Pathfinder 2E Encounter Design in PF2 works.

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
In previous systems, I was always having to finesse encounter design, because it always felt like the PCs were hitting way above their level, and to make an encounter dangerous, without going too far, I had to beef up adversaries considerably, especially if I was running part of a published adventure.
Now, I'm running a mostly homebrewed campaign in PF2 (parts are adapted from the PF1 AP Serpent's Skull) and the only tool I have to rely on the the Building Encounters rules. I was fairly skeptical at first, but they really do work. Let me show you our last adventure.

The PCs had followed story leads to reach a hidden cave that led to the basement of the base of the Aspis Consortium expedition to a ruined city. The Aspis make great adversaries, since they are the epitome of ruthless opportunists, taking what they need and killing anyone who is "inconvenient", up to and including defenseless villagers. So here the PCs were, 5 12th-level adventurers (fighter, rogue, wizard, druid & cleric). Clearly, I had my work cut out for me to challenge this group.
One word about the map: it worked very well to have all 6 levels of this tower on a single map. As the group worked their way through the defenders, they were often split up over multiple levels, and being attacked from above or below by daring guards. I was able to reveal each new room they could see step by step, and the transitions from one level to the next were very intuitive.

1642762387045.png

Things started in the basement (sous-sol) in the bottom left corner. They had to face a 13th-level weapon master, 2 11th-level barbarians and 2 9th-level fiendish tigers (based on Hellcats) The Building Encounter schedule told me they were worth 150xp, a "severe threat" for a 5-person party. For those unfamiliar with this metric, it's all based on the differential in level between the PCs and the adversaries - an adversary one level higher than the PCs is "Party level +1", worth 60xp, and so on. It was a tough fight, the PCs were wounded, but managed to bring down their adversaries with minimal expenditures of resources (the spellcasters used mostly cantrips, only blowing a couple high-level spells).

The ground floor ("RdC") and 1st floor ("1e étage") were "filler" encounters, 5 8th-level mercenaries were on the first floor (50xp, or "trivial") and 4 8th-level mercenaries and a 9th-level upgraded Brimorak demon (55xp, also "trivial"), although since they were working together to some extent, that could be considered to combine into "moderate" or even "severe" encounter. The PCs dispatched these foes with no difficulties.
The large group of tokens you see on the first floor were four non-combattant researchers and two of the mercenaries that had been captured. One of the PCs (the druid) used his Golden Lions (figurines of wondrous power) and ordered them to guard the prisoners and to let no one leave. This was enough, in my view, to secure these prisoners while the PCs headed upstairs for the showdown part of the mission. This is where we had to stop, after 3 hours of play, roughly an hour on the initial roleplay segment that led them to this tower, an hour dealing with the severe threat, and a final hour healing, gathering loot and dealing with the two trivial encounters.

On the 2nd and 3rd floor (combined into one open area), they will have to face the leader, a sort of 14th-level fighter/wizard, a 9th-level spellcaster underling, a 12th-level Omox demon and two dominated 9th-level specters. That adds up to 165xp, or just over a "severe threat" for a 5-character party. Trouble is, they've made so much noise that the lookout crew on the roof is liable to jump in after a few rounds - a 10th-level spellcaster, a 9th-level Vrock demon and 3 8th-level mercenaries for 65xp, a low threat by themselves, but added to the previous group, we come up with 230xp, 30 points over an extreme threat, all together.

I'm understandably a little worried about throwing so much firepower at my group. I don't want a TPK, but it would be just fine to have a major challenge where one or more of them came very close to death, or even crossed to the "other side". Especially since the Aspis mastermind has the Finger of Death spell ready, if one of the PCs gets seriously wounded.

So here's where the fiddling comes in. For the guys on the roof, the Vrock will fly in through the collapsed corner of the tower on round two, giving the PCs some time to get into position to start destroying the initial foes. 165xp +15xp for the vrock is still below the 200-point theshold for an "exteme" encounter. The four other guys on the roof will be playing it safe, especially since their standing orders were to scout for external threats from the rooftop, and only enter the stairwell starting on round 3. Staggering the arrival of foes is a very good way to attenuate their threat level. Finally, the 9th-level spellcaster in the original group is a big coward, and although he'll be casting spells from round one, as soon as he's directly threatened, he'll dimension door out of there, and out of the encounter. Juggling those sorts of factors should make the encounter manageable. We'll find out, in a few days, when our next session comes round.

But my point in all this, is that the Building Encounters guidelines are actually a fairly good metric of how things will go down. The "severe threat" in the basement took a lot of work, even if the PCs were never really in danger of dying. Trivial encounters are just that, and more an occasion for roleplay and exploration while dealing with the encounter than a real threat. But anytime you go beyond "severe threat" level, and especially if you're close to or over the "extreme threat" level, things could go south, fast. You need to adopt some attenuating strategies, and also have a plan for what could happen if a TPK occurs. In this case, the nasty Aspis mastermind would gladly take prisoners, even nursing them back to health if need be. I hope it doesn't come to that. But I have a plan ready for it.

I'm keen on hearing other folks' take on the Building Encounters guidelines. Also, if anyone is interested in hearing how I "upgrade" creatures from the bestiary, or create custom NPCs, we can talk about that.
 

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payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Things started in the basement (sous-sol) in the bottom left corner. They had to face a 13th-level weapon master, 2 11th-level barbarians and 2 9th-level fiendish tigers (based on Hellcats) The Building Encounter schedule told me they were worth 150xp, a "severe threat" for a 5-person party. For those unfamiliar with this metric, it's all based on the differential in level between the PCs and the adversaries - an adversary one level higher than the PCs is "Party level +1", worth 60xp, and so on. It was a tough fight, the PCs were wounded, but managed to bring down their adversaries with minimal expenditures of resources (the spellcasters used mostly cantrips, only blowing a couple high-level spells).
That sounds like an interesting encounter. Everything we faced in PF2 (by way of severity) was solo or duos. In our case, the fights were awful boring. I could see these being much more interesting.
 

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
Yes, you may have noticed that I don't have any "party level +3" or +4 adversaries. This gives a lot more leeway for making interesting and varied encounters, and also leads to a lot less player frustration. Now that my players are 12th level, I probably could throw a level +4 adversary at them, if I were careful, and I already have used (on 2-3 occasions) level +3 adversaries, but I find a blend of lower-level foes gives a more enjoyable experience.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
My experience with the guidelines for building encounters is that they worked pretty well, but you have to make adjustments based on its assumptions regarding how tactically well the PCs will fight. My players weren’t super savvy about that, so I ended up having to shift things over a step (e.g., considering a moderate-threat encounter as more like a severe threat one). After doing that, it seemed to work pretty well for us.
 

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
It's not an exact science, and so much depends on the terrain and tactical situation. If the PCs can use the terrain to isolate one part of the adversaries and deal with them while the rest are busy running around, that goes a long ways towards making an objectively impossible fight into a winnable one.
 

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
Early in our current campaign (session 8 out of 54) the PCs were fighting in a cavern split by a deep chasm, with a bridge at the far end. While a horde of zombies were busy running around the long way, the PCs leapt the chasm and took out the main adversaries (mostly spellcasters) and the horde of zombies were fairly easy to mop up, after that.

09 temple chasm map.jpg

The PCs started on the raised area on the left, and the main adversaries were in the middle on the other side. A couple PCs went into the middle of the bottom area, drawing out the zombie horde (including some ogre zombies) then retreated, while a strike force leapt the chasm and took out the spellcasters. All told, the adversaries were well over the "extreme threat" benchmark, but clever tactics (and dumb defenders) balanced the odds in their favor.
 

Retreater

Legend
I think the encounter math works when it's followed, which hasn't been the norm in the APs I've run. When I designed my own encounters, I think they went much better - dangerous, thrilling, but not overpowered. Or a minor speed bump when designed to be easier.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
I am finding the math works really really well. I plague my players with Severe encounters more than I should, and it makes for very exciting combats. What a breath of fresh air after that other system I used to play....
 

Staffan

Legend
My experience with PF2 encounters is that they work pretty well once the party has a few levels under their belt. At beginner levels (1-2), PCs have too few reserves to handle things going bad, and they haven't had time to build up their healing with skill feats yet. It also doesn't help that there isn't really much in the way of lower-level foes to pad out encounters, so pretty much everything is an equal or stronger.

Perhaps some of my experience with that depends on adventure design – all three AP starters I've played/ran so far throw a lot of encounters in a row at level 1 PCs, which leads to super-cautious play and a lot of useless cantrips thrown around.
 

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
It also doesn't help that there isn't really much in the way of lower-level foes to pad out encounters, so pretty much everything is an equal or stronger.
You need to have more NPC adversaries, then. It's easy to have zero-level thugs, sailors, beggars or whatever as adversaries. I use a lot of NPC adversaries, especially in low-level campaigns. Especially in city-themed adventures, but really you can do this in any environment, and it feels good to face off against other humans or humanoids who have just made bad life choices.
AoN NPC database has 17 level-1 NPCs, and 4 level zero, ready for use. And that's even before you start "adjusting" them.
 

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