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…

Encounter Balance

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 Framework 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 would fall into place.

So what should we be talking about?

Character Death

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. You won’t be killed without a 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.

Expectation Management

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 not 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, 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?