Tips for balancing combat

I’m struggling to make sure my interactions (bombat or social) are at the right difficulty level. I’ve been making things too easy, which isn’t terrible, and better than the alternative… but I’d like to get it better balanced. What are people’s best practices and rules of thumbs for designing challenges that are at the right level?

Thanks all!

Well the first thing is: there is no balance, so to speak.

What there is would be honesty to the fiction.

Remember that when you’re playing Blades (or any FitD game), you’re playing fiction first. You start with the fiction an utilize:

  • What is going on?
  • What is the character doing?
  • How are they doing it?
  • What is their intent?

… to figure out:

  • If a player facing mechanic is needed
  • Which specific player facing mechanic is needed
  • How that player facing mechanic returns you back into the fiction to set up for stuff going forward.

The decisions made on the part of the GM about how to work with the table to adjudicate the player facing mechanics are all made in the context of the GM’s framework: Goals, Principles, and Best Practices- chief among them: Portray the fictional world honestly.

So guess what? If you shoot a normal human with a gun- and I don’t care what the “Quality Level” of the gun is- that person is gonna die. If you get into a Skirmish with a normal human and the intent is for one side to murder the other and both have the means to do so… after the dice roll? Someone is gonna be dead (or at least close to it).

So if PCs are regularly “winning” fights because there is very little need to deviate from the default state of “Risky/ Standard”- where the Standard Effect in the fiction is beating their opposition- then yeah… that’s portraying the fiction honestly!

The things that’ll make combat “challenging” so to speak would be:

  • Too many people to fight all by your lonesome. This impacts how safe it is (worse Position from the default of Risky) and how much you’ll get out of it (reduced Effect from Standard).
  • Being severely harmed by someone with better gear than you (worse Position from the default of Risky) and/ or them also having defensive gear far more protective than what your Gear can actually do to them (reduced Effect from the default of Standard)
  • Being in a “simple” fight where a sensible Consequence could be the prolongation of said fight into something worse (It was Risky/ Standard- where Standard would have been “you beat them”- but the Risk was “you’re gonna get hurt and you won’t kill them, giving them an opportunity to flee, get help, etc.). So on a 4/5, you get some level of Effect… but only Limited (that was a Consequence- so it can be Resisted!), so you wound them- but you don’t kill them and now we’re snowballing into some fiction that could include them running away, getting some help, or maybe luring the PC(s) into a trap.
  • One really big or otherwise scary or otherwise tough NPC. Not only is there no way in hell they can be brought down by a single dice roll- but you probably won’t be all that Effective trying to Harm them… you’re going to have to work on it little bits at a time, and it won’t make much fictional sense for it to be “I hit them rolls dice… okay, I get hit too… but I hit ‘em again! rolls dice… and I hit ‘em again!” In this instance, we zoom in on the fight and a lot of things can mean progress towards winning the fight. Getting into a better position to fight, taking away their fictional permissions (like their weapons), observing them for a weakness, etc. All these steps- and more- and work to the progress of beating this much tougher threat. For such things, Clocks may be an efficient way to keep track of all the bits and bobs to fill up the Clock (which is why it is often best not to suggest the exact outcome of Clock completion for an obstacle through the name of the Clock. “Lotus Assassins Die” suggests only one outcome of the Clock. “Lotus Assassins Stopped” or “Lotus Assassins” is far more open and lends itself to more interesting fiction). The Clock is only there to track progress. It doesn’t change any mechanics as they lead to the fiction. You don’t just get “2 Ticks in the Clock,” rather: “You observe through your Study that the Lotus Assassins do have this immense speed and reaction… but with your keen eyes, you notice that the eye shadow they’re wearing is slowly fading with each swift movement. It appears it may be w chemical granting them some sort of paranormal timing and perception. Of course, there’s a Consequence that involves one of them getting behind you, grappling you, and trying to jab a knife into your neck. So, I think we can say with the Limited Effect of information- this alchemical they have and what it may do for them… although you don’t know yet how to overcome it, which may have been Standard Effect- can be represented as 1 tick on the Clock against the Lotus Assassins, yeah?” Always end in the fiction and let it lead you to the next scene! You may find for particularly tough foes with particularly challenging fictional permissions that- if you want to zoom into that fight- those individual fictional permissions may have smaller Clocks of their own: a 4 Clock to Disarm their arcanely attached weapon, a 6 Clock to undo the paranormal warding around them, etc… or you could just remain “zoomed out” and not worry about the fictional complexity of disarming them or undoing their otherworldly protection and just “wrap that up” into a larger Clock that represents them overall as a complex obstacle.
  • For such Complex Foes, it may also be prudent to consider them especially masterful NPCs, so they can just inflict consequences before the PCs can really do anything! “Yeah, Dirge- the badass Assassin of Nightmares- tosses their razor brimmed conical hat and you and you suffer Level 2 Harm as it tears right through the tendons in your shoulder. She’s pulling out her repeating pistols now and getting ready to fill you with Lead. Wanna Resist that Harm first or suck it up and try to stop Dirge from harming you any further”
  • For both sizable forces and/ or for very singularly powerful NPCs (likely really powerful Ghosts, Demons, etc.), you could honestly “Zoom Out” if you don’t want to get too detailed in the fight. It may not be compelling enough to worry about. So just resolve it in one roll, but use Position and Effect accordingly (it’ll probably be Desperate and start with Zero Effect… probably not all that different if we were kicking off a more “zoomed in” fight” too!)

The thing to consider here is: the PCs are going to win the fight like 8-9/10 times. They’re the PCs. They’re the badass Scoundrels. Blades is not a game of “Will they get what they want?” but rather, “They’ll get what they want… what’ll it Cost ‘em?” I don’t look at a Fight as:

  • “Did the PCs lose?”
  • “How much Harm did they take?”

… but rather:

  • “How much Stress did it take to survive and win that fight?”
  • “What collateral damage will this cause?”
  • “Who would they/ will they have pissed off here for future problems down the road?”
  • Etc.

Those are the more interesting outcomes and fallout for fights rather than “Easy/ Hard” or “Win/ Lose”- but rather: “What is the Cost?” There’s always a Cost. Even if they got nothing but Crits… there’s always the fictionally appropriate Cost of (potentially unwanted) attention from more powerful foes looking at the PCs with a sense of distrust and caution.

Other considerations:

  • You’ll be surprised at how many fights are best resolved with 1 dice roll and just have “Standard Effect” represent victory in the fight.
  • If you’re going to throw Limited Effect at them from the start or level it as a Consequence, make sure it is fictionally appropriate and prudently judge how the situation has changed going forward. Is pressing on in the fight still viable here? What new risks are present? Are they at Standard Effect now? Or is Skirmishing just not fictionally possible at the moment until something else takes place?
  • Make sure you aren’t just leveling Limited Effect at them solely based on the so called “Effect Factor” of Tier. I don’t care if the PCs are Tier 1 and have “Quality 1 Guns.” If they bring those guns to bear on unsuspecting foes- even if they come from a Tier II faction… that PC should not lose their effectiveness. People aren’t Tier. Their Gear Quality is roughly based off that Tier and not everyone is toting around in their best quality gear all the time (nor is that high quality gear a “standard” for everyone in the faction). Even if they do have better Gear… is the Gear so darn protective here as to warrant “getting in the way of Default Standard Effect?” Possibly not. It may be so damn dangerous, however… so probably a worse Position!
  • A dice roll usually represents entire sequences of fighting. Sometimes it’ll be for the small stuff, but not very often are we so “Zoomed in” that it becomes blow by blow combat
  • A 5 or less should hurt accordingly to their Position. Harm is pretty boring, so I try to stay away from that- but if it really is going to be the most sensible Consequence: make it hurt. Desperate Position? Level 3 Harm. But other things are sensible too! Break their stuff! They’ll get it back probably after Downtime (or perhaps they’ll need to spend 1 DTA just to “fix” it or perhaps a Long Term Project if severely lost). Throw some Heat at them! Cause collateral damage and see how that causes more fallout! Etc.

The bottom line is, again, try not to think about “Easy/ Hard” or “Win/ Lose.” Think in terms of Cost. Even the best sequences of fighting. Even the best scores that involved little to no violence of “in the moment fallout” will have fallout! It may just be in the form of the “mandatory” Entanglement… but it may be more than that too!

Hope that makes sense and hopefully that helps!

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I almost hate to throw two cents after @Sully5443 's fantastic answer - but I have been discussing a similar topic with my 14-year-old son who has decided to run BitD, and it seems relevant.
The question I asked him to consider was, How many challenges can a crew face before they start really suffering? Or in terms of Sully’s explanation, each combat has a cost and these costs are cumulative.
Some challenges cost stress, some cost harm, some cost contacts, some cost equipment checkmarks - and although each challenge may be relatively low-cost, at some point, the crew reaches a breaking point - no equipment left, little stress left, harm boxes filling up, etc. Not every score needs to take them to the breaking point, but if none of your players are worried, consider adding another challenge early on to burn through some of those resources.

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@Sully5443, I mean… wow. I was hoping for a few bullets of tips on how to estimate the right number of clocks… instead I get a masterclass lesson.

Wow.

Lots to think on. Thank you very kindly.

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Thank you @Sudsy! As I am not a master storyteller yet, I struggle with how to give the player a challenge that is fun for them. I recently overcorrected and robbed my players of agency (doh!). Now I’m trying to have a looser view of the encounters and to dynamically throw in help/obstacles to keep the feelings moving up and down, but to always be on the side of the players.

A lot to think on.

Thanks all!

As well as the very thoughtful replies above, I have a few crude rules-of-thumb that I fall back on.

1. Put a clock on the table. A 6-clock is a decent default.
A 6-clock will take three successful rolls at standard effect - more rolls if they fail, less rolls if they push for effect or whatever. Not every roll will be against the obstacle clock; hopefully there are other things going on at the same time. For example, from our game of Scum & Villainy last night, the PCs were fighting a patrol of battle droids at the same time as they placed thermal detonators at the same time as they tried to steal some precious cargo before time ran out. Phew! A lot going on. Only some of the rolls at any given time were against the “battle droids” clock. For our table and with the session lengths I prefer, I find that a 6-clock gives pretty good pacing. I might use a bigger clock for a really climactic moment.

2. Have a consequence-buffer clock.
I like to always have an “impending doom” clock on the table during a score. This adds tension to every roll and all proceedings, without actually snowballing handicaps (which is what harm and using up resources etc tend to do). The PCs can never quite relax, even when things are going smoothly, when there’s an impending doom clock in front of them. It’s also a good fallback for devil’s bargains (tick the clock) and for consequences when I can’t think of anything else (ticking a doom clock is less punitive than harm). Examples of impending doom clocks include the alarm being sounded, back-up arriving in full force, the reactor exploding, the hostages being killed, etc etc. Something bad that will seriously jeopardise the mission; stakes that aren’t just “the PCs get hurt or die”. The most important part - if the clock completes, follow through on the threat.

3. To contradict the above, not everything needs a clock.
Clocks are a pacing mechanism. By giving an obstacle a clock, it’s going to take up time on screen and become a proper story-beat. You have to follow your instincts about whether any given obstacle deserves a clock or not; not everything does. This really has to be instinctual, since it’s a question of how long your session is, how far through you are, what has happened so far in the score - it’s purely a question of pacing. If things are going too fast and feel weightless and easy, put an obstacle clock in. If things are getting bogged down and feel slow, don’t use a clock and let a single roll carry forwards through a few story beats.

If all else fails and the game still feels too easy, use those partial successes and failures to try and get them into a desperate position (they can only resist this so many times, and in my experience players don’t care so much about resisting position-changes anyway). Once the PCs are in a desperate position, the game becomes very punishing! And, in my opinion, very fun. Having said that, once they’ve had a taste of desperate consequences I usually let them climb out without too much fuss. As you said, over-compensating and being too punishing isn’t much fun either, and desperate consequences really snowball.

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Goodness me Sully, are you secretly John Harper? Your insights are amazing! Love the idea of longer term payoffs rather than just giving out Harm all the time.

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Haha, no undercover operations here, I’m afraid! Nonetheless, happy to be of help! Took me a while myself to see how the long term problems tend to be more interesting than just leveling Harm at the PCs- especially when those same problems ought to manifest naturally regardless of what a PC rolls “in the moment.” Things eventually will crop up given enough time!

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