GM Advice: Are We Too Obsessed With Balance?

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.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


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)…

Final Thoughts

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.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

55 thoughts on “GM Advice: Are We Too Obsessed With Balance?”

  1. Definitely, the 3.x and Pathfinder rules are obsessed with balance, and a brief perusal of Paizo’s message boards confirm that belief.

    A highly-optimized party can easily handle encounters of greater than their “appropriate CR” because, as you mentioned, the CR is a guideline for creation and experience point distribution.

    I’ve heard of GMs throwing a CR-appropriate encounter and lamenting the fact that the players walked through with nary a scratch. But CR doesn’t take into account environmental effects, or the terrain. A small encounter with kobolds might be much more deadly when the kobolds retreat through tunnels that are only a meter wide! Meanwhile, a lion that doesn’t hide in the tall grass and leap out in ambush is going to be easier that it’s CR dictates.

    I always play creatures as if they want to survive just as badly as the PCs. Wild animals will attack and drag away pack animals and mounts. Intelligent opponents attack from ambush if possible, or at least take the time to have a missile volley launched at the PCs before charging. Opponents retreat, and maybe take their treasures with them! Better to live another day and all that. Really nasty bad guys let the PCs pass on the way to the dungeon and hit them on the way back when the characters are wounded and loaded with loot! These options aren’t encountered during CR evaluations.

    Similarly, differences between characters should be embraced. A 1st edition magic-user needs to be protected at first level because he’s got one spell. But by 4th level, what was once one sleep spell can make mincemeat of the kobolds in B2. Fighters might still have a hard time taking on all those kobolds. Characters needed each other to succeed. Today, expectations are different. This is not a good thing.

    The real world isn’t balanced. If we want to have a meaningful play experience, our worlds shouldn’t be too balanced either.

    1. I personally think the idea of “balance” has become too heavily ingrained in the system (3.x, anyway. I’m not familiar with 4e or 5e). I remember playing 5th level characters against dragons back in the old days and if the fight looked like it was going to go sour we cut and run. Players today don’t seem to have that mindset; they feel they have to overcome every challenge by force, it seems.

  2. I think alignment of expectations is key here. Coupled with the Old School character generation you posterd about the other day, as well as the necessary assumptions inherent in PF that would need alteration (wand of CLW, fx), Gloamhold should have guidelines for the GM on how to make it very clear to players, just what they are getting into. People expecting a “standard” Pathfinder adventure as exemplified by Paizo will be rather surprised. Whether pleasantly or not depends on the group, but in trying to shoehorn (IMO) a system with vastly different assumptions on play (cf. balance and CR system) into an old school model, being very upfront and clear on how this is not a “default” PF game is essential, IMO.

    1. You are absolutely correct. To have a successful Old School experience everyone involved has to modify their expectations and assumptions. I’ll have to give some serious thought in regards how to get that message across.

  3. Balance between players is worthy. You don’t want to favor one player over another.

    As you point out, the CR system is designed to help a GM come up with a challenging fight for the PCs. It isn’t a mechanic concerned with balance. It is a GM tool for measuring the potency of an encounter.

    It also isn’t a perfect tool. A GM cannot abandon common sense and a little mathematics when trying to work up an encounter. For the sake of illustration, what CR is a 1,000 hit-point monster with one attack, +0 BAB and 1d4-2 damage, AC 10, with a special abilities to See Invisibility and Immunity to Fire? The CR system gives a lot of credit to hit dice and hit points.

    For the purposes of the story, the GM wants an encounter from which the PCs should flee, the GM needs to either make it really obvious, or really common such that the players are actively weary of the potential danger.

    1. I think the comment you (and others make) about the PCs’ abilities being vaguely balanced is key. Everyone should be able to participate to roughly the same level.

      The CR system isn’t perfect and it can lead to players thinking the GM is deliberately screwing them. And of course, the CR system has a really hard time dealing with atypical monsters and situations. What is the CR after all of (say) 40 orc warriors 2? Is that really a challenge for a 15th-level party?

      1. Not to mention that monsters met early in the day are a way easier challenge than their CR would typically indicate, as the party (spellcasters in particular) have all their resources at hand, whaereas the final encounter of the day may be way tougher than CR indicates.
        So pacing becomes paramount for encounter difficulty as well.

        Better in my opinion to just use CR as an indicator for intended difficulty, and then place monsters as they make sense in the andventure. How difficult the encounter will be for an individual party will then vary widely. That’s Old School for ‘ya!

      2. The thing is, when you get to that high of a number, you’re not going to stat them individually, but as a group. You’re going to take things like the Pathfinder troop template, or the 3.5 mob template (DMG II 3.5) that essentially makes them equivalent to a gargantuan swarm, and either make them a CR 7 or CR +2 if they’re CR is higher than 7.

        The CR system is also there to let both GMs and players know that there’s a 50/50 chance that if they roll higher than a 10 on the die, they’re probably going to hit the AC, or make the save DC on their special attack (ie. a medusa’s gaze).

      3. *What is the CR after all of (say) 40 orc warriors 2? Is that really a challenge for a 15th-level party?*

        I can say in response to this that there is no way 40 orc warriors 2 would be a challenge for a 15th level party. I recently ran a game where my players faced off against a VILLAGE of frost giants. They were 12th level and managed to decimate the giants with very little in the way of taking damage. All is takes is 1 12th level sorcerer with the ability to fly and the fireball spell and the giants have no chance.

        There were even casters among the giants and it was still not a real challenge. As soon as the casters were identified the players focused on them like laser beams while the sorcerer continued to bombard the village with fireballs. If I remember right, the battle lasted about 6 rounds and there were only 3 giants left to flee from the party.

  4. Fairness over balance all the way. I want my players to have a fear and respect for the prospect of failure….the more to celebrate if they beat the odds!
    My mind often runs to the Giant/Drow series…..i would never expect to find anything of that nature developed now, and I fear the game is poorer for it.

    1. I agree completely John. Fairness is way more important than balance.

      I’d like to disagree with you about the Giant/Drow series but I’m not sure I can. ;-( Beyond the huge page count and design time such a project would need I think some bits (these days) would have people up in arms. For example, the players can all die horribly is they linger in one place to long in the Vault of the Drow (the Black Tower?) The module text has the tower eventually surrounded and everyone inside killed. IIRC, the module even says something to the effect of “don’t bother to run the fight”!

  5. Recently I was reading some AD&D modules and wondering the some thing. On one hand things at high levels usually got really carried away. But when all the challenges are level appropriate it does breed some complacency. (As has happened with my gaming group.)

    Some other things that I have noted, I don’t often see cursed items anymore. My gaming group doesn’t come across unknown items anymore either. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too. It has made me wonder what other things from AD&D have been lost and with it a bit of what made the game interesting.

    1. Heh. I remember one module in Living Greyhawk where a random NPC walked up to the group and gave my ranger “Gauntlets of Ogre Power” to help in an upcoming fight. Given that my ranger was 1) an archer and 2) paranoid, the gauntlets got tucked into his pack. I was *almost* tempted to let another character have them when he asked for them, but Veren was paranoid, not treacherous. Sure enough, when the certs were distributed they turned out to be Gauntlets of Fumbling.

    2. I personally design a lot of magic items for my campaigns and the biggest rule I put in is that if an item is powerful there should be some limitation on it that acts as a form of downside and balancing factor. Plenty of items I’ve handed out have been powerful, but with some form of curse on it. Such as flaming longsword that granted diehard as a bonus feat and cold resist 10, but if your character died while wielding it, the sword absorbed all heat from your body and soul, freezing you such that only a wish or miracle type spell could actually revive you. Or the weapon that could become vorpal for a short amount of time each day that was found by the party at lvl 8, but it had the curse that it would cause you to see the worst parts of yourself in its blade, and each day you would have to make will saves with a DC dependent on how greedy your character was. If you failed the will save you started going crazy and would eventually use the weapon to cut off your own head if you weren’t cured of the curse.

      I like this style of magical items because it allows the party to have access to powerful abilities, but they have to make choices of when they can afford to try and use it, based on the situation they are in.

      1. *Plenty of items I’ve handed out have been powerful, but with some form of curse on it.*

        One of the items gave my players was a belt of physical perfection +6. The downside was that it made the wearer continually hungry. No matter how much he ate he was never satisfied as the belt caused his metabolism to reach such a height in order to fuel the bonuses it gave him.

  6. I’m playing and GMing Pathfinder for some time now, heck, I started my RPG hobby with the release of DnD 3.0 in my native language. People don’t even actually read the “rules” about CR and then complain that their party waltzes over “level appropriate CR encounters”. First of all, in Pathfinder CRs don’t scale well. A CR of APL+4 can be very deadly on low levels, but can be managable on mid-higher party levels. Also, both lots of weaker monsters or one BBEG don’t work quite well too. Mobs of weaker enemies are going to be destroyed by the party quite quickly (especially by spellcasters), and one BBEG that can one shot party members isn’t too good either, but he’s on the downside of the action economy versus the party. Also, one poor save roll and it’s over for him.

    The point is – I like that I can just use math to calculate some encounters, but I still treat it as a guideline. I know it’s more art than science behind all those numbers. I use the rules to design the encounter, than leave it for some time to get it out of my head, and then look at it again and ask myself “does it make any sense for my adventure/party?”. From time to time I like to experiment with CRs too. A lot have changed in my adventures since I started to extensively use perception rules about hearing combat and so on. When you read the published modules/Adventure Paths it usually seems that all those rooms with monster are just instances, and god forbid – party can’t get overrun because they’re casting fireballs behind the door.

  7. The thing about such overwhelming encounters is that they encourage roleplay. Since the numbers and the dice are not on their side in such an encounter, players must immerse themselves in the situation and think tactically and creatively to come out ahead (or even alive). It should also be noted that there was less shame in retreating, likely to return to that room later loaded for bear.

    Also, things don’t always have to be a straight combat. For example, the kobold lair you mention features a number of non-combatants. Rather than simply mowing down the fighting kobolds, do the players try and win by taking hostages and forcing a surrender? What happens to your alignment when you kill Mommy and Daddy in front of Junior? That should shake things up a bit.

  8. I’ve also DM’d the Keep on the Borderlands over a few different versions. I agree with you that the module by “modern” standards would give any group a serious challenge. But the module was also set up for the PC’s to have a easy path to retreat depending if they make clean out the lairs “in order”. With that in mind I usually made the effort to keep the players informed through various means what they may have coming up and they could make the choice to push through or retreat. On the other side, you always have the group that insists on swimming upstream, they don’t get a lot of “sympathy” from this DM.

  9. I’ve been playing DnD since the late 80’s. 90% of my adventures i have made up. The other 10% I’ve used Ruins of Under mountain I & II. Most of the time using the areas that are not described in the book.
    When I make adventures up I usually make it a bit tougher for the players just in case they throw a curve ball into my plans. But I also plan it out to where if the PCs are having trouble with the encounters, I help them out enough to get by (lowering the DMG delt, missing a few attacks, etc).
    Overall I plan the adventure tough enough to give them a challenge and it gives them the feeling that they could die if they make a mistake.
    Over the years I’ve only had two PCs die on me….only because they made HORRIBLE SELF INFLICTED OBVIOUS THAT THEY ARE GOING TO DIE mistakes.
    I don’t think we are obsessed with balanced….I think we are making sure the people playing the toons are having fun and will be excited to continue playing their toons after leveling them up instead of burying them and making up new ones.
    One more thing…the CR system should be used as a guideline not as a strict rule….Yes its from ‘Pirates’ but its the truth.

  10. I placed a werewolf plot in a scenario for first level players, the aim being to recover the stolen magic item which allowed the werewolf to remain human. As a prelude I arranged for two of the characters to witness the werewolf killing sheep at a farm. One of the two players said ‘quick lets get it before it knows we are here’ leading to the characters quick demise as the werewolf tore through them easily. The player then remonstrated with me for giving them a foe way above their pay grade only to have his jaw drop when I asked him why he attacked rather than observe and withdraw to get the rest of the party or a plan. He said it had never occurred to him that a monster encounter didn’t have to be resolved then and there. Managing player expectation seems to be the key, if they know not all encounters will be CR balanced hopefully they will approach with some caution.

  11. Yes, yes it is.

    I find Ars Magica harder to design for, because it doesn’t concern itself with balance, but I also get to focus on telling the story I want, first and foremost.

    GMs should be designing for their group– increasing difficulty when desired, working to create the kind of game the group wants to play. If that means adjusting on the fly in the middle of play, then so be it.

    Ask for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.

  12. I think encountering an imprisoned Medusa while playing a low level character can be very enjoyable. Having powerful creature encounters reveal the existence of more fantastic and dangerous beings than the ones the players are currently facing. Eventually, they’d likely meet the who or what which imprisoned the medusa. Wondering at that being’s power is also a good element for play.

    Systems like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder reward killing creatures. Sure, you can as a GM reward players for chasing off or using diplomacy to defeat opponents, but the system is set up to either kill your character or reward you for killing the monsters. This makes them vessels for XP.

    I think systems that reward quest goal completion are better for play. That allows for setting up encounters with massively powerful beings – where the suggested strategy would be “avoid” unless you have a significant advantage. It inspires me to giving my worlds more depth, anyways.
    “Kill that monster” may be a quest goal, but then hopefully the rest of the scenario would be more about how to get close to the target and get away rather than play murder hobos and kill everything.

    – Kill everything-scenarios need the kind of balancing that D&D and Pathfinder has, so the players are sure to have a chance at hacking through all the minions and bosses. I like playing games like Descent and Warhammer Quest for that experience, tactical rpgs with very little emphasis on “role playing”

  13. If you don’t mind, I’d like to copy-paste the response I made on the Facebook post:

    I have to disagree with the article on several accounts. The demand for game balance came as a result of having very unbalanced games. Take 3rd Edition, for example. It’s so incredibly unbalanced that a party spellcaster with summon spells and leadership feat can accidentally invalidate a non-optimized fighter. In AD&D casting a Wish spell could only be done when you’re 36th level and knocked you out for a week.

    The Challenge Rating system is broken in that creatures with the same CR can have wildly varying abilities and modifiers. And related is that I think that a distrust of game balance (or the demand for it) is detrimental to the table-top hobby considering that it’s been a well-accepted facet of game design in the video game industry for decades now.

  14. Hey there!

    That was a great read and I totally agree with you. I started with 2.5 and I remember THAC0 was a cruel mother of a system. When 3 and pathfinder came out life just became easier but the mindset of walking into a dungeon was the same. On any adventure my character could, and if I wasn’t playing smart, would just be destroyed. Followed by he comment, “hand me your character sheet and re roll another one.”

    Years have gone by and I GM a lot more. I’ve played other systems thst helped foster thst style of game play (Shadowrun and rifts are jus as unforgiving if not more so). I find that players now often will wine at me if a combat or a dungeon is too difficult.

    I too follow CR but not closely. Dungeons I create are similar to ones you have mentioned. I have to remind my characters to play smart. They walk them into battle like a marvel super hero. They don’t look for cover, they charge in, and/ or walk right up to every encounter expecting everything to be crushable. None have ever be present of a TPw (total party wipe). I think some mods focus too much on balance and this sloppy game play and RP

  15. I always try to remember Wolfgang Baur’s adventure builder advice specifically One Bigger Fish.

    9) One Bigger Fish: To keep the blood flowing, you should have one overwhelming encounter that the party can’t handle without serious risk of a total party kill. This could turn into a roleplaying bit of Diplomacy, a chase, or a stealth challenge, depending on how the party handles it — but they should see that not every encounter in every adventure should be fought.

    You can find the rest of all these awesome adventure design articles in the WotC archives. I use them anytime I create an adventure.

  16. Ok if you like watered down adventuring that’s fine.I am fed up with the go bland ho hum push over mechanics that 3rd, 3.5, pathfinder 4rth and 5th edition suffer from.As far as your work in progress or the one presented keep in mind no risk and little reward just means snooze.

  17. Good post Creighton and one I wholly endorse. Have played the old 1st edition modules, what was most enjoyable was the sense of danger……nothing could be taken for granted and as a player you had to carefully weigh up the risks of your actions.

  18. I say no, Balance is to be strived for in the mechanics of any RPG.

    The real question for me at least is not “should the RPG” be balanced, it’s “should encounters/adventures” be balanced and to that I say HELL NO!.

    I want an RPG who’s Monsters and Classes are built on solid math so I can confidently “know” when I make an encounter to hard or to easy for the players. I hate having to guestimate if a mob will annihilate a party when I just wanted to harass them, or if the Big Bad boss mod I’d hope would kill half the part off turns out to be a cake walk.

  19. Comparisons are odious, but if you’re going to make them you must consider that the Caves of Chaos were designed for a large party; at least *seven* PCs with hirelings. That inflates the APL quite a bit in 3.5 terms.

    Your point is solid, though. A generation of GMs took Challenge Rating implicitly as a restriction, rather than a metric. In the latter part of my Pathfinder GMing I dispensed with APL altogether, and routinely treated the party as though they were APL+2 or more.

    What’s at issue is whether you’re playing a game of tactical combat scenarios, or encounter site scenarios. For the latter, reconnaissance and retreat are winning options, while they feel like losing options in the former.

    1. An excellent point in regards to party size. I wonder what changed and why we are playing now in smaller groups. Sure, in the Good Old Days(TM) we sometimes played in small groups, but just as often we played in huge groups. I remember–for example–running an adventure for a party of 14! Epic.

      For some reason, perhaps linked to organised play, our group sizes have shrunk. Sure, I know the CR/APL system is designed for 4 or 5 players but WoTC made that design choice during 3.0 for a reason.

  20. “Balance” is only important when the GM decides what encounters will occur, and in what order. The more say the players have in ordering the affairs, the less balance matters.

  21. I never did get into this C/R stuff…For me, except for Pathfinder, I haven’t touched 4th or 5th edition, I have looked at 3rd and 3.5 but due to their so-called ‘redesign’ I never did get into it…I don’t care for the ‘flat-lining’ of everything…everything is the same, everything goes up the same, everything happens the same.. I’m sorry but I still use the charts in the 1st edition DMG and the XP charts as well..all this ‘balance’ is to ‘balanced’…to me that’s not reality although the whole RPG thing isn’t about reality, it’s about the story telling, imagination and the encounters…Sure, I wouldn’t put an adult black dragon into the mix against a party of 5 1st level characters, but what I HAVE done is take an NPC type character and have him/her meet the party and treat the NPC like Gandalf….Also, if a PC, like a magic user wants some kind of device built and it will un-balance the balance per se, I’ll allow it but there may be faulty devices made as well…When it comes to ‘monster’ encounters, I’ll just look at the 1st/2nd edition MM’s,FF’s and use the examples they give for party size of the said monsters and adjust it from there…. that’s my balance, common sense….

  22. I dont have familiarity with this CR thing , having never played any 3.0 or 3.5 Pathfinder what ever . If a party is biting of more than they can chew , what do they think is going to happen apart from a swift character death ? By balance are we meaning so the characters have what appears on the surface to be a challenge but its not really because they can handily overcome everything they come up against ?

  23. Great post! Ive definitely struggled with rhe ideas presented almost wvery time I run a game. The problem i find is that players almost expect, in my experience, the game to be balanced to make it easier for them to be ”heroes”. I feel like there is definitely a fine line to walk.

  24. Yes, as someone who has basically only ever played the first edition of D&D, I think it’s just another example of whiny millenials wanting everything easy and laid out for them. Challenge ratings? Figure it out yourself. It’s not that hard to create encounters for any level party. And now the monster books even list “average” hp and damage amounts. Come on, people! The math isn’t that hard. The dice are there to provide a range. And don’t even get me started on things like skills, feats, and prestige classes. Ridiculous and unnecessary. Play a video game if you need that stuff…

  25. I agree. I was just thinking about this the other day, only not in the same way. I was pondering the inclusion of pretty much everything in the new editions. Danger has largely been removed. The gaming experience is today largely padded, like society in general. Everyone wants to be special, which means that death is less of a threat. Classes have all been balanced so that they perform in combat in much the same way (wizards do a lot more damage for a lot less effort). I feel like these types of things remove the roleplaying aspects of the game. If everything is combat-oriented, then why bother with different classes at all? Yeah, a wizard may be very underpowered in older editions, but their skill set is unique and, if given situations where the fighter’s sword is useless, a large variety of situations can occur if the fighter suddenly has no power, but the brainy wizard now has an edge. Differences are okay. Life is unbalanced, and that makes it fun, and hard, and memorable. Anesthetizing D&D has done nothing but desensitize players to success and cause them to fear failure.

  26. I’d much rather a fair game than a balanced one too. I do think games benefit however from a formal “retreat” mechanic (with some risk, and a cost if successful) so that GMs can feel more free to throw whatever makes sense at the party, rather than worrying about balanced encounters/TPKs too much.

    Low Fantasy Gaming rpg has such a mechanic (free PDF: )

  27. I tend to throw fairness out the window but only with warning. My current party is exploring a set of marshes. they were warned at a nearby fort of some dangerous creatures in the swamps that they should avoid if they can, but will be rewarded if they somehow get rid of the creatures. They were given basic information of the “rumored” encounters and some hints for how to get away if they came across them. They are a level 10 party and each of the rumored encounters were designed as CR 14-15. Each one has conditions that allow the party to bypass them or flee back.

    They encountered one of the them and were told that the pair of catoblepas they found were extremely powerful, had a dangerous poison breath that could kill many creatures and had a strong resistance to spellcasting. They also knew that if they cowered and acted submissive, the creatures would leave them alone as they enjoy being dominant. Instead the party decided to fight by throwing out a flamestrike that did not break their SR, and one party member ended up dying from Con damage from the poison breath. That player was getting pissy about taking his Con damage every round because hitting the DC was hard. I took no pity as they had every chance to just run away or act submissive. I had the creatures approach slowly because they were arrogant and knew themselves to be stronger than the humanoids they came across so they were in no rush, giving the party plenty of time to make a choice.

    They ended up winning the fight having to use up all of their highest level spells and strongest abilities. They said they expected the enemy to be hard, but not that hard. They have now learned that when there are rumors of powerful enemies, they should actually take heed and not just rush on in against them.

  28. See I think you’re discussing two different subjects that are related. The first is balance and fairness as it pertains to creating an adventure that allows the possibility of success. The second is a very specific form of meta gaming. Me saying that the dragon at the end of this adventure HAS to be a manageable encounter for our party because of outside of game knowledge of how the system works is meta gaming. When I throw caution to the wind because I know what the CR range for an adventure is, I’m meta gaming. It’s almost a necessity that at some point a GM roll over me with a high CR encounter and remind me that all the in game clues were there. I decided to go only by real world expectation and I lost because of it.

  29. I am running a Basic Edition campaign with the Keep on the Borderlands and my players had astoundingly hard time with the Stirges . The stirges panicked the mule, nearly sucked the mage dry, and turned out to be very hard to hit. But the minotaur charged into them from the dark but ran into the groups cleric who was armoured in +1 plate with a+1 shield so he ended up doing little damage while the Elves in the group kept putting arrows in it. The narrowness of the passage prevented the minotaur from getting to the rest of the party who he could hurt, and even when he tried to fall back, the Elven arrows followed finishing him off. Go figure. The stirges annoyed and scared the group, but the minotaur was no match. Oh they lost their mule with the food and extra supplies. And had to eat minotaur which if you think about it, is mostly man like. Food for thought.

    1. I recall playing a game were we had lightly armoured characters swimming around in a dark cave. Though the aquatic enemies had a significant advantage, they were not as effective as the Stirges. Those seemed to attack very well, often hitting, and provoking maximum blood loss on at least two attacks on the same character.

  30. I agree with this article 100%. I have had all these same thoughts when converting old modules to current editions. I recently ran my group through a short campaign playing AD&D and while it has its problems, there is a certain freedom I felt when not having to worry about balance and CR and just make it fun and through interesting monsters and challenges at them.

  31. Definitely agree – I’ve made the point multiple times to the players and gave them an encounter with a full grown dragon at first level.
    I did have to amend an encounter on the fly on Monday, though, because it was neither balanced nor fair. I’ve got a party of 2nd-3rd level characters going through Castle Amber, and they opened a door to find 2 wraiths (CR5) “which attack immediately”. The cleric turned one, but the other took out two of the characters in the first round and they had no escape because it could move faster than them. TPK imminent with no warning signs. Frantic flipping through the MM I decided to turn them into spectres (CR1 – I’d have preferred CR2) which turned out a bit easy but at least wasn’t an unwarned TPK.

  32. Over the years, I’ve played and DM’d every version of D&D and some other things as well, both before and after CR was instituted. I discovered early on that my current group would slice through any given combat situation like a hot knife through butter. So while I can start with looking at the CR lists, I actually pay more attention to the situation they’re in, and find something I can make challenging without necessarily using higher-level monsters. Situations they have to think their way through. Giant insects are no challenge for a 9th level party, but what if they have to find out where they’re coming from before they overwhelm a village? Conversely, a 6th level party encounters a demon with a high enough CR that the calculator calls it an automatic TPK. How do they get past that without getting killed? My players don’t expect that encounters are “balanced” – they do expect that there will be a solution, even if that solution is “Run away!”

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