Over the last couple sessions of various games I've been in three hard fights. The first, in my D&D game I run, involved two boss characters and some wyverns versus the party. In the end, the Party won the fight, but one member was dead and another turned to stone until the party can find a way to bring them back. The second was in a D&D game where I'm a player where the party fought a white dragon, and though we were wildly successful the usual energy just wasn't there. The third was in a Star Wars game I'm a player in, where the GM forewarned us we were about to get our butts kicked - we opted to play through it - and sure enough got our butts kicked and got to be guests of the Imperial Security Bureau for a bit.
Today I want to talk about this. Combat in your game. And what makes a combat feel like a drag vs. a real fun time.
Bad Fights Happen
Before anything else, you need to keep in mind that bad fights happen. You can't control the dice. You can't control the lives of your players. You can't control the fact that a key person may be out sick, or not their usual creative self. You definitely can't control that everyone is coming off a bad week and thus may respond more negatively to a bad situation than normal. These are part of life and part of gaming. The point is, at some point a bad fight will happen and you can't beat yourself up about it. Try to learn, and move along.
In general, a close loss is going to be more enjoyable - especially during the fight - than one where the players don't have a chance. There is little that sucks more in a game than sitting there round after round and feeling powerless to do anything. Sometimes this powerlessness isn't even the GM's fault.
For example, a large part of the dragon fight felt very tame and kind of a drag because - in my opinion - a group of players (including myself so personal bias) felt powerless to do anything. This isn't the GM's fault. We went into a dragon's cave to fight a dragon. The dragon was being clever, staying above his prey, and doing what it could to dislodge the monk that did get on its back. The GM played the fight perfectly right. But as one of the PCs who couldn't see (due to darkness/fog/etc) or couldn't reach (lack of ranged weaponry, also not the GM's fault) it was definitely harder to stay interested/engaged/and positive.
To further make the point, this group has fought two dragons. My character literally died in the first dragon fight. However, for me, the first dragon fight was more fun because I felt I could do something. Almost the entirety of the fight took place with my character able to do their job (hit things and be hit in turn.) It sucked going down, but I never felt powerless. And once I was down, well, that's a lot different than being powerless.
Again, none of this is the GM's fault. I don't want that GM to change how they play dragons. If anyone is at fault, the PCs should have been more prepared for dealing with dragons playing coy. But it is good to know where the feeling came from, if only to identify the problem and fix it (which I intend to.)
Mechanics Bog Down
The second big pitfall a lot of combats run into is mechanics bog down. Everytime the dice come out, the game stops. Everytime the GM has to make a ruling, the game stops. Everytime the game stops, you risk losing a player from being caught up in the scene. I believe this so truly, that as a GM I'd recommend going with rulings over rules whenever possible in a fight if only to keep the speed up.
This rule, in general, is good for all aspects of the game and not just combat. The more you can keep dice and the mechanics out of the story the more smoothly it will go. Of course, some games are more apt at this than others. It's hard to keep the rules out of D&D where you have wizards throwing spells, rogues invoking special rules, and fighters wanting to know if they can shield bash a huge creature to prone, or only large creatures and smaller. Compare that to 7th Sea second edition where it's basically "spend a raise do a thing" or Amber where "highest stat wins, no rolling" and you can see both sides of the spectrum.
Mechanics bog down though is one where players can help too. Players should have their turns thought out - at least partially - before initiative gets to them. Players should also make every effort to resolve their turn quickly and coherently. If you're casting a spell, you should have the book open to the spell already - or otherwise know what it does. If you're going to be moving and attacking, know to where and whom you attack.
On the GM side, don't feel the need to look up in the book for every question that comes up. Make a ruling if you have to, or have someone else check the book for you if you can. Every second you are not keeping the fight going is a second you could be losing someone.
If It's Going To Be Bad, Make It Fast
One of the best things the GM of the Star Wars game did with the recent scenario is cut it quick. He RPed to the point he knew about how the players were going to react, found where the PCs could have no further agency, and cut from there. It was beautifully done, and it worked well.
While not a combat, effectively what happened was the GM hit fast forward the second player agency was at a low level, and picked back up when agency resumed. Everyone knew when we hit the point - you could hear it in people's voices as they realized they were out of options - and not dwelling on it was great. Compare this to an un-fond memory of spending 5-6 hours of RPing through being tortured and interrogated with nothing my PC could do...and yeah. I'm grateful.
This is also true in combat. If the point of a fight is to overwhelm the PCs, than do it. Overwhelm them. Don't send 10 guys because you think they can take 6. Send 20. Make it clear that the situation is not winnable - forewarn them if possible - and don't let the scene drag out. Offer to "and we can cut here, or do you want to play it out?" Do they want to play it out? Great. Play it, but when you drop someone offer again. Point out that this isn't exactly a winnable fight, but it's also not the end. Ideally, you never have to even play it out - but if the players want to, no harm in letting them.
Being overpowered, being powerless, and even being uninvolved are not things that piss people off in my experience when playing RPGs. However, being one - or all - of those things for a prolonged period? That'll do it. A lot of players can handle "you get swarmed by 20 people. They knock you down and kick you unconscious. You wake up..." and going from there. It's a lot different than making them sit there for round after round as an enemy they can't touch slowly nickels and dimes them down while they wait for an opening that's not coming.
You know it's going south. Just get it over with.