The following is a brief insight on how to gauge and balance your games for your current group. The example given is based on the Pathfinder system.
You’ve started a new campaign. Your players have brought their new PC sheets with them. And despite knowing your players sheet by heart (or not, some of us work long hours). There really is no guarantee to know if your players will be engaged and challenged enough during your first encounter. Keep in mind however, that not every player may use their PC to it’s full potential. Despite them possibly being a horrible min maxer. It doesn’t matter if the PC is a potential boss killer if the PC isn’t played right or even dies cause of bad decisions & tactics. On the flip side, another player in the group may be a horrible min maxer and play that PC to terrifying effect. Leaving the other party members in their shadow.
You will need to rely on knowing your group and appealing to them during creation to keep things balanced as it is. Like most things in life, good communication is required.
Now that you have a ‘somewhat balanced’ group, you are still confronted with that first encounter. It’s easy to go overboard and have them fight a murder machine, thinking everything will be ok. At the same time, most GM’s will fear wiping their party during the first game and will end up with weak mobs that can’t hit to save their lives.
Keep in mind that the objective of an encounter is for the party to expend resources as well as be entertained. Killing PC’s is not the answer to having a good time and doesn’t drive the story forward (but if it happens, let it happen). Rather have them expend that party heal or that potion, have them expend that HP or that item. Not that every fight should be as tense as fighting the end boss but make it interesting.
To aid in this, consider the following advice.
- Write up an encounter as you normally would. Let’s say 5 wolves.
- Every Wolf will have the same stats that would seem balanced to you.
- Should your players have too difficult a time, consider lowering the damage roll, AC or HP during combat. Make a mental note or write it down.
HP is the easiest as suddenly making it easier for your PC’s to hit these same wolves, will make your players think your either taking pity on them or that you were too incompetent to write up ‘the perfect encounter for their level’ (More on those kind of player, later…).
That said, try and introduce factors that justify an immersive lowering of AC, like environmental hazards, armor breaks or fear effects.
- Is the encounter too easy? Add in a couple more wolves that were lying in wait. Increase the damage roll, AC or HP. See the above but in reverse.
Perhaps one of the wolves is the pack leader and gets a sort of alpha boost on its stats. More hitting power (versus the players min maxed AC value), double HP and perhaps add 2 AC more, depending on their average rolls.
- If you do end up with mobs that vary in strength. Try and aim the more harder hitting mobs towards the min maxed PC’s. This also ensures that your encounters seem more balanced. Just try to avoid openly targeting a player. You may think you are being sneaky, but your players will know. Try and justify a reason for the alpha mob to attack the more powerful PC. They may be carrying a haunch of meat they found earlier, for example. Or simply state that the min/maxed PC’s reputation precedes them and that the boss NPC wants a crack at him/her. Whatever feels right at the time.
- Don’t be afraid to fudge your rolls in both your mobs and the groups favor. The game itself is more important than your encounter and players tend to feel good after overcoming a particularly difficult fight. Try and avoid fudging toward a high roll with every die you roll.
Be fair, your players will thank you for it.
- After this fight, you should have a pretty good idea with what your players can do and how they react in a combat situation. Now at least, you can adjust your future encounters to suit your group.
The above mentioned advice can also be used throughout your entire campaign.