Whether you are using a pre-written adventure, or are creating an adventure yourself, knowing how to balance an encounter is a fundamental skill every Gamemaster should have. Sure, you could fudge a few dice rolls to bring things into line, but that method lacks finesse, and ultimately robs players of their sense of achievement. Knowing how to balance things from the start will create a far more rewarding experience for both players and GM alike.
In a way, there is no such thing as a balanced encounter, rather it’s more about creating a balanced adventure. Some encounters will be easy, while others will push the party to their limits. However, within the context of this article we’ll look just at how to create a single challenging and rewarding encounter.
What makes a Balanced Encounter
The ultimate goal of a good encounter is to push the ability of the players to best utilize the capabilities of their characters. When they triumph, they should feel like they have accomplished something of worth, if only from the sense that they played to the best of their ability.
A key thing to understand here is that not every encounter is a combat encounter. Unless your entire party wants the same experience any computer game grind can provide, they should have a diverse range of skills and abilities which help define them as a whole character, rather than a dry collection of combat stats. Balancing encounters means balancing all types of encounters, not just the combat ones. If the party lacks the skills to engage in a non-combat encounter, look at what skills they do have and try to offer other routes to victory.
Give imaginative players encounters that allow them to use their other skills. In my gaming career I’ve defeated a dragon with pins and ribbon, a Drow ‘Spider Dragon’ with Unseen Servant and Fly spells, and a band of brigands with nothing more than a single needle (not poisoned or anything, just a good Bluff skill). In all cases I had a GM who embraced what I was doing instead of trying to force the encounter to be played out the way they intended. Innovation (within logical reason) should be embraced, not quashed.
This all leads to the principle point I’m trying to make. A balanced encounter is not built by the GM alone, but by the GM in cooperation with the players. Be open to the way they want to play, and arbitrate, don’t oppose. Above all, a balanced encounter should be fun, and one of the easiest ways to make an encounter fun is to allow players to collaborate in how that fun manifests.
Know your Party
I will make this point in many articles, but one of the most important tasks for a GM is to know their party. Know both the player, and the character being played by that player. Understand the two are different yet the same. Understand their skills and abilities, and adjust your adventure to make allowances for those abilities.
If you have a pre-written adventure which is combat heavy, yet you have a team of scholars and social characters with little to no combat skills, then you have two choices. You can either choose another adventure, or you can find ways to make what skills the party has really shine through to overcome the difficult combats.
The easy thing to do is just lower the enemy count, but there is a more creative way to balance the encounter. The main focus shouldn’t be on the combat, but on the objective. If you can alter an adventure so the objective can be met using the party skills, then you have balanced the encounter. This might mean creating security holes which can be exploited, offering social or technical solutions etc.
Awareness of character skills is vital, because if a character has something they are good at, a good player will try to make use of that ability. Not every encounter needs a balanced party, it just needs clever players able to use their character’s abilities to the full. Players also need a GM who is open to working with them, not against them.
The Power of Planning
The level of peril between characters being ambushed or being the ambushers should be considerable. When you ambush a party in an encounter, they are not just giving up a surprise round of combat, they are losing the most powerful tool any good party should have; the ability to plan.
When a party has planning time, they have the chance to precast spells, make contingency plans, and put into action those special skills they have. If you have seen your party ambush 10 orcs and the encounter seemed to easy for them, it doesn’t mean they are ready to be ambushed themselves by the same number of orcs. It’s vital as a GM to understand how Force Multiplication works. Study it, understand it, and apply it to create far more dynamic encounters.
Understanding force multiplication also allows you to alter the balance of encounters with relative ease. You don’t have to change attributes or the number of enemy, you just have to alter the force multiplication.
There are countless force multipliers you can use, but planning is one of the best for a roleplay situation because it invites players to interact in character … to roleplay. If you feel an encounter is too easy, then take planning time away to heighten the drama. For example, have a sentry stumble across the party before they are ready.
When Encounters go Bad
In any game, with or without dice, the choices of the players might mean the best planned and balanced encounter just crashes into a flaming wreck. No matter how experienced a GM you are, this will happen from time to time. The measure of a good GM is how they respond to it to bring the game back on track.
I know some GMs just like killing characters. In my experience, they also tend to GM with the attitude that it’s the GM vs the Players. In my opinion a TPK (Total Party Kill) shouldn’t be viewed as a badge of honor for a GM, but as a failure as GM. This isn’t to say that players should be coddled and dice rolls changed to make sure all deaths are avoided. I actually think some deaths should happen from time to time as it reinforces that the characters are engaged in dangerous activities. If you remove death, you remove the sense of drama.
What I advocate is that every death should have meaning. If a stupidly lucky critical roll might kill a character who is being played intelligently, then that is one of the rare times I might alter the roll result. A character doing the right thing shouldn’t be punished by dumb luck.
When an entire encounter goes bad, your first call is to stress to players that they might be in over their heads and should maybe withdraw. You can do this narratively by describing how desperate things seem to be. If the party uses some common sense and withdraws, then remember the enemy probably took some damage themselves and they might not pursue right away.
A good ploy would be to have the party captured. Every nest of bad guys should have some medical facilities on hand and they should be curious as to why the party attacked them. This puts the party into a position where they can potentially learn valuable information, and they get the fun of working out how to escape. Don’t make escape easy as it trivializes what’s happened, but it should be possible.
If things are past that point of no return, it might be time to use allies of the players to save the day. This rewards people for having roleplayed well enough to have friends outside the party.
Sometimes it’s not the combat encounters that go bad, but the non-combat encounters that reveal vital clues. If one of these goes bad, it might leave the party with no way to complete the adventure. Any decent adventure should have contingency plans for plot vital failures, but not all adventures are decent.
If the plot has been lost, you have no option but to create a way for things to continue. An enemy defector or an independent investigator might be all you need to provide the missing information. When you are forced to use these handouts to keep things on track, always make an in-game reason for it, and keep the handout to a minimum. Anything more and you are robbing the players of their agency.
It’s always about Fun
Roleplayers enjoy the game for a variety of reasons, with some being serious and immersive, while others just want to drink carbonated beverages and roll dice. If you have taken the time as a GM to get to know your players, you’ll know what direction to take your encounters to balance them out.
However, even the most hardcore roleplayer would agree that as long as everyone had fun, then it’s been a good session. What defines fun might differ, and it certainly isn’t just Loony Tunes style humour. So when you are balancing encounters you need to think about what’s fun for your players, and make sure you include those elements when you can.
We are also talking about roleplaying here, not roll playing. So encounters should draw people into interacting with each other and the game world. Overcoming a well balanced challenging encounter is a real thrill, but the best thrill is just having a good time. When it really comes down to it, balancing an encounter is less about balancing numbers, and more about trying to extract as much fun as possible. Do that, and your players will keep coming back.