Pathfinder 2E Another Deadly Session, and It's Getting Old

Retreater

Legend
So my group had another deadly session with a character dropping dead before Initiative was rolled after falling victim to a magical hazard. This set off a domino effect of a second character death and the remaining half of the party fleeing the combat after about 45 minutes of play. When you get together biweekly to play 2-3 hours, this isn't the kind of session you and your players look forward to having. To make matters worse, this is the third "Total Party Wipe" in six sessions (even though a couple characters survived, the mission-leader died, the party's guide died, and the remaining players will all have to re-think their character choices and possibly make new characters in light of the disastrous event). This is a big time sink in Pathfinder 2e, especially when considering we're playing online and characters all need to be updated with macros, a barely functional online character sheet, etc.

My players are divided. Most love the system, even if the AP is way too deadly for their liking. (And remember this isn't an OSR system when character death should be common and characters can be re-rolled in 5 minutes - character creation requires a major time investment.) They are of the recommended level, have the suggested amounts of treasure, access to Hero Points, and even an "extra" PC for whom I don't account in the encounter budget. They are getting tired of making new characters and just want to finish the adventure. Encounters feel like exercises in futility, when even minor, "level-appropriate" scuffles regularly turn into life-or-death affairs.

The TPK de jour involved a magical hazard that was very difficult to detect and that cast a spell with such a high spell DC that the triggering character had a 25% chance of critical failure - which was death. The magical hazard persisted each round - targeting other characters with death effects - while monsters (immune to the hazard) entered the fray, swarming and dealing sneak attack damage and others at range blasting with spells. This is listed in the module as "just a regular fight," on the way to the climactic showdown several rooms deeper in the dungeon.

Even with higher level characters, it would be unlikely the party could detect the hazard, disengage it, or have a reasonable chance to save against the death effect. And it's just not this fight, as evidenced by the three TPKs in six sessions. We discussed this at length after the session to try to determine what went wrong. The players, who are pretty good at game math and statistical probability decided it was extremely improbable they could've succeeded.

What does a GM do in these situations? Hand out multiple Hero Points at the start of a session? Increase the characters' level to several above the module's recommendation? Allow do-overs of battles that go badly when we already have limited play time? I don't have the system mastery to tweak numbers on the fly to make these encounters survivable. Everyone seems to want to continue with PF2 and the Adventure Path we've started. How do I make it less intense while still presenting a challenge?
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
I use a hero point house rule that lets players spend a hero point to increase another player’s degree of success. This is not a fortune effect, so multiple hero points spent that way stack. I do this to help encourage off-turn engagement, but it also gives the group a way of bailing out someone who got unlucky on a check or saving throw. I try to be a bit more liberal with hero points than the book suggests, but I’m not great at that.

Anyway, that doesn’t really address your specific situation. Just reading your situation, it sounds like there is something off about the module. Which one is it? While moderate encounters can be scary (and those seem to be the bulk of encounters), having hazards that the party has little chance of succeeding against sounds patently unfair.
 


ccs

41st lv DM
Why would the players of the surviving characters have to make new PCs because of one dead & a dead NPC?

What AP are you playing?
 

Retreater

Legend
Why would the players of the surviving characters have to make new PCs because of one dead & a dead NPC?

What AP are you playing?
There were two dead PCs. With the function of the mission-bearer (who was the primary reason they were going into the dangerous environment) and the guide (who used spells and checks to navigate the terrain to the adventure site).

Age of Ashes
 


!DWolf

Adventurer
Yes, and pretty sure I ran it correctly. In actuality there were two failed saves required for insta-death, but the character did fail both in a single round.

I think you ran it correctly (or at least RAW) too. Overall, I am finding this module poorly designed (in contrast to the first one which I liked much better). The hexcrawl shouldn’t really have been a hexcrawl, it just feels shoehorned in, and like the hazard you mentioned it seems poorly calibrated. I also think that the module writer made certain assumptions about playstyle that aren’t necessarily (or even likely too be) true of someone just picking up and running it.

That being said, a couple of questions:
1) have you checked that the character creation math is correct? (The mandatory “have you checked if the device is plugged in” question, but missing a bunch of ability boosts because you overlooked them massively changes the dynamics of combat)
2) How much does your group try to “win” (by gaining information, prebuffing, altering the battlefield, etc.) combats during exploration mode? In the other thread you implied the answer is “not at all” but I wanted to make sure before I offered advice.

Edit: spelling
 
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Retreater

Legend
1) have you checked that the character creation math is correct? (The mandatory “have you checked if the device is plugged in” question, but missing a bunch of ability boosts because you overlooked them massively changes the dynamics of combat)
Yeah, I think so. We used Pathbuilder to construct the characters, then sort of double check that everything is entered correctly in the Character Sheet on Roll20 on a case-by-case basis. (So if someone gets a roll that seems very low, we'll double check the math and re-roll if necessary after tweaking.) The player who lost his character to the hazard is especially up on the rules and character creation, very detail-oriented. He even calls out what he thinks might be slightly off about other characters.

2) How much does your group try to “win” (by gaining information, prebuffing, altering the battlefield, etc.) combats during exploration mode? In the other thread you implied the answer is “not at all” but I wanted to make sure before I offered advice.
Never. It just doesn't come up. As presented in the module, there is no way to learn anything about the showdown dungeon to gain a tactical advantage. You're in the middle of a jungle with no helpful NPCs who have ever seen the area - your allies are even magically blocked from getting close to it. They don't know how to pre-buff until a trap is sprung and combat started - and by then there is no time to waste on buffs. The cleric spends every available action and spell slot to heal the party. The party is 100% reactionary to the challenges of the adventure.
Concerning altering the battlefield, they do attempt tactical positioning, with two tanky characters in the front, wizard in the back, cleric in the middle to reach everyone with burst heals, and a monk who can easily move to where needed. They try to create chokepoints to limit the ability of enemies to reach the softer middle and back ranks.
In the case of the hazard, the party's tankiest fighter dropped before initiative was rolled. The other tank was up there getting blasted by the insta-death trap (which was still doing high damage on successful saves). The monk moves around to the side and gets flanked by DPS/rogue-types. Eventually second fighter drops to a critical failed save on a vampiric touch from the priest, monk flees with 1 hp remaining.
 

TheSword

Legend
Wow. What happened to Paizo APs? in the ‘olden days’ they were the watchword for easily beatable adventures. I used to have to pile multiple encounters together in order to prevent a challenge.

None of these 2e horror stories make me want to make the switch back to PF.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Can someone please tell me the name and page number of the supplement where this trap is described, so we can find out the context of the events?
 


kenada

Legend
Supporter
Wow. What happened to Paizo APs? in the ‘olden days’ they were the watchword for easily beatable adventures. I used to have to pile multiple encounters together in order to prevent a challenge.
There are a handful of reasons for the apparent increase in difficulty.
  1. The guidelines for encounter building actually work. Because build optimization could make so much of a difference, they weren’t in PF1. Encounters might be hard or might be easy depending on the players. Consequently, hard encounters in PF2 are hard.
  2. Per the guidelines, higher-thread encounters can end the adventuring day or kill PCs (for severe- and extreme-threat encounters). Moderate-threat encounters are an example of the former, and they’re fairly common in APs.
  3. PF2 shifts system mastery from character building to tactical play. This helps with balance and making the guidelines work reliably, but it means consistently poor tactics gets you wrecked by moderate-threat encounters on a regular basis.
Related to number 3 there is that certain tactics that are okay in other games are a really bad idea in PF2. Charging into combat is usually worse than forcing the enemy to come to you. If you’re standing there, slugging it out because you want to fish for a crit on your third attack, then you’re probably taking damage you could have avoided. It’s much better to retreat and force the enemy to close the distance again.

Additionally, another part of tactics is teamwork. If the group is not fighting as a team, it’s going to have a harder time (especially at severe and extreme threats where it’s practically a requirement). For example, a party that casts bless (+1 status bonus to attack), uses Demoralize (−1 or −2 status penalty to AC), and imposes the flat-footed condition (−2 circumstance penalty to AC) on a target has an effectively 20~25% higher hit and crit rate against it than one that doesn’t put much effort into maximizing its effectiveness.

Edit: I’m speaking generally here. In this case, there was an apparently nasty hazard involved in the encounter. That can also affect things, though I’d expect it to be factored i to the encounter’s budget.
 
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TheSword

Legend
There are a handful of reasons for the apparent increase in difficulty.
  1. The guidelines for encounter building actually work. Because build optimization could make so much of a difference, they weren’t in PF1. Encounters might be hard or might be easy depending on the players. Consequently, hard encounters in PF2 are hard.
  2. Per the guidelines, higher-thread encounters can end the adventuring day or kill PCs (for severe- and extreme-threat encounters). Moderate-threat encounters are an example of the former, and they’re fairly common in APs.
  3. PF2 shifts system mastery from character building to tactical play. This helps with balance and making the guidelines work reliably, but it means consistently poor tactics gets you wrecked by moderate-threat encounters on a regular basis.
Related to number 3 there is that certain tactics that are okay in other games are a really bad idea in PF2. Charging into combat is usually worse than forcing the enemy to come to you. If you’re standing there, slugging it out because you want to fish for a crit on your third attack, then you’re probably taking damage you could have avoided. It’s much better to retreat and force the enemy to close the distance again.

Additionally, another part of tactics is teamwork. If the group is not fighting as a team, it’s going to have a harder time (especially at severe and extreme threats where it’s practically a requirement). For example, a party that casts bless (+1 status bonus to attack), uses Demoralize (−1 or −2 status penalty to AC), and imposes the flat-footed condition (−2 circumstance penalty to AC) on a target has an effectively 20~25% higher hit and crit rate against it than one that doesn’t put much effort into maximizing its effectiveness.

Edit: I’m speaking generally here. In this case, there was an apparently nasty hazard involved in the encounter. That can also affect things, though I’d expect it to be factored i to the encounter’s budget.
Thanks for the response. Sounds painful - particularly when it comes to traps.
 

!DWolf

Adventurer
Never. It just doesn't come up. As presented in the module, there is no way to learn anything about the showdown dungeon to gain a tactical advantage. You're in the middle of a jungle with no helpful NPCs who have ever seen the area - your allies are even magically blocked from getting close to it. They don't know how to pre-buff until a trap is sprung and combat started - and by then there is no time to waste on buffs. The cleric spends every available action and spell slot to heal the party. The party is 100% reactionary to the challenges of the adventure.
Okay. I see the problems:
0) When combined the two encounters are an extreme level threat.
1) That trap is way outside the norm for a complex hazard of that level. I have been told that this model was written before the rules were finalized so that might explain it.
2) The designers (probably from the second they heard the word hex crawl) assumed a playstyle for the module - but they never explicitly said so. This will lead to some groups being frustrated because it feels like they are missing something (because they are) and are getting annihilated every fight.

The good news is that I can give you a lot of advice to help make your game better since I actually have experience with this problem.

The bad news is my lunch break is over so it will have to wait until tonight.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Thanks for the response. Sounds painful - particularly when it comes to traps.
I kind of have the same impression of official adventures. 😅

To be fair, tactics can be taught. I’d posit that they’re easier to learn than character optimization. Also, having a reliable tool for building encounters is really helpful as a GM for assessing whether one is appropriate.

In this case, it sounds like the encounter was busted. It might not be a bad idea to fix the trap and giving the group a mulligan. Sometimes we (GM, adventure writer, etc) mess up, and that’s more fair than just rolling with it.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
"Cult of Cinders" pp 57-59, Areas C6 and C7.
Thanks.

Though you could have made it much simpler to respond by explaining that everything revolves around


I see nothing egregious about this. The effect is appropriate for the level.

As I understand it, your described outcome required the character to make two saves, first rolling a critical failure and then a failure.

Even with the use of a Hero Point, this can happen.

What seems to be a mistake, however, is
"while monsters (immune to the hazard) entered the fray, swarming and dealing sneak attack damage and others at range blasting with spells."

Unless I am mistaken, you have activated room C7 and its monsters while the heroes were still busy with the trap in C6, yes?

This is a mistake. An honest mistake that's very easy to make. But still - encounters are never intended to mix together.

Pathfinder 2's encounter math simply does not allow it. One Moderate encounter can be deadly as is (as you have discovered!)

Two moderate encounters combined... that's immediately equal to an Extreme encounter! Edit: ninja'd!

Twice as many monsters is quadruple the danger in this game, to phrase it a bit crudely but very directly!

I heartily recommend every PF2 Gamesmaster to never combine encounters. You simply can't.

Having monsters react to pesky heroes' invading by doubling up on guard shifts, retreating to fortified positions and combining their strengths are very natural actions to have your monsters take, especially if reasonably intelligent. And in nearly every other game, doing so is good GM:ing!

This can trip up the best of us. It is sometimes easy for the heroes to accidentally trigger two room's worth of foes at the same time. I know of few other games that would punish such an innocuous mistake as harshly as Pathfinder 2...!



But you can't do that in PF2 unless you know exactly what you're doing.

By this I mean that as you gain experience with the system you will learn what your heroes can take. You can also create the illusion of reinforcements while not actually having the heroes face a double-strength encounter, by having the monsters come in waves and not all at once.

I hope you see that I'm not saying your experiences aren't valid. PF2 is sometimes very VERY hard. But in this case there is hope, because there was never any intention that the heroes should have to deal with monsters while still figuring out the trap.
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
1) That trap is way outside the norm for a complex hazard of that level. I have been told that this model was written before the rules were finalized so that might explain it.
In what way do you think it is outside the norm?

The spell itself is fair game against level 8 heroes.

The save DC is higher than "High" but lower than "Extreme".

Maybe you're thinking of the trap's durability? It is very sturdy - way more durable than a flesh'n'blood spellcaster of that level. So it basically must be disabled rather than destroyed. (Listing dispel magic is a cruel joke... one I keep seeing for traps - why do that when the writers know the heroes are one level short of the requirement! :unsure: :devilish:)

That the trap's effect probably should have been a 2-action activity is of academic concern only, since it only emits its effect once per round just like a correctly formatted trap should.

Did I miss anything?
 

CapnZapp

Legend
In this case, there was an apparently nasty hazard involved in the encounter. That can also affect things, though I’d expect it to be factored i to the encounter’s budget.
In my experience hazards are very nasty for their level.

What this means in practice (for my group) is that they all agree they need a Trap Specialist (=someone that focuses on the skills).

Though they also all agree it would be best if that person is somebody else than their own character... ;)

The problem with nasty traps is that the consequences of failure are often very painful indeed. And failure always remains a distinct possibility (you generally have less than 50% chance of making a DC from a higher-levelled effect). And who do you think is the first one to suffer the trap's effects...? :devilish::geek:
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Yeah, I think so. We used Pathbuilder to construct the characters, then sort of double check that everything is entered correctly in the Character Sheet on Roll20 on a case-by-case basis.
I should add that I see no reason to doubt your characters' numerical correctness.

Everything you describe can happen to correctly calculated characters. There's nothing here that suggests your defense values are wrong.

Yes, you can easily be asked to make a save where you have a 25% risk of critical failure! (Where you need to roll a 16 to succeed)

There's nothing like the dismay on the players' faces when they realize the monster hits their AC even on a 3... :whistle:

Pathfinder 2 certainly isn't messing around - this game is not cuddly like 5th Edition!
 

Retreater

Legend
I suppose I shouldn't have included the other attackers from a balance perspective, but the character pushed the door open and triggered those enemies. Perhaps I should have said "well as soon as you touch the door and before it is opened, this hazard happens, and you guys deal with that first."
I'll take the blame for not knowing how deadly Phantasmal Killer can be when attached to a higher level hazard. The party's wizard regularly casts it and the effect is never this nasty.
But to be fair, the party was at 100% strength, their first encounter of the day. They have several characters who can deal with things like this with Disable Device and Dispel Magic. The rolls were just really bad, and they burned through their Hero Points. I just didn't expect it would go that badly, and based on the description of the adventure, I ran it pretty close to how it was intended, I think.
 

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