Give Enemies Missions Too
A new RPT GM emailed me and said something that triggered a thought about how to better balance your encounters.
Here’s a snippet of his email:
“The guild gives them an easy base of operations and provides a simple way of offering up quests on a job board.
It’s been going really well, but I’m getting ready to introduce a bit more complexity into the story in the form of a deadly conspiracy that they’re about to stumble into.
They just found a secret passage in the sewers while completing their latest job, and it’s going to lead to a serious encounter that I’m not sure I’ve balanced properly.
We’ll see how it goes and I might have to fudge some enemy hit points here and there to get them through it but it should at least be fun.”
I Avoid Fudging
These days I don’t fudge. I roll all my dice in the open (except for skill and sense checks whose results would spoil the drama) and run stuff as-is from my notes.
For long-term campaigns, I believe such consistency maintains player trust and gives PCs more options in the long run. Great for sandbox games.
I also think encounter balance is more sorcery than science. There are over a dozen ways a preset encounter could be thrown off-balance.
For example, if PCs are heavily wounded versus fully rested. Another example is if the player who’s got the smooth-talking PC can’t make the session.
Most encounters cannot be created in advance with confidence over things like character resources, player attendance, split parties, foolish decisions, and session pacing.
Now, when I say I don’t fudge, I mean the game stats. I just don’t sweat the numbers anymore.
Instead, I make the story dynamic. Which is the point of today’s Musing.
Balance Encounters With Story Instead of Numbers
Don’t worry about fudging enemy hit points. It leads to scripting. Come at it from the other end, instead.
If the character lose, let them lose. And use the loss to open up more gameplay.
One awesome way to do this is through enemy missions.
Give monsters and enemies combat missions too.
A Rogue Example
For example, the party crawls the sewers and comes upon a thieves’ guild safehouse. There’s a lookout lurking outside, two guards inside the door on alert, and three thieves just back from a job and hiding from searching guards above.
Let’s say the party has depleted half their resources. Spells, miracles, stunts, boons, and whatnot.
The six thieves’ guild members are too tough for the four PCs. Players don’t spot the lookout and don’t know what’s behind the mysterious secret door, however, so they enter.
Some great initial options to change your story on-the-fly to make the encounter more even might be:
- The lookout warns her comrades and runs away to get help
- The thieves are winded and wounded from their heist
- The guards are dumb and make bad choices that put them at disadvantage
So let’s say you tweak your story to even things up a bit and the characters still lose.
No problem. The thieves don’t want to fight to the death. Most foes wouldn’t.
Who wants death on their conscience the rest of their life?
Who wants dead weight bodies to deal with?
Who wants their home, lair, or hideout splattered with gore that’s gonna stink and attract attention?
So no, the thieves choose to use non-lethal damage as each PC goes down. Instead, capturing the PCs could get them a reward with the boss. Or ransom money. Or new pawns. Maybe some important information.
Now we’ve got awesome grist for further adventure!
Temporary setbacks make for more exciting gameplay than always letting characters win.
Let decisions and dice roll where they may. You’re playing an infinite game. And foe missions let you do that.
Another Group of Free NPCs
Noah at FreeNPC has reached 50 NPCs! A great feat, Noah, thank you.
New to the stream are: