Recently there was a thread on one of the Starfinder groups I follow about how to adjust difficulty in encounters. The poster was a GM, and found their players were running roughshod over their challenges. There were a lot of good suggestions there, and I’ll break some of them down here, but first I want to address why it’s important. TTRPGs, and specifically Starfinder, are a collaborative story telling game – everyone has a good time and ‘wins’ when a compelling story is told and characters are given a chance to contribute. It is not a game of Players vs GM, which isn’t fun for anyone really. Adjusting difficulty to challenge the players can be read as entering into a conflict between the GM and Players, but that shouldn’t be the intent. The default state of most players is to want their characters to be as capable as possible, to easily answer the challenges presented to them. They want to succeed, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, while they may think that easily defeating challenges is what they want, such things rarely make for memorable gameplay. The moments where players have to come together, have to dig deep in order to stave off defeat, or even fail, are the ones that are going to create lasting memories. These are the stuff that players tell stories about for years. It can be a delicate balancing act to create those moments though, nor should every encounter be a desperate fight for survival against overwhelming odds (sometimes the players should stomp all the monsters, just not every time), but here are some ideas on how to create those moments.
CR as a guideline
Every group of players is different, and even with the same group, their characters can gel together differently from campaign to campaign. The CR system (presented on CRB page 390) is intended to give a GM a rough guideline on how to present challenges to the group, but shouldn’t be seen as written in stone. Ultimately, the GM is the arbiter of the game, and if suggested CR isn’t getting the job done, they are free to adjust things.
The Endurance Challenge
Early on in a party’s life, when they are still very low level, they should have ample time to recover between fights. This is in large part because the line between success and total party wipe is fairly thin (often only a few GM crits or bad decisions), so they should come into the next conflict with their resources refreshed and ready to bring everything to the table. Sometime around 3rd level and up you should move away from this. As they go up in level, challenges should come in succession, so that in the average adventuring day they are faced with multiple encounters. By level 7 and up, it is entirely appropriate to have a few encounters or more that come so fast the party doesn’t have a chance to take a 10 minute rest between them, or so many fights that their resolve is depleted from taking 10 minute rests after every fight. Or make time a factor, and the more they take rests between fights, the worse the possible outcomes become. When a character has full stamina and a load of resolve points they feel safe, but if they feel safe they aren’t being challenged.
Tailor Your Challenges to Their Weaknesses
This is tougher in pre-written adventures than in homebrew campaigns, but still very doable. You know what types of characters comprise your party and what their strengths and weaknesses are. You can and totally should craft encounters that prey on their weaknesses. Not everyone in the party has a way to fly? A troop of mercs who all have jetpacks attack. The party are all strong fighters, but have low will saves? Bring out the mental effect monsters. No-one in the group has been picking up area of effect attacks? Swarm time. This strategy is best when used sparingly, but they are absolutely going to remember when it happens.
Mix up the Environment
The default assumption of the rules of the game is an infinite flat plane where the characters and monsters maneuver in essentially a 2 dimensional space. That’s very easy to run, but also pretty boring for you as the GM and for them as the players. Mix it up! Maybe the fight is in a cargo area on a ship experiencing turbulence, so not only is it a 3 dimensional space with hug shelves going up toward a high ceiling, every round there is a chance for falling cargo to damage players, drastically change the battlefield, or open up new paths on higher levels that can be taken advantage of. Or a zero-G fight on a luxury space cruiser. Or a heavy-G fight in a facility slowly sinking into lava. Or a fight high in the branches of colossal trees. Or in a maze full of deadly traps There are so many ways to make the environment a dynamic and interesting part of an encounter, the only limit is your bandwidth as the GM.
Adjust On the Fly
You can’t really predict how every fight is going to go, but you can have some extra partial encounters prepared to add into an encounter when it looks like the party has things well in hand but you want to make things more interesting. Just have a few easy or average CR encounters set aside, and if one of the pre-scripted fights is looking a little boring, on round 3 the ‘extra’ encounter gets added on. If they are on a planet’s surface, an orbital drop pod lands and disgorges shock troops. Or a long running antagonist teleports in a suicide squad to finally take the party out. There are any number of ways for the new monsters to arrive, the important thing is that they spice up what was going to be a cake walk.
Notes from the Boss
Take a look at some of the options presented in last year’s Boss Battles post. Adding multiple ‘forms’ to your monsters allows you to do several encounters in one, and negates the opportunity for resolve to regain stamina. Giving creatures timed abilities like Solarians changes the nature of combat so that instead of a mutual contest of hit points vs damage, it is now a ticking clock where the party has to resolve the fight before the enemies can apply their timed ability so many times the party can’t survive. All of these can add more challenge, and more importantly, different kinds of challenge to an encounter.
Failure is Always An Option
I had some thoughts on this back in 2021, but the long and short of it is, losing a fight doesn’t mean the end of the story and it has to be a possibility for there to be stakes in the game. Don’t view the possibility of a TPK as a failure, but rather as a possible starting off point for a different story beat. After all, the Starfidner/Pathfinder setting has details on what happens after death, so you have a jump off point to build for a failure scenario. Maybe the party has to earn their way back to life, or are brought back to life against their will by the antagonists, or some as yet unintroduced third party intervenes on their behalf, but with an agenda of their own that the party now has to address. In short, defeat has to be an option, but instead of making it an end, make it a complication.
Good luck all you GMs out there. I hope these ideas help you make memorable encounters for your players! As always, if you like this or any of the other content here on Solo Run Studio I would welcome a little of your support through Ko-fi. Until next time Starfinders!
Artist and Writer