Should players expect that all scenes/encounters be defeatable?

I don’t play D&D and its derivitaves all that often but when I do I notice that players tend to approach every encounter with an expectation that their character sheets have enough on them to get through it. If a monster or monsters confront the characters, the question is often not “should we face this or flee” but rather “how many rounds will it take us to defeat it?” That’s not to say that balanced encounters aren’t challenging or don’t result in PC deaths, but rather such events are attributed to sloppy play or bad dice rolling rather than “we should have run in the first place.” (Worse yet is the “why did you pit us against that if we couldn’t defeat it?” mantra).

I’ve noticed that this idea of balance infects other games as well. Many games employ the concepts of a “minions,” NPCs that PCs can easily steamroller, and “villains” that the PCs, working together, can defeat in combat. PCs are sometimes given “bennies” to tip the balance in their favor as well.

Still, one need only go back to one of D&D’s literary sources, The Hobbit, to see an example of a PC in over his head hoping not to wake up a dragon while he steals something from it. I also recall several adventures in my old school days (including old school video game days) where the PCs would get spanked something fierce if they encountered something too powerful and didn’t run.

So today’s Hot Button is this: Should players have an expectation that they can overcome every scene/encounter? Or is it okay to have some encounters where the PCs have little to no chance at direct confrontation?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.



26 Responses to Hot Button: Should Players have an expectation of balance?

  1. - Should players have an expectation that they can overcome every scene/encounter?
    - No, they should not.

    - Is it okay to have some encounters where the PCs have little to no chance at direct confrontation?
    - Of course it is.

    The main problem lies when players have fought 50 battles which they could overcome, and on the 51st it is way too high level for them. They’ve grown accustomed to having every fight be defeatable.
    Unless the GM lets them know the are way in over their heads, the players have no way of knowing the best option is to flee to avoid a TPK. I think it comes down to the GM knowing the players and carefully hinting in more than one way that the enemy is too powerful for them, without it sounding like exposition but rather the players are figuring it out themselves and THEY decide not to fight.

  2. This really depends on the theme of your game: for example, in a “pulp” setting, where characters are supposed to be larger than life, then yes they should have the expectation to either defeat the opposition or at the very least not die outright (the old “captured by the enemy to escape later” trick).

    The second point is, should the PC ever encounter something that is way out of their league, they should have hints that, non, they’re not supposed to survive, much less win that one: have a powerful NPC get mopped across the floor by the opposition, have a PC recognize the opposition as something very powerful and dangerous, etc.

    When I started GMing, I had very often the opposite problem: PCs trying everything they could not to fight unless they were certain to win. My lesson here is, try to think about an “escape route” that can work without fighting.

  3. It’s definitely a “player conditioning” thing. I’ve played in a great campaign where our party was adventuring in a land run by powerful evil wizards. We spent a lot of time trying to stay under the radar; every time we encountered their minions we debated if we could fight them in such a way at to not draw attention to ourselves. We also avoided certain monsters because we weren’t confident we could defeat them (yet).

    On the flip side, I also get the impression that due to game mechanics, actually running away in D&D is very difficult to accomplish. And if you’re not going to escape, you might as well face the monsters head on.

    So I guess it’s both a matter of “training” your players to consider whether they’re strong enough, and actually making escape a real option.

  4. hello there ;)
    well, i think, the problem come up because we learn our player to be “stupid” they don’t have to evaluate the danger when they are in front of it. They don’t know that some time somethings is just impossible to do.
    In some video game like baldur’s gate you can meet ennemies better than you, and if you don’t find a way to avoid them, you’re dead. In that game after few death you learn to fear your ennemies.
    I think, that some time, we must making something who will make our players fear their ennemies.
    In order that each time they meet a new ennemis they think about what to say and do.

    (sorry for my english, i don’t practice often so I’m not very good… i hope you understand my idea.)

  5. I have always considered opponents in fantasy RPGs, the problem is with adjudicating human or demihuman PNG strength.
    With monsters, I always remember what happens in a module of odnd when a gargoyle appears diving and nobody has a magic weapon. You have only an option: take cover and then slip away, maybe covered by the armoured fighter.

  6. I’ve put the players against superior forces a few times on purpose, but I always make sure they know the odds are against them or make sure they have a way to escape.
    A good way I’ve hinted at it is to make sure the players have heard about the prowess of a certain NPC well in advance. If a player decides to take on said NPC alone then that’s their problem.
    Another good way I’ve found is to let the players know when describing areas there are many NPCs nearby. “There’s eight guards sitting at a table at the side” hints to the players that as a DM you’re expecting combat. “You hear the sound of many men conversing in a room somewhere nearby” gives more uncertainity to the player. “How many men?” “Can we take them?” “Are we supposed to take them?” That helps to keep the players from thinking in game terms.

  7. The big difference between D&D and The Hobbit is that one is a game while the other is a novel. While I don’t think it’s a bad idea to occasionally throw challenges at your players that they have to think their way around and/or outright flee from (my favorite variant of that is the neverending wave of monsters–it’s forgiving in that the players can start by fighting, but will eventually realize they’re out of their league and will hopefully flee), the risk that you run by throwing too many of said challenges at the players is that you will have a TPK. As we all know, TPKs are sometimes an inevitability, but they’re rarely fun for the players.

    Tolkien didn’t have to worry about whether Bilbo was having fun, he had to worry about telling a good story. He also didn’t have to worry about Bilbo waking and fighting the dragon, because he was in full control the whole time.

  8. Of course it’s ok to send things too tough to beat at a party, but it’s sometimes tough to tell your players to retreat or the situation is too much for them without metagaming. If they see a monster and everyone either fails a knowledge check or fails to crap themselves via a will save or something, they feel they can take it.

    If the characters succeeds in not being afraid, the characters may think they can win even though the players themselves know better. Since the players may know, that doesn’t translate to the characters themselves knowing.

    It’s a tricky situation, but at least creating an escape route with the monster being distracted for a round or two, or something distracting the guards, just something to give the characters a chance to leave.

  9. Should the players expect to be able to win every encounter? Never.

    I tell my players this often, especially when I make something extremely difficult: There are times when running is the best option. Keep in mind that this will be a ‘difficult’ battle, and that it is in no way unwinnable, but with that in mind? If you’re going to win, you’ll have to come up with something very creative.

    One example is when the party split themselves. The librarian and the talker went off with an NPC bodyguard, and wound up facing a dragon. It was intended to be faced with the entire party – a dragon was unfair, and I knew that, but the damned thing was a legendary creature in the area, so I needed something that’d stick.

    Amazingly, they survived through some very good tactical thinking, and a few *very* lucky shots with a rocket launcher. Had they allowed the dragon to get back into range again to use its breath weapon, they would have definitely died.

    Players should never expect to win every fight. Because it makes the victory so much sweeter when they weren’t expected to and wound up triumphing.

  10. D&D(3.5) is my system of choice when i want to go all S.W.A.T. style and really wreak havok on monsters. I love playing the numbers and finding powerful technique combinations within the rules of the game that allow my party to achieve what should be impossible. Using the team as a whole to become a juggernaut increases my enjoyment of the system and since i always play augmenting characters, it lets others get the spotlight and have more fun with their characters.

    Most of the settings are built in that exact fashion, because that’s how the NPCs were created. Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance have so many Gandalfs mucking about, the players say “sweet, i’ll totally defy the odds, too!” and Eberron is pulp-fictiony goodness where one can have a reasonable expectation to survive just based on how the game is played.
    Dark Sun and Ravenloft both shrug off those expectations, but they are harsh settings on purpose, and their NPCs reflect this.

    Years ago, a friend of mine ran us through a 2e D&D game set in Middle Earth. At the same time, the group was also playing through a Forgotten Realms campaign. same rules, two settings.
    In Middle Earth, we ran from most things, skulked about, and tried very hard not to die.
    In Faerun, we brazenly laughed in the face of danger and “somehow” came out alive every time despite overwhelming odds.
    Same ruleset, entirely different games.

    Should players expect balance?
    Only if that’s the world you’re presenting.

  11. I’ve always run with no expectation of that- for certain encounters. I guess I mean that some times the GM should have the ability/right to put overwhelming encounters in front of the players. But at the same time, the GM should also be prepared if the players do manage to figure out a solution- these adversaries shouldn’t just be a steel wall in the players way. As a player, on the other hand, I do feel some frustration in these scenes- but usually if one of two things happens. A. We do well and the GM shrugs it off, clearly not tracking anything. In this case the GM’s decided that we have no chance so why bother. At least explain why our brilliant efforts and criticals fail in some entertaining way. B. And related- if the GM’s set up a scene for us to fail (to be captured, to delay something, etc) they should signal that. They should make it clear that we’ve gone to a cut scene. M&M has a mechanic of rewarding HP when these things happen, and I think that’s not a bad idea.

    On balance generally, though, I see more worry and more concern about the balance and parity between players in the group. Most players understand that “The GM has all the points.” But when there arises a significant disparity in effectiveness between PCs, then tensions appear. So a related question should be: Should players have an expectation of balance within the group? (and what does balance mean in that context?)

  12. I like to play in an “open” world, where monsters don’t stay in their assigned CR-sorted areas. That means that sometimes we the PCs would meet monsters we can’t handle – yet! One of the really cool things about getting levels and powers, is that you can pick a fight with, and defeat, monsters that you had to run from in the past. That’s a real feeling of accomplishment :)

    This does require some communication: as a GM you shouldn’t present every monster as “you should fight this, because it’s standing in front of you”; be descriptive about the monster, how fierce it looks, how it devastates its territory, horror stories the NPCs tell about them. That way the players have something to go on when they wonder if they want to fight it or try to sneak past it.

  13. I think the answer hinges a lot on your word choice. Should the Players expect every *encounter* to be balanced to them?

    Yes. Yes it should. To me an “encounter” is a combat scene I expect the players to end up in. I am planning to throw it at them as a chance to enjoy the combat system of the game I am running.

    Should the Players expect every *scene* to be balanced so that they can win?

    Absolutely not. Sometimes its good and enjoyable for the players to be way in over their heads.

    The difference in “encounters” and “scenes” being what my itent with the interaction and also how I approach it. That’s not to say a scene can’t devolve into combat (and not saying I’m not even prepared for that to happen) but that’s not inherently how it starts.

    Its a pretty easy thing to signal to your players too. If you start describing an area and at the same time lay down a map and some minis, the players can see that you expect this to go down in combat as an “encounter” and that they should have some expectation of victory. If you start by describing the dragon’s den they’re entering and how they’re sneaking around it, then they tend to see it as a “scene” which could end poorly for them.

  14. Whether the players “should” or “should not” have an expectation of winning an encounter no matter how outrageous it looks to the untrained eye is, I suspect, an unanswerable question.

    Clearly there is a demand for games that cater for such an expectation. I can name two without trying: Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and Dresden Files RPG, both of which contain much reading matter for the GM on not killing characters, the former supplying a calculus to make encounters just right for the characters that will undergo it (and a crude version of that goes all the way back to the White Box version, in case you were thinking that WoC were to blame) while the latter simply makes the business of dying a group decision based on whether or not it makes for a better story (without going into whether “the story” in question is that of the group or that of the player-character facing the chop).

    These game system features were born out of an original idea probably coming from a single person, but refined, ground and hardened by playtesting and consensus.

    In other words, there are numerous people out there who think this is “the” way to go when playing RPGs.

    Personally, while I’ve played and enjoyed both those game systems, I’ve a soft spot for encounters in which player perspicacity has a larger role than rules when it comes to the lethality of an encounter.

    But philosophically, I don’t think your question – as posed – has an answer.

    There’s a school of thought that says even if one is playing (say) D&D 3.5, if one is in a sandbox then The Calculus is off the table and you fight the fights you pick at the level they were set hours, days, weeks or even months ago. Some call this “old school” thinking and I think it mirrors real-life problems quite well: You can’t solve a problem now so you go away, improve your chances with equipment, training, feet on the ground or whatever and come at it again later.

    But this is no more “right” in an absolute sense than what is written in the D&D 3.5 DMG.

    One might argue that if the game system has a written approach to the issue (ie rules), going off-book without warning the players is wrong, and I think I agree just about 100% with that view (but then again I want a clear warning on any rule in a RPG I know well being dropped so I don’t try and develop pointless character traits).

    I think that to make this question answerable it has to be asked in the context not only of a milieu but of a specific rule system under which the game will be mediated.

    I know for a fact that people can get very upset if you suggest even minor changes or tweaks to the D&D 3.5 core rules, to the point they feel you “aren’t playing D&D any more”. I’ve had this one thrown at me for suggesting a mere “fluff” interpretation of a spell effect that was different to (but not incompatible with) the wording of the spell in the Player Manual. Telas may remember the occasion.

  15. In my opinion, it makes for a more interesting game if everything is not always exactly matched up to party capability. That gives the feel that you are living in a world that is bigger than the PCs and their immediate environs. However, the DM does need to take some initiative to tell the players “you can’t win this fight” and make some effort to give them an out.

    I recall one encounter when our group was supposed to investigate a monster than was disrupting trade through the forest north of town. First reaction: investigate means go find it and kill it.

    When we got there a whole section of the forest was withered and blackened. We find, in the center of this area, a large wolf-man and start fighting it. The DM describes how we cut it and the wounds start healing up within seconds. Second reaction: this is going to be a tough one, maybe there’s some trick or weakness we can exploit.

    We try using magic and fire, without any real effect and the party is getting pretty beat up. Finally the DM describes how the druid’s animal companion leaped in front of a blow that would have killed the druid. Third reaction: We are not going to beat this, run away. Once we decided to run, the DM described some shadows in the undergrowth and wolf howls in the distance but let us get back to town alive. It turns out investigate meant report back to our boss that it was bigger than we could handle.

  16. I don’t know that I’d call it “balance,” but rather “Unquestionable victory.” I don’t think the players should expect to “win” every encounter – but whether or not players expect to is a function of the GM.

    I think that an insurmountable challenge should be clearly signaled to players, and I think some GMs fail to do this even when they think they’re being clear. Using D&D, a GM might try (and fail!) to signal the players about the danger of a red dragon in the mountains. The GM might have the PCs meet the grizzled old warrior who had both his legs bitten off by the thing, witnesses saying it’s 100 feet tall are all around, and a pile of corpses of old adventurers are at the base of the mountain. Clear signal?

    Depends on the campaign, but I’m going to say no. Some games are all about the PCs being the biggest badasses around, and what the GM thinks is a giant red WRONG WAY sign looks to the players like the prelude to the most awesome fight they’ve ever had.

    I think it’s important to send signals not only for a particular encounter, but throughout a campaign: If it’s the kind of game where the players will meet all-too-powerful foes, they should know it from the get-go so they behave accordingly.

  17. Something i read once: “If you give it stats, the players will try to kill it.”

    That might be at the heart of why D&D plays this way.

  18. “Should players expect that all scenes/encounters be defeatable?”

    The question doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have an answer.

    The GM should be setting the expectations of the players. They should understand their expectations when preparing the game, and — if they do not fit with the game being run — temper those expectations before they even get to the table.

    If you don’t prepare your players for what to expect, then their expectations will always surprise you.

  19. “Should players have an expectation that they can overcome every scene/encounter?” Nope…and sometimes the failure makes it more fun. Not winning against the bad guy in scene 2 might lead to a spectacular climactic fight in a way cool setting. Screwing up and letting the chthonic evil critter into the world might turn the campaign a new and interesting direction, and give them motivation — this was our fault!

    “Or is it okay to have some encounters where the PCs have little to no chance at direct confrontation?” It’s often more fun to build to a direct confrontation with the bad guy/monster…think Blofeld in the Bond films, or Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes novels: they’re an ever-present influence on the characters, felt but not seen, and it can be very gratifying when you finally unmask the villain.

    I’ve found that it’s not the big battles that the characters get shafted on, so much as the easy skirmish that you figure will go by quickly as a teaser for the session or was supposed to be a bit of fluff.

  20. No I don’t think players should expect to be able to defeat every Creature/NPC they come across. Though every encounter should be flexible enough that it can accomodate more than one solution otherwise it will feel very railroady to the players. I think its also up to the GM to provide clues/hints in the narrative for alternatives to fighting if that would be a bad idea.

    Just as some creatures may be introduced at a point where the PCs are unable to defeat them, I have also always found it odd in some games that when the PCs reach higher levels all the less challenging creatures have all suddenly disappeared entirely from the world. Did the PCs commit genocide or something against all these low-powered creatures while they were just starting out?

    Thats one of the reasons I prefer games without such a huge disparity between the power level of starting characters and more experienced characters. YMMV.

  21. As someone whose most formative RPG experiences were with Call of Cthulhu (though my first were Red Box D&D), it definitely seems to me that this is more an issue of the PCs’ expectations of the game system than a generic RPG concern:

    Most players in CoC campaigns are usually more than happy they even survived, rather than lamenting the lack of a fistfight with Azathoth at the End of Time and Space. In other systems, not so much…

    If my character dies before the aftermath in a game of Fiasco, I can always play my character’s scenes as flashbacks, and it stays squarely within Fiasco’s motion picture paradigm.

    If I’m GMing Spirit of the Century, I can always have characters die ‘offscreen’ if necessary.

    D&D on the other hand, seems to have gradually gravitated towards a GM vs. PC idea where the GM is more of an antagonist than a storyteller. In systems like this ‘balance’ is _necessary_ so that the GM does not appear to have an ‘unfair’ advantage. I imagine this developed as a means of giving people who are not interested in/suited for/talented at GMing a formula for doing so and as well as making convention/living campaign/tournament more uniform. This has effectively turned D&D into a sport, where ‘players’ on either side of the GM screen can expect a certain level of ‘fairness’.

    Ultimately, the guaranteed possibility of victory in every situation is like saving your progress in video games:
    While a minority of hardcore players appreciate the challenge of a ‘deadlier’ game, the vast majority of people like being able to progress and appreciate the narrative.

    With the name-recognition/audience that D&D commands, it cannot afford to alienate a large group of non-hardcore gamers, and the idiosyncracies/hardcore nature of more niche games are often their very selling point.

  22. I don’t have expectations of balance when I am playing in a game. I try to have my PC make appropriate decisions based on what is happening in the game.

    As a GM, I strive to achieve some level of balance in the combat emphasized scenes of a game, but if the PCs are dumb enough to seek out and toss a grenade at Darth Vader, well then anything goes. Insane PCs get very little in the way of breaks when it comes to game balance.

    I used to have a GM that promised encounters inside of the dungeon would be well balanced and any encounters outside of a dungeon could be whatever came up on a random table. No punches pulled outside of a dungeon. That was an interesting ride. Scarey as hell at times, but quite interesting…. :)

  23. I’ve seen both ends of the equation on this one.

    Sometimes, players are so convinced that they would be able to take anything the GM throws at them, they just plow headlong into unbeatable encounters that were meant to be avoided.

    I was in a con game once where the scenario was supposed to be the players fleeing for their lives and trying to figure out how to keep the artifact they had out of the hands of true evil. Unfortunately, none of the other players at the table got the message no matter what the GM did. He set up the story to show we would be out classed in the fight, gave bennies to the player that was suggesting we run, and yet none of the other players would leave. In the end, it was a TPK in less than an hour.

    Conversely, I’ve seen players go out of their way to avoid a fight that they should easily be able to take, just because they don’t want to get screwed by the GM. My regular Saturday night group often goes through this, and as a GM, I need to be prepared to work with their plans and schemes to avoid combat at all costs.

  24. The problem with many Game masters is that by the time you know you are in trouble you are already dead. One Delta Green game with a very vicious GM I spent 45 min creating a character only to have him killed on his very first dice role ! Come on GM’s if you have an encounter that is way too hard for the players please make sure to give us a hint of what’s coming…..

  25. Should the players expect balanced encounters?

    No, not always. I’ve always believed that just because its stated doesn’t mean you have to, nor should you, kill it.

    The problem you run into is if every encounter feels overwhelming and un-winnable. The last game I was in had this problem. The GM designed his own world and we were placed in it as PCs. The game had a very loose story structure and we went following the plot hooks as given.

    Yea, bravely did we go off to the forest to find some food for the starving villagers only to immediately get our butts kicked by some monsters. The forest was designed with a certain CR in mind. Regardless of what level we were going to be, the forest was always be that CR.

    Every combat either we, the PCs, just laughed at the feeble attempts of the monsters to hurt us … or the raging barbarian went from full health to bleeding on the ground in the first round of combat. There was no middle ground. No combat that was tough but manageable. It was always one extreme or the other.

    The game is, thankfully, not being run anymore. After countless emails we gave him an ultimatum. Either take our abilities, levels, and classes into consideration when planning things out or we try something else.

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