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The 4th Pillar: Rethinking Encounter Design

The 4th Pillar: Rethinking Encounter Design

The most interesting stories, the ones we share the most over the years and that stick with us longer than any others, are those that defy the odds. That inherent unfairness is what can make for the most satisfying, beautiful, and rewarding experiences possible. If the stories of David and Goliath or Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship were “balanced,” they wouldn’t have nearly the same impact that they do.

When it comes to running your games, there’s a good chance when your players sit around and share stories about their favorite gaming moments that nobody ever says, “Hey, remember that time we stumbled across that orc encampment, and there were precisely the right number of them to fight, so we felt a little threatened but not really too much?” “Oh yeah, I think I maybe drank a minor healing potion! EPIC!” No. It’s probably either a story that’s so wild I won’t even dare attempt to make up an example here, a character’s death, a brush with death that came so close it felt like cheating, or some other unexpected event. There is nothing unexpected about following charts and formulae for building encounters for characters to go up against; it’s quite the opposite actually. Rote, reliable experiences have their place. I’m not going to pretend like they don’t, but when it comes to making your games memorable, it’s best to use imbalance.

Balance as a design goal in RPGs and their adventures is a relatively new concept, at least on the surface. Early RPG adventures weren’t so much about defeating a proper number of monsters or having a well-defined path to take in order to achieve a certain set of goals. They were mostly about exploration/investigation and roleplaying, and of course, they could have plenty of combat—but combat wasn’t the prime directive. When gold was the currency that is now experience points, player characters may not have had to be involved in any fighting at all in order to progress. These scenarios made for clever, rash, or sometimes much-deliberated ideas that garnered them the wealth they desired. The “murderhobo” trope we’ve all come to know and dissect was born more out of latter editions of the game when optimization and endless lists of feats and prerequisites ruled the day.

With the rise in popularity of video games, especially multiplayer ones, the elements of balance became more evident and important, so each player could feel adequate compared to their teammates. No, I’m not making the MMO argument; this goes back even as far as popular arcade games like Gauntlet, Turtles in Time, and many others. These video games however weren’t built around a shared experience or the camaraderie and teamwork that tabletop games were. Sure, those elements were there but not really required and were more of a byproduct of simply playing a game together. The bragging rights, high scores, and a consistent experience playing them were at the forefront for these games. As with all things, change wasn’t instantaneous, but ever since then, the focus of modern multiplayer RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, have shifted away from more narrative elements and toward ensuring balance, which is why I’m here to talk to you about the lack thereof.

I’m aware that a trend is developing where we’re beginning to lean more toward session XP or GM-driven level ups at pivotal story points, using systems similar to Shadow of the Demon Lord or Savage Worlds when it comes to character advancement. However, advancement isn’t the only thing tied to balance; it’s just one example of the motivators that grease the wheel of not only how and why we play games but also how we design them. The direction of narrative games seems to be coming back into focus, but a lot of us are still hung up on building encounters by the book. We’re using hard-and-fast rules to create rigid, uninspired combat set pieces in the middle of telling stories about underdogs and crestfallen heroes, and these two things couldn’t seem more at odds with one another to me. Frodo bearing the burden of the world on his shoulders, camping on a barren mountainside and being descended upon by seven ring wraiths is very far from anything I’d remotely call balanced, but it was definitely memorable.

Now this doesn’t mean that every story where the odds are skewed terribly against someone should always come out in a tide-turning series of events. If that happened too often, the magic of it all would dissipate, like superhero movies. Which would also defeat the entire purpose of this series, so while I’m not advocating for taking things completely off the rails 100% of the time, I am for doing it more often than not. You want imbalance to really feel like something special, to create memories that stick with your players. You’ve got to know when to use it and when not to. After all, all show is no show. We’ll navigate the dos and don’ts throughout this series and talk about ways to even the odds, handle the meta aspects, and find ways to set up entire campaigns full of imbalance.

In my next installment, we’ll talk more concretely about how to break out of your encounter building box. So take whatever budget, formula, chart, matrix, or riddle you currently use for building balanced encounters and get ready to tuck it away for a while. We’re going to focus on making things interesting instead of reliable.

8 thoughts on “The 4th Pillar: Rethinking Encounter Design”

  1. There’s a lot of good points here, but there’s one in particular I want to comment on:

    > the elements of balance became more evident and important

    After running D&D and then Pathfinder games for a few decades, the realization that I eventually reached is that actually, balance is a white whale. No matter how hard you try to achieve it, you’ll never reach perfect balance, and trying to do so will only make the game less fun for everybody else. Balance only matters when the lack of it causes people to not have fun.

    While I still like those games, lately I’ve been a much bigger fan of running narrative games like Dungeon World specifically because they don’t really even try to aim for “balance.” When it comes to character design being interesting is much more fun than being balanced, and throwing away most of the mechanics that are used to achieve balance also leaves you with a game that is much easier to run and play. D&D still scratches a very specific tactical miniatures-based itch, but nowadays I don’t have several hours per week of spare time that I can use for prepping games, so I prefer ones that take about ten minutes of prep.

    1. I’m with you there. The same goes for me in the past few years I’ve really gravitated toward systems that are less math-intensive, but even when using the ones that are I tend to just ignore 90% of the encounter building rules. More importantly so though is the last thing you touched on, and that’s how quickly can I get up and running. With Shadow of the Demon Lord or Savage Worlds I can go from “not prepared at all, omg” to “ready to run this game” in about 15 minutes. It’s probably my top priority in a game at this point.

    2. I too have stopped chasing the White Whale. People forget that the original D&D game, the one that became world famous and started the whole industry, was as unbalanced as heck!

      Some of my players kept a “death file”, a notebook stuffed with the character sheets of characters who had died. After just a few yeas of play it was a couple inches thick – and I was considered a “soft” DM!

      After two decades of play I switched from 1e to 3e, and didn’t like it much. Not because it was “bad”, but because I tried to make encounters balanced like the rules said I should, and it never worked. I gave up on balance when I switched over to Pathfinder, and now I am much happier. Not because PF is better than 3e, but because I learned to ignore the balanced encounter rules.

  2. You know how I design encounters? Somewhere between “How cool would that be?” And “How many of that miniature do I have?” And my characters survive. Most encounters I run would qualify as “deadly” or above. I’ve tried a few times in my 38 years of GMing to use the rules to design encounters, but they were never as cool as just throwing what would make a cool battle at my players.

  3. I agree completely! Throw epic hard things at them, let them figure out how to handle it. And also remember to balance it with an occasional encounter that’s much easier than anticipated:

    -“The bandits swarm towards you, seeing easy pickings.”
    -“I cast Fireball!”
    -*roll*
    -“With one cacophonous explosion the entire bandit force is reduced to a smoking pile of shattered bodies on the scorched ground, as the air fills with the smell of burnt hair and melting human fat.”

    Wizard is now appropriately amazed at how powerful he is, instead of treating Fireball like a throwaway tool.

  4. My general rule is to block out things by “zone”. If you’re in town, we use balanced encounters. I do this because it makes town feel safe. Frankly, unless you’re dealing with a major NPC your PCs *should* feel overpowered in town.

    However, that spooky faerie forest that everyone says is super deadly? You go in there and the encounter xp budget goes directly to hard+ with intelligent fae running the tactics for the encounters.

    The caverns underneath the forest? Deadly+ and the terrain is always to your disadvantage. Enemies use hit and run tactics,etc.

    My players routinely tell wild stories about the time they were tricked by hags, or they had to negotiate with an adult green dragon at level 1, how they had to un-kill a dryad after grafting a dragonblood soaked tree onto its stump and nature tried to destroy it as an abomination, etc.

    WRITE FIRST, STAT LATER

  5. I am so tired of the Myth that D&D wasn’t originally about combat. Hello, people! The game was created by table top Wargamers. Of course combat had a heavy focus. I started playing the game in 1975, a year after it came out, and back then it was mostly; go into the dungeon, explore, kill things, take their loot, solve puzzles, go back to town, split treasure, rinse repeat until you rescued the princess or whatever overarching goal we had. This did start to change in the late 80s, around the time of 2.0, with a heavier emphasis on RP. And then, yes, it swung back to a more combat heavy emphasis with 3.0, and with 5.0 it is swinging back again to a heavier RP emphasis. Mind you, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the heavier RP emphasis, but can we quite pretending it is how the game originally was?

    1. “…mostly; go into the dungeon, explore, kill things, take their loot, solve puzzles, go back to town, split treasure, rinse repeat until you rescued the princess or whatever overarching goal we had.”

      I’d argue that this proves the early game was more than just about combat. I recognize the game’s roots and I’m not denying that or trying to say otherwise. What I am saying though, is that while the spirit of the game has always been simulationist, that spirit was always predicated upon the sense of wonder and exploration. I suppose it’s a chicken and egg argument but I feel like it’s a sentiment still worth sharing.

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