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The Complete Douche's Guide to Balancing Adventures

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The Complete Douche's Guide to Balancing Adventures

Unread postby icycalm » 04 Dec 2020 18:58


I've never seen or heard of a DM who has a decent idea of how to balance a D&D adventure, much less a whole freakin' campaign. Doubtless such people exist, but I haven't met or heard of them. Most likely, all the famous adventure writers can balance well, otherwise their groups would never have finished any campaigns, and they would have had less incentive to actually write them out in full and publish them. But one thing these people DON'T seem to have written out and published is exactly HOW they balance adventures and campaigns. It's insane that after so many decades of D&D, not a single DM's Guide includes guidelines on how to properly balance adventures. And that's what I am about to rectify here.

So most DM's, as we've seen time and again in earlier chapters, are douches, so of course they've no idea how to balance anything; but even the non-douches don't know, and that's why many of them don't run real (=officially published) adventures. If you're making shit up as you go along, you automatically take into account the party's current condition, and will detune the encounter if, for example, the party is at half health with no spells left memorized. Or you might make the enemies retreat, or give the players reinforcements in the middle of the fight, or make the enemies play like morons, and other such stupid, immersion-breaking stuff that's not gonna jeopardize your adventure's integrity and NPCs' believeability, BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE AN ADVENTURE TO JEOPARDIZE. If something that happens in the game seems dumb, you just make an equally dumb justification for it after the fact, and you keep playing. And thus, the party that's been abused like this tends to last longer than parties that play proper adventures, with NPCs that have proper goals and whose behavior can't change on a whim, and with linked quests and story beats that can't just be ignored or completely altered. So of course, "disaster" strikes again and again parties that play real adventures, and the players never manage to finish anything.

Now some may ask, why is that a bad thing? Why is it a bad thing if the players never finish anything? People with inferior dramatic taste especially (and this includes most DMs) are bound to be asking this question at this point, but I've already answered it way earlier, near the start of the book:

I wrote:They should be completing AT LEAST half the adventures, and if they aren't, you need to do your work properly to achieve this! (And why SHOULD they be completing many adventures? Because the game's much less fun otherwise lol. Imagine going to the movies and not being allowed to see the end of any of them? Wouldn't that ultimately be extremely frustrating? You'd be missing out on all the climactic scenes, and that's just for starters! Any DM who possesses ANY degree of dramatic sense at all should be able to grasp that it is paramount that the players complete at least SOME of the adventures in order to fully enjoy the games—just as they should fail at least SOME of them, in order to realize that they are indeed playing a game and not just being straight-up told a tale. So if your group is completing NOTHING you're screwing the game up BIGLY and need to learn how to properly run the damn game!)

So imagine if you'd never seen a movie all the way to the end? Wouldn't you have missed out on most of the cool moments, most of the drama, since the drama is meant to be climaxing right at the end? What would you have understood of The Usual Suspects if you'd quit watching halfway through? The entire genre of tragedy would be incomprehensible to you, for starters. Not to mention that the epicest movies are the multi-part sagas, and in those cases you'd never have managed to even see past the prologue. So that's why the players MUST not only stay alive, but complete adventures successfully—because these two things are not the same in D&D. They are the same in videogames, but not in D&D. In D&D, you may stay alive, but still fail the quest and ruin the rest of the adventure, or even the entire saga. Nothing like that is remotely possible in videogames (at least in existing videogames). But in my Ultimate Edition, successfully completing adventures is part of how your party gains epic points, which you then spend to unlock the epicest of the adventures. So if you're not completing anything, you'll never play the best stuff. Your characters might reach the level cap, but they'll just be very powerful failures. And isn't that punishment enough for sucking too bad? Do you have to also wipe them 20 pages into the first adventure for good measure, before you've even given them the chance to REALLY FAIL? Remember, D&D is part tactics, part role-playing. Succeeding in the tactics part by no means guarantees success in the role-playing goals, and it's precisely the coolest and toughest goals that are the role-playing ones (it IS called a role-playing game after all). Those can wipe you out in a moment without even throwing a single roll. You don't even need bad luck to fail those, all it takes sometimes is just a wrong word out of your character's mouth, or even the lack of a correct word.

Let me give an example. I might be ruining a cool adventure with this, but my groups are months away from playing it and I hope they'll have forgotten this spoiler by then. And even if they haven't, it's for a good cause, so it's worth the spoilering. So in a really cool adventure in a setting I won't name, the parties are sent to an army camp with some mail to deliver. In that mail, a double-crossing NPC has included a letter to the army leaders to dispose of the characters on reading the message, because they've been causing the NPC headaches, even though nominally they are allies. But the NPC is in reality the villain, and he wants them gone. So if the PCs dutifully deliver the parcel, they are in the middle of an army camp and have no hope of escaping, let alone fighting back. So this story beat has nothing to do with fighting; the players could have been acing all the fights up to that point, and they'll still get wiped, as there's no way for them to take on an army. No matter how I balance this, it's a freaking army versus five-six guys, and the guys are even early levels. It's not five-six 20th-level wizards, in other words, who could just teleport away if they wanted, it's five-six 5th-level guys or whatnot. They couldn't even kill 20 fighters, let alone thousands. So if they deliver the parcel, they are done. Their only hope is to OPEN the parcel before delivering it—even though it's sealed—and then spend hours skimming official documents to find the treacherous note. But what player will choose to open the parcel? To them, this is a simple fetch quest (or "deliver quest", to be more accurate: a FedEx quest), of the kind CRPGs and even tabletop D&D are rife with. They have no reason whatsoever to suspect treachery. And even if they open the parcel, they won't find anything immediately suspicious. Their characters would have to explicitly specify that they are going to sit down and go through all the documents for hours, in order to trigger me telling them about the double-crossing note. So probably not even one out of ten parties would do this. And the nine of them will get wiped the day after, with no fighting done at all. You could even say the story beat is badly written, because it doesn't give a chance to the players to sniff out what's wrong, and I would agree, which is why I would rebalance it to give the players both some reasons to suspect the mission before it starts, plus at least one viable way out of the army camp via parlaying or escape. But the fact remains that failure in this story beat would remain fatal, even after my rebalancing, and it's not connected with fighting in any way. And real D&D adventures are full of this sort of stuff, especially those written in the '90s and beyond when pure dungeon-crawling gave way to role-playing to achieve a more symmetric balance between the two aspects. And then of course you have settings like Planescape where role-playing is even the dominant dimension of the game, as there's not much even the strongest character can do to a demon or a god, so once the fighting with their minions is done, role-playing is all you have left. That's partly why many good DM's swear by Planescape (it's our own danjiro's favorite setting). Quite possibly, D&D reached its peak there.

But even in more mundane settings, back in the Prime Material plane, good D&D adventures are rife with role-playing goals. When the characters are fighting, they're not just thinking about getting through the fight in one piece, they are often thinking about ACCOMPLISHING SOME GOAL DURING THE FIGHT: protecting an NPC, recovering an artifact without which the villain can't be defeated, stopping a catastrophic event, or learning of a vital piece of information without which the entire adventure basically "hangs", and can't be continued, even if the players survive everything and kill everyone in their path. So even if the battle is easy, it doesn't FEEL easy because the players are anxious to achieve all these goals, and even maximize outcomes so that future goals will be more achievable. It's not just about KILLING the enemies, it's about killing them AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, and with THE LEAST DAMAGE TAKEN AND SPELLS AND CONSUMABLES USED; it's about ACING the fighting. If you win the fight but use up too many resources, you'll just die in the very next "easy" fight that takes place soon after without giving you time to rest and heal up, like all videogames do. Videogames almost NEVER link fights. In the hilariously mechanically bad Divinity: Original Sin (mechanically in terms of the RPG system, not the videogame mechanics, which are stellar; wait for my Videogame Art essay on the game if you don't understand the distinction) the players can fully heal up and restock skills and spells within SECONDS of the end of EVERY fight. This ON TOP of saving. So of course, if you don't balance every single fight in this game as if it's the climactic fight lol, the game will be absurdly easy. And that's why every single fight in the harder difficulties is so hard. But that's not a role-playing game, there's not the slightest whiff of role-playing in it, that's a tactics game with a light adventuring aspect, so of course the tactics must be balls-to-the-walls if the game is to be any fun, because that's all the game has. But that's utterly unnecessary in D&D because the game is so much richer, with so many more dimensions than just pure combat—even purely the "acting" dimension, where your reward for good role-playing is "merely" a better show as in a stage production and whose effect can't really be quantified no matter how much XP the DM gives you for good acting. A paladin going down in an orgy of the will against obviously suicidal, insurmountable odds for nothing more than mere honor: how can you quantify such an act? What will you reward the player with? How could a traditional videogame ever simulate this? Failing the tactics is a prerequisite for this scene to occur, which means that winning the tactics is not the be-all-end-all of the game, as it is in videogames. Which means that you can relax about the tactics, and not obsess about making them too tough. Don't worry: the characters will die anyway, of old age if nothing else. And even before that, in a myriad of grisly or depressing or even wretched and pathetic ways. Death and failure lurk around every corner in a good (=officially published) D&D adventure, and the moment-to-moment fighting is the least of the players' worries. Just consider that at any given fight and moment, the players have no idea when they'll be able to rest and heal up next. If they sleep when they shouldn't, events may unfold without them, and they may fail the adventure out of inaction, not out of action. In a game where the mere decision to stop and rest may end an epic saga, there is challenge enough to go around without forcing the players to fight for their lives in every single bar room brawl or random street altercation they get into. It doesn't make sense dramatically to challenge them that hard—as if their characters are utter weaklings whose lives any given encounter may end—and as I've been trying to explain to you it doesn't make sense mechanically either, if you properly understand D&D's mechanics, which are absolutely nothing like the licensed videogames that have been made out of it. Ultimately, the decision of whether to enter a fight or not, and which side to take, is a much more interesting one than any tactical decision taking place during combat, which latter decision, after all, you can even make in a videogame from the '70s. That's why TSR's original miniature tactical wargame, Chainmail, was abandoned once Gygax and Arneson had transformed it into D&D. It just wasn't interesting anymore, once proper drama had been added. And didn't Sid Meier say that a good videogame is "a series of interesting decisions?" So if you feel the need to challenge your players hard, you're much better off beefing up the role-playing part of the game, than the tactical part. Which of course, is the toughest part to beef up, requiring the most talent. Remember the unnamed adventure I quoted, where the villain sends the players on a fetch quest to deliver the very message that will seal their doom. Can YOU think of something that cool to write? That's why pros are getting paid for it. They aren't getting paid for nothing.

To conclude, you don't want your players to tempt fate with every fight. Remember that the videogame player is tempting nothing. He'll just reload a hundred times if need be. And even if he's playing ironman, the game is just 40 hours, and CAN BE RETRIED INFINITELY. Ironman is not an equivalent to D&D, the equivalent is ALL THE WORLD'S COMPUTERS BANNING YOU FROM RUNNING THE GAME AGAIN. This is the level of punishment for failure we're talking about here, so you can't hang this threat above the players' heads FOR EVERY SINGLE FIGHT IN EVERY ADVENTURE. It'd be retarded. What you should do instead is DETUNE every single fight in the adventure so that, taken alone, it's EASY. It must be clearly easy from a simple glance comparison of the two groups' stats, because if it's NOT clearly easy, if it's in any way equally balanced, A FEW BAD ROLLS ARE ALL IT TAKES TO GET YOUR PARTY WIPED, and this will happen very soon WITH MATHEMATICAL CERTAINTY. If the players make even a couple of bad tactical decisions it will happen EVERY FIVE-TEN PAGES IN THE ADVENTURE. And then you can't play good adventures at all, and your game will suck. So don't do it.

Now, since D&D encounters are often linked, leaving no time for the party to rest and heal up in between, it's very easy for you to throw a few extra enemies into the mix in the NEXT fight, if the CURRENT fight is proving too easy. After all, as the DM you roughly know ahead of time precisely when the party may be able to rest. So if you feel you must challenge them a bit more than you've already done, save your shots for the very last fight in the series. In general, save your reinforcements for LATER in the adventure. POSTPONE ratcheting up the pressure. Delay like hell. Let your motto be "Don't do today what you can do tomorrow". After all, the climactic fight is coming, and that's the absolute best place to wipe a party out, if a party must be wiped. At that point, you have my blessing to balance the fight on a razor's edge, and let the dice roll as they may. Unless it is the early parts of an epic saga, and you actually want to see it through. In which case hold something back, will 'ya. The party may STILL get wiped even if the fight ISN'T balanced on a razor's edge. And how well do you trust yourself to balance on a razor's edge anyway? Unless you mock-run the fight on your own ten times before game day, and find that five times the party wins and five times it loses, you'll never really know if your balance was really on the razor's edge, and show me one DM who goes into that kind of trouble even for a climactic fight. I bet you even the pro playtesters didn't do this when they were writing the adventure. So always ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION, because the odds are against the players in this game any way you cut it, and no matter what happens, they WILL be challenged in ways too many to count. And that's without even mentioning my Battlegrounds PVP aspect where the DM doesn't control and balance anything and where one of the two groups WILL be wiped out no matter what. So in Battlegrounds we have even more reason to balance the PVE conservatively, since the absolute coolest fights in the game will be the PVP ones, where challenge is guaranteed without the DM having to do anything. If you keep wiping parties at low levels, you'll never see a super-complex 6v6 15th-level fight.

Killing INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS, on the other hand, is a whole other story to party wipes. I quite like single characters dying. It keeps everyone on their toes but without ruining the adventure. A dead character a month keeps the doctor at bay, or something. It works beautifully, so let it happen. It gives an extra massive headache to the players: they are of course a team, and they are invested in the team's survival as they are invested in the current adventure's successful completion. But at the same time, they've been developing this character for weeks or months, and they'd be loathe to lose him. So every single player would much rather some other player's character died, if someone had to die, instead of his (all of which mechanics obviously do not exist in videogames in any way, shape or form). So in any given fight they are juggling three sometimes competing or even mutually-exclusive goals in their heads, in order of priority: 1) personal survival, 2) group survival, and 3) adventure success (it's only a character like a paladin for whom these priorities are inverted, which is what makes him so fun to play for role-players, but a headache to any party that actually wants to get ahead). So again, you can see that there's a lot more riding on any giving D&D fight than on a videogame fight, an order of magnitude more possibilities for outcomes of different levels of desirability, not just a binary win or lose outcome, which is why I believe that what I call DETUNED balancing is the ideal for D&D, i.e. EASY BALANCING in all but the most climactic fights. But don't shy away from individual character death, as your game stands to gain a multitude of benefits by its judicious use. However, keep in mind a couple of caveats. For this mechanic to work properly, the dead character will ideally be replaced by a 1st-level character, because if you replace him with a character of the same level as the one who died (which many DMs do), it hardly feels like a defeat to the player. Some players who may have grown tired of their current class may even view the death with relief, as an opportunity to try a different build, and you can bet they won't feel that way if it means getting knocked all the way down to 1st level, so my advice is to knock them down all the way, always, and that's how my Battlegrounds works. Of course, this will have serious balancing consequences for the adventure you are running, but that's part of your duties as DM: to continually balance and rebalance the adventure as to achieve optimal balancing. And optimal balancing is, in my view, what I have been explaining in this entire chapter; so the moment a character dies and gets replaced with a starting character, rebalance everything to reach again the point I've been discussing. Other options include adding more players to the group (character death being a great point to introduce more players or swap players in and out, and do all kinds of party reorganization), or perhaps pause the adventure, if the story is of a kind that can be paused, and insert another one in between, perhaps a short one from a magazine, or a more freeform expedition to some point of interest on the map that's detailed in a source book (what I call Location Quests in my ruleset). A last-ditch option, if the adventure can't be paused due to the story structure and you don't want to rebalance it to account for the reduced levels (and in my Battlegrounds we generally won't be rebalancing for character death because it messes the strategic aspect of the PVP and overworld phase) is to introduce story-based henchemen NPCs and allies that fight along the characters while the new character levels up, and until he's sufficiently strong to bring the party back to full strength for the adventure. If the characters have money and opportunity, they should look for hirelings on their own, but if they don't, make sure to introduce the henchmen in a thematically-consistent and believable way. If they are working for a noble lord, perhaps he takes note of their friend's death and assigns some of his people to help them out; if they are in a middle of a dungeon, perhaps you add a prisoner in a cell they rescue who joins them and just happens to have nearly the same abilities they are now missing, if these abilities are vitally important at that time (which reminds me of the smart way the videogame Left 4 Dead handles player death in co-op; play that game, it's pretty great).

And there you have it. A complete guide to balancing D&D adventures and campaigns so that you and your players get the most out of the game, and not waste years of your life stumbling about badly-botched sessions with no idea why you're failing so miserably to attain the highest kinds of moments and scenarios that the game was made to deliver, and that only THIS game CAN deliver.

You're welcome.
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