Thursday, July 21, 2011

The 'Unscaled' Module

Tim and I have written several modules about scaling on the fly and working that into your plot lines. However, we had an interesting conversation regarding the 'Unscaled' module.

Back in the day, we used to scale most modules to fit the group. If low level players came up, we'd bring it down a notch so it was a challenge, but was still fun for the players. If higher level players came, we made it a challenge for them, making it fun for them.

But we also had 'Unscaled' encounters. These were encounters where the stats were set, and we wouldn't change them. Bring the power. Tim likes calling difficult modules 'Unscaled'.

I think it's a shit term. And here's why.

'Unscaled' means that plot is lazy and won't bend the module to make it fun for the characters. Scaling doesn't always happen in stats. I also determines the way the NPCs react to a situation.

If you had a dragon and lower level players came to fight it, would you really just obliterate them and move on? I know I wouldn't. I'd probably scare them, followed by threatening to kill them and someone else (helpless farmers), followed by killing them and that someone else.

That way, your plot line isn't busted by a bunch of lower level players. As an added bonus, they now have a story to tell people (about how they faced off with a dragon and lived to walk away), as opposed to saying, "I got eaten by a dragon."

So, I believe that every encounter should be scaled in some way. It just doesn't have to end in victory.

Now, Tim argues that when he uses 'Unscaled,' it means dangerous. My counter to that is that you should just use the term 'Dangerous'. Big difference, right?

Well, yes, it is a big difference.

We are always looking for ways to portray OOG information without breaking immersion. You can't have a hook come down and say "PS, This module is unscaled." You can, however, have your NPC say "This is going to be a very dangerous mission, so you might want to bring some the more sturdy adventurers for this task.'

We've used the term 'Deadly' in Exiles for a while now, to indicate that the module has kill effects or NPCs ready to do coup'de'grace PCs. In fact, deadly modules give players more experience on the whole (as it increases the event danger component for awarding learnin'). And the term has a specific OOG meaning and legitimate IG usage. Win-Win.

So, in summary, unscaled can mean one of two things.

1) You're too lazy to try and make this module fun for the PCs.
2) It's highly tuned and deadly.

In the case of A, you should try a little more to make your game more fun for the players. In the case of B, the modules are fine. I would just use a different term.

But as a PSA, I would strongly recommend people stop calling modules 'Unscaled.'


  1. After further thought, I am going to do my best to start calling dangerous modules dangerous. Semantics do sometimes make a big difference. The other type of unscaled module, the one were the stats are set, does not remove the plot teams responsibility to make sure people have fun. Though to be totally honest, there have been times when I tried to chase someone off a module that have ended with the same result as mindless obliteration. Some people don't take hints well.

  2. I don't think that's really true. We have a "mod mountain" at one of our towns and we tell people it's unscaled or rather we say it is has already been scaled and will only receive minor tweaks when the group comes. Does that mean it's dangerous? No. If you go at the bottom level you might get some goblins. Maybe 3 of them. That's not dangerous. There is over 50 mods on that mountain and each one varies depending on how far you go up the mountain.

  3. To play Devil's Advocate...

    One role that an "unscaled module" can serve is that a static challenge can be planned for, and this is satisfying to gamists. At NERO Neridia, the villain for the first three seasons had a set stat card... every time we faced him, we learned a bit more about it. If they changed his stats based on what group he was facing, it would invalidate some of the strategy we developed to face him.

    I ran a module series where the PCs took could go anywhere they wanted within a dungeon. There was one "unscaled" path within the dungeon, called the Gauntlet.. if you went that way, you knew exactly what monsters you were going to face in advance. Multiple groups tried their hands against that challenge, and the ones that made it the furthest got a sort of bragging right. If that section changed difficulty based on group, the question "How far into the gauntlet did you make it?" wouldn't have any meaning.

  4. Number 1 is refuted by the fact that the group encountering them each time was about the same level, and lower level groups encountering him could be scaled using factors other than stats.

    But I'll concede to number 2. If you have a module that is intended to be a reference point, it has to be played the same way every time. However, this is uncommon and represents about 5% of "unscaled" modules.

  5. 1. A module doesn't always have to be challenging. Some of the best modules I ran were cake walks and everyone laughed endlessly.

    2. I set up a module in the players mind that a module was unscaled aka really really dangerous. Like way SUPA dangerous. Then they faced off against mushrooms that swung 2 antidote poison. People were so terrified thinking it was going ot be something else. It was great :)

    3. I rarely if ever ran a scaled module in seven years. Newbies being the only exception as I 100% scaled it down to them. I wrote my static plotline and said this is how it was going to go, if they lose they lose, if they win, they win. If they start to lose and don't run, not my problem.