I’ve been thinking recently about the issue of balanced encounters, and what’s wrong with that concept, if anything.
As GMs, I guess we want to be able to throw a range of fights at the party, from easy to hard, but nothing toooo hard. No-one wants a TPK just because the monsters completely overwhelmed the PCs due to a massive power imbalance.
It’s like any other competition, we like it when things are close, and either side has a real chance of winning.
So what tends to happen is the players always face opponents in a particular power range – “balanced” encounters. Anything outside of that range must be avoided. Why? Because otherwise the fights are far too easy (waste of time?) or far too deadly (TPK ensues).
There are a few problems however that flow from sticking to balanced encounters all the time.
So how can we improve this situation?
How can we have an independent game world, a world that feels more real, more consequential and more dangerous, but prevent risking TPKs every second week? How can we be confident that random encounters based only on geographic location, and not party level, won’t overwhelm the PCs?
Fleeing and/or Retreating
In normal 5e and similar games, there is no formal retreat mechanic. Running away means double move, and that generally means you cant escape – most monsters are simply faster than the PCs.
Yes, I know there are chase rules of various kinds. And some of those are very good chase rules (naturally enough I like my own version ;) ). But before there can be a chase, there needs to be a retreat, and players need to be confident in how that retreat process works. They need to know that if they go into a very dangerous fight, or get accosted by a very high level random encounter, that they can make a run for it if they must, and probably live to fight another day.
So, in my view, a good retreat rule needs 3 things:
House Rule # 15 - The Party Retreat Rule
In my Low Fantasy Gaming book, I went with a Party Retreat rule based on the Luck attribute:
For 5e however, I suggest the following:
If the whole party wishes to flee from a battle, they must first explain to the GM how escape might be possible. If the GM agrees, a group Constitution (Athletics) check vs DC 10 is required, possibly with Str checks to carry away unconscious allies. The GM might impose modifiers depending on all the circumstances.
If successful, the whole party suffers 1 level of exhaustion, but the adventurers manage to break away from the battle with incapacitated allies over their shoulders (or otherwise in tow, as explained by the players). Depending on the circumstances, fleeing may lead to a Chase scene. If unsuccessful, the GM might permit any individually successful adventurers to flee, but the remaining PCs remain behind. The party, or any remaining PCs, may attempt to flee again next round if desired.
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