Importance of Challenge
Even the most laid-back groups are going to contend with tough encounters sooner or later in Pathfinder 2e. The rotation of moderate, low, and severe combats, with a pinch of trivial and extreme encounters, is incredibly important to the feel of a game. Encountering an Ogre might make you poop your pants at level 1, but at level 6? The Ogre does the pooping because you can take on more than one of them fairly easily.
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Pathfinder 2e is also designed to be a smart game. You don’t need to be a tactical genius, but doing well does require some degree of focus. When it comes to monsters higher level than you, it’s mandatory.
The thing is, while success in any encounter is never guaranteed, the basic principles below will always boost your chances. They actually have nothing to do with individual character abilities. It’s a mindset. There are a few rules to follow and they bleed into each other.
Math, Action Economy, and Teamwork. I’ll break it down as simply as I can.
Action Economy in 2E
In most systems “boss” monsters are underwhelming. In my years of running games under other games, I had to always give a boss monster minions. Even if it didn’t really make sense for the fight, otherwise the party would mop the floor with them. The reason for that is the action economy. The players had more actions than the boss and could overwhelm them.
Now the player’s action advantage is still true in Pathfinder 2e, and it’s one of your strongest weapons against a powerful creature. But Pathfinder 2e balanced this aspect in a different way. That’s what makes those combats equally exciting and frightening.
You can never, under any circumstance out damage a monster that is a few levels higher than you. I don’t care if you have four barbarians taking turns swinging at it. You will lose that trade nearly every time. This is because a monster that is higher level than your party has a large mathematical advantage, and while you can argue with me, you can’t argue with math.
A higher-level creature is mathematically superior to you in nearly every statistic. That’s the balancing factor a single monster has that allows it to contend with four player characters. It means that while each Barbarian is swinging at the beast, they are missing frequently due to its high AC.
When the monster strikes back, it’s not only likely to hit any one of them due to its high attack, it has a high chance of critting them thanks to the 10 over 10 under the system. Meanwhile, the attacks the players do manage to land almost never crit.
Not only that, while a third attack action from a player is almost always going to be a bad move. A high-level monster has the potential to actually land it. So while the barbarian mosh pit is only landing a fraction of their attacks, the monster is putting one of them down every round. With each fallen friend, the player’s action economy advantage shrinks.
If the GM doesn’t fudge in your favor, this is where you will likely have a player character death, or worse, a total party wipe. If the GM fudges, that removes the stakes. Stakes are important to enjoyment, that’s probably why my vegan girlfriend is always angry…
The only way you can win a stand-up blow-to-blow fight with a monster that’s stronger than you is pure luck. The GM rolls really bad, and your group has a night at the casino.
That does happen on occasion. But if that’s how you win, you might as well dump whiteout all over your character sheet and just flip a coin the next time you see a dragon. Heads you all die horribly, tails you pull a Deus Ex Machina Black Arrow, and Smaug the dragon with it. Somewhat amusing if a Bard is in your party, but otherwise it’s an anti-climactic end to a long build-up.
How to use your Action Advantage in 2e
The more reliable way to win, is by using your action advantage to take away, or at least soften the monster’s mathematical advantage. Each character has three actions, a party of four has twelve actions between them. The monster has three. Sure, you can’t just face-check it because each of its actions carries murder and death, but you still have an edge.
To make it simple, every single action the monster has is worth three of yours. If you can waste a single one of the monster’s actions with ONE or even TWO of your own. That’s a massive win, even if you don’t deal any damage. This could be every bit as simple as just getting out of its reach so that it has to burn an action to get to you. The monster taking an action to move is one less action it can use to hurt you.
A lot of systems have trained players that anything that isn’t dealing the most damage possible is a waste. It’s probably why so many players insist on swinging with a -10 on a third attack that will only land on a natural 20.
“Damage wins all” is simply not true in Pathfinder 2e. That’s because making as many attacks as possible doesn’t guarantee damage happens at all, even in moderate encounters. But especially in severe or extreme ones.
In tandem with using your action economy advantage, you also need to do what a lot of players call buffing and de-buffing. I don’t use those terms, they paint a picture of those super boring support classes in MMOs that no one ever wants to play. I call it teamwork instead because it’s more accurate.
Pathfinder 2e is a cooperative game. Your character is part of a team, there is never a time where you are going succeed in an encounter on your own, even in moderate ones. If that’s what you are looking for, you want Skyrim, not Pathfinder
The monster’s numbers are higher than yours, you need to raise yours or lower the monsters. That way your group can deal that sweet damage everyone’s craving. You all have to work together to set up openings for each other to make it happen.
Sure, you are technically buffing and de-buffing numbers, yet no one ever says that someone is buffing Lebron James by passing him the ball right before he slam dunks it. It’s close enough to the same thing, just with less math, or a different kind of math at least.
It also doesn’t mean that you can only ever “pass the ball”. But maybe instead of making three attacks and whiffing two of them, the barbarian attacks once. Then they use Demoralize, and then get the hell away from the monster, so it has to chase them.
Teamwork Tools in 2E
You have numerous tools that you can use from tripping, grabbing, and disarming, to tons of different spells. The Aid Action alone is almost never used but can go a long way toward setting up moments that can alter the battle in your favor.
It’s also about attempting to tilt the odds in your favor in the first place instead of just throwing spells like dirty laundry until a questionably crusty sock sticks. Figure out what the lowest defense of a monster is, through knowledge checks or other means. Heck, you can really just use common sense at times too, and it’s not even metagaming.
That big bulky Ogre is probably tough, Fortitude saves won’t even make it sneeze. That really nimble assassin probably has good reflexes, maybe hold back on the lightning bolt for once. That is, unless you use teamwork to potentially lower it so you can bring the thunder. Those are reasonable assumptions that nearly any character smart enough to point a sword or wand the right way could make.
Putting it Together
Making an effort to understand those principles will have a massive impact on your success. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be either. When it comes to the math, the important thing is to realize, is that the monster is stronger than you. The important aspect of the action economy, is your party has four times the actions a single monster does, if you have the opportunity to trade one or two of yours for one of its, make the trade.
Understanding teamwork doesn’t mean you have to be the Avengers. It means understanding that helping others, also helps you, because it snowballs. Helping one player land a good spell or action can lead to another effect that allows another player to land something big and repeat. It can give your entire party momentum to deal more damage, inflict potent conditions and take less damage. Including you.
One example I can give was a couple of months ago my group and I had a session zero where they made new characters for a Pathfinder campaign. We had some time left over. So I threw together a simple on-the-spot combat just to let them test their characters. The fight wasn’t canon, it was just for fun, so I threw something mean at them.
It was a creature that likes to charge at things, and that’s how I ran it. It would charge in for a ton of damage, put distance between the party with its superior speed and do it again. The fight could have very easily been a slaughter.
But my barbarian player readied a trip action instead of butting heads with it. When the thing charged and entered his reach, he tripped it. The charge was two actions, now it was prone and had to stand up. Its whole turn was instantly invalidated. Sure, he could have failed the trip, but if he had opted to attack instead, he could have failed it just as easily with far less potential gain.
So my players had a free round to lay into it. When the monster’s turn came around again, I decided it would take a swipe at the barbarian and then put that distance between them again to charge. But oh no, the Barbarian also had the No Escape feat. Which meant as a reaction he kept pace with the monster for part of its move.
A single trip action, not only burned the monster’s entire first round but allowed the barbarian to break the individual’s creature’s playstyle and strengths. He forced it to fight on his terms instead. To be completely honest, the rest of the players did terribly. They blew their load of spells with reckless abandon and whiffed attacks constantly, yet it still ended up pretty trivial.
I don’t think my barbarian player did it with any knowledge of “action economy” or “debuffing”. It was just the simple realization that running up to the monster and hitting it, might not smartest course of action and he was right.
Every party, character build, monster, encounter, and even environment is different. So how you apply these principles will always vary. But as long as your party actively tries to utilize your action advantage and teamwork to actually land those strong attacks and fancy spells, you’re going to do far better.
The most important thing to take away from this is that you can never out damage the monster head-on, math has no sympathy and it will not pull any punches. A GM fudging is not mercy from the numbers, it’s just someone clumsily attempting to hold back a giant kickboxer named Arithmetic so they don’t have to clean your blood from the ring. If you can’t find a way to beat it without doing that, running away is a very underutilized strategy that could prevent a lot of character deaths in Pathfinder.
RIP Mi Feng, She died for a canoe….
You might also enjoy my piece Pathfinder 2e’s Excessive Rules Make It Simple.