Skimming the forum, I've noticed that over time there have been quite a few discussions which ultimately relate to combat balance: GMs are either unable to create appropriate challenges for their combat-focussed characters, or they are able to create them, but the threats are found to be excessively lethal to weaker Explorers. I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter, as I hope they might prove useful to a GM or two.
Why Not Simply Introduce Stronger Enemies?
To begin, I'll repeat the point made in that old article on Tucker's Kobolds: Simply scaling up the power level of your enemies to give your players a challenge when they become better-equipped and more experienced quickly becomes dull. When your players realise they are using the same tactics to defeat greater daemons they used to defeat lesser ones the game will turn out to be repetitive and uninteresting. Sure, the higher damage output and resistance may be nice, and may make your players feel all Manly (or Womanly) and Heroic, but they are still repeating the same actions time and time again.
I would add that power scaling can become utterly unrealistic. Grave threats, such as Chaos Space Marines and greater daemons, are rare in the Warhammer 40000 universe. Even experienced Explorers, who will probably delve into more dangerous corners of the universe, would not constantly encounter them. Original Space Marine legions were similar in number to the old Roman legions; greater daemons and daemon princes are the focus of entire story arcs - or campaigns. You should not encounter, say, a Bloodthirster on a random encounter roll except in extremely unusual circumstances.
Of course, there is a place for powerful enemies in campaigns, and can make for a thrilling story. However, what is rare should not become commonplace and power creep should be avoided. Chaos Space Marines do not lurk behind every corner and Yu'Vath Sandslimes do not wait in every vault - not even in every Yu'Vath vault. That way, when they are used to give your players a challenge their presence is all the more poignant. In such a setting, facing the terrors of Burnscour or a Rak'Gol assault will be memorable precisely because enemies of such power are not something the Explorers see constantly.
Weaker Enemies as Threats
Fortunately, you don't need to constantly introduce stronger and stronger enemies to give your players a challenge. Even a simple Imperial Guard or PDF force can be a threat if played properly.
The simplest way create such a threat is to use the horde rules from Black Crusade. That's quite a realistic approach, as it represent the dangers of death by scratch damage and lucky shots. It is also useful, as it forces Explorers to consider the weapons they'll bring along, as not all weapons are equally useful against hordes. However, using hordes is still essentially an approach of power scaling, and hence runs the risk of becoming dull (and has the same heroic factor as introducing stronger enemies).
A better way, but one that requires much more preparation, is to have enemies use tactics. Let's demonstrate the point using the Explorers' enemies as defenders. Imagine an Arch-Militant Explorer, tough as nails, strengthened with bionics, and clad in heavy power armour, armed with a thunder hammer, and bashing a bloody path through PDF rebels. Poor little lasgun-armed soldiers will not be able to stand against him.
However, any PDF regiment worth its salt will have anti-armour weapons at its disposal - and even the best-equipped Explorer will not be able to laugh them off. If the poor little soldiers are backed up with a missile launcher or a lascannon emplacement, the Explorer will be faced with the delectable prospect of 3d10 + 10 Pen 10 hits (krak missiles), or even 5d10 + 10 Pen 10 hits (lascannon fire) - something that can threaten even an Explorer wearing Ironclad Power Armour (9 AP, Into the Storm p. 129-30).
Of course, it is possible to quickly eliminate such an emplacement. But what if there are two (or three) of them, situated far enough apart that the distance between them cannot be covered in a single turn, even without ordinary soldiers bogging you down? In that case, the prospect of the Explorer dying becomes a very real possibility - and that's ignoring the possibility of ordinary soldiers being issued krak grenades (which is, um, common sense) and close-range meltagun support.
And let's not even get into the subject of traps: That Arch-Militant isn't so threatening if he falls down a 20m deep concealed hole. In that case, the enemy can send little Timmy the ammo hauler to dump a basket of melta grenades on him at their leisure. Or they can simply let his armour's power supply fail, leaving him helpless and trapped to die of hunger and thirst.
Clearly, rushing into combat in such a scenario is a really bad idea. There might be a way to win - in fact, there probably should be at least one way to win - but it should probably be more complicated than charging with abandon. Think of it as a puzzle, with skill rolls providing more or less detailed hints to players.
What About The Squishier Explorers?
Of course, heavy weapons will reduce anyone who is not well-armoured to a smear on the ground. But that isn't as much of a problem as one might think. Anti-armour weapons, for example, tend to have small clips and long reload times, so they'll probably focus their fire on the most deserving (heavily-armoured) target unless a compelling reason dictates otherwise, such as a psyker blasting half their squad to pieces.
Furthermore, if lightly-armoured characters are fools enough to wade right into the middle of combat they deserve to be turned into a bloody mist or to have to burn fate points to survive. The Charge of the Light Brigade was a terrible idea, and Explorers who want to replicate that achievement should achieve similar results. Using cover, hiding, and lurking at the edges are good options for such characters.
Fragile Characters in Combat; Wider Influences on Encounters
This approach may appear to unduly penalise characters who are not particularly tough. However, this need not be true. In fact, a well-conceived campaign will require the contributions of every Explorer, combat- and non-combat oriented for things to turn out well for them (or, at least, not too badly; after all, sometimes you just can't win).
For example, a fragile character can still be useful in combat. A psyker's powers may turn the tide of battle by harming enemies or supporting allies. A sniper may eliminate the aforementioned heavy weapon emplacements from a safe distance, improving the Explorers' chances of victory considerably. An infiltrator may sabotage the enemy's automated defences, and in general not particularly tough characters with a high damage output can turn the tide of the battle if used at the right place at the right time.
Fundamentally, this is a question of tactics: A wise group of players will learn how to exploit any weaknesses the enemy has, to use their resources and their environment to their advantage. Often, doing so should contribute to success in a substantial or crucial way, if the game is to represent a challenge.
"Weak" Characters and Combat
However, the question of how combat will turn out does not hinge solely on tactics and dice rolls in combat. Often, the course of the battle - or the war - is decided before battle is even joined. In other cases, non-combat actions may at least substantially influence the difficulty of combat. And this is an area in which Explorers who are not focussed on combat may shine.
First, think of the factors which influence a combat encounter. The first question is who the Explorers are facing. That determines the nature, morale, and equipment the foe has access to. Afterward, assuming the enemy is defending, their alertness level is important: Are they expecting trouble? If so, then patrols and checkpoints will be much more dangerous. Do they expect a specific enemy? Do they expect the Explorers specifically? Are they aware of the Explorers' strengths and weaknesses, and have they adjusted their strategy, tactics, and equipment accordingly?
Of course, not every encounter will involve well-prepared enemies. Encounters with unprepared and poorly-equipped enemies should be pushovers. That is only realistic - but enemies may change tactics when they learn the nature of the threat, a fact which the GM can use against Explorers lulled into a sense of complacency by an easy victory or two. The enemy thinks and adapts: That should be made clear when appropriate.
Non-combat oriented Explorers can undertake a variety of activities to weaken an enemy, apart from contributing what they can in combat. In fact, sometimes a battle should not be winnable without their contribution. An infiltrator might have to bluff/seduce/sneak his or her way into an enemy stronghold to sabotage the automated defence systems, causing them to attack friend and foe alike. A Rogue Trader might have to bribe mercenaries into switching sides to have any hope of victory.
The possibilities are almost endless. To illustrate, let us further develop the preceding example. Suppose the aforementioned assault would take place against a base held by hereteks who are in possession of a valuable STC fragment. Nuking the site from orbit is out of the question, as destroying that fragment would cause the Tech-Priests to blow a fuse, and angering the Machine Cult tends not to be wise (plus, it would mean no profit). Let us assume that a frontal assault would be suicidal, so other options are called for.
In this case, skills possessed by the non-combat characters will be crucial.
A halfway credible assault might be used as a distraction for a team to infiltrate the base and steal the fragment. The Rogue Trader would negotiate with the enemy mercenaries to convince them to switch sides (trading off an increasing share of profit factor from the mission for a bonus on the skill rolls). The Seneschal would enter the base disguised as, perhaps, a merchant, and note its layout.
Afterward, the Arch-Militant could realise (on a successful Scholastic Lore: Tactica Imperialis roll) that the enemy base's layout corresponds to a standard Cerinex-pattern underground modular bastion, and would remember that the pattern is notorious for being susceptible to infiltration. One degree of success might reveal that early versions of the pattern gave the enemy easy access via the sewage pipes, but that this flaw is often addressed by installing automated defence systems and sending gun-servitors to patrol them. Two degrees of success might reveal that reactor coolant tubes tend to offer a better, less-defended means of entry, while three might yield valuable information regarding the conditions within the tubes.
Finally, the Explorator might use Scholastic Lore: Chymistry to synthesise enough nephitic acid to breach the vault, and use a Trade skill to disguise the vials as, say, packets of instant noodles which can be sent to an inside contact recruited by the Seneschal.
Even a successful infiltration will still mean combat, giving the combat-oriented characters a chance to shine - for example, when the vault is breached. After all, the enemy will probably figure out what is happening eventually, and despite the diversion, the interior will not be left unguarded. Plus, the characters might not be as clever as they think they are, and might be walking into a trap… this is a particularly handy option if characters botch their rolls, which could mean, for example, that the Arch-Militant recalls a security flaw but forgets that that specific flaw is often addressed in practice. Oops.
Generally, though, a successful skill roll should not give the players complete solutions. Helpful facts, yes, with more and more detail the more degrees of success they achieve, but the players should have to use their brains, plan, and think, too, shouldn't they?
Even if a frontal assault necessarily has to take place, non-combat skills can play a crucial role in making it winnable. Characters can distract and confuse the enemy, poison them, demoralise them, take over base defences, repair and use artillery and vehicles, and so on.
To summarise, the encounters faced by the Explorers and their chances of victory should be influenced by the Explorers' actions. Certain avenues that explorers take might be far more convenient than others (some might mean almost certain failure, permanent or not). Furthermore, a mandatory encounter can be influenced by preparation and by Explorers' non-combat skills to a greater or lesser extent, as the Game Master wishes.
Particularly canny Game Masters can weave the consequences of tactical and strategic decisions into the wider campaign. To use the previous example, the mercenaries might only agree to switch sides if the Rogue Trader ferries them to another star system. Taking a large number of heavily-armed and utterly unscrupulous mercenaries on board may cause problems, with the mercenaries trying to influence the Rogue Trader's decisions or even attempting to take over the ship. Of course, they might keep their end of the bargain if the outcome of the coup is uncertain and their destination relatively close. Now assume the ship is becalmed by a warp storm for a couple of months…
Types of Skill Rolls; Multiple Solutions
In general, influences on combat can be divided into two types: Crucial and useful. The skill rolls mentioned in the infiltration scenario are crucial: Unless the Explorers create and execute a plan beyond "Charge!" they're not getting the fragment. However, other rolls and actions can make their task easier, but failing to perform them does not render their task impossible. Repairing vehicles and repurposing defence systems, as mentioned before, might be examples of such activities.
The GM should also remember that players are creative: They may come up with a course of action the GM did not foresee. In that case, wing it! Adapt the materials prepared to the new situation, asking for a break if necessary. Nothing becomes dull as quickly as a game in which the GM shoehorns players into one single solution, if they come up with other, equally valid ones. After all, this adaptability is one of the great advantages pen-and-paper RPGs have over computer games…
Impact of Levelling and Equipment
We can also derive the benefits of levelling and equipment from this discussion: As Explorers grow in power, options which were previously unavailable become feasible. Well-trained house troops could make a properly conceived assault a feasible option. Deadlier characters can survive their mistakes more easily, and can choose to fight when weaker Explorers would have to look for other solutions (or flee). Nevertheless, in my view one thing should always remain apparent: The Explorers are not gods. Underestimating the enemy is a good way to ensure failure or swift demise.
A Game Master should not aim to destroy the players. He or she is not their enemy. But the game should remain challenging and interesting. To ensure that, in my view, players have to be challenged, both in terms of combat and otherwise. The victories are much sweeter then, and the campaigns much more memorable. But there is no challenge without the threat of failure, and the players should be aware that recklessness is risky.
Anyway, that's what I have to contribute on the matter. Your thoughts?