Asymmetry in Roleplay - Part 3 - Encounters


Recent versions of D&D have sought to promote the idea that parties of characters should be presented with a formulaic series of encounters with challenge ratings that are balanced according to their level, plus or minus a little. Here I would like to discuss the value of asymmetric encounters, in which the party are faced with a challenge that is trivially easy for them, or else so difficult they have little or no hope of success.

In fairness, the concept of balanced encounters has been around since the early days when D&D modules were produced with specific level ranges in mind - though the suggested level ranges on many 1st edition modules were pretty broad (thereby suggesting that party asymmetry, which I discussed in my previous article, was an expected feature of the 1e landscape). Successive versions of the game have worked to engineer encounter balance with increasing sophistication, as if this was something that needed fixing; unfortunately, this has also given rise to an increasing sense of player entitlement where they have an expectation of what level of challenge they are likely to meet and what sort of reward they are to expect for overcoming it (even going so far in some groups that the DM will allow the players to decide what magical loot they find). Is this a bad thing? Well, it depend on your particular gaming priorities I guess. To me, it certainly detracts from the sense of a believable story set in a realistic world. When things get too damn convenient for the protagonists, it smacks of cheese.

People will actively avoid running into more trouble than they can handle

To an extent, in the same way that we might argue there are in-game reasons why someone assembling a party would take pains to get the right people for the job, we might also argue that those people will actively avoid running into more trouble than they can handle, or wasting their time on trivial fluff. And yet, if you spend a week travelling through a wilderness when you are 1st level and run into a few wolves, why is it that when you travel through the same wilderness a while later when you are 5th level you keep running into trolls, and then a bit later still, again in the same wilderness when you’re 8th level - you just happen to run into a behir.

I guess there are two ways you might respond to this:

  1. The anthropic principle. In an infinite multiverse, some party somewhere will just happen to be fortunate enough to enjoy a career of ideally balanced encounters. Luckily, that party is you. If it weren’t you, then obviously you wouldn’t have had those encounters, but you did, so obviously you are that party, so quit complaining.
  2. Encounters that are unbalanced are not fun or (shudder) cool. My game is all about fun, cool encounters. This is fantasy, right? What does realism have to do with that? I’m a narrativist, not a simulationist. My 8th level characters would find wolves a bit boring to deal with, so - bring on the behir and naturalism be damned.

For me, with my desire for a balanced mix of simulationist grit and narrative enjoyment, the anthropic principle will only stretch so far. For me, a good story is an emergent thing that is born of a party-centric narrative which nevertheless isn't a railroad, but set in a simulationist, ‘built’ world with areas of varying challenge level that the party may or may not blunder into, and with events that the party may or may not have the misfortune to get tangled up in, and which allows for the possibility that sometimes, Shit May Happen that the party are not prepared for.

Reactions to this vary, but this approach hasn’t lost me many players so far, and they keep turning up for more, so I guess it’s working OK. Sometimes, new players to the group have trouble getting their heads around this concept that the entire world isn't designed around their expectations and convenience, but after a while they generally settle in to the immersive campaigning ethos. However, the fact that they are surprised to find themselves in a campaign where reality isn't bent to please them indicates how pervasive this sense of entitlement is in contemporary gaming culture.

Death is always a possibility, and the players know it

So, sometimes in my campaign the characters may end up fleeing from a situation that they can’t handle. Death is always a possibility, and the players know it - though it doesn't happen too frequently. I'll also say that if a party is sensible enough to turn tail and flee I'll usually be lenient on them when it comes to determining their chances of escaping.

But what about the other end of the spectrum - when the party runs into hostile creatures that pose them virtually no threat whatsoever? Well, I do like to throw these in occasionally, to add to the sense of realism and flavour. Running into a few bugbears is part of the scene setting in a wilderness trek, and they don’t have to immediately realise they are bugbears, either - the encounter can be introduced by saying that someone spots some movement nearby, build up the tension a little and then let them feel relief that it isn’t actually a behir after all but something they can handle quite easily.

Sometimes the party will have the means to simply avoid the encounter altogether. Other times, they will get stuck in and revel in the ease with which they deal with their opposition. I should add that I don’t insist on running every single trivial encounter a party might have - some I will simply describe, saying ‘you encounter nothing worse than a few goblins and wolves along the way which pose no threat to seasoned adventurers like yourselves’. Nevertheless, just throwing the odd one in once in a while as a set-piece encounter is a nice exercise.

The interesting thing I’ve found, in fact, is that characters/players tend to be more generous to their adversaries the more heavily they outclass them. Whereas at lower levels they will fight the evil hobgoblins to the death and take no prisoners, when the hobgoblins pose them virtually no threat at all they almost feel a bit guilty about killing them and are more likely to try to end the combat by non-violent means and then send them on their way (maybe even healing the injured ones to show there’s no hard feelings). I guess when you’ve faced undead horrors and abominations from the Abyss hobgoblins seem just too human to slaughter without mercy.

So, over to you, 'greners. Asymmetric encounters - good or bad?

You have to cheat a bit to make the game work, and balancing encounters is one of those cheats. Done well it is part of the story, with asymmetric encounters adding credibility to the deception. Done poorly, it leads to a sense of entitlement and dis-engagement from the story. I love encouters that break the pattern; Encounters that are about the story rather than the numbers.

Liberated from fear of the Bugbears and Goblins, the characters can engage the encounter with a new perspective and look at ways to solve the "problem" of these creatures in a new way. They can explore the reasons behind the cruelty of the creatures, and find an adventure hook within the mundane encounter. Something that eventually may lead to a magnificently balanced encounter.

Cheating to create game balance is fine; So long as your players still run; So long as your players still fight; So long as your players still engage encounters far below their level. If they are doing those three things you probably have a good game.

I had a funny encounter that was above level for the characters. I was playing a modified version of the Iron Fortress Module and the characters were on the plane of Archeron, close to the gate. We just switched to the 3.5 rules from I wanted to make sure we had a number of brute physical encounters so that everyone could get their "sea legs" with the new system. They had made short work of the Iron Guardian animated Lions that attacked them at several opportunities and I felt the session need a pace change.

Warriors would use a gate to travel to the eternal battlefields of Archeron and back to an outer plane. I decided to create a classed Gnoll leading some giants and put them near the gate to ambush the battle-weary. As the encounter rolled around I upgraded the Giants to 5 Mountain Giants. Way too much for the party to handle.

At a distance the Mountain Giants began hurling boulders. On of the party members inhabits the body of a bronze golem (we used some ideas from the Eberron war-forged to help us translate the atypical character). The first hit they got on the golem resulted in raucous laughter from the giants, who henceforth proceeded to target the character in a cruel game of "whack the weasel." Pointing, shouting, cheering, and laughing the giant's barrage sent the character scurrying for cover and protection -- Actions that only made the game more fun for the giants, who seemed unconcerned by the ranged damage coming from the party.

The giants ran out of boulders and began to charge (lots of ways to cheat). Realizing that they could be outclassed in this edition, just as much as the last (in spite of their new and improved HP), they fled with the aid of magic back to the gate. The next adventure will allow them to be conscripted to help deal with this un-lawful menace and take on one or two giants, exacting some well needed revenge. Especially the golem character who wasn't laughing nearly as hard of the rest of us when his character go "clanged" for thirty and forty points of damage a pop.

Asymmetrical can be a lot of fun.

"And yet, if you spend a week travelling through a wilderness when you are 1st level and run into a few wolves, why is it that when you travel through the same wilderness a while later when you are 5th level you keep running into trolls, and then a bit later still, again in the same wilderness when you’re 8th level - you just happen to run into a behir."

Here's one way: When the party killed the wolves, they opened an ecological niche that the trolls moved in to fill. After they killed the trolls, the behir moved in. Their own actions changed the parameters. Assuming, of course, that they killed enough to reach the tipping-point. Which might have been very very close (if the GM needs it so).

^^That's all just a bit too pat for my tastes, though it does solve the "scaling world" conundrum. Trolls don't eat what wolves eat (yes yes...I know...they eat anything), or at least could not subsist on what one pack of wolves weekly could hunt. Likewise for the behir taking the trolls place. In this situation, the new beasts would "take a bite and move on" as it were...thus creating an even more unlikely situation which is just as much a pet peeve of mine as the one being discussed; that the PCs always show up precisely at the right moment for something interesting to occur. This exacerbates the destruction of suspension of disbelief, lending to the illusion that if the PCs aren't around nothing happens.

Better in my opinion to have the asymmetry. Sometimes you turn the wrong corner and aren't prepared for what you find there. Scaling wildernesses drive me mental in video games, and when I encounter them in RPGs I walk away.

Gil: 5 Mountain Giants. Hey, you don't mess around do you? My players had to come down to earth in a similar way when we migrated to 3rd edition - indeed that was one of my main motivations for doing so, I could immediately see that the game scaled much better at higher levels. I've also got a copy of 'Lord of the Iron Fortress' and I'm looking forward to dropping it in at a suitable opportunity. The party has a contact in Acheron (one of Lei Kung's vassals who accompanied them on an adventure) who might feed them the hook.

Kathleen: That's a nice thought, but as Scott says it doesn't really rescue the scaling wilderness idea. A given area of land will only support a certain number of large predators. Killing ten wolves won't open the field up for them to be replaced by ten trolls, who will require a much bigger food intake - so their niche could only be filled by a smaller number of trolls, which means the CR of that encounter will remain more or less static if we make the reasonable assumption that CR and food intake tend to correlate for living creatures. If, on the other hand, things went the way you suggest, then the human race (in the real world) would be beset on all sides by huge predators that moved in to fill the ecological niches we've emptied by driving species to extinction. That might encourage us to be more responsible as a species, but it isn't happening.

Which is a pity, because having trolls and behirs move in to replace the wolves and bears we've hunted to extinction here in the UK might be sort of fun.

Hi there,

new here, but I like to say a word.

I play RGPs by more than 16 years and GMing by fourteen.
Personally I've never considered the "balancing" rules.

I've come up with some considerations:

1) Balancing encounters is only a D&D issue. What I mean is that in many RPGs books this argument isn't ruled. It simply left to the GM discretion and good sense.

2) Balancing is a GM affair. For the sake of the story I can throw at the party whatever "danger" I like. It's our story, so no book can rule how I must allow a Red Dragon to be killed.

3) Balacing ecounters will leave the world without immersion/realism/challenge. My players know that a bunch of battle hardened warriors can be deadly.

4) Personally, rules that consider "magical weapons or objects" as a balacing staff is totally off road. They will standardize the magical level of any campaign, while every group will enjoy a different mystical level.

In the years I've come to understand that many discussed RPGs issues are D&D only issues.
To this end I've quitted using D&D years ago.

"In the years I've come to understand that many discussed RPGs issues are D&D only issues"

That's real talk right there. I've noticed the same thing. I'd take it one step further though and posit the theory that it's more like they are "D&D *player or GM*" issues only. I used the d20 system, and before that AD&D, for many years without worrying about those things. The trouble arises when you find yourself with players (or a GM) that expects things to be run as written.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's why standardized rules exist in the first place...common ground. But, it's also a good arguement for using GURPS.

(LOL...that being said, I'm back to using the d20 rules again...GURPS just takes too damn long to make characters for my tastes)

Ha! Scottie, I knew you'd be back to d20 after the honeymoon with GURPS was over. I had the exact same experience....a great system in principle, but it tires you out over the long haul. We'll probably go back to play it occasionally, though, for non-fantasy RP.

I think the D&D obsession with encounter balance really started with 3rd edition, and has been fine-tuned with 4e to the point where it's become entrenched in the contemporary D&D mindset - a sad state of affairs IMHO. I entirely agree with DFA that magical items being incorporated into the encounter balancing via the CR system standardises the expected level of magical power in the campaign, which is undesirable.

I play 3.5e, but I honestly believe that the best way for a DM to learn how to build scenarios and encounters is through learned experience rather than following someone's formulaic approach, because you wouldn't give a toddler a pair of crutches to help them learn to walk. Yes, some parents use a babywalker for a while - but then they take it away. With a gamer group there's no parents to whisk away the DM's babywalker (read: encounter balancing system) so they just keep using it. It would be better if it weren't there at all, just some qualitative advice.

Besides, I think everyone should dish out / experience a TPK at least once in their gaming career ;-) It's just healthy.

re: the babywalker theory

Far too true. Also some real talk right there. I don't agree that it shouldn't be there at's a useful mechanic. But, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If you aren't fixing it, you don't need a mechanic. And so on.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the encounter balance system helps out people that have never roleplayed before (or are unfamiliar with any given edition of any given rules set); but for those of us that are far from new at this, it serves no purpose at all. We've seen (or been) those walking without the babywalker and so it's easy for us to responsibly and knowledgeably cast it aside when we're familiar with our environment (re: the rules) to walk on our own. It's very telling of WoTC that it's become more, and not less, a part of The Way The Game Works. We are not their target market anymore...the MMORPG'ers and CCG'ers of the world are.

That being said, they can have their fun, and we can have ours. We can even do it with same set of rules. We just have to do it in seperate rooms...or preferably seperate neighborhoods if possible.

Sadly, I must admit that some rules will not help, but hinder, new players.

My personal experiences (and view on the issue) is that if you are a starting GM, with a starting group, you will have a blast experimenting.

What if an encounter is too difficult for you party? They will be killed!?
And... what? Nobody will get hurt for sure.

1) You will roll up other PCs
2) You will say that PCs aren't dead but heavily wounded and the next encounter you will try to better balance the odds. With time you will learn your options...

This approach is essetial to RPG, for various reasons, imho:

1) You will learn to gauge the power level of party (well beyond the "Level" value).
2) You will learn to gauge the power level of different creatures and monsters
3) You have more input to use monsters to the maximum (since you will not think that CR 1 monster isn't a proper challange to 15th level PCs) (this point is very GM dependant)
4) You will (can?) learn that creatures can be used as storyteller tools, depending on the situations and SPECIFIC powers. You will not think of a generic CR.
--A PCs sensible to cold can perceive cold based attacks as devastating. (I know that in D&D this types of weakness are very rare, but this is a generic view of the matter).
5) Will not gave birth to a new generations of players that will complain that at level X they should only do battle with creature CR Y... very disturbing.

I could immediately see that the game scaled much better at higher levels. I've also got a copy of 'Lord of the Iron Fortress' and I'm looking forward to dropping it in at a suitable opportunity. The party has a contact in Acheron (one of Lei Kung's vassals who accompanied them on an adventure) who might feed them the hook. That's a nice thought, but as Scott says it doesn't really rescue the scaling wilderness idea. A given area of land will only support a certain number of large predators. Killing ten wolves won't open the field up for them to be replaced by ten trolls, who will require a much bigger food intake - so their niche could only be filled by a smaller number of trolls, which means the CR of that encounter will remain more or less static if we make the reasonable assumption that CR and food intake tend to correlate for living creatures..

A way out could be to do something to the *terrain itself* that makes those low CR encounters more challengeing. A blizzard, a flash flood, a sandstorm...a meteor strike.

As long as you can tie the crunchy bits (scaled encounters, CRs, etc) to the fluffy bits (political uprising exiles local low level nobles who have to resort to banditry...thus replacing wolves with men) the crunchy bits become invisible.

Continuing the wolves example...PCs defeat the wolves, but not the food the wolves ate. Thus the food supply increases. More wolves come to the area (a pack that wasn't as tough as the ones the PCs dealt with). These wolves aren't as tough, so they're easily bullied by the fiendish dire wolf that was left masterless when the PCs defeated the evil wizard one town over. Living high on the abundant food they get tough and fat. The dire wolf teaches them a trick or two and they are more organized than the last wolves, so when the PCs pass back through they face a tougher challenge that doesn't seem arbitrary (well, it will until they recognize the fiendish wolf that escaped from that encounter a couple levels ago). They fight the wolves, and most scatter...a few are defeated. Probably even the fiendish ring leader. Next time they pass through the area, the nobles I mentioned earlier are in exile and the PCs face some bandits with military training. Those that survive somehow capture and train the remaining wolves (who now also have military like training thanks to the fiendish leader they lost) and when the PCs pass through again, they now face nobles turned bandits with a grudge against them, using trained wolves in their scuffle.

Scaling wilderness doesn't *have* to seem just usually does anyways.

The alternatives are two. 1) Screw scaling wilderness, they encounter a tarrasque regardless of their level; or 2) Let there be nothing. That's right...nothing. Sometimes, even when there are PCs around...nothing interesting at all happens. If every jaunt through the woods results in an encounter, *everyone* would have levels in a PC class or die.

I'll never understand the necessity of finding a rationale for rules introduced without a rationale.

Shouldn't be the other way around?

If you aren't using those rules, then it's no problem. If you are, and you want to keep them that way...then you have to find a rationale. I think that the rules *were* introduced with a rationale behind them, albeit one that we don't necessarily agree with.

Myself, I don't find tieing the crunch and fluff together to be "rationalizing" though. I consider it to be good use of system to help enforce setting, and good use of setting to help enforce system.

From personal experience, I can say that the balancing concern does tend to insinuate itself into one's mind: After playing D&D3 for a few years, I read the Savage Worlds rulebook last year. I found the game cool and interesting, so I considered running a game for my group. One concern kept cropping up: How do I know the challenges (monsters, etc.) fit the group? will they be too easy, will they overwhelm them?
How, indeed, fo you moitor this in other games?
While I've come to realize I'm looking at this wrong, I still wonder about this...

While I totally agree with Scott, gherkin and Gil, I'm in the same place as zip here. While one TPK might be desirable, many is not, especially when you put as much work into your characters as me and the people I like to play with do. So how does one learn to judge the scale? Keeping things asymmetrical is good, but one should *know* they are keeping things asymmetrical. I remember doing a D&D campaign ran by one of my friends, where we were all at 4th level. He was new to the DMing thing, and basically just looked through the book for monsters he thought were cool. It was so funny. He tried to set a Purple Worm on us, but saw the name "Psuedodragon" next to the picture and said it was a psuedodragon. Then he was confused when one of our party, very knowledgeable about this stuff, tried to grab the psuedodragon and train it for future use. It made for a hilarious experience, but serves to underscore my point. Putting in a purple worm to humble us is one thing, putting it in not really knowing what it is is another. D&D 3-3.5 tried to solve this problem by making the CR system, so people would know to maybe wait a little bit before expecting the party to defeat the purple worm. As is typical with D&D, the correction became far too reaching and morphed into something that got in the way of a good game. So I think one needs to have a balance. There should be some sort of scale saying, this is way above, this is equal, etc., so the GM knows what he/she is doing, but it shouldn't be the be all end all of running a game - it should just be a guideline to make sure we know we're gonna kill the party with this one lol.

So...instead of describing what the creature looked like, he just said, "You are attacked by a pseudodragon"? That was his first mistake right there.

And the scale you're talking about already exists; if I recall correctly a group of 4 adventurers will have roughly 20% of their resources used by tackling an encounter whose CR is equal to the average level within the party. So you use that as your middle line and go from there.

As I've said in many other threads, I don't feel that the correction became far too reaching "as is typical with D&D". I think that the correction became far too reaching "as is typical with the average *D&D player or GM*".

None of us here on this website are typical. That's why we're here. But surely you have to admit that the *typical* D&D player is a very special breed of gamer. Maybe not quite short-bus special, but certainly special.

lol i had a friend who had to ride the short bus because it was the only one that went to his neighborhood. that always cracks me up.

well, in his defense, this was his first experience running a game. Only Jesus ran a good game on his first try. Yes, I know that scale is there in D&D. I'm saying it's lacking in other games who've completely tossed any middle line out as a response to what D&D or the D&D player has done. I just feel that for any game with encounters with varying levels of challenge to them (wow i butchered that but it's late leave me alone) there should be some kind of middle line guidance system.

Yeah, guidlines are good. The problem is that so many people take the measurements and make the game. It becomes formulaic and predictable. I really appreciate that 3.5 D&D has CR stuff in it. Especially since I am relatively new to the system(3.5), and brand-new to DMing in it.

"he just said, "You are attacked by a pseudodragon"? That was his first mistake right there"

I agree. But that is because we are on the Narrativist side of the G-N-S (Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist) spectrum. I admonish players [through the responses of NPC's] every time a "game term" comes out of their mouths. Asking someone how many "hit-points" they have, for instance, will illicit very odd responses from "people" in an imaginary world. I had a warrior describe, for ten minutes the "hit-points" of his fighting style. "You see we favour a "hit-point" on the elbow -- it is a much more accessible target and can lead to more lethal "hit-points" like the head or chest..." Thinking about it now I should have just had him say "twenty." His style of fighting focuses on twenty hit-points (hand, arm, head ...)
I'd really annoy the gamists that I learned D&D 3.5 from with that kind of play. I enjoyed romping through dungeons, 5-foot stepping, min-maxing my stat-buffs, and playing the game their way. They'd endulge me my sewn together bits of fur that I'd pull out of my bag of tricks -- A bag bought from the very nicest place called "Ye olde magick shoppe," down the street. They'd endulge me tipping the shop-keeper, and even asking his name -- so long as I did a good job of ensuring that we flanked out enemies and I remembered to put my miniature in the middle of a square. It brought me no end of joy when we did a combat in 3.5 and my players carefully put their mini's on intersections or near the back edge of a square, or just poking round corners. For our game though, I let them put their character wherever they could imagine them. They don't need to sit in the middle of the square.

LG - Are you going to do a bit on the Asymmetry in Storylines? Instead of mighty quests to save the world, have the players go on a quest to get Irendian blue wine to the wedding feast?

Also in his defense, he did describe it as a large purple worm. But, we're thinking wyrm's in that term. Also, admittedly, due to the bad influence of one particular player, we were more gamist than we actually liked. Which goes a long way in explaining why our games never lasted longer than three sessions. Hopefully I've fully kicked off my original style of play, but I doubt it.

A few considarations...

Last night session a player of mine asked me:
Player: "This ecounter was very tough, but we made it. It's like you know exactly the "breaking point". How do you know it?"
Me: "I don't. I flow with the game."

While I GM by many years (15 or 16), what I feel is that to became a great GM you must make mistakes. Everyone of us has thinked that looking through a monster manual filled with absurdities could be fun... for a while.
All in all you will balance the encounter during the encounter itself.
Sure it is useful a rating (CR for example) to compare a creature might, but the matter should stop there.

I sincerily feel that "balancing" is a very subjetive matter. I can be a GM that likes to be lazy on PCs and allow the to kill very dangerous monster with ease or I could discard "fantasy" monster for more gritty mercenaries and soldiers (like I do).

I'd like to know the rationale to the balancing rules of D&D 3.x and even more on the D&D 4e.
While the rules itself can BE useful to novices (a guideline) it will generate a scaling world mechanic that sure will hamper the world "suspension of disbilief".
In the example of the wolf (above), what is clear is that these rules aren't so interesting if you are trying to create a live world were your PCs are only fow of millions.

I think that rules like these, in the last decade, has been useful in creating what I call "Programmed GM".
A GM that will allow whatever "build" a player desire (the rules say so), that will balance every encounter (the rules say so), that will give out X magical items (the rules say so), that will give out X gp (the rules say so), and will concentrate the session on feats computing (the rules say so), that will use whatever monster is presented (they are in the monster manual, after all).

A great GM, imho, isn't one that will prepare the forthcoming session a month early, thinking to whatever bit the PCs could do, balancing encounter, preparing traps and magical gap to prevent this or that spell.
A great GM is one that is playing on the table with his players. An adventure is never "finished" until the player finish it!!
This is also true for the encounters. You must balance them during the encounter itself. You, the GM, are playing also!!
Too tough? A foe can go panic and flee!
Too easy? Some reinforcements could arrive or simply leave it be... or use more strategy.
You like to use only "human monsters", like soldiers, mercenaries, etc?
Give them more intelligence and tricks. A check on the internet on medieval fight methods could reveal a lot more than a monster manual and some interesting notions that can be useful even for a dwarf fighter.

Too wordy.

@ Gilgamesh - Asymmetry In Storylines sounds like a great idea for the next post in the series. In fact, if you fancy writing my guest! I have something in the pipeline on another topic and it'll be a while before I have time to do another one in the 'Asymmetry' series.

This seems to be a very old conversation, but I'm interested enough to make a comment.

I think the real debate here is about when an RPG is a story and when it's a game. The ideal mix is going to be different for each gaming group.

Asymmetry is a valuable, vital part of any and every story. In the Empire Strikes Back, I would say the main reason that the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker duel is so compelling is because the characters in the story and the audience know that Luke is in a situation deeper than he can handle. In Return of the Jedi, the playing field changes.

The advantage that any static storytelling medium has over a roleplaying game is that it's all planned in advance. Luke can get his butt handed to him and his hand sliced off, because the Milinnium Falcon will be there to catch him when he falls. If ESB was an RPG, the GM couldn't count on Luke surviving past the first round of combat and fleeing to the bottom of Cloud City, or the characters in the Falcon thinking far enough ahead to go back for him. The fact that different people control different elements of the story is what makes an RPG storyline so difficult to control, and what makes it so awesome. I personally consider the combined creation that an RPG group can craft to be the pinnacle of storytelling artistry.

At the same time, the game aspect makes things fun, challenging, and random. I believe that any kind of game mechanics within an RPG are purely optional, but can be a very powerful instrument in propelling the story and creating fun within the game. When a conflict occurs between two parties in the game world, the rules create a way to resolve said conflict. Each rules set is going to have a different bias, whether it's narrativist (Dogs in the Vineyard?), simulationist (Hero system?) or gamist
(D&D 4e). The rules should reflect the kind of experience you're trying to create. The Dogs in the Vineyard system is simply not going to be able to handle dungeon-delving heroic adventures as well as D&D, because that's what D&D is designed for. In the same way, trying to run a DitV style game wuth D&D is going to be difficult.

I firmly believe that the "fluff" should drive the "crunch" in a game, because that's how I like it. I also enjoy backwards-enginering story "fluff" reasons for why the "crunch" acts the way it does, when the real reason probably is to improve the game elements. For example, in a campaign setting I'm developing for 4e, one of the major themes is that power has a polarizing effect: that as you gain more power in any form, you are pushed away from neutrality towards greater good or greater evil. A second theme is that brighter lights cast darker shadows. The nature of how this world works is that the more powerfully good and light or evil and dark you become, the more noticable you are to the powers that be on either side, and the more the general inanimate forces of light and darkness in the world work for or against you, respectively. And, as such, that's why 1st-level PC's fight kobolds and 30th-level PC's fight Orkus. Or whatever. Of course, it's not exactly like that in every case, and "power" can be interpreted in many more ways than in combat ability.

The same sort of logic occurs in film and other storytelling media. Let's say you're wanting to make a movie about extremely rare sword-wielding immortals on Earth that only die when decapitated and that absorb the power of others that they kill. It seems a bit of a stretch to say even with immortals, that among the billions of people in the world, the only three of these people left all manage to meet up and fight each other. But, if you build into the immortals that part of their nature is that they are supernaturally driven to find, fight, and kill each other, then it makes sense. Poof! You have Highlander.