Designing without Fear for balance!

A game is an experience. Specifically, it is a vehicle for delivering an experience that is fun and engaging. Fun and engaging are the key phrases of that sentence. I’ve been trying to write RPGs for years, and all my privately shared experiences in that the most memorable experiences are always the ones that bend rules in FUN or CHALLENGING ways. People today talk about games I ran when I was a teenager, and that is a badge of pride in my book. I’m going to break down one of the MOST memorable.

-The Tower of Bosses-

Forgive the name, I was a young teen and I was unabashedly ripping from video games. However, one thing I will tip to my younger self, I Did not care ONE IOTA for balance. That was, actually a good thing for me. Because I cared about something that made this particular segment VERY memorable.

There were 5 floors. Each floor had a ridiculous boss I had concocted, and a ridiculously built room specifically to make the boss more difficult. This was the fortress to fight my villain (…Snort… General Gallows, and his enslaved angels, did I mention I was the BEST at names as a teenager), and to get to him, you had to get through his minions.

His 1st floor was guarded by his “invincible” bodyguard. He was in such heavy armor that no combat spell or weapon could pierce. He swung once a turn, but that was all he needed had a large furnace in the room that he would avoid, but he would activate to fling fire into the room to damage people who were lined up stupidly. His gimmick was simple: He was stupidly loyal.

The PC’s had a hell of a time dealing with him… until they cast a desperate dominate spell on him, and had him jump into the furnace. His gimmick of being stupidly loyal meant he would do anything if commanded, regardless of danger to himself. The PC’s won. There was much rejoicing.

The 2nd Floor was guarded by a monk. The monk had a pool of water the pool of water hasted the monk and refilled his HP to full. The monk would jump kick out of the water, pummel the PCs, and get pummeled and jump back into the water… Repeat. The SECOND time that happened the group wizards was like “Oh hellz no” and decided to boil the water. The group dragon decided “No no no… we are not letting him get HP everywhere in this room” and used his frost breath weapon to freeze the water.

Turned the battle into an interesting Ice-Rink of the Monk sliding around ninja kicking people until the group fighter tripped him, and kept him prone and stabbed. There was much rejoicing.

The 3rd floor was not hard: but it was a completely open portion of the tower. There was a dragon man who was flying out of the tower and through the tower lancing people, but the tower had four supports that the PC’s could easily knock out. Which they picked up on right away… and caused the tower to crash down on the poor dragon man and squish him flat.

The 4th floor was not very memorable, it was a traditional brawl but the PC’s won. This is a key bit of information to hold onto later.

The 5th floor and then the big ol battle. It was 4 level 15 pc’s versus 1 enslaved fallen angel, and 1 very evil general, who was a “master” (read unfair) tactician.

So… the Enslaved Angel had very few HPs, a low AC, and a small saves. However, the first turn of combat, I reduced all the PC’s to a Level between 1 and 4. (I had them roll a D4 for what level they were set to) and the General’s turn was dead last. They had to quickly kill the Angel to get the levels back, and they knew it because the memories, skills and spells were visible on the Angel. The angel reduced levels every turn, that’s all it did. Not negative energy damage. No… they had to revert spells, and levels, and class features.

The General didn’t have many attacks in a round, or even interesting or broken feats. He didn’t need any… He was going to rock some worlds right now, and the PC’s really hated him. To this day they still talk about his “bullshit”. However, they still talk about it, they still engage in conversation about it. SOME even still talk about how they could have gone about that battle better.

And to this day, some get bored with more conventional encounters. Some of my encounters today are borderline unfair, but they are still all winnable. That is what I took away; keep it unfair, but winnable. The PC’s after all, are supposed to be heroes. They need to feel like they can win, they just need to feel the imminent threat of death.

 

Why am I bringing up this old game? To bring up how bad of a GM I was as a young teen? No. Actually, it’s the pattern of rooms. Each room with a gimmick was easy to remember. It was memorable: the solution to the problem at hand was a clever one. The blow-by-blow isn’t recorded (With exception of that particularly brutal last room) but the feelings intense and enjoyable remain.

What was curious to me was that floor 4 was a void in my memory. It was not the “Good time” that the players enjoyed. It was not the floor that was enjoyable. I remember it as a regular ol slug-fest that didn’t even have memorable NPCs. That is what is the take-away here.

The key is to creating excellent, engaging and fun content is to make it memorable. After-all a game is all about delivering an experience, we might as well make it one worth keeping. Over the next few posts, I’m going to be posting some Pathfinder and/or RPG mechanics to attempt to build those “Completely unfair but beatable” villains. I’m going to create feats, classes, and maybe a few new spells that have the goals of completely throwing off PC’s and make GM’s question how they run games. I’m not saying these features are balanced. In fact, I dare say they are not. They are not intended for PC’s to get ahold of, or to use. And that is of course what will make the players remember it all the more.