D&D General Why Unbalanced Combat Encounters Can Enhance Your Dungeons & Dragons Experience

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I think we may be defining "balanced" differently?

To me, balanced means that the characters, as they are, have a good chance of defeating the threat without any other needed resources. When I populate an adventure with balanced challenges, some will be a little easy, some a little hard, some just right. It's basically Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Then expand that somewhat further. In 4e terms, it sounds to me like you're considering only fights with an XP budget between level-1 and level+1, perhaps +/- 2 if you're feeling generous. Believe it or not, the 4e DMG--again, the book for the edition everyone decries as "too balanced"--explicitly tells you not to do this. For example, in the section Table Rules, it has a couple of paragraphs (p ) about "Metagame Thinking" (all emphasis in original):
Metagame Thinking: Players get the best enjoy-​
ment when they preserve the willing suspension of
disbelief. A roleplaying game’s premise is that it is an
experience of fictional people in a fictional world.
Metagame thinking means thinking about the​
game as a game. It’s like a character in a movie know-
ing he’s in a movie and acting accordingly. “This
dragon must be a few levels higher than we are,” a
player might say. “The DM wouldn’t throw such a
tough monster at us!” Or you might hear, “The read
aloud text spent a lot of time on that door—let’s search
it again!”
Discourage this by giving players a gentle verbal​
reminder: “But what do your characters think?” Or, you
could curb metagame thinking by asking for Percep-
tion checks when there’s nothing to see, or setting up
an encounter that is much higher level than the char-
acters are. Just make sure to give them a way to avoid it
or retreat.
Or these two paragraphs on page 30 (in the "Running the Game" chapter.) The first is part of a longer section about Character Death, and the second is part of the Fixing Your Mistakes section. All emphasis in original.
Your players also have to know that you’re fair in​
designing encounters and are not stacking the odds
against them from the beginning. It’s fine to throw
tough encounters at them and sometimes to let them
face monsters they can’t beat. But it’s not fair if the
players have no way to know they can’t win the fight
or have no way to escape. Scare them, but don’t trap
them.
(skipping several paragraphs)

Encounter Too Hard​

It can be hard to judge ahead of time just how tough​
an encounter is. Throwing a 13th-level monster at
a 9th-level party is often fine, but if the creature
has regeneration that negates all the damage the
characters do to it, they will be hard pressed to survive
that fight.
(Snipped list of suggestions for how to address this issue.)
Or this section (p 56-57) from "Encounter Components," all emphasis in original.
You can offer your players a greater challenge or
an easier time by setting your encounter level two or
three levels higher or one or two levels lower than
the party’s level. It’s a good idea to vary the difficulty
of your encounters over the course of an adventure,
just as you vary other elements of encounters to keep
things interesting (see “encounter Mix,” page 104).
...and here's the reference for page 104, which goes into much greater detail:

ENCOUNTER MIX​

When you’re building an adventure, try to vary the
encounters you include, including combat and non-
combat challenges, easy and difficult encounters, a
variety of settings and monsters, and situations that
appeal to your players’ different personalities and
motivations. This variation creates an exciting rhythm.
Adventures that lack this sort of variety can become a
tiresome grind.
[some paragraphs about plot/tactical variance that aren't relevant...]

Difficulty​

If every encounter gives the players a perfectly bal-
anced challenge, the game can get stale. Once in a
while, characters need an encounter that doesn’t signif-
icantly tax their resources, or an encounter that makes
them seriously scared for their characters’ survival—or
even makes them flee.
The majority of the encounters in an adventure​
should be moderate difficulty—challenging but not
overwhelming, falling right about the party’s level or
one higher. Monsters in a standard encounter might
range from three levels below the characters to about
four levels above them. These encounters should make
up the bulk of your adventure.
Easy encounters are two to three levels below the​
party, and might include monsters as many as four
levels lower than the party. These encounters let the
characters feel powerful. If you build an encounter
using monsters that were a serious threat to the char-
acters six or seven levels ago, you’ll remind them of
how much they’ve grown in power and capabilities
since the last time they fought those monsters. You
might include an easy encounter about once per char-
acter level—don’t overdo it.
Hard encounters are two to three levels above​
the party, and can include monsters that are five to
seven levels above the characters. These encounters
really test the characters’ resources, and might force
them to take an extended rest at the end. They also
bring a greater feeling of accomplishment, though, so
make sure to include about one such encounter per
character level. However, be careful of using high-
level soldiers and brutes in these encounters. Soldier
monsters get really hard to hit when they’re five levels
above the party, and brutes can do too much damage
at that level.
Monsters that are more than eight levels higher​
than the characters can pretty easily kill a character,
and in a group they have a chance of taking out the
whole party. Use such overpowering encounters with
great care. Players should enter the encounter with
a clear sense of the danger they’re facing, and have
at least one good option for escaping with their lives,
whether that’s headlong flight or clever negotiation.

Notice, the description even allows for monsters more than eight levels above the party's level. It doesn't say, "never ever do this." It says, "Do this with care. The characters are very likely to die. The players should probably know what they're getting into, and have a clear shot at escape." So...do you believe 4e is a "balanced" game? If you do, then how can "balance" mean exclusively the "tiresome grind" that the book explicitly tells you not to use? The subsequent text basically says, "Make 10%-20% of your encounters Easy, 10%-20% of your encounters Hard, and the remaining 60%-80% Standard." A standard encounter is a solid challenge; if the party rolls very well and their enemies roll poorly, it might become a cakewalk, while if the reverse happens they may need to beat a hasty retreat. (I have done this multiple times in 4e play.) In 5e terms, "Hard" difficulty is probably closest to 4e "Standard," and "Deadly" is closest to 4e "Hard."

When I put in "unbalanced" encounters, it means I'm making choices based not on what the characters can face, but what would be natural or interesting for the adventure. A Hill Giant boss in a den of goblin thieves for a 1st - 3rd Level adventure is an unbalanced encounter. A vampire lording over a starting town is an unbalanced encounter.
So, consider just calling it a "hard" encounter, without using the word "balance" in any form. What do you lose by changing that term? Do the descriptions I quoted above not permit for an encounter of this kind, even though 4e is the allegedly excessive "balance" edition?

To me, as long as I communicate the level of threat, an unbalanced encounter unlocks a lot of interesting gameplay! In my experience, the players have to rely on a broader range of gameplay skills and narrative possibilities.
Which is what the paragraphs above explicitly say, repeatedly. Mix up your encounters. Provide variation. Don't fall into a "stale" rhythm. Provide encounters where the party fights the same monster statblock, but seven levels later--so they can see how much they've grown. Throw unwinnable fights at them, if they know those fights are unwinnable or at least have a chance to survive if they're quick or clever or charismatic. Etc.

This goes the other way, too. A population of kobolds living in a Level 8-10 dungeon is an unbalanced encounter. The characters could easily wipe them out, but because kobolds would be so easy to defeat, it actually invites other gameplay possibilities. Should we take over the tribe? Trick them? Intimidate them? Or just Fireball?
Again: Is any of that incompatible with the descriptions quoted above? (Do note, some of those solutions would involve re-factoring the challenge in a different way, e.g. if the party chooses to take over, trick, or intimidate the warren, that likely would be an impromptu skill challenge, with the DM making judgment calls about the difficulty of such a task.)

Because people talk a really big game about how 4e is this horrible, draconian nightmare of a system where you are forced to make everything in near-perfect lock-step with the characters. And then when you actually dig into their claims and show them the game text, every single thing they talk about is right there, explicit in the text, without need for interpretation.

So: Are the encounters you're talking about unbalanced? Or are they simply ones where you, the DM, know that they can't be solved by brute force? (or, in the case of the kobolds, that they could be trivially solved by brute force, but maybe the PCs are powerful enough now to find other, more interesting solutions.)
 

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BookTenTiger

He / Him
Then expand that somewhat further. In 4e terms, it sounds to me like you're considering only fights with an XP budget between level-1 and level+1, perhaps +/- 2 if you're feeling generous. Believe it or not, the 4e DMG--again, the book for the edition everyone decries as "too balanced"--explicitly tells you not to do this. For example, in the section Table Rules, it has a couple of paragraphs (p ) about "Metagame Thinking" (all emphasis in original):

Or these two paragraphs on page 30 (in the "Running the Game" chapter.) The first is part of a longer section about Character Death, and the second is part of the Fixing Your Mistakes section. All emphasis in original.

Or this section (p 56-57) from "Encounter Components," all emphasis in original.

...and here's the reference for page 104, which goes into much greater detail:


Notice, the description even allows for monsters more than eight levels above the party's level. It doesn't say, "never ever do this." It says, "Do this with care. The characters are very likely to die. The players should probably know what they're getting into, and have a clear shot at escape." So...do you believe 4e is a "balanced" game? If you do, then how can "balance" mean exclusively the "tiresome grind" that the book explicitly tells you not to use?


So, consider just calling it a "hard" encounter, without using the word "balance" in any form. What do you lose by changing that term? Do the descriptions I quoted above not permit for an encounter of this kind, even though 4e is the allegedly excessive "balance" edition?


Which is what the paragraphs above explicitly say, repeatedly. Mix up your encounters. Provide variation. Don't fall into a "stale" rhythm. Provide encounters where the party fights the same monster statblock, but seven levels later--so they can see how much they've grown. Throw unwinnable fights at them, if they know those fights are unwinnable or at least have a chance to survive if they're quick or clever or charismatic. Etc.


Again: Is any of that incompatible with the descriptions quoted above? (Do note, some of those solutions would involve re-factoring the challenge in a different way, e.g. if the party chooses to take over, trick, or intimidate the warren, that likely would be an impromptu skill challenge, with the DM making judgment calls about the difficulty of such a task.)

Because people talk a really big game about how 4e is this horrible, draconian nightmare of a system where you are forced to make everything in near-perfect lock-step with the characters. And then when you actually dig into their claims and show them the game text, every single thing they talk about is right there, explicit in the text, without need for interpretation.

So: Are the encounters you're talking about unbalanced? Or are they simply ones where you, the DM, know that they can't be solved by brute force? (or, in the case of the kobolds, that they could be trivially solved by brute force, but maybe the PCs are powerful enough now to find other, more interesting solutions.)
I really don't understand how any of this adds to the conversation. What does it matter if I mean unbalanced or cannot be solved by brute force? Either way it's adding to the fun of my adventures.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I really don't understand how any of this adds to the conversation. What does it matter if I mean unbalanced or cannot be solved by brute force? Either way it's adding to the fun of my adventures.
Because "unbalanced" should mean something. It should tell you something about the encounter. It shouldn't just be shorthand for "a hard fight" or "a fight that you can't brute force" or "a fight that actually requires cleverness." It should be a fight that is broken. Because that's what "unbalanced" means.

That's why people keep saying that you can make unbalanced fights in balanced systems, but you can't make balanced fights in unbalanced ones. You can't take assorted glass shards and just will them into being a tumbler. You can always break a tumbler if you have ones on hand.

Further, when people talk up "unbalanced" encounters, it is almost always at least in part to poo-poo "balanced" encounters. It is used very frequently to show how using "balanced" encounters is desperately dull, and tedious, and stuffy, and boring, and desperately dull, that there's this TOTALLY better way if you just destroy any notion of "balance."

But that's never what they mean, and it's incredibly frustrating. "Balance" has been twisted into this four-letter word, a boogeyman to flee from, the dreaded specter of awful boring games as opposed to the galmorous excitement of "unbalance." But that tells designers, "Do whatever-the-heck you want. It doesn't matter! The rules don't matter." And that gets us systems that are actually broken. Like, I dunno, the 5e CR system, which is often worse than just eyeballing answers! That gets us things where we don't actually have any idea what a "hard" encounter is or an "easy" encounter. It gets us systems where even a highly educated guess might as well be random for all the difference it makes. It gets us systems where DMs are given no tools, no advice, no structure, just "alright champ, have at it, you know best!"
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
As long as you're adequately telegraphing the threat in a way the players understand so that they can make reasonably informed decisions, go nuts, I say.
This is the heart of the issue.

If players can't gauge the enemy, they will treat every foe as the same threat.

If the early fights are hard, they will run from everything.

If the early fights are easy, they will charge at everything.

And only the DM telegraphing the changes will cause them to use different approaches.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
This is the heart of the issue.

If players can't gauge the enemy, they will treat every foe as the same threat.

If the early fights are hard, they will run from everything.

If the early fights are easy, they will charge at everything.

And only the DM telegraphing the changes will cause them to use different approaches.
Further:

If the system can't actually tell you how hard things are, how can you telegraph anything?
 

I think that the role of an encounter is to allow players to run their characters in many different scenario and behavior.

A mix of various encounters may be the best solution:

A fight leading to an obvious win
A fight leading to an obvious retreat
A fight where you don’t really know the strength of your opponents
A fight that you want to calm down
A complete mess fight, splitting the party, with chase and so on.
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Further:

If the system can't actually tell you how hard things are, how can you telegraph anything?
1. The "system" for determining difficulty of a challenge is close enough in my view for the average party with average players. It's not perfect, sure, but nothing will be because

2. The level of difficulty of an encounter can change the moment the players start making decisions that impact it, and no system can account for all of those variables. So

3. Have a plan for what to do if PCs die (e.g. backup characters) and a system in place for resolving the PCs' retreat (e.g. chase rules from the DMG).

Understand and do these things and play on.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
The CR for a combat encounter is simply a guide to know whether you’re in the sweet spot such that the outcome is uncertain (the cost to win being low, a few HP etc, or high, one or more characters dead or dying; and dialing that in for your particular group is an art, rather than something that can be simply looked up in a table).

If the challenge is too easy or too hard then the outcome is certain and you, as a DM, should be prepared for that. A certain TPK should be handled very carefully of course.

So sure, have your world populated as you see fit, but the the responsibility is on your shoulders to communicate the threat level to the party. It should also be noted that threats that are way above the parties level would likely just ignore them, unless they like to eat adventurers :)
 


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