This is a story about game balance, improvisation and the power of “sure, why the hell not”.
A long time ago, maybe about ten years back, I ran a Pathfinder campaign for a group of friends. It was an almost entirely homebrew setting, because I was new to the GM life and creating a world from scratch seemed easier than learning about an existing one. The PCs arrived as refugees to a country under siege and were immediately drafted into a ragtag organisation of government-sponsored adventurers, to solve problems around the country and eventually become strong enough to help fight back against the Evil Empire.
But before they could do any of that, they had to complete an initiation: a local ruin had been overrun with kobolds that needed clearing out, and our plucky heroes (who had known each other for all of 10 minutes) were sent in to do it.
Now, I mentioned earlier that I had never run a game before, and I had absolutely no idea how to build an encounter. “If there are 6 players at level 1, and a kobold is CR 1/4, then there should be 24 kobolds in this dungeon!”
I’ll be honest, CR still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but at least I now understand that 24 is too many kobolds for a 1st level party. It was slow going through that dungeon, and absolutely brutal. The kobolds were entrenched, they had cover, and they knew where the traps were. Every square of ground the players gained was a victory in itself. Slowly but surely, they took back that ruin.
And then they found the skeletal crocodile.
I was very happy with this boss encounter I’d written, but seeing how the dungeon crawl was going, I was in two minds over whether or not to run it. But then some of the kobolds got thrown into a pool of water, and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. They disappear as the water turns red, and this massive skeletal monster emerges from the pool. The PCs are nervous, but also reinvigorated by the arrival of something that isn’t more kobolds. They get stuck in. They deal heavy damage, but all of the melee fighters go down in the first few rounds, leaving mostly casters and a rogue.
“I throw my lamp oil at it!” cries one of the players, eyes alight with inspiration. I’m a bit confused, but sure, why the hell not. Roll to hit.
It’s a good roll. The bottle shatters on the skeleton crocodile’s head and soaks it in oil.
“Now I cast Spark!”
Now, Spark’s a cantrip for lighting candles and cigarettes. It’s not a combat spell. But honestly, it’s my first day as GM and I really don’t want a TPK. Sure. Why the hell not. Make a Spellcraft check.
Natural 20. The crocodile explodes like the finale of Jaws. Bits of bone go everywhere. The PCs cheer, celebrate and start dishing out healing spells to their fallen comrades. This surge of adrenaline carries them through the rest of the dungeon with aplomb. The kobolds don’t stand a chance. Their leader, a wizard I spent far too much time creating, dies to a rash of critical hits before ever getting to move.
And even to this day, Skelecroc the Invincible stands for GMs as a cautionary tale on the importance of encounter balance, and for players as an inspiring ballad about the power of “sure, why the hell not.”