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

Legend
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.
 

Staffan

Legend
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.
Sure, there are things as low as level -1. But a level -1 creature is much more of a threat to a level 1 PC than, say, a level 5 creature is to a level 7 PC. That's partially because level 0 and level -1 creatures are designed to have about the same attack bonus and AC as a level 1 creature, but fewer hit points and dealing less damage per hit, and partially because level 1 PCs have no reserves. They don't have any potions or scrolls for emergencies, they don't have any lower-level fallback spells, and a crit from a same-level foe may very well KO them even from full hit points.

And after a fight, their medic is likely to have Medicine +5 or +6 or so, so they only have a 55-60% chance of succeeding at Treat Wounds on a single PC. On a failure they have to wait a full hour before trying again on the same target.
 


miggyG777

Explorer
I just recently had 3 x Level 1 guys (Investigator, Fighter, Champion) beat a Level 4 Zombie Flesh Golem (Encounter challenge: Extreme+).

The fight was almost a TPK but the clever usage of a mouth shaped door trap that spits fire by the Investigator to hold the Golem in place and roast it, a subsequent heroic dash by the Investigator through the firewall trap burning himself, tumbling through the narrow space occupied by the Golem to stabilize the fallen Fighter, the Dwarf Champion going toe to toe with the Golem (that easily one-shots him) forcing it to fight in the darkness against his Darkvision to give the Investigator time to stabilize the Fighter and finally a Natural 1 rolled by the Golem making it strike and kill itself with its extremely powerful unarmed attack, thanks to the Critical Fumble Table, led us to victory.
I narrated it as: "in its final moment of rage the Zombie Golem strikes a wall near the mouth shaped door with such force, that the doorway collapses, impales the Golem on a stone tooth and ultimately buries it under the rubble."

I just love Extreme encounters. Yes some PCs have died already which is sad for a moment, but it always happens in these crazy fights. When we overcome these challenges together it's too memorable to not run encounters this way, at least from time to time.

PS: The original plan for the party was to flee the dungeon. However, as they rushed back to the hole where they had climbed into the crypt they realized someone had cut the rope they needed to get back up and the Zombie Golem was just stomping down the hallway racing towards them. At that point it was fight or die.
 
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Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
I agree that the close calls are often the most memorable.

But I don't agree with Retreater that we need 4e-style minions. As I tried to illustrate, adversaries that are "party level -4" are "minion-y" enough. Once you get to the level of my last adventure, with 12th-level PCs and 8th-level "minion-style" adversaries they can even be credible threats, given that the encounter budget encourages using more of them. They certainly make good "fillers" to keep larger parties of adventurers busy while their master gets off a few more actions than he might otherwise.

Staffan, I only agree with part of your statements, when you say, "level 1 PCs have no reserves. They don't have any potions or scrolls for emergencies, they don't have any lower-level fallback spells, and a crit from a same-level foe may very well KO them even from full hit points."
Here's why I disagree:
  • Level 1 PCs do have lower-level fallback spells. They're called cantrips and they are unlimited. You can do a lot of clever things with the right cantrips, not simply inflict a handful of hitpoints on an adversary once a round.
  • Many level 1 PCs have enough cash to buy one healing potion at character creation, and in many settings and adventures, there are sympathetic NPCs somewhere nearby who could possibly be convinced to supply more. That's an entirely DM-dependent call.
  • If a same-level foe kills a PC from full hit points, perhaps the DM (or the adventure designer) gave that 1st-level foe too hefty a weapon. Also, it's quite difficult to actually die in PF2, unless your whole group is reduced to the dying condition. And even then, you have multiple chances to recover from it on your own, if some nasty monster isn't actually eating you.

I would certainly agree that 1st-level PCs have fewer reserves than later in their career, but the challenges they are called to face are also proportionately less dangerous. Unless you are playing one of a few notoriously deadly early Paizo APs. Then, may the Gods take pity on you. -g-
 

Staffan

Legend
I agree that the close calls are often the most memorable.

But I don't agree with Retreater that we need 4e-style minions. As I tried to illustrate, adversaries that are "party level -4" are "minion-y" enough. Once you get to the level of my last adventure, with 12th-level PCs and 8th-level "minion-style" adversaries they can even be credible threats, given that the encounter budget encourages using more of them. They certainly make good "fillers" to keep larger parties of adventurers busy while their master gets off a few more actions than he might otherwise.
Severely underleveled creatures might pose the same overall challenge as 4e minions, but they work very differently. A level-4 creature in PF2 (let's call this a "lackey" for ease of use) and a same-level minion in 4e both count as 1/4 of a same-level regular creature when building encounters, but they'll have different effects on the game.

A minion has the same attack bonus as a same-level creature, but they do less damage, and probably don't have any abilities that require upkeep (at least not creature-centric upkeep – dealing ongoing damage is a different thing). IIRC, the damage is more than 1/4 of a regular creature, but on the other hand you lose damage as more minions are taken care of so it balances out that way. A minion has about the same AC as a regular creature, but only 1 hp (and immunity to damage-on-miss/successful saves). That means that the GM basically doesn't need to do any book-keeping about a minion. As long as it's on the field, it'll do its stuff, and once you hit it it's gone.

A lackey on the other hand has attack bonuses and AC that are way lower than a same-level creature, about 6 points (using the creature building guidelines). A level 7 martial PC will have an AC of about 25 (proficiency +9, base item + Dex +5, magic +1). A 7th level creature with a High attack bonus will have +18 (hit on 7, crit on 17, so a single strike will on average do 90% damage), and a 3rd level creature will have +12 (hit on 13, crit on 20, so on average 45% damage). Combine this with lower base damage (20 vs 12 for High damage), and the lackey will do 30% of a same-level creature's damage. That's on par with the 4e minion overall, but it is dealt in rarer hits for bigger chunks.

The same happens in reverse. A level 7 PC will attack at +16 (prof +11, stat +4, item +1) against an AC of 25 (same level) or 19 (lackey). That's either hit on a 9 (crit on 19, average 70% damage) or hit on a 3 (crit on 13, average 130% damage). At level 7, a PC will be doing about 2d8 (striking rune) +4 (stat) +2 (weapon specialization), plus maybe 5-10 (call it 7) from various class shenanigans, for 22 per hit. That means that the first strike of a 7th level PC against a same-level creature will on average deal about 15.5 points, against a hp pool of about 115 points, which means 7-8 attacks on average (this gets more complicated with multiple attacks but that gets real complicated real fast). Against a lackey, the first strike will on average deal 28.5 points against a hp pool of 45, so it will on average take about 2 attacks to take out. So a lackey takes about 1/4 as much effort to take out.

Taken together, this means that both minions and lackeys pose about 1/4 as much threat as a same-level regular creature, so they fill the same role in encounter math. However, the lackey is much more complex. You're rarely going to take it out in a single hit – well, maybe not that rarely, their hit points are in range of a crit that rolls a bit above average, but maybe one in six attacks will outright KO a lackey. That means you need to actually track their hit points, and probably a bunch of conditions and such. They also have the full complexity of any other creature, which might mean limited-use abilities to keep track of and stuff like that.

Staffan, I only agree with part of your statements, when you say, "level 1 PCs have no reserves. They don't have any potions or scrolls for emergencies, they don't have any lower-level fallback spells, and a crit from a same-level foe may very well KO them even from full hit points."
Here's why I disagree:
  • Level 1 PCs do have lower-level fallback spells. They're called cantrips and they are unlimited. You can do a lot of clever things with the right cantrips, not simply inflict a handful of hitpoints on an adversary once a round.
Such as? PF2 cantrips are generally not all that open to flexibility. Plus, you don't get all that many of them – five in most cases. They're a good fallback for pew-pewing, but they won't do much beyond that. Ghost sound is the one I can see being a bit tricksy in the right situation, but other than that they're all pretty closed-ended. Notably, there's no visual illusion as a cantrip, which you could otherwise have fun with.

And cantrips don't compare to the impact even low-level well-chosen spells can have. Fear and grease work perfectly well as 1st level spells, even when I'm 11th level. Longstrider is great for giving me mobility. Speak with animals has often helped me figure situations out and avoid combat, and been way more useful than a 2nd level combat spell would be.

  • Many level 1 PCs have enough cash to buy one healing potion at character creation, and in many settings and adventures, there are sympathetic NPCs somewhere nearby who could possibly be convinced to supply more. That's an entirely DM-dependent call.
A minor healing potion costs 4 gp, which is about 25% of a starting character's full allotment. Someone who doesn't need to spend money on armor and weapons might be able to fit it into their budget, but probably not a martial character.

And what does it do for you? 1d8 hp. Out of your full 15-20. That's not really a good emergency heal. It might help top you off after a Treat Wounds didn't get all the way there, but it's pretty weaksauce.

  • If a same-level foe kills a PC from full hit points, perhaps the DM (or the adventure designer) gave that 1st-level foe too hefty a weapon. Also, it's quite difficult to actually die in PF2, unless your whole group is reduced to the dying condition. And even then, you have multiple chances to recover from it on your own, if some nasty monster isn't actually eating you.
A 1st-level martial PC will probably have 15-20 hp. Recommended strike damage for a creature with Extreme damage (which isn't that rare, and means they probably have a lower attack bonus) is about 1d8+4 or something that deals similar damage (e.g. 2d6+1, 1d6+5, 1d10+3). That's well within range of KOing you in a single hit. Not instant death, but KO.

And sure, KO doesn't mean death. But it does mean a drastic reduction in the group's ability to deal with the thing, both because you're down one man, and because the rest of the party will probably want to make sure you don't die, which will cost additional actions on their behalf.

Compare this to, say, 7th level. Now you're rocking something like 90 hp as a martial. Extreme damage for a 7th level creature is 2d12+12 (or some other combination that gets the same average), which is 72 on a max-damage critical (and rolling 48 on 4d12 is substantially less likely than rolling 16 on 2d8), so that's a thing you can take on the chin. You sure won't like it, but it's not going to instantly drop you, which means you're still an asset to the group instead of a liability.

I would certainly agree that 1st-level PCs have fewer reserves than later in their career, but the challenges they are called to face are also proportionately less dangerous. Unless you are playing one of a few notoriously deadly early Paizo APs. Then, may the Gods take pity on you. -g-
That's what I've been mostly playing, on both sides of the screen. But my point on the whole is that:
  1. The encounter-building rules in PF2 do work pretty well, and
  2. You need to take special care at the lowest levels because low-level PCs are fragile and don't have the resources or reserves to cope with adversity the way even moderately higher-leveled PCs do.
 

S'mon

Legend
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.

This is my experience in 4e D&D too, which had a very similar "+1 everything each level" metric as PF2 has. Fights with large numbers of creatures in the PL +0 to -3 range seems to work best.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
But I don't agree with Retreater that we need 4e-style minions. As I tried to illustrate, adversaries that are "party level -4" are "minion-y" enough. Once you get to the level of my last adventure, with 12th-level PCs and 8th-level "minion-style" adversaries they can even be credible threats, given that the encounter budget encourages using more of them. They certainly make good "fillers" to keep larger parties of adventurers busy while their master gets off a few more actions than he might otherwise.
Maybe not as a general mechanic, but “minion” style −2nd level creatures would give the GM more encounter building options for 1st level parties.
 



dave2008

Legend
It has been a while since I seriously looked at PF2 (bought the core rulebook, bestiary, and GMG when they came out), but I remember it being a very tight system. My question to those with experience in the system: can you run the game without balancing encounters? As a DM I don't want to have to worry about monster level / CR and balanced encounters. I just want to build the world and let the players run with it. Though I loved 4e, it didn't really lend itself to this style. That is my favorite part of DMing 5e. Everything I have read suggest the encounter math tends more to the 4e spectrum and that as me a little uneasy. Love to hear your thoughts.
 

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