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An Unbalanced Balance

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    Nik Vinter

One of the key points of the OSR movement is that encounters don't have to be balance (note: that doesn't mean they have to be unbalanced). How does it work and why do we do that?

Usually dungeons and wilderness area have roll tables, those allow for naturalism and for a sembiance of a living ecosystem. Every creature inside might be encountered, with various degrees of probability. That means that, unless you have various tables for various level ranges, even the most deadly creature can be encountered at level 1. That doesn't mean an encounter with a dragon is gonna be a fight but it might be, and it might crush the party.

The same thing happens in dungeons. Sometimes a room surrounded by level 1 goblins contains a Manticore inside, such is the life of the adventurer. It's up to the players to recognize and avoid the danger. Just remember that there might be a reward if they decide to fight it!

Why is there a manticore? Because life is not a game, and in our game we're kinda aiming to reproduce it, with various degrees of realism. But also because it's fun game design, and this is probably the main reason. A list of completely balanced encounters might be completely sandboxy and optional, but the players will know that the challenge is constant. It's important, and it's a fine art, to disrupt this equilibrium introducing encounters that are outside of the players' level range. Encounters that the players don't expect.

One thing I noticed though, is that encounter balance is often against the party and rarely in favour. Why's that? Probably because most of the characters are constantly on the low end of the level scale (levels 1 to 5) and there are many monsters above them and few below. The second reason is that while challenge is fun, a lack of it isn't. It's fun (might be) to encounter a Hydra, it's not fun to encounter a goblin in a cave when the party is level 7.

Low level encounters are often trivial, and as such more of a nuisance for the players. It's the same reason for why you usually stop tracking gold and food at higher levels. The challenges of the game mutate. But I'd still argue that a "steamroll" once in a while is good fun, especially after enemies that the group struggled with. Just make it fun and engaging, instead of a tedious list of rolls.

(Also, give your player one-use items with great powers, that's also unbalanced and lots of fun but i'm gonna write a separate post about it!)