Okay. Here you are with this great adventure that you have just written. It has a tight plot, great introduction, build-up, super climax, and a happily every after resolution. For a bonus, you have even thrown in a small encounter to introduce the next adventure and have a couple of whodunit plot twists throughout the adventure. Now you are ready to run your players through it and get a pat on the back for an excellent time at the game table.
But wait a minute. How is the balance of your adventure? What I mean by balance is this: Are your second level characters going to be able to make it through the greatest adventure that ever was? You can write a great adventure using all of the elements that I mentioned above but if the adventure is not balanced, no plot twist is going to prevent the frustration of your players when they get wiped out on the first encounter. This in turn will result in a lack of interest for more of your adventures.
As the GM of your game, you have the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the game. What you want to achieve when you write an adventure is for the players to go away with a sense of accomplishment. Too hard and they could get frustrated and give up. If the adventure is too easy they will quickly lose interest in the game. We as GMs have to excite, scare, humble, and mystify the players during our games. This is most easily accomplished with the right type of creatures with the right amount of power to combat the players. Here are some tips for creating balance while you are writing out your adventure and tips to ensure that balanced is maintained during the course of the adventure.
Most of your work regarding balance is going to happen while you write your adventure out. After you have a basic idea of how the main story line and encounters are going to happen, go back through the entire adventure and fill in the NPC’s. On average most of these encounters are going to resolve in combat. The use of fascinating and deadly creatures is what we all want, just make sure that your players are powerful enough to handle it.
I determine balance by taking the experience level of all the characters and adding them up (if your players don’t go by experience levels use whatever measure your game system has to show the greatness of power for your players, for example beginner, intermediate, veteran, etc). So if I have four players and each of their characters are second level the total number for the players would be the number eight. I would then make sure that the total number levels for all monsters during an encounter would be eight, so that it matches the players' total experience levels. So for an encounter I would write in two fourth-level monsters, or eight first-level monsters, or one eight-level monster. Take into account if the monster has some special ability that the players don’t (fire breathing, or four attacks to the players one attack) The total number of levels for the monsters should be lessened. So a monster that breathed fire would be about fifth or sixth level compared to the player’s total of eight. As you play longer with the same group of players you will get a feel for what they can handle and what is too much for them. Till then, this is a good guideline to get you started.
Sometimes, throughout the game, players are just too weak for what comes at them. Maybe you, the GM, just have incredible dice rolls, or your players have bad luck that night. If this should happen to you the last thing that is going to make your adventure a success is killing everyone off. I have nothing against a hero meeting a heroic end, but having an entire party wiped out in one encounter is bad GMing and should not happen, even if the players make a couple of foolish mistakes. Someone should live to tell the tale and educate future characters the players will have. The above guideline about balancing experience levels is a good general rule, but raise and lower it according to the needs of the game.
If your monsters are out of balance while you are going through your adventure, there are two ways to handle it. If the opposition is too tough for the players, you can make all of the monsters' damage rolls only half of their true values, so instead of causing ten points of damage, the wolves only cause five points of damage. If you don’t want to do this, you can just make the number of monsters per encounter half of what they are suppose to be. Thus, instead of eight wolves attacking the party, just four spring to the attack. Inversely, if the encounters that you have chosen are just too easy for the players, you can double the number of creatures that they run across - two vampires attacking the players instead of just one. If this just won’t fit into your game, you can double the damage that each successful attack hits the players, so instead of the vampire hitting the players for twelve damage, he hits the players for twenty-four damage.
Balance is essential during your games and you should try to balance your adventures as much as possible while you are in the writing stages to save time on the gaming table. Players are supposed to meet tough opposition, but it also has to be fair to them. There are going to be times when you have to fudge rolls and numbers of encounters to create balance during the game - you will know when the time is right. You can use the above tips for when you don’t have time to write out your own adventure either. If you buy an adventure at your local hobby shop go through it and make sure that nothing is too tough, or too easy, for your players to handle. If it is, just make the appropriate change and mark it down so that you will remember. Remember, these are just guidelines so if someone else has a better way to do it please tell us about it in the forum. Now go and hit 'em with a dragon GM! Enjoy.