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I recently ran a session where the enemies listed in the pre-made adventure did 2 damage with a light weapon (a dagger). The PC had 2 points of armour, so unless the player rolled a natural one on the defense roll nothing was happening in the combat.

Not all the PCs had high enough armour, but the PCs engaging the enemies did.

I know that in a large enough group of enemies, I can group their attacks together to make fewer attacks of a higher level, but assuming there aren't enough foes for that, should I just narrate the scene, use a GM intrustion to do more damage or add more enemies, target the party members I can damage or play through it waiting for defense rolls of natural 1. Or are there other options?

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Any reason not to raise the level of wave two? NPCs are so simple in Numenera, you can change them on-the-fly with little effort. –  Raphael Aug 17 at 14:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I'm going to answer this question in a system-agnostic manner, as the question posed is one I've had to address a great deal in my own games despite never actually running Numenera specifically. (I tend to run superhero games, so it's quite a regular occurrence that I have to balance combats for a diverse group of character abilities.)

Your first priority is to not get blindsided by this in the middle of a session. So if you don't already do so, I'd recommend screening your pre-written adventures in advance and eyeballing the stats of the enemies for potential problems. You won't always be able to find all of them, but something really basic like the issue presented (the enemies' damage is the same as the players armor), can be caught pretty quickly.

Regardless, whether you're re-balancing the encounter prior to running it or you realize that something's wrong mid-session, ultimately you have to answer a couple of questions in order to know how to proceed.

What purpose should this encounter serve?

Is this supposed to be a major battle, or a speed bump? Not every battle has to be a huge, life-or-death struggle; occasionally, the only real danger from underpowered enemies is to make the players use resources (ammo/energy, spell points, etc.) defeating them. So, the first thing you need to decide is how much the story would or wouldn't be served by letting the encounter be a (relative) cakewalk.

It's a speed bump. How do I handle it without it being boring?

If the conflict isn't supposed to be a major encounter in the story, sometimes it's best to just acknowledge that the enemies are out-classed and let the heroes roll over them. You don't want to do this a lot, because it removes the challenge from the adventures if the only real danger is the Big Bad at the end, but never underestimate the yay-factor of letting the big fighter crack his knuckles and go "Guys, I got this." Players love that. It reminds them how far they've come from the days when a hacked-off kobold with a pointy stick could put the fear of $RELEVANT_DIETY into them.

If you're going to do that, let the encounter be over quickly. As previously suggested, maybe let the bad guys know they're outclassed after a round or two and then break ranks and flee, so that the players don't have to tediously mop up a bunch of no-challenge enemies. Or maybe the fighter can simply cleave them all at once. If they decide to try something like that, let them and move on.

Before I move on, though, I should note that sometimes through no fault of your own, a big-challenge battle becomes a speed bump through player tactics - and generally, after you've got a feel for your group's play style this will become easier to predict. If this happens, decide whether or not you want to let them roll over the battle or dynamically increase the challenge if you feel the encounter is important. (I once had a Sith Lord/Sith Padawan bad guy pair in my Star Wars game where the Padawan proved tougher to beat than her master; the Padawan battle was epic, and the Lord was killed in one stroke by a rogue critical. Dramatically speaking, it worked so I let it slide. It was still a very memorable event for the players.)

Speaking of which...

It should be a challenge. Now what?

Assuming you've decided that you don't want the players to just thrash the baddies and be done with it, now you have to adjust the battle so that the players sweat more. There are a couple ways to do it, whether you spotted the problem beforehand or have to deal with it on the fly. Ideally, though, be ready beforehand.

The first thing to note is that you don't have to run the adventure as-written, in the case of published modules. If, as you found out, the bad guys have daggers and your combat-capable PCs can't be hurt by daggers, then you have to assume that your players will send the most well-armored of the bunch to deal with the threat (see above about player tactics) and equip the bad guys such that they have weapons that will actually hurt the players that will be involved in the battle. (This is where pre-screening the adventure comes in handy; you can decide ahead of time that the enemies are armed with swords instead of daggers. Or that the daggers are magical and do more damage. Or whatever. Either way, you won't be backtracking mid-game to be all like, "Oh; they actually have swords.")

Secondly, assuming you don't want to juggle the stats of the enemies, it's perfectly okay to add more of them, for similar reasons. After all, the module author doesn't know your party. You'll have to make adjustments. (Although if none of the enemies can even damage the players, doubling their number won't help!)

My personal favorite, though, is to have the bad guys fight "above their station" by using dirty tricks or clever tactics. The aforementioned flanking is a good one, as is trying to get around the tanks to get at spell casters once the bad guys know the players have them. Also, (and this depends on the system), non-standard attacks such as grappling, improvised traps, throwing dirt in the player's face, or anything else that a desperately out-classed enemy might do, like ganging up on a single opponent or trying to disarm them so that they can be pinned and slain. This way you're acknowledging that the players are still better than the enemies, but that the enemies are still going to make them pay a dear cost for their victory assuming they decide to go down fighting.

My other personal favorite is to mix different types of enemies together, such that deciding how to engage them becomes part of the strategies that the players must use. Even something as simple as adding a leader to the baddies who can fight a little better gets players trying to decide how to approach the fight; do they commit their big fighters to focusing on the leader while the minions paper-cut them to death (or try to hold their legs, etc. so the leader can behead them?) or do they risk the spellcasters/thieves with the minions to protect the fighters?

What I usually do is to make an enemy or two specifically tailored to the heavy-hitters/tanks in the party and give him minions that would be more appropriate to the rest of them, and maybe a third 'wild card' that can enhance the fight in other ways, like a mage/sniper/healer/whatever.

Anyway, there are a lot of ways to beef up an encounter such that it challenges the players. Generally speaking, though, you want to make sure ahead of time the purpose of the encounter so that you know how to handle it if the situation arises. If it's not important, don't bother. If it is, but you don't want it to be complicated, just tweak the stats/numbers of the bad guys. Or, if you can, simply re-write the encounter and tailor it to the party's makeup. That's the best route, but takes the most work.

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I've been in this situation. Or rather, I've been in a situation similar enough: One of the PCs had started flying ("Who manipulates gravity"), and all the thugs attacking them were bound to the ground. I hadn't prepared for that situation, as that character had only just joined the group.

Fortunately, Numenera has a convenient mechanic that works perfectly in this situation: GM Intrusion. If you've not read that section of the rules yet, I suggest you look into it immediately.

In my situation, I declared (with the flying player's buy-in) that one of the thugs ran up the wall of the alleyway, kicked off, and tried to tackle the flying PC in mid-air. (He was thenceforth known as "Parkour Thug.") He failed, but the fight was memorable and interesting never the less - and I considered that a win.

The fight wasn't really meaningful, and the intrusion didn't make much difference - the NPCs were only level 2 muggers armed with odds and ends; Calling them "two-bit thugs" would be overselling the point - But by giving one of the players something extra to worry about, his priorities changed, which reshaped the rest of the fight, and the encounter - while still mostly a cakewalk - was at least a little more flavourful.

It's worth mentioning that, because combat has little relationship to advancement in Numenera, a fight does not have to be a challenge or end in a certain way in order to contribute to the game. As a result, there is no reason why a set of NPCs realising they're outclassed and deciding to flee can't be an entertaining event in its own right.

If your NPC combatants are even vaguely intelligent, it just makes sense that they'll switch to a new approach when their current one isn't working; You, as GM, should do the same.

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+50! This is a very good answer. Note that even in system that do not feature GM intrusion mechanics, this is still valid. Also, your addendum at the end should be more prominent. –  Sardathrion Jul 17 at 6:17
    
@Sardathrion Better? –  GMJoe Jul 17 at 6:55
    
Yes, it is. It makes a good alternative to slaughtering the opposition. –  Sardathrion Jul 17 at 7:14
    
Thanks for answering. I have read up on GM Intrusions and even mentioned two possible uses of it in my question - increase damage or call in reinforcements. –  Conor Pender Jul 17 at 10:28
    
@ConorPender The reason I mention them is that I suspect you might not have considered the full scope of possible ways they could be applied to your situation. The great thing about Numenera is that GM intrusions can plausibly do anything. (This is largely due to the presence of ciphers and other common reality-bending elements in the setting.) Intrusions allow you to alter any situation, in any way imaginable, at a moment's notice; They are an incredibly powerful and versatile tool whose only limit is what players allow. –  GMJoe Jul 18 at 0:27

Two options:

  1. enemies die, players slaughter them easily, they waltz through this area.
  2. level up the enemies so that they present at least a smidge of a challenge.

An easy way to do this on the fly is to have the enemies realize they are being out-classed, so that they pull back and regroup. Give them better weapons, have them call in a "leader" who is higher level, etc. That way the players waltz through the first pack, but the enemies retreat, lick their wounds, and put up a better fight on the next encounter.

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Are the enemies smart enough to realize they can't harm their opponents? If so, they should probably flee, with any plot/character ramifications that entails. No reason to stick around when you have no chance of winning.

Then again, if you want to have a fight at that point in the adventure, it's perfectly acceptable to increase their damage, along with the XP reward (or the corresponding thing for your system).

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There's no experience reward for winning fights in Numenera. Experience points are granted when the PCs make discoveries or recover useful ancient technology, or given to the players as compensation for the GM suddenly introducing weird and wonderful complications to situations. –  GMJoe Jul 17 at 7:52

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