Just Add Water (Game Master Roundtable of Doom #7)

This month’s topic is courtesy of John Marvin at Dread Unicorn Games:

How do you scale encounters for a smaller or larger group than you had planned on. Or than the published adventure planned on? What works, and what does not? Do different systems affect how you scale? And what about fish? They have scales.

Well, some fish have scales.  Some don’t.  Catfish.  Loaches.  Sharks.  Sharkskin is actually composed of tiny teeth.  How cool is that?!

Well, he asked.

Ok, lets just get that last part of the question out of the way.  OF COURSE system matters!  Me telling you to adjust an opponent’s Health Track by a point or two, or make it a Threat 2 minion band isn’t going to do you one bit if you’re playing D&D or Savage Worlds, no more than you telling me to give my villain an extra “kicker” is going to help me if I’m not playing Hackmaster.

But there are some universal principles behind it all.

The Economy of Scale
The principle of scaling combat to larger and smaller groups is actually VERY simple: how many opportunities do you want for the PCs to get hurt/lose resources/suffer complications?  Complexity of the system really isn’t an obstacle in this matter.  Once you have a grasp on the “odds” in combat, scaling encounters to the group becomes rather elementary.  You just need to consider the dials the game system offers to do this.

For example, if a single bad guys have roughly a 25% chance to score hit each round, you can assume that it is going to hit the target at least once every four or five exchanges.  By that measure, if a player is facing off against four of these opponents, you can weigh odds that the PC will suffer damage at least once a round.  However, if a single bad guy gets multiple chances to hit each round (claw/claw/bite), even at 25%, the odds a PC is going to take damage each round goes up accordingly.

In the first instance, a single combatant with a single attack, scaling is a matter of increasing or decreasing the number of combatants.  In the second, adjusting the Health/Hit Points/Toughness (relative ability to stay in the fight) is probably the way to go.  And sometimes the best option is to give the single combatant a wider range of attacks (Two attacks a round, or a “zone” attack – like Sweep in SW, or Grand Fury or an Aura in Witch Hunter).

Consider the intent of the encounter.  Is it to make the players feel like badasses and get their juices pumping, or is it to make them sweat?  Going back to the previous discussion, will death be awesome or lame?

Feng Shui, 7th Sea, Witch Hunter and plenty of other games have mechanics to support throwing bucketloads of opponents against the PCs with minimal threat to their survival.  Savage Worlds is designed to make handling large scale skirmishes quick with minimal bookkeeping, but gang up bonuses and the threat of a lucky damage roll keep the players on their toes.  DnD, depending on the edition, can handle different levels of melee as well.

For dramatic encounters, adding combatants and dialing down Health/Hit Points/Toughness seems to work better.  As long as there is a reasonable chance for the players to take a few hits, I’d rather get it down fast and move along to the next encounter.  For smaller groups, you’ll want to reduce the number of combatants, but give them a small boost in Health/HP/Toughness.  This increase in staying power balances the reduced odds of a damaging attack.

Spellcasters and Leaders
When spell casting is a factor in combat, its a good strategy to keep additional combatants on hand to give them trouble.  For one thing, it forces the martial characters to devote more resources to protecting their artillery, thus turning their attention away from opposition leaders (more on them in a minute).  Also, since many damaging spells affect a zone or area, you want to balance out the spellcaster’s ability to take out multiple opponents in a single round (the same principle as giving combatants a “zone” of attack).

“Leaders” are adversaries that enhance the mob’s ability to stay engaged.  In D&D, this could be a morale bonus.  In SW, Leadership Edges.  Never let everything ride on a single “leader” in the group.  Even with a reduced number of players, its better to have two leaders (with reduced staying power) for a smaller mob.  If you have a larger group, same principle as above applies: its better to have 1 more with reduced health than 1 less with increased health.  Having multiple leaders forces the players to make choices.  It also prevents them from locking down any special capabilities they have.  The presence of multiple leaders can often be just as effective (sometimes more) of boosting the staying power of the rank and file through Health/HP/Toughness bumps.

Keep in mind, spell casters are NOT the same thing as leaders.

Solo Adversaries
Single monsters against a group are tough.  You want it to be vulnerable enough that the players don’t feel they are beating their heads against a wall, but not so much that it isn’t a sustained threat.  Here, you really can’t dial the numbers up or down, so the you have to reinforce the beastie.

With solo adversaries, we really need to focus on their “range” of attack. How many PCs can the beastie target in a single round?  One? Two? Three? Everyone in melee range? Everyone in a zone or area?  If the beastie’s attack range is limited to one or two targets each round, you want to increase its staying power by adjusting Health/HP/Toughness.  You want it to stick around longer so it can spread the pain around.  If the beastie has a wide attack range (Sweep Edge for SW, Grand Fury or Aura damage for WH, Great Cleave or similar Feat for DnD), this takes care of itself.

Does the solo have a single devastating attack?  How often can the dragon use its breath weapon?  How often can that wvyern drop you from 60 feet?  How often can Oonga rend?  Take that into consideration as well.  If it’s every other round, that’s going to be a big factor.  If it takes 3-4 rounds to set it up, then not so much.  In the latter case, it may get a chance to do this once.  After that, you can bet the players, however many or few there are, will do everything in their power to lock that bad boy down so it can’t do it again.

And now…the nitty gritty system specific stuff!


  • For a single foe that needs to go toe to toe with multiple opponents, give it the Grand Fury Talent.
  • Durability (Corpus Power) is a good way to give a bad guy A LOT more staying power.
  • Likewise, the Rampage (Cursus) Power lets the villain ignore those pesky injury modifiers, which eliminates the death spiral effect.
  • Dial the adversary’s health track up or down accordingly.  Between 5 and 7 is usually average.  Dialing it down to 3 or 4 makes it a quick fight but with plenty of teeth.
  • Don’t discount minions.  They hit hard!  5 Threat 2 minions will roll 10 dice, plus any extra bonuses for attack and damage.  That’s a lot of potential damage when you factor in bonus successes to hit.  Remember, most characters will have a 3 Avoidance at best.
    • My rule of thumb with minions is they are most effective in bands of 3+ per PC.
    • Minions loose effectiveness exponentially, so reshuffle them as necessary to maximize their effectiveness.  Always try to keep them in groups of 3+ as long as possible.


  • A good rule of thumb for SW is usually 1-2 adversaries per PC.  This lets them us a gang up bonus, and spreads out the PC’s attack options (unless they have Sweep).
  • You can turn a wild card villain into a “henchman” (a setting rule in many savage settings): they roll a wild die, but are up, down or out like extras.  This is a good way of dialing them down for smaller groups or for faster combat without reducing their effectiveness.  That wild die makes a different!
  • Bumping an adversary’s Toughness over 9 will make it significantly harder to take down.  This applies to extras as well.  However, a Parry of 5 or less is going to increase the likelihood of bonus damage (+1d6) for the PC.  You can use the two together to make more dynamic fights for small groups.  This combination is going to be a bit less frustrating than high Parry (hard to hit)/low Toughness (easy to hurt) foes because the players roll more dice which means better odds of acing (which is fun!).

Curious what others have to say on this topic?

And while not technically part of the round table, no less weighty:

H+I Encounter Scaling (Bren/Gaston’s Hat)

Missed the Previous Topic?  Here’s a link!

Interested in adding your voice to this cacophony of thought?  It’s easy to join the chorus.


3 thoughts on “Just Add Water (Game Master Roundtable of Doom #7)

  1. Pingback: Roundtable of Doom 7: Scaling Adventures | Burn Everything Gaming

  2. Pingback: GMs Roundtable of Doom #7: Scaling Encounters for Small and Large Groups | Dread Unicorn Games

  3. Pingback: 2015: A Retrospective | …and a Brace of Pistols

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