This appears a little later than normal (the time stamp doesn't show it, but I didn't post it till 2:30 AM) because I kind of forgot about the whole blogging thing. Whoops, sorry. Honestly, I didn't have anything in mind to write for tonight. We just finished gaming and my brain has been pulling out my hair trying to find something I want to write about. Luckily, during some post game discussion with Eric I was able to settle on a topic. Challenge ratings.
Challenge ratings are used to give you an idea about what kind of challenges your player's can handle. They're based on your party's APL, average party level. You get that by adding up the levels of the PCs and dividing them by the number of PCs and rounding up or down to the nearest whole number. This calculation assumes a party of four or five members. If a group has six or more PCs, add one to the APL and if the group has three or less players, subtract one from the APL. So the APL of my current group in Orcunraytrel is seven, four 7th level PCs and Gob as a 7th level NPC attached permanently (unless they boot him from the group to get a new NPC or decide they don't want me to have an NPC, it's really up to them).
So APL is how you figure out the appropriate CR of an encounter. An easy encounter has a CR equal to the APL-1. An average encounter is one with a CR equal to the group's APL. A challenging encounter has a CR equal to the APL+1. A hard encounter has a CR equal to the APL+2. Finally, an epic encounter has a CR equal to the APL+3. There is a chart that details how many experience points should be rewarded for an encounter with a particular CR. For instance, a CR 7 encounter (which could be a trap or fight or hazard or some such) should consist of 3200 experience points worth of enemies or obstacles.
There are additional adjustments to be made to the CR of an encounter based on what you include in it. I use a lot of enemies with class levels, so I use those rules a lot. NPC classes like Adept and Warrior that I used earlier in the campaign count is having a CR equal to their class level -2. So a 4th level Warrior counts as a CR 2 creature worth 600 experience points and you can pack five of them into a CR 7 encounter and have 200 experience points left over to throw in a level 2 Warrior that counts as CR 1/2 and is worth 200 experience points. PC classes like Fighter and Gunslinger count as having a CR equal to their class level -1. So you can pack four 4th level Fighters with a CR of 3 and worth 800 experience points into that same CR 7 encounter. So the Fell Human deserter encounter in last night's (at this point) scenario with a 6th level Gunslinger leader and four 4th level Gunslinger cronies were worth 4800 experience points and were considered a CR 8 encounter. The Asosans with five 4th level Fighters and a 5th level Fighter were a 5200 experience point encounter, still much closer to CR 8 than CR 9. The giants were valued at 4800, a CR 8 encounter.
There are also some adjustments to be made to the CR of an encounter based on the environment and whether it is particularly favorable or unfavorable for an enemy engaged in it. Plus or minus one to the CR. There are also adjustments to be made based on gear. NPC classes have a much lower wealth per level value than a PC class, a 5th level Warrior or Adept for instance has 2400 gp for gear, while a 5th level Fighter or Gunslinger should have about 10500 gp worth of gear. Using NPC gear values is a neutral feature, depriving them of gear in a way that negatively impacts them offers a -1 to their CR value, while using PC wealth values offers a +1 to their CR.
So the bug up my ass is challenge ratings. The guys fought two owlbears last night, a CR 4 monster. However, I applied the advanced template to them to juice them up, which basically just improves stats and natural armor and increases a creature's CR by one. So they fought the two CR 5 owlbears in an encounter with a CR value of 7 with an experience point value of 3200. This is an average encounter, one that expends a few resources but doesn't pose the players a super serious life threat unless someone rolls bad or the enemies roll really well.
This encounter lasted one round. The one attack the owlbears managed to get off missed Jason's PC Karrak and that only happened because the owlbears had scent and smelled the guys before they launched their attack and rolled a particularly good initiative check. The problem is, I think, that the guys are a little overpowered, and have a bunch of cronies. Cary's thrall is level 6, and Eric and Jason have cohorts that are both 5th level. Lance's PC has a wolf, but he is more like a familiar than a cohort. Now, it says in the leadership feat description that your cohorts (thralls as well I assume) don't count as party members when you determine experience point allotment. I am under the assumption that this extends to figuring out APL. If we do add them into the group for APL, we end up with an APL of 6.375. Four PCs of 7th level plus an NPC of 7th level, plus two 5th level cohorts and a 6th level thrall, adds up to 51, divided by eight and it comes out to 6.375. You add one to the APL because there are more than five of them in the party and then we round down and we come all the way back around to an APL of 7.
This leads me to believe that the way I am calculating what is difficult for the group is skewed and that the number of people in the party isn't really the problem. I'm making encounters based on rules for normal core Pathfinder games. These normal rules don't factor in things like advanced firearms rules, psionics, Elduman and their ability to reduce damage with power points, and my unarmored combatant feat. The only time the guys really had a difficult time during the scenario was when they were facing the pirates. They came really close to wasting Donovan, possibly because they focused completely on ending him.
I think the reason the guys didn't just steamroll the pirates was because they were utilizing things like advanced firearms, grenades, and the unarmored combatant feat. The problem is that everything the guys are fighting right now either wears armor or has natural armor and has a fairly low Dexterity bonus to AC, which means that every bullet generally hits its target because they resolve as touch attacks. If my "bad" guys can manage to get to melee range, they can do some damage. The half-giants could have cleaved and the Asosans were using power attack in conjunction with their spears. The problem is that there are a lot of firearms in the group, I don't think anyone actually uses melee weapons. So we have a total of six players and cohorts and NPCs using guns, along with a player and his thrall using psionics. Melee opponents should steamroll the guys, that is their weakness, but melee opponents can't seem to get past the hail of bullets to come into range with them, and I already give most of them stuff like the toughness feat to aid in getting close.
I don't know what to do to provide the guys with reasonable challenges. I revel in their successes, but it isn't really a success if you just cakewalk your way through encounters. The Asosans in the toll booth seemed to be closer to the mark in terms of the sweet spot of difficulty, but they were a very varied force. They had range and melee units, along with some spellcasting support. The half-giant shaman had some success with his control spells on the guys, but that had minimal benefit when the other half-giants were getting cut down by a scything hail of bullets and psionic powers.
Don't get me wrong, Orcunraytrel is supposed to be backward and weaker than The Known World, they have no guns and still primarily use iron. But, this is a game, so as the players progress they must face more difficult challenges. So I have to scale up the difficulty, which is why after 5th level I upgraded from NPC classes to PC classes. This was something I'd always intended to do, and it didn't ultimately have much impact on the way my enemies were constructed, or combat for that matter. It just gave them more feats and abilities and the potential to hurt the players more.
I think what I'll end up doing is adding a +1 to the APL of the group to account for their heavy use of firearms and the unarmored combatant feat. I'm not doing so to punish them, I just want to have a rules structure in place to allow me to challenge them. As it is, my encounters this last scenario tended to be experience heavy but the reward didn't exactly match up with the amount of challenge they faced during the encounters. Adding to the APL of the group will end up netting them more experience, but also hopefully provide more of a challenge to make the experience point reward earned. I think I'll play around with this a bit more, maybe even run some test battles to kind of see how it goes.
There are other routes I could go to challenge them in the realm of combat, but those are things I don't think are appropriate. The country to the northeast of Asosa has limited forms of explosives, mostly because they use Alchemists the way Asosa uses Wizards, Clerics, and Paladins, but they're not scheduled to develop firearms to the point where they can use them in their military for a few years yet, and when they do they'll just be early single shot black powder weapons that can't compare to the stuff the pirates use.
The pirates have been around Orcunraytrel with their guns and explosives for something like four years now, so it is reasonable to expect that Asosa has a few captured firearms. It feels like cheating to suddenly allow the military access to them to use against the pirates though. Regardless of the rightness of it, it isn't a route I want to go. Asosa is a fairly sedentary nation, they're not prone to innovation and sudden advancement, so having them using a bunch of looted firearms to revolutionize their methods of warfare doesn't make logical sense to me.
I dunno. This is something weighing heavily on my mind. If anyone has some thought on the topic, I'd love to hear them.