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:

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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 —

Numenera: Product of the Year!

Congratulations to everyone at Monte Cook Games! And to all the other outstanding winners and nominees.

The 2014 Ennie Awards last night at GenCon were dominated by Numenera in a field of strong roleplaying games. FATE and Pathfinder also did very well, and if you add up all the Cthulhu titles from different publishers, Great Cthulhu did fine as well.

This is great news for licensed Numenera products like The Sun Below: City on the Edge, as it should expose even more players to Numenera. The more people who try Numenera, the more who will like it, and the bigger the market for licensed add-ons.

Gold Sliver Total
Numenera 5 4 * 9
Fate 3 3 **** 6
Pathfinder 6 *** 6
Trail of Cthulhu 1 1 2
Achtung! Cthulhu 2 2
Pathfinder Battles ** 1 1 2
Razor Coast *** 1 1
Mutants and Masterminds 1 1
Savage Worlds 1 1
Hobbit Tales 1 1
Call of Cthulhu 1 1
Pathfinder Card Game ** 1 1
Spirit of the Century **** 1 1
13th Age 1 1
Deadlands 1 1

* You could argue this should be 5, as the silver for Podcast went to Numenera, The Signal. But since it not a game, I left it off.

** I split the Pathfinder branded non-roleplaying games out because they are different games.

*** Razor Coast is a licensed Pathfinder adventure.

**** Spirit of the Century is based on FATE.