Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An Honest Question

What is exciting or satisfying about a perfectly balanced encounter? If you take on a challenge that was designed with your victory in mind, what feeling of accomplishment can you possibly have? If you play musical chairs with enough chairs for everyone, aren't you really just running around in circles to music?

...and that's what diversity means to me.


  1. Point. Bring on certain death to be thwarted baby!

  2. I look forward to your collective thwarting.

  3. My feelings exactly. A good bad guy has to be stronger, faster, and better then the heroes are, else they aren't very good bad guys.

  4. I don't think a perfectly balanced encounter is necessarily one with the player's victory designed in mind, but rather one designed that is within the scope of possibility for either side to win.

    In my opinion a perfectly balanced encounter not only appeals to my inner gamer. I know that any failure is due to either my choice of tactics or luck, not through some impossibility that I could have never hoped to succeed. It also appeals to my inner video gamer in the sense that I can say "Well, we were able to hunt out and defeat X-named Monster who is known for being beatable only by adventures 5 levels/advances/whatever above us, so that must mean we are really sweet."

    It also really depends on what is meant by "victory", but yeah - in terms of Dungeons & Dragons - I'd never want to fight an encounter that I am "supposed" to win.

    That's just me, though.

  5. Within the context of D&D, I’ve always seen a “balanced” encounter as being one which will give the PCs a tough fight, but they will most likely win, assuming they don’t play like idiots and they roll at least average. If they play badly and/or roll terribly, they might need to run away, or possibly have deaths.

    That sounds like a pretty good aiming point for the majority of combats in a given game. You wouldn’t want to spend too much time on walkover fights where the PCs are guaranteed to win. You wouldn’t want to spend most of your time in fights which will PROBABLY kill one or more characters, even if they DO play well and roll well. That’s just stacking the deck against them. Of course, the game has much more verisimilitude if some of these “too weak” and “too strong” encounters are mixed in. As both the 3rd ed and 4th ed DMGs advise.

    3rd ed and 4th ed are the only editions to include mechanical systems to help DMs hit the target, or to judge ahead of time whether you’re giving them a weak or strong encounter, which historically has always been a matter of pure DM judgment. That’s not a bad thing, IMO. When people complain about the idea of always giving PCs balanced encounters for their level, that’s really a complaint about a particular (perhaps bad, by their lights) DMing style. It’s not an inherent flaw of those editions.

  6. One thing about editions 3 and 4 that I don't particularly like is that they tell *you* what a balanced encounter is, and they have made it into something of a science. "This encounter should take 25% of the party's resources." I find that this works less well in practice than in theory. In particular, I found the 3.0 Challenge Rating system to be arbitrary to the point of uselessness. A cat has the same CR as a goblin?

    4th edition is actually where I pick a greater bone. From my experience playing and running 4th ed, a "balanced" encounter is an hour long (every time) foregone conclusion. I was a play and a DM alternately for seven months, and with a few exception every single encounter was like this, except for the "hard" encounters.

    When I create an encounter these days, I primarily try to go for something interesting. Maybe I will throw a troll at a 1st level party and see what they do... sure, they can try to fight him straight up, but they'll probably be wiped out. They can run, they can trick the troll, they can fight dirty and ambush him, they can bribe him... this is the kind of thing I want to encourage.

    I don't think that scientific encounters are a flaw, but I do think they are boring. I also think that any system designed to "balance" an encounter within certain parameters is doomed to failure; there are just too many variables invovled when it comes to characters, party composition, player tactics, etc, etc.

    Maybe I'm coming off as arrogant, but I think I've been at this long enough to not need a yardstick handed to me to make sure that my encounters aren't automatically TPKs. I suppose when there's too much system invovled in determining an encounter's appropriateness, the game feels less organic to me.

  7. I can respect that. I agree that the 3rd ed CR system was pretty broken. It was a nice first attempt, but the system was too complex, and they had to do too much assuming about party magic items & spell resources, for it to ever be really accurate.

    4th edition’s system works better, because the math underlying the system is so much better, and because PCs are less magic-item dependent. When all PCs’ defenses progress with level, and magic armor is the only thing that makes your AC better (as opposed to the plethora of different items that could do it in 3.x), and there are no items that jack up your ability scores, it’s easier to project what kind of attack bonuses and defenses PCs will have at any given level.

    All that said, it’s still just a tool, and far from universally accurate. Different play groups, different combinations of monsters, etc. will be more or less effective, and DM judgment will always be needed. IME the 4th ed system just makes it easier and quicker to design a challenging fight without excessive risk of TPK.

    I also agree that sandbox-type play, with monsters/encounters organically scattered about, doesn’t really need this kind of system.