Ask Angry: Souls in the Balance and Balancing Encounters

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First, the usual plug: please buy some of my S$&% for Sale on eBay. I promise I’ll stop begging once I’ve relocated and I can afford to eat and make websites and stuff. 

Do you want to ask The Angry GM a question? Of course you do! E-mail and put Ask Angry in the subject. Make sure you tell me how to credit you or else I’ll make up my own. And nobody wants that. Trust me. Just ask the last person who forgot. Isn’t that right: Cinnamon Buns McSissyPants?

Robert V asks:

I know I asked a similar question in the comments of how to be evil. But I was wondering if you would tell us more about how YOU interpret the various alignments and how they should be best played for those of us that want to run a campaign that focuses on this.

All right, I’ve written, like, half-a-dozen things about how to think about alignment and how to treat alignment. But I’ve never just given firm definitions and explanations for how I WOULD handle alignment if I gave a s$&%.

First, alignment must be OBJECTIVE. Alignments are not defined by the individual or by society. They don’t make any sense any other way. Anyone or any society who would be classified as evil would either think of itself as “good” or else it would consider alignment to be irrelevant. Therefore, SUBJECTIVE alignment definitions cannot be trusted. Alignment is a MORAL LAW OF THE UNIVERSE. It’s like the GRAVITY OF THE SOUL. If you can’t live with that s$&%, dump alignment. Because you can’t use it in any useful way.

That, by the way, is why I think alignment has fallen out of favor. I think the idea of a higher law of morality chaffes too many people who think the idea is just patently absurd. Rationlism and pragmatism go hand in hand. But I won’t pontificate too much on that. I’m just saying this is a FANTASY GAME filled with OBJECTIVELY PROVABLE HIGHER POWERS, so live with that.

Now, Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos represent four fundamental forces of the universe that tug at a person’s soul once it is freed from their body, right? And that is why Lawful-Evil people go to Hell and Chaotic-Good people go to Ysgard or whatever. I don’t know. Who gives a s$&%. In that universe, the gods are constantly trying to draw souls to their respective sides. Lawful-Good gods encourage lawful-good behaviors so that souls will end up enjoying Heaven. Evil deities try to corrupt souls, tempting them to evil so they will have more souls to fill their own realms with. Usually so they can rise up and challenge the good deities in the final be-all, end-all, knock-down, drag-out war of the universe. Evil has to spend time convincing people that, either, the afterlife bulls$&% is a myth dreamed up by divine marketing or tricking people into doing terrible things before they realize they are terrible (for the greater good) or promising stuff the people really want in this life or the next (you could be a peasant in Heaven or a King in Hell, which do you prefer, really). In this reality, souls are the victory points in the eternal game the deities are playing.

So what is the difference between Good and Evil in the Angryverse? Good is selfless and Evil is selfish and everything else is degrees. A decent person will, at the very least, not bring harm to others just to get what they want. They won’t lie, cheat, or steal to deprive others of things. Evil people will. Obviously, the more good you are, the more you are willing to give up to avoid harming others. Shining paragons of pure good will sacrifice their own lives for a chance to save others from harm. An average, decent, okay person does what he does and doesn’t hurt anyone else. A person who lies to avoid getting in trouble, even if that lie causes slight problems for others, that’s minor evil. A truly evil person burns down a puppy orphanage just to get revenge on one person who likes puppies a whole lot.

What is Neutral? Neutral is a person in the middle of that spectrum, a person who wavers, sometimes causing minor harms and sometimes bringing about minor goods. It is not merely someone who rejects morality. Morality doesn’t care if you reject it. Morality cares about what you actually do. You can deny gravity all you want, but it will still smash you into the ground and kill you if you jump off a high place. Neutrality is rarely a conscious choice. It’s a place for people who do enough harm to keep themselves out of the Good camp but not enough to really count as Evil.

As for Law and Chaos, Law and Chaos is a bit tricky. Because once you accept that Good and Evil are really the dichotomy between selfish and selfless, where do Law and Chaos fit? Well, they fit in terms of the acceptance of an order to the universe. Those that accept that rules and structures are preferably and live within those bounds, tempering their own behavior in accordance with society or nature, seeing themselves as part of a greater whole, they are Lawful. Those who reject such orders, seeing the individual as supreme and forsaking social conventions and natural order are Chaotic. Acting against the Order of society, nature, and the universe is Chaotic. Acting to preserve them is Lawful. And that is true regardless of any sense of greater good.

A person who follows the rules even when breaking them would cause no one any specific harm is Lawful. A person who rejects the rules even when following them would cause no one any specific harm is Chaotic. Law and Chaos are more easily determined by asking what the character would do when there is no possibility of hurting anyone either way.

Now, note that deposing a cruel tyrant to help install a just tyrant is not a Chaotic act in the Angryverse because of this. Accepting that the world functions better for everyone when there are rules and order is Lawful. Putting a better king on the throne is Lawful, not Chaotic. In that respect, in the Angryverse, Robin Hood was not Chaotic. You might not like that definition, but I don’t give a s$&%. It’s a damn sight clearer than anything any PHB has ever churned out.

In the Angryverse – when alignment does count – players choose their alignments as statements of intentions. They are writing that on their character sheet to say something about what their character believes or how they will act. But that alignment is not accurate. Players choose their alignment by playing the game and taking actions. And those alignments are judged by the Universe. That is to say, ME. And when the game has alignment mechanics, occasionally, the players have been surprised to learn some things about themselves. And then it is up to them, in character, to figure out what went wrong (or right) and respond accordingly in the world. Just like in any real world with a REAL OBJECTIVE MORAL LAW. Or decide they don’t care. Whatever.

Now, in games where alignment matters, there are spells that detect alignment, spells that are keyed off of alignment and so on and so forth. Priests, especially, are experts on morality and, based on scriptures, can guide people as to how to behave. These scriptures are basically divine instruction manuals. Good scriptures are “how to end up in our particularly heavenly realm.” Evil scriptures are all about “how to impress us enough so that, when you show up in our infernal realm, you end up on the top rather than the bottom.”

As for clerics and paladins? In previous incarnations of the Angryverse, they can and do lose their spells if their alignments waver. And they are warned about that when they choose to play divine classes. But in the current incarnation of the Angryverse, things are more complicated. It would take too long to explain that.

It would also take too long to explain the Afterlife.

But, look, in the end, if you want to actually use alignment, you’ve got to figure out how it works and how it impacts the world and the PCs. If it doesn’t do any of that, throw it out. And if you can’t stand the idea of objective, moral reality, throw away alignment. You literally cannot use it in a meaningful way because the moment you make it subjective, it turns to gibberish. And don’t try to tell me otherwise. I don’t want to hear it.

Confused Chris in Chandler, AZ asks:

I’ve loved your paragon monster rules and I’m looking forward to working them into my campaign. My problem is that I’m having trouble understanding how the XP is supposed to be awarded for multiple monsters (and, therefore, paragon monsters). I understand that additional enemies means you take the sum of their XP and multiply it by a multiplier to calculate the actual difficulty. Where it gets confusing is awarding the XP once the fight is completed: do you only award the XP of the monsters? Or do you reward the XP of the monsters after applying the multiplier? And how should it work for paragon monsters? Thanks for your help!

All right, I want to defend myself saying that it’s confusing because the D&D encounter balance system is confusing and I had to work within that framework. Holy mother of f$&% is that thing confusing as Hell. So, let’s talk about how it works in D&D before we talk about how it works with my Paragon monsters.

So, in D&D, everyone monster has a Challenge Rating. The Challenge Rating is the basic measure of the monster’s power, akin to it’s level, and that determines the monster’s proficiency bonus (which is, in theory, factored into its stats). The Challenge Rating also determines a couple of other things. First, it gives you a quick way to find a good challenge for a group of four PCs. A group of four PCs considers ONE monster whose Challenge Rating is equal to their level to be a moderate challenge. So, if you’ve got four 6th-level PCs, they can handle on CR 6 monster as a reasonable challenge. Second, the Challenge Rating also tells you whether a monster is too dangerous for the PCs. In theory, even if you are building a Hard encounter, you should probably not have any monsters whose CR exceeds the level of the members of the party. So, while the four 6th-level PCs could handle up to 3,600 XP worth of monsters as a Hard encounter, they probably should not fight a CR 7 or CR 8 creature. But your mileage may vary with that.

Now, here’s where it gets f$&%ing complicated. Every CR also equates to a certain number of XP. A CR 4 creature is worth 1,100 XP. When the PCs kill that thing, they get 1,100 XP divided between them. Simple enough, right? But XP is used for TWO DIFFERENT THINGS. First, it is used to actually award XP. Second, it is used to measure difficulty. And those AREN’T THE SAME.

When you only have one creature, it’s easy enough. That CR 4 creature is worth an XP award of 1,100 XP and it worth 1,100 XP worth of difficulty. And the DMG or the DM’s Basic Rules outline how many XP worth of challenge an encounter should contain. BUT, when you have multiple creatures, things get hair.

So, let’s say you have TWO CR 4 creatures. Each one is worth an award of 1,100 XP, so if the party wins, they gain a total of 2,200 XP to divide amongst them. BUT… two creatures is more difficult than one creature. Or rather, two CR 4 creatures is more difficult than it would be to face one CR 4 creature and then, later on, face another CR 4 creature in a totally separate confrontation. And that is why, when you are calculating the difficulty of the encounter, you multiply the XP value of EACH CREATURE by a multipler based on the total number of creatures. So, if there are two monsters in an encounter, you multiple their individual XP by 1.5 to determine how difficult the encounter is. Two CR 4 creatures (1,100 XP each) is the equivalent of one creature that is worth 3,300 XP in terms of difficulty. The PCs still only gain 2,200 XP for winning the fight, but that fight is a moderate encounter for four 7th- or 8th-level PCs who expect about 3,000 XP to 3,600 XP in a moderate fight. Why this is so f$&%ing complicated, I don’t know. In my mind, don’t make the division. Let the PCs actually just gain the XP that the encounter is actually worth in terms of difficulty. But Wizards of the Coast has been ignoring my letters for years. What do I know?

Anyway, when I made the Paragon Monster rules, I had a problem. And the problem was that I had one creature that was automatically the equivalent of two or three or more. It’d be easy if the XP value wasn’t BOTH the award and the difficulty and those weren’t on two different scales. But, again, what do I know?

So, my solution was: list the XP that the creature is actually worth, award wise and then also note that it counts as X number of creatures.

So, let’s say you have a hypothetical Paragon with:

Challenge 2 (1,350 XP), 3 creatures

Now, that’s three CR 2 creatures crammed together. A CR 2 creature is worth 450 XP. 450 XP x 3 creatures is 1,350 XP. That’s why the creature is CR 2 (it has the stats, output, and proficiency bonus of a CR 2 creature). And why it is worth 1,350 XP (there’s three creatures, each worth 450 XP worth of XP award). And why the creature is the equivalent of 3 creatures (it has three total piles of hit points and three turns per round in general).

When you build an encounter with it, you have to use the multiplier. So, that creature is 2,700 XP worth of difficulty (the multiplier for 3 creatures is x2). It’s a moderate challenge for four 6th-level PCs or a hard challenge for four 5th-level PCs.

Why did I do it like this? Well, first of all, I wanted to work as much as I could within the framework of D&D and allow the rules of Paragons to be as self-contained within the stat-blocks as they could be. Second, because I wanted to allow people the freedom to build encounters using the Paragons instead of requiring the Paragons to always have to appear alone.

So, let’s say I’ve got my Orc Commander (Challenge 2 (1,350 XP), 3 creatures) and I want to give him some orc buddies (Challenge ½ (100 XP)). I can still calculate that by adding up the total XP and then figuring out the total number of creatures and applying the modifier. Hence, that encounter is worth 1,650 XP to the PCs (1,350 XP + 3 x 100 XP), but the encounter is the equivalent of a 3,300 XP encounter (multiplier for six creatures is x2), meaning it would be a Hard encounter for four 6th-level PCs.

So, yeah, that’s the whole thing. On the Challenge line of the Paragon stat block, it lists the raw XP award that the monster is actual worth AND tells you the number of creatures it should be counted as for figuring encounter difficulty.

The sick thing is this is the LEAST CONFUSING WAY I could find to handle this. You had to see some of the drafts.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind the WotC system being so f$&%ing confusing if it actually WORKED! But that’s just me being irrational again.

5 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Souls in the Balance and Balancing Encounters

  1. It annoys me how flippant they seem to treat the whole system. I mean, encounter balancing and treasure are the primary two reasons why I buy a DM’s manual. I get now that the whole game is a carefully calculated system and XP is the gauge for the whole thing. To have a meaningful and balanced roleplaying GAME, you absolutely must have a system for tracking and depleting resources so that the party has a degree of winning/losing. XP is intended as a combination of both reward and estimation of resource depletion in D&D. So, in order for me to facilitate a fair and balanced game (so I don’t feel too guilty when a TPK happens, obviously) at the very least I should know how much total XP would drive a PC from full to zero resources — this is the adventuring day. This basically simulates how much experience I should award/challenge per PC before allowing a long rest. Everything else is reserved for system specific resting like short resting or tiered resting in Numenera. Even “encounter difficulty” is just gravy, it’s unimportant… if the system only allowed resources to be restored on long rests. I’ll comment about that later. Knowing the degree of “hardness” means absolutely nothing when you don’t know how many resources they’re expected to take. The adventuring day figure, plus how to calculate it is the most important thing because this gives GMs the leeway to split up the experience through their dungeon, city, session whatever.

    So… the funny thing is, why is 5E the first edition to actually mention the adventuring day experience? Then they don’t even mention how they arrive at the numbers. I could reverse engineer it (I haven’t yet), but seriously… it’s like every system handles encounter balance ass backwards. Why do they expect GMs to have to dig into their formula or just leave it up to guys like you to tell everyone how to actually play D&D?

    Another thing is like… 5E is the only system too that even bothers to enforce adjudication for action economy for the GM’s side. 4E doesn’t care, and 3.5/Pathfinder sure as hell didn’t give a f$&% (sorry, “When in Rome…”). So why does 5E care all of a sudden? I understand /why/ they did it, but then, I don’t understand why they did it. In practice, rules as written, all it does is make me give less exp to the party for their efforts and make them sad. Then it f$&%s with my “try to level up the party every 2 sessions” plan, restricts what kind of encounters I can actually do without it feeling wasteful, plus I think they weigh action economy waaaaaay too strongly. It doesn’t really account that Mr. Paladin is just going to smite one of your guys to oblivion the first round, and smiting is far stronger in this edition than previous ones, and previous editions didn’t really seem to care about action economy estimation, so I’ve thrown it out. My party’s full of manly short-resting beasts. They can handle it.

    Speaking of short resting, another problem with the encounter balance is that adventuring day really can only give you a clear picture for resources restored on long rests. Like, adventuring day calculations work best when all the PCs restore their resources all at the same time. But 5E has some really powerful options that restore themselves every short rest, or enhances short rests: like Battlemaster Fighters, Bards (Level 5 Bardic Inspiration and Song of Rest), Druids of the Moon, Warlocks, etc. They by ideal design they sacrifice big whammy resources like Wizards/Sorcerers to have more consistency. Problem is, this throws a wrench in the whole adventuring day thing. To counter-point what I said before, encounter difficulty doesn’t matter because if you can perfectly calculate through XP how much an encounter can take a PC from full to zero resources, you should be able to always build fair fights even if you have each fight take all their resources then let them rest. But, now you have you consider breaking up the experience because not every class restores all their stuff the same way anymore (plus HP restored during their short rests are considered in the total adventuring day XP, I’m sure?)

    So after all of that, they still don’t even directly mention the max each fight should be to cater to the whole short resting mechanic. I mean, again, you have to interpret it from a indirect quote from the the DM’s guide pg. 83. “As a rule, if the adjusted XP value for the monsters in a multipart encounter is higher than one-third of the party’s expected XP total for the adventuring day… the encounter is going to be tougher than the sum of its parts.” So there, even though they’re not even talking about short resting balance, we now know that the max XP an encounter should be is one-third of the adventuring day.

    But even still… I’m pretty sure XP doesn’t make up for how much estimated HP a Moon Druid gets per short rest.

    I hate encounter balance.

  2. “But in the current incarnation of the Angryverse, things are more complicated. It would take too long to explain…It would also take too long to explain the Afterlife.”

    Nonetheless, when you find the opportunity I’d be very interested in how you approach these things now.

    Enjoying your site immensely. Your articles are invaluable gaming resources.

    (And best of luck with your move.)

  3. I used to do story milestones to artificially control how fast the group leveled, which ended up being about once every two sessions. Then after reading something Angry wrote somewhere about how XP should be given, I started doing that. And I read how the DMG said to do XP, and said screw that, and just give them the calculated difficulty XP. It’s worked out good for me. They usually level about every two sessions still, but now get something to add to their sheet every fight, even if they don’t get treasure or gold.

    The problem I’m starting to run into as the party gets higher level (they’re 13 now) is that the game’s estimations for how much they can handle has become almost totally useless because it’s so inaccurate. Now I balance encounters by ear. Part of my problem is that the usual adventuring day for my party is only two or three fights, then long rests. Which is about the whole session. So most fights need to deplete most, if not all, of their resources.

    I recently ran a fight against a vampire where I half-assedly converted it into a paragon monster. It was a warrior AND a spellcaster (so two CR 15’s), so it got the armor and the spells, two full turns, and legendary actions. After the first HP pool, I dropped it down to one full turn but refreshed its spells. The difficulty XP was 39,000 XP. By the game’s measure, a deadly encounter for a party of four level 13 PC’s is 20,400 XP. I’d guess their equipment is about on par for their level, +1 gear with a couple +2 weapons. And the fight was amazing. It had the party on the ropes, down to the wire. The best encounter of the campaign so far. But by the numbers, it should have been a horrible, unmitigated slaughter. And for their trouble, they gained almost 10k XP, nearly half a level. And I’m ok with that.

    I don’t usually post comments, but thanks, Angry. This website is easily the best DM resource in the universe.

    • Just a note, 5e removed the assumption that players will have a certain amount of +1 or +2 gear by certain levels (as in it is assumed they never get any, so they are all a bonus)

      By giving your party all of that equipment, they are essentially acting akin to higher than their level, hence why they found it so easy

  4. Your discussion on alignment is fantastic. I have had issues with my players and their alignments for years. It has gotten so bad that I have scrapped the system entirely.

    The problem is that, as you mentioned, the players all want to view good/evil as subjective qualities. Or rather, that is the heart of the problem. The real problem is that I have watched players argue with each other over the “your character wouldn’t do that” due to some perceived alignment “straight jacket”. It was absurd because the players were actually arguing among themselves over this. I didn’t even have to try to antagonize them.

    Anyway, after thinking on what you’ve written, I think I may let alignment creep back into my future campaigns. I run D&D 4E, so it doesn’t matter a whole lot. But I figure if the players want to express themselves via a stated alignment, that’s fine. But I think I will do more tracking of their actions to see how much in line with their stated alignment they are. I’m not sure, but it seems interesting.

    Well, thanks, as always, for being the greatest DM in the universe and sharing your knowledge with us.

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