When I quit playing D&D, v3.5 had just been released. When I returned, 4e was in full swing. I bought the core books to see what they were about.
For the most part, I was pretty impressed with much of what they had done. But there was a subtle paradigm shift that I find unsettling.
DMs are given detailed instructions on how to create an encounter that will be balanced for the party. If it is an experienced party or if they are particularly powerful adventurers for their level, you might bump up the encounter or add an extra monster to keep things interesting. If the group is new or underpowered, consider knocking the monsters’ hit points back a bit or dropping one of the monsters from the encounter.
This all makes perfect sense. After all you don’t want to kill off the party. Balancing the encounter makes things run smoother and makes for a more enjoyable session all around.
After the encounter, determine the level of the party and consult the treasure parcel list. If there are more than five characters in the party, you can add magic item parcels to round things out.
A well-planned experience table matches up experience per monster level so that every ten well-balanced encounters should gain each character a level. That’s pretty slick. It works out so well that you could even ignore experience points and just count encounters, granting a level after every ten.
I can’t imagine how much work went in to categorizing magic items by level. How convenient is that. If you have a 5th level party, you can randomly generate a magic item that is comparable in power to the characters and the trouble they went through to get the item.
It’s recommended though that you don’t actually generate magic items randomly. Get a feel for the players and their characters. Know what they have and what they want. It might even be a good idea to ask them each to create a “wish list” for you. That way you can pick and choose magic items that work well with what they already have and are items that you know they will enjoy.
What all of that comes down to is a philosophy that the DM should constantly re-create the world to meet the needs and desires of the characters.
That’s Not How the World Works
When you want a cup of coffee do you expect to find it sitting on a table just around the corner waiting for you? And not just a cup of coffee but a tall mocha latte with skim milk and a touch of nutmeg just the way you listed it in your “wish list”.
The world doesn’t work that way. If you are a 5th level character, you go where the 5th level monsters are. If YOU feel ready for a tougher challenge then YOU should decide to go over to where the 8th level monsters are instead. And those 8th level monsters should have 8th level treasure, not treasure that corresponds to the level of the characters. The tomb preserving the remains of a 20th level character should have the items entombed with that 20th level character. The items shouldn’t be raised or lowered in level to match that of the adventurers.
Asking characters for a “wish list”, and then picking items from it, is the height of absurdity. If a character wants a particular item, he can search for hints of where such an item might be found.
This whole method of coddling characters is ridiculous. Beyond that, it creates poor players. Why do you need to bother with tactics or strategy when the DM is just going to adjust every situation to match your needs. Characters used to this sort of manipulation have no need to wonder if maybe they can’t handle a given situation. Obviously they can or you wouldn’t have thrown this situation at them.
Absurd! The situation should never be thrown at the characters. The characters should be thrown into the situation.
Define It First
The world needs to exist first. Goblins live here. Orcs live there. Trolls live over that way. The Dragon lives in that cave. They each exist and thrive in various areas and in predetermined numbers on their own. They each possess a horde of treasure based entirely on their level, their successes and their desire to horde treasure. The characters don’t affect what they find. The characters find what is there.
Better Players Run Better Characters
When the party spots some Ogres through the trees, they shouldn’t assume that they can handle them just because they are of similar level. They should hide and observe the Ogres to get a feel for how many there are. Maybe there are just three or four. But maybe it’s a huge band of 40 Ogres. Maybe the Ogres are just grunts doing the will of much more powerful creatures.
By letting characters interact with a living breathing world they learn to use tactics and think their way through situations instead of just trusting that every encounter is balanced just for them and that they should just wade in like automatons, treating every encounter just like every other.
This Requires a Sensible World
Obviously, this means more work for the DM. Not only do you have to prepare a much larger area, you have to handle having characters travel beyond your prepared areas and populate them on the fly, not with what the characters need but according to what types of creatures, etc you have previously decided would reside there.
You also have to supply loads of subtle hints and clues as to what sort of creatures to expect in various areas so that the party can make a rational decision as to where to go.
Most importantly, your world must make sense. A forest with level five monsters roaming the outskirts may have level eight monsters further in. It would not have level 20 monsters further in. Characters need to be able to make informed guesses with a fair chance of success.
The world is a dangerous place. If you don’t have someone balancing every encounter, things can go very wrong. Maybe it’s the players’ fault for not recognizing the clues. Maybe it’s the DM’s fault for not supplying the right clues. Maybe it’s just dumb luck. No matter why it went wrong, it’s important to be prepared for it to happen.
Spend some time in advance to decide how you want to handle character death and full party wipes. Some online games have your ghost appear at a graveyard or a healer’s hut. When you return to your body you are then automatically ressed. Maybe you impose a time limit or a chance that your body is looted, or eaten, in the meantime. Other games let you res at the nearest sacred spot. A wandering healer could come by. You could add magical items that automatically res a character. Or give the party’s healer an insta-cast spell to hearth to town before that fatal blow and (hopefully) return to res the others. Many players are just fine rolling new characters. Just know in advance how you want to handle it and make sure your players know what to expect.
Personally, I prefer to see characters take the initiative to search out their own methods of wipe recover. A healer with a well-timed potion of etherealness and some raise dead scrolls can really save the day if they have the forethought to purchase and prepare these things. If they don’t, rolling new characters seems like a reasonable solution.
Tough Love Can Pay Off
As long as the players know that the world is a dangerous place, and realize that the worst is always a possibility, even a total wipe can be treated as just one of those things that happens. There are various methods for dealing with the worst, from rolling new characters to having a wandering healer happen by.
But coddle your players and they will scream it’s all your fault when you accidently kill them. Train them to be good players and they will take some of the responsibility themselves and move past it more quickly. Instead of children with hurt feelings, you’ll have adults with revenge on their mind against that last group of monsters.
All this doesn’t mean that the DM should never help out the characters. Fudging a roll here and there and dropping a monster before its time is sometimes necessary to keep a random encounter from derailing a night’s play. But that sort of thing needs to be the exception and not the rule.
If the characters see those Ogres through the trees and rush in to find themselves surrounded by vastly superior numbers, enjoy the slaughter. They deserve it. I guarantee that next time, they won’t rush in without checking things out.