I’ve been pondering the issue of balance a lot recently. When I started to design Gloamhold, I first thought long and hard about the challenge ratings I wanted to feature in my design, as interesting, exciting combats are a key part of any dungeon.
As my design continues, and I bravely buy and read lots of old modules, I’m wondering if I was on the wrong track. The CR system introduced in 3rd edition D&D is undoubtably a handy tool for building level-appropriate encounters. That said, I think it leads to a (subconcious) assumption among players that any encounter is going to be appropriate for their abilities — or at least that it will fall within a given range of acceptable CRs.
In practise, the CR system is a safety net. It means — in effect — the world adjusts itself to the PCs so in theory they are never going to get into unwinnable or unsurvivable encounters. In older versions of D&D the exact opposite was true: the world did not revolve around the PCs and they could easily bite off more than they could chew, if they weren’t paying attention.
As part of my Gloamhold design, I thought it would be useful to look at how some old modules would translate into Pathfinder (or 3.5 D&D).
So let’s look at a jolly popular module you are probably familiar with: B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Almost everyone has played this adventure at some point in their gaming career. It’s widely considered to be the most played module in the history of D&D, because of its inclusion in the Basic Boxed set. The adventure also ranked #7 in Dungeon Magazine’s 30 Greatest Adventures. In short, it’s a great example of an Old School adventure.
I’ve run Keep on the Borderlands with every edition of D&D I’ve ever played. One of the strengths of the module (for me) is that it is so easy to convert. But, if I did a straight conversation to Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 and swapped like for like, would it be balanced?
Let’s take a look…
A: Kobold Lair
First up is the lair most neophyte adventurers probably explore first. At this point in their careers, the PCs are likely 1st-level.
- Guard Room: 6 Kobold Guards (CR 1/2 each) Overall CR 1.5
- Giant Rats: 18 giant rats (dire rats, CR 1/3 each) Overall CR 6
- Food Storage Room: No encounter
- Guard Room: 3 very large kobolds (giant kobold, CR 1 each) Overall CR 3
- Kobold Chieftain’s Room: 1 chief (giant kobold warrior 1; CR 2) plus 5 females (CR 1/2 each); Overall CR 5
- Common Chamber: 17 male kobolds, 23 females, 8 young (assuming only the males are combatants; CR 1/2 each) Overall CR 7
So, because the lair is quite small, the PCs could face — in rapid succession — a CR 1.5, CR 6, CR 3, CR 5 and a CR 7 fight! That kind of threat progression is clearly beyond the capabilities of almost any 1st-level party. Of course, the PCs could strike and retreat, and we mustn’t forget Basic D&D had morale rules while D&D 3.5/Pathfinder does not. But still, in common palance that series of encounters is not balanced, or dare I say it — fair.
K: Shrine of Evil Chaos
This is the toughest part of the Caves of Chaos. By this point, the party has likely cleared out much of the rest of the caves and is probably 3rd-level.
- Boulder Filled Passage: No encounter.
- Hall of Skeletons: 12 skeletons (CR 1/3 each); Overall CR 5
- Guard Room: 8 zombies (CR 1/2 each); Overall CR 5
- Acolytes’ Chamber: 4 acolytes (each cleric 1; CR 1/2 each); Overall CR 3
- Chapel of Evil Chaos: Nasty trap
- Adepts’ Chamber: 4 adepts (each cleric 2; CR 1 each); Overall CR 4
- Hall of Undead Warriors: 20 skeletons (CR 1/3 each), 20 zombies (CR 1/2 each); Overall CR 8.5
- Temple of Evil Chaos: No encounter
- Chambers of the Evil Priest: Evil priest (cleric 3; CR 2); Overall CR 2
- Guest Chamber: No encounter.
- Torture Chamber: torturer (fighter 3; CR 2); Overall CR 2
- The Crypt: 1 wight (CR 3); Overall CR 3
- Storage Chamber: 1 gelatinous cube (CR 3); Overall CR 3
- Cell: 1 medusa; Overall CR 7
Some of these encounters are easily doable by a 3rd-level party, while others are somewhat harder. The medusa, is probably the hardest fight, although the Hall of Undead Warriors has far more foes, but is made somewhat easier by the setup – she is locked in a cell when the party encounter her.
But still, would players today expect to face this number and level of foes in such a relatively small dungeon at 3rd-level? Would they expect a medusa?
Current wisdom would have it that many of these encounters are — at best — extremely tough. Of course, play styles have developed and changed over the 30-odd years since The Keep on the Borderlands was first published. Notably, the average size of a party has decreased, and the use of hirelings and henchmen has fallen out of favour. Having larger groups obviously meant the party could handle more foes and adventure for longer.
Stacked against this, characters these days are undeniably more capable than their predesessors. They are more heroic both in terms of their basic statistics and the abilities their classes provide. Still, I’m not sure my players would be too delighted to face a medusa at 3rd-level. (If any of you are reading this, please let me know! — purely hypothetically and for research purposes, of course)…
I have to conclude — based these examples — that straight, like for like conversions don’t translate well between editions. I doubt the majority of commercial modules rammed full of encounters set at 5 or 6 levels above the party’s CR would garner particularly favourable reviews from the majority of players (or enjoy strong sales). B2 The Keep on the Borderlands is one of the most popular adventures of all time. I have to wonder if it would be so popular if it was released today.
Over the last 15 years or so since 3rd edition D&D replaced 2nd edition, the concept of balance has crept (perhaps insidiously) into our collective psyche. The sad thing is, I think the CR system — as I alluded above — acts as a (subconcious) crutch during game play. This can lead — as I’ve said before — to a bland, unsurprising game play experience because the CR system “manages” our expectations of the kind of challenges our characters will face.
I think we lose sight of the fact that balance and fairness are two separate things. An encounter or adventure does not have to be balanced to be fair. If I ignore all the signs of an ancient dragon’s presence in a dungeon and waltz into its lair with the assumption that I can handle whatever lurks within, my character deserves everything it gets. If the GM gives me loads of obvious hints about the dragon’s obvious power and I ignore them that’s my problem, not a problem with the module.
I think it all boils down to whether you prefer a balanced game or a fair game. For myself, I’d much rather play in a fair game than a balanced game.