Thoughts on High Level Pathfinder: Part I

In my ongoing Rise of the Runelords Pathfinder campaign, the party has just reached level 15. I’ve written about the challenges of designing good encounters before, but high level play seems to have compounded the existing issues. Today, I’ll discuss a couple of combat-specific issues that have come up.

Combat takes forever. Combat in Pathfinder isn’t the fastest to begin with, and it has only gotten slower as the party has leveled up. With everyone having a multitude of abilities to choose from, the decision-making process takes that little bit longer (particularly on my side if I’m running a high-level spellcaster or monster with lots of abilities I’ve not used before). This either leads to players (and the GM as well) resorting to tried and true (but sometimes boring) options like attacking the enemy head-on, or slowing down the game by needing to look up and discuss unfamiliar rules.

Sometimes we’ll come across a weird situation we’ve not encountered before, with no easy-to-find answer in the rules – this, of course, slows things down even more. As the GM, I know I have to make some kind of decision in these cases, but I often feel like I don’t have enough experience or knowledge of similar situations to be able to make a call that I’m happy with. This has improved over time, but occasionally we’ll still get bogged down in discussion.

Slow combat leads to distracted players. The longer a combat round takes, the longer everyone has to wait between turns. This naturally leads to players fiddling on their phones or tablets, or zoning out, and as such not paying attention to what’s happening in the encounter. This means they’ll take longer to react when their character is hit in combat, or their turn comes around again.

Annoying Encounters. In our most recent session, which took place in the sloth wing of Runeforge, there was a maze containing two rather strange enemies, omox demons and chernobue qlippoths. Both had a good set of defenses, having quite a few resistances, immunities, damage reduction and spell resistance, so I reckoned they would prove to be a nice challenge for the party. While I didn’t actually use them as minions, they did serve to delay the heroes and allow the boss time to set up his defences.

Unfortunately, while these monsters had good defences, their attacks were another story. After a series of bad rolls on my side, and good rolls from the players, both sets of monsters ended up doing little or no damage to the PCs at all. Instead of challenging encounters with unusual monsters, we ended up with two drawn out battles that were just irritating: preventing the ninja from using her sneak attack, and reducing the effectiveness of the sorcerer’s fireballs led to a lot of frustration.

I’m not entirely sure how to solve the combat speed issues, but I’ll definitely be considering enemies more closely for future encounters. There’s a fine line between easy, boring encounters, and deadly ones. Finding that perfect balance is an ongoing quest for a game master.

I’d love to hear about your experience, either as player or game master, of high level Pathfinder play.

Featured image by helgecbalzer on DeviantArt.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on High Level Pathfinder: Part I

  • April 21, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I do have some input for this. As a GM I’m not binding myself slavishly to the designed encounters in an AP – rather I’m interested in making for diverse stories. The dice rolls still control the outcomes, but I’m more than happy to change the encounter on the fly to get a suitable investment out of it. The omox demon got eventually handled but didn’t do much? Here’s another one.

    I believe in protracted encounters – people/monsters can move about, regroup, get reinforcements; any number of things can happen. I don’t feel compelled to push through to reach a specific number of encounters. Rather I like to give ample opportunity for characters to spend their resources. Ideally when reaching an actual climactic setpiece the party has already suffered some significant setbacks.

    A simple example, when I was GMing Jade Regent my players assaulted a nordic stronghold whose entrance (up a long rickety stairway) was defended by three or so ninjas. Ninjas are great at hiding and surprise attacks – and that is exactly what they did. Quick engages, with rapid retreats. True hit-and-run. This was particularly hard on the party barbarian – as he had plenty of rage rounds to spare, but he also couldn’t just keep raging for a minute on end without any actual action. …but if he stops raging he has several rounds of fatigue ahead of him. The fighting was so protracted that in the end they started triggering follow-up encounters while still, in part facing the prior encounters. Some of these were trivial (such as a bunch of mooks that the fighter could great cleave through) – but on the other hand the paladin became permanently blinded, and most spells got exhausted. By the end things got fairly panicky for the party – and that’s exactly where I want them.

    I *do* make provision for extreme results though, typically the first death of a PC instead becomes a significant wound that cannot easily be healed and affects them in some way (e.g. busted leg, halves movement speed, heals naturally over the course of a level or two). I also occasionally to have higher powers intervene (usually in favor, sometimes to the detriment): also in Jade Regent the party had come in to serious trouble against a foe they just couldn’t handle – who also happened to be floating beyond easy attack range off a tower. The paladin had run out of all resources except for her attacks (no lays, no smites, no spells) – but in the interest of the party she decided to hurl herself and jump at the enemy for one more attack. I then had Iomedae reward that selfless valor by allowing the paladin to level-up mid-flight (she was just a little bit short of level 7) – the level up opened up one additional smite which was enough to grant the paladin the edge she needed to actually hit the enemy as well as deal enough damage to actually slay it. As a bonus the extra hitpoints also (barely) allowed her to survive the fall.

    I’m also fond of misdirection. Here’s an example: this isn’t quite super high level, but the danger level of the fight with Xanesha in Rise of the Runelords was also rather memorable. This was the “old” version of RotRL, so not the more “balanced” Xanesha that the reprint has received. When the party finally reach Xanesha’s domicile they found the statue above them suddenly unfurl great demonic wings, before a great demon revealed itself from behind the statue. Xanesha was actually already invisible and has used a Major Image to create a dupe boss for the party to fight. Eventually she had the image “cast” a “summon” spell to appear herself in combat as a “summon” of the demon. By the time the party had fully caught on to the ruse they had invested a significant amount of resources and some party members had fallen unconscious.

    • April 22, 2015 at 12:47 pm

      I try to modify the AP encounters when I have the time; I’m almost always disappointed when I run them as written. Thanks for sharing all these lovely ideas! I particularly like the hit-and-run ninjas.

  • August 1, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    If you want to keep your players from getting bored during combat, and speed up combat in general, encourage your pcs to figure out what they’re gonna do while they’re waiting for initiative to pass back onto them.


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