9 Ways to Balance Encounters

I’m following a Facebook thread in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons group (this is a closed group, you must apply for admittance). A DM asks for advice regarding learning to produce better balanced encounters. This is an interesting thread, but like most Facebook threads, it quickly got too complicated to follow (more on that later).

One reply posted the link to this blog entry: Myths & Legends – 9 Ways to Balance Encounters

Up front the author doesn’t define “balance” nor what “balanced encounters” are. My take is that this blog entry could be renamed “9 Ways to Produce Good Encounters for Your Party” and it would possibly be more correct. [Just pointing this out as the meaning of the word “balance” is a tough one to agree upon in any OSR game.] That said, the author makes some really good points, which I think are worth repeating.

The first point, #1 Never put balance first, makes complete sense. If we are thinking about “balance” up front then we are not concentrating on the potentials of the encounter. We are likely (IMO) to make the encounter too weak. Not that every encounter needs to be really difficult, but some do and this thinking limits us. If we design an encounter that is too tough, we can scale it down easier than we can scale a weak encounter up.

Point #3 (If the PCs are supposed to run from this thing, you better make sure they actually can escape it) is so obvious … yet I’ve read stories of impossible encounters that resulted in TPKs, where the DM didn’t allow the party to run. By extension, the DM should think through the likely results of every encounter, and give some thought to what may happen.

I’ve made the joke that I’m good at spontaneous DMing, but I’m better when I plan to be spontaneous. But it’s true — no matter how good we are at flying by the seat of our pants, in the long term we do better with planned encounters, which including thinking at least a bit about where an encounter will go.

My last comment is on #8 By the numbers. The author recommends comparing various numbers, including the likely damage done by each side each round. This is calculated by figuring the average damage done, the likelihood of hits, and the number of attacks per round. Plus reducing the damage per round as PCs and monsters are killed off.

I supposed that if I had a program that would take all that information and generate a table of results, I’d probably use it. But to calculate it by hand for each encounter? Far too much work, plus it doesn’t take into account variables such as existing damage to the party, area effect, etc. [My current party doesn’t go toe-to-toe with anything without softening the foe up with missile and/or area attack if they can.]

This is the only point in the blog I disagree with. While considering the damage each side can deal out is important, I can’t see going to this level of effort. IMO it’s wasted effort.

I recommend this blog entry for reading for all DMs, regarding of which game(s) you play. The ideas for producing balanced encounters are system agnostic and make a DM think about what they are doing when building encounters.


Thoughts on Facebook

I follow four D&D / OSR groups on Facebook. I find a lot of good ideas are posted.

But it has the drawback of social media — things cycle off the page far too quickly. Finding anything posted more than a week or two is difficult. In the long term I’m much happier with forums such as Dragonsfoot and OSRgaming, as old materials can be found, even years later. There’s no point in putting effort into writing something of significance if it’s going to be lost in the ether.

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