Ars Arcana Blog 2.5
Travis Joseph Rodgers
You’re planning a scenario for a new party, but you’re not sure of their precise capabilities. You don’t want them to be able to walk through every encounter without fear, but you also don’t want them to die before they have a chance to explore the scenario you’ve plotted. You need help levelling encounters.
The advice contained herein comes with a few important caveats, but if you observe the caveats, you can tailor and tweak encounters to give the precise feel and flavor you and your players are striving for. First, this approach works best with games that use levels, but it can apply well to games without levels, too. It just takes another step. Second, levels might not scale exactly similarly in different games. Still, that doesn’t mean that helpful guidelines cannot be constructed. Third, parties and players are individuals; they may have unanticipated skills, plans, and the dice may be ever in their favor (or against it). Bearing these things, in mind, understand that there probably isn’t an algorithm for creating the perfect encounter. Consider this a heuristic for success instead.
Levels for the Unleveled
Every system has some way of measuring character capacities relative to one another. Let’s call this the proxy. It could be levels, total points, total skill ranks, or the like. Find what it is in your game. In the Dungeon Chatter system, it’s total skill slots. Characters begin with three to five, and every four slots is roughly a “level” if that’s the terminology you like using. Sum up your party members’ levels to produce a Party Level.
Conversion Rates and Challenge Levels
Once the proxy is settled upon, the next step is to find the rate of conversion. In some systems, this is simply arithmetic. For instance, if every level is of roughly equal value, then a level 2 character is twice as strong as a level 1 character. A level 10 character is roughly ten times as strong as a level 1 character and so forth. Let’s suppose for now that a system you’re playing has a roughly balanced level, where every two levels a character’s power doubles. We’ll call the Challenge Level whatever it is we are to pit against the PCs, levels totaled.
Relatively Challenging: greater than three-quarters of the Party Level.
Moderately Challenging: from one-quarter to one three-quarter of the Party Level.
Relatively Easy: less than one-quarter of the Party Level.
The Test (Part I)
A group of four third-level PCs encounters a group of kobolds or goblins or whatever the tiny, wicked creatures are in your world. Is it true that nine Challenge Levels is sufficient to do the job, offering a relatively challenging encounter? Well, if the kobolds were simply thrust directly against the party, that would be 18 kobolds (level is ½) against four PCs. The kobolds might deal a total of ten hits, for 1-4 damage, before being destroyed. That’s approximately 25 damage dealt. Hardly a challenge to a low level party.
But kobolds are not any stupider than PCs, so they might attack in different ways, employing a hit and run strategy, or taking twice as many attacks with certain missile weapons. If the same number of kobolds attacks twice per round and dies at the same rate, they might deal 22 hits and an average of 55 damage, which threatens the life of a party. Or, if they were to die at half the rate as in the initial scenario, offering up 21 hits and 52 damage.
So, I simply assumed that overall the Kobolds would need a 17 on average to hit a party member and used a die roller to simulate the combat. I assumed the PCs would drop four kobolds per round in the initial scenario. They might drop more, of course. The point are these:
Formulate a proxy for encounter difficulty.
Some games offer methods for doing this, and I have just offered one here.
Test the Proxy.
Use this method, seeing how easily your party deals with the challenges.
If the party blows through every encounter at that level, before just throwing more creatures at the party, first try implementing some tactics – like hit and run, min/maxing like PCs might, feints, formations, and other strategies that would be available to the creatures given their intelligence. If that fails, then you can try awarding max HP per die type to all encountered creatures. If that fails, then consider adding a greater number of enemies. Just understand that a greater number of enemies is not always better; in fact, it can transform combat into a giant wargame, like a mini-game attached to the roleplaying, and not all parties are on board for that.
Conversely, if your party is struggling too much, your first step might be to decrease the number of enemies. Or perhaps you can have your players experiment with tactics in combat. Sometimes they must be introduced to these things in order to get the hang of it.
Isn’t this just combat? Yes, but the same ideas can be applied to other aspects of an RPG as well. Check the type of game you’ve all agreed to play. If it’s too easy or too hard, modify. Do so by exploring the capacities and capabilities of the creatures and by helping the PCs understand their options better.
Isn’t this pitched at a high level of generality? Maybe, but I’m not sure that’s a problem. This advice is to be widely applicable, so generality is a necessity. The task is for you to experiment in your game, your party, and your system to figure out through experience what the best way is to proceed. I haven’t played your game, in your party, etc., so I can’t give you precise recommendations.