Theme Thursday: Game Balance and Encounters

This theme has to do with one of the most complex and problematic elements in the game.

It comes up for every GM or DM in the world. One player finds a clever build and begins to outshine the other players to an annoying degree, or another has a different playstyle and falls behind. Perhaps the monsters you’ve chosen are too strong or too weak or too complicated to play properly. Every once in a while, in every game (even in games outside of Pathfinder or D&D), something happens that upsets the delicate balance of the game.

What a GM does when they notice the game balance is out of what can make the difference between a good game and a bad one. You need to talk to the players, of course, but that’s not what we’re concerned with. You need to know what you’re negotiating for–what guide do you have to help you get the game going smoothly again?

So does it make a huge difference when a player gets access to an ability that seems overly powerful? Well, if it’s a limited-use ability, not so much. You can get the balance back into line by adjusting encounters, often even on the fly. Note that a well-placed dispel magic often works wonders. You should not feel bad about this: you’re doing your job as a GM to make encounters an interesting challenge. Don’t negate that ability entirely; every now and then, it should work beautifully.

When the problem is an ability that never runs out (like witch hexes…), that’s much more of a problem. It becomes much more obvious when every single encounter either negates or allows that one ability.

The balance of the game depends on the way in which a great number of different abilities and powers must be used to ¬†overcome the varied encounters, and allows every type of character to shine. Check your Gamemastery Guide and Ultimate Magic for some advice on the ranked strength of different abilities (mind control is at the top, then comes death effects, and so on). Also, keep in mind that characters balance a designed role against the specific needs of the moment. Sometimes you want to shake up your characters in their roles, and make them think about what’s expedient rather than what they’re designed for; sometimes the wizard needs to battle the enemies with a broken sword while the barbarian runs for his life and the rogue struggles to activate a powerful scroll. Most of the time however, you should find a way to make every player feel they’re fulfilling their role in an interesting way. A mixture of these are what make memorable adventures.

Finally, remember what all characters want to do in a fight: kill the enemy. Dealing damage, controlling, and the toughness to take punishment all work together to make a party effective. If one of these elements of balance goes out of whack, you can either bring it back into line, bring the other elements to the same level, or tune encounters to make the other elements a greater focus.

I hope you find these tools useful!

-Max Porter Zasada


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