Over the past few days I’ve done some listening on balancing encounters in 5e D&D. In a pair of successive episodes on The Tome Show earlier in 2015, Andy, Sam, and Mike have repeatedly noted that it is far more challenging to balance encounters in a post-4e world and that, moreover, the “math is broken” in 5e D&D.
I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But as someone who admittedly always preferred the pre-CR days (i.e. 2nd Edition AD&D and earlier) I think that this is a good problem to have. I’ve always just sort of guesstimated the kind of encounter that I wanted to generate in order to advance a story and went from there; that often means that a 1st level party of 5 adventurers might be up against dozens or hundreds of opponents and that, if they don’t play very, very smart, they will all either have to flee (and hopefully not get hunted down afterwards) or perish.
I don’t tend to run what I’d consider lethal games, though it’s pretty normal for the PCs to have to retreat if they’ve adopted a bad tactical or strategic approach to engaging with an encounter. I’ve also always seen adventurers as borderline insane, insofar as they tend to run towards dangers that no normal person would ever consider to be reasonable or appropriate. Good adventurers are those that learn to think through an encounter prior to taking it on and, in some cases, recognizing when they’ve gotten themselves in too deep and the ‘adventure’ is figuring out how to extricate themselves with minimal loss of life and limb.
This isn’t to say that I, or any other DM, should or want to just hurl the world at PCs to watch them perish. Instead, it’s to say that unbalanced encounters — where the PCs cannot necessarily win, and have to simply exit the field of battle — are not inherently bad. Of course the PCs still have to succeed routinely enough that they are ‘heroes’ in their own eyes and the eyes of the peasantry/nobles/etc. But always knowing that an encounter is structured so that you can mathematically succeed just isn’t how the world tends to work and, so, I think it’s perfectly OK to develop adventures that are intentionally very dangerous. It’s been my experience that players will usually rise to the challenge and succeed in ways that I’d never considered, and part of the stories they take away from my games is the bizarre and awesome ways that they figured out how to overcome what was mathematically an ‘unbalanced’ encounter.