This past week, I was listening to the new and excellent podcast, Gaming & BS. The episode was about Game Balance, and the hosts, Sean and Brett, had an interesting discussion about Encounter Balance in RPGs. Their discussion was solid, but as they were talking I realized that Encounter Balance is not the root issue. There is more lurking beneath the idea of Encounter Balance, and if you want to solve the problem you have to find the root cause. So let’s go digging…
Let’s start with a definition. Encounter Balance, for this discussion, is a concept that the adversaries (i.e. monsters) in a given encounter (i.e. 10×10 room) are a fair match for the PCs, given their level of experience, gear, etc. For example: A group of 4 1st level D&D characters would encounter a room of kobolds (fair) rather than a group of trolls (unfair).
Encounter Balance can be mechanically enforced, in the case of the D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, which uses the Challenge Rating system for monsters. This system ranks monsters based on their lethality. A Pathfinder GM can then create an encounter using one or more monsters to match them to the level of the party (e.g. A CR4 monster vs a level 4 party).
Encounter Balance can also be socially enforced, in the case of an agreement at the table, be it a Campaign FrameworkÂ or Social Contract. In this case, the GM agrees to only build encounters which match the power level of the characters.
I Do/Don’t Believe in Encounter Balance
There is a pretty good divide on this issue, and this article is not going to make a case for Encounter Balance one way or another. That is a preference for your group to decide.
I have GM’ed using it and not using it, and those campaigns came out fine.
Despite it being an issue of group preference, people continue to argue both sides. When they do, they often are having the wrong argument because they are not talking about the root issues.
I Am Root
When people start arguing about Encounter Balance they are debating about three intertwined concepts. The argument would be more efficient if people address the three core issues. If they did, the concept of Encounter Balance wouldÂ fall into place.
So what should we be talking about?
When you get to the bottom of things, Encounter Balance exists to address the issue of Character Death. When the 1st level party opens the door and there are five trolls in the room, Character Death is what the players fear. Encounter balance is only the symptom.
If Encounter balance was strictly a mathematical issue of the balance of the opposition to the level of the party, then a 10th level party should be equally upset when they open the door of the room and find 5 kobolds in the room. That is not what happens, because Character Death is not an issue. They just send the fighter in alone to kill everyone in the room, and move on.
What Encounter Balance implies is, “When you open the door, there is a reasonable chance for you to defeat what is in the room. YouÂ won’tÂ be killed without aÂ fair fight.”
Rules Inform Play
The next concept is one in which I am a firm believer: rules inform play. Meaning, if there is a mechanic for something in the game, then that rule tells you something about how the game should be played. Thus in Pathfinder, the Challenge Ratings of monsters tells you that Encounter Balance is a part of the game.
You can ignore any rules in a game. There are no Game Police, who are checking to see if you are using every rule, and that is one of the great things about the hobby. But, ignoring the rule does not mean that there are not mechanical implications in other parts of the game. That gets into a topic I call Off Label Usage, which is a topic for a future article.
There is also a more recent trend, and one that I will attribute to the influence of d20, which is in the absence of rules, players often don’t think they can perform certain actions. For instance, if a game does not have rules for how to negotiate with a monster, then players may imply that it is not an option. I say imply, because the game may not have a rule for it, but the GM can make a ruling. This is important, because not every encounter needs to wind up in a combat. Players could evade, negotiate, use stealth or trickery rather than go toe-to-toe with a more powerful creature. If players are not aware of those options, they will treat every encounter as a combat (when you have a hammer…).
It is important to understand the rules of the game and what concepts are codified, and what things are implied.
A game does not have to have rules for Encounter Balance for it to exist in a campaign. As said above, there are non-mechanical ways to have Encounter Balance, which brings us to the final concept: Expectation Management. That is just Project Management speak for making sure everyone is on the same page.
The GM and the players need to discuss and come to an understanding of whether or notÂ their game and campaign will have Encounter Balance. The way to start is by discussing the issue of Character Death in the campaign.
What Character Death means will be different from group to group. In some groups, Character Death is a normal occurrence and it can happen any time; these groups will likely not worry about Encounter Balance. Other groups only want character death at dramatically appropriate moments in the story; they will lean towards more balanced encounters.
The group also needs to discuss what non-combat options exist in an Encounter, and which ones have rules and which ones are rulings. When there are a multitude of other options outside of combat, Encounter Balance becomes less important. When that 1st level party finds the room of trolls, if they believe that they can talk their way past them, or outsmart, outrun, etc, they won’t feel that they have to fight them.
Finally, if Encounter Balance is codified within the rules,Â address whether the group needs to agree whether or not that rule will be followed. It is easy enough for a Pathfinder GM to ignore the Challenge Ratings of monsters, but it’s important that the players all know that is how the GM is playing. Again, rules inform play.
Getting To The Heart of The Matter
Encounter Balance is risk management for mitigating Character Death. In some games, there is no concept of Encounter Balance (i.e.Call of Cthulhu), and Character Death is a real possibility. In other games (i.e. Pathfinder) Encounter Balance is not only a concept but is also mechanically enforced, and there exists an expectation of it during play.
By discussing Character Death, non-combat options, and the GM’s adherence to any Encounter Balance rules, you can determine if your game will have Encounter Balance or not. By making sure everyone has the same understanding, your games will be more enjoyable.
How do you address Encounter Balance in your games? Do you run a game with Encounter Balance that does not have rules for it? Do you run a game where you ignore the Encounter Balance rules?
Phil, this is a great article. I like how you talked about expectations too. For example, I have a player who is really into the math of the systems, and well, I’m not so much. I’m not trying to throw random death at them, but sometimes I like to give them something a little over their heads (hoping they’ll try a different tactic). Sometimes this creates a bit of conflict between the two of us, but it is really a matter of expectations.
I’ve always seen the CR ratings (and similar) in books to be a guide for the Gm more than meant as a stat players should care about (or even be aware of.)
At it’s core stats/tips for balancing encounters helps a Gm build an adventure by letting them properly construct encounters to be as easy or hard as they desire and avoid the pit fall of the epic battle being a 2 round yawn or the opening skirmish a TPK.
When playing I rather enjoy the thrill of not knowing if the enemies in the next encounter will be a fair fight, or something our group should be fleeing from since it helps with immersion.
I also like how the lack of encounter balance prevents my more aggressive companions from continually choosing a violent response to problems when there’s no safety net of the fight being a “fair challenge”
When GMing I’ve discovered any sort of CR is often a loose guideline at best for my usual gaming group, given they are known to use creative tactics, teamwork, and trickery to overcome challenges that would otherwise be overwhelmingly lethal. (they are firmly of the “combat as war” mindset.)
Bingo. CR and similar things are GM tools. They are not concerns for players.
I agree that encounter balance comes down to a discussion about character death and expectation management. There are many things I like about D&D 3.0 and forward, but encounter balance is not one of them. Because, if your players are expecting balanced encounters all the time, but you as a DM want to throw in an encounter that they should run away from for story reasons, things could get ugly.
I like the general ideas in this article, but the article itself needs some work.
A) It’s -infer-, darn it.
B) You basically say ” this comes down to three things – thing1, thing2, and thing1″ since the whole issue of character death is not yes/no, but the expectations.
It’s also a regrettable fact that a lot of RPG rules almost explicitly deny a lot of non-combat options. Fixed movement rates mean that running away basically doesn’t work a lot of the time, and, well, if Trolls only speak Trollish and you don’t, good luck negotiating. And that’s WITH relatively sentient creatures. The neo-otyugh REALLY isn’t listening.
This is a timely article for me as I’m puzzling out how much balance matters in my next design. There’s a shift in expectation toward symmetry that I attibute to video games (this infantry unit is the paper to this tank’s rock or you must be this many levels to access this raid.) Players bring that back to the table and then think that they’ll never need to run from a challenge because the numbers have been crunched. Setting expectations of dramatic death has its downside. It’s been abused in my games; I’ve had to deus ex machina a PC away from an ignoble death because he was rolling poorly and a low-level threat was beating him down.
I prefer a mechanical system that makes it clear to players what kind of trouble they are in before they kick in the door. The PCs can do prep work and strategize to head off the danger and if that’s still not enough then they earned their slaughter.
Good article, Phil. I’ve been discussing these intertwined concepts with my players when we’ve started new games for many years now. I address the same underlying ideas but in a slightly different approach:
1. The issue of character death is a combination of both rules and style. Some rules lend themselves more to heroic, bounce-back-from-anything stories while others force PCs to tread carefully around every peasant with a sharp stick. The players generally know what to expect from the system itself, though it’s good to discuss it explicitly. But even within a given system a GM can make changes in house rules or just changes in style that make death more or less likely. That absolutely must be part of the covenant GMs and players create when they start a game.
2. Expectations are related to character death but also more broadly to the kind of story and setting the GM provides. Here’s an example of how I describe expectations for my world as part of the group covenant: “The world around you certainly contains dangers. No matter how powerful you are, there will always be someone or something that can kill you. Since character death is no fun and paranoia isn’t either (except if we’re playing Paranoia or something like it), I’ll craft the story so you have reasonable chances to spot the difference between safety and jeopardy. But know that if you rush in blind or make extremely poor choices you could face serious consequences.”
3. Encouraging players to considering doing things that aren’t part of the rules system, or are only minor parts of it, is tough but necessary. So many systems’ mechanics focus on how to kill things that it’s easy for players (and GMs) to forget about alternatives to combat such as diplomacy or subterfuge. I bring this up as part of the group covenant. I also define how experience type rewards will be given for these kinds of activities.
I agree with you, most issues around encounter balance really to come back to character death. You make good points about expectations.
Regarding rules inform play – I believe the game will be better if DMs handle more things in game. Want your players to speak in character, then make certain the NPCS speak in character. Want your players to do things outside the specific rules, have monters and NPCs do things outside the rules. (lead by example) I even like to provide some rule like information to the players in the game – being told things by NPCs, seeing it in action, or finding it in a book or scroll. It is not that hard to use in game language to help describe how something works. The less we step out of character/game the better.
I think the rules informs play is very true as well – so much so that there are certain games styles/rule set combinations where the rules actively inhibit your ability to create a certain mood or a specific scene.
In fact I agree so much on this point, I would suggest the the rule set almost answers the question – unless you new to a rule set and have yet to figure it out – if your playing a D&D variant, you expect the the PCs to win in the long run, and the vast majority of individual encounters to be won by them; thats WHY your playing D&D. If your playing Paranoia… not so much!
The concept of expectation-management has always existed in D&D. Back in “the day” (oh, muh back), dungeon levels were a way for a player to gauge what kinds of creatures he could face. 1st level dungeons were for 1st level characters. That concept, of course, became far less fixed as the game progressed, but it was initially there because it was recognized that players needed some general means to infer the relative strength of their adversaries. Going even more into the metagame aspect, adventures did (and still do) advertise on the front cover what character levels they were designed to accommodate. And HD was always an informal way to estimate difficulty (like CR is used today)
For myself, I didn’t worry so much about ‘balanced encounters’ during the 1E/2E era. Maybe because I trusted my DM (or myself) to be able to smooth out the rough edges of an encounter and dynamically scale up or down. A consequence of the great mechanics for 3E/PF is that it becomes far more difficult to adjust on the fly. Add extra HD to a creature, and suddenly its size increases, and it gains more feats and skill points, changing its CR. This can be quite challenging. And God forbid you give it class levels.
It’s funny. I love the options that 3E/PF offer. Feats. Skill points. I really like the multiclassing system. Even with the problems it created, I thought it was far more elegant than 1E/2Es dual-class/multi-classing rules. But the complexity of the newer system necessarily means that the kinds of off-the-cuff adjustments people could make in older editions are harder to do. And that means that encounter balance is far more critical to party survival than before because it’s harder for a DM to adjust any “mistakes”.
It sounds like a lot of this also comes down to whether people feel like they’re playing a game or taking part in an interactive story. Games have rules. Stories have dramatic moments. Rules ruin drama. And drama breaks rules.
yes; but… 🙂
sometimes (ok, very occasionally… you know, like twice that I know of!) the rules enhance the drama and improve the setting specific playing of a role. Pendragon does this through its traits, passions and their associated bonuses (plural?) , and I am told Mouse Guard does something very similar. Its always surprised me how few games have rules that actively foster a given set of dramatic outcomes .