Random Musings. Very High Level Adventures. Is “Balance” even possible?

This coming Tuesday (last night when this post is published) I’ll be running the final chapter to my 5 part series: Legends of Shadow World. The last chapter could be a stand alone adventure but is the denouement to the adventure path, typing up a lot of loose threads and presenting the group with an incredibly powerful adversary.

I’ve been parsing some data from the previous 4 sessions and feedback from the other 2 test groups (chapter 1) and will probably run my group through the series again. It won’t have the surprise/reveal elements from their first iteration, but we’ll be able to have a more open analysis during game play.

I’m using RM2 RAW, something I haven’t done for a VERY long time but want to maintain continuity with Terry’s ongoing SW material. The lack of our own house rules (combat maneuvers, multiple opponent rules, missile parry and initiative) makes RM melee feel very restraining. Most players are stuck with simple OB/DB split decision, although this becomes paramount when fighting high level foes.

RM has always been tricky in balancing encounters. DnDs Hit Point attrition system made matching groups and opponents more linear. Rolemaster criticals are the joker in the deck–a wild card that can immediately upend any possible balance a GM designs. This is not to say that the RM rules are broken at higher levels, but there are some immediate issues that are even apparent at lower levels.

  1. Outnumbering. Many, much lower level combatants can overwhelm powerful creatures. A dozen Warrior Monks (15 lvl) annihilated a 50th level character. Easily. The chance of at least 1 in 12 of scoring a potent crit result each round is quite high. Once a PC is compromised by a critical it’s “game over”.
  2. Lack of Buffs. RM2 Spell Law is really lacking in effective buff spells. People have commonly criticized my BASiL and Orhan lists as being too powerful (of course I disagree), but original Spell Law lists are pretty ineffective at high levels.
  3. Spell Attack/Counter Attack. While RM2 melee feels too simplistic, Spell Casters have SO MANY spells to choose from that strategic casting feels arbitrary. (a 50th lvl caster can have 300-500 spells!!)  Casters rarely have the luxury of countering a specific incoming spell, and to do so, would require them to forgo an offensive attack.
  4. Mixed Abilities/Protections. A hostile mixed group of NPC’s can be very deadly to a party. Even a small group comprised of a: creature immune to normal weapons; creature with high magical immunity; creature that is blinding fast, and one that is super strong could decimate a group. Each creature will require a different strategy or spell suite to counter effectively–basically dividing the groups economies of scale.
  5. The well balanced party….just does not work at high levels in RM. One effective critical against the M-U or Cleric will pull the rug from the whole group. Optimally the group needs to be almost all semi-spell users or have magic items that can allow each player to attack/defend/heal independently.

Let me end by saying that my players have had a blast with these high level adventures. They get to play known personalities, utilize spells they only have ever read about in Spell Law, encountered some CRAZY opponents and adventured in very unusual environments.  But no matter how I adjust the encounter levels in these adventures, I’m not sure there can be anything like “Balance”.

8 thoughts on “Random Musings. Very High Level Adventures. Is “Balance” even possible?”

  1. “or have magic items that can allow each player to attack/defend/heal independently” it seems like you would never have made it to that high a level if you could not do this?

  2. Some musings on high level characters. In some ways they could be considered to be apex predators – and apex predators stay that way by never taking on fights they would lose (there’s a reason some of the most dangerous game animals are herbivores).

    So, a high level character, especially an NPC, probably got, and stayed, that way by never fighting fair. Ambushes, minions, doubles, never being where they are believed to be will all make it much harder to kill them.

    Of course, that mentality is pretty much counter to how players work.

  3. I like the fact that outnumbering still matters. No matter how great a swordsman you are, if you’re surrounded by 12 opponents, you should be in a tough spot. That realism aspect was one of the first things that attracted me to Rolemaster (as opposed to DnD, where level 0 or 1 opponents were just never threatening to high level characters). It keeps you on your toes.

    I agree too that some of the buffs are weak. The spell defense ones are especially weak at low levels. Imagine taking a round to cast a spell that gives you +5 to your RR against one Realm of spells. It isn’t even worth it: it is far better to take the round to make an attack, however bad, in the hopes of getting an open-ended roll.

    In regards to the caster/arms divide, I suggested that characters in RMU add their mental focus skill ranks to their RRs (developed separately for each realm of spells). This would mean that higher level arms users could work on their spell defenses, to keep up with the casters increasing bonuses (at a cost in Development Points). It would be an especially viable option for classes like Warrior Monks.

    Other systems have tried to address the central issue you are dealing with– i.e. it is hard to balance high level encounters– and they have not done any better than Rolemaster has. It might just be something you have to accept: the more complexity and the more moving parts, the harder something is to balance. If we want to play high level adventures, we might just have to accept that they are just inherently more likely to be unbalanced.

    1. “we might just have to accept that they are just inherently more likely to be unbalanced” I really like that idea. Taking on an adventure and knowing that the outcome is most likely to be a whitewash by one side or another and no one knows which side. A real take no prisoners and pull no punches adventure.

      What would make a huge difference would be how well the characters know each other and coordinate. An essence caster with rune mastery can add a lot of power to a pure arms user by creating runes especially for them on an planned adventure by adventure basis. A channeler and an essence user could then give any other character access to a range of healing and useful spells.

      I played an illusionist up to about 18th level. During play I always chose the runes that we found over all the other magical items until it became group culture to always give me the runes. The character ended up with nearly 50 sheets of rune paper that could hold up to 9th level spells. I think the typical spell averaged something like 7th level so it was akin to having an additional 350PPs available.

      Characters that have just met are unlikely to start sharing runes and magical items but those with years of collaboration are very likely to.

  4. Great comments.

    1. I think too often balance is derived from a group confronting a single, much more powerful adversary to maintain the continuity of lower level gameplay.
    2. At higher levels, the extremes of battle advantages is IMMEDIATE. The scales tip quickly with critical results. This also happens at lower levels but the consequences are not as consequential? A 5th lvl character killed by a great crit roll is less impactful than a powerful, famous, Loremaster being killed.
    3. Again, “protective magic” ie Buffs, are pretty weak in RM. The focus is clearly on offensive magic (see my upcoming blogs on this…)
    4. Hurin, while overwhelming numbers should make a difference, I was quite surprised about the power curve and the ability of multiple lower level antagonist to overwhelm a superior PC. I thought a dozen 15th would be a good match for a 50th lvl. These were warrior monks, no spells, and decimated their opponents.
    5. Peter. Resource management is critical in this adventure path..but…its only because of an assumed slow or predictable attrition of hits and PP’s. The resources become important between chapters–within chapters it’s usually a single complex encounter. Here, Spell Law FAILS. See my scheduled blogs for problems with high level spells.

    On the plus side, I agree that nothing is BROKEN, just different. As Peter denotes, the tide changes quickly, and all parties are “all in”. This makes high level adventures very suitable for pre-packaged adventures, tourney style events.

  5. I have been thinking of designing a high level nemesis NPC, probably a dragon, but not the usual type of stand up and fight them encounter.

    This would be a long running nemesis, one that players may not even know about at low levels, and may actually work for at some point.

    The dragon would have spent a lifetime collecting magic that it could use, buying, stealing, commissioning or otherwise obtaining it (in D&D, ioun stones and pearls of power are a great choice). This would be done by agents that don’t even know who they are working for. The players could get involved at this point when they either have an item stolen or are hired to steal one.

    The dragon may have set up a cult of devoted followers, although it may never directly interact with them.

    As players get more powerful, the dragon could hire them to take out a rival. Either the rival dies or the characters do; a win either way for it, as the latter removes a different type of potential threat.

    Even in its own layer what appears to be the dragon is another creature, perhaps another, less powerful, dragon, that has been charmed, dominated or whatever, that is the first thing faced. So even when the dragon is believed to be dead, it isn’t.

    Many attacks against the players might be indirect. Assassination attempts, destruction of property, smear campaigns and the like.

    1. I like the idea of having the nemesis being an organisation rather than an individual. Imagine if the players crossed an entire order of monks or upset the illuminanti. The organisation could set up no end of trouble for the characters from low level to high level and the more the characters are successful the greater the desire for the organisation to destroy them.

      At first they may nothing about the organisation but they may realise that they keep fighting people who bear the same tattoo on their necks. That can eventually lead to identifying the organisation and a more open war between players and villains before a final showdown champions vs champions.

      1. I was sort of thinking that the NPC would have an organisation working for them, or maybe several, in the style of Blofeld.

        There is a heck of a lot of damage that you can do to a character and their reputation indirectly, especially in the modern age when people believe what their databases tell them.

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