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30 Days of Gamemastering: Part Thirteen

October 14, 2013

This is part thirteen in the continuing series of posts for the “30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge” from Triple Crit.

Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?

This is something that I’ve always found to be a challenge when running a game. In my current Pathfinder campaign, it’s made a little bit easier due to the Challenge Rating (CR) rules that are built into the system. These guidelines work pretty well to set up balanced encounters. But I’ve also run plenty of systems where there are not such cut-and-dried rules for setting up encounters–for these, the process is a mite more fuzzy.

The first thing that I try to establish when I start planning an encounter is what I want the end goal to be. Is this a climatic fight with the end-boss? Is this just a small bump in the characters’ road? What are the stakes? A large part of this is thinking about what would be the result if things went horribly awry. What happens if they lose? Should the characters be facing possible death here? Once I decide this, then I try to plan the encounter accordingly based on past behavior of the players, character stats and abilities, etc.

Of course, things never go according to plan. Sometimes I didn’t make the encounter as challenging as I’d like. Other times, it is far more challenging than I anticipated. For these cases, I try to go back to my original thoughts on the encounter. So they’re beating my encounter pretty handily–how does this hurt the story? The characters underestimated how challenging the bureaucrat would be in a fight–does this help the story? And once I decide this, I try to improvise behind the screen, making adjustments along the way that improve the campaign. Or I don’t, letting the dice fall where they may. It all depends on the consequences of the encounter to the story. I don’t really like to have character deaths occur during minor encounters–unless the player is doing something really, really questionable. Does this mean I fudge to bring balance to the game? You bet. Do I always decide in favor of the players? No…I try to decide in favor of the story. It’s a nuanced difference, but an important one.

What about you? How to bring balance to the Force…er, your encounters? Let me know in the comments!

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