On Balance in 5th Edition

I've been playing 5th edition for a while now, we are almost through Book 1 of the adventure path "Tyranny of the Dragon Queen". It's not the first adventure path I've played or ran. The experience has clarified my thoughts about adventure paths. I've also gained some insight into how fifth edition plays.

Adventure Path

This is certainly a way to play the game.

I don't like it. A lot of people do. I have to do very little preparation to run it. For 90% of adults that is a huge benefit.

I remember a time when I woke up and decided what to do. Then I got a woman. Then I made a baby. (Making a baby is fun. I recommend it!). I used to do things back then that I don't get to do now. Sleeping. Going to see a movie. Playing a video game. Not complaining, just pointing out one reason why in spite of all their problems, adventure paths are the go to resource for modern adult gamers.

Another thing that ties into the balance issues is the survivability of the characters, and how this allows them to reach a high level, which they enjoy. 5th edition does become more complicated as the characters level. But it does so in one clear step at a time. My wife, who worries herself unnecessarily over math, can handle six levels of choices between raging, reckless attack, frenzy, multiple attacks with a magic weapon that does different damage to different types of creatures, as well as changing out the damage die and hit/damage bonuses for different weapons. Today she expressed a desire to design a more functional character sheet.

But without question, there is a lack of freedom. If you're running the adventure path and not using it as inspiration for a setting or a sandbox, then there are long periods where characters just have to follow the path. If you've ever used a windows personal computer and attempted to get it to stop trying to help you, then you're familiar with the experience of trying to locate and eliminate these dead zones in adventure paths that are anathema to the players.

The point of interest for me, is how fine the line is between simply running a series of modules, versus running a path. The freedom to simply pick the next module, and the change in the  background tile set is enough usually to avoid the dreary tedium of a path.

If one were to look at what's bad about adventure paths and play, it would be this consistent divide between a product designed to produce play versus other priorities, such as an experience or verisimilitude.  This I think is tied closely into the apparently ephemeral definition of railroad.

 I ran the module DCC#45 Malice of the Medusa. Scene one: The  "Adventurer-giver" has five full paragraphs of exposition, and then bursts into fire and attacks the Player Characters. I quote "There is nothing the PCs can do to save him. The fires are magical in nature and are unaffected by water, smothering, or attempts to magically control them." A few minutes later, there's another encounter where no action the players take has any effect at all. I quote: "Forty dervishes is clearly too many for the PCs to defeat, but let the heroes sweat it out for several rounds, and encourage them to desperation. After all, it's in the defense of hopeless causes that epics are made. Then, just as it looks as though the PCs are about to be overrun, a maddening buzz suddenly drowns out the sounds of combat, and the sky is blotted by a rapidly growing black mass. A swarm of locusts descends upon the area, enveloping everything within a square mile.

To be frank, sending an army of men with swords and bows against 5 players with an average party level of 1.4 is bullshit and the players know it. They know that whatever happens, they can't affect it and they aren't in control of it. They immediately disengage. Even if people quibble over the definition of railroading, we can agree this is the essence of it.

So perhaps it's my ignorance. Are their people out there who are like "Oh, man, it was so cool! I thought we were going to die and then these insects came and killed all the bad guys!"? Is there something of interest in the set-up of "You can't do anything and Deus Ex Machina?" Aren't we as a culture agreed that even done well, it's up there with "It was all a dream"? Do you, personally, know anyone who eats that stuff up in a role-playing game?

Apologies Andrew Hind. Your adventure was so bad my players unanimously quit. It was all like that, by the by.

People like to skip the cutscenes in video games. Sometimes they will watch them once. Why do people try to put cutscenes in role-playing games? Are there people out there who are waiting for the Dungeon Master to finally take control of their character away from them and read to them about what happens?

It's hard to get away from that in an adventure path. It's worse when you try to give the players the illusion of choice, because they just get frustrated waiting for the next thing to happen. The distinction seems particularly acute after just finishing Phandelver sandbox. How many adventure path players across Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 4/5 have played in true sandboxes, as opposed to chokepoint sandboxes and hexcrawls like some Pathfinder Adventure Paths?

If you look closely, you may see the remains of the horse I'm hitting. It comes up, because again, I've subjected myself and my players to an adventure path, for the long haul. With luck, we should finish by the end of the year, perhaps sooner.

An Analysis of Mid-Level Balance in 5th edition

So, as I've already covered, we've been spending a lot of time playing 5th edition so far. I have a group of 3-5 sixth level characters, each with several magic items, the justly earned reward for finishing Phandelver. This places them nearer to the power of characters a level or two higher than they are—pretty far along the hero tier of power.

5th Edition has the weirdest center of balance of any role playing game I've ever played. Encounters either seem completely trivial or overwhelming. Magic items cause huge huge swings in power. The characters seem nearly invulnerable until they suddenly die. Although this sounds exactly like the desired effect, what I'm doing to cause it clearly eludes me.

My group of three 6th level players cut through six giant spiders and 3 ettercaps, a "deadly" encounter by the numbers without taking a scratch. Shouldn't a deadly encounter at least feel a little deadly?

They regularly are able to lock down single large opponents (like adult dragons), who would be literally chopped into paste without legendary actions. But stick a couple of CR 1 ranged attackers behind one half decent meat bag, or any group of attackers, no matter how weak, that grant advantage from pack tactics and the party falls apart. An encounter with 12 CR 1/2 Kobolds is more threatening than an adult dragon.

Part of this is because of the way the characters work. The barbarian has 70+ hit points, and when raging, resistance to melee attacks. This means her real hit point total is greater than 140 due to rounding down. Her 18 AC isn't weak either. The fighter has managed to get somewhere in the range of a 22-24 AC. This is actually very close to what a 5th or 6th level fighter might be able to acquire in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition by this level. Fighters being tankish isn't a problem.

Attackers that require strength or constitution saves or melee attacks have practically no effect against the characters. Anything that grants opponents advantage or magical attacks totally tear the group apart. It is very much Rock/Paper/Scissors, and they chose rock, being that 70%+ of the monster manual is made up of scissors.

So the problem I'm faced with is encounter design in the module. Either something in there wipes the floor with them or is slain without incident. Since there is no choice in the path, they will encounter most everything in their way—Which means I'm forced into the position of deciding what's in the encounter. My choices are between: ineffective melee opponents, overwhelming melee opponents, deadly pack creatures, or devastating magical attacks. The last two are even worse if they are combined with the melee creatures. None of these match up to the to the deadliness from the experience chart.

I'm not asking for advice. I'm saying that this is literally forcing me into the position of deciding for the characters how much risk they should be taking on, because in many situations "going forward" is their only choice. They have some say in how they manage to do that. 5th edition is good in that it provides and supports diplomacy and trickery and thinking outside the box in a way that 4th edition specifically discouraged, but the expectation of combat in many situations is still there, especially as a result of failure of the other options. Still, I personally prefer to design monsters and factions naturalistically based on good design principles and let the players decide how to navigate the morass.

Your milage may vary.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. I've had similar experiences with the wonkiness of encounters at levels 4-5. For me it seems like the issue is that most non-tanky PC's are pretty fragile. Anything that can go around a fighter (like a ranged attacker) can quickly whittle down the party. That isn't consistent however. The same group that can steamroll a wraith got nearly wiped out by two ankhegs, so there's that.

  2. Good synopsis.

    Combats do seem very swingy based upon the number of attackers. It seems like a group of lower level attackers is almost always more deadly than a single boss monster.

    For all its faults, 4e combat was a bit more predictable from a balance perspective.

  3. One of the things that I've been doing with our group (mostly level 7-8) is to completely throw out the concept of "balance" and "challenge" and just put stuff in a scenario and let the party figure out how to tackle it. Sometimes the party will go to considerable trouble not to fight, or to outwit, or to organize an ambush, even when dealing with things that they could probably have taken in a straight fight.

    They enjoy themselves, and then if the fight is a cakewalk, they feel like the earned it (and they probably did) or if it's a struggle, they are happy they did so much prep. That being said, I'm running a very sandboxy game with very little in the way of pathing or dungeon crawls, so you have to operate a bit differently.

    Another thing I do is set up fights with multiple waves of attackers. That way I can scale waves if I want to ramp up the toughness of a fight that is going too easy. But I also use enemy morale to keep things from dragging out.

  4. This is exactly what I'm encountering in our 5e game - combat is either really difficult or just a cake walk.

  5. I haven't looked through the 5e adventure paths yet, but I've run several of the Pathfinder ones. Even in the best ones, they tend to have a built in flaw that the one-size-fits-all nature is going to become increasingly strained into feeling railroady the further down the module chain you get, as even minor points of player divergence compound to the point that later modules really can't take them into account as written.

    I tend to find that I have to start making major alterations around the third out of six modules, and by the end of the series I'm just trying to stick to the original general plotline and salvage some of the encounters, but the overall scenario has been changed to elevate things the players cared about to become the more prominent points. For example, later questgivers and their agendas completely replaced with NPCs that the players responded well to earlier.

    A couple of tricks I've found for maximum utilization of the printed materials:
    * I try to read ahead and find any situations that are going to feel like a deus ex machina, and work in subplots earlier so the players can feel that they had a hand in them. A guy that just shows up from nowhere to save the PCs is annoying. A guy that owes them for something they did earlier and who they warned about potential problems that shows up to save them tends to work much better.
    * A lot of times, a fairly linear series of encounters and dungeons can be broken up and rearranged if the overall plot is changed to something that resonates more with the PCs. By the middle of the series, I tend to have a pretty good handle on what kind of choices my players are likely to make, and which railroads they're likely to be okay with because that's the direction they wanted to go anyway, and can change the plot to make that work. It's illusionism, but it's often the lesser of two evils when you don't want to completely lose the time-saving utility of the pre-printed module.

  6. I concur with your 5th ed balance observations on two points: 1. Single monsters are weak and 2. Groups of monsters are strong. I generally balance around either A) a "big bad" backed up by some low CR mooks or B) a pile of mid CR mobs.

    If you've got a party with 2 super tanky chars, what happens when there are more targets than those 2 tanks can lock down? When a creature gets to the mage or the cleric or the rogue and lays into them? Dropping (or threatening to drop) one of these softer chars ratchets up the tension for the party during the combat, without really threatening to TPK them (because the tougher chars are going to be able to get through the fight eventually). That challenges the char's combat roles. If their job is to protect weaker chars, make it hard for them to do that. If the weaker chars job is to deal damage and not take it, make it hard for them to do that. That way you're creating compelling challenges beyond just throwing more dice/damage at people.

  7. Just want to say a big thanks for this post and the comments. I only get to play (DM) 5E occasionally, and so found this insight hugely helpful.

  8. I actually am considering using a randomized monster generation chart (hard monster are rare, but the graph can be skewed in their direction), throwing out or radically reducing the XP values for monsters, and using the blog of holdings XP for GP 5e rules.


  9. It's the same problem with every adventure module since the beginning of time: Pen and Paper RPGs work best when the adventure is tailored for the party that you have.


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