There’s always a certain tension in any role-playing game.
For the role-playing part you want characters who are firmly a part of the setting, who have histories and personal involvements there, and who – preferably – have personalities that are distinguishable from that of their player. They should be detailed, complex, and as individually unique as possible. Their capabilities should be flexible and encourage creative thinking. Getting into a fight should be something of a last resort, and death should be dramatic and – usually – the result of either blatant foolishness or a conscious decision to get into a really bad situation regardless of the risk. You want to feel like these are real people who happen to have more exotic or interesting lives than you do.
For the game part, you want to be able to make up characters quickly and easily, to have well-defined abilities, and to have a firm set of rules that tells you who can do what. You don’t want character abilities to be too unique or it becomes really difficult to create the background characters. For the majority of players, you also need some sort of reward or measure of progress; there are a few players who will enjoy spending the entire session on in-character conversation – but quite a few will become impatient with that even if they can get some nuggets of useful information out of it. Combat is a relatively simple and easy method of generating excitement, and can be expected to occur regularly. Therefore the characters should be able to survive most situations if well played, but always be at enough risk to generate that excitement.
Balancing those two sides of things is an art. The better you can do it, the longer a campaign can be expected to run. Personally, I plan on a minimum of two years or so – at least a hundred sessions – for an actual campaign. My record so far is more than twelve years – well over 600 sessions – with quite a few additional private sessions for character-specific material.
One of the biggest enemies of a long-term campaign is the “balanced encounter”.
They’re very bad for role-playing. Neither the real world nor the exciting and interesting fictional ones come with “balanced encounters”. If I was exploring a jungle in – say – 1750 – I might meet a crowd of the locals, evade a dangerous big cat, have many chances to not eat poisonous plants, and have many exciting adventures – but there would be very few combats and virtually no “balanced encounters”. The same goes for wandering the back alleys of any present day war zone.
For an archetypical fantasy adventure from fiction, I think we can fairly safely turn to the works of Tolkien. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings there were desperate escapes from and defenses against overpowering Ringwraiths, being overwhelmed by surprise by goblins and spiders and elves, finding clever ways to exploit special advantages and information to overcome overpowering foes such as Smaug, Sauron, and the Witch-King, careful scouting and sneaking to bypass foes who were too powerful to deal with such as the guardians of Mordor, and at least two Deus Ex Machina – the Eagles and the semi-miraculous phial of light that let Sam escape from Shelob. Similarly, there were some times – fighting goblins in the tunnels, helping to defend Helm’s Deep, Gandalf confronting Wormtongue, during the attack on Isengard – when the characters handled their individual foes quite handily, even if there was (as at Helm’s Deep) a chance of the enemy overwhelming the allied NPC’s to flank them.
Sometimes the protagonists only survived by retreating, as against the dweller in the pool at Moria. There was a fight with the Uruk-Hai that might have been a balanced encounter in there though – but I really can’t say there were many.
Pretty much the same goes for the Epic of Gilgamesh, for Beowulf, and for more modern adventures. In Star Wars, was Luke and party’s first encounter with Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers a “Balanced Encounter”?
Realistic worlds don’t usually have “Balanced Encounters” except by sheer unlikely accident. If the characters go to Mount Thunder, where the legendary Storm Dragon lairs 99% of the time, it’s 99% certain that the Storm Dragon is what they’ll find there – regardless of whether they’ve just started out or are legendary heroes. If a group of beginners stumbles across the Storm Dragon, retreat or negotiation is in order. They might be able to swipe something if they’re clever, but it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea.
A group that wants to defeat the Storm Dragon will either need to already possess legendary power in its own right or will have to spend a lot of time gathering information, making plans and preparations, collecting resources and allies, and trying to figure out what hidden resources and preparations the dragon might have if they want to have any chance of winning.
I’ve had that happen. A group of mid-power characters discovered the existence of a ruined city filled with minor undead and run by a lich-dragon and its powerful undead assistants and decided to go there. They did plenty of cautious scouting, retreating, and hiding until they found an old temple which the various undead still avoided to use as a base. They were extremely careful to make sure that there were no external signs of their presence. They explored the remaining resources of the city, located an ally or two, and researched the weaknesses of their opposition while carefully avoiding leaving signs of their activities or engaging in combat that might reveal their presence. They formulated plans until they came up with one they couldn’t easily shoot holes in, gathered the resources to put it into effect, and eventually created a massive magical trap. It took them thirty sessions or so, they lost a fair number of characters, and several sacrificed themselves at the end to keep the Lich-Dragon from destroying all of them (fortunately they had not been so foolish as to assume that it had no hidden plans, allies, or reserves) – but they turned that grossly unbalanced situation into a more-or-less “balanced encounter” through their own efforts. They won that battle, they expunged a powerful force of evil in the land, they earned a base of operations to continue their adventures from, and they mourned their fallen friends.
And the main thrust of the campaign continued until the characters eventually drove the force which had been creating all those undead horrors back to it’s own realm and sealed the gate behind it.
Those players spent better than six months of real time working hard to turn that situation into a “Balanced Encounter” and considered it an exceptional and well-earned triumph.
The essence of designing an intentionally “Balanced Encounter” is a little different. It pretty much comes down to “the characters should be able to run into this situation at random, with little or no special preparation or preliminary investigation, start fighting, and be able to win with fairly basic tactics”. All of that’s required since, if the players start investigating or something, not only are the capabilities of their characters likely to change before they get to the encounter, but they might bring along allies and foul up the “balanced encounter. If they have no idea who they’re dealing with, and no background in the area, negotiation isn’t a likely option either.
In addition, there should be little risk of any permanent harm to the group – after all, if you’re running “balanced encounters”, there are almost certainly going to be a lot of them.
The “Balanced Encounter” is well suited to a short series of scenarios and can be quite a lot of fun in such a game. “Balanced Encounters” don’t demand very much scouting, planning, and forethought since – in a short game – there’s no time for that. They don’t ask for cleverness, novel tactics, or knowing when to retreat; those things pay dividends in long-term games where combat offers serious risks, but are redundant when it doesn’t. Similarly, if there’s going to be a need to retreat in a “Balanced Encounter” game, the escape routes must be clear and obvious; a group used to this style of play often will not recognize a need to retreat until it would normally be far too late.
Ultimately, of course, “Balanced Encounters” start to force a short series of scenarios. They don’t allow there to be much depth to the world, since realistic worlds simply don’t tailor situations to suit the group that runs into them. They offer quick and easy excitement – but, after a bit, the realization inevitably starts to sink in that there isn’t much actual risk in them, and that the excitement is phony. You start wanting to play for the RPG equivalent of “Real Money” – time spent developing your character and his relationship with the world. The stuff that you just don’t find in a world of “Balanced Encounters”.
Ultimately – like combat video games – they just don’t seem to be very memorable. I have players who occasionally get in touch from across the country to reminisce about things that happened in games more than twenty years ago. Somehow the “Balanced Encounters” games I’ve played in just don’t seem to generate that kind of memory.