We had another D&D smackdown event last night, to serve several purposes: - to let me experiment with challenges to throw at the PCs - to let the players experiment with tactics and character improvement choices - and to have some D&D that required less commitment--less prep from me during the holiday season, less need for Lori to be there if finals were hitting her hard, and so forth.
I would call it a reasonably successful session, while acknowledging that the requirements were much lower.
My holy grail has been to find an encounter that makes the PCs decide to run away, and yet allows them to run away successfully. I did not find that holy grail with this night.
Fight 1: the party vs. five trolls. The fight ended with one troll dead, two trolls unconscious but regenerating, and two trolls captivated by Prolix's rainbow pattern. Of the PCs, Kyle got ripped apart, and everyone else was hurting but functional.
Fight 2: the party vs. one huge water elemental. This was a fight that I had considered for a recent session, but toned down because I thought it was too powerful. It was pretty darn powerful--by the time we ended it, it still had 76 hp (half of its original), but it was captivated. Unfortunately, the only resources the party had for attacking it were the greatclub and Larissa's magic missiles. I don't think Kyle died in this one.
Fight 3: The party vs. an evil twin of Larissa, with four ogres as bodyguards. On the good side, it was an exciting, thrilling combat, with lots of interesting tactics, and it seemed pretty close to the line of what the party could just handle. On the bad side, the whole party died.
The ogres are medium-nasty, with a +8 to hit and 2d6+7 damage. The problem is that if they hit at all, they do 9-19 points of damage, so it's very hard for them to whittle the party down progrssively. Twice during that combat, PCs went from positive hit points to 'dead' in a single blow.
My general feeling is that it's getting harder for me to hit the sweet spot of 'challenging, but not too deadly'. Which is a problem.
I'm pretty much an easy GM--my only reasons for threatening PCs is that the excitement can make the game more fun for everyone. But PC death makes the game a lot less fun, so I want to steer very clear of that. And these bang-your-dead monsters make that increasingly hard to do.
I'm toying with ideas of making the 'unconscious' zone wider--to -30 or so. Having people go unconscious and get healed again seems just fine to me, and doesn't wreck the disbelief of having PCs get killed.