Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Maintaining Encounter Balance

Let me start off by making clear what I'm not talking about.

I'm not talking about scaling 'encounters' to the PCs' capabilities in anything other than a rough and ready fashion. I'm certainly not talking about some analog to CRs or other balancing mechanic designed to maintain an even level of pressure on the characters. I think that's a false idol, both unattainable and undesirable besides.

No, I mean something much simpler: D&D and GURPS consider different things to be difficult, and they favor different sorts of tactics.

D&D at its core involves tactics of resource management and attrition. Roughly speaking, the slope of the increase in hit points for a party is about twice that of the slope of damage output increase for a party. (I'm eyeballing it here; the main point is that it's proportional with some multiplier n.) In GURPS, if anything, it's the opposite; what with points for Targeted Attacks and Weapon Mastery and Heroic Archery and more damaging spells and whatnot, damage increases as about twice HP.

This is reflected in the different challenges in the two games. In D&D, in order to have a monster fight that challenges higher-level characters, you throw bigger monsters with stronger attacks at them - you're still presenting a serious threat to their resources without necessarily killing them outright, and you're pretty well guaranteed to have your monsters stick around long enough to be interesting, since they're bringing enough HP to the fight that the PCs can't get rid of it fast enough to be trivial. Conversely, in GURPS if you try this tactic, you're going to end up with a very quick fight - either the PCs will walk all over your big nasty, or you'll accidentally squish the party.

Instead, in GURPS, the general tactical layout involves multiples of smaller monsters, because smaller monsters can still pose a serious threat, and dividing up the foes divides player actions. In other words, D&D is about managing hit points, whereas GURPS is about managing actions. The side with more actions is the side with the advantage.

This is borne out by the common advice for encounter balancing in GURPS. It's often said that, if pitting the PCs against a singular large monster, you should do one or more of:
  • Give the monster Extra Attacks, always-on effects, or suchlike, thus bringing number of available actions back toward parity
  • Give the monster special defenses, such as insubstantiality or injury tolerance, thus making each opposing action less effective
  • Include environmental effects, thereby requiring that PCs spend their actions on things other than killing the monster
  • Provide tactical advantage to the monster, which reduces PC actions either entirely (e.g. surprise) or in their effectiveness (e.g. an archery battle against an enemy up-hill - which means that PCs either shoot back at minuses or spend actions closing the distance).
In my admittedly inexperienced opinion, the first option is the least effective for lengthening a fight, though it works just fine for maintaining a controllable danger level in the fight.

This is something of a problem for the Temple of Elemental Evil, which naturally assumes a D&D approach to combat tactics. For example, there are places in the modules where a single ogre (or an ogre and a wolf, later on) is put forward not only as a foe, but as very stiff opposition that the party will probably flee from. In GURPS, on the other hand, a party of 50-75pt characters can probably take out a single ogre without much difficulty - maybe one death, if the ogre gets in a lucky hit. So how to convert these?

It turns out the answer is, "only partially", at least for my purposes.

The pivot point between GURPS and D&D works both ways. There are encounters that are supposed to be very tough in D&D that the GURPS characters will walk right over. However, there are also encounters that Gygax reckons will be fairly easy for a group of 4th-5th level D&D characters that will present serious problems for GURPS characters even at 300 pts. (I'm looking at you, group of 25 bandits.) There are enough of these that I think it balances neatly enough, even if sometimes it looks like they're in the wrong places.

The other part is taking a hard look at the large monsters that the Temple favors for challenging PCs and seeing if there isn't some way to preserve some of that element. To that end, let's take ogres are our example du jour:

Ogres in D&D are fairly nasty, especially toward lower-level characters. To help preserve that, in my game, all ogres will have Magic Resistance 5. This, combined with the extra casting cost to directly affect creatures of larger sizes, should put a damper on magical solutions that don't mimic weapons or environmental effects. Further, while they're stupid, they will have a canniness that enables them to use their advantages well. They will all get Tactics-12. Specifically, while they can't really hide (even if they could find a place not to be seen, you'd still be able to smell them), they naturally pick lairs that enable them to use their reach and their greater strength to advantage, doing things like picking places with attached hallways or stairs, and piling up obstacles that create difficult footing for creatures not as large. Finally, ogres in my game have extra DR 3 over vitals and the skull, in the form of thick subdermal ridges of bone, making them look burly even for their size and giving them low, sloping foreheads with weird, angular planing. Evolution has taken advantage of this, layering on extra muscle at these reinforced attachment points, which explains their high strength.

So, in my game, an ogre looks something like this:

ST: 25 HP: 25 Speed: 6.00
DX: 11 Will: 7 Move: 6
IQ: 7 Per: 7
HT: 13 FP: 13 SM: +1
Dodge: 9 Parry: 10 DR: 2, 5 on vitals and 7 skull

Punch (13): 2d+2 cr
Club (14): 5d+3 cr (treat as oversized maul, meaning it's 0U because of strength)
Traits: High Pain Threshold, Magic Resistance 5, Night Vision 7 DR 2 (Tough Skin), DR 3 (Limited: Skull, Vitals), Bad Temper, Bully
Skills: Brawling-13, Tactics-12, Two-Handed Axe-Mace-14
Class: Mundane
Notes: Some may have armor, mostly on the chest; adjust DR accordingly. (Most common is either naked or Heavy Leather.) Willing to negotiate, but only on their level (Food, women, territory, simplistic praise), easily tricked.


  1. One other difference is that in D&D, in my experience, the magic users are the big killers in a fight. Sleep, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Stinking Cloud, etc - they have fight-turning mass-attack spells. In GURPS, especially in DF, fighters are the big killers. Mages can turn a fight with clever casting and a lot of expended power, but turn by turn the front line fighters will do the killing.

    The ogre isn't bad. I'd note that skill 14 is about the minimum you should put forward as a threat for 250 point characters. I had two guys start with skill 20+ in their main weapons, and Weapon Master, without even trying. So they'd feint and attack this guy to kill him quickly. Against skill 15-16, he's a bigger threat. Skill is so critical in GURPS, because it's what lets you actually hit the PCs barring criticals.

    At lower points, he'll be more of a threat, but again, multiple foes will quickly reduce his defenses; GURPS monsters need to fight like real people would - try to get a series of one-on-one fights instead of one-vs.-many. Leveraging the terrain (even just doorways, barrels and tables as barricades, and staircases) is critical!

    1. Thanks; it's great to hear advice from someone who has run/is running a similar campaign.

      At the higher point totals, I'm going to move up from ogres to either multiple ogres or ogres and siege beasts, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. However, I still don't expect them to be serious problems - I leave that for the patrols of five trolls and ten bugbears.