Pathfinder 2E An Ambush (our PF2 campaign has reached session 52!)

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
An Ambush!

Last week, we played session 51 of "Pirates and Plunder", although it's turned more into an H Rider Haggard adventure than a pirate-themed adventure, for the last 30 or so sessions. The PCs have reached 11th level, and as DM I'm finding it harder and harder to really challenge them. Most of their foes are now humans and humanoids of around their level, and when I introduce monsters, I very often have to raise their level a notch or two.
In this latest session, 5 PCs (rogue, fighter, wizard, druid and cleric) faced off against a 12th-level fiendish giant, a 10th-level wizard and 4 7th-level mercenaries, with a couple 7th-level archers on top of a tower 300' to the north, and a 10th-level Vrock demon that flew in around round 6. Or I should say 4 PCs, because at the last minute the cleric couldn't come. We play on Roll20, and the players have their PCs fully configured so they can do strikes, spells and skill rolls at the click of a button, but as DM I keep all the monster stats on paper and do physical die rolls rather than spend countless hours entering critter stat blocks into the roll20 interface. It works great this way, and keeps my DM prep overhead to a minimum, very close to what I would do if I were running a face-to-face tabletop session. COVID oblige, there's no telling when we'll be able to return to the tabletop. But playing on VTT has another hidden advantage: we're able to play nearly every week, whereas we were lucky to get in one session a month in tabletop sessions.

This group of adversaries represents about 1/6th of the Aspis Consortium expedition to the ruined Azlanti city of Saventh-Yhi. They have become the prime adversaries as the PCs try to continue their explorations and reactivate the seven "spears" of the city. Yes, it's a PF2 adaptation of the 10-year old Paizo AP, Serpent's Skull.

It was a good session. At one point, the druid was down to Dying 3 and the fighter and rogue were down to a dozen hitpoints or so. It seems like the players get the most enjoyment out of sessions that are close calls - they feel like they are really risking their lives, but manage to come out victorious in the end. After the fiendish giant and the vrock were taken down, the PCs fled through the ruins so as to avoid the full strength of the Aspis agents, and found themselves pursued by wiley chameleon-like Kech (a sort of man-sized anthropophagous ape-men that can blend into their surroundings), but they managed to excape these foes as well, hiding out in an abandoned wizard's lab they'd half-explored some dozen sessions before.

So, about the game itself. Despite having reached 11th level, with all the attendant feats, spells and so on, combats run quite smoothly. I tend to use a larger number of lower-level foes than published PF2 APs. I have started using more level +2 and level +3 foes, but have not yet graduated to any level +4 foes, as the Designing Creatures guidelines suggest.
Concerning magic items, I have been handing out a selected few items 2 or 3 levels early, whereas the PF2 guidelines suggest never giving out loot more than one level above the PCs' current level. IMHO many items have an artificially inflated item level, and being a little over-generous as a DM halps correct this problem.
Concerning fliddly game mechanics like using Medicine for healing, we deal with that in two ways:
1) If the players are in the middle of a session, after a combat, I let them manage their healing rolls while I take a short break from the computer, and when I come back, they can tell me how many 10-minute blocks they needed to heal up. Works fine, since they've figured out how to manage that without input from me.
2) If it's at the end of the session, or if the PCs are in a position to easily return to a safe place and rest for the night, we will hand-wave the healing rolls, since the only variable is how many ten-minute blocks it takes to heal up. This certainly helps speed things up at the (virtual) table, and lets us get back to the serious business of adventuring all the quicker.

I have to say that all the players seem to be enjoying the game immensely. The spellcasters love the power of their spells, and regularly use blasting spells like fireball, lightning bolt, magic missile, hydraulic push or disintegrate, very often raised to a higher level. They also get extensive use out of buff and exploration spells, and even got off a couple highly appropriate banishment spells (against fiends) and regularly use invisibility and negate aroma to avoid foes or prepare ambushes. The fighter really loves the inherent combat power that his class grants him, and we really see the difference on the few sessions when he's unable to join us. The rogue has things fine-tuned to frequently get his foes flat-footed, and has been a top-notch combattant throughout. The druid, and to a lesser extent the cleric, both wade into combat fairly frequently, and although their strikes aren't nearly as powerful as those of the fighter, they still get the job done.

All in all, PF2 has really been working out for us. We played DD3.5 for years, eventually switching to PF1 about 6 years into its run, but PF2 has really simplified things for us, especially now that the PCs are reaching mid to high levels. Far easier to prepare and run for the DM, and it feels better from the PC side as well.

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I’m glad I hear that level +2/3 isn’t an issue, I always get paranoid about running my group into a statistically unwinnable fight.

What are your thoughts regarding very low level PCs? I find balancing legitimate challenge that doesn’t get outright fatal is an issue (same as it ever was I guess, but still an annoyance). Compared to 5e control magic is much harder to stick onto level+x enemies, so the primary tools of avoidance and mitigation are much weaker. The last thing I want a low level party to get in the habit of is just spamming their actions for strikes and cantrips, but the low chance of success for any actions against level+x enemies has cowed several of my players into doing just that lest they feel they’re not doing anything productive. It’s a shame the Aid reaction math is so wonky and disfavors use at low levels, because it’s an excellent 3rd action/reaction for characters that have the action economy for it once they leave the low levels.

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
I'm most comfortable running adventures for low-level characters (1-4), but it does take a fine hand at the controls.
  • Don't knock cantrips. They are nine tenths of a low-level spellcaster's arsenal, especially if (like I do) you favor lengthy adventuring days. PLayers new to PF2 are thrilled to discover they can cast them an unlimited number of times.
  • Be sure to model alternate combat tactics (like intimidating, tripping, pushing, swinging from chandeliers or whatever) by having NPC adversaries do these things. The PCs may follow suit, or may not, but this is also a good way to lessen the deadliness of combat.
  • Try to mix & match between story-based situations (diplomacy, discovery and investigation) and combat-based situations. This is always a good rule, but especially important at low levels, where the PCs' staying power in combat is limited.
  • Offer ample time and opportunity to heal. Low levels are not the time to set up back-to-back encounters where the PCs can't take time to recover a few precious hit points. I tend to use either the story of a loot drop to supply them with a few extra healing potions, especially if they have bad luck on a few early medicine checks.
  • Keep the story in mind when running encounters, especially at low levels. Not all creatures will fight to the death, or use the most optimal strategy. Some creatures will run away after a wound or two. Or they might waste an action here or there, roaring in rage or in fear. Or they might threaten the PCs, just to get them to leave their territory. Or any number of things that don't equate to fighting down to their last breath.

Of course, these sorts of principles work across any game you might choose to run, whether it be PF2, PF1, DDx or whatever.

Regarding monster level, I go very, very lightly above the PCs' party level. A group of 1st or 2nd-level adventurers shouldn't have to face foes more than one level above them, and most adversaries should be below their level. The only times I've used level +3 or +4 foes against a group of PCs below, say, 7th level, is when that adversary is meant to be a recurring villain they will have to fight several times, until ultimately they narrow the level range and get their revenge. This, in sharp contrast with many published Paizo APs and adventures that routinely throw level +3 or +4 foes at even low-level parties, without any pre-determined mitigating factors like I described above.

In DD3.5 and PF1 I could very, very often take a heavy hand in encounter design, both in levels and numbers. The PCs were always far more powerful than their level might suggest. In PF2, the encounter budget in the Building Encounters section is pretty accurate and useful, as long as you avoid going too far above the party level too fast.

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