Not only are some of the most popular movies, books, and other media devoid of “balance,” so are our lives. Sure Frodo and the Ring or David vs. Goliath is compelling, but even more so are the actual human stories we can read about on a regular basis. The odds are most certainly never in everyone’s favor, which is what pulls us in. There are countless tales of heroism that follow a similar arc the world over, from every region and culture around the globe, that follow common themes of being outmatched. The greatest stories of all time are born out of adversity. This doesn’t only count for heroic fantasy either; it goes for most types of games you might run. The unfortunate truth is that a lot of the cliché “heroic fantasy” tales told at the table don’t really come off as being very heroic at all because of our obsession with balance.
The other unfortunate truth is that, while all of us love a good story, not many of us know how to tell one. Now, I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I know how to tell a great story, especially via elf-games. Which is why when you’re at home running a game for you and your group you should keep in mind that the story that you’re telling is most definitely not going to be something that goes down in the history books of anyone other than you and your friends. You’ve really just got to focus on having fun. That’s the magic of it all though, right? Not because we’re writing Tolkien-esque novels for our campaign worlds but because what happens at the table may very well go down in your own personal histories of “great times we’ve shared.” That’s actually the whole point of playing RPGs—because they’re fun. Games are for fun.
Which is why, dear reader, when you’re running these games you should always keep in mind that running a story where the odds are stacked against your characters will almost always be more interesting than one where everything is balanced, primed, pumped, and ready for them to consume as if it were a calorically budgeted meal. Gorge yourselves on adventure. It’s messy, it’s bad for you, it’s over the top, and it sure is satisfying! Running adventures that lack perfectly polished encounters almost gurantees that something memorable is going to happen.
Fill Up Your Plate
While I’ve already talked about some measurements for making sure your encounters are imbalanced and flavorful, this sentiment still nods back to my first entry in this series about just the right number of orcs. You can use the guidelines I’ve laid out for breaking the rules, make your own, or just break all of the rules—including the ones made for breaking the rules! Look for quandaries and conundrums to inject into tense situations where conflict might unfold.
Imbalance isn’t always about the physical difficulty of the foes you might encounter. What it really comes down to is making decisions. Here’re a few examples of things that make an average encounter quite a bit tougher that don’t always involve bigger and tougher adversaries:
- Difficult Decisions. Should the bandit encampment be attacked? What if they have hostages or a neutral party in their ranks that might suffer as a result of the conflict? They may be bad guys, but what if it’s learned that the reason they’re robbing and looting is to obtain a means of payment to keep a loved one alive?
- Intangible Loot. Sometimes conflict arises because there is something apparent and valuable to be gained from it. That gain can come in the form of a new ally or as a chance to obtain even a shred of knowledge critical to your campaign or a character’s backstory that is worth heaps more than magic items, gear, or scads of gold. Consider making some of what’s at stake something the players can’t even see.
- Necessary Sacrifices. It’s clear what must be done, but it’s going to come at a cost. It could be a cost that effects one or several of the player characters’ backgrounds, alignments, or current story path. It could be that an NPC will undoubtedly die in the process, that resources may be lost or heavily depleted, or that a literal sacrifice must be made in order to appease an evil and keep it at bay.
- Overwhelming Odds. What’s worse, a few rabid owlbears or literally dozens of kobolds? Sometimes quantity is going to be a lot more intimidating than quality. This goes for monsters, traps, and a lot more. Even the sheer number of options on how to sneak into an encampment or escape a situation: not every option can be tried, so players will need to make their actions count.
Unpredictability, folly, peril, discovery, and facing seemingly impossible odds breeds investment in your game. Imbalance creates opportunities for both roleplay and clever gameplay at your table. When you think of adventure, there’s a good chance one of the last things that comes to mind, if ever, is “balance.” So keep it swingy and hold onto your health potions! Or don’t… because next time we’ll be discussing the consumable conundrum.