There come moments in every combat scenario when your turn devolves into “hit it with a thing until it stops doing what it’s doing” and those moments are pretty rough on some people. If you feel that way – today we’re going to discuss the flow of combat and how your Actions and Reactions can change the entire face of a combat encounter to be far more fun*.
*Fun is subjective – not everyone’s fun will be the same. However, by focusing on the actions and reactions that give your character agency, it gives you more control over the fun you and everyone else enjoys at the table.
What Makes Combat Worthwhile?
Mechanics only go so far. It’s true with videogames, board games, and tabletop – there are only so many times someone can roll a d20 and add 7 before it becomes mind numbingly dull. So what is it that bridges the gap between that die roll and the fun you have?
I break it into 5 parts for both players and DMs. 5 parts that make combat enjoyable and fun to play. 5 parts that each DM and Player can cease and manipulate to make the absolute most out of every combat encounter. None of them trump rule #0 of combat in Dungeons and Dragons or other combat heavy RPGs:
Combat is a REWARD, not a PUNISHMENT or BURDEN
1. Fit the theme
You do not crack open a Legend of Drizzt book by R.A. Salvatore and expect to see two people fighting naked while comically trying not to touch one another’s genitals. You may never expect to cut on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and see Frank bloody and beaten, choking the life out of a burglar. The same is true for your game – combat is a kind of vessel that the group uses to experience the setting and theme of the game. Breaking away from that theme can be fun every once in a while, like sticking a finger slathered in your spit into an ogre’s ear to make it let go of you, but on the whole not continuing to develop an established theme in your game will make combat seem much less impactful and out of place.
Lean deeply into the themes of your game in every regard you can manage, but particularly in:
- The actions you take. In a dark and bloody gladiator game, ruthlessness and triumph should be paramount – leaping on top of downed enemies to hack them apart, smashing your sword hilt into your armor to the roar of the crowd, hacking the shackled hand off of a dead ally to free yourself from their corpse. In opposition, a comedic high fantasy/low mortality game is the place to poke a cyclops in the eye with your staff, pull a guard’s pants down to trip them, or throw meat on the ground to distract a pack of hell hounds. By following the theme, you heighten the immersion and sensation of unity with the rest of the table and prevent seemingly unfair outcomes – which we’ll discuss below.
- The descriptions you choose. A critical hit, your DM hands you complete control over what the attack looks like: in a dark fantasy game, a forehead hammers a sailor’s nose flat, a private investigator pushes the barrel of his revolver to the cultist’s head and fires, a wizard hurls a bolt of lightning that blisters and blackens the muzzle of a wolf moments before its eyes boil. But in a lighthearted easy-going game, you’re more likely to see accidental back-swings that smash into a pirate’s head, a knee to the groin followed by two more knees to the groin, or a super-noogie that vibrates their brain senseless. It can give you a chuckle or make a few groans at the table to randomly jump from grim to lighthearted (or lighthearted to grim), but it’s a less fulfilling pay-off for long-term games where those actions can become tiresome for the group as a whole.
- The outcomes you expect. Most of the time when you find yourself (or your DM) at odds with an action, more than likely it’s because it doesn’t fit the theme of the game. In a First Law style grimdark game, a character who tries to parachute off of a tower with their coat, regardless of how much the player wants it to work, will probably end up crippled or maimed – because that outcome fits the theme of the game far more than the action did. The opposite can be true – in a lighthearted and low lethality game, a player who kicks over a cauldron of boiling soup might expect the charging guards to be burned or back away, but the DM of such a lighthearted game might just make the guard yell “Nooo! My soup!” and attack or, perhaps, make everyone around potentially slip and fall into the liquid, comically. When in doubt – ask before you act. The person running your game is far more likely to reinforce what you’re doing as appropriate -or- signal to you that what you want to happen may not come to pass.
- The words you say – though not for you. I’ve been to tables where the DM burns scented candles and dims the lights to set the mood. Plays deep emotionally charged music and players shed real tears at intense character moments – and a player shout “HEY GUY, YOU’RE A BUTT! AND I STAB HIM!” in combat with one of their archenemies. The table got kinda quiet, the player giggled under their breath, there was a murmur between two other players, and the DM said “Okay. So you attack. Roll damage.” I’m not the fun police here – but consider how what you choose to say influences the game for other players. The same is true for lighthearted games but in reverse – your stoic and menacing words can come across as strangely weird and unsettling – regardless of if you’re a DM or Player.
2. Advances the plot
It’s strange, but violence is one of the least interesting things you can see in a game or on television. Three guys going at one another with bats doesn’t make for an involved scene, but if one of them is trying to escape to warn his companions of a trap or one of them is chained to a wall, trying to defend themselves, suddenly the combat seems more important and tense. Every combat should push the plot forward in some way. As a player, you can react to combat encounters – inspect the enemy’s weapon, perhaps it’s the weapon of the murderer from town. Look for tattoos or markings that could show the puppeteer behind their actions. Even random encounters can further the plot by chipping away at the characters’ resources and health – giving them a harder time when facing off against the larger threat waiting for them down the road. But a combat encounter that happens in a vacuum is less important than anything else you could spend your time on.
Of course there are exceptions! You may need to walk players through combat to teach them mechanics, you may need to throw a monster at the party to buy time and fill up a session that’s running too lean, you may want to have a combat encounter to let your players try out new things. But these types of plot-less encounters should be used very sparingly.
3. Must be unique
You can focus your entire game on facing off against violent inclined ape men – every fight facing some variation of ape people. They don’t even have to be all that unique in their scale and abilities, but each fight needs to be special in some way – they must resolve conflict using different approaches primarily. Lets go over some examples of what I mean – all using the “horde of ape men” approach:
- The horde swarms over the camp’s palisade walls. They break in windows and doors, snatching villagers to drag back to their complex cave system. The player characters set the walls on fire – nearly impossible for the ape creatures to scale while dragging their quarry.
- The horde of ape men swarm the roads near the village every night, taking the horses and carriages that traverse the road. In lieu of fending off the horde or convincing the merchants to only travel during the day, the companions drive a carriage filled to bursting with bladders full of deadly poison gas – which the apes steal and drag back to their cavern system.
- The horde, decimated and angry, rally behind their chieftain and march, one last time, upon the village. The companions man the walls, the grounds, the roofs of all the houses, and three-deep outside the walls with villagers dressed in patchwork battle gear standing side by side with scarecrows. Firm words and promises of violence turn the fury of the ape men into concern – a promise of peaceful hills to the north turn their concern to resignation. Thus, the war ended.
4. Should highlight character
When, why, how, and to what end – character’s actions in combat unveil who the character really is. It opens opportunities to represent a new face for NPCs the party believes they know. It’s a very unsettling moment when a kind and gentle teacher gets a chance to show just how they earned their legend in combat.
By contrast, unknown characters can shed the mask they wear for the world when blood begins to shed. A merciless cut throat who spares the characters and refuses to attack the female characters may surprise the party and turn their understanding of their adversary on its head. A noble and god-blessed warrior who butchers his enemies while laughing, likewise, reveals their true selves to be far more dangerous and bloody than would first appear.
Player characters, likewise, should be given the chance to reveal who their character is during every action of combat – are they a skilled and gifted warrior? Are they a lucky newbie who manages to eek out victory time and time again. Combat should be a stage in which every character gets to show their inner self – the aspect of their character only combat can bring out.
The “difficulty” as the arbiter of the game comes in understanding that the player character may not be who you think they are in combat. The player and the player alone determines what the PC does in combat – even if it does not seem to fit within their character in your eyes.
The “difficulty” as a player in the game is trusting that the person running your game knows information that you do not and takes that information into account when combat erupts. If a businessman draws a cultists’ kriss and seems undaunted by a swarm of werewolf assailants – even if you brought that character into existence, trust that the person running the game is representing them accurately.
5. Paint the action with words
“I’m attacking. 17? 8 damage.”
“I cast fireball – Dex save… 32 damage, so they take 16.”
Try, just try, when you take a turn in combat – as a player or DM – to describe the action as it appears in your head. Your turn is a hot microphone and podium for your imagination to be heard. If doing stuff like that makes you uncomfortable, you can easily spur another person at the table to jump in by asking “What’s that look like?”
Combat transforms into a detestable slog when it devolves into people telling one another numbers – it’s why combat in games like Dragon’s Dogma leave a much more lasting impression than other titles. Your character trying to hold on for dear life to the back of a chimera, stabbing at its wailing goat head, while meteors slam into its head and flanks makes for a better memory than the time you did 99,999,999 damage to a Tonberry by using your point card (Final Fantasy).
Vary the description of combat moments – some should be a single sentence “The Dragon hooks you under the leg with the tip of its wing and sends you to the floor. Its spear-like claws come down on you for 18 damage.” While other combat actions could be much more involved, depending on the action taken: “Callen rushes over and jumps off of the ledge, grabs onto the hanging chains, and swings down onto the dragon’s back blade-first. With a scream of “Don’t you touch him, you filthy creature!” he hacks into its back for 18 damage, then tumbles off onto the stone floor.”
As I discussed in another combat article, if you are running the game – consider it a CARDINAL SIN to punish your players for trying to do interesting things with their turn. Swinging down on a chain and attacking the dragon makes NO MECHANICAL difference than jumping down, then walking over and attacking the dragon.
Art by Patrick Reilly
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.