Wolves Without Teeth (Understanding Elements of Balance – Defense)



Stir the coals in the fire-pit and don’t worry about getting burned too much, still a bit more to say. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is hitting maturity (read: growing up, not old) and it is time to have some honest talks about the birds, the bees… and the behemoths of balance.

For the next few days we are going to look at the ultimate field of balance in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Your Table.

Yep. It is on you kids… not the designers… not the developers… not the 3pp companies.


So let’s get into it. Today’s topic is about Defense…

Understanding Balance at the Table: Details of Defense

Good news everyone! The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game wants you to survive! Mostly. Or at least not usually die. Often.  The ancestral system was designed with a ratio of challenge of 4 encounters to 1 likely party death. At its base, the game was weighted toward the success of party as long as they didn’t push too hard.

Looking at these balancing tendencies helps a GM gain a greater grasp of their table’s specific details of balance:

  • Base Attacks – Weapon attacks tend to do less damage (Vital Strike aside) and iterative attacks grow less reliable.
  • Special Attacks  – Higher damage attacks require special circumstances (sneak attack or smite) or resource expenditure (spells slots or power points etc.).
  • Save-Based Attacks – Save-based effects tend to reliably effect characters with weak saves in that category at lower levels with diminishing reliability as level increases.
  • Armor Classes – Favor melee classes at low-level with evening curves as levels continue.
  • Save Bonuses – Save bonuses are prolific and often at the core of “unbeatable” characters and alpha-play.

Reading the Leaves: Dialing on the Defensive

Controlling gameplay at your table is going to rely on awareness of the details in your party’s defensive makeup. Watching for the following interactions is key when considering or adjusting balancing factors:

  • Class Metabalance – A heavy melee group might have unexpected vulnerability to category of save-based effects (likely Will) and may be difficult to combat physically at low levels with higher than average ACs. Even a “from the can” pherenic scourge is going to take down a large swath of fighters without some mental defensive aid.
  • Stacking Synergy – Effects that grant AC and saving throw bonuses are VERY common in the game. A little effort can align the stacking on these effects to present incredibly high combined numbers. Understanding the way these bonuses interact may be required to even out encounter balance or relative PC strength. Bracers of Armor are of little use to the fighter and paladin, but could keep that wizard alive long enough to see his first fireball.
  • Gear Escalation – Armor, cloaks of resistance and other defensive items are among the cheapest effective items in the game and it is far easier to use them to raise the defense of the party than it is keep up in terms of items of offense. PCs will become harder to hit or effect over time.

Teething the Wolf: Countering Defenses

We at Lost Spheres are NOT fans of adversarial GMing. If a GM wants to “win” they do. Period. That said if you notice defensive escalation getting hard to manage at your table you might want to consider some of the following:

  • More Medium Foes – Big, solo boss fights are epic and fun, but statistically they tend to run into bad math for a large party with good defenses. Consider larger numbers of medium challenge creatures for most climax encounters not involving your biggest of baddies. More foes means more dice means more chances are the high numbers needed to really engage you defensive players.
  • More Offensive Options – Add new options like Rogue Genius Games’ wyrd wands or something similar to increase the power of offensive effects and arm your baddies with them now and then.
  • More “Fifth Wheel” Support  – Adding de-buffers and pet masters to a mix of bad guys can really help make challenges more challenging and increase player engagement. Consider the defensive bonuses of the key “tank” players and ask yourself if your story has a place for an element that might help mitigate that. De-buffer classes like malefactor or mythic paths like Hollow One can really shift up a combat.
  • More Content – New classes and abilities might find new core balances with existing material. New spells and powers may even out the spikes in play that are challenging you while engaging your metagaming players to explore new terrain and develop new strategies. See our own Zones of Power for an example.

Never underestimate the power of the defensive game at your table, master its complexities and your will craft sessions driving your players to sweat out their next survival and keep them coming back for more.

Want more ways to engage the defensive game at your table? Check out Lost Spheres Publishing’s products on d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

This entry was posted in 3rd Party Options, Game Mastering, Lost Spheres, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Player Advice, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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