A few weeks ago, I described my processes for creating Partial NPCs, a methodology that determined how much NPC definition was needed for that NPCs role in an adventure, in Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep. This was described as essential know-how for the article that I was originally going to write and publish that day. The Flunkie Equation is the article I was referring to.
So what is the Flunkie Equation? It’s a system by which the essential information demanded by the Partial NPC doctrine can be generated more quickly and easily, making an already-fast process (thanks to the Partial NPC process) even more efficient. I had previously described a process for establishing the critical values for more significant NPCs in The Ubercharacter Wimp, but it doesn’t work very efficiently when it comes to bottom-level flunkies, because it doesn’t tell you what values to set for the critical stats.
The Flunkie Equation provides the missing guideline that tell you how effective flunkies should be, and how many of them you need, in any given situation.
The secret in the toolkit that makes the Flunkie Equation work is the concept of “Relative NPCs”. A “Relative NPC” is an NPC whose stats and abilities are defined relative to the abilities of the PCs rather than as absolute values. I’ll say it again – You don’t need to know the absolute scores for anything – you just need to know how good the flunkies are, relative to the PCs.
This is a little easier to implement for the Hero System because it uses 3d6 which gives a non-linear response to a linear adjustment. A relative “to hit chance” is the simplest starting point: -1 makes a small difference, -2 a bit more, -3 is quite noticeable, -4 is quite a lot, and -5 is chalk and cheese.
Applying the same differential in reverse to the chances of being hit by the PCs as you have defined for the NPCs hitting the PCs shifts the overall effective value one step further with a small difference and two steps for -3 or more.
And that’s the big trick, or, at least, its starting point: apply the same modifier everywhere you need to, but always to the effective net value that actually does the work in the game mechanics. You have just one number to remember, and you decide what that number is according to how tough you want the flunkies to be. How easy is that?
Oh and one more point that should be obvious: We’re not comparing like with like, we’re comparing the Flunky’s roll to hit with the defensive value of the PC, and the Flunky’s defensive value with the PC’s modifier to hit. Or, in Hero System parlance, we’re comparing the Flunky’s OCV with the PC’s average DCV and vice-versa.
It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it can actually be a little harder to use this technique with a d20 system. The reason is ironically because of the linear nature of a d20 roll. You see, the 3d6 approach means that a single point of difference applied repeatedly has a non-linear effect – it might be geometric, it might be exponential. And that means that you can use -1 for each step and make a big cumulative difference.
To achieve similar levels of effect with a d20, you need to use a non-linear step size. So -1 makes a small difference, -2 is a bit more, -4 is noticeable, -7 is quite a lot, and -10 is chalk and cheese.
-2 applied in three areas therefore doesn’t quite adds up to “quite a lot” of difference. -2 in four areas would achieve that level of difference – for example, to hit, to be hit, hit points per dice, and damage per successful hit – but there’s a problem with that recipe: I’m taking hit points off the table, for reasons I’ll get to, shortly.
Because these don’t apply on every occasion, they don’t count for as much. So in any game where these are part of the mechanics, double whatever modifier you have applied to combat, and apply the result to all saving throws in order to achieve the same standards of effect. For D&D/Pathfinder, that means that -2 to all three types of saving throw is needed to be equivalent to a -1 on attack rolls, or a +1 to be hit.
This isn’t right!
At first glance, it might seem that this makes the Flunkies far too powerful, too closely matched with the PCs. And you would be right, if that was all there was to this approach, you would be correct if that was your impression. I just wanted to clue readers in to the fact that there’s more to the story.
The Perfect Flunky
What makes the perfect flunky, from a GM’s point of view? We could probably debate that all day, but here’s my prescription: “Hit hard, hit fast, and go down easy.”
What does that mean?
- Hit Hard – Do almost as much damage as the PC in a round, overall.
- Hit Fast – Hit almost as often in a round as a PC does, overall.
- Go Down Easy – Have only a fraction of the damage capacity of a PC.
Of course, this refers to a top-of-the line flunky. It should now be obvious why I took Hit Points off the table.
There are three considerations when putting this theory into practice.
Adjusting Flunky to-hit
In practice, this means that part or all of the penalty applied to the Flunkie’s chance to hit should be transferred to the Flunkie’s penalty to be hit. The guideline given above says that the Flunky should be at -3 to hit? Drop that to -1 and worsen their defense by +2.
As a general rule of thumb, 1/3 of the to-hit penalty should stay where it is, and 2/3 should be transferred.
In some game systems, characters get multiple attacks as they grow in expertise or power. Given that there is a boosted likelihood – possibly a greatly-boosted one – that a PC will hit with most if not all of the attacks at his disposal, it becomes relatively simple to calculate the amount of damage that is likely to be inflicted by that PC in a round, on average. Dividing this number by the average damage the flunky does with a hit tells you how many flunkies are needed to match the PC.
There are three grades of flunky that I use as broad definitions of competence. They are “experts”, “soldiers”, and “street thugs”.
- Expert Flunkies can cope with 2-3 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
- Soldier Flunkies can cope with 1-2 average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight.
- Street Thug Flunkies can cope with less than one average hits by a PC before they are out of the fight. In other words, one hit and they go down.
They make up for this level of weakness with numbers. And that relationship is what is described specifically by “The Flunky Equation”.
The Flunky Equation
The Flunky Equation is defined as:
“N Relative NPCs to each PC for a roughly fair fight that the PCs will win in the end.”
The values for “N” that I use are:
- 2 Experts per PC, e.g. Ninja
- 3 or 4 Soldiers per PC e.g. Stormtroopers
- 4 or 5 Street Thugs per PC e.g. Hoods & Hoodlums
Let’s recap briefly to make sure we’re all on the same page: Relative Competence is reflected primarily in how easily the Flunkies can be hit. Flunkies will be almost as likely to hit as PCs, regardless. The number of Flunkies in a fight is based on the relative competence level that you want the flunkies to display, which also defines the damage capacity of each flunky. The typical damage done by a PC, allowing for multiple attacks and assuming that they will all hit, divided by the number of Flunkies, defines the amount of damage each Flunky needs to do on a successful hit to match the PC. By defining the amount of damage each Flunkie does, you can define how easily the PCs will win, while maintaining the appearance of whatever level of competence you want the Flunkies to display.
There are a number of reasons to adjust that base value for N. There are also multiple combinations of ways to make that adjustment – once you realize that one of the options up the GM’s sleeve is the notion of reinforcement Flunkies, and that the numbers of these can be made adjustable based on circumstances.
Tweaking for Combat objectives
Most of the time, Flunkies will have a simple combat objective. This might be to delay the PCs to give a more significant enemy time to do whatever it is that he wants to do, or it might be to attempt to capture or kill the PCs (good luck with that!). But every now and then, a situation will arise in which the Flunkies have a more “interesting” objective.
Some of these variant objectives will suggest an increase in the number of Flunkies in the fight, possibly with the extras held in reserve until the GM sees whether or not they are needed. These include situations such as the GM needing the Flunkies to hold off the PCs long enough for the main enemy to set in motion the next part of the plot.
Other variant objectives might suggest that the number of Flunkies be reduced because the goal is too easily achieved with the standard number – usually achieved by halving the initial number of recommended combatants and having the balance held in reserve. An example might be for the Flunkies to reach a certain control console and throw a switch, pull a level, or push a button.
In both cases, the goal is to increase the drama and tension; you don’t want it to be too easy for the PCs to achieve their goals, and you don’t want to make it too hard, either. Always, the goal must be for the PCs to be both on the verge of victory and at the brink of disaster.
“But that’s unfair!”
Yeah, it is. If game mechanics say that there should be only X enemies for a “fair fight” and that any difference in effectiveness should be addressed by increasing or decreasing the XP award after the combat – D&D, I’m pointing at you – then this approach is “unfair”.
The XP awarded should reflect the degree of difficulty of the actual battle, not of some “book value” quota based on the number of participants on one side or another. The primary goal is to provide entertainment to the players, and if you asked players what they preferred – fun achieved by occasionally punching things up a notch, or strict fairness resulting in some fights being non-events when they shouldn’t be – most players will vote for the first option. “Fairness” is secondary to everyone having a good time (Note that I’m distinguishing between “unfairness” and “anti-player bias”. The first looks at how hard a fight should be for dramatic purposes and adjusts participants accordingly; the second simply tries to make the players fail at almost everything).
Tweaking for Combat Style
Some combat styles give the GM license to have the action be more spectacular, with Flunkies doing acrobatic flips and climbing all over the furniture. Other combat styles are inherently boring – “stand and shoot until you run out of ammo”. As a general rule of thumb, the more flamboyant you are able to make each Flunkie, the less of them you need. In general, this frequently comes down to a question of mobility on the battlefield. But it also involves a more subtle factor, and one that – unlike the first – is often overlooked by GMs: the environment in which the battle is occurring needs to provide the Flunkies with opportunities to make their flamboyance work on their behalf. I don’t care how nimble the Ninja are, fighting in a mud-pit denies them the chance to be “fully flamboyant”, and negates any reduction in numbers that should occur.
The numbers quoted earlier are appropriate for a neutral environment – one that has limited opportunities for Flunkies to show off, and limited opportunities for the PCs as well. If the environment especially suits the Flunkies, reduce their numbers; if it favors the PCs and their combat style(s), increase their numbers.
Tweaking for PC Abilities
There’s one type of PC ability that needs to be given special attention, to the point of altering the number of combat participants – area-effect abilities. If the PCs have a Wizard who can lob Fireballs, taking out several of the Flunkies in one shot, you need to either negate that ability using the environment or circumstances, or allow for the need to have extra Flunkies.
Experience will soon tell you what other PC abilities you need to take into account, but anything that affects a group of Flunkies at a time is top of the list.
Major Enemy participation
A major enemy is an NPC who is significantly more capable than the Flunkies. Each major enemy is rated in PCs, and those PCs are then not counted as generating flunkies.
e.g. a 1-PC Villain is as capable in battle as one PC, and effectively takes 1 PC out of the fight with the Flunkies. A 2-PC villain is tough enough to keep two PCs entertained and out of the fight with the Flunkies. Reduce the number of Flunkies being faced by the PCs proportionately to get the fight that you want.
The Big Bad Boss
More significant still are encounters with the boss baddy. These are built to more-or-less the same standards as a 2+ PC-rated villain, but those PCs are still counted in the Flunkie Equation. That means that the PCs enemy has a substantial advantage that the PCs will need to find a way to counter.
Most big bad bosses won’t engage directly – just like the Emperor in the final confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, he will sit on the sidelines and gloat, or go about implementing his nefarious scheme, or making his escape.
Luck is not on their side
The final factor that needs to be taking into account when assessing the number of Flunkies recommended by The Flunky Equation is this: Luck should always go against them. Never ignore the chance for bad luck or the occasional lapse in competent judgment to hinder the Flunkies, the comedically, the better. They are intended to be Hors d’Combat, so if there’s fun to be had in their demise as an effective instrument of combat, go for it! Self-inflicted impalings. A wild shot that brings a chandelier down on top of the one Flunkie who looked like overpowering the PCs and achieving their objective too easily. Knocking a grenade out of the hands of a dangerous PC only for it to roll down a set of stairs and land next to the NPCs that PC set alight a round or two earlier (that one’s from last Saturday’s actual game session).
Keep combat moving quickly
Finally, flunkies should be designed and intended to fold quickly. There’s little as exasperating as a fight with flunkies that drags on for too long. Remember the initial prescription: hit hard, hit fast, fall down easy. The PCs should be able to cut through the flunkies like a hot knife through butter, but that impression gets lost when the cutting occurs too slowly. For any fight with flunkies, use the most cinematic combat structure that you can come up with. Forget complicated initiative – all the PCs go, then all the flunkies go, then any non-combatants go, and back around again. Deal with Flunkies in packs and process them in bulk – the benefits of doing so far outweigh the liabilities. And if that artificially inflates the combat capabilities of the flunkies, that’s what the “bad luck” described in the previous section redresses.
Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of needing to run a mob. Here’s a hot tip to close out this article: Break a mob into as many pieces as there are PCs and then treat each sub-mob as a single creature. That’s the way that the PCs are going to interact with the mob, so why not take advantage of that to simplify your problems?
On a completely unrelated note: Once again spambots are running rampant. In fact, at 50 spam comments being submitted an hour, they are completely out of control. As I did last time this occurred, I’m going to have to block the IP numbers which are the worst contributors to this spam deluge, at least temporarily.
I’m not sure whether or not this will just block comments or will block all access to the site – I’m hoping for the former. But if the site goes dark for you, that’s what’s happened.
As before, if the spam from a blocked IP stops, I’ll unblock it – last time most were released within a couple of days. I regret the necessity but have no other choice; deleting the spam is just taking up too much of my time to continue to be practical.