GMs Roundtable of Doom #7: Scaling Encounters for Small and Large Groups

This month’s topic courtesy of +John Marvin: Oh, that’s me!

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.

Dread Unicorn Games, Numenera, Adventure, The Sun Below, Sleeping Lady
Art by Doug Scott

Does this ever happen to you?

“Hey, can my girlfriend and her sisters game with us tonight? I’ll help make characters for them!”


“Sorry, we’re sick tonight. Have fun with the boss monster!”

So, you might have planned on 4 or 5 players, but now you have 8. Or 2.

So time to scale encounters. If you are running a published adventure, the scaling might be done for you. Or it might not. Let’s look at scaling encounters.

Universal Truths

It’s All in the Numbers

More PCs or NPCs means more dice which means more chances to succeed and fail. If you have a combat with 2 NPCs that mostly miss, you might get 0 hits. With 6 NPCs, you might get 2. If they mostly hit, they might get 2 or 5 hits. The more dice you roll, the more likely you’ll succeed at about the chance to hit. So if you have 2 critters with a 30% chance to hit, they both will probably miss. If you have 10 such critters, about 3 will hit.

Obviously, adding more creatures makes things take longer, as you need to make those rolls.

When I’m planning my own encounters, I often make a note that the encounter will have N creatures, where N is the number of PCs who show up. Yup, I’m a pre-scaler. I do this in adventures I sell, like The Sun Below: City on the Edge, because I appreciate that in adventures I purchase.

Crunch and Scaling

Lots of people like games with very detailed rules for monsters and NPCs. These are called “high crunch” games, because rules are the “crunchy bits.” Or something.

In a high crunch game, if I have 1 creature with a bunch of special abilities (can do this 3 times a day, this other thing once a day, and these other five things when it feels like it), that can be enough to overwhelm my little brain in combat. If I have 3 such beasts, I’m hosed.

Changing the power of a creature (including social power) in a low crunch game can be so easy you can do it even after the encounter has started. For example, bumping a Numenera creature up or down a level or two is something you can do on the fly.

13th Age gives me some choices in creature leveling. I stick with the core book for on-the-fly changes and use 13 True Ways when I have time.

As we go up in game system complexity, eventually I hit a wall where I need a few minutes before each encounter for scaling.  For 5E or Pathfinder, I can do simple hacks to hit points or AC on the fly, but if I have time, I’ll take it.

Small Party

I always scale for a small party. If I don’t, there is a great chance that the few people who did show up for the game have a terrible time. They fail at everything and feel punished for even coming to the game. I might go so far as to improv a totally different adventure, which you could think of as an extreme version of scaling.

The first thing I do with a small party is get rid of any niche protection I might have in an encounter. If I added a musical duel to let the Bard shine, and the Bard is a no-show, I drop that and replace it with something anyone can do, maybe an arm wrestling contest. If they need to hack the starship computer and the AI specialist is missing, I let them fool the computer Captain Kirk style, by confusing it with BS.

Or, I might drop a magic/tech one-shot item that gives the PCs that ability they need to succeed, and make it an automatic success. You find the face-melting trap, even though Zogmorr isn’t with you tonight!

And I’ll fail forward all over the place. No dead-ends.

When I have a bunch of NPCs, I scale the number down. I might cut the number in half if half the expected PCs showed up to the game.

With fewer players, their dice can be more swingy. If they fight a creature that is hard to hit, it’s easy to have many rounds where the players all miss. I often make it easier to succeed for small parties. I can lower AC, defenses, whatever the system uses to make things easier.

I drop effects that take players out of the game, or make it super easy to resist and recover from them. 2 players paralyzed in a 2 player group is a real problem. Best to skip that power.

In games with mook rules, I might swap in a mook version of a creature for a normal version. Mooks are easy to kill, but are dangerous until they are taken out.

Large Party

I find it less important to scale for a large party. If I don’t, the players might even enjoy a night of success after unchallenging success. And meager rewards. Kinda boring, but not awful. Most of the time, I do scale.

Here I might add more niche protection. I’ll try to have something for everyone to shine at. What new type of characters are at the table? Add that musical contest, archery competition, computer hackery, or trap finding. And I’ll fail forward, so it’s still a spotlight moment.

A large number of players already slows down the game, so I’ll only increase the number of easier monsters. Mooks, for sure.

Lots of players make it easier to take down solo monsters. Upping the difficulty to hit (AC, defense, whatever…) seems like a good idea, but if 5 out of 8 players miss, that’s annoying to the players who miss round after round. I like to double the hit points or something like that.

Creatures with area of effect attacks (dragons!) are great for bigger parties, because everyone still is in danger. I bump up the chance to hit or the difficulty of the PCs to avoid the area attack.  If the creature doesn’t have an area attack, I’ll add a second attack per round.

The worst thing is watching your 8 player group fight a boss that never hits them. Extra attacks and harder to avoid attacks help you avoid that fate.

And the Fish?

Sahuagin should be in all game systems. And/Or deep ones. That is all.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

See what the other Doom Heads have to say:

How can you submit topics or become a participant blogger?
by emailing

Run Away! or Always Win? Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #6

run away run fastThis month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker:

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?

Games should be fun. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

While you might think a constant stream of “winable” encounters would be fun, I haven’t found that to be true. Why is that?

My guess it that it’s too predictable. The only challenge becomes how well you win, not if. Why not play on autopilot?

In a great story you always see the protagonist on the brink of defeat. And sometimes they lose. I’m looking at you, George RR Martin!

A great gaming experience can do do the same.

Defeat can be in combat, intrigue, or social. The risk of defeat wakes up the player behind the character, gets the adrenaline flowing, and creates a memorable session.

At the same time, setting up a trap where the PCs will be killed no matter what they do isn’t likely to be fun either. Remember the discussion around TPKs?

way outSo in a combat encounter where the PCs are overmatched, I’ll always leave a way out. It might not be obvious at first, but they can always retreat. 13th Age has a rule that lets the PCs always retreat from any fight, but if they do, they suffer a story defeat. The kidnapped victim gets sacrificed, the cultists summon their demon, the nice alchemist who used to sell healing potions to the PCs just got his shop burned down.

Intrigue defeats tend to be temporary and the PCs can just keep on going, perhaps on a different playing field. Your faction is down, the opponent’s is up, but tomorrow is another day.

Social defeats are similar. Games like Hillfolk have rules that force a PC to accept defeats every so often. How the character deals with the defeat becomes part of the story.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

See what the other Doom Heads have to say:

How can you submit topics or become a participant blogger?
by emailing

Wait! Something Important!

Note, we’ll return to gaming over the internet with a guest blog by Eric Lamoureux on Fantasy Grounds next post.

But now, it’s time for the Game Masters Roundtable of DOOM!

Our question comes from Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

I’d like to say I can’t remember my weakest skill. But that’s it, not remembering. Not remembering what I said last game. Not remembering the demon’s special attacks. Not remembering what the heck I had planned for this evenings gaming.

Everyone has to deal with the issue of information explosion as a gamemaster, and what works for me might not be the solution for you.

My solutions revolve around lightweight tools, repetition, and avoiding the issue.

Lightweight Tools

I’ve known for a long time managing all this information is an issue for me, so I’ve tried a lot of tools. I’ve found is that if the tool takes too much effort to maintain, I’ll drop it.

Tools I’ve tried and which work for a lot of people (maybe you!) are wikis, spreadsheets, vast notebooks, and databases. I Kickstarted Realm Works, found it impressive, and used it twice. These all turned out to be too heavy weight for me.

Index cards HipsterTwo lightweight tools I use are note cards and mind maps.

A stack of note cards is sometimes called a Hipster PDA. I use note cards to remember to hit every player with the spotlight and bring back people, places, and things from previous adventures. They jog my memory just enough to keep the game going. Read all about it!

The other is mind-maps. Unless I’m playtesting an adventure I hope to publish, I keep everything in mind maps and run the game from there. XMind is a nice free mind mapper and that’s what I use. When I do write for publication, I start with mind maps.

Mind Map
Mind Map from The Sun Below: City on the Edge


Do the same thing over and over again and it become second nature. While you don’t want to overdo it, a certain amount of repetition works for me. Not only does it help you remember things, it aids in world building. If the PCs meet the a new race every week, everything the PCs and the GM learned in the past isn’t useful. If you mix in some races that reoccur, it builds your world and you master that new race.

Star Trek was known for the “planet of the week” model, but who remembers most of them? Who can forget the Borg?

Avoiding the Issue

My favorite problem solving method! I prefer to either run games with less mental footprint or to steal from simpler games and apply their rules to more complex games.

Take creature complexity. If you play D&D type games, you may have noticed 3.5 and Pathfinder have more complicated monsters than the new 5E versions of the same monster. And 13th Age has even simpler versions. The demon Vrock is a great example, with Pathfinder’s version being almost double the word count of 5E’s and 5E’s almost double the word count of 13th Age’s. Too bad Numenera doesn’t have a Vrock.

13th Age gives us another interesting simplification of monster powers. Instead of remembering a bunch of optional powers (this power 3 times a day, this power if it doesn’t use this other power, and so on), 13th Age uses the GM’s attack dice to decide if a special power “procs.” No deciding on the fly, or forgetting all about the special abilities until after the battle.

For example, the 13th Age Vrock has a filth-covered claw attack. If it hits with a natural even hit, it uses its demonic screech. The complexity has been pushed from the game table to the creature design. I like that.

If your favorite game is complex and you don’t keep forgetting rules at the table, then play it and have fun! If you are playing a game where the complexity is getting in the way of your fun, you might want to take a look at simpler games.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about their biggest issues GMing. Read on.

Marc Plourde –

James August Walls –

Scott Robinson –

Lex Starwalker –

Peter Smits –

Evan Franke –

John Clayton —

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4. TPK Anyone?

tpkThis month’s musical question is:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

As fun as it is to kill PCs, I don’t do it often. A few deaths a campaign, and that’s gritty for me. I don’t kill them enough. I used to kill them too much. Now it’s rare. And that really bothers me.

So I maim them.

Of course, every system is different. In Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy players expect very bad things to happen. I maim them a lot. In one Dark Heresy game I had a group of killers break into the PCs bedrooms and burn the characters with plasma rifles. The PCs woke up screaming and melting.

But no deaths. Eyeballs melted out of skulls? Check. Limbs exploded in fatty flames? Check. Players freaking out? Check.

I miss that game.

Warhammer_fantasy_roleplay_coverI really miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay v2, now out of print. Those crit tables were to a maimer’s dream come true. Luckily you can see the same kind of terrible effects in FFG’s 40k books. Limbs gone, faces burned off, eyes melted (didn’t I mention that already?), and more.

Besides maiming, one-shotting NPCs allies helps create a sense of threat. The players know they are tougher than an NPC, but when they see their ally transformed into a stain on the floor in the blink of an eye, it does set the mood. And when you get to the maiming, the player doesn’t feel so bad.

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG is another maimer’s playground. When my character (see, I don’t always GM!) wouldn’t yield, and my captors held my hand down on a stump, you can’t say I didn’t know what was coming. Jamie isn’t the only lackhand in Westeros.

In games like Numenera, it’s more about exploring a weird and dangerous world, and the system gives the PCs control over how they manage that danger. I knock them down and they find a way to get back up. Somebody always pulls out just the right cypher.

The Numenera core book includes a rule for maiming instead of death: Lasting or Permanent Damage as a Death Replacement. In place of a good maiming I often mutate the PCs. Love those mutants. And those knights who like to hunt them down!

D&D and similar games have mechanics to always keep the players ahead of the monsters. Even a hard fight doesn’t have a significant chance of death if you follow the guidelines. These games are about heroes, and maiming them doesn’t stick in a high magic story. I at least want the replacement bits to look alien and frightful. Kind of takes the fun out it when some cleric chants and the hand grows back, no scars or nothing!

If you want gritty stories, then exceed the safety limits. Use threats of a higher level than normal.

I appreciate 13th Age’s battle building advice: “We’ve provided balanced monsters so that you can choose interesting ways to make most all battles unfair…” Then it goes on to list entertaining ways to make things unfair to the players, and encourages you to use them in every single battle. You’ve got to cheat a bit to maim and kill.

a-diceI also like something else from 13th Age: the Meaningful Death Rule (stolen from 7th Sea): Bad dice can’t kill you, only named villains can fully slay a PC. Nameless monsters can only put you in a coma, carry you back to their master, who is of course a named villain, and prepare you for sacrifice. Scary stuff, but this provides plenty of opportunity for daring rescues.

Hillfolk and other story heavy games might have very little or no violence. Player death might only happen if everyone at the table agrees it makes a better story.

Of course, Fiasco can be a bloodbath, but people expect that. Fiasco is also always a one shot, not a campaign, and players are more accepting of death when they know their is no next game to worry about.

For me, it comes down to the story we’re collectively telling at the table. Ask your players, what kind of story do they want?

And check out this post on Run Away or Always Win.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

Marc Plourde – The Mortality of the Situation at

James August Walls – Dead and Loving It – My Evening as a DCC Player at

Scott Robinson – Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game at

Lex Starwalker – How Lethal Are Your Campaigns? at

John Clayton Fatality! at

Peter Smits – PCs and the killing thereof at

Arnold K. at

Evan Franke – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM at

Ringing Out the GM Changes

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #3

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks, “How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?”

So many things have changed. We’re more diverse, we play different kinds of games, and we’re older if not wiser. I’ll focus on how my GMing has changed.

175px-D&d_Box1st (1)To start with, I was a simulationst GM. What I was trying to simulate was an epic fantasy or sf novel. Without the character development. I threw in some jokes, used random die rolls to create encounters, and killed a bunch of PCs. White box D&D to 2nd Edition and a little Traveller. Good times.

Slowly I started to bring in the bare bones of plot into my games. Now there was a reason my players were clearing out a dungeon. Not much, maybe they were geased to do so, but it was something.

CoC 1st edI got into goal based, rather than encounter based, gaming starting with Call of Cthulhu. Story based gaming had arrived, and I was hooked. Wild adventures with characters who had professions, not classes. Simple, not complex, rules. I will never forget running Masks of Nyarlathotep or Horror on the Orient Express.

I played a lot of systems since then, but the idea the game was about a goal, rather than a series of encounters, really struck home with me. I enjoy both kinds of games, but when I first tried a goal based game, it was like a breath of fresh air. Walt Ciechanowski did a nice post about the differences over in Gnome Stew.

13thFor a while, I equated games with story to goal based games, but games like 13th Age have changed my mind. 13th Age is a wonderful mix of storytelling and encounter based fun.

numeneraSetting has become more important to me. I used to hand-wave setting in my early D&D games. “It’s like Tolkien, Leiber, and Moorcock I’d tell my players, and then run fairly unconnected adventures. These days, a great setting really makes me want to play in that world. I had more fun than the law will allow with Rogue Trader, just because of the setting. Numenera‘s setting is so awesome I want to play it all the time.

robins lawsI got another eye opener when I read Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. Shockingly enough, not everyone played rpgs for the reasons I played them! Who knew? I started to pay more attention to everybody’s fun. Instead of the game mechanics creating all the fun, I worked on giving players spotlights and letting them take control of the narrative.

Which reminds me, at some point I started to read books, blogs (like Gnome Stew), and the like about how to be a better games master. I watched my friends GM and copied the things that worked for me. Before, I just focused on the rules, now I’m more focused on the table.

These days, I’m much more comfortable improv. When I pick up a published adventure to save time, I still do a lot of improvisation. Even when I’m not playing an indie improv game like Fiasco, I’m always twisting and turning the game based on what the others at the table are saying. And my players do the same.

Now that I’m designing adventures for publication, I try to think more about how others who aren’t me would run my adventure. And how players who aren’t my players would play it. Playtester feedback can be real humbling when something that was effortless at my table becomes a confusing stumbling block at theirs.

It’s been a fun ride. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

More on this topic:

Delta GM by Marc Plourde

Plans that Come to Naught by John Clayton

The Evolution of My GM-Style by Scott Robinson

My Evolution as a GM by Lex Starwalker

Home Grown Gaming by James Walls

Evolution of GMing Style by by Peter Smits

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, or if you have a suggestion for a topic, send an email to Lex Starwalker at