Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Important Are Balanced Encounters in Your Game Sessions?

How Important Are Balanced Encounters in Your Game Sessions? I ask this, because as someone that runs older / OSR styled games, I generally guestimate or handwave encounter balance. I go by feel, which often means I'm a bit under or a bit over where I want to be. It's an imperfect science with the earlier editions.

3x and 4x have their tables / balance charts so you can balance things out for your party's level - but how accurate are they really? If your party isn't balanced across the four main compass directions of D&D tropes (Fighter / Wizard / Cleric / Thief) you are skewing away from the baseline that the formulas expect.  Don't even ask about mixed level parties.

So, is it more important for the individual encounters to be balanced against the party, or should you aim for the adventure as a whole?

Does striving for balance take away the whole "Brave Sir Robin" aspect, so brave that he ran away?

Is running away from encounters more of an "old school" design aspect?

Has "Discretion being the better part of valor" gone by the wayside? Should heroes even need to run?

Heck, is "balance" more important than "challenge"?

Why is it so hard to find a pic of an adventuring party running away? Not very heroic I guess ;)


  1. Balanced encounters - In my current game, not very. It's a pickup game, so it doesn't matter. In my stoy-based game, it mattered a lot, because I needed to know how challenging something was in order to make it work in the setting. Can't make the Mad Wizard of Morovia be a one-second kill or the elite dragonslayers be too weak to fight a dragon in reality when they did it off-screen a week before.

    Fleeing - do PCs really flee? That almost never happens in my games. In games with essentially disposable characters, it happens even less.

  2. They aren't. Surprisingly, bunch of L1 characters and their yellow-bellied henchmen were able to easily kill 8HD, spell-casting demon and had major problems with 1HD unarmored goblins.

    Also, we all need TPK from time to time.

  3. Depends on my group. My current group. I would have no problem throwing a tribe of hill giants at them when they were low level. If they are dumb enough to charge then let them rool and die in glory.

    If its a newer group learning the game I'll keep the encounters balanced.

    Overall though I don't worry about balance and like you said, kinda go on feel and try to make it a challenging adventure.

  4. Completely unimportant. Part of the fun is assessing the threat and deciding how to respond. Besides which, balance is largely irrelevant: a smart group of players can overcome vastly superior foes by clever play.

    I'd have no problem with putting a dragon in the path of some low-level adventurers. If they're stupid enough to fight it head-to-head, we shouldn't mourn their loss: that's just Natural Selection in action. If they're playing carefully they can avoid it, and if they're clever and ballsy they might even outsmart the thing and get away scot-free with some loot!

  5. Once engaged, how does a low level party withdraw? They can't unless the DM suddenly balances the encounter by allowing them to.

  6. In the Rules Cyclopedia, there's a picture of two people running away from opposite directions that have run into each other.

    Certainly when I started playing, running away was common. But then one of the movies that inspired us was Monty Python and the Holy Grail which of course featured Sir Robin who had a penchant for fleeing.

    We'd have our characters carry bundles of food or coins we could drop to distract monsters. Would that actually work in real life? Maybe not but works in books, so it worked in our games.

  7. I never used to worry about balance, I was always a status-quo-is-God sort of GM, from my beginnings ca 1985. That worked perfectly in my AD&D-with-UA, high level PCs days - PCs were threshing machines that could easily slaughter any number of feeble 1e Monster Manual critters. But when I switched to 3e D&D it led to a lot of dead PCs.

    I've never found 3e's CR/EL system to be at all accurate, but after some bad experiences with status quo encounters in 4e, since 2011 I've used the 4e encounter-design tools, ie most of my encounters are now balanced, and they work well and are reliable.

  8. PCs in my games generally do run away when they're obviously losing; usually after over half the party is dead but it does prevent TPK. I rarely see PCs insist on a futile last stand.

    Getting away:
    The last time PCs fled, the lone survivor dragged an unconscious fellow PC through a narrow hole they had previously hacked in a sturdy iron sewer grating. The dragon pursuing them could not pass through the hole. That was close to TPK though, they only made it out because the dragon hit on 2+ but rolled '1' both times it attacked the fleeing PC while chasing her through the sewer.

    The previous time 2 PCs started to flee, 2 were dead/dying after being ambushed by a gray ooze, it would have stayed to eat the fallen and not pursued. However a PC changed his mind, came back and finished it off, though not fast enough to save his friends.

  9. I don't attempt to make every encounter "balanced", but as a general rule things get tougher in my megadungeon campaign as the PCs get deeper. So on level 2, they're much more likely to be fighting orcs and goblins, but there are still some areas where there are some really tough SOB's. In fact, they tried once again to take on the cave crickets and megalocentipedes in one particular area and got their heads handed to them. Some places are just there to be run away from when you're lower level and returned to once you're higher level.


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