Their Superior Play Almost Got My PCs Killed

I’m in a bizarre situation in my Shattered Star campaign. It’s looking like the PCs are going to die because they are too clever for their own good…


I’m a huge fan of intelligent, thoughtful play. Just wandering through a dungeon whacking things because you lack the imagination to do something cleverer is a little boring. After all, Gary Gygax had this to say about a player’s most important ability:

So, as you can imagine, I was delighted when my PCs found a secret entrance (actually they found several) into the dungeons below Windsong Abbey. The abbey had recently fallen to a combined force of giants, demons and undead and the heroes didn’t fancy slogging their way through what looked like some pretty tough fights in the upper levels. Better, I assume they thought, a surgical strike.

Bravely, they found another way in. It’s at this point things started to go wrong. The text describing the dungeon even has this note:

“Canny PCs can certainly use these openings to enter the dungeon’s lower chambers, but they may find themselves ill-prepared for the dangers within if they don’t first explore the upper levels!”

Huh? So the dungeon’s designs features an obvious—recognised—problem and then does absolutely nothing to offer a solution?

First off, I love the dungeon has multiple entrances. That’s really cool and a hallmark of good dungeon design.

I’m also fine with super-hard encounters. I’ve recently railed against balance and I have no problem with PCs running up against things they can’t kill; adventuring is difficult and dangerous, after all. There is always someone tougher than you.

However, in this instance the PCs do something clever—avoiding large parts of a dungeon—and get penalised for it because the remaining encounters are—(pretty much) unavoidable. That seems counter-intuitive. Are we really trying too train our players to kill everything in a dungeon just because they need the XP and/or the treasure? Do XP and treasure come before the storyline, plot and quest?

So the PCs have to go through this next bit of dungeon to reach the final encounter. They can’t avoid it, the creatures therein are tough and—yes, you’ve guessed it—the map is linear so the PCs have to defeat all the remaining encounters. For them, the clever manoeuvres and tactical play are over. Now it’s a long, hard slog (unless in two instances, diplomacy triumphs!)

So as far as I can see, play is going to go one of several ways:

  1. The PCs attack, do one encounter, decide they are overmatched and retreat to rest and recuperate. Repeat. (Sadly, they are on a clock at this point and so this option is somewhat off the table).
  2. The PCs attack, push through more than one encounter and someone dies. Lots of people get frustrated because the encounters seem too hard.
  3. TPK time!
  4. They achieve total victory. My worrying was for naught.


I’ve been pondering how to resolve the situation. While I don’t want to hold the players’ hands and make things easy for them, I don’t see why they should be penalised for cunning, inventive play.

  1. Give the PCs a gigantic amount of bonus XP because they bypassed the upper levels and the encounters therein. Thus, they “defeated” them.
  2. Modify the remaining encounters to be easier.
  3. Do nothing, and hope for the best.

Special Note

I wrote everything above several weeks ago, before the party started exploring the bulk of the lower level. (I couldn’t post it to my blog as several of my players read the blog). You can read the session summaries of what actually transpired here (sessions #85-92). The party was triumphant—mostly—and only one died:

My Solution

In the end, I decided on a two-pronged approach:

Modify Encounters

I elected to modify the two final encounters. Because the party is particularly large (comprising seven PCs and three NPCs) they are all a few levels shy of the adventure’s recommended levels. The final encounter is a CR 16. I estimate the party’s CR as 10 (seven 9th-level PCs). That was clearly going to be a “rather tricky” fight as it was originally a CR 16 encounter.

Bonus XP

After the fight was won I awarded the PCs a gigantic amount of bonus XP. They had—after all—bypassed much of the dungeon and their actions in the final encounter caused most of the denizens therein to flee. Thus, they had defeated the dungeon. (This also allowed us to push on with the story as opposed to the PCs going back through the dungeon room by room to kill and loot every last monster lurking therein).

What Would You Have Done?

What would you have done? Let me know, in the comments below!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

9 thoughts on “Their Superior Play Almost Got My PCs Killed”

  1. Place the bodies of a similar-to-the-PCs npc party, with items that aren’t over-powered but (e.g.) duplicate to a certain extent what they have, so “twice”: as much healing; as many scrolls; the number of wands with a few charges; etc. PLUS the npc party is spread out so the players find the bodies when they may need them. PLUS PLUS the npc party went a slightly different route to the PCs and it made a rough-and-ready map with warnings about what the PCs have yet to meet. Any use?

    1. D’Oh! I only read the first part! I didn’t see you’d played it through. A tense or subject change here and there in my suggestion is required…

  2. Yeah. I would have dialed down the difficulty of the last encounter. Or maybe inserted a special one shot weapon to help them. And maybe thrown in some healing potions to get them through.

  3. i think if my players were in that situation and had found a clever way to bypass most of the dungeon
    I would have lowered it down to a cr12 or cr 13 and if they succeeded in their final encounter then I would have done the same as you and rewarded them with massive xp

  4. I have no problem halting the game and explaining to the players that they unintentionally circumvented a portion of the adventure designed to give them what they need to succeed. Then offer them the choice to continue, or decide to return to the adventure as planned.

    This is why I never ever use a pre-made module as written. I strip it down to the skeleton and rebuild by adding the elements, story or otherwise, that I choose.

  5. I would have redrawn the lower levels to be circuitous and with multiple entrances. Linear is lame, Pathfinder is notorious for doing these things poorly.

  6. I’d have done what you did: scale down the final fights just a bit, and give them xp/story awards for the whole enchilada (and I think I did the same last year).

  7. My take would be to redesign the dungeon to avoid linearity. If you’re going to have entries to lower levels (hell yes!) then allowing the PCs to gain advantage from those is crucial. The issue is not clever play, but linear unavoidable fights.

    I’d probably avoid bonus XP, but this is me approaching from a sandbox focused, gp = xp paradigm.

  8. I applaud your solution. I was thinking the PCs should be rewarded as if they had defeated every encounter in the dungeon.

    My homebrew has similar problems to the experience system. Actually, your solve shows the experience might be ahead of this solution for this case. That said, I don’t see why any dungeon should have upper levels easier than lower ones. I know it’s a game convention, but it’s not very logical.

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