Thursday, June 11, 2015

Roundtable 6: the sliding scale of difficulty

Another month, another GM Roundtable post.

The Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you'd like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you're a blogger who'd like to participate in the Game Master's Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker:

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party's career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be "appropriate". On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn't be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

I'll preface this by blog entry by saying that these days I tend to favor very difficult combat encounters where the precise number of enemies is randomly generated at the moment the encounter starts. I write a brief skeleton of what NPCs are there, and then I give them each a small range of number occurring (e.g. 2 x (# PCs - 1) or 2d4 - 2). I use the following discussion to detail an observed alternative approach to the standard D&D encounter building paradigm. What follows that is kind of an unfocused discussion about 5e. No real conclusions are drawn.

I've generally heard of encounter design spanning the continuum between two end members: purely status quo versus purely tailored. In this situation, purely status quo refers where all encountered are set in stone or played as written and no amount of adjustment is made based on the abilities/level of the party. In contrast, purely tailored refers to where all encounters are specifically designed to be appropriate/"click with" with the abilities/level of the party.

Something I've always wondered about is figuring out how to do both simultaneously.

In my experience, typical encounter guidelines for modern incarnations of D&D try to find a middle ground by presenting advice to tailoring encounter to a difficulty level for the party. So that you can have a tailored hard encounter or a tailored easy encounter. This approaches, however, do not cause the values (e.g. monster stats) to move along with the players. Instead, you substitute new and more obstacles until you've reached some "threshold" deemed appropriate.

An alternative approach to encounter design is championed by Fantasy Craft. Fantasy Craft presents a formula, or series dials, that can be manipulated to provide a possibly "hard" or "easy" encounter regardless of party level or which NPCs are involved. This is also extended to traps. The approach isn't perfect and tends underestimate PC complexity/abilities around level 8 (common for d20 games), but it provides an incredible template and alternative to the received wisdom that is the D&D DMG.

All Fantasy Craft adventures have a Menance, which is a value between 1 and 5 describing the expected deadliness of the adventure. Menace of 1 is trivially easy while a Menace of 5 is expected to kill at least one PC. Given the Menace of the adventure and the average party level, the Threat Level of the adventure can be calculated.

Threat level is where the system really shines as it harnesses the NPC creation system. In FC, NPCs are build by spending XP on abilities, the sum of which is the "bounty" for overcoming that NPC. In addition to named qualities and special attacks, each NPC's Attack, Defense, Competency, Resistance etc are rated from 1 to 10. A typical NPC encountered has between 3 and 5 in each of these categories.

Given a Threat level, there is a lookup-table which converts the rating into an actual numerical bonuses used in die rolls. The system involves so many tables that the recommended way to build NPCs and then get their TL stats is to use an online tool.

There are also presented guidelines regarding the total XP involved in an easy, medium, difficult, etc. encounter. This means that an NPC can be either "easy" or "hard" regardless of the TL. Which is awesome if you don't want to keep inventing new, more difficult NPCs, something which can get logically pulled into oblivion by level based RPG systems.

An ancillary worry to this debate is what to do about killing PCs? My rule of thumb is that if character creation is complicated, character death is rare. This is true of FC, but it provides a neat alternative to solving the issue of killing PCs in non-dramatic fashions. But that is for another post.

While the 5th edition D&D approach is no where near the same as FC, I want to draw attention to something parallels. 5e touts a bounded accuracy system and a series of canonical DC values (10, 15, 20) as its solution to the tension between status quo and tailored. This system attempts to smooth over the differences between PCs and the threats they face. In practice, I've found it works well and my players enjoy it. My encounters can be difficult, but if the players are smart they can figure a way out. It also means that single hits are less likely to destroy individuals, allowing for the possibility of retreat. Something my players actually did recently!

My normal encounter design approach works very well in 5e.

Here are some other blogs participating in the forum.