Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I Swing My Sword... Again -- Encouraging Tactics and Movement in Combat

I was browsing reddit the other day and I saw a post that described a situation in which the players were fighting a drake and even though the GM had put out some cover for them, they just charged up to the beast and swung their swords until they won. The GM was asking what he could to to encourage his PCs to do more in combat than "I swing *roll*."

The first thing I thought when I read this post was that the players acted as players often do -- they took the most economical route to victory. They didn't dully swing their swords until they lost. They pounded away until they won the fight. This tells me they didn't need to do anything but swing their swords to win the fight. All of the cover the GM put down was wholly unnecessary... and I will go one step further and guess that if the players had acted as the GM intended, they would have decreased their chances at victory!!

Now, I don't know the specifics of the drake, or the fight. Perhaps the cover was there to protect the PCs against the drake's powerful breath attack, or his eye beams, or whatever -- I don't know. What I do know is that in nearly all rpg tactical combat systems, the most efficient thing to do to win fights is to DO DAMAGE. It could be big damage every couple of rounds, or it could be small, steady damage each round. It doesn't matter. You just need to dish it out.

I realize that I sound like the sports announcer that says, "The team that will win today is the one who scores the most points!" as though it is some sort of deep analysis. And yet, I think GMs often forget how our rules systems create incentives for certain types of behavior... and how well our players know and use those incentives.

So, I am GMing an encounter with a drake and I put down lots of cover. I expect players to use that cover because it will allow them to avoid the damage of the drake's breath attacks. But I fail to realize that, based on the balance of the encounter, if both sides just do as much damage as they can each round (minus the occasional heal from the PC cleric), the players will win handily with no need move or use cover, or any tactics at all...

The thing is, if you want cool action in combat, you are going to have to create it. How can you do that?

Minions!! -- Minions, mooks, lackeys, scrubs... all words for the same concept: a low-grade enemy that is really no challenge to the PCs and tends to drop in one or two hits. How do these types of enemies help make combat more dynamic?

The main thing minions do to make movement more important is that they make it harder. Battles with single big bad guys tend to quickly stagnate into the PCs and the baddie running toward the middle of the battlefield and slugging it out. Minions clog up the battlefield and block the PCs from getting to their master. You can't do damage unless you can reach the master enemy. Reaching the master means you have to move and because movement is no longer easy, movement powers, or powers that can clear the way, become infinitely more useful.

The second thing minions do is they do damage to the PCs. For PCs to do damage to the main enemies, they have to stay alive so again, tactical movement becomes critical. You don't want to be flanked and mobbed by a half-dozen minions because you will drop before you reach the big bad. Perhaps even more important is the fact that minions do way more damage than they should for the amount of staying power they have. (I call this the "Destroyer Effect" -- any old Star Fleet Battles players here will likely know why.) Savvy players will realize that mitigating the incoming damage of the minions is key to winning the battle and so killing, crowd-controlling, or otherwise avoiding them becomes a priority. All of this requires using tactical options other than standing in front of the bad guy and just swinging.

Move the Enemies -- Sounds silly, but one thing GMs tend to forget is if the enemies aren't running around, flanking and using terrain, then the PCs aren't likely to do so either. Have the enemies run to the top of a nearby hill to get the bonus for high ground. Make them duck behind wagons for cover against the PCs' arrow fire. Make them split up and try to encircle the PCs. Have the evil wizard fly to a nearby ledge so he can rain death on the PCs from a safe distance. Your players will have to use their heads to either counter these moves, or copy them in later battles.

If you have trouble thinking of how to move your enemies in the heat of combat then...

Have a Script -- For your next big battle, try writing a script for your antagonists. Plan out their first 2-4 rounds of combat. "Bandits A & B will charge up and try to net the rogue, then they will draw their weapons and harass the mage. Bandits C & D will form up and protect the evil priest who will cast Bless, then Flame Weapon on them. Once they have their buffs, C & D will charge the fighter."

It doesn't even have to be a good plan. Having any plan helps you make sure your NPCs aren't just target practice. It will get you thinking about how to move your combatants and use the battlefield and that will get the PCs thinking along the same lines.

Change the Objectives -- Way too many battles in fantasy rpgs come down to who can slaughter whom to the last man the fastest. That scenario lends itself to each side charging the other and putting down damage until one side dies.

What if the PCs have to protect one building from being burned by a band of roving goblins? In this case, it is unlikely the goblins will simply charge the PCs and fight until dead. It is more likely that a line of skirmishers will move up and harass the PCs while a second rank throws torches and oil at the target structure. Maybe they stay at range and shoot flaming arrows, or roll a wagon full of burning debris down a hill at the building.

Having an objective for the battle besides "kill 'em all" opens up a ton of tactical options. Do the goblins stay at range and pelt the target with fiery missiles? Do they try to lure the PCs into a pitched battle so that another group can safely torch the house? Do the PCs charge the would-be arsonists, or do they stay close to the objective, buckets in hand? What about spells and special abilities? In this case, a wall of force might be more useful than a fireball? What about the ability to control the weather and conjure up a nice soaking rain? Can you cast Resist Fire on a whole house?

Make Them React -- The idea of "changing objectives" is really a subset of this concept. Make your players react to the changing situation on the battlefield and you will get more action in combat. A simple example is the PCs coming into a room full of hostile bandits. This is going to be a simple "fight until dead" combat. That is, until one of the bandits makes a break for the alarm on the far wall of the room.

Now the players have to react. It isn't enough for them to wail away at the enemy in front of them. Now the rogue has to tumble through the crowd, or the mage has to cast Hold Person, or the fighter has to Bull Rush to make a lane for the cleric to knock the runner senseless.

How about in the middle of a mundane battle, the leader of the enemies yells, "Ok boys, we got 'em pinned. Now kill that mage!" and a group of archers appears in the distance and starts pelting the wizard with arrows? Now the players have to react. At the very least, the mage has to cast some defensive spell, or take cover, or nuke the archers. If that isn't possible, then the group is going to have to take some risks and make a move or two to deal with the new threat.

Terrain -- I think of terrain as being grouped into two categories: mundane and exotic. Mundane terrain is stuff like hills, trees, walls and streams. There is usually mundane terrain on every battlefield. The key to using mundane terrain in combat is to know your game's rules (or house rules) for it , have the NPCs use it, and to make the modifiers for using it clear to the players. Have the orcs take the high ground before they throw their spears and tell the players you are giving them a bonus to their range because of the terrain. When the PCs try to charge up the hill, tell them you are penalizing them because they are fighting uphill. When the PCs take cover to avoid the spears, tell them the AC bonus they are getting because of their caution.

Exotic terrain is stuff like lava, pools of acid, a swaying rope bridge across a 100-foot deep chasm. Exotic terrain is sometimes about modifiers, but just as often it is about avoiding an instant and painful death. If you have a pool of lava on the battlefield and the fight ends without the threat of someone being thrown in... you should definitely start questioning your life choices.

Using exotic terrain means having the combatants trying to knock, throw or force each other into it. Have your NPCs use combat maneuvers like Press, Bull Rush or Grapple to try to push PCs into the acidic lava chasm. Allow generous saving throws and ample opportunity for characters to catch falling comrades, or help them with spells... instant death sucks, but narrowly avoiding it is great fun!

Tweak the Balance of Your Fights -- One thing to consider is that offering modifiers for terrain and advantages for clever play is a great idea, but if your fights never hinge on those advantages, don't expect players to take them. In the original example, a GM was concerned that his players didn't use all the cover he provided in their fight with the drake... and yet they won... and no one died. That tells me that the drake wasn't really that dangerous in the first place.

If you want players to move and use tactics in combat, the combat has to be balanced so that it is important to do so. If there isn't a risk of losing, or dying, or being too depleted to go on, then why bother? If your encounters aren't dangerous to begin with, start amping them up a little bit, but make it clear that there are ways to get advantages -- namely by using the terrain provided.

What if the drake in the example did double damage with his breath weapon, but taking cover gave a bonus to the saving throw and totally mitigated the damage on a successful save? Now, instead of taking 1/3 of their hit points on a breath attack, they take 2/3. The breath attack becomes way more dangerous now, knocking players to within another round or two of being knocked out. If the attack hits multiple characters, it may well overwhelm the healers and spell the doom of the group! Unless, of course, they take cover whenever the drake breathes.

Except, your battle ends in a complete party wipe because...

Does Your Game Support Doing Stuff -- You might need to take a look at your game and make sure it supports the type of action you want to promote. For instance, in the fight with the fire-breathing drake, my fighters charge up and start hacking at it. Now, I would like them to take cover when the creature breathes, but how can they? When the drake's turn comes up, it breathes. Can the fighters react out of turn and dive behind cover?

Some games allow characters to "abort" their next action to take a defensive move like diving behind cover, but not all games do. If you are playing a game that does not allow defensive reactions, then you should consider just how you expect the PCs to take cover. Perhaps you can house rule in a "tell" a round in advance to warn the PCs of the impending breath weapon attack. Now the breath weapon becomes a decision for the fighters. Do they waste a round of damage to avoid the breath? Meaningful decisions are always good!!

Alright, this post has gone on long enough. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas for your next epic combat.