Battling The Balanced Encounter

   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.

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5 Responses

  1. I can certainly understand your point. However, I think the problem with running unbalanced combats in roleplaying games, is that it’s not always obvious just how powerful your opponent is. For example, in a movie, if the monster is the size of a house, or a character is carrying around a grenade launcher, it’s immediately obvious to the audience just how powerful those characters are compared to the hero. In a roleplaying game, however, players go up against monsters and characters like these all the time, and it’s not always so easy to tell the difference between, say, an old red dragon and a wyrm red dragon simply by looking at them.

    Personally, if I want to create a memorable and challenging opponent, I make the NPC the maximum level for the party without it being deadly, and then run the character with incredibly skillful tactics. For example, in Ravenloft, I used Strahd’s spies to gain information about the players, and then allowed Strahd to use that information to his advantage when fighting against them. That adventure was fully balanced for the party, and yet because I anticipated the players’ attacks, and did my best to thwart them, it made for one of the most chilling, and memorable adventures my players had ever encountered.

    • I’d have to agree that it’s not always obvious how powerful a given opponent is from looking at them. That’s a job for scouting, investigation, and making knowledge skill checks – and if your players aren’t doing those things, it’s either because they don’t need to, find it useless, or find it impossible.

      If they don’t need to, they’re scoring cheap victories without having to bother with caution.

      If they find it useless, that means that gathering information isn’t letting them improve their situation; it plays out the same way regardless – a result most commonly known as “railroading”.

      If they find it impossible, either their opponents are outmatching them (a sign that they should withdraw and avoid the encounter entirely) or the setting isn’t well enough developed to let them do it (a sign of GM failure).

      Running into occasional superior foes is normal – and is one of the reasons why every version of D&D has had an ablative combat system; if the characters misjudge what they’re getting into, they can usually escape if they don’t try to fight to the bitter end.

      Unfortunately, “balanced encounters” tend to encourage the characters to fight to the bitter end, while simultaneously undermining any pretense of “realism” in the setting.

      What you’re describing as “incredibly skillful tactics” is telling me pretty much the same thing; Strahd – a genius who’s survived centuries of adventurer attacks and who possesses considerable resources – used some spies and prepared to counter the character’s tactics. That’s pretty elementary, and is something that I’d expect of any gang of bandits. Historically, even lone highwaymen often employed some spies and contacts in the local inns to help them pick out targets.

      Overall this can be summarized as:
      1) That the players aren’t investigating situations first. Otherwise there’d be no worries about them not being able to identify their opposition. Presumably the players aren’t finding investigation profitable. Otherwise they’d be doing it.
      2) That you run encounters and adventures that are tailored to the group that runs into them.
      3) That simply allowing an opponent to use basic tactics and some of it’s advantages made for “one of the most chilling, and memorable adventures my players had ever encountered.”

      And those three points pretty much sum up the drawbacks of running “Balanced Encounters” as described in the article. A “fair fight” is a sign of tactical failure on both sides. The goal of each side is always to make a fight as unfair as possible – in their favor.

      Of course, if you’re short of time, have impatient players, or are not planning on running a couple of hundred sessions in a campaign, Balanced Encounters may be just the shortcut that you need to make it fun – but it’s useful to remember that they are a shortcut, and are throwing out a lot of the complexity of a realistic world in favor of ease of play.

      • I think you’re spot on with the skill checks and scouting. Most groups that I play with tend to rush into combat, swords drawn, and I think the reason they do so is because many DMs run their combats on perfectly level terrain, with monsters that are appropriate for the party’s level. In cases like that, such tactics are fine. However, against opponents that use even the barest minimum of tactics, it can prove to be a deadly strategy.

        Personally, I like to run combats that make the greatest use of the monsters’ abilities, and the environments they live in. For example, I remember fondly an encounter involving a flying spellcaster with blindsight who cast fog cloud. Nothing is more fun than watching your players wander around, unable to see their attacker who keeps pelting them with spells from the ceiling. That said, I’ve only started implementing strategies like this within the last four or five years. Perhaps, if you’ve been running combats like this for decades, and have a group who is used to them, you may need to bump things up a little more. In that case, I think you should proceed cautiously. As Truman Capote said, “The trouble with living outside the law is that you no longer have the protection of it.” Running unbalanced encounters may provide your players with more of a challenge. However, it also means that you no longer have the protection of the rules when you design them.

  2. Wow Thoth – really good post and you are so true. Balanced Encounters dont exist and dont exist in real life and nor can they truly exist in a dice-based roleplaying gaming. The chance of the dice going bad or good is always there. You can however create Easy Encounters or Hard Encounters simply based on likely hood of success.
    My favorate of one of our DM’s is to create the realistic-situation based encounter – eg the fort is guarded by skilled veteran soldiers rather than just a few low level guards because the party is low level.

    • Well I’m glad you liked it – and I agree with your DM there; realistic encounters are a lot better in the long run simply because the world background will tell the players what to expect. That remote and utterly useless outpost being used as a punishment post for incompetents should NOT be full of mid-level characters simply to make it a “balanced encounter” for your high-level party – and that vital fort should be defended by the best available team.

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