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:
- 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.
- 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?