Sunday, 24 August 2014

Should we care about encounter balance?


Most games I run have an eye towards balancing encounters so that the players actually stand a fighting chance of making it out alive. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons practically held encounter balance as a mantra, loading up the maths so precisely that as a DM you know exactly which creatures to slot into your brawl to give your players a decent time of things.


The thing is, balance can make players feel like they're succeeding at something, with all the feelings of glory that comes off the back of that. It's part of the reason why I imagine minions were created for Fourth edition D&D - ample weapon-fodder designed to fire off the cathartic part of the brain. But fights that aren't hard-won can be quite boring, to be frank. Sure, you might plonk some cool gizmos and side-quests into combat so it's not just a game of sword-aided whack-a-mole, but the kind of fights where the PCs tend not to be on the brink of death or at least completely fear that bloody abyss are, well, kind of unforgettable.

I want you to think of any classic tale of good versus evil. Generally, those battles weren't exactly balanced. Odysseus versus the Cyclops, George against the dragon, Luke versus Darth Vader. Generally, the good guys have a hard time of things and have to learn to overcome obstacles in different ways. This is why I'm so fond of Tunnels & Trolls combat. Generally, you're going to end up against something much stronger than you, making you think of new tactics to reduce their monster rating. Hard-fought battles against innumerable odds are the most memorable in any story. Sure, that adult red dragon would definitely boil your face at level one, but here you are against it: what do you do?

This is where it comes down to the GM to understand what balance actually means. It doesn't always mean throwing two equal forces against each other. It could mean that the red dragon has a weak spot that the players must discover and take advantage of. Or it may mean that the ogre is pining for its lost lover and can be charmed by an illusion of her. If they decide to just run in with their swords flailing then sure, they're going to get cooked and clobbered. However, if they stop and think "Hey, you know what? This enemy is way beyond any of us. There's no way out, so how do we defeat it?" Then the victory will be all the sweeter.