A few weeks ago I was running my Night’s Black Agents (NBA) game, and the agents had just come off of one kinetic op, and right into another (because the timing was critical). They were banged up and their skill pools were somewhat depleted. Their opposition at the other site was not overwhelming but was going to be tough. Fast Forward. They are in the middle of the fight, and several of them are rolling poorly, and the tough encounter is now getting much harder. I have three vampires bottled up in a lab, and if they break out, they will overwhelm the agents. So rather than just crushing them, I task two of them to secure samples, taking them out of the fight, and I take one vampire and steer them at the agents, making for tense combat, but one that is winnable. In the end, the agents did defeat all the vampires but also got pretty banged up, and it made for a very exciting session.
Afterward, I reflected on exactly what I had done – that is, I made in-game adjustments to the difficulty of the encounter in order to make the encounter exciting. I could have easily overwhelmed them if I had wanted to, but rather I chose to adjust the difficulty of the encounter to better match the players. Was I going to flat out let them win? No. There need to be chances of failure to keep tension, but at the same time just overwhelming them would not seem fun.
I realized that those adjustments are things I have done for years, in nearly every game I have played. It is not something that the rulebook taught me to do, and it is not a thing that any game codified in its rules. Despite all that, it is a skill that I have, one that I use, and when I talked to some other GMs they have it too. So let’s talk more about this skill/technique.
The Little Adjustments We Do
As the GM, we are the main interface to the rest of the game world. We possess knowledge beyond what the players know in the game, which extends to things like stat blocks and the contents of encounters. We are also, in most cases, the arbitrator of the rules of the game, and in many games empowered to determine the difficulty of a given task or opposition. It is within all of these abilities that lies our ability to make adjustments to the game on the fly. A task that was DC 15 can become DC 13 if we want, or vice versa. We can be arbitrary about it, or we can wrap it in some narrative dressing, but when it comes down to it, we have the ability to adjust the difficulty of the game as it is played.
Why Would We Adjust?
There are a number of reasons why we might make adjustments. From my own tenure as GM, here are some of the reasons I have done it:
- Cooling off or Heating up a Combat – the combat encounter has become too easy or too hard, and adjustments are made to get it into that sweet middle spot.
- Prep Mistake – This one often ties to the one above, but when you prepped the session you set the encounter to one difficulty, but in play realize it needs to be adjusted up or down.
- The player is having a bad night – The player is not rolling well and can’t catch a break. They have become frustrated and they are not having fun – and potentially it’s impacting everyone else. (Note – I don’t adjust things if a player is on a roll. If they are doing well, I don’t knock them down).
- Narrative Positioning – The players have described action or some part of the environment in a creative way that would make things easier. I will make an adjustment to reward creativity.
In most cases, I am making adjustments to fine-tune combat, be it to correct a prep mistake or to dial in the tension of the combat scene.
Ways to make Adjustments
How you make your adjustments will have a lot to do with the game you are playing. The best adjustments operate within the rules system, in the places where we have some latitude. Here is a list of some of the more popular ways I have made adjustments.
Hit Point Adjustments
This one is easy and works in any game that has a point system for taking damage. You can give or take away points from NPCs to make combat go longer or shorter, respectively. Sometimes, I just add some points to an NPC, sometimes I just give the PCs the kill if the creature is a point or two away from zero, etc.
This one is also straightforward. You can adjust the difficulty of a check up or down to make it harder or easier (depending on how your system works). This is true for things like skill checks, but it is also true for the difficulty of hitting an NPC in combat. Sometimes, I will give a narrative explanation, other times I just simply will say if a challenge passes or fails.
Narrative Positioning Bonuses
This one is giving a reward or penalty based on some description of the task or attack. The bonus is never anything too powerful in either direction, but enough to make it meaningful. This one is good in Powered by the Apocalypse games where I can give a +1 Forward for something good that the player has come up with.
This is my favorite adjustment technique. You give the NPCs motivations beyond “kill all characters”. Then you have the narrative latitude to decide if an NPC is going to press an attack or follow their other motivation. That motivation might be that they don’t want to die and that they may run or surrender. They may have another objective like to get something or someone to safety, so they would rather escape combat rather than stay and fight. This achieves the same goal as the next item, but it allows you to have the NPC change their mind and re-engage the combat if you need to dial it back up.
Another technique I often use is waves of opponents. I will prep 2-3 waves of opponents, with the first wave clearly visible when the encounter starts and the other waves arriving mid-combat. If the players clear that first wave easily, then the second wave engages at once, if the first wave turns out to give them problems, then I delay the second wave, or I reduce the second wave’s numbers, etc. Because they are not visible to the players, they don’t see me making NPCs vanish before their eyes.
Banking for Future Use (Offscreen)
This is a favorite of mine in PbtA games. If I need to cool off an encounter that is starting to overwhelm the players, then when I get to take a move, I will always pick the one that happens offscreen. This then takes some immediate pressure off the players, while at the same time, keeping some tension, as they know something else is going to happen.
Those are just a handful of the techniques I have used. There are many other ones, and I suspect you know a bunch for the games that you are well versed in.
Do you Do This All The Time?
It is worth saying that I don’t do this with every encounter. Failure in games is important, and sometimes it’s fine to let characters get overrun and have to retreat. These techniques are a tool – one that I use when I feel that the play of the game is not aligned with the feel of the game I am going for. Then I will use one of these tools to put those into closer alignment.
Should We Talk About This?
In most games, this is not explicitly defined as a GM role, and yet, for many of us, we are using these techniques to make our games more enjoyable for us and our players. Should we talk about this with our players?
At Session Zero
If there is a time for having this discussion I think it is during Session Zero when it is more of a theoretical discussion and used to set expectations. Telling the players that these are techniques you use, and asking if they are ok with them, is a good way to get some consent, as well as perhaps to set some boundaries on when you will use it, or certain techniques you will or won’t use.
During The Session
Personally, I never do this. This to me is “making the sausage”, which is the thing the players do not want to see, because it may ruin the experience of play. When I do these things, I just do them at the table and move along.
After The Session
I don’t always tell my players if I have made any adjustments about a session, but if I did, it would be after – but even then, I am not inclined to tell them. My one exception is that if the explanation will help teach a newer GM, then I am fine pulling back the curtain and explaining to them how some of these things work.
You Made Your Point Hans
RPGs are not always predictable, in a good way. On any given night an encounter can be spectacular or a flop. You can, and there is nothing wrong with it, leave everything to chance, let the dice fall where they may. But for many GMs, we are looking to create a certain kind of experience, and sometimes that means making some adjustments to encounters to tune them to the desired effect. In order to do that, we can employ a number of tools, based on the games we are playing. When done well, and for the right reasons, you can help craft memorable experiences.
What about you? Do you make in-game adjustments? What is the most common reason you do it? What are the techniques you like to employ?