Encounters and Play/GM Style

This is a small post and I’ll say up front, I’m covering some well trod territory here… but it’s something that was on my mind recently as I began thinking about how to put together a toolkit for encounters.

At the con this past weekend we had several conversations about the difference between old school play and more modern “D&D” play, specifically thinking about how frustrating encounters are to create in a game like Pathfinder. It can take hours to plan a single encounter in Pathfinder. More importantly, we were discussing the idea of planned/balanced encounters vs. story-driven encounters.

I started thinking about the games I’ve played the most and how I GM, how I create encounters. I find that the more rules-light and the more well-defined the setting, the more capable I am of improvising and feeling good about it. I think back to running Star Wars D6 system in the Rebellion era and it was incredibly easy to run on the fly. I could improvise details and encounters easily. Amber DRPG works the same way for me.

Part of this comes from the fact that the whole group of players are very comfortable with those settings. They know the details and so they are not thrown off when encounters are not “balanced” because the expectation exists that they could run into odd but appropriate stuff at any time. Some other games really emphasize the encounter-mechanics-based method over the idea that encounters make sense for the setting. I think this is why my return to old-school, open-world style gaming has really been a boon. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to make up treasure hoards and I am still getting my players familiar with the setting I’m running in, but the feeling of freedom has invigorated my desire to GM.

I’d never really thought about this from the player side before, and how it affects the play experience. I’m going to keep ruminating on this more, but it’s a thought that might show dividends at my table.

Thanks.

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18 responses

  1. For me, even with the open world stuff – my problem is that there are so many moving parts for a d20 game.

    I’m so used to WOD – where there’s a general upper boundary for competence – 2 dice is minimal, 10 dice is maximal, then add tools/equipment/circumstances. I just haven’t found that sweet spot in 13th Age – where I’m trying to create interesting combat encounters with quirky powers and changing situations.

    1. I think that is part of what I was getting at (which you expressed well) – when there is a defined set of boundaries it is easier to plot where something should fall within them. I think part of the problem with games like Pathfinder and 3.5 is that everything is additive and the numbers can be so varied when you add in all the moving parts. Strangely enough, 4E D&D did this “there is a bounded range” thing pretty well for the basics – but then it falls apart with all the fiddly-bits.

      1. However, the problem with bounded systems is when you start bumping into things that are outside the bounds. d100 based system regular bump into this problem – what happens when you break 100%?

        It is why I’ve started playing around more and more with a Cortex Plus based system (bear with me, I know you and the system didn’t mesh) as barring something odd – you’ll only ever have 2 or 3 dice “mattering” the other dice just aren’t useful. There for if you have a large handful of dice, you have better chances of a more consistent/higher result, but you aren’t invulnerable to the twists of fate.

        Just haven’t figured out how to mesh it all together yet.

  2. I am convinced that the main shift in role-playing games originates with player expectations. Old School players have a different expectation of what play means than New School players – which is well beyond the old chestnut of thespians vs. munchkin. Games that sold suggested guidelines where “one DM equal to another” was understood within the players’ expectation were replaced by a generation of less organic games that provided a construction of systematic rules that process the game, providing the ride for the players to passively journey through the game.

    The number of gamer posts that state Monopoly can provide a basis for role-playing anecdotally evidences this transition. The number of so-called “GM less” games seems to signal a third option where one player unencumbered by an Atlas of rules is looked upon as a reactionary figure without even the pretext of authority: the new rules, or lack thereof, eliminating the term GM from the game.

    Here is an impersonal New School concept: no one trusts the GM. And that means no one trusts any player. This is what the hobby has been crawling towards since the 90s.

    Essentially, role-playing games are games of trust. Not trust in the rules or the lack of rules, but trust between players. Old School players, from the rough and ready days of GM as God, understood this better than the current crop of players do. The presentation of guidelines as rules and the shift in semantics of GM-less authority, only serve to highlight the message it is meant to safeguard against: abuse of trust.

    The most efficient way to do that, of course, is to remove the influence of people from the games.

    1. Could not agree more. I’ve written often here at the Rhetorical Gamer about how the number one criteria to make a good game is trust in the player group (including the GM) and I’m a firm believer that games work better when you have a strong GM presence which is well-trusted.

      Your final sentence, to me, sums up pretty well the worst parts of most of my “modern” gaming experiences.

      Thank you!

    2. I agree and disagree with this assertion. I think the reason we have seen a steady progression from “Old school” thinking where you accept (I disagree that there is any inherent “trust” in the GM in oldschool play, there just weren’t any alternatives or recourse) that what the GM says is what goes, to the more “modern” style of the rules attempting to circumscribe what the GM is “allowed” to do, is because, fundamentally, bad GMs have been betraying that “trust” for a long time, and so people, once bitten, are twice shy, and seek safety in games where they can tell the GM “HEY! That encounter was nowhere near level appropriate, what the heck, man?!”

      To bring this back, more closely, to encounter design, I don’t actually believe that there is any necessary disconnect between “realistic” encounters, and “level appropriate” encounters. Encounters should always be designed with what is plausible in mind, and then any system guidelines for what is ‘appropriate’ should be applied.

      I think the reason it takes “forever” to set up an encounter in Pathfinder is because there are so many moving parts. Back in “the day”, all you did was pick a few monsters out of a list – you probably had something in mind anyway – and didn’t then need to apply templates or whatever, and if there was going to be loot, you rolled it later. This is the price you pay for a more customized system.

      Additionally, and this applies to all of the points above, a system that informs you of what is “appropriate” has utility FOR the GM; Okay. So the PCs are in goblin infested lands and run into a goblin warband. Back in “The day” you might roll that encounter and generate a random number of goblins, giving the PCs plenty of opportunity for “Inexplicably, this warband only contains 5 goblins! Here, have a trivial combat”! and “Holy moly, it’s the goblin war horde of 72 goblins! Better run away or risk a combat that, even if it’s not lethal, will sure as hell be boring.” And a whole range of things in between. Or you might choose a number of goblins based on what you feel is an “appropriate” number for a warband. But adding guidelines for what a “level appropriate” encounter is also gives you guidelines for “How many goblins do I need to use to really scare the PCs here?” or “If I want the PCs to plow this under, because the actual point of this encounter is to make them think ‘What the? Goblins? Here?’ how many goblins should I use?” Yes, it’s a philosophical difference between “How many goblins ‘would there actually be’?” (Answer: Somewhere between 10 and 24?) and “How many goblins would be interesting for there to be?” but that goes right back to the core dichotomy of whether you want to have to deal with chasing down the massacred remnants of a fleeing goblin band or not.

      Remember that, as a rule, encounter guidelines are rather like the Pirates’ Code, and you’re never REQUIRED to throw a “level appropriate challenge” at the PCs. Because you know, you’re still the GM.

      1. I struggle with your explanation a little. I mean – I do also run Pathfinder and I enjoy playing it as well. I’m not entirely against the more modern aspects. But I think that the “level appropriate” encounter guidelines are an oddity because they are not the solution or tool (or, not always) that you make them out to be. My case in point – using a level appropriate encounter guideline for goblins for 8th level pathfinder PCs would also mean a terribly boring fight (mainly because no matter how many goblins you use they are not a threat at all). I think the difference between “how many goblins should be here” and “how many goblins would be interesting” are not two different questions. The “interesting” part is something totally different and unique to each game.

  3. While I agree with the first half of what RA has to say, I don’t think it’s as purely a matter of trust as the second half of his comment suggests. There are lots of differences between old- and new- schools, and one of the most fundamental was an “anything goes let’s just have fun” attitude that was a big part of early D&D and the modern expectation that everything will make sense. My campaigns succeed in large part because I’m good at finding reasonably good explanations for whatever I’ve decided to include and having it all make sense in the end, so appealing to both old and new school. The problem is that so many GMs get caught up in delivering the plausibility and rational that they forget to bring the fun.

    When I was first starting out, I had a very simple rule of thumb for encounters: Add the PCs levels together, and add the number of PCs and their NPC allies/hangers on. That gave me the total levels of creature encountered. I still use a variation on that technique to this day. It takes seconds to plan an encounter, as a result.

  4. I think, and this is just my opinion, that there are two main differences between the ‘two schools.’

    First, it use to be that the GM’s word was LAW. You didn’t question it, you didn’t pull out the rule book and spend 20 minutes or more finding a way to prove you were right, you accepted whatever ruling was made an moved on. Sometimes the GM got it right, sometimes not, but that was part of the unwritten contract you had with your group when you sat down at the table.

    Second, at least for me and others I played with, it was about the story and streamlining things to move it forward (something I missed at one point in my last long term campaign). Could our characters have retainers, yes, henchmen, yes, minions, why not – but we didn’t use them. It was the PCs against whatever challenge was there, not some massive army well had helping us out.

    That’s just my two cents.

  5. As a general comment… addressing the trust and GM’s word is law issues… Here’s my take.

    I’ve written this before and I’ll probably explore it again at some point but I think that the trust issue is THE fundamental requirement for a good game. If the players don’t trust the GM (and the GM doesn’t trust the players) then it doesn’t matter what game you are running or what system you have or what plot you’ve come up with… the game won’t work (or won’t work nearly as well).

    So if you have a trust issue at your table then you need to address that first, not expect mechanics to legislate it for you. A comment was made above along the lines of allowing players to say, “Hey, that encounter was nowhere near appropriate” but that’s not a trust issue (per se) that’s a perception issue. The question I’d ask when I ran into a clearly overpowering encounter is… “what’s going on there – in the game world – that makes that so dangerous and I can’t wait to come back when I can handle it.” So I’d have a very different reaction.

    And that’s my fundamental issue with games that legislate the DM/encounter/campaign structure. Such promises are inherently false promises.

    Just my feelings about it.

    That said, the GM’s word is NOT law. If that were the case (and I believe that a strong GM presence is important) then you are abandoning trust in the other direction – because the game is a communal activity, a cooperative venture, and players need to have some say in what is happening or it’s not worth their investment and engagement. So that’s a whole different issue.

    Anyway – I appreciate the conversation – feel free to keep it going!

  6. Michael Pureka | Reply

    You are right about trust, but you don’t seem to understand the reactions of people who have lost it. They don’t say “Well, sure, my last GM screwed us over, but this time will be different.”

    What happens to your instinctive question of “What’s going on in the game world that makes this so dangerous?” when the answer is “Nothing, the GM is just being a jerk.”? Answer? People, quite reasonably, get upset over the breach of trust.

    When trust has been breached enough times, people seek ways to move in, at least, a “trust but verify” or “Trust, but have rules” mentality, which is exactly what modern game design is, IMHO.

    Lots and lots of people have experiences with GMs who have breached trust in this fashion, I think. And again, these metrics have value above and beyond that – let’s say you know that a monster needs to be scary enough to have “wiped out a whole patrol of the baron’s guards”. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how scary that monster needs to be without running a simulated combat?

    1. I’m confused by your assertion that I don’t understand the reaction of people who have lost trust… My reaction is not to assume that someone else (a rule set) will create trust… my reaction – and the reaction of most of the folks I’ve played with – is that we will discuss the issue first and if it really does come down to, “the GM is just being a jerk” then that game is over and we move on to a new game with a new GM. I will always hold to the assertion that a brief time without a game is better than continuing to play in a bad one just because.

      Modern game design – I agree with you – does have a strong sentiment of “have rules” but I think they attempt to legislate the trust relationship – that is, they replace trust with rules that say, “here’s what we expect you to adhere to and if you don’t then you are wrong.”

      I would also assert, from my own experience, that again, when I face a situation where the GM breaks trust (and I’ve been there) that the solution is to talk about it like adults and if you really can’t solve the problem then, well, rules won’t ever fix the GM being a jerk, they’ll just mean that the GM will find other ways to show it.

      As to your final point – again, I’ve run plenty of more modern interpretations of D&D, 3rd, 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e – and I’ve had fun playing them all. But I (and I am only speaking for myself here) do not find the same joy in them that I do in more old school and freewheeling play. Challenge ratings and ELs are great and all but I’m pretty much able to eyeball “well, an owlbear could easily wipe out a squad of 4 normal men in chainmail with spears” without a CR5 up in the corner. Maybe not everyone can do that as easily but again, the 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder style games reward extreme system mastery so that would seem to be a skill that would develop from playing/running those games as a matter of course.

      Just some thoughts in the opposite direction.

    2. >>>> “Nothing, the GM is just being a jerk.”

      When trust has been breached enough times, people seek ways to move in, at least, a “trust but verify” or “Trust, but have rules” mentality, which is exactly what modern game design is, IMHO. <<<<

      Relationships where one party tries to change the other party often fail, and always fail when the other party refuses (or is not ready) to change. Your example of modern RPGs culture saved by the rulebooks has described an unhealthy relationship based upon argumentation. It does not have to devpoolve into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf but it can, rapidly when it does.

      You’ve just made the case for gaming with jerks/assholes. You assert you can reign in an asshole with rulebooks. My question is: is this your type of RPGs fun?

      I want to point out, too, there is an ominous counterintuitive result from this rationale for separating the gaming table from the game that, I suppose, had good intentions of increasing the number of players/hobby market – my distinction: publishers publish standardized rulebooks, GM’s homebrew..The result is new-to-the-hobby players may take away a negative impression from RPGs when they enter an atmosphere of bickering professionals who “trust but verify.” This actually serves to shrink the hobby and magnifies some very unsavoury social stereotypes within it.

      As far as a GM knowing the limits of his/her players, the best remedy for this is knowing the players themselves. And this knowledge comes with experience rather than a book. Trust in oneself and trust in one’s group does not come in a lab. It won’t come from an academic conjecture of some absolute ideal of fairness either.

      The Tomb of Horrors module evidences this. Some like it. Others despise it. But for the specific table group it was created for (players Rob Kuntz & Ernie Gygax) the adventure was appropriate. It was not about levels 10- 14. It was about the players.

  7. You’ll observe that nowhere have I said that this system of “legislating trust” -works-, merely that it is the natural reaction of people who have been burned a lot of times. Or, to put it another way, I think the trends in modern gaming (Basically, D&D and it’s offshoots, really. Shortgames don’t enter into ‘encounter design’ at all, for the most part) are a consequence of people’s experience with games, not a driver, in this regard.

    I do not “make the case” for gaming with jerks or assholes, but I recognize that many people seem to, regardless. There’s a reason the mantra “No gaming is better than bad gaming.” has to be repeated to people. It’s because not everyone is in an idyllic relationship where they can have adult conversations with people, and yet, sometimes, people insist on gaming anyway.

    I’m not really sure what you were trying to say with your “bickering professionals” comment – that wasn’t clear at all. But I’d be more inclined to say that it’s far easier to get into a game when the book isn’t telling you something different from the people around the table. It’s also probably easier to get into a game where system mastery isn’t tied directly to survival. For every “I got into oldschool D&D in spite of how lethal it was!” player, there’s at least one “I got turned off of oldschool D&D because of how lethal it was!” player.

    I challenge anyone to get through Tomb of Horrors with a party of 6 level 5 characters. There is still “appropriate” and not, regardless of how talented your players are. And more especially, there is absolutely an IN WORLD sense of equivalence, where if you bash 14 Arkosi Heavy Infantry against 17 Talmak Guardians, the result will be “too close to call.” Sometimes, that information is useful, because mechanics and system matter.

    I’m glad you guys have your idyllic gaming lives where everyone trusts everyone, and everyone is comfortable having a discussion and no one feels upset. Please understand that there are people for whom this does not describe their gaming experience, and that for some those people, having rules can be either a valuable guideline and a valuable recourse. Also understand that, it’s likely, based simply on the trends in games over the past few decades, there are more of those people than there are of you.

    1. >>>> But I’d be more inclined to say that it’s far easier to get into a game when the book isn’t telling you something different from the people around the table.<<<>>> I challenge anyone to get through Tomb of Horrors with a party of 6 level 5 characters. <<<<

      But they have to play characters between level 10 and 14, right…? LOL

      I think you’ve missed the point I was making when I emphasized {emphasis} KNOWING THE PLAYERS {/emphasis}. I was not referring to their character level or their character sheet.

      The Sphere of Annihilation is a good example. This puzzle does not score on the character sheet. Looking at The Sheet, no statistic or percentage chance is visible to determine if it is an appropriate event or not. Perception Checks or Wisdom checks do not (yet) invalidate what the player brings to the game. This is strictly a matter of the GM knowing his players (ie. Kurtz & Gygax Jr.). Making it “appropriate for (every player at) levels 10 – 14” was_a_mistake_. It is a classic example of how expectations from one group (DM Gygax and his players) DO NOT transfer to another group even so far as to have a written standardized adventure for every group to follow.

      And as is often said, when RPGs are played competitively or demonstrated at conventions with an ad hoc bunch of people for a one-off, a different atmosphere (based upon governing strictures in these cases) creates a different play/GM style.

  8. >>>> But I’d be more inclined to say that it’s far easier to get into a game when the book isn’t telling you something different from the people around the table.<<<<

    Agreed. But we disagree as to where the source of one’s game’s answers originate. What has more authority in your scenario: the rulebook or the group? Which is most often correct: the book or the people?

    Is your paradigm of role-playing games a positive one or a negative one?

    Trust at the gaming table begins with what the individual brings to that table. If you cannot trust others, then perhaps you are best to stick to with activities where trust is not required. To think that trust must be earned at the gaming table is a way of thinking that will prevent trust from occurring. There is a reason a trust game like catch and fall is played with the person falling having his back to the person catching. When the person falling wants to micromanage the person catching, the desired outcome cannot be achieved (and it reinforces the lack of trust existing between faller and catcher).

    1. >>>> I challenge anyone to get through Tomb of Horrors with a party of 6 level 5 characters. <<<<

      But they have to play characters between level 10 and 14, right…? LOL

      I think you’ve missed the point I was making when I emphasized {emphasis} KNOWING THE PLAYERS {/emphasis}. I was not referring to their character level or their character sheet.

      The Sphere of Annihilation is a good example. This puzzle does not score on the character sheet. Looking at The Sheet, no statistic or percentage chance is visible to determine if it is an appropriate event or not. Perception Checks or Wisdom checks do not (yet) invalidate what the player brings to the game. This is strictly a matter of the GM knowing his players (ie. Kurtz & Gygax Jr.). Making it “appropriate for (every player at) levels 10 – 14” was_a_mistake_. It is a classic example of how expectations from one group (DM Gygax and his players) DO NOT transfer to another group even so far as to have a written standardized adventure for every group to follow.

      And as is often said, when RPGs are played competitively or demonstrated at conventions with an ad hoc bunch of people for a one-off, a different atmosphere (based upon governing strictures in these cases) creates a different play/GM style.

      (something happened to my original reply – I lost the top half of it.)

  9. My “paradigm” of roleplaying games is that the books and the players shouldn’t contradict each other. Radical, I know. Trust isn’t even a PART of this equation. All the purpose of THIS part of the exercise is is to minimize confusion.

    And just because some of the puzzles in Tomb, which is, if you ask me, and extremely atypical module, is independent of character power does not mean that character power is not extremely relevant in the majority of RPG situations. Selecting an atypical example from an atypical source is not a good way to prove the right way to do something.

    Frankly, you seem to be arguing for a very specific case with a very ideal gaming group, and not making allowances for the situations many people (none of whom are me) encounter. That’s fine, but it displays a certain lack of openmindedness regarding how other people experience this hobby.

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