I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, December 29, 2023

Encounter balance - how I avoid using it

As I have mentioned in the last post, I've been talking about "balanced encounters" on X/Twitter.

I half-jokingly mentioned that if "encounter balance" was real, the monsters would win half the battles [I heard this one from @rbalbi, who credits Carlinhos Malvadeza].

Ended up having a great conversation with balbi, my friend @JensD29 and @optionalrule, which you can check here.

Balbi and Jens had a great back and forth, but I didn't feel X was a good medium for that, so I decided to write this blog post instead of elaborating there.

[Here is Jens' take, BTW; we disagreed].

First, Jens and optionalrule defended that a "balanced encounter" does not mean fair - it is only a way to measure how challenging an encounter is (usually, when compared to the existing party).

They are right. Most people use the expression to indicate how much effort or resources the PCs need to apply to win the fight (not usually to evaluate IF they can win the fight, or the odds of a TPK).

But if "balance" means the PCs always have the upper hand, it should be called "unfair advantage" or "plot immunity".

This is my main problem with "balanced encounters", IMO: it is a misnomer. “Challenge rating”, from 5e D&D, is a better term.

Balanced sounds like it means fair; a 10th-level warrior against a goblin does not sound balanced, but if you call it "very easy"it might make sense,

[While we're at it, a hard encounter should necessarily mean decent changes of defeat. If you do not have the stomach for this, you should call it a "costly" encounter becasue it costs you a spell slot or lots of HP. Anyway.].

"Balance" sounds like two sides are (or should) be similar in power.

Worse, the idea that the monsters the PCs meet should be previously measured against the PC’s capabilities also often carries a lot of (unspoken) assumptions I do not like, such as:

- The world revolves around the PCs. For me, this ruins the feeling of "immersion", or the idea that the setting is a real place and not a playground with clear limits (and height requirements).

- The PCs can solve anything with a fight - since all creatures they encounter is level-appropriate. This may also lead to the belief that every encounter is a fight, which impoverishes the game as it discourages other creative approaches, such as negotiation, planning, sneaking, finding allies or even escaping.

- Every fight is winnable. If the PCs ever see a dragon attacking a city, they know they CAN win. They lose the sense of progress that they would get by encountering a foe that's just too strong for them at first... But that they can defeat later, after they get more XP and magic items.

- The GM picks the fights for the PCs. This is an implication that ties balanced encounters to railroading: why would the GM need to ensure balance if it was up to the PCs to decide if they'll fight a goblin or a dragon next?

Now, I'm not 100% against balanced encounters, as they are useful in a number of ways – for example, writing “for 4-6 characters of levels 5-8” in the cover of an adventure module, or to give you an idea of how many orcs were needed to destroy the kobold city the PCs have just entered.

By the way, I think saying a module is “unbalanced” is fair criticism IF the module indicates the PCs have to fight impossible odds to win (if there are ways AROUND those challenges, the module should disclose that to the GM).

But my games did become a lot better after I stopped worrying about “crafting balanced encounters” for the PCs. Instead, I scatter challenges around, and let the players choose where to go. If they choose violence, well, I have no kobold on this fight - now it is up to the dice.

However, I think that balanced encounters are a (sometimes misguided) solution to a real problem: nobody wants the PCs to be thrown into a fight that they have no chance of winning against their will.

If feels unfair and unfun. It robs the players of choice and even of their own PCs through no fault of their own, and can end a campaign for no good reason.

I think we can avoid this issue without having to worry about how “balanced” the encounters are. 
Here are a few suggestions:

- Information – To avoid entering unwinnable fights, the PCs must have some ways to gain access to information about the capabilities of their foes. There are innumerable ways to do that. 

Some are obvious (they expect giants to be stronger than goblins), some are more indirect (charred reamins of several people are found near the cave entrance), and part of the information is in the players' memories (from previous adventures, experiences and even pop culture - "did you say Tomb of Horrors?"). Foreshadowing is a popular tecnique. 

Consistency is important – if the PCs fought a giant, they know what to expect when they face his biger cousin. Monster stats do not vary that much under most circumstances (which is one of the reasons I disliked 4e minion rules).

The easiest way to balance fights to the PC's capabilities is probably using something similar to dungeon levels (i.e., the deeper you are in the dungeon, the more dangerous the monsters become). In this case, it is up to the players - not the GM - to decide how far they are willing to go ("wilderness levels" is a subject I am tackling soon...) 

- Options – Once the PCs have information, it will become obvious that they have options (conversely, if they have NO way to acquire information, their choices about where to go or which door to open are meaningless).

But the players do not simply pick their encounters - they must know they have options even after they encounter a creature. They can avoid, parlay, escape, etc.

- Freedom and responsibility. Now that the PCs have all the tools (and freedom) to make informed choices, encounter balance becomes their responsibility. It takes this load from the GM's back while empowering the players at the same time. 

Of course, adding unpredictability to this mix can occasionally be lots of fun. Even with the best information, the PCs can fail. 

For example, I was recently playing in another GM's campaign and a critical hit almost caused a TPK in a hard, but otherwise ordinary, encounter (that the PCs were "supposed" to win without heavy losses). 

The GM apologized, but I insisted this is part of the game - and, TBH, it was quite fun. 

But this is another matter, for another post... maybe in 2024!

Happy new year!

Friday, December 22, 2023

D&D (6e) recommends fudging? (Peril in Pinebrook)

I've been using X/Twitter lately, but I have no idea if I'm doing it right. 

I just take a look at what people I follow are talking about and start rambling over half a dozen tweets.

Today I've seen two related subjects: encounter balance and fudging (more specifically, a kind of "deus ex machina" that is tantamount to fudging, i.e., send the dragon or Paladin to save the PCs if they ever get caught in a bad situation).

The reason seems to be this bit from an upcoming D&D module that teaches new players how to play (Peril in Pinebrook). Apparently, it is a specifically written for children:

As you can see, they avoided recommending that you simply change the results of the dice - but the effects are pretty much the same.

Well, I have written several posts against fudging and illusionism already, so I'll try to avoid repeating myself too much.

Instead, I'll just mention a couple of thoughts I expressed on X/Twitter today.

"Fudging" and "illusionism" are popular among D&D players in 2023.
It's okay if your table likes them, but I hate to see it taught as if this was the ONLY valid playstyle.
ESPECIALLY while you are learning the game.

I don't like this, but if your table wants kids gloves this is a valid playstyle... just be honest that this is what you're doing.
I think kids have to learn honesty and fair play too.

You absolutely can run a game where no PCs ever die for good.
E.g., Dark Souls. Or Toon.
Just be honest to your players about it.

I wish that everyone that recommends fudging the dice would add at least a few caveats:
- It is not universally accepted (and there are several people that strongly advises AGAINST it).
- Can lead to loss of trust (the GM is lying/cheating) and wrong assumptions (e.g., "we can defeat an adult red dragon"!).
- Puts an undue burden on the GM (e.g., "I am responsible for saving the PCs").

Some people believe both in "balanced encounters" and that "fudging is okay".
So, the encounters are designed for the PC's convenience, but if they (or you) FU you STILL have to save their asses?
I can see defending one or the other - I like neither - but defending BOTH is strange IMO.
Makes you think that the GM is not only responsible to create "fair" fights (or, to be more precise, fights the PCs will probably win) but ALSO to save them if they don't.

That's all I have for today... "Balanced encounters" deserve a post of its own.

For now...

I wish you all a Merry Christmas!

Aditional reading:

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

In praise of Basic Fantasy (BFRPG)

As we've mentioned before, Basic Fantasy RPG (BFRPG) is a clone of Basic D&D, "with small changes, mainly ascending armor class and separation of character race and class."

This post is just a homage to this system that you probably already know... and if you don't, you're missing out!

You can check the SRD and books for free (the SRD has a few "dice rolling" tools embedded... nice!).

Now, while I haven't played BFRPG by-the-book, I've read it multiple times and used many modules and ideas, so I can say I'm a fan.

The Blackapple Brugh is probably the best BFRPG adventure I ran (and probably one of the best free adventures available anywhere). It has social encounters, an interesting take on elves, a coherent dungeon, investigation, exploration... I definitely recommend it. My group had a blast!

But there are others!

F1 Morgansfort is a decent campaign starter, with a base and a few vanilla dungeons (which I usually dislike, but serves well for introductory purposes).

If you need a Castle by the Sea or a Dark Temple, you can check the respective modules... Each has half a dozen options for each, with a single map but different contents, levels, etc.

In addition, you have a couple of monster manuals, some high-level adventures, and entire campaigns you can get for free. There are also free modules with optional rules, such as additional classes and races, weapon proficiencies, backgrounds, skills, "ability rolls", etc..

The production values are very good for free products (probably superior to many classic modules) - the layout and maps are simple and easy-to-use, and many modules contain plenty B&W art ranging from weak to awesome.

I have read a few others but I'll save my impressions until I can actually run them - which should happen during 2024.

As a retroclone, it does its job well - the basic book has few but worthy changes. Classes have 20 levels, but are otherwise similar to B/X. Clerics spells and thief abilities are organized. Races are more or less well-balanced.

The bestiary is a bit more expansive (and, maybe, flavorful) than B/X, and the encounter tables are more sensible and coherent (but unfortunately too short for my tastes - 15 entries are not enough for me).

Magic items - which are a bit limited in B/X - are considerably expanded here. There is also an amazing supplement expanding all kinds of items (The Equipment Emporium).

Overall, as a basic retroclone, BFRPG stands somewhere between OSE (which has rules that are nearly identical to B/X) and DCC (which has lots of cool innovations). The system is Basic with some Advanced additions. Likewise, the flavor is somewhere between vanilla and weird. It has a good balance, usually choosing "classic" solutions over novelty.

The best thing about BFRPG, however, could be its open/free philosophy, encouraging people to participate and create their own stuff, which fosters an amazing community with lots of free tools, in addition to cheap physical books and good rules.

FWIW, most of my books (written with B/X in mind) are perfectly compatible to BFRPG, including Old School Feats and Alternate Magic. My OSR adventure adventure could be a good addition to a BFRPG campaign - I think the flavor fits perfectly!

BFRPG has a CC-BY-SA version too, which I appreciate; after the OGL debacle, I'm thinking of using it for my own games in the future.

After all, these are some of my favorite aspects of the OSR: the ability to build on top of each other's creations, combining rules and adventures from different sources, and creating a community with a shared language even if each table is using its own preferred rules.

EDIT: I created a small list of things I like about "core" BFRPG. Most of these are already mentioned above.

- CC license.

- Race separated from class.

- Cleric spells are "fixed".

- All thief abilities use percentages.

- PCs go to level 20.

- The weapon list is more sensible than B/X, and magic item tables are more expansive.

- Contains some new, interesting monsters.

Monday, December 04, 2023

Cutting fireballs in half

A small addition to a recent post.

As people noticed in the comments, it is not such a huge deal. But a random idea came to mind.

What if we just cut everything by half? Say, magic-users have a "Sorcery" skill that is half their level, round up (clerics use 1/3 level, round to nearest integer).

With sorcery 3, you can cast level 3 spells. Also, fireball does 1d6 damage per sorcery level. In B/X, this would mean 7d6 at most, but up to 10d6 in AD&D.

Now, to replace spell slots, just roll 1d20, add your sorcery level (and maybe INT), subtract spell level. 20 or more means you get to keep the spell. 

Or use spell points.

Magic-missile follow a similar pattern; you can throw three at once only when you get level 6 spells (3d6+3 with no saves and ignoring armor is not bad).

MAYBE you can choose to "upcast" by dealing maximum damage and losing the spell automatically, which adds a risk-reward aspect and allows you to cast fireball with its former glory once a day.

This makes magic-users weaker. To compensate, they use fighter XP table and can use any weapon and armor.

This doesn't really "solve" D&D magic but would allow to give old school games a stronger S&S feel - fireballs are less impressive, charm and sleep are still powerful, and wizards rely on swords often.

BTW: maybe the same goes for dragons. 10 HD means 5d6 breath. So PCs have a fighting chance - even if you give them more HD.

Anyway, just a random thought for now.