That’s right. You heard me. Everyone sucks at running combat in roleplaying games. I’d say I’m throwing down the gauntlet, but I definitely include myself in that statement. And maybe generalizing so broadly is unfair, but seriously, have you ever played in a game that had a combat encounter that was as cool as a scene from Lord of the Rings or as exciting as a John Woo gun battle? Yeah, neither have I.
So what’s the problem, here? We’re all intelligent, creative people. Why the fuck can’t we make better combat scenes?
This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s endlessly frustrating to me that no matter how creative my descriptions get, how quickly I push through combat turns, or how fast and loose I run my narrative combat, violence in games never feels like the back-and-forth that we see in action movies. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying though. So, for this post, I’m going to enumerate the techniques that I’ve used to take my combat game from “complete crap” to “merely acceptable”, then brainstorm about methods I might use to push myself towards the heights of “kinda okay”.
As usual, this is all stuff that’s worked well for me, but maybe won’t work for you. If you do give any of it a try, please let me know how it played at your table. Worst case scenario, you try it, it sucks, and you email me about how much of an idiot I am, then pursue unfucking your combat scenes on your own.
Tried and True Tip #0: Never, Ever, Under Any Circumstances Use a Game’s Tactical Combat Rules
Straight up. Just throw them out. Remember way back when I was talking about my horrible experience with combat mechanics in D&D 3.x? Yeah, that’s because – at that point in my life – I thought the tactical combat rules were the only way to play the game. The best way to turn your combat scenes into a boring slog is to use any game’s tactical combat rules. Unless, of course, that’s your jam. In which case, why are you reading this?
Tried and True Tip #1: Keep It Moving
Your combats need to be like an Indian buffet lunch chased with a shot of Ex-Lax – fluid and fast-moving. No one player, NPC, or monster turn should take more than a few seconds. Each person declares their intent, describes how their character is going to achieve that intent, rolls dice as necessary, and someone (usually the GM) narrates the outcome. Quick and easy. If you have to pause to look up rules, someone’s already lost interest, so instead, make a ruling and move on.
The best method I’ve ever seen for keeping combat moving was developed by my buddy Jacob for his Unknown Armies games. In UA, you play (fairly) normal people thrust into unusual and horrifying situations. So, when combat breaks out, it’s fast, hectic, and brutal. When a player’s turn came up, Jacob would give them approximately five to ten seconds to figure out what their character was doing. If they took too long deciding on a course of action, he would just skip their turn. It’s kind of an extreme solution, but it certainly keeps things moving quickly and helps simulate the need for split-second decision making in a combat situation. This technique is especially helpful in getting players who are usually very rules-focused to shift their attention to the fiction. No one likes losing a turn, so they’ll certainly have an action locked and loaded for next time, which, thanks to this rule, is only about a minute away.
Tried and True Tip #2: Narrate Action, Not Mechanics
When one of your players rolls a 6 on their attack, the worst possible thing you can say is, “You miss.” Yes, obviously they miss, but that doesn’t create any excitement whatsoever. Rather, narrate the result in a way that shows your player how cool they are, even when they fuck up. Are you running a kung fu game? Try this: “You thrust with your straight-sword, but the Iron Fist monk turns your blow to the side with his bronze bracers, his muscles straining with the effort.” How about for a game styled after a Hong Kong bullet opera? Check this out: “Your gunfire tears through the tea shop, leaving shattered porcelain and splintered wood in its wake, but the gangster is already airborne – diving for cover behind the next set of booths.” See? Much better.
Tried and True Tip #3: Give Your Players Scenery to Chew
I’m abusing the figure of speech a bit with this one, but you want your action scenes to have elements that your players can interact with other than their enemies. This gives your players a reason to up their combat descriptions game and opens up “tactical” options for creative players. Are the heroic swashbucklers facing down their rivals in the dockside tavern? Pack that sucker full of drunk sailors, barmaids bearing overfull serving trays, chandeliers, balconies, and staircases. Suddenly, your players can recreate moments from their favorite Errol Flynn movies and you can do underhanded shit like have the bad guys do underhanded shit like push innocent bystanders into the way or set the place on fire.
Furthermore, you should keep the scenery flexible. Only describe enough of the scene to start giving your players ideas. Let them come up with the rest on their own. If you start with an even moderately compelling scene description, one of your players will invariably ask, “Is there a whatever in here?” If that whatever is even remotely close to plausible, let them have it. Odds are, they’re going to do something fucking cool with it.
Tried and True Tip #4: Lie, Cheat, and Steal
You’ve set up this great combat. The scenery is awesome, you’re players have added their own elements to the scene, everyone’s making cool descriptions of their attacks, and things seem to be going really well. Then you suddenly realize that the encounter you’ve built doesn’t work. Either it’s going to be a wholesale TPK-style slaughter, the combat’s going to be over all too quickly, take too long, or –worst of all – just be downright boring. We’ve all been there. So, how do you handle it?
Lie. That totally bad-ass vampire lord the party of low-level adventurers is facing down? He’s just a re-skinned wight. Instead of immediately being carved to pieces by a high power monster, the players get to struggle (and eventually triumph) against a tough, but level-appropriate enemy. In fact, if you’re playing a game like D&D5, the math is so simple that you could even use all the same abilities that a vampire gets and just reduce all the numbers by 50-75%. This works even better if you never tell the players any of an enemy’s statistics. And if the monster turns out to be too tough or too weak, remember that you can always…
Cheat. That red dragon seemed totally beatable on paper, but he just wrecked half the party with a single breath attack and still has most of his hit points left. It’s time to tone things down. Behind the scenes, tweak the enemy’s numbers so that they’re a bit less ludicrously murderous. Maybe instead of three attacks at a huge bonus that does half a character’s HP in damage each hit, start making only two attacks at a smaller bonus that do a die less of damage. If things look like they’re going to drag on too long, just shave off some of the enemy’s hit points. It’s all about being able to adjust the combat on the fly to make it as fun as possible. If you followed my advice in the “Lie” section and didn’t tell your players any of the creature’s stats, your players probably won’t even notice.
Steal. You should be stealing every idea that isn’t nailed down and have a crowbar for those that are. Make sure you have a special section in your notes for all the cool shit you encounter in movies, video games, or other people’s roleplaying blogs that you might someday be able to repurpose for your own games. In my experience, Evernote is great for this. Then, when the time comes, whip it out, file off the serial numbers, and put it to work! Not only does this save you prep time, but it will also help keep your action scenes fresh. Inevitably, as a GM, your combats will start to fall into a certain style and this will change it up nicely, which keeps your players on their toes.
And now for the weirder stuff…
Far Out Idea #1: Don’t Use Initiative
This one isn’t too out there. In fact, I’ve already tried it a few times in my own games and it seems to work pretty well. Instead of starting combat by asking everyone to roll initiative, determine who goes by looking at how the combat actually started. Did it begin with the players ambushing some enemies? Then, the players are probably all going to get to go before their enemies. Maybe your players were having a conversation with the necromancer – offering him one last chance to surrender – when the impulsive barbarian charges into the fray. In this case, have the barbarian go first – he’s clearly initiating the combat scene. If there’s any dispute about who would go first, have a look at each character’s initiative stats and use them to inform your decision. Then, after the first actions, just have the players and their enemies take turns in whatever way that makes combat flow best. You can divvy turns up by individuals, by sides in the conflict, or some combination thereof. Try it a few different ways and use whichever one works best.
Far Out Idea #2: Hit Points Are the Problem
At its core, the issue with Dungeons & Dragons combat is hit points. They’re an abstraction that pulls the players out of the fiction into the land of strategy and mechanics. Instead of violence being just another means of achieving a goal, combat becomes a resource management game. So, what can we do about it? The next few Far Out Sub-Ideas all attempt to answer that question.
Far Out Sub-Idea #2a: Hide Their Hit Points
I’m not sure if this is the rule as written, but when my friends and I play Unknown Armies, players don’t get to know their character’s current hit points. They are aware of their total, but the GM keeps secret the value of any wounds they receive. Instead, players only get descriptions of how injured their characters are. This adds a fair amount of visceral description and uncertainty to the game’s combat scenes. I don’t see any reason why this concept can’t be applied to all games. In fact, for games like D&D5, we can take it a step further. Instead of players rolling their own HP and keeping track of their totals, it’s the GM’s job to track everyone’s HP. The players know approximately how tough they are when uninjured because they know what level they are and what size hit dice they get, but beyond that they have to rely on the GM’s description of their injuries.* For extra credit, at certain damage thresholds (say 25%, 50%, and 75%), apply some mechanical effects to the character in addition to the brutal description of the injury the character has received.
I really like this idea because it forces you to come up with cool descriptions of injuries. Also, the uncertainty it adds helps drive your players to consider combat choices from the perspective of their characters, rather than as a mechanical, strategic exercise.
Far Out Sub-Idea #2b: Attacks Always Hit
This idea is a bit more radical. In the best action movie fights, all sorts of cool and brutal shit ends up happening. Eyes get gouged. Arms get broken. Combatants get thrown through windows, walls, or off of buildings. And by the end of the fight, win or lose, everyone is always beaten, bloody, and exhausted. The core concept behind this Far Out Idea is to treat the abstraction of hit points (or wounds or whatever your game uses) as a measure of a character’s endurance, stamina, and/or fighting spirit, rather than as a representation of their physical well-being. By attacking, your character is wearing down the defenses of their opponent, but also has an opportunity to do some real damage.
Mechanically speaking, instead of attack rolls determining whether or not you get to roll damage (you’ll always get to roll basic damage), they determine whether or not you get to do something cool or brutal to your opponent. A successful attack roll gives you licence to describe the effects of a truly effective attack on your opponent. This would probably work best if these effects start off as fairly minor (throws, holds, and distractions) and increase in severity as the target loses hit points. Also, it’s worth noting that all of this works even better if you get your players to tell you how they’re making their attacks before you even look at the dice. Let’s look at an extended example:
The players are brawling with the villain’s beefiest henchman in an abandoned office high-rise and the henchman makes a successful attack roll against the two-fisted spy. The character takes some damage, as usual, then I determine (the spy still has most of his HP, so I’m not going to do anything too drastic) that the henchman grabs the hero by his lapels and throws him through a plate glass window. Fortunately, the spy is quick, so he’s able to catch himself, but now he has to figure out how to get himself out of this new and precarious situation. The plucky ninja sees an opportunity, so she darts in, attacking with a series of quick blows to the torso and throat, but fails her attack roll. The henchman still takes damage, which will wear him down eventually, but he’s able to deflect the worst of it with his meaty forearms, thus avoiding a serious (and potentially crippling) injury.
I could see this having two major positive effects: (1) combat will be significantly faster because all characters involved will be losing HP (or wounds or whatever) at a consistent rate; and (2) combat will feel significantly more brutal. One potential downside is that it makes mooks (normally low-threat, low-toughness, bullet-magnet enemies) WAY deadlier. Maybe only player characters and named NPCs get to benefit from this rule? That would restore the capacity of a hero to wade through a sea of goblins hewing away, but he’ll still have to think twice about going toe-to-toe with that ogre.
Far Out Sub-Idea #2c: No Hit Points
The goal of this idea is to raise the stakes of fighting even higher. The core concept is simple: No one has hit points. Instead, each character can take a small number successful attacks (depending on how tough they are) before they go down. Furthermore, each successful attack should have some sort of brutal consequence, like they do in Far Out Sub-Idea #2b. For example, each player character and named NPC might be able to take three hits: one light, one moderate, and one crippling wound. Each wound box gets filled in turn and each has some sort of mechanical effect moving forward. For example, the light wound box might represent a flesh wound like a bullet graze or a not-quite-avoided sword slash that gives a small penalty (such as -1 to certain actions), but the crippling wound would represent something far more significant like a badly broken limb or a gushing head wound and gives a major ongoing penalty (such as disadvantage on all actions). Also, depending on a character’s constitution or endurance score, they might get an additional light wound box or two. When a character takes a hit and they don’t have any wound boxes to fill, they’re down.
This idea also has some of the same negative side-effects as Far Out Sub-Idea #2b. Mooks probably shouldn’t make individual attacks (rather, the group of mooks would get a single attack) or get any wound boxes – instead, they should just go down with the first solid hit. As you can see, this is the least fully formed idea, but I think it could work fairly well, especially for games that need combat to be particularly brutal, such as Unknown Armies or Dark Sun. I think it certainly warrants some more playtesting, at the very least.
M. Hamhock out.
*Upon reflection, I believe John Wick describes this exact idea in Play Dirty, his excellent book on how to be a nastier GM. All credit where credit is due. If this sort of stuff gets your blood pumping, go give him money and read his awesome book.