On the Action Economy and Challenge Ratings

I’ve talked about this a bit before, but my last few sessions with my group have made this relevant again – the action economy. Running Rise of the Runelords as written became difficult as my players gained levels and started pushing out huge amounts of damage every round. If you’ve been following my campaign journals (and know how Rise of the Runelords is supposed to go) you may have noticed quite a few changes, and a good number of player character deaths.

Some of the changes I’ve made to keep myself interested in the game as ‘GM-fatigue’ set in, but most of the changes have been to actually challenge the group. They were waltzing through the encounters as written, despite being a group of three for most of the campaign, and in some cases being below the recommended level. Part of this came from me as I learned how to run interesting and challenging encounters, but most of the important battles in the adventure path were written with a boss with no minions, or very few minions. Against a blaster sorcerer who also buffed up the strength-focused ranger and monk, solo baddies just don’t stand a chance.

In our last session of the year, I put the heroes up against a nasty purple worm, Well, he should have been really nasty. But he was alone, and the party – now including a sneaky ninja and the ranger’s deadly animal companion – did over 500 damage to him in 3 rounds (I bumped up his health after it became clear that the fight was going to turn out very short indeed). So, despite being of an appropriate challenge rating (the party is now level 14), the poor worm just couldn’t provide a challenge.

On the other extreme was our penultimate session of the year, when the heroes went up against the white dragon who happened to have a lair at the entrance to Runeforge. Since the sorcerer favours fire spells, I knew I had to beef up an encounter against a creature who was vulnerable to fire. So I gave him a a tribe of adlet followers. Adlets are CR 10 to start, but are also vulnerable to fire, so I gave each of them 4-5 levels of PC classes, including slayer, barbarian and shaman (I’ll post the builds for these later this week). The fight was epic, and lasted several hours of real time, with the party being forced to retreat to heal up before going back in to finish the job (‘run away’ is not really in their vocabulary). By the end of the session, they felt like they’d really earned the dragon’s hoard.

Still, that encounter was well above what would have been a ‘normal’ challenge rating for the party. It made working out appropriate amounts of treasure a bit tricky too. I’m still learning the balance between making an encounter challenging and outright deadly – sometimes there’s a pretty fine line. Needless to say, I’ll probably be beefing up most of the significant encounters for the remainder of the campaign!

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