Encounters and Design

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Abilities Outside of Combat: While some abilities are restricted in uses per encounter, this doesn't mean that they can't be used outside of a combat setting. Many of these abilities are designed with encounters in mind, but outside of stressful or challenging situations they are still available for characters to find creative uses for. Such abilities are typically usable every few minutes, as appropriate for your group and the pace of your game.

What is an Encounter?

An encounter, in Legend, is any situation where player characters are challenged, threatened, or have the opportunity to gain something of value. Encounters should generally have some narrative significance. For instance, a party of 10th-level characters isn't really threatened by a couple of 2nd-level bandits and won't get anything useful out of them, so there's not much point in making an encounter out of it. On the other hand, dozens of individually-weak bandits might form a Myriad (a sort of mob or swarm monster) that a more powerful foe might hurl at the player characters to wear them down as part of a larger encounter. Similarly, if simply encountering a creature will wipe out the player characters, you could instead make an encounter where the creature is basically a part of the environment (like 1st-level students fleeing as a giant radioactive iguana rampages through their high school) and is probably as much you need to make of the situation.

As the GM you'll throw multiple encounters at your players to challenge them over the course of your game to resolve their characters' conflicts within the world, bring excitement to their adventures, add difficulty to what they wish to accomplish, or just to make things more interesting for the game. Typically, a Legend encounter models a specific conflict or challenge that can be resolved quickly. In a combat encounter, this means a single skirmish or battle between known antagonists that are powerful enough to challenge each other.

Since an encounter is an abstract measure of time it can vary somewhat in length, but certain abilities work only a certain number of times per encounter. These sorts of restrictions are meant to model special moves, limited resources, or otherwise exhaustible abilities that can be used in the space of a short conflict, but not constantly or with regularity. As such their use is restricted and will take recovery time before the next encounter, but not so much that they won't be ready if/when the next wave comes. Since many abilities in Legend have this restriction and require downtime once exhausted, it's important that the heroes get a chance to breathe once in a while before moving onto the next challenge. Stringing what would normally be separate encounters into a constant stream of angry orcs, attack helicopters, or black lightning elementals is a very easy way to kill off player characters and should be cautioned against if you wish the adventure to continue for long.

On the other hand, many conditions and effects automatically wear off at the end of an encounter, so it can make sense to send a large number of weaker opponents (typically modeled in the mook rules) at the player characters, allowing conditions and terrain-altering abilities to accumulate and wear them down. Handling the flow of your encounters over a scene can be a touch-and-go process which this chapter is meant to help you deal with.

When building an encounter, or the series of encounters, in a game session or an entire adventure, Legend offers tools for you to accomplish three major goals:

  • first, to keep the stories and creatures in your group’s game world alive and interesting;
  • second, to preserve the internal game balance that Legend is built on;
  • and third, to provide interesting combat and non-combat encounters that will challenge your players without leaving them helpless.

Encounter Level

The main tool for calculating balance and challenge in an encounter is called the "encounter level" (or "EL") in Legend. Generally speaking, a party of four player characters of encounter level X should be able to handle between three and five encounters of encounter level X before the end of the [Scene], after which they can continue with their abilities, item uses, and hit points generally refreshed and ready for new challenges. Some groups, however, choose to simply avoid per-[Scene] resources and are instead more or less ready to go at the beginning of every encounter. While this increases endurance over many encounters, remember that resources refreshed at the end of a scene are often very powerful and that avoiding these resources may make individual encounters somewhat more difficult.

Calculating Encounter Level

As a rule, any creature has, by itself, an encounter level of its own level. A level 6 tactician is an EL 6 encounter. Two creatures of the same level have an encounter level 2 higher than the creatures' level, and four creatures of the same level have an encounter level 4 higher than the creatures' level – so a party of a tactician, shaman, paladin, and rogue, all of whom are level 9, would be an EL 13 encounter.

Pairing a creature with another that is 1 level lower counts as an encounter level either equal to the higher creature's level or 1 higher than that level. Three creatures of the same level have an encounter level 3 higher than the creatures' level. Each mook counts as a single creature, even in the case of Myriads. Remember that, since monsters and NPCs typically do not carry consumables, player characters often have an edge even against even-level encounters.

Summons, Allies, and Bodyguards

Creatures acquired via feats and track features do not count when calculating encounter level. The opportunity cost associated with acquiring and directing such creatures is roughly similar to the benefit gained by having the extra creatures, especially since defeating the "master" is generally sufficient to dispel or drive away the "minions."

Legendary Creatures

On average, a creature with the [Legendary] subtype counts as a creature 2 levels higher for purposes of calculating EL. However, there is a great deal of variance among [Legendary] abilities, so it's very important to examine how a creature's [Legendary] abilities affect a specific encounter and adjust the EL accordingly.

As explained in Legendary Creatures, the [Legendary] subtype should only be applied to all PCs in a game or no PCs in a game; however, it is possible to see a [Legendary] creature with minions as an NPC encounter.

Encounter Level and Game Balance

Legend’s use of encounter level offers a great way to test game balance, especially when building and implementing new monsters and creatures in the game. Since all creatures have a level, we can use that level as an objective measure of power and capability. By comparing different creatures of the same level, we can test how a creature works in terms of overall game balance.

There are a few assumptions we make when discussing level and game balance. The first one is fairly intuitive: 1 is equal to 1, and 6 is equal to 6. So, if we say that a character or monster is "level 6," then that character or monster should be roughly as capable and dangerous as other level 6 characters and monsters. Statistically, we can say that on average, a level 6 creature should have roughly a 50-50 chance against a broad range of other level 6 creatures, and that we should see a similar success rate for all other levels when we look at same-level creatures and their survival chances.

The second assumption we make about level and game balance is that while a lower-level creature will generally lose a fight with a higher-level creature, a sufficient number of lower-level creatures can defeat a creature that is a few levels (typically 5 or fewer) higher with good tactics and a greater number of actions in each [Round]. Past acertain level advantage, however, the higher-level creature will possess abilities that simply negate or render irrelevant the abilities of the lower-level creatures. This helps add a sense of progress to the game, as players begin to defeat monsters they might have fled from in the past, while previously challenging foes begin to flee from them.

Third, we assume that in a role-playing game, the player characters should statistically be favored in most encounters. After all, over the course of a campaign or even a short adventure, the odds are against the player characters. Basic statistical knowledge tells us that even a small risk of a "failure" increases to be quite serious if you repeat a process enough times. And while most monsters aren't expected to survive an encounter, they only have to get lucky once against a PC to greatly alter the direction of a game. Running a series of encounters where player characters are expected to lose means that after only a few gaming sessions there might not be a single one of the original characters left in the game. While a group may be comfortable with a "hack-and-slash" game where player characters die readily and often, you should design very dangerous encounters with caution if your group prefers more story-focused games. A total party kill stretched over a period of several game sessions is nearly as destructive to a storyline as a total party kill in a single session.

So, generally speaking, we favor encounter design that sets the player characters up to succeed in most encounters, with occasional encounters that are particularly challenging.

Encounter Design

We've established some general principles for how Legend encounters are expected to work. It’s possible to calculate the level of a given encounter for each side in a conflict. As mentioned before, we assume that in most games, the player characters should win most of the time. And when the player characters lose, we generally want survivors to have a chance to run away unless the players have been unusually stupid. We can combine all of this to layout guidelines for building encounters that work well with the typical balance of Legend. If your group prefers more dangerous encounters, feel free to adjust to encounter levels that are higher than what we recommend here.

Since encounter level is generated based on the level of the creatures involved, we can infer that two groups of creatures, each "adding up" to the same EL, will on average have roughly a 50-50 chance against each other (we'll discuss exceptions later on). A difference of 1 between each side's EL is a fight that statistically favors one side quite a bit, while a difference of 2 means that the likelihood of the weaker side winning is very slim.

Challenging Encounters

If you want a climactic pitched battle where there's a good chance that the player characters will suffer casualties, pitting them against an encounter level the same as their own will likely produce the results you want. One example of a difficult encounter that will stretch the player characters' abilities is a "mirror match" where the opposition is a group of creatures each of whom is the same class and level as one of the player characters.

An EL one level higher than the party’s is pushing it, and should only be used occasionally for extremely difficult encounters.

In general, extremely difficult encounters become "safer" if you use several lower-level creatures instead of using one particularly high-level character. A single creature 5 levels higher than the PCs represents an EL one level higher than a party of 4 PCs, but will likely either be overwhelmed by the PCs' numbers and action advantage or possess specific abilities that give it (comparatively, against creatures of the PCs' level) unbreakable defenses or unstoppable attacks. Adding a character 1 level higher than the PCs to a group of same-level monsters, however, makes the PCs outnumbered and outgunned without giving either side an insurmountable action advantage or massively superior abilities. Making the higher-level NPC or monster a "big bad" with the [Legendary] subtype can make the encounter particularly memorable if you're capping off a long campaign (or a short hack-and-slash).

Generally speaking, you should not expect players to be able to handle more than one or two of these encounters without a full eight-hour rest and time to rebuild their resources (and never more than one encounter with an EL higher than their own). You can probably still fit a couple of lower-level encounters into an adventuring day. At the lower end of the level range, between levels 1 and 3, especially with smaller PC groups, you may find that most encounters are quite challenging and therefore dangerous. Many GMs like this effect because it allows for particularly gritty games where direct confrontation with an enemy is often an unattractive option.

Normal Encounters

If you want encounters that challenge the PCs by slowly draining their consumables and per-scene resources while allowing the PCs to "win" and continue moving forward in the campaign, you should use encounters with ELs one or two levels below the PCs' encounter level. Using three or four monsters a level lower than the PCs, or 5 or 6 monsters a couple of levels below the PCs, is a classic example of a monstrous "hit squad" that the players can defeat while still having to spend meaningful resources on winning encounters.

Generally speaking, you can reasonably expect the player characters to handle somewhere between 3 and 5 encounters of this type before requiring a full 8-hour rest.

Ambushes

Encounters can be fairly straightforward, but not always so. Sometimes the party is likely to be caught by surprise when their enemies are ready and prepared for them rather than just a general danger, and sometimes the PCs have a plan to be enacted in response to a threat before their opponents are even aware of their presence. This advantage usually takes the form of a special surprise [Round] of combat. This doesn't always accurately describe the advantage of planning and readiness, however, or the full impact of an ambush situation where one party is much better prepared than the other.

If one party has had time to prepare the battlefield, has very detailed plans and intelligence for dealing with the other party, or just happens to have special resources that they can prepare for the occasion it may shift the EL of an encounter 1 or 2 levels in their favor. If that party also has special abilities that would specifically gain a great deal from some time to prepare, as a Mechanist Savant who is able to set up spreads for their Assemblage beforehand or a Combat Alchemist that has had time to prime and distribute their brews would, this can shift the balance as much as 3 to 5 EL in their favor. This can get out of hand with certain players or enemies being far too prepared for the task at hand to even be considered challenging to them, in which case the EL has shifted even further than 5 in their favor and the encounter's design probably needs an adjustment. Sometimes it makes sense for one party's preparation to outclass the other's, but do be aware of how this will affect the challenge of your encounters should such advantages be available.