Friday, August 20, 2010

Scaling: The soft science

The amazing thing about scaling is that almost no one will know if an event is scaled correctly. A properly scaled event is as difficult or easy as the plot people running it intend it to be. It allows for the full schedule of modules to be run with the skills and resources that are available to the players. It takes into account randoms, module scaling and wave battle scaling and rolls them all into a suitable difficulty and action level for the event. In this article I am going to look at the old way scaling was accomplished, the new way that I am using as well as some thoughts about module and random scaling.

The old way was fairly simplistic. A register was taken at check in that listed levels of characters and build totals. Randoms were then scaled between plus and minus five of this average player level. Modules were either scaled for the party that showed up or they were pre scaled with a set difficulty. Wave battles were generally guesstimates, plot people went into town and felt out the players to see what they had left and then scaled accordingly. This method of scaling is imprecise. It works OK if the plot team has experienced people, with good a good sense of how the game works but it falls down when staff people take over portions of the scaling. The ability of plot to set the difficulty of a weekend is an important environment tool that is largely lost when this method of scaling is used. If you do decide to use this scaling methodology, it is important that you sit down with your event register and look at some statistics. The average player level is a poor measure of the over all breakdown of an event, the range between high and low is equally important. If you scale towards the middle for everything, and the range is very large, the high level players will never be challenged while the low will be getting destroyed. The average and the range together give you a more complete view of your players.

The method that I use is different, in a few ways. At the beginning of the event we still take an event register but I also do my ow calculations. If you have access to the players database in your chapter, it is important as a plot person that you have a decent grasp of the skills available to your regular players. You should be able to say for instance if a particular player is life capable and if they are how many lifes to they have(generally, with 1 or 2 blocks) You should know the general block size of celestial casters and you should know generally what peoples transforms look like. The plot person, or the head of plot , can then use this information to schedule their event. I take for instance the estimate of how many life spells there are in the game, I subtract 1/4 and that is the total number of death effects that can be put into game. This does not account for item lifes or bleeding out PCs but none the less it is fairly accurate. To insure that plot is controlling the deaths that go into game I remove all death effects from random cards, this way only modules or wave battles have death effects. At a basic numbers level, I look at a standard 50 hit point swinging 5 damage monster as the equivalent of a level 10 character in a wave battle. Adding packet attacks increases its abilities to a level 15, every +5 damage increases it by 5 more. Takedowns on the card are +5 each and defenses are +2. Using this I can scale my wave battles to the APL. Monsters that only fight should be the default for all wave battles and randoms, they are fun for everyone to kill, they can be fought by newer players and casters can use their takedowns. The total number of these monsters should be between the number of players and the number of players times 2 for every wave battle. Using the above numbers but adhering to the death effect limitation you should scale the monsters in the wave battle to within + or - five of the APL. Ifthe range between high and low is more than 10 then the wave battle should be split into high and low level monsters. Randoms unfortunately are usually homogeneous and should be set within + or - 5 of the APL alternating between the high end and the low. Using this system and limiting the death effects allows you to more accurately gauge the effects a wave battle will have on resource consumption plus it gets you out of the trap of always sending in packet monsters the scaling favors sending in larger fighting monsters over packet monsters, which is more fun for everyone involved.

A couple of things can be done to make this even better. One, all monsters should have a target aggressor, meaning that they should be either a caster monster, a fighter monster, a gas monsters or a rogue monster. A fighter monster should have lots of body and spell defenses but swing for a reasonable amount of damage. A caster monster should have a reasonable amount of body but no spell defenses and swing for more damage or swing a carrier which makes them fighter averse. A gas monster should have a metabolism and the carrier or damage mentioned above and some spell defenses. A rogue monster should have a threshold which makes it easier to kill swinging higher damage as well as similar setup as the fighter monster. Breaking down your randoms and wave battles like this allows everyone to feel special at some time during the event which is always the primary goal of plot.

Scaling the big bad guy for the weekend or the module is always complicated, you want to make it a good fight without killing everyone. Some important things to note. The big bad should be able to control the fight, moving people around and stopping the blanket beatings are the ways to stretch out a fight. Killing everyone will stretch the fight out but defeats the object of fun for everyone. I know everyone hates fear but for crowd control it is one of the best in the game, it gets people away and keeps them away allowing you to focus on other people. Knockdown is another great one, it lets the big bad move away or get some damage in while everyone recovers.. Controlling the fight with abilities like this will make for a more enjoyable tactical situation than the death storm that I occasionally see at some chapter. Remember that your big bad still has to fit within the takedown list written above, you do not want to make it impossible to get a life spell, only very difficult.

The closer you push your players to the point of resource exhaustion the harder the event will feel. In between game actions and things that were not accomplished the event before should drive the scaling for the event closer and closer to that 3/4 takedown level and drive the wave battle and random scaling closer to the high end. This way players begin to feel a connection between their actions and how hard they are forced to play. This kind of feedback, drives the feeling of a connected world and that is the end goal.

Next week I am going to take a look at some alternate mechanics that can be used to make fights feel harder without actually changing the scaling. Let me know what you think about this, I hope it is helpful.


  1. Tim I think you have an excellent approach / understanding. Do you find yourself custom writing a lot of monsters or adding/subtracting abilities from existing monsters to fit these needs or does the Monster Compendium and avg lvl of the current players give you enough options?

    Without giving away too much could you post a sample town encounter? I'm not sure what the avg lvl is but for this example lets say 40 ppl with avg lvl of 15 ranging from 5-30 and you have 8 NPCs. How would you generally break down how many of each classes your NPCs would be playing and maybe how many crowd control effects you would give the NPCs to handle a 4:1 ratio?

  2. That depends on the type of encounter. Lets do it as a wave battle first. Lets go with undead as the theme and assume that the players have been accomplishing most of their objectives so the scaling is at about 50% takedowns. With a range of 5-30 you probably have a pretty fair number of lower level players so your life spells are going to be low lets say we have 150 9th level spells for the entire weekend, not including items that puts our total takedowns at 112, which sounds like a lot of deaths but is really pretty limited. So I would probably split my group of 8 NPCs into 3 teams , 3 would play constantly respawning lesser undead, the swinging 5 50 body type that I spoke about above. These are fun to fight, even for high level people but they are targeted at teh lower level people. They take some hits to kill but with the armor suite and healing they aren't one shotting anyone but base level casters. 2 of my NPCs would probably play a mid level, packet delivery monster, like a shade, some elemental delivered damage, claws for maybe 6 ice and maybe 100 body. These would reset on the marshall, meaning that he could control their speed of reset and their positioning, they would target mid level players but not act in a big bad capacity. The final three would probably play my death squad to challenge the extreme end of that 5-30 spectrum, based on player skill, the composition could range from 2 deathknights and a liche to a high level human necromancer and a couple of colossal revevants. The odds are it would be on the higher end, and all of my takedowns would be concentrated here. I would probably personally be part of this group as well so I could gauge the takedowns and the towns resources. Does that make sense?

  3. Sure does, thanks.

    I have some friends who used to play that are in the low teen lvls, and they feel like the newbies now. I tried to tell them that things are scaled and I am hoping the example persuades them.

    They play fighters and after NPC'ing recently and seeing all the carrier attacks and knockdowns they feel pretty useless. I think it's great you take knockdowns into consideration. They would have no complaints fighting things with 100s of hps and base dmg at their current lvl, but get discouraged when they are taken out of the fight in the first few seconds by a special attack.

    They are also not used to having a true healer in the party who can remove these things, so I'm hoping my switch to an earth caster helps as well.