Monday, June 3, 2013

Save vs. Monotony -- Let The Fight End When Its Over

We've talked a little bit about two different styles of combat systems, build-based and positional systems. Build-based systems focus on building and tweaking your character's abilities to increase his performance in combat. Positional systems rely more on tactical positioning and situational modifiers. Both styles have good points and thankfully, most game systems are hybrids to some degree, allowing choices made both before and during combat to matter.

However, both styles also have drawbacks. Often, build systems lend themselves to a "one-trick pony" mentality where players optimize to do a single trick in combat very well (trip or disarm for instance) and then try to pull the same trick every single battle. Positional systems can also fall into a similar trap when the group uses the same set of tactics over and over.

The key is that combat in any system can bog down in play, or become monotonous over the course of a long campaign. However, with a little creativity, we can avoid most of the problems and keep our fights fun and memorable. Here is one important tip that I think many GMs could use...

I learned this lesson many years back when I started to run games in chat rooms. I exclusively play games with rules-heavy combat systems and I am pretty good at keeping the action moving and resolving combats quickly. However, those skills didn't translate too well in the chat game. The slower pace of people typing their actions and the lag in communications led to combats being dull and dragging on for way longer than they should have.

I came up with a simple solution. After a few rounds passed, and I was convinced that the outcome of the fight was decided, I simply stated that the enemies fled into the woods and that the fight was over. The PCs were satisfied with their victory and the story had been move all in a reasonable amount of time. So, our first lesson is ...

Let The Fight End When Its Over

I recently GMed a combat where the group was fighting some heavily armored giant beetles. The early rounds went well for the party and they downed half of the giant insects. The remaining two bugs weren't really going to do any significant damage to the group, but as luck would have it, the die rolls turned a bit, and between luck and the beetles' hit points and armor, the combat lasted several more rounds... easily 30 minutes more.

This was a bad mistake on my part, because the fight was actually over in something like three combat rounds. The PCs had smashed two of the bugs and injured another. Had I made the last two beetles flee for their lives, the combat would have gone 10-15 lively minutes, the PCs would have felt like bad asses, and we could have moved on with the game. I had the beetles fight to the death and drew the fight out several more boring rounds.

There are times when the PCs are engaged in an epic, all-out battle for the fate of the entire campaign world and yeah, those combats ought to last a while and feel like all or nothing affairs. But when the party just happens upon a group of bandits robbing a caravan, or when the PCs encounter a group of goblin scouts, or when the enemy is just trying to send the PCs a message -- those aren't "final" battles, so don't be afraid to end them.

The leader of the bandits might yell for a retreat, drink a potion of invisibility, and take to the hills with as much loot as he can carry. The goblins might surrender as soon as a couple of them fall. The thugs sent to rough up the PCs might only fight for a couple of rounds before they slink back into the dark alleyways. Not only is there no logical reason why such groups would fanatically fight to the death, but doing so is likely to drag the fight past the point where it is interesting.

I call this point the Point of Decision. It is the point at which the outcome of a battle has been decided and the rest of the combat is a question of how the winner will mop up their enemy and how many more combat rounds will it take. I think a big key in keeping your combats interesting is to learn to recognize this point and not fight much past it.

Try this for your next set of encounters. For each enemy group, write down a circumstance under which they would disengage and flee combat. The goblins might flee once three of their number were downed, or the leader of the pack took a significant wound. The bandits might take to the hills once their leader gets to a specific sack of treasure.

This does three things. It shortens combats, and more importantly, it cuts off the less interesting parts of the fight. It keeps things somewhat realistic in terms of how creatures with any self-preservation instinct would approach combat. Finally, if your game has skills like combat sense, or tactics, it gives you more to do with those skills, since now players could use them to learn the conditions under which their opponents will try to break off combat.

This is not to say that every fight needs to end in the PC's enemies fleeing for their lives. Some enemies will be fanatical, or mindless enough to fight to the last man, and those enemies should strike dread into the PCs. Fighting ten bandits is one thing when you know that cutting their leader down will make them scatter. Fighting ten zombies that will mindlessly try to rend your flesh until you have cut them into pieces... that is a different kind of battle entirely.

So, if we are going to endeavor to make combats shorter by having enemies NOT fight until they are all dead, we need to figure out exactly how they are going to run away. Most games make it very hard for a combatant to disengage and leave the field of battle. Also, many players have been trained by years of gaming to think that winning a fight means wiping out the enemy.

My suggestion is very simple. When you feel a combat is done, tell the players, "I am pretty sure you guys have won this battle, and so are the bandits, so the remaining thugs scatter into the woods. Is that OK with you guys?" They might be worried about XP, or about the state of future encounters if they let any bandits go, so be prepared to answer their questions. If they seem unwilling to allow the fight to end, either let them play it out, or perhaps you can just rule that the PCs have mopped up the remaining opposition without any significant trouble.

And remember, use your judgement. This isn't for every battle. Your goal is to avoid the boring rounds when a fight can't be lost, but rolls have to be made. If the battle is exciting and going down to the wire, fight it out. But if it is a group of 6 against two injured but heavily armored beetles and the dice have turned and you can see interest flagging... The combat is over, so end it.