So my DF game doesn't feature encounter balance.
I even said so straight out, a while back (admittedly, a couple years after we got underway initially.)
"3) Don’t assume you can beat any monster you can encounter. Game balance is for rewards, not challenges."
PC Tips for my GURPS DF Game (inspired by the OSR Primer)
I realize that might seem like railing against "encounter level" and all of that. But that post-dates my D&D play. I can't really rail against it, it's just something I know exists but don't really have a handle on using beyond, "ask someone who knows the games that use it." It's more like warning people it's not a video game. Or even early-edition D&D and AD&D, where mostly the 1st level of dungeons meant for 1st level characters have 1st level monsters (and some 2nd, and some 3rd.) Foes don't scale, foes aren't set to provide a winnable fight (not exactly), and foes aren't set in a gamey way. That's intentionally unlike my experience, where you might have had one ogre or a nest of bugbears in your low-level module but you weren't going to have a mass of giants or a nest of a dozen basilisks - nor the opposite in a place aimed at higher-level play except as an annoyance or time-waster.
To that end, I made the dungeon challenging right from the word go.
I put a trio of trolls on the first level. Worthy foes for DF level characters, murder on weaker sorts - and DF level characters start out as respectable heroes. I put a demon lord who wanders around level 2 pretty often. A pack of wights, each one of which was a match for a single hero. Monsters that needed magic weapons to hit when no one had any. A boss-level fight in one area of level one. A dragon in a cave easily accessible right away. Thirty-three smart and well-equipped draugr off stairs off of level 2, right close to a medusa's lair and some flame lords.
It gets worse, mostly, as you go down further.
I didn't really attempt to balance these, per se. I did make sure mostly encounters scale to the depth of the dungeon - for an old-school tabletop and video game feel - but then rolled on a table and let luck decide what the actual challenge level was.
Yes, I said challenge level. I didn't table out all of the monsters, I just tabled out if they were fodder, worthy, or boss (many = 1 delver, one = 1 delver, one = many delvers, respectively) and then picked things that I felt fit. One boss turned out to be an electric jellyfish. One worthy plus a boss turned out to be more than a dozen wights and an unholy cleric wight leader. Turned out because I picked ones I felt matched the power level. Sometimes things turned out to be pushovers. Sometimes lethal beyond expectations. Sometimes middle of the road.
I do expect people to solve a majority of these challenges from the dwellers using violence. It's that kind of game.* A good chunk won't negotiate, a good chunk can't, many are in the end opposed to what the PCs are coming for (their lives and their wealth.) That's far from saying I expect the PCs to win all of the fights. It's up to them to make that happen and to decide what is to be fought and what to be talked to and what to be avoided.
That's in line with my "Problems but not Solutions " approach. I don't really know how to deal with the situations. I put them in, and let the players draw on their own playing skill and their character's abilities to take care of them.
All of that said, it can be hard to come from a background mix of:
- video games, which are all about balanced fights, scaled encounters, and puzzles with pre-set solutions. And where talking is a second-rate way to deal with anything except scripted "talk or die" encounters.
- mostly AD&D-based play, where published materials and rulebook encounter charts push lower-level foes onto lower-level characters and scale it all up as you go.
- my own GURPS games where violence was a solution, but the goal wasn't looting dungeons, monsters were only fought if they stood between you and a specific larger objective and couldn't be avoided, and money was a tool not a raison d'etra of play.**
- other people's games run who knows how.
Put that into a game where violence really does solve things, violence might be part of your specific goals or a tool to get to them, fights are an integral part of the fun, and looting is the way you keep score . . . and it needed to be spelled out what I was thinking. No scaling - some fights will be easy, some aren't even ones you should try. No balance - some monsters are tough but poor, some weak and wealthy, some neither. Not even the groovy N/scale from DFA1 so you can have a nice play-through of an adventure with variable group size.
So every once in a whole someone remarks about how X or Y is because of the assumption of balanced encounters. Or my players joke, "He must be a level 2 demon lord if he's on level 2." An so on. It's really trying to ram the square peg of DF Felltower - based on a personal set of choices and a GURPS-informed eye to what's appropriate - into the round hole of the D&D gaming lineage that runs right through video games and back out. It's not - it's really a lot more messy than all of that, and a lot simpler. It's just a hole in the ground full of treasure, which generally goes up as you go deeper, filled with monsters, which generally get harder as you go deeper. And lots and lots of exceptions to that "generally."
* Look here and scroll down to "most exciting part." Holmes knew combat was fun, too.
** True story, I gave the PCs something like $500,000 in one big spendable lump. Maybe it was $1,000,000+, I need to look. In a game where $1,000 was starting wealth for a middle-class adventurer type. Why? Because it was just a tool they could use to impose their will on the world, so it wasn't like anyone was going to retire and let the BBEG they'd set into action take over the world.
Spoiler alert: He did anyway. Tactical choices matter.