The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat

In the sprawling dungeons of the 70s, Dungeons & Dragons players enjoyed an agency they rarely see now. They could choose their difficulty level. Plus, the game world offered a logical reason for that freedom. By fourth edition, players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level, and they learned to ignore the impossible luck of it.

Through the years, D&D’s approach to pitting characters against monsters changed. Each change brought benefits, problems, and something to learn.

In the early D&D game, dungeon explorers chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level underground corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—by delving deeper.

This system gives players a choice that rarely get now, and it added a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. Because most experience came from gold, players needed to delve as far down as they dared to rise in level. For more, see When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.

The concept of the mythic underworld provides a game-world explanation for greater threats appearing at deeper levels.

For campaigns seeking maximum player agency, such designs still work, even outside a dungeon. For example, in 2009, the online Dungeon magazine launched a series of 31 adventures set in the Chaos Scar. The editors called the series a “sandbox setting” in the spirit of Keep on the Borderlands.

The series started with a compelling concept: Long ago, a meteor carrying some malignant force carved the long, wide valley called the Chaos Scar. “Over the centuries, creatures of evil spirit have been drawn to this beacon. The meteor’s dark sentience spurred competition among them so that they fought with one another. The weak were killed or pushed to the edges of the meteor’s influence, while the strong and cruel rose to the top of the pecking order.” The ingenious background explains why the Scar’s dangers increase closer to its center.

“This is a campaign designed from ground zero to be about player choice,” editor Chris Youngs wrote. “The players have the opportunity in this campaign, unlike many others, to really choose their fate. Do they go into a tough cave or an easier one?” The Chaos Scar let characters roam until 11th level.

For the megadungeon under Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax relied on terse notes and improvisation to capture a constantly changing underworld. The dungeon defied capture in print. So when he learned that dungeons would sell, he published the adventures he designed for tournaments. These smaller dungeons lacked space to cover a span of difficulty levels. Instead, the adventures aimed to challenge a roster of pregenerated characters. In print, they recommended a party level and size. DMs started selecting or constructing adventures to suit their players’ characters.

This led a trend where players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level. Lucky! Although this happenstance defies a game world explanation, we’ve learned to accept the artifice. Balanced encounters combine a fun challenge with a strong chance of success. As players turned from dungeons to missions launched by hooks and patrons, matching threats to the characters’ power became key.

Even in adventures aimed at a certain party level, Gary and other DMs included harder and easier encounters, but the practice became less common. By third edition, most players became used to always facing threats tailored to their characters. The Dungeon Master’s Guide advised DMs aiming for a natural mix of threats to warn players in advance.

Fourth edition perfected encounter balance. The edition had to because fights took significant preparation and hours at the table. No DM wanted to squander so much time playing out a romp. Players learned to expect balance. The instigators who rush around the dungeon, opening doors and attacking with slight provocation, thrived because encounter balance protected them from the natural consequences of their recklessness.

But some players missed a natural imbalance, and not just players who valued cautious or thoughtful play. Some players missed the highs and lows and surprises that D&D once provided.

Next: Fifth edition, wilderness adventures, and the 5-minute adventuring day

11 thoughts on “The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat

  1. Lordomatic

    Great article!

    I agree. I play 5th ed. Adventurer’s league right now and there is no sense of, “Am I over my head?”.

    I recently restarted Ultima Online and I forgot how, as a new character, you could bump into foes/monsters that can pulverize you in a hit or two. Then you look at Skyrim and all the encounters level with you so it’s a challenge, but more about the of number of foes than biting off more than you can chew.


  2. Roger Alix-Gaudreau

    I agree in part.

    Recent editions do recommend that most encounters be roughly balanced for the party, but the encounter construction rules in both 4E and 5E provide guidance for encounters ranging from easy to deadly, with some suggestions on the benefits of sprinkling in encounters at either end of the spectrum. (It’s been too long since I read the 3E/3.5 rules to recall what’s recommended there.) So, the idea that encounters should vary in difficulty *is* put out there for DMs to consider.

    Maybe it’s just that I’ve been playing since Basic. Maybe it’s just that most of the players at my table have been playing for nearly as long as I have (or longer, in some cases). But, in my games, the players never assume encounter balance. They love it when I throw them into a situation where they totally wreck the bad guys. (I, too, love letting them flex their muscles and bask in their epic power.) They also embrace the challenge when the encounter pushes them to the edge. They sit on the edges of their seats, chewing on their nails, groaning with every bad roll and cheering every critical hit when they find themselves in over their heads (admittedly, hard to do now at 29th level in 4E).

    All that said, it is still the case that I am tailoring the encounters to the PCs. When the fight is easy, it’s because I thought that made sense for the story. Likewise for when it’s very difficult. I’ve not run a “choose your own difficulty” campaign in a long, long time. Maybe it’s time to dust off the concept – I am about to start a brand new campaign, after all.

    Thanks for your post!

  3. Alphastream

    I’m always curious how carefully past authors tailored balance. I suspect they really didn’t try hard, because we can find some wildly over-the-top encounters in older adventures. And, some monsters just break the rules. I have long said that the hardest fight in 4E was the first encounter of the Dark Sun season of the Encounters program. It featured an absolutely brutal mix of creatures (Silt Runners) who are incredibly efficient and have beyond-their-level damage output. The encounter adds environmental damage, and, the cherry on top, instructs DMs that the monsters will focus fire on a particular pregen (and all tables began with pregens)!

    Whenever we stray from expectations, players (and even DMs) complain. I vacílate on whether that expectation should be at times broken so the game doesn’t become predictable. It’s a tough question, especially if we know as an author that we may be ending a player’s favorite character (say, with disintegration). My mind isn’t made up on this, though I do prefer that overall my world scale with the party. I like lock DCs based on the party, for example, vs strict DCs for the world. Most DMs seem to say they want a world standard (a hard lock is DC 20, always, etc.) but in practice most writers choose a DC based on the party. Hmmm.

  4. treps

    I never understood all this pseudo need for balance… Balance between classes, balanced encounters, etc… All of this comes from video games and should not be used in traditional games, at least not in a sandbox environment.
    I’m all for having a lot of encounters of any type, if the characters choose to face something to big for them then they can try to get around it or they can retreat and come back later.

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  7. Ilbranteloth

    4e may have perfected ‘combat encounter’ balance. But the game has largely lost encounter balance among the many different options of types of encounters. As the design has focused more on combat abilities and combat balance, it has lost its way in regards to setting and narrative. It’s not that you can’t have that focus, but it no longer arises naturally from the design of the game.

    The ‘choose your encounter level’ wasn’t/isn’t reliant upon mehadungeons. The same applies to going father into the wilderness from civilization, as well as more nebulous things like infiltrating deeper into a villainous organization. An important thing to remember is also that even in those areas, every once in a while you’d run across a much tougher encounter.

    While people blame video games, as time has progressed its clear to me that the (over) reliance/fetishization of balance comes from
    MtG. A secondary influence is the nature of (most) game designers themselves.

    And it makes sense for a mass market game like D&D. You want first time groups to be able to pick it up and have an enjoyable game the first time. You want safeguards against bad DMs or players. You want some consistency between groups, and the ability to run a ‘fair’ public system (Adventurer’s League). I don’t really fault the game itself, nor WotC.

    In the past, finding DMs could be tough, and it was viewed as a difficult and mysterious role. The rules themselves didn’t help a lot, which led to a host of different styles and quality of games. But it’s easier to try to balance the rules, to build the mechanics in a way that you play it more like a traditional game. It’s much harder to design guidance for a more open-ended rule set.

    Consider all of the discussions about things like how stealth works since 5e came out. The move towards, ‘rulings, not rules,’ continues to spark those types of threads even today.

    Perhaps the most nebulous and controversial rules in D&D has always been alignment. So for all practical purposes, it has been removed. Oh, it’s still there, because it wouldn’t be D&D without it. But it has no teeth anymore. No restrictions or consequences for changing. Now, there doesn’t need to be a rule fir everything, and scaling back in this edition is a good thing. But alignment is an example of something hard to do well, so they opted to just leave it hanging, with little to no guidance as to why it is part of the game at all. What purpose does it serve, and how can you apply rulings (and what would they be)?

    But game designers’ jobs are to design games. Despite what I feel are shortcomings, I think it’s a home run for a mass market game. But not quite the game I grew up with and will play as is.

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  9. Frederick Coen

    (Late response to this thread, sorry. Just found it from a recent article you just posted.)

    When I create a campaign, I absolutely think about the kind of stratification as found in Chaos Scar. The last campaign had “reactive shields” around towns, for example… the weaker the threat, the less powerful the shield, so weaker monsters were actually *more* able to encroach on safe havens; the more powerful foes were consigned to the deep wilderness.

    But I also I believe in a “living world” design. By this I mean that the world is *not* tailored to your characters. In my current campaign, the Frontier (which is across the river from the starting location) is filled with goblins, bandits, settlers, wolves, and Frontier Guard patrols. West into the mountains, the goblinoids hold more sway, and ogres and giants live. Southwest of the starting town, across the Frontier, a red dragon lives. East into “civilized lands” are at worst bandits and cultists; most threats are “espionage and intrigue”, not combat. At level 1, the party could have gone off to meet the dragon. At level 3 they found an abandoned lab with Ancient Golems (CR 4) in it. At level 4, they strayed close to giants and lost a horse before they even knew they were in danger; they fled. They also faced a hobgoblin warlord backed by a warcaster, a druid, and two shaman; a PC died, but they killed the warcaster before they fled… (The shaman revivified both the warcaster and the dead PC, and the warcaster later ended up giving the group a long sidequest that worked out quite well for them, thanks to RPing with the captured PC!)

    At level 5 they found a giant war camp with half a dozen giants, ogre guards, and goblin servitors… they fled. At level 6, they found another base with Ancient Golems — same power as they faced at level 3. At level 8 they obliterated a goblin warband, dealt with 50 demoralized goblinoid soldiers (goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and the earlier hobgoblin warlord), and are headed away from the third Ancient base to go deal with pirates. And those pirates will be CR 2, just like they were when the PCs were level 1. The PCs control how far they go into known dangers, and what threats they feel like facing. If they want to fight goblins and bugbears their whole career, they can (mostly… of course there are exceptions… one mission to deal with goblins ended up with them facing an enraged purple worm (CR 15) and a spriggan (CR 12), at level 6).

    If they want to pull a Bilbo and go steal from the red dragon’s lair, they can (try). They made friends with a lich (CR18) who started an encounter by casting *two* disintegrate spells and obliterating two NPC allies of the group; they could have fought him instead. But, to be fair, I let my players know this up front. I even laid out some “PC knowledge” in game mechanics terms: The Frontier Guard and most city guard are level 2; the Baron’s soldiers are level 3; the King’s Guard, and the clockwerk golems used in bigger cities are level 4. Unique individuals are level 5… and the dragon *will* kill you. I pull no punches.

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