Couple of years back I bumped into this video:
If you don’t care to watch it, I fully understand. The basic message is this:
During the time it takes for you characters to rise one level, they should encounter the following:
1 easy combat encounter,
3 standard combat encounters,
1 hard combat encounter,
1 very hard combat encounter,
2 skill challenges, and
2 roleplaying challenges.
I guess this is one model. I guess its fine based on it being “Dungeon Master Tips”, not general GMing tips, but I do find it a bit strange that someone can make this specific plans. I guess its possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of people DMing with rules just like this they have set for themselves. Maybe this is even in the DMG. I’ve certainly not read it since the 2nd edition.
Well, as flawed as it is, its good enough basis for what we’re going to do here today. And what we’re doing is math.
How dangerous should these combats actually be?
First, I’m simplifying this quite a bit. Failed skill or roleplaying challenges might very well lead into combat, but I’m not taking that into account. Also, often if a character dies, and the GM is not fudging dice, the probability of another character dying grows quite a bit. Also, we’re not taking into account the cumulative effects of combat, where each successive combat will be more difficult just on the basis of attrition as the players lose resources on each combat (spells, hit points, one use magic items, ammunition and so forth). Also, you can reduce your chances of death by playing up your strengths and / or staying away from hazards, which we’re not going to account for, because we can assume that if the GM wants the combat be of certain difficulty, he will adjust the situation and his tactics to accordingly.
So, taking all that into account, lets assume each of teh four levels of combat (easy, standard, hard, very hard) have the following risk of death for an individual character:
Very hard: 0.2
If we go with the number of each type of combat given above, our hero’s chances of death during this period is:
1 – ((1 – 0.01)^1 * (1 – 0.05)^3 * (1 – 0.1)^1 * (1 – 0.2)^1) = 0.388863 or almost 40%.
Most GMs probably don’t think this through, but that is pretty high. I guess in some games (such as most Savage Worlds games) this is part of the game, but you wouldn’t want this much risk in most games. Therefore, to keep the characters alive (without fudging the dice) the GM must bring down the risks involved in each encounter quite a bit.
Well, this is the key, if you want to run this kind of games. Make the situations feel dangerous, without actually making them so. A single hidden orcish crossbowman in a good position feels much more dangerous than a dozen orcish warriors in the open. Sure, this has been done for a very long time, but generally balancing these things is hard and poorly done in old modules.
One more problem is that making correct calculations of the actual probability of death is very, very hard in most systems, due to number of factors, but you can always test, if you have the time. If you actually make notes on these things and analyze, your ability to estimate will be much better over time.