Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Variable Encounter Difficulty

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 23, 2012

A friend asked the other night about combat encounter difficulty in RPGs – is it better to have the challenge be consistent, or variable? I answered pretty firmly in favor of the latter. I think most people who suffered through the automatic level-scaling in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion would probably agree. But here’s why.

First of all – consistent, linearly-increasing difficulty level in video games is generally recognized as a Bad Thing. It’s predictable, tedious, and causes player fatigue. It’s far more entertaining to have hills and valleys along a generally increasing difficulty level slope. Naturally, the peaks of the hills will often represent boss encounters or other significant events, while the lowest dips will generally follow immediately after as the player is given a ‘breather’ after a major challenge. But a little unpredictability in the pattern helps keep things interesting.

In RPGs, another consideration is anchoring the player in their level progression. The frustration in Oblivion – as well as many other RPGs, though it is less blatant in many other games – is that the reward for level progression is increasing difficulty of encounters, which actually results in the player feeling less powerful relative to his opponents as he theoretically “levels up.” Easier combats – particularly those similar to the more “challenging” combats encountered much earlier in the game – reveal how much the player characters have progressed in ability.

One problem with the modern trend of eliminating almost all resource management in mainstream RPGs is that weaker encounters become meaningless. I first saw this in a dice-and-paper RPG years ago, when playing Fantasy Hero. The Game Master decided to try and provide one of those “anchoring” experiences I just mentioned, and had our group fight some ogres – a creature type that hadn’t challenged us in a very long time. Due to the nature of the system, not only was the fight boring, but it was pretty meaningless (and the GM never tried it again), as our party was fully ‘healed up’ and refreshed for our next encounter. So we never again encountered anything that didn’t offer at least a moderate risk to our survival.

That is exactly the problem with games like Dragon Age where the party heals up fully almost immediately after every fight. And thus designers fall back on things like overusing things like “waves” of enemies to inhibit resource restoration while re-using less challenging foes.

In D&D, hit points and magic spells refresh slowly, which means a less challenging encounter still impacts the overall game. Sure, a dozen goblins may carry no significant risk to a party of 6th level characters, but any hit points lost or spells expended in the battle won’t be there for the next one – which may be a lot more dangerous. In this way, even the “easy” battles require significant choices to balance risk and reward.  For all its weaknesses as a system, D&D still got the basics right.

Likewise, throwing in a more challenging encounter other than the conventional “gatekeeper” encounters can help keep things fresh and interesting in an RPG. It can encourage the player to adapt and use less “brute force” tactics. Or encourage him to finally put those one-shot magic items he’s been hording to good use. Or he may exercise some freedom of choice and skip the encounter, possibly coming back to it later in the game after he has progressed a little bit further (thus providing another ‘anchor.’)  It keeps things interesting.

One final, tangential word: Even as combat difficulty should be varied as it scales, combat style (for lack of a better word right now) should also be varied. Even at early levels, the player should face combat encounters that require different approaches. Enemies should vary far more than just having more hit points and do more damage with their claws and bite attacks. Encounters should vary the “best” approach, including types of attacks, types of defenses, tactical positioning, use of items, use of the environment. There can even be encounters which are best fought by not fighting at all, but luring the enemy into a trap.

Variety is the spice of life, and it is definitely the spice of any RPG.

(Image above is from the 1E AD&D Monster Manual. (c) 1979 TSR. Good ol’ David Trampier art…)


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read



  • EHamilton said,

    The point at which this problem began was late in the development of AD&D (around the time of Unearthed Arcana) where the concept of “portable spellbooks” became formalized. Gygax tried to balance this out by demanding careful monitoring of the passage of time, and increasing random encounters as time was being spent. But most people just ignored that level of detail due to the extra paperwork it entailed. (Only the Gold Box games have attempted to implement this system as described.)

    Previously magic had functioned as a fixed resource for a given adventure, and could only be restored between sessions. After that, magic became something that could be used up to the limit during every encounter. This permanently damaged game balance for high-level mages and clerics, who suddenly became godlike. But it also affected all CRPGs by removing spell-restoration mechanics as a determinative element of play, which made all random encounters feel like pointless time-sucks.

    I’ve always loved games that have a section where you can’t rest, and you need to keep moving forward through encounters to reach a safe place beyond. That kind of design doesn’t happen very often in CRPGs any more. It’s part of the reason why I recollect old games like Curse of the Azure Bonds (the dracolich!) or BT (Kylearan’s Tower!) as being so much more exciting than modern games.

  • Fumarole said,

    I agree with the hills and valleys for challenge. I think that ideally it should pretty much follow the pacing of Star Wars as illustrated here.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Playing through dungeons in infinity engine games, I always want there to be specific safe zones for resting in. I feel like it’s nuts for my party to be able to lock myself in a small room with only one door, hit the ‘rest’ button, and instantly have 24 lizardmen spawn right on top of us… and equally nuts for us to be able to rest for sixteen hours in the open mere meters from a bunch of monsters which will wander into our range of view as soon as the rest period finishes.

    But depending on how difficult the battles are vs the skills your characters have, even in these ‘old’ games, you may feel forced to rest constantly in order to survive. This mostly does come down to spells and other once-a-day activities. A low-level party in a situation where they NEED those spells to get by is stuck sleeping after every fight and probably irritated by it.

    That level of trouble varies wildly over time by party level and the sorts of threats they’re facing. 1st level, your mages may as well not bother throwing their one spell at anything ever. Stand in the back, soak up XP, and wait til you don’t suck. Have ‘Sleep’ on hand in case of emergency.

    Get a few levels up and so long as you’re in combats where Magic Missile is your most useful spell, you’re fine and you can go through several battles just like the rest of them. But if you enter a dungeon level packed with monsters who have special traits/resistances, things that have to be targeted with specific weapons and spells, it may be that your highest-level spell (which you can still only once-a-day) is your most practical option. Cue a lot of annoyed sleeping… and that experience is likely what leads people to do the ‘full rest after every encounter’ sort of thing.

  • Vatec said,

    Another of putting it, at least as far as the Gold Box and Infinity Engine games went:

    1. You never know if the next encounter will be “filler” or a “real fight.”
    2. You can safely assume that all “real fights” are balanced based on your party being at full strength.
    3. So you rest after every fight, to ensure that you don’t end up in the uncomfortable situation of entering a “real fight” at less than full strength.
    4. Unfortunately, this means that all “filler” encounters become trivial.

    D&D 4e may have the most elegant solution: abilities you can use in every encounter combined with abilities you can use a limited number of times between rest periods. That being said, an “elegant solution” doesn’t always result in a “fun” game. As several other bloggers have noted, 4e seems to have been strongly influenced by MMOs (and CRPGs). This is not necessarily a Good Thing.

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