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Atomic Encounters

Someone asked for help balancing an encounter (“I’m a DM, the fighter in the group has plate armor now, how do I buff the skeletons in the cellar?”) and I replied:

Don’t buff monsters to match the player characters. It’s too late choose Paper after seeing Rock. Let the players have their win. Or loss. Just let whatever happen happen. Trust in the game.

A few hours after posting that, I thought of something that made their question seem a whole lot more legitimate.

There is a set of principles where tweaking difficulties of encounters to make them a more even challenge for the players would be legitimate:

Seeing encounters, or scenes, as atomic.

Fate Core is explicitly set up this way (pp 232–238): the larger goings-on are improvised but you create each “scene” to answer a specific question, and then you play out each scene.

So a GM that uses that structure could legitimately want to add the pack tactics trait to the skeletons, or calculate the player characters’ and their opposition’s bash-o-matic values, and then commit to them before the encounter is played out (but, and this is unblorby, but legit in this “encounters are atomic” play style, to commit to them after an encounter is, uh, “initiated”—after the players have said “we go down to the cellar”).

In Fate, every skill work the exact same way, they’re ultimately replaceable “flavor text” pasted on top of the four main actions (or “moves”) in that game (“Overcome”, “Create an Advantage”, “Attack” and “Defend”) and this is why skill-less, aspect-only play can work, or things like the “approaches” instead of skills.

In D&D, the challenge is how can you be the best fighter, the best wizard, the best rogue? (“I better bring extra rations on this mission, and make sure I’m proficient with lockpicking because I think there might be locked doors there.”)

Fate is different; it is about telling a story about the characters; how do their inner demons compel them to fail? The challenge isn’t selecting the right tools for the job, the challenge is how to become the best “author” or narrator; “and then Alice flips over the book case and set it on fire!” Small cuts on HP (on the stress track) is secondary to narrating up situations where “fate” escalate until the villain is ultimately victorious or defeated by an overturned, burning book case. It’s all run on “narrativium”.

(Nerdy aside: 5e brought to D&D from Fate a consistent adjudication of fictional positioning (i.e. adv/disad) and rewarding being compelled by flaws (i.e. insp) but it didn’t replace the NPC’s HP econ with an extrinsic “fate” econ.)

It’s not difficult to create “the fastest gun in the west” in Fate or otherwise superlative characters. That’s not the challenge in that game. It’s about what will happen to those characters? What will happen when the master lockpick meets an unpickable lock? Etc.

“Carol picked up the plate armor, which came in handy because that skeleton fight was a very even fight even with the plate armor” ← that is the stuff of narrativium and storyism. Chekhov’s plate! If there is a plate it needs to become exactly clutch, and/or aristotelianically ironically insufficient!

The Fair Fight

It’s not just narrativium & storyism that could drive a design into being based on atomic encounters. Some people just think that a fair fight is something interesting in and of itself. A fight that’s a little lopsided, like a fighter with plate vs some skellies, isn’t as interesting as a fight where the outcome is even more uncertain.

Your players expectations of how the game is set up is key here.

They wouldn’t’ve bothered with the plate if they thought the effects of the plate would’ve been nullified by buffed monsters in the future.

The “scenes are atomic” playstyle as proposed by Fate works well with a “fail forward” approach, but that approach might not match every D&D player’s expectations. They might not have bothered becoming proficient in lockpicks if they knew they could just “fail forward” past that locked door anyway.

In blorb, once they say “We go down into the cellar” it’s too late to mess with what’s down there. The blorb play style is a little bit more “zoomed out” in what it considers “a fair fight”—the entire house is one big, multi-session “encounter”. Fractally, maybe the entire city is.

The Flagging Dilemma

The “atomic encounters” play style is susceptible to the “flagging” dilemma. Does giving a character a high lockpicking skill mean:

The same input (“Alice has a high lockpicking skill”) leads to opposite conclusions! In the tradition of game play that Fate is a part of, it’s common to see players choose high skills for either of those two reasons—sometimes on the same character sheet!