Monday, May 25, 2015

Why Combat In Your Game Sucks

What goes into a good action sequence? What makes some fights just more fun than others? Have you ever heard that some GMs run super fun combats? Or perhaps the opposite, that combat in a certain game is very bland and boring?  Today I want to talk about that. What things are you missing that is holding your game back and taking what should be the most exciting part of a game and making it the blandest chore that players want to avoid.

P.S.: I don't think your combat sucks, just trying out some stronger wording today. :)

There Is No Motivation Behind The Fight
Why are your PCs fighting these people? What are the stakes? Oh sure, the loser dies, but that's kind of boring in game terms. I mean beyond that. What is lying at stake beyond the combat? A siege of a castle is exciting not because the guy on the wall could die if he loses, but because if the defenders fail the castle is lost and that could end the war or at least give the enemy a huge hand up.

In a lot of games combat is just a reason to roll dice and fill the time in a session with mechanics. The PCs and monsters fight because they come across each other. It's all mechanics. Those goblins don't care who the PCs are, they just care that someone is in sight and that means they attack. The PCs don't care about the goblins. They just get attacked when they walk into the hallway. It's boring.

To solve this, try adding motivation to your fights. Give the PCs a reason that matters to want to be in the fight. Give the opposition a reason to resist. Make it something real. "There's treasure in them that hills" is ok now and then, but kind of meh beyond it. Especially when the monsters are just lining up to fight to the death in carefully arranged groups. Best of all, by giving proper motivations to each side in a fight you change the dynamic of a fight. Maybe those kobolds don't attack so hard as long as the PCs don't go near their den. Maybe the PCs don't take the time to slaughter every orc and goblin in a castle when they're on the clock to save the King's life. Motivation, it's a hell of a drug.

You Don't Use Evocative Description
You know what most fights in RPGs boil down to? Your guy stands in one five foot square. His opponent stands in another five foot square. They then trade attacks until one of them is incapable of swinging a sword and the victor goes in search of another person to play paddy cake with. Boring, no?

Sure, the rules tell you that these are two combatants locked in a fight to the death. They parry, riposte, block, and shield bash in between each rolled attack. The thing is we don't see it. You don't let your player describe that they're coming down in an overhead chop. You don't let the player know that he blocks a vicious chop from the side before kicking the gnoll back three steps and running it through with his sword. You forget that there still needs to be a narrative even as the dice are being rolled.

To solve this...just add description. The easiest way is to do a recap at the end of the round where you go over the highlights. Just make sure when you do the highlights you don't leave folks out. Need inspiration? Watch movies. What is going on visually during those sequences? Yeah, use that. A little detail goes a long way. Speaking of a little going a long way...

You Don't Use The Environment
You know what sets the good fight scenes apart from the great fight scenes? How much the environment matters. I've talked before about how you could - by the rules of most systems - have a full on 20 vs 20 melee in a china shop and not have a single piece of delicate porcelain get damaged. How boring is that? If you're not using your environment in fights, you are guilty of this. Even the best of descriptions can't add the level of dynamic feeling some good use of the environment can.

To solve this, be creative and use the environment. This can be in your description with a missed attack cleaving through a shelf of delicate pottery, or in the attacks themselves. Throw a PC through the wall. Slam someone through a table. Have an NPC kick someone off a ledge. Light the whole place on fire, and have flaming boards drop in between the combatants at times. Once you start to use the environment, your PCs will see that it can happen and follow suit. Be creative with it. Your fight scenes will matter.

When It Doesn't Matter You Still Go HAM
The final sin I see a lot of people is dragging out boring sequences when they don't need to be. You know the kind. Your PCs need to fight from the back of the ship to the front, so you work it out round by pain staking round, fight by fight, and HP by HP. The worst part is that the fight doesn't even matter until they get to the front of the ship where the evil enemy captain is waiting. This isn't making the sequence more exciting, it is padding out the game length plain and simple, and if you really want your players to start having side conversations and stacking dice...well then, I recommend you do it.

To solve this, find a way to cut the BS a bit shorter. You can solve that long traverse of the ship with a handful of dice rolls and arbitrarily assigning status modifiers. It gets you to the point of the encounter faster, but still has the other stuff have an impact. One PC rolls badly? She takes damage and gets to the fight out of ammo from her guns. Another PC rolls well? He doesn't take any damage and still has some bullets. You've gott he exact same results from the long drawn out fights, but you've solved the problem in 5 minutes instead of 5 sessions.

In short, if there is no motivation or narrative reason for a fight other than "they're delaying the PCs or softening them up" then it doesn't really need all the mechanical BS, now does it? Make it go faster. Play a bit loose with the rules. Make it fun. After all, that's the point of all this, right?

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