Encounter balance in AD&D


First Post
I support your assessment. The best game I design revolved around the fact the players were outclassed, and hidden purpose of the game was not the simple task set down, but to find out why they were outclassed, and gather intel to get assistance. It took another 8 levels before they wre even powerful enough to address and overcome the adversary. It does stop slash and grab mentality very quickly.

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On the second point, I've had a couple of recent conversations on these boards which have driven it home. I am coming to feel that, in D&D play, perhaps nothing is more fundamental than the answer to the question: who chooses the encounters, players or GM? Because classic D&D answers "the players" - by choosing which rooms to enter/raid; and by choosing when not to run from wandering monsters - it's approach to balancing is naturally quite different from what is typical in the modern game.

But I get a bit frustrated by people who are playing games in which the GM chooses the encounters, and yet make a big deal about the importance of "smart" or "cautious" players realising that some of them need to be avoided rather than confronted. This might be good or bad D&D (to me, without more context, it often seems rather railroad-y), but comparing it to player-driven dungeon exploration is (in my view) just wrong. The best I can make of it is that the GM is framing the players into a puzzle, where the consequence of the wrong choice (fighting when the GM intended the PCs to flee) is character death.

This is interesting.

I think you've got a really good point here... but I'm also curious to see what the detailed implications are. For one thing, do you think that a game can be suitably player-driven even if it's about more than just dungeon exploration? I think so. Fundamentally, I don't think I pick encounters for the players in the games I run these days. Whether they are exploring a ruin, hunting bandits, working as agents for a young Bronze Dragon, planning a heist for a guild... whatever. It's all just stuff in the world. They can choose to interact with things, or not. They can choose to fight people, or not.

I'm sensitive to the possibility that I am actually choosing for them through omission and control of information, too. But I try hard to avoid that. I throw more adventuring opportunities at them than they can actually keep up with, so I genuinely won't know what they might choose.

I telegraph difficulty, in many cases well before the adventure is undertaken... e.g. the reports are that the bandits are organized and numerous (at least two score), scar themselves with infernal runes, and many of them seem to use magic. They recently took out a caravan that was guarded by 40 men. That gives a clear indication that these will not be CR 1/4 Bandits with crossbows. If the party chooses to hunt these bandits, and does not treat them with deserved caution, they could get killed. It happens. It's not a puzzle, really, it's just... interacting with the world.

When there is a potential difficulty spike in an otherwise previously telegraphed situation, I'll telegraph that, too. e.g. the druid cultists, plant blights, and mold men all spoke of "the Herald" in hushed, reverent tones. When a lone figure is spotted watching the party at a distance, their NPC were-rat friend first goes to investigate. They follow and see that their were-rat friend is writhing on the ground, near death. The figure cuts off part of the party with a deadly wall of thorns. She then speaks, casually, to the one PC that managed to get relatively close. She seems like she's going to leave, without fighting. I think that telegraphs that this figure is substantially more powerful than the threats fought so far. The were-rat has shrugged off many attacks that were frightening to other partymembers. So at that point, when the level 4 rogue charges in and tries to take the Herald out solo, I don't think a reverse gravity into the night sky is an unfair "punishment." I don't even really think it was a puzzle. It was an encounter with a powerful, dangerous, evil, person who lives in the world and doesn't bear the party much specific ill will.

I do think fleeing should be an appropriate, allowed activity. I find, in editions where flight rules are not included, I will inevitably just adjudicate them generously. It hasn't been a huge difficulty so far... fleeing should generally be easier than pursuing, in most cases.

I think all of this is rather different than a carefully sculpted story that leads the party through a series of level appropriate, or level inappropriate (and the party is expected/scripted to flee), encounters.


This is interesting.

I think you've got a really good point here... but I'm also curious to see what the detailed implications are. For one thing, do you think that a game can be suitably player-driven even if it's about more than just dungeon exploration?
Short answer - yes!

Longer-but-buck-passing answer - this thread.

Third try at an answer - in this thread I explained how "I placed a single elite level 13 dire bear . . .The players decided that their PCs would try to tame and befriend the bear instead of fighting it. To keep the XP and pacing about the same as I'd planned, I decided to run this as a level 13 complexity 2 skill challenge (6 successes before 3 failures)."

Which triggered the following exchange:

in a "fiction-first" system, the players could attempt to avoid a combat because that offered their best chance of success. If you design the challenge of avoiding said combat "To keep the XP and pacing about the same as I'd planned", then you undo the value of that choice.
I strongly disagree. Wide variance in difficulty or rewards based on player strategy doesn't preserve the value and meaning of player choice, it destroys that value - essentially, you create a single correct choice.


Similarly, if a diplomatic approach is just as hard as a fight, whether or not the PCs have good CHA, skill trainings, etc means something. The fact that the characters chose a non violent means of resolving the problem even if it wasn't any easier tells us something about their values. If talking is easy, then PCs can get through without strong social skills, and all that their choice tells us about the characters is that they're expedient.

When one choice is obviously superior, going for it is a pretty trivial decision.
I agree with Victim. If you want a player-driven game, the situation has be framed by the GM so that the players have a range of mechanically viable choices, and the choice they actually make - and hence the resulting outcome, whether success or failure - reflects the players interests/desires/concerns.

If the GM frames the situation such that there is an objectively cleverer or more effective solution, then (i) the only value that is recognised and rewarded is expedience, and (ii) the game essentially becomes a GM-driven game in which the job of the players is to solve the puzzles and hence hit upon the expedient solution.

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