Friday, February 3, 2012

Game Balance is Unbalanced


So I investigated the CR, and decided to run a nice and balanced CR 3 encounter for my PF group. As you may recall I've been having my PCs die like flies lately and I began to wonder whether my encounters are simply too difficult. Past groups I have run have simply not had this many problems. So I began to reassess my encounter CR. And according to the PF rules I have been at about 5 to 7. For my group the rules say a 5 is considered Epic, 4 is hard and 3 is challenging. My campaigns have been more like Super-Epic in difficulty level. Previous group years have stepped up, but we've always had a few older High School kids coming in to game with us. But the group is so big at the Junior High this year that the HS kids haven't been coming. So I've got lots of young 8th graders trying to learn the game. I just don't think they are up to the challenge.

When I measured a CR 3 encounter it was about 5 or 6 goblins for 11 players and that just seemed kind of lite. So I asked for guidance from other PF GMs around the net. To be honest I'm an old school gamer that really runs an old school game no matter what system I use. But lately I have been adding in more and more PF specific rules. Hence I went to the book because I knew they have encounter building info in the Core rules. It just seemed a little wrong to me that a group of 11 would only face 5 or 6 goblins and consider it challenging. I had been sort of winging it, and figuring a man for man enemy count. I'm a 1st edition man at heart and still just go with the "number appearing" philosophy in the old Monster Manual. Balance wasn't so important back then. The monsters simply existed--they lived out there in the wilds, and they likely weren't going to attack you if _they_ were outnumbered. They were out to kill you as quickly and nastily as possible. It was a dangerous world, and you better be prepared to run away if things got ugly. Otherwise you died ... period.

PF and later gen games sort of have a different approach. It's a design oriented approach. The thinking goes: if you add monsters to the adventure they are meant to be there for a purpose, usually for the PCs to fight--not for PCs to run away from, or just because there were monsters out there in the wilds. So they worked in balance rules to keep PC from dropping like flies, just in case you happened to step into a kobold hive and faced 120 of the little scaly buggers. PF didn't plan for that kind of stuff--it wasn't _supposed_ to happen.

I am an old school gamer in a new school world. I've been old schooling these kiddos in PF for some time now. But this group is really struggling. So I began to wonder if I was making things too hard on them. Being unfair. Not cheating on die rolls or story coddling them or anything, I won't do that. But just giving them too much to handle. Maybe. According to the PF rulebook I was. And now PF's reasoning makes sense; they run into 4 or 5 CR 3 encounters per day. That's about perfectly engineered to wear them down--by the end of the day. Admittedly it's kind of a contrived system. For instance the encounter yesterday was 2 wolves and 1 young worg. If you ask me no two wolves are going to attack a party 11 strong unless they are starved--and these weren't as they had just fed on a few villagers the day before. But if they don't attack there's no encounter at all. I mean maybe the worg goads them into attacking, or maybe they feel braver with the worg there--worgs are fairly intelligent after all. But it would seem to make more sense to me to have a pack of 8 to 12 wolves pick off a weak one or two and drag him off. Perhaps surrounding their kill and protecting it from the other adventurers who try and retrieve the body. But I just ran it as a normal encounter. I did have the wolves attack the rear and choose to bring down the party's one mount instead of attacking them head on. And while they dealt with the wolves hitting them from behind, the worg attacked the weak looking magic user at the other end.

The battle was a decent one. And I was surprised that they did struggle a bit inspite of the low numbers of their enemies. But they triumphed and with the Cleric's help managed to save the mount as well. But while it left me happy for them, I was a little dissatisfied with the nature of the encounter. Not that I'm out to win or beat them or defeat them. But I want my encounters to make sense. The wolves simply wouldn't have gone at it that way imo. Granted this is a commercial module and not one of my own design. I could fix it perhaps given the time. But it seemed that a CR 3 encounter worked well for them technically, but I feel like I've violated the spirit of the law or something.

The strange thing is that going through this little exercise has confirmed for me all the reasons why I don't like these over designed next gen systems. I have been giving myself over to Pathfinder for several months now, and telling myself that I just needed to give up my little sniggling doubts, and the distaste and lack of fire I had for the system. But it's what everyone else has wanted to play, so I pushed my preferences aside and attempted to embrace the system. Only now it's more clear than ever that the way these games are designed just isn't the way I'm interested in playing.

Moreover it's made me realize that my previous realizations were a bit shortsighted. Actually getting into a game takes time. It takes effort to dig into the game as you play and begin to catch it's spririt in greater and greater measure. I did that with 1e to a point. At first we played very simply, and it was only later that we began to add options that were deeper in the system. True we never really played with all these options, but we might have had we played for a longer time. My system delving has been fairly shallow lately, and of course I am playing them all pretty much the same. It's only as I've begun to dig into Pathfinder that I find I like it less rather than more.
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