Facilitating better RPG combats

The best sessions I’ve ever played involved player characters bringing an agenda and reaching for it. They take their situation, charge forward, and set events in motion.

Characters often achieve their goals through conflict. In most games, that means combat. Characters will also quest for relics, knowledge, boons, etc. Or through subterfuge, try to avoid overt conflict.

For now I’m focusing on combat.

Combat

The best combats have had one or both of the following:

  • A goal other than “destroy the enemy.”
  • Multiple paths of engagement

If the characters want a physical object, assume they will execute a “smash and grab” plan. They must bypass the opposition. Let the players choose and plan how they do that.

Provide multiple paths to engage in the combat – a main entrance and a side entrance if you will. I personally enjoy when characters agree to attack a common point, but one group goes this way and the other goes that way. The players can make meaningful choices and plans; And they will discuss this in front of you. Listen to what they say. Build on that in the future.

You’ll also want to consider the following procedures:

  • Morale – in meeting heavy resistance, do we want to continue?
  • Chase – with the opposition routed, do we want to give pursuit?

Morale Procedure

Adding Morale checks into combat helps show that outcomes can vary. Morale checks also telegraph information to the players:

  • We can back down from a fight
  • Our opposition has yet to crack, perhaps we should reconsider our approach

Morale provides another strategy the players can use: strike hard and gamble on triggering a morale check. Surprise and planning become very important.

I find morale harder to remember when I use a set initiative for a combat. I have adopted either group initiative or re-rolling initiative each round. This creates another natural point to check morale.

I also enjoyed the “bloodied” mechanic of 4E; a clear indicator of the toughness of the opposition.

Chase Procedure

The chase procedure facilitates transitioning out of combat-mode and back to exploration or role-playing mode. Without a chase procedure, you either hand-wave the retreat or remain in initiative order, with characters moving tens of feet at a time.

By staying in initiative order you remain longer in the combat-mode – a more “precise” blow-by-blow mode that requires more time to play out. Combat-mode also reinforces slaying the opposition as the primary goal.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has procedures for chases. As does Labyrinth Lord. They have different approaches, but are useful in considering how you think about chases.

At present my procedures for chases are ad hoc. If the PCs choose to flee, I let them get away. But I want to tighten that up.

Update: Take a look at David Black‘s “Snakes & Swords” chase procedures. I’m adopting this!

Conclusion

In a future post, I’ll expand from the conflict to the character agenda.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to take a look at Burning Wheel’s “Range and Cover” subsystem. It has group initiative, morale, and chase all baked into a dangerous skirmish-style subsystem.

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