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Roundtable of Doom 7: Scaling Adventures

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July Roundtable:

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of +John Marvin:

“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.”

So once again we have a roundtable topic to discuss. The questions are all centered on the same theme, but we are going to go ahead and address each one separately to flesh out the discussion.

How Do You Scale Encounters for Different Sized Groups?

This is one of those vague general questions like “How do you get to Sesame Street?” or “What do you want for dinner?” There are SO many answers, many of them unhelpful and designed more to show off the wit of the person that responded. We will spare you that for now.

I’m sure they realized that the question was too vague, which is why they have all the follow up questions. Depending on the group size, the system, and the adventure itself there are many options for scaling an adventure, but most of them will ruin the games that they are not designed to aid. The trick is to make sure you understand the difference between difficulty and challenge.

Scaling a game’s difficulty is easier to do. Make the numbers people have to roll for success higher, and thus lower the odds of success. Challenge, on the other hand, is more about diversity because it deals as much with the player as it does the character. Disarm a trap, steal the treasure, escape the guardian, kill the rats, and convince the queen to not have your head chopped off.

Generally you want to make things less difficult but more challenging for fewer players, and more difficult but less challenging for more players. A smaller party means fewer players, which means less time negotiating what you are going to do and more time for each individual to shine. A larger group means you can build momentum with the same challenges

How Do You Scale Published Adventures?

Published adventures often have their own tips for scaling adventures, and they are generally very good tips. Why wouldn’t they be? These are the people making a living to sell you an adventure so that you can enjoy the game. They probably take such things seriously.

In addition to what the published adventure recommends, I would advise adjusting the content. A larger group is generally going to take more time with each scene because there are more people taking turns describing what their characters are doing. So plan on skipping optional scenes and/or trimming out a couple of stops along the trail of clues.

Ironically a smaller group will also likely take longer in an adventure than planned because they have more limited resources to deal with threats and challenges. Replacing scenes designed for one character with a different one is usually too hard (and defeats the main advantage of using a published adventure), so do away with them as best you can. Instead try to add story content by getting the players to give a few more details about what they are doing as you encourage them forward.

What Does or Does Not Work?

Do not add last-minute content for new players. If someone got a boyfriend ten minutes ago and wants them to join your game, throwing more elements and enemies in will just confuse them and probably make them dislike the game. Then one of your players will have to choose between dating a cute guy or gaming with you. Instead play the game as you prepared, but take time to make a new player feel included. If the game is easier or slower because of the new person, that is ok. So long as you are working on the quality of the adventure, the rest of the group will be ok.

Do not try to plan for every contingency in detail. You do not have enough time to perfectly scale an adventure for 10 different group sizes. Instead, find some general strengths for your play style that you can fall back on. If you default to combat, just work up a couple ideas for making combat interesting for a bigger and smaller group. Practicing these general fall backs will make adjusting to surprises much easier and smoother for the players.

Do not blame anyone (yourself, new players, sick players, game designers, Buddha, etc.) for dealing with a different sized party than you planned. An impressive vocabulary of curse words will not help the situation. Instead talk with the people that showed up to play your game and communicate the problems you foresee with having this bigger/smaller group size. Try to come up with a solution together if possible, even if it ends up being a solution of playing board games today so you have time to scale the adventure for next week.

Do Different Systems Affect How You Scale?

Yes. Surely everyone knows this. Adding more monsters for a bigger group is much more effective in DnD than in Fate Core. Lowering target numbers is extremely helpful for smaller groups in L5R, but it is game-breaking for Dungeon World. Different mechanics require different scaling systems.

In general you can divide RPGs into categories based on what sort of challenges they focus on and base your adjustments on the mechanics. Combat games should adjust the number of enemies. Strategy games should adjust special abilities. Social games adjust NPCs. Survival games adjust the resources you have access to. Romance games adjust the time you have to perform tasks.

What About Fish? They Have Scales.

Incidentally, that whole “Fish have scales” thing is a bit racist. There are many fish that don’t have scales. Clingfishes, for example, have a thick layer of mucous to protect them instead. Also the ever popular catfish has become very popular in the south, and without any scales on its body I might add.

I asked Taylor if we should really be dealing with such a sketchy and offensive question, and he advised that so long as we treat the question with dignity and respect that you, the readers, would understand. Please note that we also have nothing against the majority of fish that DO have scales. We just don’t like species stereotypes as they force divisions that should not be there.

Final Thoughts

So far the advice has mostly been for GMs, since they are the ones running the adventure. But players can help with scaling as well.

If the group is larger than normal, try to find ways to trim down the chatter and agree on a method for making group decisions more quickly. Try to rein in your creativity a little bit, too. The GM is already working hard to adjust to every player’s needs, so maybe don’t try to eat every mushroom you find or steal a random exotic animal to ride as a mount.

If the group is smaller than normal, try to play to everyone’s strengths. Failed attempts at burglary are not very fun to deal with, so if no one came with sneaking skills then it probably isn’t worth considering no matter how fun it would be. Instead, try to make your character and the others shine at what they are good at. If you are a charismatic talker, then try to talk your way through tough situations and channel your creativity into describing how you succeeded rather than trying multiple skill checks to cover one challenge.

As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback we’d love to hear from you. I like to think I still have a lot to learn, and you all have a lot to teach!

You can submit a question for a future roundtable to gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

See other responses to the questions at

John Marvin — Dread Unicorn Games
Marc Plourde — Inspiration Strike
Lex Starwalker — Starwalker Studios
Strange Encounters — The perils of Scaling
Tom Harrison — Brace of Pistols
Scott Robinson — Strange Encounters
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Author: Burn Everything Gaming

Website that mostly produces Actual Play Podcast as well as game reviews and other musings on the topic. Hope you enjoy.

One thought on “Roundtable of Doom 7: Scaling Adventures

  1. Pingback: Just Add Water (Game Master Roundtable of Doom #7) | …and a Brace of Pistols

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