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Introduction to Each Post in This Series
On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.
Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance |
This series has gotten a lot of feedback, most of which has been extremely helpful. For example, between that feedback and further analysis on my part, I’ve changed position on Armor Class Ratings. It’s a great theory, but it’s implemented poorly in 1e, in part because of the specifics of 1e’s mathematical framework. I’d like to see it in a game, but not in 1e. So, hooray for the hive mind!
However, this is not a nice post. On Facebook, I asked a question about how to balance encounters in 1e. Specifically, I asked where that information is provided. I got an answer from the overwhelmingly helpful: the tables at Dungeon Master’s Guide, pages 171 and 177-179. From that I was able to get even more information by looking through Monster Manual II, pages 133-134, and Field Folio, page 100-110. However, several answers came from a perspective that I encountered frequently but never understood. Despite my acknowledgement within the question itself that some encounters should be trivial or impossible for story reasons, I received quite a few lectures on, well, the fact that some encounters should be trivial or impossible for story reasons. Some people seemed downright offended by the fact that I was even asking the question, as if there’s never a place for an encounter where the fight is challenging but winnable. This was duplicated on another Facebook post where I published a link to my post on boring magic items. In that post, my first substantive statement was:
DMs balance encounters to suit the game they want to run. Maybe they want the encounters to be average, harder than average, or easier than average, but whatever the balance they want, that’s what they want.
Nevertheless, I received criticism for not acknowledging the very point I made, including placing words in my mouth that were, in fact, that exact opposite of what I wrote.
Let me be clear: I’m not criticizing that style of play. This has nothing to do with how difficult you want your encounters or campaigns to be. That’s a matter of taste, and everyone’s entitled to play the game they want to play. My concern is that a few don’t understand the distinction between the nature of the question and play style. Even if DMs want all encounters to be exceptionally hard or exceptionally easy, how can they make them that way if they don’t know how to balance encounters? That is, if DMs don’t have a clue as to where the even balance point is, how do they know that their exceptionally hard encounters are indeed exceptionally hard? They don’t, so what they’re criticizing is my insistence on knowing whether I’ve accomplished my own goal, whatever it may be.
This isn’t championing old school gaming; it’s discouraging DMs from being prepared, and DMs with no idea what they’ve written are most certainly not prepared. Even if players shouldn’t have any sense of what they’re facing – that makes little sense unless negotiation or retreat is always a practical option – DMs should know what they’re throwing at the players. DMs should know that 4 orcs is too easy for a 10th-level party, and that Asmodeus is too hard for a 2nd-level party. Again, this isn’t to say that either encounter is per se inappropriate; it’s simply saying that DMs should know which is which. Throwing a merciless (i.e., won’t negotiate), 8 HD, never-surprised, barbed devil at a party of 1st-level PCs that can neither run away nor fight their way through is nothing more than a conscious choice by the DM to TPK that party. Why would anyone want to do that? If a DM does not want to do that, why would any DM want DMing to be an annoying trial-and-error process spanning months of gaming sessions to get enough sense of the game to avoid it?
But This Is About Game Design
Of course, this may not be the fault of DMs. The game system itself may not provide the tools necessary to make this determination, creating that annoying trial-and-error period. As this article points out, 1e could have done a better job. In fact, much of what is discussed in that post is already part of the design process of a game a friend and I are designing. (I’m tempted to do a lot of work and apply those principles to 1e.) The first box set for the Dragon Age RPG certainly falls into that category as well, providing no guidance for building balanced encounters. I was trying to do something cool by throwing something other than just another band of brigands at the low-level players. The encounter was a TPK not only because of the tremendously overpowered creatures I used, but also because their nature kept the characters from retreating. How is that fun? It’s not risky. There’s absolutely no risk at all. Those characters had a 0.000000% chance of survival. They couldn’t have won even if every single one of their d6 rolls was a 6. Did I throw the DARPG equivalent of Asmodeus at them? Nope. They were giant spiders. Giant spiders! That was an impossible encounter because the spiders showed no mercy, they were faster, and they were a superior combat force. This stupid encounter wouldn’t have occurred if there were challenge ratings attached to the creatures. Clearly there’s no story benefit to walking through the forest and dying at the hands of randomly appearing giant bugs, so why leave that as certain to occur eventually? I don’t think a single one of those players played the game again, because of course they didn’t.
I know that (many think) a game system can’t be designed to be perfect in this regard (damn, have we all been sold a bill of goods on that one), but that’s not a reason for it not to give us a good approximation, especially considering that most game designers in fact do a decent job with it. I know the dice can always roll consistently high or low, but that’s the nature of all RPGs. I know that there are min/maxers out there who game the system, but that’s also the nature of all RPGs. I know that there are tricks and traps (as 1e calls them) that make weak monsters stronger, but other game systems account for the effect of tricks and traps within their challenge rating system. None of these facts impact my argument in any way whatsoever. In fact, they don’t even address it because, as I showed, they are neither unique to 1e nor unworkable.
A game isn’t fun unless there’s a chance at both success and failure, regardless of how that success or failure is achieved. Allowing those chances to bounce from high to low prevents the game from getting stale. However, when they reach anything near 0% or 100% – not because of an occasional story necessity, but because of poor game design or game control – I have tremendous difficulty finding a reason to play. Ergo, I want to know exactly how to design encounters, and I want my DMs to know too. That’s not a lot to ask.
But here’s what really bugs me. As I said, it may not be the DM’s fault, but there are people that proudly revel in such imprecision. This is the way they claim they want to run their games, having no clue whether they’ve created a scenario that’s easy, challenging, or absolutely unwinnable. They literally might as well just roll a single d20, and if it’s [greater|lower] than a target number proclaim, “You’ve [won|lost] D&D!” Then everyone can go home and watch Netflix. I’m not the slightest bit interested in being at those tables; most people aren’t. YMMV, but some of the criticism seemed to be a reflexive reaction to specific keywords rather than an appeal to logic, so I’m not sure they believed what they were saying. I bet they don’t create impossible encounters, which I define as not having at least one means of success (combat, negotiation, or retreat).
But hey, maybe not, and that’s okay. Different strokes and all that. If you get a thrill out of killing characters with absolutely no chance of success, and the players somehow enjoy that, more power to you all. As always, play the game you want to play.
Some of You Are Your Own Worst Enemies
Disagreement is wonderful because it opens one’s eyes to other possibilities. Mischaracterizing of my words and mean-spirited snark, however, are not. (Humorous snark is always welcome.) A small few (none of whom were on MeWe) fell into the stereotypical role of an “old school gamer” that immediately launches an illogical and unfair attack against anyone who ever mentions “balance” (among other keywords). This creates a greater barrier to player recruitment than any game designer ever could. I’d love to play a game via Zoom with an experienced 1e DM before attempting to run my own game, but I won’t take the risk of being stuck with a DM like that. At least religion and politics deal with important social consequences. The fact that people behave this way when discussing games is perplexing.
I’m reluctant even to ask a simple question about the rules on Facebook because of the reactions. For example, I’ve asked for the locations of rules within the sourcebooks, which means the rules I’m looking for have an historical basis in D&D. A small number infer (fairly or not) that I want to play the game in a way differently than they do, and they have a problem with that. They’re not going to be in my game, so why do they care how I play? Their objections seem petty and insecure. I believe that’s what the kids are calling “gatekeeping,” which ruins things for the rest of us. Sadly, I’ve stopped posting these musings to specific groups littered with these folks – though they’re getting this one and will likely project their holier-than-thou attitudes onto me – so I’m going to have to be content just doing my best running the game for players I know personally even though none of us have played 1e in years or decades. I’m sure this experiment will be shorter because of it. Considering these same people complain that there aren’t enough 1e players drips with irony. To the vast majority that don’t think this way (and have been quite helpful), it’s up to you to rein in these dipshits. They certainly won’t listen to me.
Everyone balances their encounters, and their overall campaign has a balance to it as well. Balance isn’t a four letter word and shouldn’t be treated as such. On the other hand, you shouldn’t hurl genuine four-letter words at people when discussing games. Well, as long as you’re not being an asshole about it. 🙂
This isn’t about making the game easy or hard; it’s about knowing whether or not you have. Knowledge is power.
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Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)