Do encounters need to be balanced?

I post this as a playstyle question...

"Do encounters need to be balanced? And if so, how do you balance them?"

I don't make balanced encounters. I make encounters that are appropriate for the story I'm trying to tell and then go from there.

Now, there's some quibbling there, in that I know what the rough power levels are of the troupe and I so I build at or near those levels when I'm designing, but I certainly don't power things down just because we're early in the saga. I tend to work off the scale from RoP:M and think, at least early on, that Might 20 creatures are roughly magus-level foes, Might 10 creatures are companion-level foes, and Might 5 or less are grog-level foes. Those numbers can, and usually do, go up as the saga progresses, but not always, and not for all adventures-- it still depends on the story. For instance, crusader knights (and most mundane threats) don't just ramp up in power as an arc progresses, but supernatural threats can and regularly do escalate.

What about you?


Gosh, no! And onto a clearly very opinionated rant to share why I feel that way... I dislike it as a player and as a GM. I try to give fair warning. They see this enormous dragon tear something ferocious apart with ease. If they're stupid enough to just run up to it without coming up with a plan, they may well die. Otherwise it's like having a world without cliffs and with padded rocks. Would you save the character who jumps off a cliff onto rocky ground hundred of meters below because they just figure they'll roll lots of 1s on their Soak roll? Most players would opt for another way down and come up with much more clever options. All the more fun to be had roleplaying and problem solving. It also makes the world more realistic. Why is it in so many RPGs you only run into those a little weaker (overall as whatever groups you have) than you. But then as you improve, you still run into those a little weaker than you. From a real-world perspective it's really strange. That's what happens when you have leveled events. For example, when I was starting ballroom I competed at the bronze level. When I got better I moved up, so I was almost always competing against reasonable competition. But when I do other things that are not leveled that way, not a chance. For instance, I play basketball with colleagues from our school and nearby schools. Basketball is way down on the list of sports I can do. I'm really not very good, but I'm quick. I'm the worst one of the bunch by a noticeable margin. (At least I've been there to make it 5 v 5, though.) Sometimes there is another one or two not so far from me. But most of them are head and shoulders above me (half literally as well as figuratively). I'm playing with guys who played in college and regularly coach. That's just who shows up. Should I have expected it to be different because I happen to show up with far less skill?


When I wrote that, I wondered how much I should elaborate about what I mean by balance. I decided to err on the side of brevity, if only to compensate for my usual.

By 'balanced,' I do not necessarily mean "challenging to the players, but neither a cakewalk or a tpk." I don't exclude that outcome! But I mean "Balanced against intention." What should that intention be? Not for me to judge, really. In one game, it might make sense to create that fair but challenging encounter, just because. In another, it might make sense to write up the opposition to be exactly what it is supposed to be. Or maybe an unfair encounter. Whatever.

Problem is, AM almost never creates that kind of balance, not without a lot of work or serendipity. I almost never look at a character and think, "Yup, the numbers feel right for what it is supposed to be." And the numbers often don't convey actual capability, not simply. It takes real system mastery to tune things.

Still, the question you ask in a general sense has nothing to do with AM, but with rpgs in general. I like to say that I prefer encounters to 'be what they are' in the sense of simulating or representing the world. But... I fall short of that mark. And most actual games I have seen in which that simulationist stance is espoused tend greatly toward 'balance' in the usual sense.



So long as retreat is a possibility, no, given that Ars is a long-term game.

That being said, if your encounter is mis-scaled, it can wreck the story.

That also being said, it's an old trope in game design to use a high level monster as a sort of gate that the players can't unlock until they level enough to deal with the things behind the gate.

I'm more from the narrative end of things than the gamist end of things, so I don't care about the "Where did all the kobolds go?" question very strongly.

I realize it's a question applicable to many RPGs, but I am most curious about how people address the question in Ars. It sounds like you do something similar to what I do-- spinning up encounters with difficulty independent of the characters (for the most part).

However, I'm not sure about part of your above statement: what do you mean by "'balance' in the usual sense?"


In the sense of creating "level-appropriate encounters." In the classic D&D sense of "this module is intended for 4th level characters." (Even a system as simple as D&D sometimes has unexpected corners, with monsters' CRs mischaracterized; AM is more complex.)

Only if the storyguide thinks she knows the story in advance. If the "story" is "what happens in play", then dealing with the fall-out of (or retreating from, or whatever) a mis-scaled encounter is the story.

Maybe I misunderstand the "Where did all the kobolds go?" question, but worrying about continuity detail doesn't strike me as a concern peculiar to gamism (or something absent from a narrativist approach).

No, I don't try to make "balanced encounters". I try to make antagonists with goals that either directly conflict with (or incidentally impact upon) the goals or interests of the PCs. "Encounters" then flow from the logic of what the PCs do or don't do (whether that is succeed or fail or ignore) and the antagonists' subsequent reactions to that and so forth. The stories I wrote for Hooks are attempts to follow that philosophy.


Balance in Ars Magica. We all want to create NPCs whose actual capabilities correspond to who they are supposed to be, whose actions correspond to their motivations, and then we hit the AM rules, and blam! That archdemon or daimon that is supposed to represent some great power has a few tricks but doesn't quite represent the power and is blown away easily by magi with surprisingly few decades under their belts, and some saved up vis. Oops! It takes a great deal of system mastery for this kind of thing not to happen, and some of that mastery involves simply ignoring the rules and doing something else.

Maybe I should use a different word, like congruence or aptness.

In a similar vein, there is absolutely nothing on Fibonacci's character sheet to suggest that he is any different from any of the many, many mathematical non-entities who held prestigious positions at respected institutions... competent but utterly forgettable. So there you are, and you want to create your own Fibonacci but also want to use the rules, because otherwise why not go systemless and save a whole lot of number crunching and chart lookups? That's not about classical game balance, of course, because Fibonacci is probably a trivial combat encounter.


is difficult to actually achieve. Heck, even with system mastery, powerful characters can take weeks to write up.

Sometimes it isn't about game mechanics at all. Hmm. Balance, motivation, rules, mechanics, implications. Let's talk a bit about Marko's long-running Andorra saga. I played a bit-part NPC in that saga for a few weeks....

First the easy part, which is game mechanics: Marko decided that RoP:M rules for creating dragonkind did not do justice even to wimpy dragons, so he doubled the amount of quality points they receive. That did make a difference. System mastery ftw. He then sent me 3 drakes he had sketched up to play, and to modify their character sheets to suit what I wanted to do with them, around Might 25-30 iirc. Not shabby with doubled points. But far from optimized, and they needed to be at their very best to last more than a few seconds against the magi of Andorra. They were supposed to go down, of course, because it was a vis hunt. (Note the need for creating a balanced encounter: The magi are perfectly able to find this kind of encounter, so using the rules better allow it.)

Still, I was allowed to modify the characters to suit, and play them as I like (more in part 2). So I modified the drakes, was asked not to use certain rules that made their powers better but which Marko felt uncomfortable about aesthetically, and I reverted the offending changes. Drakes improved, but still not a real combat challenge. That's fine, playing cannon fodder for some handfuls of posts can be fun too. I don't know what Marko intended, but I saw the numbers and knew. Ok.

Motivation and system effects: So here I am, with modified drakes, who at least have perception enough to see what's coming, and the drake who notices has Intelligence. So here you are, a magical drake. In editions past, you ate virgins and held villages in thrall and mocked knights... but in AM5 that's only good for faerie dragons. Real dragons get nothing from this: They need to eat vis, and lots of it. Intelligent dragons or drakes surely realize this. If you act like a storybook dragon, you will starve. So my intelligent drake didn't want to starve. He also didn't like the idea of getting killed by the powerful wizards who periodically come down from their lair to kill things and suck out their nutrients (ie vis.) So rather than ambush the magi (and their grogs) and then get killed (bad) along with his siblings (they're... useful, and it's easy to trust those you understand (fellow drakes) and who are dumber than you), he talked with the magi. And talked, and talked. And no more vis hunt.

Not a bad story in itself, yes, but.... drakes are supposed to act like drakes, and the rules should support this. This is a second kind of difficulty with AM rules, and maybe more important. My idea of rules being broken is when the rules do not support the fluff. The drake saved his life, and his brothers, by playing motivations that aligned with the rules, not the fluff. Not a failure of game at all, I had fun, at least, (playing 3 different flavors of nasty yet not evil,) but a drake played according to the way the world works according to game mechanics is very different from one played according to 'fluff'. It's sort of like playing an rpg "Pirates of the Caribbean" in which the pirates go legit because the rules make that more efficient, and because character motivations will lead them to take advantage of that efficiency, completely IC. The weirdness of "Pirates of the Caribbean on Wall Street" might make for a diverting amusement, even a better game... but not the game intended, with congruent motivations and actions that simply don't belong.

Just musing,


No, I don't. I even believe that more than any other RpG I know of, AM is the most difficult to balance.
Just take two starting PCs. Put then against each other. One will probably completely trashed the other, yet both were created with the same rule, same starting XPs, same number of virtue.
AM was never built with a comparing scale. At best, years after apprenticeship is used as a rough guidance for power. But considering the spread of mage diversity, it is a very loose way of measuring power.

I always considered magi as the most formidable opponent, if they have time to prepare. And this will drastically change the outcome of a confrontation if they know what they are after or not and how much of their information and preparation is adequate.

When it comes specifically to preparing a fight, I have a little check list to make sure that it will be at least challenging if I plan to have a kind of fair fight:

  • Magic resistance - how weak or tough is supposed to be the opponent
  • Ability to handle many PCs at the same time (so either powerful area effect, or minions, or several opponents to spread the PCs)
  • Ability against mundane attack - it is a weakness of the opponent, or on contraty is he very proficient.

It is also depends if this conflict is the "final boss fight", with big showdown for all the marbles or an intermediate checkpoint - either to give a flavour of what they might meet in the future or to send a message.

Little story...
Very recently (less than a month ago), I had a find of "Aha moment" as I was running a game.
As they were investigating the kidnapping of several cat-shapeshifters, they found out that somebody was trying to create a Cloak of Everlife, which requires the skin of nine were-cats. During their research, they found out that it was very likely linked to some infernal art - skinning alive 9 persons is not a peaceful, benevolent act. They also found out that the man wishing to have such artefact had hired a dubious magus to perform the task, with a reputation of being a satanist.
The found out his location.
They were ready to strike and I had fully stated the satanist, set up his lab/sanctum to make a challenging fight. Yet, the PCs were not going to outright kill him, because he had not done any wrong so far, and they had no proof nor idea of his awareness in this project, they only were aware of his reputation.

Then I changed my mind at the last minute. As they said they were ready to execute their plan, I said: "OK, you have a good plan. Let's fast forward: the satanist is gagged and bound in your covenant, at your mercy." I did not play the fight altough I was sure I could make it challenging and hurt several of them seriously. It dawned to me that they might "accidentaly" kill the satanist, and feel good about it, because he resisted their attack, somehow proving them right that he was a threat (you know, the famous player's logic).
Then one character realised that their Mentem specialist was away so they could not probe the mind of the satanist. I handwaved that as well, declaring that they were in their covenant, thus access to whatever resources they normally have access to.

My players did not like that at all. They were really worried and concerned. "What ? we captured him ? and we know that as much a magic allows it we will know that he will speak the truth ?" "Yep, all of that".

And then follow the interrogation (the satanist was not a member of the Order and was not aware of its existence).
The satanist admitted he was a satanist. Yes, he had infernal blood in him, it was not his choice. Should he die because of that ? Did he commit crime ? Not as far as he knows.
Did he know about the Cloak of Everlife ? No.
Is he a satanist ? Yes, but do you know what is a satanist ? Then proceed to explained them that as satanist, it means he was his own god, he was responding to no one but to himself of his act. He bode to no one, gods, God or demons. Only power and willingness to take responsability for his act matter (I heavily drew inspiration from Anton Lavey Satanic Bible).
As the players were confused and annoyed by his answers he started to ask his own questions:
Who are you ? On behalf of which authority are they going to judge him for something that he has not done ? Can he join this Order they are talking about ?
So at the end, they broke a deal, the satanist was giving them name of his employer in exchange of his freedom, and yes, he would gladly be part of this Order which will allow him to practice his art in a safe way. No, he is not an angel, but he does not pretend to be one and does not hide his nature.

To explain some oddities in this discussion, I use an alternative setting, in modern time, with an Order being recreated from centuries old book - thus the modern take on Satanism.

Goodness no. What a silly idea.
It's not even a good thing in That Other Game. Nor does it make sense.

Game Balance is a Holy Grail - in the sense that it's (sometimes) good to quest for, but don't expect to ever find it.

To me, this is a question of the definition, purpose and importance of 'encounters' in a saga.

If a saga is scripted to consist of a sequence of - typically combat - encounters, most of which cannot be avoided: yes, then these encounters have to be balanced.

But if a saga is just a little more free form - say, just sand box style: then balancing encounters is neither necessary nor possible.

And in the typical Ars saga, where a well phrased letter to the presiding quaesitor of a Tribunal may take care of a troublesome magus you have never met, a season of library research may find the key to a nasty faerie's game, and a season of joint lab work can provide a covenant with a one shot magic item to penetrate the resistance of just about any 'monster': there both 'encounter' and 'balanced' tend to loose their meaning. You role-play intellectuals, wise people and politicians solving problems, which should be interesting and well designed.


Then how do you do that balancing?


In Ars the toughest part is the scripting and resulting 'railroading'. If she really wants to do it, the SG has to evaluate all the options - including mobility, supernatural senses, knowledge, communications, allies and resources - of every player character involved.

Once she did this, balancing opponents specifically for these characters IME is the easier part.


I'm curious why you call it 'railroading?'

So you tailor the antagonists specifically to the troupe? For instance, if the magi have little or no elemental magics, would you include a Terram-focused troll-like monster, if it was appropriate as an antagonist, but would be devastating to the group because they lacked the tools to handle it?


Answer (for me) is "depends" and I think that's fair. If the characters will have no run-up time to defeat an opponent which clearly out classes them, then thats harsh, and might be railroading them into a single choice (flee, parley, die, etc). But if the characters have the opportunity to encounter the nasty, exit, research, and return (in some manner) then that's an opportunity for their creativity and intelligence to shine.

But then I'm not a fan of arbitrary balance for it's own sake; so would say encounters don't need to be balanced at all in mechanical terms. Encounters should be congruent to the story. I like choices to matter more to the narrative. Sometimes the dice and the stat get in the way, but we need the dice and stats to facilitate a fair approximation within the setting.

The real balance issue I often encounter is when a PC (or storyteller's npc) is given more opportunity for advance or a disproportionately high amount of "screen time". I hate watching the SG's personal ego run amok in the narrative while PCs stand aside and cheer. Bugs the crap out of me. Even worse then the npc is also overtly powerful. Balancing that is more important, especially in troupe style play where often there is an inbalance in player knowledge and knowledge of the system mechanics.

Scripting a sequence of encounters to me means enforcing that sequence, hence railroading. Which is very hard in the typical Ars campaign, and I do not usually do it.

Yes. Firstly, I tailor them to the interests of the characters - because otherwise, the troupe usually can just avoid these antagonists completely. And secondly, I tailor them to provide a challenge for the characters. Not as an encounter, but as a problem to be resolved - which needs not involve to defeat them in battle.

In that particular case, I probably wouldn't bother whether such a monster were appropriate or not.

But just, because magi most of the time have means to handle a few Terram trolls without Terram magic:

  • they can research the presence of trolls in the area long before they enter it,
  • can sense them first,
  • teleport away before or once the trolls attack,
  • fly over the heads of the trolls, where these can't get at them,
  • mind control the trolls, if these have some intelligence,
  • deceive them if the trolls haven't,
  • or trap them in ditches, pits, nets or such.
    Only if I have been very careful to exclude all such options, and would really force/bamboozle/railroad the magi into the direct confrontation with the Terram trolls then and there, I am obliged to my players to consider, how appropriate the trolls are as opponents of the magi.


In my experience, a fun encounter is one in which there is a risk of failure, and where a bit of lateral thinking can shine.

Combat is a great one to discuss. In Ars Magica it is eminently possible to make a character who is truly epic in melee combat. It requires some focus and dedication in terms of virtues, characteristics, abilities, etc. - but it can certainly be done.

What it means is you have a character for whom combat is a trivial experience. It has a very low risk of failure except when going up against similarly powered foes. To support world versimilitude, such foes don't waltz along every second Sunday. So the vast majority of the combats this character experience are trivial.

So combats for this character aren't encounters that will challenge him. Other types of encounters will, but combats are more an option for that character to feel powerful and enjoy being in their element. However, environmental challenges or social challenges or similar are as dangerous for this character as for any other.

As such, a 'balanced' encounter is one where the character is challenged or at risk. What constitutes balance is going to vary greatly based on the character composition of the adventuring group. The main trick is to avoid a single challenge type, especially one where one member of the party is trivialising the content for everyone else due to character design choices. That's less likely to be a character issue and more a SG-needs-variety issue.

Yes, I balance encounters.

There are two kinds of ways to play (ok, so not, but still): sandbox or scripted. I go on the way of the script. This means is that I carefully design long plots involving multiple combat encounters, political intrigue, and NPC designs - only to watch them fall to irrelevancy as the PCs actions break away in an unexpected direction. Then I replan, rework the NPCs in the background, and try again - only to again be thwarted. And so on. It's a rather counterproductive way to DM, but I enjoy it. It gives me a chance to revel in my NPC's and world design.

So - I balance encounters. By which I mean I design combat encounters and NPCs to present the level of combat challenge that I want - from cakewalk and cannon fodder to TPK and impossible to affect. I often find the PCs can take on more than I thought, and sometimes that they can take less, but I carry tirelessly, biting my lip and trying in vain.

In practice, what this means is that I

  • Design the NPC/creature with MR, Penetration, defenses, and attack & damage with the PCs in mind. This often includes upping the MR by a lot for RAW games; but I hardly play RAW.
  • Fudge the stats and "story" of combat so as to make the encounter more or less challenging in actual play, as appropriate to how the combat runs in practice and keeping in mind both how difficult I plan the combat to be and how the players are reacting in practice. And often skipping to the "end" of the combat if it drags on.

I think providing a proper dramatic sequence of challenges, risks, losses, wins, and so on is a big part of having a good game, and that game balance is vital to providing that. But game balance never quite works, and the PCs always get off the story railroad, so you fudge and improvise to keep them on the right emotional train rail. Which can also get detailed, but still.

Hmmm. I am not quite sure I understand the meaning of "encounters" -- nor that of "balancing them" means. I have the vague impression that the OP specifically meant creating stories in which the challenges met by the PCs are not so hard that they can't be overcome, but hard enough that there's some uncertainty and thus excitment about overcoming them.

I think that ultimately some sort of balancing act is necessary. There are some nuances to it, however. This is what I've found out in my games (not just Ars Magica games), though I realize it runs contrary to a lot of common wisdom.

  • What you definitely want to scale down is threat that will prematurely end the story. You can't have these, even in small doses. A fair chance of dying is, in Ars Magica, one such threat (it isn't in games where characters can come back from the dead, from high-fantasy D&D to sci-fi Eclipse Phase).
  • You can have fair doses of challenges that set back the characters, if they can recover from those set backs. Too many, and the players grow frustrated.
  • You can have large doses of challenges that are "too easy" for the characters. No harm in those, particularly if they are resolved quickly. Even 80% of "too easy challenges" is ok. Not 100%, of course, or many (not all though!) players will grow bored.

This is all countered by the fact that a realistic environment helps suspension of disbelief. So, from my perspective, the only "balancing act" I really go through is to create a big picture where the PCs have a very high probability of surviving; I also make sure that in a large portion of the picture, they have a good chance of succeeding. Then I let them stomp all over. If they leave the success area ... no problem, they'll suffer setbacks, but the story continues, and they have a good chance of reentering it pretty soon. In general, I've found that players seem to be self-regulating in the sense that they always try to straddle the border between the success and failure areas, going for goals that are as ambitious as possible while still being achievable.

Of course, combat in a "no-resurrection" game is a tricky thing, because the no-success area is often a no-survival area - unlike, say, mystery solving, artistic competitions, crises of faith, or romantic affairs. So, I try to a) not have too much combat in my stories and b) make avoidance of non-survivable combat a really easy challenge (i.e. if the dragon is lethal when faced without the IceRampart shield, then avoiding the dragon is really easy) and c) engineer a lot of survivable combat, from wrestling matches, to tourneys, to dreams of lethal combat, to situations where the opponents are trying to capture the PCs alive.