Balance redux

Anything that is a threat to PCs can also potentially be used by PCs creatively.

This is why balance is unnecessary in an open-ended game.
I don’t think game fairness (which is really what we are talking about when we talk about balance) depends upon being able to defeat foes. A threat could be totally impervious to PCs and still useful to them. Consider the hypothetical invincible monster (such as, for example, the Dungeon World version of the Tarrasque). All you need to do is figure out how to get the paths of your other enemies to cross with the Tarrasque, and it will do your dirty work for you.
The same is true, of course, for even the most devious traps or the most deadly hazards.

9 thoughts on “Balance redux

  1. John

    Completely agree. My PCs were clever enough to weaponize yellow mold by gathering it in vials with wet bandannas over their mouths. It won them several very difficult fights before one of them rolled a nat 1 while deploying it…

  2. David Bapst

    Yeah, I think the key point is that open-endedness. I remember the fellow who ran a lot of 3.5 games once upon a time, the fairness was more like the fairness of a Warhammer game, where the players knew there was always some tactical probability they could actually win (if I picked challenge ratings well enough).

    And so we would sit and argue about tactics and movement and attacks of opportunity and flanking for 45 minutes each battle. And the reason I think that’s what the game became about was because it’s the part where they really had control of the game: other than some decision points, for the most part the players just let NPCs tell them what to do next and followed the plot along just like in the Japanese RPG computer games we liked so much.

    The one time I remember us not doing that is when a GM who didn’t know our group just presented us with a dungeon containing a dragon to kill, and we reacted by traveling to other countries, convincing orc tribes to follow our lead and led them in an attack on the dungeon so we could kill the dragon after it had been weakened killing orcs.

  3. Jeremy Murphy

    Game fairness is only one aspect of so-called “balance” discussions. And a relatively minor one, to my mind. For me, the concept of balance has always been more about having a matrix of relative mechanical difficulty and being able to place npc’s, players and monsters in that matrix relatively accurately.

    As a DM, having that matrix lets me make informed decisions about how to present adventures, creature selection and other game features. It isn’t about being “fair”, it’s about having all the information about how unfair you are actually being.

    Balance is like physics – it’s the rules about how things operate in a universe without friction.

    1. Brendan


      But that is the focus of the encounter design rules in 3E and 4E, no? To create level-appropriate fights? And the terminology “balanced encounter” is widely understood to mean that?

      Measuring monster or threat difficulty could be a useful thing, though to be honest it seems like hit dice, AC, and special ability keywords (poison, petrification, etc) are more useful than something like CR 4.

      Is figuring out how difficult a monster is really a problem that people have?

    2. Jeremy Murphy

      First issue is that in 4e and I assume 3e, they aren’t RULES – they are encounter design guidelines – the next step in the process. They are taking that relative difficulty matrix and providing some rules of thumb for using that matrix in play.

      For example, the basic matrix in 4e is +/- 3 levels from the party. It is understood that monsters more than 3 levels below the party are probably not going to pose any kind of threat, and monsters more than 3 levels higher than the party are probably going to be a stone bitch to defeat, assuming stand-up combat.

      They also provide approximate numbers of monsters vs PCs – 1 to 1 for standard monsters, .5-1 for elites, .25-1 for solos, 4-1 for minions – moving much outside those numbers is going to be mechanically difficult.

      So their rule of thumb is – use the xp budgets to easily create encounters that fall within these parameters. There is no rule in the book that you must follow the guidelines. As an informed DM I can certainly create encounters that fall well outside these parameters, but I have context to understand what I’m doing. I can mess around, but I have some go-to-guidelines to work with.

      Let’s use a system that has no such system as an example – I DM’ed a few After the Bomb games a while ago. Lack of anything resembling “balance” or rules to identify relative difficulty of opponents meant that I had to spend a TON more time creating encounters, and the results were much less predictable. I could do hours of work on an encounter that turned out to be a total breeze, or find that a throwaway encounter was brutally long and dangerous.

      Some people might like that, and the more experience you have with a system, the better you are at gauging relative difficulty – but “balance” is not about fairness – it’s about providing context and guidelines for building game materials.

    3. Brendan


      I can see how that might be useful, especially for someone new to a system, but it’s not really what I’m talking about here. The example Zak gave in his post assumes that you already know that the monster in question is “too powerful” for the PCs (t-rex in a first level adventure), and asks whether or not that is fair.

      He says it is as long as someone somewhere could come up with a way to defeat the monster. I say it’s fair even if you can’t defeat the monster, because even if you can’t kill it, you can still make use of it creatively.

  4. LS

    It occurs to me that another principle comes into play here.

    “So long as the players understand their options, and think they have a chance to succeed, the game remains fun.”

    If the players can’t understand how an invincible threat can be taken advantage of, they may be justified in feeling it makes the game boring.

    1. Brendan


      Yeah, a chance to succeed is needed for fairness. It seems like this is mostly handled by the “open-ended” clause, as players can gather information and then choose what to engage with. Anything forced on the players (events or the like) shouldn’t be a death sentence.


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