Leaping off of the balcony, the beast of a man brings his enormous morningstar down upon the knight’s shield, shattering it into hundreds of metal fragments that shoot through the air. The sheer force of the man sends the knight to his knees who desperately rolls to his right to avoid the foot coming down towards his head. He slashes in retaliation with his father’s two-handed blade, sending it deeply into the ribcage of his enemy. The lights in his eyes begin to fade as the wound takes its toll, but the whistle of a passing arrow ends the beastman’s life entirely as the knight’s faithful companion launches the death shot into the back of his head.
I think no matter what type of person I convince to sit down and try an RPG, everyone’s focus sharpens when combat occurs. There is something about the thrill of the violence that captures our inner animalistic behaviors, our sense of aggression, or perhaps it’s just plain cool to see. Whatever the case may be, combat makes up the opposite half to the role playing aspect of the game. For some people, it is the only thing that matters when playing.
There are far too many rulebooks resting on my bookshelves these days. When I get my hands on a new one, the only three places I bother looking anymore are the race list, class list, and how they deal with combat. Of those three things, I always turn to the combat chapter first.
For me, the way a company’s new rulebook defines their method of dealing with combat defines how well their game is going to be. For the most part, there really is no need to have rules for non-combat roleplaying situations. There are moments of high risk that would require dice to give the game a sense of chance, but when you strip that situation down to its core, it basically involves someone rolling one or more dice to land in a range of numbers for success. You don’t need a book really to allow that to occur. Combat, however, is a different beast altogether.
As I mentioned in the last episode, pace is the quintessential part of running a good game. Perhaps one of the toughest sections of a session to keep pace flowing is during combat. There are a couple of reasons why: usually everyone is involved, turns must be taken to maintain order, everyone has to decide what to do, ideas may have to change on-the-fly as the situation changes, and actions may be attempted that is questionable on whether or not it can be done.
When the game is flowing casually, meaning no combat is taking place, generally anyone can speak up whenever they wish to take an action. There is no real need for order because the situation doesn’t call for it. One person can inspect the dead body while another can question the suspect while another can keep a lookout. The GM would still have to go around the room and take care of each person individually or can try to cut time by generalizing the situation by explaining each result in one sentence. “All you find on the body is a note that says ‘Meranda’, which the suspect says was the victim’s wife’s name as you interrogate him. Across the street you see a flash of light.” With combat, however, the situation becomes more chaotic as everyone is battling for victory. Everyone’s actions occur simultaneously, but everyone shouting out what they are doing would yield no results. So we have initiative rolls to determine order. Then each person gets to take their action in turn…and this is where the traffic jam happens.
Some people look at their character sheet and might be overwhelmed with the sheer number of things they can do during combat. Some people have magical spells to look through. Some people love to come up with crazy, wacky, death-defying tricks that will turn the tides in their favor. Some people just want to always swing their sword at the person in front of them.
When I go around the table during combat, I give them 5 seconds to say what they want to do. That’s it. It may sound like not much time, but your brain works fast enough, you should have a general idea of what you want to do. Attack the bad guy, cast a spell, protect your friend, get out of the way, free the prisoner. Something. If your mind is blank and you can’t think of what to do, simply hold your action. In my game, when you hold your action, I allow them to jump in between two other players’ actions when they make up their mind. After the second player’s action, I will quickly ask the held player if they are ready. They don’t get 5 seconds in this situation but a quick yes or no. If multiple people are holding their action, I generally have them all go after at least one of the enemies has gone to show that no one is going to wait for them to think of what to do. It provides a sense of urgency, which in combat, should be the feeling they have. Combat should never be a casual, laid back experience. If properly monitored by the GM, when players get into combat, they should sweat a little, figuratively speaking.
Although some GMs will hide certain information regarding the enemy from the players, there really is no point in the long run. Eventually players will roll in the area of the target number and know what it is. So why bother hiding it from them? To keep play sped up, right from the start, tell everyone to write down the base target numbers of all enemies they are facing. Have them all roll dice while you are going around the table asking them what they are doing. Make them roll for damage in case they are successful on their attack (assuming the rule system applies to this). That way when you get to them, they can describe their action to everyone, adding in they hit, and then finish with informing the GM how much damage was done. If they miss, they can describe their action of missing if they wish, then move on to the next person. As an option, describing each action in detail to the group may keep the attention of those who are waiting their turn to prevent boredom or a lack of focus. This way, combat may run quicker and smoother while still giving a good visualization of the encounter.
But we all know combat never runs that smoothly. There seems to always be one or two who are either still learning the rules, are a Rules Lawyer, or a spell caster. By the time you get to their turn, skip it, and get back to them at the end of the round, they still have a rule book open, trying quickly to find the rule that will allow them to do whatever they wish to do. This is where the GM is a beautiful thing.
GMs, do your best to keep the rulebooks closed during game play. Even for spellcasters. Yes, it can be done with a little prep work. We live in modern times where computers and printers exist. Although some rule books allow for certain classes to prepare any spell in the entire level each day, one recommendation is to agree to a shorter list of spells that the player is interested in. Let’s face it, there are spells in every book that will never be touched. If you have a player who is fixed on having every spell available, then print out just the levels he can cast from the PDF you have. If you progressively print out a few pages only when they reach a level that grants another level of spells, you will only print out about 1-2 pages at a time. Have them keep their own print outs with their character sheets. This is especially critical during conventions when players are paying for their 4-hour game slot to finish on time.
The other way to keep the rule books closed during play is to make the executive decisions as a GM, like you should be doing. The player wants to leap off the balcony and attack the enemy? As a GM, you should be familiar enough with the rules you are using in your game to make an educated guess on that situation. Be fair, but be firm. Give them a chance of failure for leaping off the balcony, but if they land it, give them a nice bonus for taking the risk. All of this can be done if you explain prior to playing this is how it’s going to be done: the GM’s rule is final with zero arguing. If there are people who disagree and want to argue, then ask them to write this situation down, talk with them after the game, and come to an agreement for future reference. That person obviously is not agreeing with the GM’s rule is final, so have a civilized, mature discussion to figure out how to solve it. Perhaps give players tokens they can use during game play that will trump your rule and allow their interpretation to work.
These are just a few areas that can speed up combat. If the rules are too crunchy during combat and your group is having trouble finding ways to speed up play, it may be wise to look for a lighter rules system.
Another moment that can cause bottle necking with players is when the first or second person comes up with a plan that thwarts everyone else’s idea, and they all have to scramble to think of something else. This is where the fallback plan comes into play. As a GM, work with the players to recognize that their great scheme may be on the minds of another player. Encourage them to have a Plan B or “if all else fails” plan such as a level 1 spell or using one of their weapons to attack their nearest foe. It needs to be something that is routine and can be done regularly without too much of a setback so it’s a guarantee. They need to be prepared to go this route so play can continue when their turn is up (or they can hold their action). Explain that everyone will at one time get a lucky roll on who goes first and they will get their chance.
One final thought to mingle around the brain is to have things for other players to be doing while they wait their turn. Often I’ll see people doodling on paper, stacking their dice, talking with another table, or just walking into the kitchen for a snack while they wait knowing they will have 5-10 minutes to kill before their turn comes. Don’t allow this as a GM. Maintain order by keeping people occupied. During conventions, I will have minor puzzles and such on paper for players during combat. They are instructed to A) think of what they are going to do on their turn, B) think of their fallback plan, and then C) solve the puzzle they receive. If the players are interested in the combat of others, they are more than welcome to enjoy hearing about the various rounds. However, if they are bored, giving them something constructive will keep them occupied. Reward them with using the solved puzzle as a free re-roll during the game.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.