the “15-minute workday,” which itself led to 4E’s radically altered nature of being balanced by encounter, rather than by day. That makes it much easier to build and balance cool encounters, but unfortunately, it also leads to one of 4E’s biggest problems, namely that any given encounter doesn’t really make a difference. Unless someone uses one of their daily powers or by some quirk of fate a character actually manages to die, you’re in exactly the same shape at the bottom of the dungeon as you were in the first room: fresh as a daisy and rarin’ to go.

Navigating the tricky path of making it tough enough on the party that they feel like they’ve had a fight, versus not making each encounter so hard that they use up all of their resources and retreat, is further complicated by a systemic imbalance in Pathfinder, which it inherited from 3.x: the sheer uberness of fighters.

In previous editions, fighters were something of a pointless class, because all they did was fight, and not that much better than anyone else. Yeah, they had the best one-on-one combat stats, but not by so much that it really made them stand out. Once the wizard got fireball, the fighter was pretty much relegated to the role of “speed bump.” So when the new edition came, they decided fighters needed a boost, and what a boost they got! Nowadays, against most opponents, a decently-built fighter can just tear through anything at-level, and kills things below their level simply by flexing their biceps. Other than a well-placed confusion spell, the only thing that slowed fighters down in 3.x was, quite literally, being slowed down: armor gimped their movement … at least until they found those boots of striding and springing.

Pathfinder has removed even this restriction, by giving fighters the ability to move at-speed in increasingly heavy armor as they level up (thus causing the paladin to lose their “mobility on the battlefield” edge … but that’s for another post).

Now, I’m not begrudging fighters their day in the sun; I like playing fighters myself. But the simple fact of the matter is that in the majority of encounters, I have to design it with an eye on “what to do about the fighter” first. Fighters do a ton of damage — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has enough hit points to not get one-punched. Fighters also have real high defenses — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has some way to actually hit, either from bumping their stats or doing a lot of “Aid Another.” It usually takes two on-level opponents (typically a spellcaster and their bodyguard) just to keep the fighter engaged for more than a round or two, which by itself blows away the encounter XP budget. Adding additional foes to give the rest of the party something to do means that every combat encounter is APL+1 or APL+2 at a minimum.

This can also lead to a certain amount of “why are we here”-ing from other party members. Wizards’ AoE can hurt lots of foes at once, giving them something useful to do (assuming there are lots of foes to hurt); but rangers and rogues especially find themselves playing a distant second fiddle once the combat starts. A good adventure should hopefully have something other than combat in it, of course, giving the stealthy-skillster types the opportunity to do their thing, but let’s face it: the phrase “kill monsters and take their stuff” didn’t come from nowhere. D&D is a very “fighty” game, and the occasional Disable Device check is never going to make up for being consistently outclassed in every fight.

I also have to contend with the fact that half of my party has resistance to fire. How are all those drakes and fire giants going to hurt them now? >.< They can go swimming in lava for cryin’ out loud!

-The Gneech

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