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Monday, September 8, 2014

How Balanced Should Encounters Be?

4e had a fairly precise formula on how to properly balance and design encounters. 0e had none. I suspect 5e will have some, but we won't see exactly what it is before the new DMG releases.

With all that being said, how important are balanced encounters? Is it more important to have balanced encounters with new players that are just getting their sea legs than for experienced gamers?

Does edition have much to do with balanced encounters? Would 4e break if adventure writers strayed from the formula?

If you favor unbalanced encounters, is the overall adventure balanced? This would be my preferred method of play FYI.

Do you as a DM / GM give hints to your players that they might be in over their heads?

Just a few not so random Monday morning questions...

41 comments:

  1. balance is for cry-babies of modern rpg:s where no one dies and the sky is blue and the clouds are cotton candy!

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  2. Worldbuilding is the only important consideration, in my opinion. That said, if the worldbuilding is not fun, then it is a waste of time.

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  3. No need to balance encounters, because a table-top RPG is not a console RPG. Encountering a monster is not entering the "fight mode," and the players have opportunities to size up their foes (usually), and also to disengage. Yes, they should have clues that a fight may be too much for them. Whether they pick up on or heed the clues is up to them.

    I do tend to "balance" adventures over-all, but it's not something I do with rigorous formulas. More seat of the pants "balancing."

    In my limited 5E experience, PCs are pretty hardy, and can handle getting roughed up a bit in a tough fight, and bounce back quickly. So no need for 3E or 4E style strict encounter level planning.

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  4. When first using a new system the idea of being able to gague the difficulty of an encounter is helpful. Balancing the encounters for the players not as much as making sure that the encounter is as appropriately difficult as you like. For example in the HackMaster (HM5e) game we play one of the first skeleton encounters I threw at the party was supposed to be tough but not disasterous for a 1st level party. Of course I dind't follow the guidelines and it was nearly a TPK. As everyone got more familiar with the game (including me) I was able to build encounters that better for the players and their style (ignoring encounter construction guidelines) but early on they were damn handy... I expect 5e to be the same - a good gauge of generally what you might way, but as soon as GM and players know the game they will become less relevant.

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  5. Encounters should be whatever make sense. But with the caveat it is nice to know that the squad of incompetents are incompetent and the Overlord elite hit squad is an elite hit squad.

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  6. Not every encounter should be a fight. Players (and npcs/monsters) should know when to run right out of the gate.

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  7. I think a lot of people use tha balancing mechanics in 3.x and 4 (and probably 5 when they drop in the DMG) wrong. IMO, they are not there to say "Well the party is X Level, so I need a CR X encounter." That's a simple way to use it, but not what I think the intention ever was. I think the intention was more like "I, the DM, want to throw this specific encounter against the players. Maybe I should check the CR against the party level and see how much this is going to strech their resources."

    CR basically just means (in previous editions): "If your party is Level X and they fight CR X, on average, they should use about a quarter of their resources on the fight."

    You are supposed to have fights that stretch the party; they should be able to get into trouble if they bite off more than they can chew. But, too many people used CR as a crutch. All 'level appropriate encounters' all the time. And that's just boring.

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    1. I don't think it helped that almost every one of the free adventure downloads from WotC was basically a string of 3-4 level appropriate encounters, followed by a final fight that's 1-2 EL above. Gave people the impression that's how it was supposed to be done.

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    2. Not sure when they started doing those, but I know some earlier adventures had a wider range of encounter levels. Then the fanbase bitched

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  8. I've always tended towards running encounters that were approximate to my players' skills and character abilities in the past. But I agree with the sentiment of no balance and letting player choices drive what encounters they stick around and fight.

    It really all comes down to making sure players have access to knowledge and can make meaningful choices. This is something I am still working on and getting better at, thanks to blogs like this that make me think about these things.

    When it comes down to it, I'd say it is much more important to have a balance between DM and player expectations and a good amount of player agency than to have numerical balance on paper.

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  9. I think it's a good idea to have some measure of "if there's a 'fair' fight [1], the odds are in favor of [the PCs/the foes], and the initial exchange might have [whatever] outcome."

    Beyond that, if the party of inexperienced adventurers want to go mano-a-mano with the 300' tall beast that breathes fire and they have a fair chance to disengage and don't . . . well, adventurers are crunchy and good with ketchup.

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  10. All encounters are balanced, even the unbalanced ones.

    1st level characters run into an ancient red dragon? There is always a way out...the balance is in the escape clause written in, not in whether or not the monster can be killed.

    1st level characters run unexpectedly into an ancient red dragon with no way to escape? Now the DM is just being a jerk hiding behind the "but the world is so REAL!!!"

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    1. I've always been a fan of the idea that characters who get their asses kicked by a superior enemy, and manage to survive and get away, now have a new goal.

      "One of these days...when we're stronger, have better weapons and more men...we are going to come back here...and then that bastard is GOING DOWN! By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, we shall be avenged!" ;)

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  11. Three problems I have with XP budgets to build encounters:

    1) They're usually presented as suggestions or guidelines to help GM's, but quickly become gospel law. GM's come to use them as a 'crutch' (as gardeian put it), and players come to see it as rules carved in stone (after all, it's in the book).

    2) For me, mathematically precise encounter building, designed to provide some level of challenge and yet guarantee victory for the PCs, sucks the joy, soul and mystery out of RPGs and world building. The outcome is already known before the first d20 is rolled.

    3) Using XP budgets fosters the impression in players that every encounter is winnable. Therefore, the party will charge into every fight, because they know they'll win...the XP budget rules say so!

    To be fair, OD&D and 3E/4E/PF have very different expectations. OD&D rewards exploration and finding treasure; later versions rewards combat and killing monsters.

    -Ed

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  12. No, no, no, no... Everyone here is wrong. ;)

    Seriously though... Here's the thing.

    How deadly a game is should be through mutual agreement by all players at the table, GM included. That doesn't mean everything should be all unicorns and rainbows, BUT some of us have kids, wives, other obligations and we get only a very few, very precious hours for gaming.

    This mean that if I'm not interested in playing a grind-house campaign, I discuss this with the players and GM and we *ALL* agree together whether anything goes, or whether level-appropriate encounters are the preference.

    That does not mean that it will *always* be balanced, but it does mean that it will not always be ultra-deadly, UNLESS we all agree that we want a "hard mode" campaign and everyone at the table is on board.

    Life is too short, and gaming hours are too constrained. Role-playing games are a social contract at the table among a group of players looking to have * FUN *.

    That is the key. If the GM is grinding the players to a pulp every week and people aren't having FUN, you are doing it wrong. Player should have some say in the execution of their fun as much as the GM does.

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    1. The players can decide the deadliness of the game through their character's actions. Do they go fight giant rats in the cellar or travel across the wastes to the Dungeon of Doom?

      The only time you need to decide this by social contract is if the GM doesn't allow the players to choose what adventures they go on.

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    2. I strongly disagree. How would one know that R1 - Rats in the Cellar doesn't have a malevolent Wererat Lich hidden beneath the city streets?

      As a player, I shouldn't expect to find Tomb of Horrors beneath some peasant's hovel, but there's nothing preventing the GM from doing just that if there hasn't been some discussion of "No, I'm not out to screw you" at the table.

      Even if the GM isn't out to screw with the players, there still could be some very different play style assumptions made at the table. The GM may be playing low-down-gritty deadly combat and the players are expecting swashbuckling high fantasy. This is a problem if no one has talked about it at the beginning of the campaign.

      If we're playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, we expect to make 4 disposable character to see who survives the grist mill to become the "true" PC. That same assumption is not there in D&D or other games.

      I cannot emphasize how important it is that a discussion of play style occur at the table before the campaign starts.

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    3. "I have a wife and kids - please don't kill my D&D character" might be the saddest thing I've read all week.

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    4. That's not at all what I said, and you know it.

      There's a different between playing a DCC game, Paranoia, D&D, etc.

      I"m not looking to play Tomb of Horrors every week. That is not fun. I'm not looking to play a nega-dungeon. That is not fun.

      Perhaps my idea of fun is different from yours, and that's fine, but I have no desire to play at your table if you are not willing to consider what your players want out of a game. That seems awfully self-centered.

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    5. I would even go further and say the worst GMs out there are one who do not listen to their player's desired play style.

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    6. I'd agree that GM's that don't listen to their players are pretty bad.

      But then, no set of rules will protect you from a jerk GM, not even ones that used perfectly balanced point-buy encounters.

      If your GM is a dick, you don't need a different set of rules...you need a different GM. :)

      -Ed

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    7. "That seems awfully self-centered."

      You're the one using your personal, out of game affairs as an excuse not to take your lumps like everyone else. I call that poor sportsmanship.

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    8. Here's the thing. In the games I've run I honestly never ever consulted my players beforehand on what "style" of game I was going to run or did any sort of "what do you want me to do to make you happy?" survey. I ran what I thought made a good adventure. Never specifically made any plan to "balance" encounters, but I do admit I fudged a few rolls in the players favor on some occasions (without their knowledge of course) when it seemed like the "right thing" in context of the whole adventure and circumstances. So that is probably the closest thing a "balancing" I've ever done. But all in all, I don't see it is my job as GM to build an adventure to suit. I'm not a dancing monkey. If you make a suggestion, I may use it or I may totally ignore it if it doesn't fit what I'm running. If you like the way I run my games, you'll keep playing in them. If you don't, you won't and I am more than fine with that. In this it's very much like authors of fiction novels. Some people will like certain types of stories others will hate them. My goal is not to be an author that tries to write his stories to cater the maximum possible audience. My goal is to create the stories that I like and that I think are enjoyable and find the audience that enjoys my tales.

      Now you can say that makes me a "bad" or "worst GM" by your definition. But all I know is in my gaming group of many years I was asked to be the GM in 80% of the games we played. So my little corner of the Universe is happy and thats all that matters. :)

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    9. Mad Builder: I was just coming here to respond with the authorial argument, and you beat me to it. Are you proud of yourself?

      (Hint: thanks for saying it so I don't have to.)

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    10. faoladh: Hah! Clearly the Universe demanded so strongly that this particular point be made that it compelled us both to make it. ;)

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  13. "0e had none."

    Not entirely true. There was the concept of monster levels, and random encounters were weighted towards deadlier foes the deeper one delved. Larger parties also tend to attract more monsters. That's the kind of balance we need, none of that crap where the party fights exactly four encounters, each a solo monster, that all have the same Challenge Rating (really, if you're going that route, it should be based on Encounter Levels anyway)

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    1. The original concept of balance was one where the encounters were balanced to the game world, not the PCs. There were easy areas and more dangerous areas and the players decided which ones to go to (usually by deciding how far down the dungeon they went).

      However, OD&D does suggest (Vol 2 pg 4) to adjust the number of monsters according to the size and level of the party, which IMO, isn't significantly different than using CR.

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    2. I think it's probably more of just a difference between good advice ("Don't be ridiculous, Don't drop a thee person 1st level party into a cave with a dozen 12th level adversaries and expect them to prevail") and a a defined mechanic or formula that should / must be followed.

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    3. "The original concept of balance was one where the encounters were balanced to the game world, not the PCs."

      One can still see this view of balance expressed up through 3e, and it's always been my preference. I'd probably ignore that advice from Monsters & Treasure and base it off of terrain/level of civilization instead

      Mad Builder, parties don't get dropped anywhere. They choose where they do their spelunking. All the ref needs is to provide them with enough info to make an informed decision, and acquiring that information may be an adventure in its own right

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  14. I'm not a fan of mechanistic encounter-building. With 4e I tend to take an 'all the minis' approach - I use all the appropriate minis I have as creatively as possible. This tends to create reasonably 'balanced' encounters when I retrospectively calculate the XP award.
    Conversely it is worth knowing roughly how powerful a monster is relative to the PCs, eh whether it is a lot more or less powerful than a PC. Then I'm not surprised if the PCs steamroller the critters, or get steamrollered.

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    1. I do fairly often run under-level and over-level encounters & such, partly dependent on what the 4e PCs decide to do. But if my 21st level PC group decides to go attack the 1st level goblin tribe, I'm not going to waste 3 hours running that as a regular combat. We did that sort of beatdown once for a bar-room brawl, and it clearly doesn't work in 4e.

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    2. "All the minis" - https://scontent-a-lhr.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xaf1/t1.0-9/10178040_10204166659755561_1984933690996657636_n.jpg :-)

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  15. Very loose balance is okay re 1st level of dungeon is likely to have 1st level monster but that could still mean 20 orcs in a barracks. Nothing says an ogre riding a giant slug can't be guarding a choice area on thee sme level.

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  16. Balance to me has always been in the eyes of the players (including Game Master).

    The books can try to guide you towards creating a 'balanced' encounter, but that can only work for so long... these guidelines are based on extremely unrealistic assumptions that there is equivalency between the PCs and the rest of the world. That premise leads to an expectation regarding the opposition which goes a long way towards removing anticipation from encounters, especially with previously unknown monsters or cultures. If you follow the prescribed formula regarding encounter design, then critters from Mars are just as fearful as the humans from the other side of the continent. And that is not how it is supposed to be.

    Encounters are supposed to motivate the story -- and the true threat shouldn't be based on the Hit Dice/Challenge Rating/Encounter Level alone... The GM needs to factor in the immeasurable qualities as well - the true motivation for the opposition's actions, or their intelligence/craftiness/wisdom. Just because they are high level, doesn't necessarily mean they have the brains to hire devoted trustworthy minions. And just because they are low level, doesn't mean they are harmless. if that were the case, then every army would have to be populated by high level fighters and the like, otherwise they wouldn't be taken seriously.

    What makes encounters effective are how they are played. Give Bakemono military discipline so they sweep a battlefield in overlapping arcs and provide mutual support to each other, and even a mid level party will find it hard to gain advantage against a 'balanced' encounter group. Conversely, give the high powered ogres the combined wisdom and intelligence of a gnat, and even a low level party of adventurers will not find them much of a challenge.

    So you can balance an encounter by picking 4 minions from column A, 2 Elites from column B, a dash of Boss from columns C&D, but to me, that ruins the organic nature of the encounter... I firmly believe that it should always be the right monsters/encounters to match your style of play and the needs of the story. Sometimes that means that the heroes encounter the 18th level Anti-paladin while they are still 3rd level or so... But the players deserve the respect to allow their party the opportunity to determine that they are out of their league before reaching the point of no return.
    Wheaton's Law should always be taken into consideration.

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  17. "Balance" is such nonsense. If you run into an overpowering threat, you retreat unless you're suicidal. I don't know where this idea came from that the PCs and their opponents should be evenly matched. I just don't get it. The whole Gen-Y whiny entitlement attitude?

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    1. Even Conan ran when he was outmatched and had room for maneuver; for example, he fled from the dinosaur in "Red Nails" (and found a way to kill it with poison). I'd like to see my players show at least as much wisdom as an irascible barbarian reaver.

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  18. No one ever tells that story about rolling over every monster for session after session. But that time you had throw down every scrap of food to slow them down and ended up foraging for a week....now that I want to hear about.

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  19. My general rule for D&D and analogs is: Balance-Schmalance!

    But...there are exceptions.

    For a convention game, I expect to get through the adventure in about 3.5 hours, and typically balance/guesstimate for about a 20% loss of the party members, near the end of the session.

    For n00bs, punches are pulled the first couple of encounters, then putting the party on notice that the cakewalk is over. There are Trolls in the Troll Fens, and you better not try your luck until you are of appropriate level (which they do have to learn via trial and error.)

    Beyond that, I like a little balance in the game world, in the sense that every mountain isn't inhabited by an ancient dragon, balrog, storm giant king, etc..., nor is every 1/2 acre copse of wood inhabited by fey or orcs. That doesn't mean that once you are past the dragon, you won't find a balrog in the caverns beneath the dragon's horde...

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    1. I'd like to add that Matt Celis has the right of it: no shame in lying low in a ditch at 1st level as 150+ goblins move through the forest in the wee hours of the morning. Live to fight another day.

      Then again, with the exception of a few convention games, and the RPGA back in the mid-2000s, I've never played with people whose idea was that the encounters I provide are there to line the pockets of the PCs with phat l00t and magical bling, while boosting the player's self-esteem.

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