The downside to an RPG without levels is that its difficult for Game Masters to gauge what constitutes a challenging or easy combat encounter. Damage is less consistent than in d20 systems because of how many dice are rolled, which makes combat more random and inconsistent. The lack of Challenge Ratings makes it difficult to compare the relative power of creatures to the players, which makes it more difficult to judge whether a powerful creature has the ability to wipe out the players or be run over with barely an effort.
To help ease the process for Game Masters wanting to run a game in UTTAS, the designer has put together some guidelines for building interesting encounters ranging a wide spectrum of difficulties. This includes calculating average damage, setting up the terrain, telegraphing conditions, and forecasting future challenges.
What is an Encounter? Edit
An encounter is anything requiring the player to roll dice to complete the adventure. These need not always be battles; encounters can be any type of challenge that requires the players to think carefully about how they proceed.
What all encounters have in common is that the best ones are constructed like puzzles. Some have solutions as simple as "hit the monster as hard as you can," while other creatures require elaborate experimentation to find their weakness. Non-combat encounters such as chase scenes will require the player to find short-cuts to close the distance with a faster enemy, and progression in dungeons can be halted by locked doors require a variety of tools to bust open.
This portion of the guide will mostly focus on building combat encounters, but larger battles and dungeons will need non-combat challenges to keep them varied and interesting. The developer is also making the following assumptions:
- The Game Master wants to run a homebrew setting using no prepublished material other than what's in the UTTAS SRD. UTTAS has no pre-published modules as of the writing for this guide, and much of the game's draw lies in granting Game Masters the freedom to make whatever they want.
- The session the Game Master wants to run is self-contained and operates off of minimal plot and exposition. Story is important to role playing, but the bulk of a Game Master's time is always going to be spent designing encounters.
- Every encounter the Game Master designs is meant to be beaten the same session that the challenge is introduced. Players will typically attack whatever is on the map with the assumption that every enemy presented to them is killable, and it's easier to design an unwinnable encounter than a well-balanced one.
Tracking Damage Output Edit
Because UTTAS doesn't have an equivalent to Challenge Ratings, the best way to monitor how difficult an encounter is to track how much damage the enemies should be dealing and taking. Even though the sheer number of dice rolled in UTTAS makes damage output inconsistent, it's possible to keep track of with a little leg work on the Game Master's part.
When designing combat encounters, Game Masters should have the following data about their players' characters on hand:
- How many dice of damage of damage each character can do with their most powerful attack
- How high each of their defenses are, or at least the highest and lowest defenses of the entire group.
- The character's Dodge, Discipline, and Stamina Characteristics.
These two figures will let the Game Master roughly calculate how much damage their monsters should be taking and dealing. For example, suppose that you're designing an encounter for group in which characters have the following statistics:
- Their attacks deal between 7 and 10 dice of damage.
- Defenses range from 18 to 30 Physical defense, 15 to 27 Energy Defense, 12 and 25 Mental Defense, and 0 and 10 Power Defense.
- Dodge and Discipline scores range from 24 to 28
- Stamina scores ranging from 48 to 60.
The average roll on a six-sided die is 3.5, meaning the party's damage will average between 24 and 35 damage on per character. Any attack dealing an average of 12 damage is practically useless against the group, so any attack in the encounter should have no less than 4 dice, with an average of 14 damage. Finally, the 3d6 bell curve means rolling over a 14 a less than 10 percent chance, so Accuracy scores under 10 are next to useless.
What comes next is deciding how many hits the characters should be able to take before they fall unconscious, which will dictate the pace of battle. The more hits it takes to knock out a single character, the longer and more drawn out the battles are going to get. Continuing on this example, the designer assumes the Game Master wants to run a 2-3 hour fight with a variety of enemies, including a a mass of weaker foes, a couple more competent fighters leading the grunts, and one powerful boss monster.
- The grunts shouldn't be dealing much damage or hitting often, so they should be making successful accuracy checks less than half the time and take more than 5 successful attacks to knock out the weakest character.
- The competent enemies should be hitting around half the time and knocking out toughest character in about 5 hits.
- The boss should be hitting the character with the lowest Dodge or Discipline nearly every time and knocking the toughest character out out in 3 or 4 hits.
- Taking all of this in, we can get a range of damage and accuracy that the characters should have.
- Grunts should have an average Accuracy of 10 to 11 and deal around 6d6 damage.
- Competent enemies should have an Accuracy of 14 or 15 and deal between 10d6 and 12d6.
- The boss monster should have about 17 Accuracy and deal between 13 and 15 dice.
Finally, calculating how much damage the enemies should be taking on average will let the Game Master dictate the pace of battle. Using the previous data about the players' average damage output, the Game Master can gauge how much defense the enemies should have to fit the pace they want for the battle.
- If the Game Master wants the characters with the weakest attacks to knock out the grunts in about 5 hits, the grunts should have around 15 defense and 45 Stamina
- If the competent fighters are meant to be taken down in around 3 hits by the hardest hitting characters, their defense should be about 20 with 60 Stamina.
- The boss should take over 10 hits from the best attacks before falling over, meaning they might have 25 Defense and about 100 Stamina.
This is just an example of how this process might work in action. The amount of damage the enemies take and dish out are going to vary depending on the needs of the battle and the tone the Game Master is going for, and these numbers are going to scale as the players increase in power. However, the advantage of calculating damage this way is that it's neutral to any flavor text, letting the Game Master apply these stats to any encounter they want to build regardless of setting or creature type.
Taking Shortcuts Edit
There's one important trick to Game Mastering in UTTAS, and that is taking as many shortcuts as possible. Players are never going to see their enemies' character sheets, so there's no need to fill out everything or keep track of Character Points on them. What Game Masters need to keep track of are the bare minimum statistics, as follows:
- Base Characteristics
- Dodge, Discipline, Speed, Health, and Stamina.
- Physical, Energy, Mental, Power Defense.
- Combat-relevant skills, such Contortionist, Deduction, Perception, Stealth, and Tactics.
- Any Abilities the Game Master wants to put against the party.
- All relevant attacks, including their Accuracy and Dodge penalties, damage, and additional effects.
- Equipment players can pick up and use once they defeat the enemy.
This process of creating abbreviated character sheets is better than making characters from scratch, but it's still more time consuming than looking up a monster in a bestiary and running the stats out of the book, something that is admittedly impossible in UTTAS in its current state. To simplify the process of constructing creatures further, the developer recommends doing the following:
- If the monsters are all part of the same species and have more powerful variations, create one abbreviated sheet to act as a base line for the race, then copy that base for the various iterations of the creature you want to use, making additions and alterations as necessary for the more advanced versions of the creature.
- For example, say the game is taking place in a forest filled with bears, and all the bears in the area are hungry enough to attack the characters on site. There might be 3 types of bears, each of which is larger and tougher to put down than the other. Create one sheet for the smallest type, say a black bear, then copy that sheet and increase its stats for the next most powerful, like a brown bear. Repeat this process for each variety of bear until satisfied with the variety of bears.
- Create templates that can be easily applied to a variety of creatures. These templates might increase or decrease the creature's stats, give them skills, and grant them new powers. Don't just limit these templates to physical variations; make job templates to mimic the necessary skills for different professions, emotional templates to simulate personalities, or environmental templates to give creatures living in different habitats the skills and abilities they need to survive in that ecosystem.
- For example, say the game involves traveling to all sorts of outdoor environments, each with its own variety of bear. You have the base templates for the different sized bears, but you want them to specialize in their environments. You make 5 environmental templates to reflect this: arctic, cities, desert, forests, and plains. Every environmental template comes with its own Terrain Mastery Trait to reflect the creature's adaptation to that habitat, and from there they receive different skills and powers to help them depending on the ecosystem; arctic bears have higher Strength and swim speeds to break ice and move between floating icebergs, city bears might use Charm to act cute and convince humans to give them food, desert bears will have Life Support traits to help them survive for longer without food or water, forest bears have better Climb checks to climb up trees, and plain bears have higher Run speeds to keep up with faster prey.
- Create powers ahead of time, then copy and paste them to enemies as the situations you want to pull player into call. If group of soldiers are all from the same organization, it makes sense for them to have similar gear.
- Only add flavorful powers and effects once you know the context behind how the units are going to be used. Flavor can be generated spontaneously, but units and character sheets cannot be.
The more you can group up skills and powers into easily applied packages, the faster it will be to create characters. Done properly, it might take as short as five minutes to generate an abbreviated sheet out of thin air in case the players do something completely unexpected and force the Game Master to come up with something on the fly.
Constructing Memorable Challenges Edit
Once the Game Master has a general idea of what the players are capable of and have developed shortcuts for generating creatures, its time for them to come up with combat scenarios for players to fight through. This where the game starts taking more physical shape, in the sense that Game Master needs to start considering terrain, enemy placement, and group tactics. While not every encounter needs an elaborate set up and execution, a little forethought is the difference between a road-stop on the players way to their next objective and an epic fight.
Here's a simple, example scenario: the players are going to be traversing an empty plain on their way to the next town, one without many hills or trees, and the game needs a fight between towns to kill time and give the party something to do. There isn't much in the way of interesting obstacles because the battle is taking place out in farm-land, and the enemies don't have much more motivation for fighting the party other than the fact that they have stuff to take.
The easiest thing to do is give all the enemies one ranged attack and one melee attack, and then just have the enemies attack using either of the two depending on where the closest enemy is. It's quick to set up and run, but its also boring; the enemies in this scenario are little more than sacks of hit points for players to mow down one at a time, and there are no clever strategies players will have to come up with the finish off the enemy beyond maybe creating themselves some cover to protect their ranged attackers.
There are two things a Game Master can do to make this situation more interesting: change the enemies, or change the environment.
- If you want to keep the empty plain to make the game easier to play with minimal set up at the table, going from 1 type of enemy to 4 or 5 will spice up the encounter considerable. Maybe have every enemy on the front-line wear heavy armor and shields to blunt the effects of physical attacks and provide cover to ranged attackers. Maybe create a small cavalry unit with high enough movement to close in on vulnerable players or flank the group from the sides. Put a couple of drummers in the back of the army and have them encourage their allies with rhythmic drumming.
- If you have time to set up encounters at the table, draw in some obstacles to give some shape to the battlefield. Maybe make the fight take place on a hill, with the enemy raining down arrows as the players charge up the hill. Throw some trees and giant rocks to provide both players and enemies cover to hide behind. Draw out a river and a bridge to make a bottle neck that narrows the playing field.
The possibilities for creating memorable challenges are endless; this is the Game Master's sandbox, and the only constraints they have are self-imposed. That said, with limitless possibility comes a lack of direction, and it can take a while for new Game Masters to get a feel for what makes up an interesting fight. To assist Game Masters in making interesting encounters, the developer has the following tips:
- Don't have only one type of enemy. Create 3 or 4 basic unit types that compliment each others' abilities and provide a different type of challenge.
- If the battle is outside, consider the type of objects likely to be present on the field. Cities will have buildings that ranged attackers can place themselves on and attack from in relative safety, plains have hills that obscure vision and bushes that provide cover, ect.
- Consider the vertical elements of the battlefield. Flat planes are easy to design, but high structures add shape and character to a fight.
- Don't just use straight forward attack powers. Give the enemies Drains to soften up the players, Dispels to get rid of Armor powers on heavily defended characters, and Images to trick players into thinking objects are around them when they really aren't.
- Flavorful isn't the same as memorable. If the encounter's structure is boring, no amount of added lore is going to invest the players into the battle.
Pacing and Encounter Length Edit
Pacing is arguably the most important factor in any encounter. Battles that too short feel pointless and leave players out of the combat, while engagements that are too long run the risk of losing player interest. Pacing sets the tone for both the fight and the campaign, adding tension or wearing down the players to make them feel desperate to end the battle.
Just as with constructing memorable fights and aiming for proper difficulty, pacing is entirely dependent on the kind of game the Game Master is running. The key isn't what looking for the one perfect length of the fight, but rather what kinds of pacing fit what kinds of combat encounters.
- Long, epic battles seem awesome in concept, but in practice they're a pain in the ass to run and will bore players when they go on for too long. To find the right pacing, consider what kind of running battle the encounter is.
- If the idea is to make the players feel like they're a part of an epic siege like the battle of Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings or the invasion of Normandy on D-Day during World War II, consider making the fight a series of smaller encounters and design the battle more like a dungeon. Provide the players with safe-spots where they can rest up and plan for the next fight, and throw out random encounters or long-distance area of effect attacks to keep them on their toes and stop them from just setting up camp and not proceeding forward.
- If the players aren't supposed to take long rests in between fights to take on every encounter in the running battle, give them a logical reason why they can't. Disrupt their rests with periodic attacks, give them time-sensitive objects that force them to move forward, and provide healing items to keep characters healthy and able to press on.
- Shorter encounters are generally better at holding player interest, but a battle designed to last only 1 or 2 rounds is just a time waster. The preparation time used to prepare these fights well be better spent constructing larger fights in a session, and they're best used to provide players with information about future battles and story leads.
- If the encounter is meant to be an ambush, keep the fight short and sweet. Pull out the enemies' strongest attacks right off the bat and watch the players panic, but don't put in so many enemies that the fight feels like a grind or an unwinnable scenario.
If the Game Master finds their encounter lasting too long or being too short, they can try some of the following to lengthen or shorten the encounter:
- Increase or decrease the enemy's defenses. Higher defense means enemies will survive one or two more hits, and decreasing defense will let them be taken out more quickly.
- Add or subtract more enemies. More enemies makes encounters longer, and less foes makes encounters shorter. Any Game Master considering this option might consider unleashing these foes in waves instead of just adding them to the map, effectively adding 2 or 3 mini-battles on top of the main one.
- Add in some shortcuts that lead towards vulnerable enemies that can only be accessed by particular players, or placing vulnerable targets in positions where players are unlikely to immediately attack them.
Non-Combat Encounters Edit
Non-combat encounters such as negotiations, chase scenes, and heists are often more difficult to design that battles. Battles have 1 obvious path to success and 3 outcomes: one side has to force the other into a position in which they cannot continue fighting, and the players are either victorious, dead, or forced to retreat. Non-combat encounters aren't as simple, as they often have two or three paths to success and anywhere between 1 and 5 different outcomes, depending on how open ended the challenge is. Outside of skill rolls, there aren't many dice rolls involved in non-combat challenges. Instead, players need to rely on logic and their wits to work their way through the encounter.
Anything from conversations to well-planned crimes can be puzzles, but most puzzles have the following commonalities:
- Players should have every resource they need to solve the puzzle when they first become aware of the problem, unless the players are clearly meant to track down the pieces and come back to it later.
- The puzzle's solution should follow a consistent logical through-line that can be deciphered through experimentation and critical thinking.
- If the players are on the right track but doesn't have the correct answer, the puzzle needs to acknowledge the players' progress and encourage them to press on.
Developing a good puzzle is often as difficult for the Game Master as it is for the players to solve, as the only real way to learn what makes a good puzzle is to practice making them and throwing them at players. If the Game Master thinks they have a solid concept for a non-combat challenge, they should work it into the session and see how well the players handle it.
Defining Difficulty Edit
How difficult an encounter should be is entirely dependent on what the Game Master is trying to accomplish with that battle. An ambush or short distraction to keep players on their toes should look deadly for one round, then be beaten back quickly. A boss battle should be grinding and drawn out, if not impossible to win, when fought by conventional means. Difficulty is a spectrum based on tone, and the harder a battle is, the harsher the game's tone becomes.
More important than making a fight hard is making it hard for the right reasons. There aren't really any concrete do's-and-don'ts for this, but Game Masters should generally keep the following in mind:
- If the enemy is meant to be unbeatable by conventional means, it should be either immediately obvious how powerful this foe is, or the players should discover the gap between themselves and the enemy quickly enough to still have an opportunity to regroup and come up with a plan.
- Never throw effects at players that they have no chance of surviving, nor hurt them without there being an identifiable source. The more undetectable or unsurvivable the source of damage is, the more unfair the encounter is.
- Players should always have an avenue of escape out of a poorly fought encounter, though said path shouldn't always be obvious.
- If one or two characters die, the players screwed up. If more than half the characters died and the battle isn't an obvious suicide mission, the Game Master screwed up.
- Every tool the players need to defeat a conventionally impossible enemy should be in the environment the impossible foe exists in.
- A difficult encounter the players have to struggle to win will always be more satisfying than an easy one, but a campaign that's nothing but difficult encounters will no fun to struggle through.
- Everyone in the group should have a chance to feel awesome, but they should never feel invincible. If there's no chance of failure, then the battle isn't worth running unless it builds to a harder fight.
- Game Masters shouldn't just pull new challenges out of their ass just to annoy the players. If the new element doesn't fit into the internal logic of the encounter, then it shouldn't be there.
- Don't design enemies for the sole purpose of killing players unless the group has, in the campaign story's logic, have truly brought it upon themselves. Tabletop RPGs are not competitions between the Game Master and players, and the moment they become that, they cease being fun for anyone.
Making a difficult encounter isn't always as simple as giving every character more damage dice or defense, or putting more enemies on the battlefield. They will make the fight harder, but not always in a compelling way. Instead of jacking up the numbers of enemies or damage dealt during a fight, consider the following alternatives:
- Use control-oriented powers such as Entangles or Flashes to reduce the player's movement or blind them.
- Put parties with high mobility into environments where they can't make the best use of their movement speeds, or set up traps that punish players for rushing forward into battle without carefully examining their surroundings.
- Place low-defense enemies in positions where high-offense characters cannot hit them.
- If the players are mostly ranged attackers, rush them with high mobility enemies and place every other creature on an elevated platform for cover.
- Parties relying on Aids and other stat-enhancing Powers will be significantly weakened by enemies with Dispel.
Shaping the Battlefield Edit
With a general idea of what every character is capable of, what kind of enemies to put against the party, and how these foes will be placed, the Game Master can put together a map incorporating all of these elements. Aside from making the Game Master's job of measuring distance easier, maps add character to a fight and give players landmarks to check out for story leads and rewards. The map's shape is entirely dependent on the challenge it's designed for, but Game Master's should consider the following when making maps:
- Don't make maps larger than they need to be. Oversized maps will, at most, prolong fights and increase the space you need to fill with obstacles.
- If the battle takes place indoors, make sure the internal structure of the building makes logical sense. don't just add rooms because you need to have a certain number of battles. One trick to help this is to Google images for building floor plans for buildings and use those as an outline, constructing encounters that make full use of the building instead of carving out fights in isolation of each other.
- If the battle takes place outdoors, don't just make the fight take place in an empty field. Add in boulders, bushes, and trees for cover, streams to split the field, and hills to set up strategic locations.
- Don't just consider the physical shape of the field. Characters are going to create noise as they fight, and that's going to attract attention from nearby NPCs.
- Vertical elements are difficult to implement into a 2d plane, but they'll also add depth to battles. This can be as simple as penciling in elevations for various surfaces to creating multiple maps for each plane
Injecting Flavor Edit
By this point, the encounter is effectively finished; the Game Master knows what challenges the players will face, they have stat sheets for each creature in the fight, and they have a map representing the battlefield. All it needs now is flavor, or fine details that flesh out the setting and connect the players to the world their characters exist in. What details are important is entirely dependent on what the Game Master is trying to accomplish with the battle and its setting, but these tips are universally applicable.
- NPCs aren't always just stat blocks and obstacles; they're people, and they should interact with the players as if they were. Make up some personality traits for them, and if they carry treasure, put a few useless items like family pictures or dolls that speak to the enemy's interests and motivations.
- Tell stories with the environment. Say the battle is located in a house in a post-apocalyptic setting where the party finds the skeletons of a family previously residing there; what was the family in that house doing before they died? Does the father have their own office, and if so what kind of work was he doing there? Did their teenage son have a porn stash hidden under his bed or in his closet? Did the daughter or mother have a diary, and if so what did they write about? Subtle clues like this flesh out the setting and give players things to think about.
- Link encounters and zones together through puzzles. This makes the setting feel interconnected and more cohesive.
Differences in Kind Edit
The worst thing a game master can do with their campaign is only rely on a single type of encounter. A campaign built solely on combat is draining and gets dull after a while, role playing and conversation puzzles make characters unsuited toward interaction skills feel useless, and environmental puzzles can bore players who are just there for fighting. A good campaign requires a mix of the three, though the proportions depend on the group's make-up and the adventure the Game Master wants to set them upon.
For an example, let's assume the group mostly wants to fight monsters, and the Game Master is gearing their campaign in a combat oriented direction.
For proportions of combat to role-playing and puzzles, 50 percent combat, 30 percent role-play, and 20 percent puzzle is a decent mixture. Half of the players' time will be spent fighting, a little over a quater of it will go towards providing context for the group's battles and give them goals to strive towards, and the remainder is meant to keep them thinking and break up battles so the players don't spend too much time partaking in one activity.
For stretches that the players will be participating in one fight after another, it's important to keep in mind what the cap-stone fight of the dungeon or story is going to be and build towards it. If the main boss is going to have an ability that can potentially wipe out any character in one or two hits, forecast it in a smaller battle where the players have a smaller chance of dying.
Don't run the same encounter twice in a row, even if the make-up of each enemy group is exactly the same. Change up the terrain to make players alter their tactics, give the enemies different weapons or abilities to catch the players off guard, and make sure the foes have a variety of different defenses and attacks to change how players approach the fight.
If the Game Master wants to lead the players into a giant fight through a string of smaller combat encounters, they should design the major encounter first and use the preceding battles to introduce elements of the final battle. This lets the Game Master put the players through diverse encounters that set up a bigger challenge, building tension that pays off with a complex and multi-layered battle testing their ability to learn from previous encounters.
If players start relying on a single tactic to carry them through fights, the best way to change up fights is to introduce enemies that will neutralize that tactic. Power users will be crippled by Dispel, (con)