Category Archives: Roundtable

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.

Epic…Fail? (Game Master’s Roundtable of DOOM #6)

Wait! What? #6? Where did this come from? Where are 1–5? Sorry, folks.  I’m late to the party on this one.  It has not escaped my notice that, despite my focus on whatever I’m playing at the moment, the most popular posts on this blog have been pretty game agnostic.  So I’m only happy to spout off more about GMing.  I’ve been doing it for long enough, I should have SOMETHING to say about it.  So I fell in behind this blog caravan a bit after it began.  I may go back and revisit the earlier topics, but for now upwards and onwards!

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker of Starwalker Studios (and the Gamemaster’s Journey podcast):

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

So where to begin?

First of all, of course there needs to be a chance of failure.  There is a reason they are called GAMES.  A roleplaying GAME without chance is a terribly boring, pretentious affair.  Some people may liken it to playing a computer game with a cheat code.  But those who do that get off on the CHEATING aspect.  Tabletop RPG’s don’t offer that sort of satisfaction.  So a chance of failure needs to the there.  Its a vital component for creating tension and excitement in play.

Now all that said, there are a few circumstances in which that chance of failure can make the play experience tedious and frustrating to players and GM alike:

  • When failure brings the game to a screeching halt.
  • When failure takes someone out of the game completely.
  • When there is no room for alternative approaches to the problem.
  • When failure is…lame!

Let’s address these one at a time, shall we?

1) When failure brings the game to a screeching halt
Progress in play should never be tied to a single die roll.  Not only is this poor design, its poor GMing on top of that.  This is one of the things that makes running a traditional “mystery” so difficult with RPGs.  I heartedly subscribe to the GUMSHOE philosophy that the first clue should always be free.  Success with the dice brings additional information.  Failure should have the consequence of raising the stakes, heightening the tension.  Failure should say, not this way, try something else.

2) When failure takes someone out of the game completely
Anything that drops a single character from play for the rest of the session is a big no-no in my book.  I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times, don’t get me wrong.  Kidnapping the character of an obnoxious player to serve as a sacrifice for an evil cult, trapping a character in an impenetrable bubble at the bottom of a lake.  Just because you do it doesn’t make it a good practice.  This goes double with character death, especially if you are playing a RPG with complex character generation rules (GURPS, for instance).

3) When there no room for alternative approaches to the problem
As I said in #1, failure shouldn’t be a dead end.  If you can’t pick the lock, you should be able to try and kick it down.  Can’t charm or cajole the information from a captive or informant, you can always try interrogation.  Failure with no alternative means of redress is no better than failure that stops the game cold.  Of course, as GM, it isn’t your responsibility to spell out the players’ options for them.  Let them do the work.  If they come out with something cool and outside the box, reward it with a hero point, a benny, or an XP bonus.

4) When failure is LAME
And by that I mean when failure adds NOTHING to the experience.  It adds nothing to the narrative, doesn’t add tension or raise the stakes, doesn’t even offer a moment of levity other than, “What are the f**king odds?!?!”  Think of it like that last hurdle in a side-scrolling video game just before the boss where you always seem to hurtle off the ledge because your timing is just a bit off.  LAME!  Usually, lame fails come from things that shouldn’t even require a die roll.  Think about it.  Which of these scenarios sound better:

  • “You fail trying to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  Take 3 points of damage and try again.”
  • “You struggle to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  After a few tumbles you make it over.  Take 3 points of damage for your trouble.”

Every repeated roll costs you time you could be doing something else.  And wouldn’t you rather your players be duking it out with that ogre horde in the next valley than trying to catch and skin rabbits to offset their provisions?  Sometimes it’s better to either let the players win, or let them succeed with consequences.  It’s the whole “yes, and…” / “yes, but…” approach to GMing.

Ok.  Right.  Right.  Yes.  Success.  Failure.  Yadda yadda.  Get to the question, Mr. GM!  Should challenges be measured against the party’s capabilities or not?

Don’t hate me, but when it comes to combat encounters, my answer is, “it depends.”  I hate to admit but I’m a soft touch.  I’m the sort of GM who will dial down an encounter on the fly if the players are having a rough go for no other reason than the dice aren’t going their way that night.  I’m a lamb in wolf’s clothing.  I am ashamed.

But hey, that’s for set piece encounters.  Plus, remember Rule of Fail #2: Avoid failures that take people completely out of the game.  And character death does that.  It’s one thing when you are playing B/X D&D or Savage Worlds where a player can whip up a new character in minutes and jump back in.  Any game where chargen takes a considerable time investment (say, like, Witch Hunter!), you should be conscious of character death.  Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, but when it does it should be memorable!  I have an unspoken rule in my games: character death should be spectacular!  It should be an event!

No one complains when Lucifer shows up, rips the paladin’s beating heart from her chest and uses it as a grisly prop for a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Everyone complains when a scraggly band of goblins delivers a TPK.

Guess which one I’m more likely to cheat in favor of my players on?  Does it cheapen their experience?  Not that I can tell.  This is why I like games with minion rules.

Now I’m more than happy to give my players all the rope they need to hang themselves with.  The initial premise mentioned the random encounter with a black dragon.  The players are 1st level.  Sure, why not!  As long as they don’t have to fight it (Rule #3), I’m perfectly happy to throw that at them.  Let’s see what they do with it.  Run away.  Evade.  Distract it.  Parlay.  These are all perfectly acceptable alternatives to a face to face confrontation.

Presenting an insurmountable challenge to the players does not make a bad GM.  Demanding that they approach that challenge in the most disadvantaged way to be sacrificed on a capricious whim to fuel the GM’s ego is (damn, was that purple enough?).  That breaks every single rule.  I WANT my players to approach things with outside of the box thinking.  If they do something stupid, that has consequences too.  But I find that the people I play with are smart enough to rise to the challenge, and there is no shame in running away (or coming back with reinforcements).

So if they choose to fight fight that dragon on its own turf, on its own terms…well…sometimes Darwin wins.

But to measure every encounter against the PCs’ capabilities in some tedious game of resource management?  Where is the fun and excitement in that?

That soft touch thing? I’m working on it.

All of this applies apply to my style of GMing, which is a witch’s brew of sandbox and matrix/funnel design. And there are always exceptions to these rules.  Not all of them apply 100% of the time.  However, upon reflection, I just find that when I don’t apply these points, the game suffers for it more than not.  It doesn’t go off the rails or anything, but the player experience is rougher than I prefer. And, as a GM, player experience means everything to me.

Curious what others have to say on this topic?

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