This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Low-Level, High-Damage Characters
I have the issue of being a new DM, and having a party of 6 level 7characters. Unfortunately I have given too much loot (magic items, gold and XP) and they now throttle anything that I throw at them even CR 9 creatures.
The main problem is, that they need opponents that hit often and medium to hard hits, with a low AC and a lot of hit points. I am trying to stat monsters to challenge them in interesting settings. But, to my dismay, everything that I throw at them dies fast. The PC's hit hard but cannot hit high AC's (greater the 22) with a reasonable frequency, disregarding 2 characters. How can I stat these cool monsters to challenge but not mutilate them?
-- Michael, from AskWizards.com
This kind of continues the 'large party' discussion from last column. Many of the principles there apply here as well. Your characters are overpowered relative to their level because they have more equipment than would be expected in the standard rules. How bad of a problem is this really?
1. A Natural Give and Take
The problem will correct itself with time, as long as you approach campaign design appropriately. If you have been over-generous with magic and treasure now, then tighten the purse strings for a while. The players might say, "Hey, that's not fair!" Well, too bad. It wasn't fair when you gave them too much, but are they offering to give the overage back? It's like a pro athlete who holds out for more money when he has a good season but wouldn't think of giving money back if he has a crummy season.
The problem is also self-correcting within the rule system, in that the characters should advance more rapidly in level if you hand out standard xp awards. They are beating up encounters whose CR exceeds theirs, so it shouldn't take too long for their level to catch up to their wealth. You could, of course, penalize the characters in awarding experience -- treating them as if they were, say, a level higher than their actual level to reflect their overly powerful state -- but this only makes the problem worse, not better. Go ahead and let their levels catch up and your sense of balance is restored.
2. A Tempting Target
If you feel as if you've been too free about giving things away, realize that cunning NPCs may notice the same thing. Perhaps the party, laden with loot and throwing a lot of money around in town on magic items (buying and/or selling) attracts the attention of the local thieves' guild. They won't bother with a straight-up fight with the PCs -- that would be suicide. They might very well send a couple of rogues with maxed out Sleight of Hand, including skill-boosting items and synergy bonuses, along with perhaps a magic item allowing them to dimension door away with their ill-gotten gains, to pinch an item or three from the party. You might also set up the PCs with counterfeit items, coins, or gems in a business deal. Unless they are very attentive with Appraise skills, you might swap out some of their excess wealth for worthless junk.
In combat, don't forget about having creatures disarm and sunder items in the PCs' possession. Don't limit it to weapons, either. If a PC has a wand or staff in her hand, that should be fair game for sundering. Drop in a few item-destroying monsters while you're at it.
This is a heavy-handed way to go about it, and you certainly shouldn't mess with the party's stuff on a regular basis. They've worked hard to achieve it. At least, normally that's the case. You imply that this is not the case here, that they have essentially lucked into stuff they have no business having, so you have a little more ethical leeway in reversing the bounty. The players might complain that the treasure hauls are your fault -- after all, you gave them the stuff -- and they shouldn't be punished for your mistake. But hey, D&D is a team game, a cooperative game. If everybody isn't into takebacks and givebacks, then you use the weapons at your disposal within the rules to deal with it.
3. Are They Really as Overpowered as All That?
Maybe in some ways but not in others. Hitting a high AC is part of the higher-level game. If the characters can't rumble with monsters that have good AC, how are they wiping the floor with your CR 9 opponents? If you want low-AC, high-HP foes, go for giant vermin and dire animals or summoners who have called up celestial or fiendish versions of the same. They're relatively easy to hit but they're made of hit points, so they can soak up the damage while being reasonably able to dish out some danger.
The problem that you're really experiencing is that the characters themselves are out of balance. They have excess killpower, but only within limits. Things outside their kill-range will stomp them into the ground. The PCs are fragile relative to their killing power, which makes combat more binary. Either they stomp or get stomped. There are no long, hard slugfests, which seem to be what you want.
4. OK, What About Your Actual Question?
Your best option, which was one of the points touched on last time, is to spread out the combat. Pay more attention to the EL of the encounter than the CR of the individual monsters. You are looking for an encounter that will be challenging. This can be done better by looking at the encounter holistically, including the terrain, environment, and situation (e.g., ambush, running battle, close quarters) rather than by focusing on a signature 'tough' or 'cool' monster to try to beat the entire party at once.
The first way of overcoming high damage output is by making it irrelevant. Don't try to over-CR the characters with one super-tough opponent that will either slaughter them (if its AC or special attacks are too extreme) or get slaughtered by them (if they can gang up on it). Give them several (or even a gaggle of) fairly tough opponents at once. Instead of one fire giant, send a dozen minotaurs. Instead of a juvenile green dragon, a small pack of manticores, displacer beasts, or harpies. It doesn't matter that a fighter can dish out 40 points of damage with a single hit if her opponent has only 15 hit points. A high-damage character that can attack once per round needs at least four rounds to finish off four opponents. In those four rounds, the fighter should be attacked 10 times vs. the four attacks he'll make. Even if those 10 attacks have low odds of hitting, a few are bound to get through (and 10 rolls means 10 chances for critical hits).
Second, diffuse the focus of combat. Don't bunch up the foes at one point where the PCs can concentrate their forces against them. Have enemies attack from different directions at the same time, have opponents attack in waves, or do both. By attacking from multiple directions, you force characters to utilize both their tactical sensibilities and their versatility, because characters who are best at ranged attacks may be forced into melee, while a melee character drawn off to fight one foe must, after defeating it, maneuver back into the fight.
Third, mix and match the monsters you use. Be aware of the tactical capabilities of your PCs, and don't just throw things at them that are right in their wheelhouse, so to speak. If they're awesome at melee but not so good at ranged combat, attack them with enemies that are dangerous at range or with enemies who attack and then hide or move away before becoming engaged. Use combined-arms tactics where it makes sense -- a mix of ranged attackers, spellcasters, melee fighters, and creatures with complementary special abilities. (Of course, monsters are what they are. Not every encounter should be against the goblins' regimental combat team of mixed cavalry, archers, and pikes.) By presenting a more complex tactical problem for the characters than 'charge up and smash it,' you make things more difficult for them without necessarily upping the chances for a party-wide wipeout. You can tax their ability without necessarily threatening utter destruction.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.