The Von Show #14 – Balance Is Boring

Business as usual this week, now with 100% more Hark! This week’s technical error: sound quality, as my microphone has lost its pop cover and wasn’t really designed for two people anyway. I’ve done what I can but it’s still a bit quiet. Still, you can always skip to the transcript.

Incidentally, if anyone has any suggestions for topics, or thought-provoking questions, don’t hold back!

Von – It’s come to my attention that many of us are worried about balance. Encounter balance. I was looking through the Pathfinder rulebook the other day, and… the thing about Pathfinder and the third edition of D&D that it’s based upon is that it’s very very big on the idea of challenge ratings, that you count up the total number of levels in the party and divide by something to get the number of hit dice worth of monsters that you can… see? Dead on her feet already. An awful lot of GM advice goes along the lines of ‘present the characters with balanced encounters that they can overcome’.


We are here today to talk about why that doesn’t always work, and why unbalanced encounters are a good thing, and in order to facilitate that discussion, Hark here is going to tell you about her vampire.

Hark – AZIZ! Aziz is a Saracen – i think he’s a Saracen, not sure if that’s the right time period, ’cause we’re in Constantinople, at around the Siege of Constantinople. Aziz was in the Third Crusade, and survived it, and came home and is having a bit of a rest ’cause he’s a bit of a professional soldier. Unfortunately, then, a load of Teutons* came and battered Constantinople, and Aziz might have almost accidentally got a little bit killed – but it’s all right, because a Nosferatu named Safiye came and saw how amazingly brave and stupid he was and made him a vampire.

It is my first Vampire character, I’ve never played any Vampire before, so i’m a bit… “what is a Nosferatu? What is vampire do? How is vampire formed?”. It’s a bit of a learning experience for both of us, Aziz and i…

Von – Aziz has died, or nearly died, several times, and the thing about character death is that it’s either the result of bad dice, a cock-up by the players, or the encounter being flat-out unbalanced to begin with. Funnily enough, we have three CUNNINGLY SELECTED EXAMPLES – which I have absolutely not planned in any way, shape, or form** – that we can draw upon to illustrate this.

So, Hark – can you tell us how Aziz died the first time?

Hark – Mainly huge heroic stupidity of a Gryffindor nature. He pretty much knew he was gonna die, because there was a load of blokes, armoured up to the eyeballs, in proper Teutonic armour with spikes on it, and they all had proper weapons that they’d been trained in, and Aziz had an oar – and also he is cavalry, so he’s not used to being on his feet – and there were forty-seven of them and one of him…

Von – Here’s a question. Why did you go and do it?

Hark – Well, i did know that Aziz was ALIVE, and, y’know, this being a Vampire game, at some point he had to not be alive, and also when i chose Aziz i chose him to be a bit Gryffindor-heroic. His Nature is Defender, and his Demeanour is Autocrat, so it was all “i must make sure everyone else gets away, i must defend my place”. So it was very in-character for him to be a bit of a prat and charge a line of Teutonic knights…

Von – The point we’re building towards here is there was no way in hell that was going to be a mechanically balanced encounter, because what I was gearing up to is that at some point he had to get killed. (Well, he didn’t necessarily have to, it could have been one of those loving, tender Embraces, but I wasn’t really in the mood, it’s a bit played out, and this isn’t fucking Twilight.) Given that the character was this sort of heroic defender archetype, the smart money was on him getting killed defending the city, so all I had to do was provide opportunities for Hark to get Aziz killed. If he had by some perverse miracle and luck of the dice managed to overcome those knights, something else would have happened.

Hark – Another rank of knights, i’d have thought.

Von – Yeah. The point being, that was ‘[un]balanced’ as an encounter that he had no chance in hell of surviving – and that was good, because it got the game moving.

Okay, another example of an ‘unbalanced’ encounter – tell me about the second time Aziz nearly died.

Hark – You are talking about the incident on the ship, aren’t you.

Von – Yeah, I’m talking about the incident on the ship.

Hark – We’d decided that we were going to go into Constantinople proper, for plot reasons, so we got in a little row-boat, and rowed away, and my grandsire was pretending to be a Teutonic knight, using his Nos mind-magic, and Safiye was with me and we were being prisoners. Only Aziz is the least sneaky Nos, or indeed vampire, ever. Given an opportunity to botch a sneak roll, he will go “OH DEAR I’VE BOTCHED MY SNEAK ROLL” and do something stupid like drop his sword – no, he bashed his sword into another Teutonic knight or something ridiculous, and we had to start a fight 
’cause they were like “hang on – TEH MUSLIMS!”

It should have been “haha, Aziz is now super-powered, and can batter these blokes that he battered in life, EASILY – and i maintain that Aziz is cavalry, and he doesn’t like being on a horse – ’cause there were, like, three blokes, and did i kill one?

Von – You almost killed one. I think you almost knocked him unconscious… yeah, he was out of the fight but not technically incapacitated.

Hark – yeah, so there were three blokes, and they were always on me, and I kept sort of going “Aziz punches one in a battery way”, or “stabs one with a sword”, and it kept on going “the sword glances off him, the bloke nudges off your hit, he doesn’t give a shit that you’re a vampire, he’s just some super-dice-dodgy-bloke”. i rolled some really bad rolls, and the three blokes just kept piling on me, and i think everyone else laughed at Aziz…

Von – I know I did.

That was meant to be a ‘balanced encounter’. I’d thought, very very roughly speaking, ‘how many dice does Aziz get to roll for hitting people, how many other vampires are going to be on the boat with him, how many mortals is it reasonable to put on the boat for him to fight and have a bit of a struggle with but overcome without getting nobbled?’ And the answer was ‘not that many’.

Hark – You could have put a hamster – like, a Teuton hamster – on that boat and Aziz would have been, like, “i die! curse you, Hamster!”, because seriously i could just not roll a die straight that night.

 Von – And that’s another thing about balance. Sometimes, despite the best will of everybody involved, the dice will throw an encounter completely off-base. You’ve got to roll with this. In any game where balance and probability are an issue, you have to be prepared to say “the dice were not kind there” –

Hark – There’s a little bit, as well, where i’d never played a vampire before, and there were bits where he was like “oh, you can spend a blood point”, and i was like “what is this blood point? i can spend it? in a shop?” It was towards the end of the battle that Aziz realised he could heal himself, or spend a blood point to increase his hit stuff, and he was like “holy whoa, what is this?”

Von – That’s actually a really good point, because whilst I think that was important as a learning experience from which the character learned that he had these powers from being a vampire, the encounter was ‘balanced’ on the basis that the player involved knew the system, knew what they were capable of, and this is a really big part of the whole Pathfinder thing.

With Pathfinder – I don’t want to say you NEED to know what’s going on, but it really really does help if you know what you can do, and what all the NUMBERS mean, and where the NUMBERS come from, and if you’ve got a player who doesn’t know what all the NUMBERS mean and where the NUMBERS come from, and the NUMBERS happen to betray them, then it’s entirely possible that their character could be killed by NUMBERS.

So, we’ve looked at encounters which are designed to be virtually impossible – we’ve also looked at encounters which should be balanced, but which, owing to a combination of bad luck and people not being as aware of the internal balancing factor of the system as they could be, didn’t [by which I mean ‘weren’t]. Now I want to look at an example of an encounter which was unbalanced but which a player managed to overcome, not from knowing all their NUMBERS properly but just from playing intelligently.

Hark – AZIZ!

Von – Tell me about the third time Aziz nearly died.

Hark – Well. For Reasons, a crazy other-Nos was coming to batter everyone Aziz knew, and Aziz was warning some mates of his, some Cappadocians and their Cappadocian human friends, so Aziz was like “WARNING!” and they were like “we totally KNOW, he’s already killed one of us” – farewell, Tobias the Pious – and Aziz was “oh, holy shit – right – y’know what? Vampire Uncle, you go warn Vampire Granddaddy”.

Vampire Uncle rushed out into the street, and there was a sort of a sad ‘thump’ noise, and Aziz looked out into the street and saw his vampire uncle’s head roll past. And there was crazy Iakov with his huge sword, all “I KILL EVERYONE, ESPECIALLY NOSSES WHO I DON’T LIKE”. So Aziz went “holy shit!” and stepped back into the hostelry, and says “anyone know how to fire a crossbow?” Luckily a lady did – she is hopefully going to be Aziz’s second wife – but she missed and so Iakov obviously saw us, and we rushed back in with a “hey, does anyone have a plan?”

Someone did have a plan, luckily… anyway, we eventually ended up in the courtyard, and Iakov coming towards us… She was trying to reload her crossbow to fire at him repeatedly, and i thought ‘i’m gonna have to take this bloke, giving her a chance to fire at his heart in a hopefully vampire-killing way’. 

And Aziz was slightly scared, and may have soiled his robes a bit – but he had a plan, ’cause previously he’d been talking to some oxen in this courtyard*** and thought “oxen are quite huge, maybe some of them will just run into Iakov and he’ll be all ‘oh no, oxen!’ and then i can stab him”.

So i released the oxen, and they ran towards Iakov, and one of them was just like “OOOORRR, charge you!”, and he does actually go ‘oh shit, oxen’, and Aziz hacked him a bit and there was some good hacking, and then he twisted the head off the ox but it was still in the road a bit, so i hacked him a bit more. Then the Cappadocian’s plan turned out to be a zombie and he hacked a bit…

Von – Not that you actually needed the help of the zombie, because… the whole point about this story is that by unleashing the oxen, by unleashing this huge charging beastie that the NPC hadn’t been expecting, you caught the NPC on the hop. And the ox did horrific amounts of damage. It wasn’t actually as much work  to overcome this vastly more powerful vampire as it should have been, because you’d stacked not mechanical bonuses, but the environment against him. You’d gone off and you’d looked for allies, and you’d retreated to a position of relative strength, and you had released some wild beasts to clutter the general business of the encounter… the point being that you adapted the encounter into something that you could overcome despite being mechanically inferior.

This is where the thing about balance really comes in. If you take that sort of Pathfinder sensibility that talks about balance and challenge ratings and making sure that the PC or PCs involved in the encounter can overcome whatever the encounter happens to be, then… that shouldn’t have happened. Rather than sort of patronising you and saying “I’ve given you something you know you can handle”, I’d said “I’ve given you something and it’ll rip your tits off if you don’t sort it out”, and that provokes an intelligence in play that you probably wouldn’t have got from going “well, we know that this doesn’t matter because it’ll be balanced and safe and we can totally beat this with what we’ve got”. Because that would be boring.

* – perhaps at this stage I should point out that my Dark Ages Vampire game is less than ENTIRELY historically accurate and the odd mistake has been made, but you know what? There were no vampires in the historical siege, and 1203 isn’t the Dark Ages, so frankly we’re on a wrong ‘un, historiographically speaking, from the start. So fie on thee.

** – no, really!

*** – it’s a Nosferatu thing. Aziz seems to be collecting Animals He Can Talk To.

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