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!


  1. The chief problem with 5e's Challenge Rating system is that it doesn't work very well (in my experience), especially above 4th-5th level. Part of this is the calculation's default assumption that the player-characters have no magic items (at any level), and it provides no method to scaling the numbers for characters who do (which is all of them). It also assumes that every monster has average hit points.

    Early on in running 5e, I painstakingly worked out the encounter math only to watch the party steamroll medium-to-hard encounters. Even when I ramped up the difficulty to Deadly, the encounters were often little more than a speedbump. I finally abandoned the CR system altogether and just used gut instinct. I also routinely gave the monsters greater than average hit points, and often added special abilities to the monsters to make the fights interesting because many of 5e's creatures are just boring bags of hit points with easily avoided or negated abilities.

    1. I hear Xanathar's system is better, but havent tried it in practice.

    2. I'd already stopped trying by the time Xanathar's came out. I look at the creature's CR rating as a rough estimate of level range, but I don't rely on it as an accurate measure of the difficulty. I've run enough of 5e that I have a pretty good feel for how tough a fight will be. Once I started getting back into the old school rules, I realized how much more fun it was to NOT try to "balance" everything. Much easier on the DM workload.

    3. Compeltely agree. The DM workload is too much; better to reduce it to a minimum.

    4. True, I had very similar problems. Hard encounters got steamrolled by the party, deadly encounters were "normal".

      This was in a 40+ session campaign with a party that was far from optimized. (It had a Wild Magic Sorcerer and a Ranger/Hunter with very suboptimal stats).
      I gave out few combat-relevant magic items and the party had two beginner players.

      The 5e encounter balancing system is trash. :-)

  2. I think looking at balance on the level of the individual encounter is misguided anyway. You have to zoom out to the level of an entire "module" (e.g. a single or multi-adventure scenario or a mini-setting such as the Caves of Chaos) where balance becomes more abstract and broader of focus. No individual encounter needs to be painstakingly balanced, because it's not expected that the party must engage every single one, let alone in combat. Does the setting or scenario include quite a few areas and encounters that feel likely to fall well within the power of a party of the intended level to handle without overextending its resources? Does it include some that feel on par with the party's power level and could prove quite costly or uncertain of outcome, demanding player discretion? Does it include a few that are almost certainly killers if tackled with brute force? If it has all of these, to my mind, that's balanced.

    1. Yes, I like this balanced approach for modules: enemies that are weak (and attack on sight), strong enemies who cannot be defeated easily, encounters that cannot be solved by fighting, social encounters, puzzles, etc.