[d20] Balancing Encounters

One more look on the topic of experience and leveling, built on the last few days’ posts.

The way d20 experience works structures encounters so weird as to be silly: for a first-level party, it breaks down to fighting a dozen orcs two at a time, give or take. Hardly a threat when the PCs can outnumber and surround their foes. (The “maximum” challenge, APL+3, is what, eight orcs at second level? That would ruin the players.) By the time the PCs can survive fighting a mob of orcs—say, third or fifth level—the orcs are so underpowered as to make the fight laughable.

I remember a “fight” in Legacy of Fire with nine third-level rogues against four 6th-level characters; the rogues could only hit if they rolled a crit. And during the last batch of RPG Superstars that I paid attention to, the contestants all got flak because they populated their 5th-level dungeons with pairs and trios of CR 2-3s, fights that would make the most unprepared, unoptimized characters shine. That’s neither challenging nor making proper use of d20’s tactical abilities.

And it’s a very inflexible arrangement, too: you can’t try to modify within the system, but would need to totally revamp it to make changes. Throwing a dozen orcs against the PCs will either slaughter them or have them to level up too quickly, depending on their level, causing the RAW leveling to break down. (I said this tied in to yesterday’s post.) Granted, it’s a common occurance to modify what exactly a challenge for your APL is—the Paizo staff will point out that they change encounters to challenge PCs in their home games—but at that point, it’s clear that encounter balancing and tracking needs a makeover.

The irony was back in 2nd Ed, a fight with twenty orcs was a staple fight, but it was boring as hell and only gave you a few dozen XP. 3.x opened the floodgates on tactical options—flanking, aid another, combat maneuvers—which makes for more satisfying tactical combat. But the system is built for a party to fight fewer opponents than before, otherwise the PCs level too quickly. I long for those epic battles, to utilize the d20 tactics and D&D’s wargame heritage, and have ended up having one in the last two Adventure Paths I’ve run. (In both cases, the PCs had a large complement of NPC support; even without that, they’d have trumped the expanded encounter, another reminder of how out of whack CRs are with mobs of lower-level enemies.)

Challenge Ratings were supposed to be an accurate gauge to balance encounters, but in the end, gauging challenges relies most heavily on the GM knowing how much their group can take: how well they work together, their level of optimization, their reserves of scrolls and potions and get-out-of-death-free cards. There’s a lot of factors which CR/APL/ECL doesn’t take into account: larger parties can take and deal more punishment, richer parties are harder to hit and deal more damage, higher-level parties are less susceptible to poison and disease.

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