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Day 13 & 14: Balancing Encounters and Facilitating Combat

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As much as I enjoy a good fight in RPGs, combat is not typically the thing I spend time on most. If the system doesn’t have a CR system for building challenging fights, I’ll either lift an encounter from a pre-published adventure or wing it as I go. To that end, I decided to combine yesterday and today’s blog post into one, because the advice I have really applies to both balancing encounters and facilitating combat.

Everything’s Relative

My general rule of thumb is to start with the PCs as a template and scale enemies up or down from their baseline stats and damage rolls depending on the kind of challenge I want to give them and how many consecutive encounters I plan on throwing them before they have access to substantial healing.

Say I want to build an encounter for beginning Edge of the Empire characters: I know that characters who are dedicated to a particular build will have 3 ranks in the related characteristics, possibly 4, and very rarely 5 from the start (unless they’re min-maxing). I can give competent NPCs 3’s, challenging NPCs 4’s, and scary NPCs 5’s in their Agility or Brawn stat. Anything with 2 or less in those two characteristics is really not very potent in combat. From there, I can give out 1 skill rank for easy, 2 skill ranks for medium, and three or more skill ranks for hard rivals.

I usually need at least three enemies or minion groups in order to threaten them, since I want to be able to potentially damage most of the group in a given round (assuming there are four PCs). Minions work a bit differently, but I generally know not to throw more than two-to-three times the number of PCs at the party at one time, or the minions’ attack rates and damage outputs can begin to get serious. Boss-style nemesis fights can get tricky, but using the optional rule found in the GM kit can help even the odds by giving the nemesis another turn to act each round.

Ready? You’re on Deck

After I’ve built the encounter, it’s time to use it. I still keep track of initiative by hand unless I’m using Masterplan to run a D&D 4e campaign, specifically, since I’ll be able to load in my players from week to week.

If it’s a small party, I’ll leave spaces on a piece of looseleaf between various initiative intervals to fit all the PCs and NPCs as I ask around the table for results from left to right. If I’ve got five or more (or they are trying to tell me their initiative results all at once), I’ll start by throwing out the highest possible result and have PCs shout out when I call their number, then write them down in order from top to bottom. Either way, it’s smart to roll and record NPC initiatives ahead of time, and to have all monsters of the same type go together in the same slot unless specific ones are important.

When I get to a player on the initiative tracker, I call out their character’s name followed by the next character in line. This way the players know who’s next and when they need to make sure they’re ready for their turn.

Keep the Important Things Close

I like to write down my adversaries’ hit point total or wound threshold on the initiative list itself. If you’re playing a game where soak or damage reduction is important, it helps to keep that number close to the name of the enemy, too. This way you don’t have to reference the monster stat blocks during the players’ turn, which can be a time-saver when you’re flipping between pages and/or books.

3… 2… 1… Knock Out!

Once combat alternative I’ve seen is to assign each enemy a number of hits they can sustain as opposed to tracking specific hit points. This has its merits, but can get really dry if the players catch on or begin to feel like their damage doesn’t matter. The way to balance this is to meet the systems halfway: by ignoring the last couple of hit points at the end if it seems like the enemy’s been up long enough, or by using the hit system and ignoring attacks that don’t breach a certain threshold of damage. I generally try to gauge my player’s interest in the battle and go from there, cutting battles short if they look to be getting too bored or frustrated.

‘Tis Only a Flesh Wound

Sometimes parties struggle through combat, but other times they’re more than prepared to make your climactic final encounter, well, underwhelming. Just as I’m ready to wipe enemies from the map early if I’ve got a potential TPK on my hands, I’m willing to imbue my nemeses with a little extra oomph when necessary. In Under a Black Sun, I recommended to GMs running the Kaa’to fight that “Another option is to continue the combat regardless of his wounds until suitably epic or desperate killing blow is dealt to him.” I did the same during my players’ showdown with the evil drow Depora on the Ciphergate in Shadow in the Sky. My boss battles are all about style.

As you can see, I’m willing to build encounters intuitively and play fast and loose with stat blocks in order to keep combat fast and fun for myself and my players. Long gone are the days where I’m able to sit through a one-to-two hour combat, spoiled by systems like Savage Worlds and Edge of the Empire, where you’re not going to spend more than fifteen minutes to a half hour on any given fight. I’d prefer to spend my time building up the narrative around the combat, or making the monsters and location flavorful, rather than worrying about the minutiae of probabilities and formulaic encounter building.

What are your tips for balancing encounters and facilitating combat? You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on memorable villains. Thanks again for reading!

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