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Dealing with powerful PCs

I have been running a weekly Conan game for almost a year now and everything is still going really well however at this point my players are becoming too strong. Especially the fully armored knight that has been buying into the Resistance talent tree. What can I do to make combat be more challenging for my players again? I try to include more enemies with armor piercing weapons etc but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

There are two ways to solve this problem:

  1. If their equipment is the problem, remove it by getting them in situations where they have to give them up.
  2. If their skills and talents are the problem, aks your players if they could agree to retire these characters and to start a new campaign with new characters (who could be the children of the original characters). The best way to do this would be a grand finale with really tough advesaries and a high chance that some of the PCs would not survive.

Take a look at this thread:

Make them deal with situations where fighting doesn’t achieve their goals.

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I already did the first and it helped somewhat but not to the degree I wanted honestly. They still massacred their ways through. Also I can’t do the second till this campaign is over as it has a definite ending that I’m planning. Thanks for responding though.

Thanks I’ll check it out.

Generally they try to talk their way out of situations then lol but I’ll try to think of something then thanks for responding.

For combat, I would suggest using a nemesis or toughened character along with 3 minions to form a mob. Give the boss a reach weapon which will increase difficulties of attacks against them by one success unless the PC also has reach.

Bossonian longbowmen also arranged as mobs. This allows you to build doom for armor piercing attacks

Third, do not forget about mental damage. Unless that PC has also boosted his mental soak with the courage feat and a lot of discipline focus, mental damge attacks can wear down the most physical opponents. Many creatures have fear ratings that can do damage before combat begins.

I’ll try not to repeat too many things we already discussed in the thread that FrankF linked.
But at the start of any measures you want to take, have a talk with your players. At its heart, Conan is a game of almost superheroic PCs mowing down hordes of NPCs. This is reflected in the almost laughable stat differences between even starting PCs and (supposedly) experienced NPCs, like the knight, for example.
A typical combat-optimized PC will have no problem kiling the knight in a toughened version and take maybe a round longer to kill the knight in a nemesis version.
So be very sure, before you set out to “challenge” your players that that is what they really want.
Why?
There is very little middle ground between “challening” and “killing” PCs in Conan. The combat system as is penalizes Wounds to an insane degree, to the point where in my games, we usually call it after suffering two wounds… there is almost nothing you can do after that that effects combat in any way (unless you spend a fortune point to ignore the wound penalties).
That said, if your players agree to be challenged, look at where the problem lies.
Do you as GM not have enough Doom? Talk to your players to make them spend more. It worked in our group, it can work in yours as well.
If you have enough doom, are you spending it wisely? I usually use it to increase difficulties, to make shield straps break, to bend weapons and to inflict just enough damage to slip over the wound threshold.
If you have enough doom and spend it wisely, then your NPCs suck. As stated above, that is usually a flaw inherent in the game. You can make your enemies better on the fly with the resources I provided in the thread frank mentioned. Also, don’t be afraid to come up with cool doom spends for your NPCs as well as special abilities for them. Remember, NPCs are not bound by talent progression as PCs are, you can basically give them any and all talents you like. This is very much killer.
However, the very real danger here is that the PCs will no longer feel special, since they are not really any better that their opposition and they will have to scrape by on the skin of their teeth. This can change the tone of the game immensely from (super)heroic fantasy to almost grimdark, depending on how common “challenging” NPCs are. So if you want to “ramp it up”, I suggest you go slow at first and see where the changes lead you. It is very important to do this together with your players so that they don’t lose enjoyment of the game.

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Good piece of advice

Okay so this has been the only thing holding me back from committing to buying the game. I did buy the core pdf today but stopped there.

There is a ton of awesome content in Hyborea, and Mophidius looks to have taken great care to honor it, but you miss most of it if you start off at hero level because you blast through all the Lovecraftian horror being too heroic.

I watched a YT play through in which the DM did a beautiful job describing the croc in PoK as this ancient monster who was as old as long-dead civilizations and was nearly as big as the boat the PCs came in on. Then the PCs one-shotted it.

I lost interest after that. I feel like PCs should start off not OP and work their way up so they can enjoy the tension of fear.

Same old debate I guess but I’m wondering if that level of power is (a) what appeals to players who want to play in Hyborea and if not (b) if the level of power is just too hard-wired into the game to change it.

That is one part of the attraction. For once not having to play a level 1 dishwasher apprentice with aspirations to become a level 20 grandmaster of dishwashing eventually is definitely a plus. In Conan you start with competent character who feel like competent heroes in their own right - not pushovers, weaklings, cannon fodder, that other games let you start with.

The problem is more, where do you go from here?

Starting out quite competent, then what? - Becoming vastly more powerful? And then what?
The question is, what are the stakes for advanced, experienced PCs? What is the “endgame” for such characters?

It is quite “hard-wired” into the game. Even if you start out the PCs using the Shadows of the Past option where they get lesser Attribute points, lesser Skill values, etc., they still are superior to Minion NPCs (as they should) and to most Toughened NPCs (which depends, as causing 2 wounds in one hit is quite often possible, even for a not so maxed-out combat monster PC).
This problem has not a good solution I know of, as due to the cinematic, heroic asymmetry between NPCs and PCs is part of the whole genre.

If you want PCs to be more hesitant, cautious, easily hurt or wounded, then that is no longer Sword&Sorcery fantasy like the sources, the Conan or Kull stories. - And there are a lot of Fantasy RPGs out there, that offer this kind of fragility already, even the majority does this - at least for low-level characters.

Many of the Talents are in their effect VERY powerful, often too powerful for the casually prepared GM. If you have a somewhat experienced PC group, you need to bring your A-game to the table to challenge them. And that takes a bit of experience, while the actual stats of the listed NPCs in the core and the source books don’t support that in general. Most stats, so my impression, are geared towards opposition of a starting, newly created group of PCs. But what about Conan PCs with a few thousand XP under their belt? And what about a group of 6 players with 6 PCs with 5000+ XP?

Conan 2d20 makes it not easy, but quite hard to challenge such a group. - And such a group size and group experience is rather straightforward to challenge, if you are playing D&D-like games. For D&D, PF, etc. you find well-suited challenges for groups of mid to high XP levels in a lot of products, official supplements and in the monster manuals and other creature catalogues.
Conan 2d20 is not that helpful in this regard.

Maybe the assumption is, you play a few scenarios, gain a thousand or two thousand XP and then start a new group for a new campaign, as the old one is already hard to handle?
I mean, having run my campaigns with PCs of 8000 or 12000 XP, those are like superheroes, not heroic scale, actual superhero scale. A decent melee fighter build is a one-man slaughterhouse. Similar a decent face-man build, who can threaten most NPCs to become insane with only a few words. Or a decent stealth build, who can one-hit kill many NPCs without giving them a fighting chance.

Those characters are like the masterful protagonist characters of Sword&Sorcery literature. But it is quite hard to challenge them in the roleplaying game.

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Much appreciated @FrankF it’s obvious you have a lot of experience. There are some mechanics that jump out to me that seem to tilt the deck toward the PCS, such as heroes get initiative unless the DM spends doom. Presuming your players agree, is this the kind of mechanic you can change or does tinkering with that sort of thing break other mechanics?

That is already changed in most of the later 2d20 games to no ill effect, actually I really like the alternating between PC side and NPC side in the initiative rules from STA onward.

Another thing to consider: the cost of additional dice was changed in later 2d20 games, too. Instead of paying 1 Doom for the first, 1 Doom for the second and 1 Doom for the third die, newer games have 1 Threat for the first, 2 Threat for the second and 3 Threat for the third die.
That makes the decision to drop more dice on a roll a bit harder - but it works for NPCs, too, as the GM has to pay the raised costs out of the Doom/Threat pool, too.

Another thing to consider would be, that Bonus Momentum (which is often generated in no small amounts by some Talents) cannot be stored in the Group Momentum pool. You have to spend it right away, or it is gone. That keeps the Group Momentum pool from being full all the time.

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Man! Can’t thank you enough. I’ll give it a spin and let you know how it goes.

How many PCs are in the group?

Personally I think the genre works best with two at most, since that reflects sword & sorcery tales in a way that D&D-isms like large adventuring parties do not. Most sword & sorcery heroes go it alone. Having too many PCs could be part of the problem. Four or five Conans teaming up against Xaltotun wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic or exciting.

Conan runs well with 2 PCs, my usual group size is 4 PCs, as they offer a good mix of skills and have some PC to PC interactions that make things interesting.

But larger groups are quite a problem with Conan 2d20, as the PCs are VERY competent and especially in the “classical” case of having a single powerful enemy as opposition, this enemy will last not even the first round of combat, even if it is a Nemesis type NPC, even if you spend Doom to interrupt initiative to act before the PCs, a single Nemesis NPC is “doomed” to die in the first round (not considering bad dice luck on the players’ part).

A group of 5 or 6 PC is manageable in D&D-like games as those are focussed on the typical Fantasy SWAT team and as those games offer much more support to the GM to “tailor” the challenges to the number and experience of the PCs.
Conan does - as is my impression - present NPC stats mainly for newly created characters in not too large numbers of PCs. The GM has to put quite a bit of work into scenario setup, to make it challenging for PCs with a few thousand XP and even more so with groups larger than 4 PCs.

The action economy is a problem with larger groups, as per default ALL PCs act before the NPCs, so your opposition as the GM has to survive all the actions and swift actions by all of the PCs before even the first NPC could act. This usually leads to outright slaughter of great numbers of NPCs before any PC might even be forced to defend against an NPC attack.

In later 2d20 games this was remedied by the alternating initiative like in STA, A!C, etc. That solves the problem a bit (though at the competency level of Conan characters having two PCs act first - one for the 2 Momentum spend to keep the initiative - is still a meat grinder for NPCs).

As GM you have to spend the usually not that plentiful resource of Doom to let some NPCs act before or in between the PCs, which depletes this resource quite quickly if you have 5 or 6 players in a group.

In general, I can recommend looking for about 3 players, maybe 4, if you have more players interested, split the group and run two separate campaigns for them. That makes your GM’s life much easier.

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It doesn’t have a perfect solution which is definitely due to the game system. As I already said above, it depends on what the players want from the campaign.
Conan is at it’s heart, not really a combat simulation the way D&D is, but more a story-telling system. In this case, the genre is Sword&Sorcery, where a high level of competence is expected of the characters. For example, when has REH ever descsribed Conan as being seriously in danger during a fight scene? He usually has no problem at all taking down even inhuman monsters.
The problem then is not so much the game, but more the mindset of the players (and the GM). Want to tell a story, and actually have not as much “rolled” combat, and mostly “narrated” combat, bolstered by a few dice rolls to make it cool, then play Conan. Want a step-by-step combat simulation with extended feats of math? Play Harnmaster. Want superheroics cloaked in a combat simulation? Play D&D.
That said, there are ways to challenge even highly experienced Conan characters. But you cannot use most of the NPCs provided by the game for that. And also not go the convenient route.
For example, consider 10 minion archers firing at you combat PC while he is fighting a toughened opponent and his squad.
IUsually you’d group thise archers into squads. Now the PC has to make three defense rolls, for which he pays three doom in all. No problem.
However, if the archers are not grouped into squads and attack first, about half of them will hit. If they fire before the melee squad attacks, the PC will have to spend 10 doom to defend against them all or take damage - minor damage, mostly, but in Conan I wouldn’t want to take the chance. Also, I houseruled that minions also roll 2d20 as baseline for their tests, which makes alot of diefference… meaning in this case that all of them have a good chance of hitting.
After that, the squad attacks, and the mere reaction against that attack costs another 5 (or 10) doom.
Now, the pitiful NPCs usually have no real chance of getting a good hit in. So you need to bolster their attribute and skill values and put a few combat talents on them. I have homebrewed a shortcut for my games which has served me well till now.
And for the really big monsters, that should have a chance to be a threat without support, I have homebrewed abilities like
Titanic: this creature is so large (or tough) that simple strikes from weapons short of siege engines are mere needle pricks. Divide all damage after soak by five and round down before applying to the vigor of this creature.
I have seen a very confident combat monster PC turn tail and run after I explained that houserule to him, when he nonchalantly attacked the tentacle of the “sewer kraken”.
The question is, how often should you use houserules like that. I am a big opponent of using fights that really serve no purpose (like in D&D where fights exist merely to deplete resources). A fight should either have meaning, be a very cool action scene or be challenging. The rest of them can be narrated, which takes up a lot less time.
Also, in Conan, you should usually have at least one way an encounter can be solved that does not employ violence… I sometimes find it much more satisfying to go around a combat encounter than slaughter a lot of people. Depending on the game, of course… fireballing orc camps is still a great way to pass the time.

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That is a major change - you eliminate the Minion type that way.
For my Lankhmar games using the Conan 2d20 rules I had all the NPCs be of the Toughened type, unless they are some justifiable swarm-like creatures or so to be cut down by the score.

For a Conan game, though, doing away with the Minion type that only is dangerous in numbers as they only roll 1d20 I cannot recommend. There are a lot of creatures, monsters etc. that should be used as Minion NPCs, as making them Toughened - or giving them 2d20 on their tests while keeping them at 1 wound threshold - would essentially double their power.

Well, not quite. They still usually fall with one hit, but as you say, their threat range is doubled. Minions that

  • have no chance of gaining the initiative (b/c noone would spend doom on minions),
  • usually can be ignored because they only have a bout a 50% or less chance of actually reaching the TN to hit and
  • are not allowed to defend
  • fall like flies when grouped as a mob
    just aren’t doing it for me, even for a heroic game like Conan.
    In my opinion, I needed to remove at least one of those points (I ended up also removing the no-defense-rule). The effect is that my players still mow through them with ease (because minion stats are abysmal and they stand no chance against a PC even with those changes), but I can use them in combat.
    Going by RAW, they might as well not be there unless as a depletable bonus for a Toughened creature. I think that such a situation is better handel in a pure storytelling manner… as soon as the dice come out, there needs to be a little risk for the PCs. And the standard minion presents no risk at all, in my opinion (unless to a thoroughly non-combat character), unless they come in absurd numbers, which I usually have trouble justifying even to myself.