AGE of Combat: Building Combat Encounters in the AGE System (Part 1 of 2)
Combat encounters are a staple of most tabletop roleplaying games, and that is certainly the case in the Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin. Combat in Dragon Age is fun, fast, and cinematic, with both heroes and villains using the game’s unique stunt system to perform daring feats of skill to quickly turn the tide of battle. Creating balanced combat encounters can be one of the hardest tasks for a Dragon Age game master, however, as the game lacks a simple system to gauge the relative power level of any given NPC or monster.
One reason for this is that despite the game’s simple mechanics and easy action-resolution system, there are a lot of moving parts during a combat encounter: from each opponent’s average attack roll and Defense, to Health totals, unique powers and abilities, and lastly Armor Rating, which is subtracted from the damage done on almost every successful hit in combat. When these factors are added to the wide degree of variation between different groups of player characters, it’s certainly understandable why Chris Pramas, the game’s lead designer, has gone on record to say the game’s designers do not plan to release a static formula that can be used to determine whether a fight between a certain group of PCs and adversaries is balanced.
That hasn’t stopped fans from wanting such a system, however.
When Open Design released its Midgard Bestiary Vol. 1 last year for the Adventure Game Engine, the system that powers the Dragon Age RPG, it did so to some pretty good reviews. After all, the book provided 50 new monsters for game masters to use with the system, all drawn from more than five years of Open Design products. One of the consistent critiques, though, was that the book did not include a rating system for the monsters, even though such a mechanic is not part of AGE system.
Taking all this into account, earlier this year I started working on a way to give game masters a very rough scoring system to determine the average strength of published adversaries for the game and how they rated against the typical power level of a group of player characters. What I’ve come up with is a “Threat Level” system that while it cannot replace the good judgment of an experienced game master, should provide a starting point for designing combat encounters.
How it works is that every adversary from the first and second boxed sets has been given a Threat Level that corresponds to the average combat scores of different levels of player characters. Because Dragon Age characters do not greatly increase in power between any given experience level, the Threat Levels were grouped into common sense pairings—with a few exceptions.
The difference between level 1 and level 2 is pretty big, for example. This is because at level 2, characters get to boost a primary ability (usually the ability that drives their basic attack) and take a primary focus (also, usually the focus that aids their main attack). The combination of these factors makes the second-level bump to attack rolls and survival meaningful. The power increase characters get from their specialization talents at 6th, 8th, and 10th level also make those natural places to start a new Threat Level grouping.
Table 1.1 Threat Levels
|Threat Level||Character Level||Threat Rating|
|-1||Below 1st level||A Simple threat for 1st level characters|
|0||Below 1st level||A Standard threat for 1st level characters|
|1||1st level||A Dangerous threat for 1st level characters|
|2||2nd and 3rd level||A Deadly threat for 1st level characters, a Dangerous threat for characters of 2nd and 3rd level|
|3||4th and 5th level||A Deadly threat for 2nd and 3rd level characters, a Dangerous threat for characters of 4th and 5th level|
|4||6th and 7th level||A Deadly threat for 4th and 5th level characters, a Dangerous threat for characters of 6th and 7th level|
|5||8th and 9th level||A Deadly threat for 6th and 7th level characters, a Dangerous threat for characters of 8th and 9th level|
|6||10th level||A Deadly threat for 8th and 9th level characters, a Dangerous threat for characters of 10th level|
|6+||Above 10th level||A Deadly threat for characters of 10th level|
The accompanying table clearly shows how a given adversary’s Threat Level corresponds to the average level of a group of player characters. It also further defines the adversaries’ threat by a Threat Rating system, which is a shorthand method for game masters to determine how difficult a fight between a group of players and a group of adversaries is likely to be. The ratings are expressed in four broad terms: simple, standard, dangerous and deadly, and they reflect the level to which the adversaries’ combat scores match those of the player characters.
As explained in the Dragon Age Game Master’s Guide from the second boxed set, developing a combat encounter starts with using a number of adversaries equal to the number of player characters and with similar combat scores to the player characters. Using the Threat Level system, this would be an “at-level” encounter, which as an example might include a group of four Threat Level 2 monsters facing off against a group of four 2nd- or 3rd-level PCs. As the Dragon Age rules note, this would be a fight the players would be expected to win about 50 percent of the time because the scores of the monsters and PCs are roughly equal and only the luck of the dice rolls would determine the winner. Most combat encounters should give the players a better than 50 percent chance to be victorious, however, or it can lead to a lot of dead characters and disgruntled players. That’s why the Threat Level system considers at-level fights to be Dangerous, or with a good chance of character death. Most fights should be fought against a group of adversaries one Threat Level below the player characters, which the system considers to be a Standard combat. A fight against a group of enemies two levels below the player characters is considered to be a Simple combat, and this type of fight is one the players are expected to win handily. Finally, a fight against adversaries one Threat Level above the player characters is considered Deadly. This is a fight where the players have less than a 50 percent chance for survival. These types of fights should never be random: if the game master does use adversaries of this level against the players, it should be for a very specific, story-driven reason.
As the preceding paragraph should make clear, the Threat Level system takes some things for granted. First, it’s based on a fight between an equal number of player characters and adversaries. Adding more adversaries to the fight can quickly turn a Standard encounter Deadly, as the extra attacks the enemies get every round can quickly eat up the additional Health of the players. When adding additional opponents to a combat, start by adding an additional number of Simple opponents (those two Threat Levels below the characters) equal to half the number of characters. For example, a good way to test out adding more enemies against a group of four 2nd- or 3rd-level characters would be to have them fight a group of six Threat level 0 adversaries. Use that fight to gauge future encounters before overwhelming players with opponents.
Also, the benchmark for creating adversary Threat Levels is a group of four adventurers, including two fighters, one rogue, and one mage. This creates a fairly balanced snapshot of player abilities at a given level, but be cautious should your game group include an overabundance of any one class. A group of all warriors will have higher Armor Rating and Health than the baseline group used here. A group of all mages will have lower scores, but more healing ability and spells that can target multiple enemies, and so on. Finally, the benchmark group was created using a “low magic” campaign framework. Warriors did not gain truly heavy armor until after 6th level, and magic weapons and armor were not introduced until 7th level. This was done to model the “dark fantasy” milieu of the base Dragon Age setting, and so game masters will have to account for differences in power level should they have been a little freer with the magical loot. If your 5th-level warriors are outfitted in magical heavy plate armor and flaming bastard swords, the basic Threat Level math is going to break down a bit. (Which, again, is the danger of trying to create a uniform system for combat ratings of adversaries.) If that’s the case, try adding half again as many adversaries to any given fight as a gauge of power level. If the players steam roll through the battle, you may have to adjust all Threat Ratings one category higher to match your particular group’s prowess.
A special note about solitary monsters: The Dragon Age game, unlike other roleplaying systems, doesn’t do a very good job of modeling fights between a group of characters and a single, extremely tough opponent. Either the brute has such high attack bonuses and Armor Rating that it overpowers the PCs, or, a string of lucky rolls by the characters who get to attack four times as often as the bad guy quickly reduce the enemy to a bloody smear, which is certainly an anti-climactic finish to an adventure. A good rule of thumb when trying to capture the feel of a large, significant threat is to mix Threat Levels within a group of opponents. Give your terrifying Big Bad Guy or Gal a small group of lackeys to help hinder the party and divide their attention. A good example of this in the Dragon Age game is the ogre. Players should almost never encounter a group of ogres equal in number to the player characters. But at the same time, four healthy adventurers of a comparable level will likely steamroll a solitary ogre if they can focus all their attention on it. Depending on the size of the party, give an ogre two or three genlock or hurlock companions that are one or two Threat Levels below the party. This ensures that the additional opponents shouldn’t overwhelm the characters, but at the same time make the ogre that much more of a threat when the players cannot focus fire on it.
The Threat Levels presented on the accompanying table of adversaries from the Dragon Age game are most often garnered from a direct comparison of combat ability scores to the averages of a certain level of player characters. Every monster is different, though, and while many might have two or three scores in line with characters of a certain level, they might have another score that tips the balance, such as a very high Defense or Armor Rating. In those cases, and in cases where the monsters have a special defense that makes them uniquely able to avoid players’ attacks—such as the incorporeal ability of the Shade or the special characteristics of a Cave Beetle Swarm—the adversary could be shifted into a higher Threat Level than its base scores would indicate.
So while the Threat Level system makes a good starting point for designing combat encounters, it is not meant to supersede the judgment of a skilled and experienced game master. Game masters are encouraged to use the system as a guide to a group of monsters that should make for an appropriate challenge for a group of characters at a certain level, and then further tweak the encounter based on their knowledge of the gaming group’s strengths and weaknesses. No system could cover all the variables between different groups of players, but hopefully the Threat Level system will take some of the guess work out of building satisfying combat encounters for the Dragon Age RPG and AGE system in general. Happy hunting.
Table 1.2 The Threat Levels of Dragon Age adversaries.
|Adversary Name||Threat Level||Boxed Set||Page|
|Cave Beetle Swarm||1||2||24|
|Mabari War Dog||0||1||31|
* The Blight Owl appears in the Dragon Age RPG Quick Start Guide, available free from greenronin.com.
More AGE System sourcebooks, adventures and magazine issues from Kobold Quarterly and Open Design:
Who Watches the Watch Fires? – Free PDF adventure