Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Not To Scale

I've been debating doing an irregular series of posts entitled, "What Other GMs Do Wrong".

Unfortunately, that would make me out to be a real jerk, right?

Probably a bad idea. Yeah.

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Scaling

One issue I encounter often when I play as a player (and I rarely play as a player, so...) that makes me oh so happy I GM more than 95% of the time is Scaling.

Yes, Scaling.

Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing Scale.

Now, before I make comments and give some advice on what to do to remedy this problem, let me talk about what Scaling is in the context of this post.


Scaling is adjusting your adventure, be it store bought or homebrewed, to be challenging, but not too hard or too easy. Specifically, in this case, I am referring to adjusting it either on-the-fly, or with only a short amount of prep time.

If you have plenty of prep time and you still can't Scale your game properly, take up stamp collecting before you hurt yourself, or one of your players does.


You will notice on the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure module pictured above, the adventure is designed for 'CHARACTER LEVELS 10-14'.

OK, cool. Thanks. That's actually quite helpful.


How many characters levels 10-14? If two 12th level characters go on this adventure, neither one a Cleric, does either of them have better than an ice cube's chance on the Sun of survival?

I seriously can't tell you how many times over the last 37 years I've been in games where the GM didn't have a handle on adjusting a game to fit the players and characters involved.

Scaling is necessary for any number of reasons.

Perhaps you planned out the adventure for set number of PCs, with a certain skill and ability make up, and the entire group didn't show up for game night as expected.

Maybe you've got a player who is really new to gaming and just doesn't yet have the mind set the veterans have.

Maybe an extra player showed up, a friend you haven't seen in a while, who just happens to be one of the best damn players you know, and he knows this adventure backwards and forwards.

Oh, I can hear the laments of the old school GMs now:

"Why should we adjust for them? It's our game! If they can't hack it, they deserve to have their characters die!"

"How dare you doubt the wisdom of professional game designers from the earliest days of the hobby! If the book says the encounter is X, than it's X! No ifs, ands or buts."

"By my mighty neck-beard! It's all been worked out mathematically on a calculated probability, bell-curve algorithm."

I have no clue if that last one makes a lick of sense. I am allergic to math and don't go near the stuff.

The point is, sometimes what's on the page, be it pre-made by the pros or homemade by you,* isn't quite right for the group you're playing with and you'll need to customize it right there on the spot.

I played a Pathfinder game not too long ago (Remember how I said I don't like D&D? Yeah. That includes Pathfinder. Maybe more so), in which none of the 'level appropriate' PCs - a Rogue, a Warrior, and an Alchemist - could score a single hit against our opponents - two lizard/snake people - in our first four attempts. Each. That's right, 12 swings, 12 misses. So fun. An NPC needed to help use to avoid a TPK at the very start of an 'Adventure Path' (whatever the heck that is).

Now, that can happen in an RPG. You can have a streak of bad luck and just roll poorly all session. However, when three players roll badly the entire game, and the GM rolls well the entire game, and the numbers in many instances don't look all that different, one may assume the baddies are a bit higher level/hit dice than your PCs are. Maybe their Armor Class is comparatively high. Whatever.

As it turn out, the same NPC was needed to help us in nearly every encounter we had.

This game and it's encounters were not scaled properly.

What it boils down to is this:

When designing an adventure, the typical Gamemaster (I'm guessing) writes a script and some notes indicating what the PCs are going to encounter that session (or over the course of several sessions for a large dungeon or whathaveyou), and where they will encounter it.*

For Example:

Level 6, Room 20a: This room was very likely a wash room or bathhouse. There is little to no standing water here now, although the place is very humid and damp. The tiles in the tube/pool are worn away and cracked. In the pool are 3 Muck Golems.

Now, the GM theoretically knows how tough a Muck Golem is. The question is, does he or she know how tough a Muck Golem will be for the specific PCs encountering them?

If the PCs all have Rings of Muck Protection and weapons that are +1, but +3 versus Mud and Dirt related opponents, this is going to be a short fight. Similarly, if the PCs have never encountered a Muck Golem, don't know it's weaknesses or what it can do, and don't have a single weapon or device that can harm one, this minor encounter could became a very forgettable TPK.

So what can you do about it?

#1. First and foremost, and I can't stress this enough, know your players.

I am not talking about the characters here, not the PCs, the players.

Know what they are good at, what they're not good at, how you can challenge them, and what will simply cause them to brain fart, or through up their hands in frustration.

#2. Know the characters.

Have a good sense of what each PC can and can't do. Do make the game challenging. Don't make a scenario that is dependent on a Cleric or Druid being there when you know full well no one is playing a Cleric or a Druid. That is just plain stupid, but I see it time and again.

"Well, it's not my fault. Someone should have played a Cleric."

But they didn't you complete arse! You knew they didn't. It's not like you didn't know who was playing what, this is the 5th session. Argh! *Adam strangles fictional GM*

#3. Know the adventure.

Whether you purchased this adventure you're running, or you made it yourself, read it over a few times. Try to picture the spots in it in which things seem too hard for your group, or too easy. If no one can locate traps, maybe ease up on the traps a bit, or think of a way to give the PCs at least a fighting chance of noticing them. If the place is full of goblins and hobgoblins and two members of your 6 person party have anti-goblin weapons or abilities, throw in a non-goblin opponent of the same level of difficulty as one of the goblins to give them a little more of a obstacle.

#4. Prepare Alternate Encounters.

This post presumes that you design your adventures in a fairly standard fashion (i.e.: not my way*). You've written out the adventures outline, worked out the possible areas which the PCs will travel to, or through, and the types of encounters they will face at various locations and/or intervals. Possibly, you even have a random encounter table to add a bit of a surprise to the workings of your scenario.

In case you were not aware of this, I really dislike random encounter tables. I think they are generally for lazy GMs who can't think of what would reasonably, logically and entertainingly be located in their adventures. That is just my humble opinion of course. It is why I don't use them.

I will be the first to say I have seen some exceptional ones, most notably in posts by Noisms and Zak Smith. Have some ready if you feel the need, and enjoy using them. Try to customize them to fit the adventure you're running so the random nature of the tables doesn't feel so damn random.

Moreover, I recommend purposefully generating some alternate encounters before hand. An alternate encounter is an enemy (NPC/Monster/Whatever), or trap that fits the setting and scenario you are running, but is not part of the adventure as it stands. Its a non-random encounter you place in a little file to the side of your regular adventure notes.

Make some a little tough, some a little easy, and several that are on the same general level as the adventure you're running. When things seems a bit off in the challenge rating department, switch out one of your pre-designed encounters for the entry in the adventure that doesn't seem to be as good a fit for whatever reason.

Trust me when I say this helps. A LOT. I use this method myself, in a manner of speaking.*

I hope this helps any GMs out there who've had difficulty making sure the level of threat and the level of fun stay within reach of each other.

Have any other players or GMs encountered Scaling issues? Please let me know in the comments and give us an idea about what you did (or what was done) to fix the situation.


Barking Alien

* You'll notice this asterisk at several points. It's to indicate you should take what I am saying or referencing with a grain of salt as I don't design my adventures or encounters in the traditional way, and haven't for over 20 years or more. I don't write down anything related to the adventure I'll be running, and I certainly don't plan encounters in the way a D&D DM would.

Maybe I will describe/explain my approach one of these days, but that is another post entirely.



  1. Very good post. Well done and well written.

    1. Wow, thanks Tim. I really appreciate that. I was very unsure about how to pitch this going in.

  2. It is a good post - practical advice!

    #1 - as much as you can, players will surprise you sometimes - but that's part of the fun!

    #2 - yes, no excuses here

    #3 - also no excuses here - it's the blessing and curse of the published adventure. It's all right there ready to run, but you will always, always miss _something_ , important or not. For a while I was having a heck of a time with some modules figuring out where the stairs between levels connected on each map. Few things make you feel more stupid than not being able to tell which room the @$#$!# stairs emerge in on the next dungeon level.

    #4 - I'd expand it to "have options at hand" - maybe instead of the big fight in room 12 someone wants to talk - better have some non-combat ideas ready. Maybe a new player shows up after the session has started - many players have joined my games as "loot": you find 37gp, a +1 dagger, and a halfling tied up in the corner". Today's online resources make this a lot easier than it used to be.

    Tiny nitpick: most of the old adventures will say inside how many characters are needed and some will say things like "at least one magic-user and at least one cleric ..." so they did at least try to illuminate the DM on the basic assumptions.

    Once again, good post - I'll be thinking about it before I run the next game.

    1. Marvel Heroic RPG has this concept called Unlockables, where if you do X, Y, and Z, you gain access to a certain device or NPC hero as an ally. You can also spend Drama points or XP I think, but I find that much less interesting.

      I like the idea of doing that with new PCs joining the group very much.

      "If you have defeated the evil Knight on level 3 of the dungeon and taken his shield, show the shield to the Elven Ranger trapped in room 20 of level 5. Once he sees you have defeated an enemy of his house, he will join your quest. Right Steve (playing the Elf)?"


  3. Shame the Pathfinder game didn't last. But then if the scaling wasn't right, I can see why. What would you have done in that situation, if you found your PCs getting crushed and needing NPC support for every encounter?

    1. I guess it's a shame. I find it hard to say I'll miss playing Pathfinder. Both times I've played it were not the best gaming experiences I've ever had.

      As far as what I would have done in that situation, that's a very hard question to answer. The situation itself probably wouldn't have come up. I do things so differently that the situation wouldn't have arisen.

      For example, the GM was using an Adventure Path. I would never use one. I would have designed a scenario with the specific PCs in mind that was more tailor made to their interests and abilities.

      I tend to make the first encounter of an adventure or campaign a tad easier if I know A) I haven't GMed for this particular group before and/or B) the players aren't overly familiar with the system, its specifics, and the abilities of their characters. This 'trial encounter' helps me gage how tough I can make the subsequent ones. Was the trail encounter too easy, too hard or perfect? This tells me how to move forward.

      I usually try to give a greater purpose to NPC support than just pulling the PCs fat out of the fire. I will have them (NPCs) come in as the cavalry, but only AFTER the PCs have done something awesome and made some headway. Other times, I will have the NPC available, but they only assist if the PCs request it, etc.

      It would be a very different set of circumstances leading to a very differently design encounter.

  4. A very important topic indeed. I can't tell how many times i asked for my friends to confirm if they were playing before i design an adventure.

    The thief won't come. Say goodbye to all those traps.
    Cleric couldnt come, one less monster here and there.
    There is no tough warrior here, lets put a lesser version of my favourite gian spyder.

  5. I thought this post was really good so I added a link to it on my Best Reads of the Week series. I hope you don't mind.

  6. Mind? Why would I mind someone acknowledging my greatness! Huzzah!


    Kidding. Thanks so much. Really happy this was well received.