Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Balanced Encounters

When people talk about “balanced encounters”, they may mean one of several things – anything from creating encounters that are generally appropriate for a dungeon level (as with early D&D) to ensuring that the PCs can win every fight with an “appropriate” risk and expenditure of resources (as with the base assumptions of 3e and 4e).

What underlies this, of course, is a simple question: If the PCs fail, who is responsible?

Look back through forums focused on 3e, and you will discover all sorts of complaints about the CR system.  I have not been an aficionado of 4e, but I imagine that similar observations related to that system’s encounter budgets also occurred. The books, essentially, offer a way for encounters to be “balanced”; if the PCs fail it is either because the books failed, or the DM didn’t follow the guidelines.

The first time I encountered this was in 2e, where the DM was encouraged to fudge in order to save the PCs. In 1e, there was certainly language that suggested that the DM was allowed to do so; in 2e the suggestion was that the DM should do so. 1e’s “balance” was focused around campaign-length play and mechanisms that allowed the players to estimate their risk. A prime example of this is that, in general, the deeper one delves, the greater the treasures and the risks. This, of course, was not absolute – PCs may encounter “Monster Level” 3 monsters on the 1st level of the dungeon.

Moreover, while these tools were available, reading the advice to players in the 1e Player’s Handbook, it is clear that players should expect the DM to try to trick them into undertaking more risk than expected. Long sloping passages that lead down to another level without being noticed, chutes that do the same (but obviously!), and traps that cut off retreat are to be expected.

In 1e, not only is managing risk the player’s job, but the DM is expected to make this difficult. Not impossibly so – the DM is not supposed to be a jerkwad – but difficult enough to push the players into upping their game.

The modern obsession with balanced encounters starts with the idea that it is the GM, not the players, who must find the balance point. In a game where the GM forces the players to dance to his tune (and thus forces encounters upon the players, ala 3e, 4e, or most “adventure paths”), it makes sense that the GM has an increased responsibility to make those encounters “fair”. Applied to all gaming, though, the idea is a nightmare. Every time you hear that the GM has “made a mistake” and has to “correct an encounter” as the reason for fudging, the idea that the GM should balance encounters is at its heart.

I do not like games where the book, or the GM, is supposed to balance the encounters. I like games in which the GM is supposed to allow enough context to exist (which does not, by the way, mean that the context simply appears without being sought out by the PCs) to allow the players to generally balance the encounters. And which allows the players to be wrong. 

Some players will "play it safe", while others will take great risks, courting disaster in order to have a chance for great rewards. That is, to me, part of the interest of the game.


  1. I completely agree with your conclusions.

    However, I am convinced that 'balanced encounters' being at the core of 3e is a myth that was created by the echo chamber. The CR systems does *allow* you to create balanced encounters, if that's what you want -- but I think there was much misinterpretation that that was all that was supposed to be done with the numbers. Meanwhile very early in the DMG was an example of how to mix up the encounters, including suggesting that encounters of 5 or more levels 'above' the party were appropriate occasionally (among other non-balanced variations).

    I've never been a completist in collecting game books, but what little I do own from WotC's 3e adventures have ELs of a variety and NOT the much-maligned 'balanced encounters'.

    I don't bring this up to be argumentative, but in hopes that maybe you can offer some insight that I have missed as to where what I think of as the "myth of the balanced encounter" came from...

    1. Well, I am not going to claim that my conclusions are beyond questions, so feel free to question away!

      I have dealt with this issue to some extent in my earlier posts about sandbox games. You can play counter to what a ruleset promotes, but that is not the same as saying that any ruleset does not promote particular effects on game play.

      Even the earliest WotC 3e adventures are relatively linear in design, and the parameters of the game mandate that this should be so. With a relatively steep curve between levels, and the expectation that one will achieve new levels mid-adventure, it becomes important to ensure that the encounters occur in the "right" order.

      Although I don't have it in front of me, I believe that it was The Forge of Fury that includes an encounter with a Roper and then suggests that the DM might not use it if the players are expecting balanced encounters. That was, if memory serves, the second WotC 3e adventure, after Sunless Citadel. In any event, it was a very early adventure.

      The 3e books listed "Status Quo" settings as a possibility, but not as the norm. It recommended warning the players if you were using a "Status Quo" setup. And that makes sense because, given the power curve in 3e, a single level up or down can make an encounter extremely easy or extremely deadly. That the easy encounter is going to take a very long time to play out, relative to the same encounter in earlier editions, is another factor driving towards fetishism of encounter balance.

      And note that the Roper was not a "Status Quo" encounter; it followed the guidelines in the 3e DMG that included those appropriate high level encounters you mention. However, in practice, WotC warned the DM about actually implementing those guidelines. This is, ultimately, because while those guidelines might have worked well with earlier editions, 3e had a few features that made them less than ideal.

      I don't think that the designers of 3e intended to make the gaming population so focused on balance. They were, of course, trying to balance the game in ways that the original was not balanced, and that came about due to complaints about (in particular) the lack of character balance inherent in 2e's kit system. They responded to complaints about "dead levels" (where there was no significant increase in power) by making all levels "meaningful". They responded to the realization that many campaigns do not last to high levels by making levelling faster. And they followed a design mantra where the "unit of play" was the encounter (rather than the game session, the adventure location, or the campaign). These things, together, changed the nature of the game and promoted a need (or desire) for "balanced" encounters.

      3.5 increased this tendency (hello you horrid "Delve format"), and 4e took this even farther with its "encounter budgets" (and, again, the "Delve format").

      I could easily go on.

      In the early lead-up to 4e, the designers talked about wanting to flatten the power curve and reduce the time it took to resolve combats, specifically in recognition of the problems I just mentioned. Then they did exactly the opposite in order to ensure that everyone had something cool to do in every combat, no matter how minor that combat may be.

      If you really want more of this, the "Why System Matters" S is for Sandbox posts, linked to near the bottom of this page, go into more detail.

    2. I never bought any of WotC's published adventures in the 3E days, but I did download a lot of the free adventures they offered on their website. Many of them were a string of four or so "level appropriate" encounters, with a "boss fight" that was two to three EL higher at the end.

      That gave me the impression that the designers intended for that to be the norm.

    3. I think that you are correct, but I don't think that the designers realized that the system would promote that type of play as strongly as it does. As time goes on, the adventures become increasingly linear as the writers realize that this format has been built into the core of the game, and a more freeform adventure is likely to end up in a TPK.

      There was also, eventually, a post on WotC's site suggesting that random encounters not be used because they are boring......which means, to me, (1) the combats take too long, and (2) the unexpected combats throw a monkey wrench into the careful balance of the adventure.

    4. I also believe the "encounter balance" is a bit of a red herring. Encounter budgets were always intended as a guideline so the DM could judge just how difficult an encounter might be for a party. I hadn't read anywhere that WotC was espousing that all encounter should be level appropriate.

      "... a post on WotC's site suggesting that random encounters not be used because they are boring"

      I don't recall the exact post in question (though I recall a similar sentiment being expressed) but I believe your conclusions about it are colored by your own perceptions of balance and not at all about the author's original intent. If you can find the article on their archive site, that would be helpful to support your position.

      I do agree that unnecessary combats are boring (regardless of the system) and it has nothing to do with "balance", but more to do with narrative purpose.

      If, for instance, the party is in a situation where care is needed to stay covert (i.e. - enemy patrols, other known dangerous conditions that may drain precious resources), then random encounters are certainly called for. The party may then react to try to avoid the combat or manage their resources in other ways... but in either case, it has a specific impact on the unfolding story in play.

      However, if they happen to be traveling overland from point A to point B and any random encounter they have will have little impact on the narrative (i.e. - they will be able to replenish supplies / heal up easily and be on their way as if nothing happened) and the end result is that the players are able to arrive at point B in either case with very little difference regardless of whether they had a combat or not, then why waste valuable session time on a combat that will have no impact on the story?

      My gaming time is severely limited by real life (as with just about everyone at my table). Even if we only lose a 1/2 hour of session time playing out a combat against random bandits or goblins or what have you... that's a 1/2 hour lost in an encounter unrelated to the plot of the adventure which could have been better spent on role-playing opportunities, or an encounter that is related to the plot, or doing anything that has meaning to the story in the game. To me, that's a half hour chewing on gristle when we could have been eating the meat of the adventure.

      Meaningless encounters are just that -- meaningless.

      But again, context is key. If the choice is "take the longer/safer road to the city... but taking too much time may mean you fail to accomplish the goal" vs. "take a short cut through troll country in order to cut 2 days of the journey", then yes, my troll country random encounter table is going to be rife with dangerous encounters because there is a story-impacting decision as to whether to take the safe, long road versus the short dangerous road.

      But I hate wasting time on a meaningless combat that is nothing more than a distraction.

    5. Marty, a few points:

      (1) "Balanced" and "level appropriate" are not synonymous in the WotC lexicon. Rather, "balanced" means that the DM should be able to predict the outcome with reasonable accuracy (the "resources spent" in 3e-era-speak). Inherent in the idea of this balance is the idea that it is the DM who is doing the balancing, not the players.

      (2) The harder it is to make a character with a given set of rules, the more the GM is encouraged to "balance" or fudge to ensure the PCs' survival.

      (3) Re: "the plot", please see: http://ravencrowking.blogspot.ca/2013/04/plotlines-railroading-and-sandbox-games.html and http://ravencrowking.blogspot.ca/2013/04/plotlines-railroading-and-sandbox-games_14.html ....

      (4) That an encounter is "meaningless", "nothing more than a distraction", or not a "role-playing opportunity" is problematic. That a random encounter should take half an hour to resolve (in general) is problematic. See http://ravencrowking.blogspot.ca/2011/10/s-is-for-sandbox-part-ii-why-system.html and http://ravencrowking.blogspot.ca/2011/10/s-is-for-sandbox-part-ii-why-system_17.html .....if "you are playing with a system that allows 10 or more encounters in that 4-hour span, suddenly the world has room to breathe again".

      (5) AFAICT, WotC removed their 3.5-era articles. I get a 404 Error.

      (6) A post or two on "Meaningless Encounters" may be in order.

    6. Just wanted to point out... "if "you are playing with a system that allows 10 or more encounters in that 4-hour span, suddenly the world has room to breathe again."

      That's roughly 24 minutes per encounter... only 6 minutes shorter than my example. I'm not sure how 30 minutes spent on an encounter is more problematic than 24 minutes spent on an encounter.

      Or are you suggesting there are rule sets that creates encounters that are consistently less than 10 minutes... because unless it's T.W.E.R.P.S., I've never played any OSR rule set that does that.

    7. Sorry, but in the original article I was contrasting to the hour-per-encounter slugfest that WotC-D&D becomes at about 5th level in 3.x, and earlier in 4.x.

      I also don't assume that game play jumps from encounter to encounter, so that 10 or more "encounters" is only about half the actual play time, with the average encounter being resolved fairly quickly. In some cases under a minute.

      And, yes, the average encounter hovers around the 10 minute mark in my DCC game. As I said, some encounters may take considerably less time, and a few may take more. For example, I was able to run through two full adventures on my last GMing day at FanExpo 2014 during a 4-hour time slot, with decisive players making a real difference. My other two GMing days averaged to (among other material) more than 10 encounters per session.

      (For reference, I ran The Imperishable Sorceress on day 1, The Arwich Grinder on day 2, and both The Thing in the Chimney and Portal Under the Stars on day 3. TIS came closest to 10 encounters because the adventure is mostly exploration and problem-solving. In all cases, few combats lasted more than 3 rounds, and a round takes only a minute or two to resolve for 3-6 players.

  2. The old site is at http://archive.wizards.com/DnD/Archive.aspx.

    If you change the url from "www.wizards.com" to "archive.wizards.com" many of the old links will convert.

  3. Oh, and this one for more 3.5 content (the previous link was more 4e content): http://archive.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/arch/dnd

    1. Thanks. I don't immediately see the article I was looking for, though. I might take a look later.

  4. The thing is, a lot of the noise around "balanced" encounters in 3.X was due to a possibly-willful misreading of the guidelines in the DMG. And, yes, that roper encounter had an awful lot to do with it.

    The guidelines presented in the 3.0e DMG proceed from the (IMO correct) assumption that the game is most fun if there's a variety of encounters but that most are "just right" (not too easy, not too hard). After all, a campaign that is nothing but walkovers will very quickly lose its charm, while one that is nothing but TPKs will quickly become frustrating. And so the guidelines advocate that most encounters should be level appropriate, some should be easier, some should be harder, and some should be "overwhelming". All of which is, IMO, good advice.

    (Though it's good advice with one massive flaw: it assumes groups will play through four encounters per day, and will thus have to shepherd their resources accordingly, and it fails to give guidelines for varying those assumptions. Of course, if the party engages in the "15-minute adventuring day", all those carefully calculated formulae fly out of the window.)

    Unfortunately, I have a really strong suspicion that an awful lot of DMs never actually read the DMG, and frequently simply took "EL = level" as the guiding mantra. Worse, many players seemed to take that as holy writ that the DM should not vary from, which is nonsense of course.

    And then there was the ludicrous backlash to the roper encounter in "Forge of Fury", after which WotC seemed to become determined to never again present an 'overwhelming' encounter - a tendency they've only just started to recover from.

    I've gone on at far too much length. I just find it harsh complaining about the fetish of "balanced" encounters in 3e when the written guidelines explicitly advise otherwise. It's like complaining about Monopoly taking too long after adding several house rules that add hours to it.

    1. Steph/ven, thanks for your comments.

      You say misreading; I say a combination of reading, play experience, and examination of the way that the company that owned the game read the same material.

      You are also, as did Marty, conflating balanced encounters with EL = APL encounters. "Balanced" and "level appropriate" are not synonymous in the WotC lexicon. Rather, "balanced" means that the DM should be able to predict the outcome with reasonable accuracy (the "resources spent" in 3e-era-speak). Inherent in the idea of this balance is the idea that it is the DM who is doing the balancing, not the players. This is entirely consistent with the passages in the 3e DMG.

      As I said, I have no doubt that the original designers didn't intend the CR System to be used the way it overwhelmingly was (including the way it overwhelmingly was by WotC), but that doesn't mean that the overwhelming usage was not due to artefacts of the game design, which I have enumerated above.

      Sure, we know why the designers accentuated the power curve, and we know why they sped up gaining levels, but the end result of both changes the way that the game typically plays. Noting that this is so isn't wilful misreading.

    2. I think you misunderstand me: when I said "willful misreading", I didn't mean by you, but rather by those players (and DMs) who read the guidelines and therefore assumed that every encounter should be something that the PCs should be able to win - which is, of course, not the case.

      Broadly speaking, I actually agree with your points above. And, certainly, you're right that the greater complexity of character creation encourages DM fudging. (And I agree in turn that fudging is not terribly healthy in the long term.)

      (And, yes, I'm always bemused by the frequent refrain in Pathfinder Adventure Paths that the DM should throw in an extra encounter here and there to give PCs the XP that they 'should have' to proceed to the next bit of the adventure. So the reward for good play is that you get to have your time wasted on a pointless encounter.)