Sometimes GMs need to use some pretty nasty strategies to make the PCs be less overpowered. This is a guide to how to do that fairly. It was inspired by two stories from some friends of mine:
- There’s a campaign being run a by an inexperienced GM, with predominantly inexperienced players. Unfortunately for the GM, guides to make powerful characters are easy to find online. They are currently around level 9, and the party’s monk has such high defenses that they are effectively invulnerable. The GM feels the campaign is growing stale, so he just gives all the enemies a big buff to their attack bonus. In the next encounter, the whole party is promptly killed.
- There’s a campaign with an experienced GM, experienced players, and it’s starting at level 14. The adventure starts at a place called the tower of death. The players are told they are going after a lich who lives in the tower of death. The front gate has a big skull on it. They don’t check it for traps. When they open the door, a magical trap is triggered. It is a death effect. Most of the party dies within minutes of starting the campaign.
This is not an article about balance. it is about how, if handled slightly differently, both of these scenarios would have been completely fair, the players would have been able to survive, and it would have been a very tactically rich game experience. The trick is repetition within a theme.
Step 1: Identify the “jerk GM” thing you want to do.
If you’re going to make a PC (or all the PCs) die or become useless, you first need to know how to do it! Casting a death spell on a wizard will probably kill the wizard: they have poor fortitude saves. It will probably do nothing to a fighter. If all your monsters suddenly never miss, you’ll kill characters who relied on AC (as opposed to brute HP) but do nothing to characters who relied on damage reduction. If the party’s main damage dealer is a bow wielding fighter or a ranger, windwall can stop them from ever landing a hit, but it won’t do anything to a barbarian.
Step 2: Introduce the “jerk GM” technique in a fairly safe encounter, or introduce it gradually.
The first time the players run into the new technique, it will be quite the shock. If you do it in a relatively safe encounter, it will still seem hard to the players. First, they will try to play the encounter the way they normally do, so you can basically consider the first round of combat to be a waste of the player’s time. Next, they’ll start to learn how to handle the new situation.
Death effects deserve a special mention here. You cannot introduce death effects gradually, but you can introduce less severe negative energy effects gradually. They need enough encounters against negative energy wielding opponents that they learn what items, spells, positioning, and strategies work to defend against negative energy. They also need to learn what in-universe cues indicate these kind of effects, and have learned to use the spells that protect against them.
The same thing can be said of traps. If the first trap in a game is lethal, the GM is just trying to kill PCs. Instead, the first trap needs to be serious but not deadly, and they gradually escalate as they are repeated.
Step 3: Consider how the players could counter the “Jerk GM” technique
There is almost always a way to counter a Jerk GM trick without deviating from a player’s intended “build.” If no one in the party took Perception, you can overcome stealth based opponents with a Wand of Glitterdust. If as a GM you know you’ll want to include stealth-based opponents in the future, however, you should probably include some weaker ones at low levels. This way the players have options: save up money for the Wand of Glitterdust, or take the Perception Skill, or learn how the stealth rules actually work so you can use positioning to deny opponents the opportunity to make stealth roles in combat.
Remember that you, as the GM, want the players to counter the Jerk GM technique! They are supposed to learn how to get around it. Pathfinder is a very well designed game and there is almost always a way around it.
Step 4: Refinements
Sometimes you can accomplish the same thing much more subtly. Consider using an L-Shaped corridor to make an overpowered bow wielder much weaker, instead of wind wall. The net effect is the same: the character will need to move to a different place to use their weapon of choice. If you are tired of the PCs using optimized summoning spells to ruin your day, include rough terrain and cover so that it becomes much harder to gang up on particular targets, and use monsters that can overcome this rough terrain somehow (climb, swim, or flight are likely options).
Problem: The bow wielding PC is too powerful.
Step 1: I want to nerf ranged attacks. The spell Wind Wall is sometimes considered a “hard counter” to ranged attacks, so I will start using that.
Step 2: I’ll design an encounter at the same level as the PCs, but one of the opponents is an enemy wizard who uses windwall. Unfortunately, they’ll need to be at least lvl 6 to be able to have a wizard that can cast windwall, and some enemy minions to go along with it.
Step 3: The most obvious option for the player is to walk through the wind wall, then start using ranged weapons again. This means that the ranged hero will be unable to take a full attack action on the first turn, and will sacrifice some range advantage by moving closer to the enemy. The player can eliminate the first problem by riding a mount. They can use mobility related skills (like climb) to move to the other side, then move somewhere safe (to maintain their range advantage). The other players could also help, such as by casting dispel magic.
Step 4: L shaped corridors will force the same kind of response from a PC. The GM gets to decide the weather, so I can also include encounters in a windy environment once in a while. If part of the encounter map is shielded from the wind, it still gives the PC a way around the penalties.
Problem: The PCs defenses are too strong, including saving throws. There is no practical way to have high flat-footed ac and high touch-ac at the same time. This one will focus on a PC with poor flat-footed ac.
Step 1: I want to more consistently do damage to the PCs, without significantly increasing the peak damage they take/turn. To deny their dex bonus to AC, I will use invisible opponents.
Step 2: The first few times they encounter an opponent who can turn invisible, the invisible opponent should be in a small enough area that they can still guess what square their target would be in. So long as I just follow the normal rules for weapon damage, the PC didn’t make constitution their dump-stat, and the encounter is of an appropriate level, the invisible opponent’s attacks won’t be so strong that they kill the PC in the first turn. Even if it’s an invisible rogue.
Step 3: faerie fire, glitter dust, invisible purge, an uncannily high perception score… there are many ways around invisibility. Also, the PCs will want to keep their HP at or near maximum with healing spells. They’ll want to be defensive until they locate their target, and then everyone pounces at once.
Step 4: Stealth is a much more subtle ability than invisibility. The villains will use surprise rounds and superior initiative to get attacks while the PC is flatfooted. It is fairly reasonable for these rogue-ish types to also use the feint maneuver. I would, however, avoid taking the Improved Feint feat. Feint gives the PC a chance to run away; improved feint does not. If the PCs are playing against opponents who use stealth during combat (not just before combat to win a surprise round), they will learn to guess where the hidden opponents are, and move into position so that they have direct line of sight to their opponents. This removes the cover/concealment, and ends the stealth. This teaches them how to use their positioning for “zoning”, which will prepare them for thinking about how to position themselves to find invisible opponents without specific spells to counter the invisibility. It will also give them a fair warning to start preparing faerie fire or glitter dust, as these are good against stealthy and invisible heroes. It will also give them a hint that perception will be useful this campaign.
Note: the rules are fairly clear that being in stealth is not sufficient to gain sneak attack damage or to impose the flat-footed status. However, it is a very common house rule to change this. I have no strong opinion on this. If you choose to use such a house rule in your campaign, be sure to start using stealth opponents early in your game. It doesn’t matter if stealth is slightly stronger than it normally would be, so long as the players have an opportunity to respond to this. If the players know stealth is super-effective, then they know to be prepared to counter it. Which, in turn, makes it less effective.