Should Games be Scaled?

I have been spending a little bit of time recently becoming familiar with Reddit and a question came up about Pathfinder and how to scale games.  I thought about this a little and gave a reply and then afterward I thought about it some more and kind of wished that I had replied in a different way.  Really this question to me is a much more broader discussion than a discussion about game mechanics.  In the next few days I will lead a discussion on how to scale a game mechanically if you think you should but today I want to talk about the way games are written.

I am making a conscious effort to move from games that I have chosen to play because they will get players to games I want to play because I enjoy them.  I find a lot of the games that I play are very formulaic in the way that the adventures are designed and they seem to work on a smooth curve of difficulty as the players increase in skill.  Take, for example, the Adventure Paths of Paizo.  They are a really good idea if you want to run a campaign from first level up to around 18th level in the Pathfinder scaling of characters.  This is a long commitment to make to a game but the adventure paths are designed with a smooth transition from one level to the next where the power levels gradually increase.  These games actually are poorly reflective of the style of game that I like to play, but I introduced them as I know that players like that concept and I would get players at my table.

So what is the style of play that I prefer?  I prefer games that have everything available for experience.  If it is a Pathfinder styled world then it would be possible for the first level adventurer to plunge into an Ancient Dragon’s territory and perhaps get eaten because of it.  I prefer a game where all the players are in the picture to start with and it is the players that must decide what, who and when they are going to deal with in their own time.

I know that a lot of games will tell you that your players should face encounters that are in line with their power level to deal with but to me that smacks of complete fabrication.  How many of us get to choose who we deal with and face only appropriate encounters on a daily basis?  Also, a lot of the games that I like (and will be playing soon) are not level based games and allow players to start with high or low powered characters with no advice on scaling your encounters.

Consider the two different styled games from the point of view of this piece of text read by a GM (not really I made it up but you get my drift);

You listen to the farmers tell tales of the hamlet’s lost hero, Balderith who slew the black dragon Gilgamet in his swamp lair at the outskirts of the great city Tiltora.  He succeeded where all other beings of the ancient city had failed.  Alas he went in search of the great Titan Darx enthroned in his castle made of clouds beyond the mountain range known as Shards and never returned.

Now, if you were used to an adventuring style that scales everything to the player you may think that sounds like an awesome quest that will be filled with appropriate level encounters and decide to succeed where the poor hero Balderith had failed.  No real idea what the reason was he chased the Titan, after all he lives in a cloud castle, but it certainly sounds heroic…

Consider it from the other perspective though.  The Shard mountain range is not too far from the Hamlet, perhaps less than a weeks ride.  The terrain out that way is plains and not terribly known for its dangerous wildlife, more peasants and farmers.  Worst you might encounter is a peasant uprising really, or some goblins filching off the local populace.  The mountains can be a bit more dangerous but you would be unlucky to encounter anything terribly major before you reached the peaks and found a way onto the cloud castle.  So at perhaps fifth level you soak all that knowledge up and determine that perhaps dealing with a Titan at this stage would be a little unwise, particularly if he likes to waylay (or slay) heroes.

scaled image
“They say that the mighty Balrog itself lives in this well of demons – sooooo lets get the hell out of here…”

I think I have a tendency of dealing with the latter because the first ever game of AD&D I played was exactly in a campaign of that style.  The GM had an open world that he had developed a lot of material for and he was unforgiving.  I cannot count the number of character deaths that occurred in a place called Drachmar Swamp.  Its reputation was such that anyone who went near it never came out again and for some reason that drew all the other players to it like flies to honey.  I stayed the hell away from it as I did not really know the system and thus used my senses and questions to work out what to do and I never lost a character there.  In fact, the swamp was home to the big bad magical tyrant (Dark Master a.k.a. DM) which I found out later as my Cleric/Fighter came to serve him as a Dragon Rider.

Talk about games being scaled damn it!

OK, I know I have waffled on but I think the above points are pertinent.  You only truly come to the need of scaling a game if you are playing the first style of game that is a nice steady climb in difficulty as the players progress in power.  The reason you need to scale is the fact that the encounters are written with the presumption of a number of players at a certain power level and if you have more or less characters then you need more or less power in the encounter to match the difficulty expected of the encounter.  Without that scaling players will become bored or frustrated as they breeze through encounters or lose characters to encounters all the time.

With the second version of game play there is no scaling to be done.  You face what you face and that is it.  What the implications of that are is that the players actually need to do a lot more information gathering up front or they might get eaten.  A lot.  I have described a situation before on my social media a game that I played where a werewolf in the service of the Dark Master confronted my character wanting a ring he had taken off a dead mage.  I did not know the stats of a werewolf, nor had any dealing with them in the past and so the game went down a huge path of me trying to feel the werewolf out for power.  It was a role playing session that was interesting and evocative.  In the end I decided not to call the werewolf on his bluff and handed the ring over because I could not work out exactly how powerful he was and therefore I was not certain I would win an outright battle.

This is probably the reason that I like those style games a lot too.  They encourage intelligent skill use, inventive and broader use of feats rather than just combat.  If you know that your game is going to involve you working out a lot of the detail about a situation before leaping in to fight and you have to choose a feat, do you take Awareness over Toughness actually becomes a question without an obvious answer.  If the game is going to be a myriad of combats presented before you in ever increasing difficulty then it would be toughness every time.

OK, you sold me.  How do I do it?

Not that I am trying to sell anyone on the style of game that I like but I thought I would put in a few pointers here just in case you want to trial this style of game.

  1. Talk to your players before you do it.  Do not switch styles mid stream or the characters will die very quickly.  If you are playing the gradual increasing encounter game and then they find the pit of the Tarresque with no warning your players will hate you (for good reason).  Tell them the style of game that you want to move to and get their buy in.  If you do not get their buy in it will fail.
  2. An easy way of doing this is a hex crawl styled game which involves the players in an unknown wilderness searching their surrounding area.  This style game will allow for you to build your world gradually and thus reduce up front design.  If not then you will need to do a lot of up front thinking and design to be successful in this style game (resources like the City State of the Invincible Overlord can help reduce time frames for design)
  3. When you design look at what you want to add and choose the elements you want to use in it and disregard the stats like Challenge Ratings and the like.  Want a 20th level Wizard to live in the isolated tower at the edge of the glaciers, then put one there.  Don’t worry that the first level players will start near it, after all they will spend a lot of time trying to figure out how dangerous things are before they rush into it (if they got the idea right)
  4. If you are familiar with the idea of an open world design (I don’t want to write a novel here but look at this previous post if you want to find out more) then use it.  There should be things going on in the world that are completely independent of the players actions and the players actions should also be able to effect the goings on in the world.
  5. Give the players a lot of NPC’s to talk to and think about the ways that the players can gather information.  Places like libraries or long lost vaults of lore become important in this style of game as does divination and the tales that bards share.  There should be a wealth of information for the players to gather.
  6. Be flexible but also stick to your guns.  If the players start to move straight to the Titan’s castle and they don’t do the researc, have the Titan clean them up.  If they go in search of him based on bad information though then perhaps get his servants to catch them, strip them of gear and imprison them somewhere out of the way.  You must not let the players think they can just waltz in anywhere with no preparation and survive.  If I go for a swim in shark infested waters after cutting my leg on oyster shells I expect to get eaten.  That is why I don’t do it…

That should be enough to get you started.  It is a fun style for both players and GM/DM so use it if you like the sounds of it as it offers up some interesting role-playing opportunities.

In conclusion

So, this is largely the response I would have liked to have given on Reddit.  Don’t scale.  But of course a lot of people like to play those games where the players start off as unlikely heroes and build on their abilities over time to become able to take on Gods and Ancient Dragons.  That is OK if it is what you want to play.  The Adventure Paths that Paizo put out for its Pathfinder range are interesting and quite a few of them have great stories involved.  It is just not really the style, I have recently learnt, that I want to do for all that much longer.  I will do a post in the near future that takes a look at scaling games because you really need to do it in these style games or otherwise it all becomes too much of a walkover or a life and death battle every time and that becomes tiresome.  I just wanted to share with you all my ideas on what I truly like before I do.  Keep rolling!

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