Violence & Viscera

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Violence & Viscera

High stakes and vivid descriptions should be your best friends if you want to make the combat in your tabletop RPG truly exciting.

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I'm starting to think you are just trying to see how gullible we are. I don't think I've ever seen players as unhappy as after a fight with an effective rust Monster.

At least I agree on the Viscera.. somewhat. Drawing out a miss and death is generally just going to aggravate people though. What I STRONGLY recommend though, is if you write up your monsters, add descriptions under each of their 'moves' or 'abilities'. Instead of just 'he swings a sword at you, hit for 8' include a bit of flavor about how they attack in general. Use it at least once, or variation thereof, during combat. Makes it go better.

Different encounters should aim for different things. In DnD 4 for instance, middle of the road encounters can simply suck up healing surges, without needing to be deadly. If your RPG has an 'almost dead' state (Like 'dying' in DnD4) that is a good spot to aim for.

Player death should really only occur if they are taking on the Big Bad, or the mid Boss. That is, unless they are really stupidly, then it is easier to justify.

The real problem I have with this article, is it is strongly assuming you have wargamer style players all around. People in it for the story want challenges to overcome. Unless you are playing more of a survival horror style RPG, that doesn't mean constant or even often, threat of death.

I like it, just found this article series when i inherited a dnd group so this series should be useful, besides that i have no criticism

my storyteller in my Exalted game falls short in a lot of areas, but combat is always interesting, and he's not afraid of making near misses seem amazing if enough power is put behind them. For instance, in one encounter, a lunar exalted managed to get a damage pool of 20 dice, and we were all prepared for a huge cataclysmic hit. The player only rolled 2 successes though, meaning that out of 20 d10s, he only rolled 2 dice that were 7 or higher. We were quite disappointed until the Storyteller decided that the "hit" was actually a "miss". The exalt actually smashed through a wall creating a hole for some of the other players to enter the fray, and flying shrapnel from the exploding wall caused the 2 damage to the enemy that the player rolled.

My own character managed to throw 20 damage energy bolts in one particular encounter, and even though I consistently missed the targets, I DEMOLISHED that room, and actually killed a prone enemy with just falling rocks.

My only gripe with my Storyteller is that he ends to arbitrarily kill characters. He's given us clones that allow us to survive such deaths, at least for the time being (the number of clones is quickly diminishing though), but in our last game, he just outright killed a character out of combat with no input from the player at all. The player took it like a trooper, but I'm sure that would have pissed me off. Also, he tends to put us up against enemies that we realistically have no chance of defeating and who cheat to defeat us, only to be killed one scene later in a cutscene. Running a game like this with 6 players is difficult, but it does bother me sometimes.

Just to throw in my two cents, my current group has this concept of "Bryn-dead". Bryn is our guy with the huge sword. In Pathfinder, something is dead for good when its negative hit point count (how far below 0 and active and moving) equals the Constitution score. The healthier something is, the more damage it can take before kicking the bucket. Bryn-dead is when the poor bugger hits twice its Constitution in negative hit points. This is when the gruesome "you split it in half" description comes in. Since blows are exchanged a lot in D&D and its kin, the awesome descriptions mean more at these crucial points of very, very dead and critical hits.

Still loving the thread. Thanks a bunch, Mr. Macris.

Zechnophobe:
I don't think I've ever seen players as unhappy as after a fight with an effective rust Monster.... Player death should really only occur if they are taking on the Big Bad, or the mid Boss. That is, unless they are really stupidly, then it is easier to justify.... assuming you have wargamer style players all around. People in it for the story want challenges to overcome.

From these comments, I'm fairly certain you didn't read the prior article I linked, on the "agency theory of fun". It will probably help you understand my point of view better if you do so. I don't expect that you'll *agree* with it, necessarily, but you'll understand it better.

To very quickly summarize it, in my opinion, GMs shouldn't aim to make the players "happy" all the time. RPGs can and should offer the deeper satisfaction of offering players meaningful impact from real choices. That demands that they be free to choose outcomes that will make them unhappy, such as picking a fight and losing it.

With this in my mind, player death is not something you need to "justify". The choices of the players, as adjudicated by the rules and the dice, tell you when player death occurs. The GM's job isn't to decide whether the death is "justifiable".

RPGs should not be wargames, necessarily, but they should be games about meaningful choices. So-called "challenges" that cannot be lost and "storylines" that offer only an illusion of choice are, in my entirely-unhumble opinion, the wrong way to play. It's akin to having a Ferrari and using it to buy groceries. Sure, you can use a Ferrari to buy groceries, and some people enjoy using a Ferrari to buy groceries, but it's not what Ferraris are *for*, and other things do the grocery-carting task better.

Jikuu:
Bryn-dead is when the poor bugger hits twice its Constitution in negative hit points. This is when the gruesome "you split it in half" description comes in.

I love it! "It's not dead until it's Bryn-dead." *hacks its head off*

I like the high stakes idea. I created a hit location table for my group and one of my players literally lost his left hand and part of his lower jaw in about 90% of the fights he was in. Another player lost both ears in the span of about 30 seconds.

Ironically, the guy who kept losing his left hand asked me if I was going to consider making groin shots on the table. I looked at him and said, "With YOUR luck...your asking me that?"

He thought about it for a second before taking the idea back.

Of course, I was running a tristat game and not D20 or anything else like that. The same left hand losing guy also decided to ask me, "What happens when you fumble your defense roll when the enemy rolls a crit?"

"Well, it depends on where the enemy hits you. Probably D-E-D dead though."

Sure enough, next gaming session, a mortar went off about 30 or so feet from lefty. He rolled that fumble and took about 6 pieces of shrapnel, one to the left hand, one to the jaw, three to the stomach, and one to leg. He almost died from it.

I love irony. I love it good.

Archon:

Zechnophobe:
I don't think I've ever seen players as unhappy as after a fight with an effective rust Monster.... Player death should really only occur if they are taking on the Big Bad, or the mid Boss. That is, unless they are really stupidly, then it is easier to justify.... assuming you have wargamer style players all around. People in it for the story want challenges to overcome.

From these comments, I'm fairly certain you didn't read the prior article I linked, on the "agency theory of fun". It will probably help you understand my point of view better if you do so. I don't expect that you'll *agree* with it, necessarily, but you'll understand it better.

To very quickly summarize it, in my opinion, GMs shouldn't aim to make the players "happy" all the time. RPGs can and should offer the deeper satisfaction of offering players meaningful impact from real choices. That demands that they be free to choose outcomes that will make them unhappy, such as picking a fight and losing it.

With this in my mind, player death is not something you need to "justify". The choices of the players, as adjudicated by the rules and the dice, tell you when player death occurs. The GM's job isn't to decide whether the death is "justifiable".

RPGs should not be wargames, necessarily, but they should be games about meaningful choices. So-called "challenges" that cannot be lost and "storylines" that offer only an illusion of choice are, in my entirely-unhumble opinion, the wrong way to play. It's akin to having a Ferrari and using it to buy groceries. Sure, you can use a Ferrari to buy groceries, and some people enjoy using a Ferrari to buy groceries, but it's not what Ferraris are *for*, and other things do the grocery-carting task better.

So, for example, my current party of 6 people has 2 that know all the rules, 2 that are fairly able to play their character and make character building decisions, and 2 who don't really know all that much.

For those 2 that know all the rules, death is mechanical. It is something that you avoid based on certain decision in character, and actions during the game.

For those 2 that know very few of the rules, death is basically a plot device. Because they had no control over it, it 'just happens' to them. They ability to avoid death is limited by their knowledge of the rules. They don't even particularly like combat, but love puzzles and talking and learning about the game world. If I had a complex puzzle involving pulleys and levers, and rocks that could fall on people, then a death by that would fit their narrative view of the game.

Because for those bottom 2 (Or probably 1/3rd of potential DnD players), it IS somewhat on the back of the GM to figure out how to interact with them. I cannot divide my actions, from what happens to them. They are linked very strongly.

What I'm really saying is that combat isn't the only place to have meaningful decisions, and for those who aren't really in love with it, is the worst place.

Zechnophobe:
I'm starting to think you are just trying to see how gullible we are. I don't think I've ever seen players as unhappy as after a fight with an effective rust Monster.

My most devastating defeat in D&D came when a group of friends and I made up level 20 characters and faced off against a tarrasque, just to see what it would be like.

These were characters that we had literally no vested interest in, it was a oneshot game.

The fight lasted like half an hour. My Half-Orc Barbarian was eaten on the very first round and slowly digested over the course of the next few rounds. I tried with all my might to cut my way out, but he kept regenerating. We died horribly.

My point is, we still talk about this fight. No vested interest, no overarching continuity, just "Let's see if we can beat a tarrasque", and the answer, even at level 20 was a resounding "no." You could argue that we were ill equipped, and didn't have the senses of the characters that we would have had if it had been at the end of a campaign. Maybe in a proper setting, a tarrasque does match its challenge rating of 20 (Titans certainly do, which we learned later). I can imagine a rust monster would be a horribly boring creature if it didn't offer the chance of losing your equipment. It would just be like a gigantic rat. It doesn't look imposing at all, but an experienced adventurer fears it almost as much as a dragon of even a larger size. It's supposed to be a monster that experienced (and hence well equipped) adventurers avoid like the plague, and meant to be a lesson to players that sometimes it's better to just leave the giant metal eating bug alone.

Before my DM left for college he was all descriptive in combat, but let us get away with absurdly silly things.

Archon:

High stakes and vivid descriptions should be your best friends if you want to make the combat in your tabletop RPG truly exciting.

Great article, but what I really need to comment on is the image chosen for page 2. Absolute perfection. Nothing symbolizes the threat of your own beloved heroes facing very real consequences better than that scene did. Bravo.

I entirely agree with you with regards to the "stakes" - there should always be stakes involved in combat, otherwise it's all fairly pointless isn't it? But, just like in movies, having gratuitious battles just for the sake of having them is kind of silly as well: shouldn't the stakes be something else (e.g. the fate of the kingdom or the girl, to use generic tropes). In other words, why aren't you talking about the stakes outside the immediate lives/equipment/the whole party? It was some time since I played rather than GM'd, but I do know that my players have found it interesting to follow a battle their characters aren't directly involved in, but that nonetheless is significant for the story.

Anyway, regarding the visceral parts: I agree, partially, but I also disagree (or, rather, I think you are being inconsistent again). Earlier you wrote about how important it is for the GM never to fudge the dice or to create his own rules on the spot that aren't followed through - all in an effort to increase the player's sense of agency. But particularly visceral descriptions come from nowhere but your own mind, do they not? So say, for instance, that your player scores a critical hit on a person. Now, you have to figure out how to describe this, and you do: "You swing the metal pipe in a wide arc, hitting the man across the face, causing his jaw to dislocate and his teeth to fly out in a bloody splurt". Whoa, cool, everyone sits up. But the dude isn't dead, he's just badly wounded: he still has HP or the equivalent thereof left. But it doesn't make any sense any more for said dude to be up and fighting, EVEN IF the game mechanics and his hitpoints suggests that he should be!

What I do then is I describe how the guy collapses in a heap, whimpering pitifully as he tries to vainly collect his teeth from the ground or whatever. I'm sure most people would do the same. But this is fudging, this is GM fiat, this is cheating: according to the rules, the critter is still supposed to be up and about, giving your party a hard time. However, the only VIABLE alernative to describing the critical hit in such a visceral fashion is to downplay it ("You hit the man over the head, and he staggers back, momentarily stunned"), which basically moots your entire point about visceral descriptions.

This can go on to the "almost dead" states most games have: you just described the gutting of the main villain, but moments later (as he lies in his 'dying' state), the players decide to spare him (for whatever reason) - how in the earths are you going to let them do that, even if (once again) the sacrosanct rules would definitely allow for this? Of course, this is different in a high-magic/high tech setting, but not all settings are such.

Essentially, what this all boils down to is that what you as a GM are doing when you describe combat 'viscerally' is you are taking AWAY from player agency: you are not just interpreting the dice roll, you are playing their characters. At best, they're like those little insta-death cutscenes in Assassin's Creed whenever you manage to click your buttons right during a fight: awesome cool. At worst, you just made the player do something their characters wouldn't do, you just took over their whole being (such as your rather poor example of the warrior jumping through the air and headstabbing enemies left and right).

I will concede that the problem here, as you rightfully point out in the article, is that in most tabletop games, critters take more than one hit to go down - it can be a little annoying to attempt to describe the plethora of stabs and cuts and (worse still) gunshots something can take before finally going down. Once again, it is like the suspension of disbelief that happens in a video game where the main character is suddenly threatened by a lone girl holding a pistol, despite just having battled through a horde of minigun-wielding super-cyborgs and their rocket-launching giant mutant badger pets. You made a very good point that, whenever it's not a critical or a killing blow, one can "focus on damage to the target's armor and shield, its state of pain or fatigue, and its position" - although this still leaves the problem of both the critical and the killing blow as described above (especially considering the 'pain' of a target creature after a massive critical hit should have real in-game ramifications, even though the rules might say nothing about them - e.g. you cut off somebody's arm).

The alternative? Well, the first part would be to allow for fudging and GM fiat again: rules are meant to be broken for dramatic effect. There, simple as that. Meaning your gut-spilled main villain will die on the operating table before divulging any secrets and your still fighting-capable-but-now-toothless goon will be taken out with a swift kick to the head when the time comes. You have made a decision as a GM, for the sole purposes of furthering the plot and the enjoyment of your fellow players, and this required you to change the rules of combat and healing: so be it.

To lessen the blow of this betrayal of principles, I tend to ask the players to describe what they are doing before they do it, instead of the opposite. This is not something you discuss in the article, which I found rather strange, but then I rarely play D20-styled games which focus heavily on the combat (where I assume it'd get a little boring after a while to keep telling the GM 'how' one swings ones broadsword). But even then, it should be possible. Essentially, just like with -any other action- in the game, ask the player to describe what they are trying to do before rolling the dice, and then interpret the roll as it comes. If they said "I swing my metal pipe at the man's head!" then describing a critical as "You knock his jaw and teeth out" will be met with quite a different kind of elation, not to mention removing a lot of the GM fudging (since it was a result of the player's actions).

This is not to say I don't enjoy showering my players with unintended gore as often as I can, but then again I don't mind the GM fiat it involves - rules are meant to be fudged. :)

A nice article, as per usual!

In our ongoing WFRP campaign only one player has died due to combat, although that has nothing to do with our GM not trying. He has put us in several situations and up against many opponents that he thoughts would kill us its just so far most of us have avoided it.

The character in question actually died during a boar hunt at a tourney when he managed to follow the tracks of a boar but foolishly did so alone. He then got attacked by 3 beastmen in the woods and fought them off, then was attacked by the boar he had been tracking and killed it, he had decided to call it a day when the legendary boar that he was attempting to find came along and ripped him to pieces. Considering the character had previously been in a war and almost died during an epic battle, was taken captive and then fought for his own freedom and almost died it was a rather anti-climactic death for the character.

In WFRP there is fate points though which can be used to prevent death, the thing is that they are also used to give rerolls so buring through your fate points to survive is a bad thing and it doesnt stop the next attack killing you. Our modified version of the WFRP combat system is also massively leathal, one good attack can easily be the end of a character.

One recent encounter should probably have resulted in 2 characters deaths and an important NPC. One of the characters had been helping the NPC start his town after having being granted the land from his lord (the town was near an old mine that had been overrun by goblins but was still viable, in a previous game we had cleared the goblins out). I had come to visit him and check up on how he was doing bringing with me my 10 professional archers and a good friend of mine. The day after I arrived they were attacked by 170 goblins intent on overruning the town, the town could muster some human and dwarf militia and 20 mercinaries that had been paid for to defend the town plus my men who had just arrived.

Our plan was to present my archers at the top of a hill on their flank with all the available ammo and the rest of the men standing behind them out of sight down the hill. The plan was to draw the undiciplined goblins up the hill in smaller groups, reduce them with shooting and then wipe them out with our militia/mercinaries. If things looked like they were going to go badly then we simply retreat and try somthing else. The first goblin unit to attack was archers with shortbows who were wiped out to a man before getting in range, then two units equipt for close combat tried but took some casualties and broke.

Then the rest of the goblin army formed up, 3 units of 25 goblins in the centre and 2 on the flank. The decision was made to simply use up our remaining arrows and flee. Except that didn't happen. Our shooting killed 50 goblins, decimating their centre, we also killed their shaman leader and the remaining unit in the centre and one of the flanking units broke, seeing this we charged over the hill and routed the gobilns. While we let some of them go incase we got stung out and ambushed the dwarfs didn't the next morning they returned having accounted for all greenskins.

Our GM was in no way going easy on us, that attack was meant to destroy the town and the only way of suriving was meant to be to flee the hoard. He was honestly surprised when we won the fight for no losses in return.

As a GM I do struggle to come up with good descriptions on the spot, in my opinion it is by far my weakest facet of GMing and something I am trying to improve. My WFRP GM on the other hand has absolutely no problem coming up with gory descriptions and interesting explinations of the mechanics.

My advice to those trying to get into it is not to try and descibe every attack at first, it quickly becomes difficult to think up so many different descriptions, instead start of with improtant attacks and try to increase the number every combat encounter, it makes the whole thing less daunting. Dont try and jump into the deep end as a new GM stuggling with it because you will likely find it overwhelmingly difficult. That said if you have a knack for it go right ahead. Other ways to make combat interesting is to put them in different situations that they wouldn't normally encounter. I had a game where I had the enemies defend a large corridor with fallen stones lying down the middle. This lead to a bounding cover situation where they made good use of the terrain to advance close enough to use their mostly short ranged weapons. Since they were fighting to prevent the enemies from gaining access to the thing at the end of the corridor there was real stakes ivolved and the difference of the encounter compared to their usual made it memorable.

Kaihlik

I've been enjoying these articles since they first came into being here on the escapist and I have one small reflection to offer mainly to the community but also to you Mr.Marcris (no first name basis here).

I'm sure you've thought about this yourself, but player agency and the rise of the storytelling games interlink very well with your discussion on managing generation Y (which can be found here on the escapist and Youtube, just enter Alexander Macris into the search field fellow escapsits).

In your presentation you -amongst may other things- point out that generation Y has a very low tolerance for failure, and a short-ish attention span, and I find that this ties in nicely with the discussions on player agency, combat "stakes" and storytelling. Generation Y is not used to character death, nor to the fact that permanent damage (in the form of item loss or similar) can be sustained long before the story comes to its conclusion. I believe that gen Y (generally) are so accustomed to the save function and the "lack" of player agency in games that they fully expect to be able to come out on top from any situation they manage to put themselves in (for further refference, see the escapist article "killjoy" on the topic of save points and its effects on player agency). I think it would be interesting to see how a player group reacts when they after a long and hard campaign face off against a planned final boss, but are unfortunately under-equipped, level drained or somehow unable to take the boss on. The reaction from gen Y players would most certainly be "viceral" indeed. It's almost expected nowadays that players should have fun every second of a game, and that each and every challenge should be tailored to be challenging but not impossible, no matter what has happened earlier.

Now the question would be if having a scenario like the one above is viable with most (steretypical) gen Y players. It would be akin to playing a game of Descent - Road to legend (a Hero-quest-type board game with a campaign mode) where the dark overlord gets to start with 200 more exp than the heroes. The players would see that their quest is nigh futile from the very onset, and the outcome is -if not given- almost certain. It's at this point that storytelling comes in and asks us the question if its worth playing out a story wherein you are the looser? If a tragedy is "fun" to play out? Or if one should immediately hit the reset button, or go find another game? I think most people (not only Gen Y, but everyone) would have trouble with a suicide-mission scenario of that kind. And if so I'm guessing that the only way to keep a gen Y group interseted in a game with proper "stakes" would be to convince them that each encounter IS tailored to their specific levels no matter what they'd do. Because if they from the very start realize that they are fighting a uphill battle that they are -probably- going to loose, I'm not sure how many players would stay.

I love the idea of visceral imagery in a fight. I try to do this as much as possible myself and this article has given me more idea's for some gory and brutal battles! Thanks!

Wolfrug:
Anyway, regarding the visceral parts: I agree, partially, but I also disagree (or, rather, I think you are being inconsistent again). Earlier you wrote about how important it is for the GM never to fudge the dice or to create his own rules on the spot that aren't followed through - all in an effort to increase the player's sense of agency. But particularly visceral descriptions come from nowhere but your own mind, do they not? So say, for instance, that your player scores a critical hit on a person. Now, you have to figure out how to describe this, and you do: "You swing the metal pipe in a wide arc, hitting the man across the face, causing his jaw to dislocate and his teeth to fly out in a bloody splurt". Whoa, cool, everyone sits up. But the dude isn't dead, he's just badly wounded: he still has HP or the equivalent thereof left. But it doesn't make any sense any more for said dude to be up and fighting, EVEN IF the game mechanics and his hitpoints suggests that he should be!

Your assumption is based on the fact that you would back yourself into a corner with your wording, which the article doesn't suggest. If you had the theoretically situation where you critically hit a creature and it still had hit points let, you would phrase your description accordingly. For example -

"You swing the metal pipe in a wide arc, viciously cracking him across the top of the head. Blood is leaking down into his eyes, but you can still see the fire of combat burning within."

This was interesting from an literary perspective. In creative writing (which is what I would call this), we are taught never to kill characters or do them serious physical or emotional harm without a damn good reason. Obviously, random deaths can be, in themselves, a good reason as they tend to reinforce a nihilistic viewpoint, but such techniques quickly become trite and often indicate a lack of imagination and ability on the author's part. This sort of description, provided it occurs in a meaningful context (the first part of the article) really makes me interest in tabletop rpgs.

Slycne:

Your assumption is based on the fact that you would back yourself into a corner with your wording, which the article doesn't suggest. If you had the theoretically situation where you critically hit a creature and it still had hit points let, you would phrase your description accordingly. For example -

"You swing the metal pipe in a wide arc, viciously cracking him across the top of the head. Blood is leaking down into his eyes, but you can still see the fire of combat burning within."

In other words, downplay the effect of the 'critical' hit. There are only so many ways you can do that in a 'realistic' setting before it starts getting ridiculous. But of course this is less the fault of the GM and more the fault of the system in use itself (hitpoints et al.). Still, I concede your point: avoid backing yourself into a corner.

What I was commenting on was that by employing such 'visceral' language when in combat, it seems to me that the GM always runs a certain risk of adding more to a fight than what was intended, or sanctioned by the rules. Or am I really the only one who does that? A critical hit causes the dude to keel over into some chairs, temporarily out of the battle/rendered prone - it doesn't say so in the rules, but I said so as the GM since it seemed appropriate. That visceral descriptions can lend themselves to super-rule of GM fiat, is, I guess, my ultimate point. :)

Wolfrug:

In other words, downplay the effect of the 'critical' hit. There are only so many ways you can do that in a 'realistic' setting before it starts getting ridiculous. But of course this is less the fault of the GM and more the fault of the system in use itself (hitpoints et al.). Still, I concede your point: avoid backing yourself into a corner.

One of my DMs still uses the critical hit/miss tables from AD&D in his 3.5 campaign. That's how my barbarian lost his left arm and was stuck with a ghost replacement limb. It keeps it interesting when you critically hit and miss and is significantly more helpful than double damage.

Archon:

Jikuu:
Bryn-dead is when the poor bugger hits twice its Constitution in negative hit points. This is when the gruesome "you split it in half" description comes in.

I love it! "It's not dead until it's Bryn-dead." *hacks its head off*

Yes an excellent Idea.
I have just started a campaign and will certainly use this.

"To be clear, I am not saying that every combat must put the entire party at risk of being wiped out. But I am saying that every combat should put the entire party at risk of losing something. There are three broad levels of risk:

1.Assets
2.Character
3.Party
When an encounter risks "assets," it means that survival of every player character is likely but the participants might lose things they value. This could be treasure, vehicles, pets, henchmen, magic items, and so on. An encounter with a Rust Monster in Classic Dungeons & Dragons is an asset risk encounter.

When an encounter risks "characters," it means that survival of the party as a whole is likely, but individual player characters might die or be irreparably harmed. An encounter with energy-draining undead in Classic Dungeons & Dragons could be a character risk encounter, as even a victorious party might experience real harm.

When an encounter risks "party," it means that the survival of the party as a whole is in question. Losing this fight will mean that every character is killed and the campaign is over."

I enjoyed this article, and commend the thought process behind it. I am one who believes that the level of player satisfaction from a session or encounter or puzzle is directly in line with the level of actual risk; this means in games with little real risk (thetype you mentioned), the satisfaction and reward is also a pale shadow of what it could be.

However, I disagree with the above statement; as it smacks of the encounter levels and the corresponding lack of internal consistency. If Players meet a bunch of orcs in an area where an orc tribe is supposed to frequent when they are new, they are threatening. If the Pcs are running around in the same area, after playing for a few dozen sessions, aren't the likely to run inot the same type of party of orcs? Or are you going to 'goose' the power level of the encounter to create risk?
I may be a little too sand-boxy, but as much as I believe that combat should be risky and that that logical risk level is the coefficient of the feeling of reward; I also believe that the feeling of immersion created by a logical and internally consistent campaign is threatened by screwing with the encounter to make it more or less risky.

Wolfrug:

Slycne:

Your assumption is based on the fact that you would back yourself into a corner with your wording, which the article doesn't suggest. If you had the theoretically situation where you critically hit a creature and it still had hit points let, you would phrase your description accordingly. For example -

"You swing the metal pipe in a wide arc, viciously cracking him across the top of the head. Blood is leaking down into his eyes, but you can still see the fire of combat burning within."

In other words, downplay the effect of the 'critical' hit. There are only so many ways you can do that in a 'realistic' setting before it starts getting ridiculous. But of course this is less the fault of the GM and more the fault of the system in use itself (hitpoints et al.). Still, I concede your point: avoid backing yourself into a corner.

What I was commenting on was that by employing such 'visceral' language when in combat, it seems to me that the GM always runs a certain risk of adding more to a fight than what was intended, or sanctioned by the rules. Or am I really the only one who does that? A critical hit causes the dude to keel over into some chairs, temporarily out of the battle/rendered prone - it doesn't say so in the rules, but I said so as the GM since it seemed appropriate. That visceral descriptions can lend themselves to super-rule of GM fiat, is, I guess, my ultimate point. :)

It doesn't need to be GM fiat. Your example looks like Exalted's way of handling big hits. If a hit is strong enough, there's knock-back and/or knockdown involved (dmg vs stam so a stronger enemy won't be pushed around as much as a weak one). With Exalted, the collateral damage made by bodies flying around doesn't do extra damage since it's only for cinematic effect. You can always make an house rule for these kind of critical hits.

KEM10:

One of my DMs still uses the critical hit/miss tables from AD&D in his 3.5 campaign. That's how my barbarian lost his left arm and was stuck with a ghost replacement limb. It keeps it interesting when you critically hit and miss and is significantly more helpful than double damage.

lomylithruldor:

It doesn't need to be GM fiat. Your example looks like Exalted's way of handling big hits. If a hit is strong enough, there's knock-back and/or knockdown involved (dmg vs stam so a stronger enemy won't be pushed around as much as a weak one). With Exalted, the collateral damage made by bodies flying around doesn't do extra damage since it's only for cinematic effect. You can always make an house rule for these kind of critical hits.

Oh yes, this is definitely one way of doing it: both of you are describing either using set rules (Exalted, old AD&D), or deciding on a house rule for how to handle e.g. a critical hit outside of the rulebook. If such a rule exists, then nothing could be simpler than adapting one's 'visceral' language to the rule. Of course, this does quickly add up to quite a few rules. There's a reason why many systems don't have explicit rules for stuff like this, in my mind exactly in order to allow the GM/Players to decide for themselves how to deal with it.

Just to make it clear again: I DON'T MIND if the GM on the spot claims that a particularly nasty swing or gunshot or whatever had some effect that goes beyond the rules (=GM fiat), as long as it's a fair judgement (or a rule of cool judgement :). I, in fact, think that it's totally awesome if my character's critical brawl attack is interpreted as a kick to the gonads, putting the enemy out of commission (despite said enemy still having plenty of HP left, and despite there being no 'rules' about gonad-kicking around). I furthermore don't mind if my next critical brawl attack is NOT interpreted as a gonad-kick, but instead as...heck...just a particularly nasty haymaker or whatever, with no extra effects.

What I've taken issue with is Mr. Macris' stated dislike towards such elements of 'fudging', and although I agree with him to a degree, I am still of the opinion that rules can be broken and worked around in the interest of the narrative. In particular when they're in the grey areas, such as "what exactly does '20 damage' mean in non-mechanical terms?'. No, I am not saying that fudging a dice so that 20 damage vs. your 2 hp somehow does not come to mean "instant and gruesome death", and here I and Mr. Macris agree. But fudging a dice so that 20 damage vs. a critter with 25 hp ends up with that critter getting a leg chopped off (if such an outcome should be expected) I think is perfectly okay. -Especially- if the players have solicited such an outcome through their actions ("I swing my axe at the creature, who is standing on a rock in front of me, in an effort to chop off its legs").

Yes, once again, there CAN be rules for all of this (I know there are usually rules for targeting specific bodyparts etc., before someone comes and bashes that example as well), but there is generally a -reason- why combat rules in practically all tabletop games essentially boil down to abstractions in the form of 'attack rolls' and 'hitpoints': because having rules, house or not, for every possible real-life combat situation is just not going to happen! It's all far too complicated for that.

So, to summarize my point: gruesome language is awesome, and gruesome GM fiat results of using said language is awesome (but would contradict earlier statements by the article author with regards to fudging and GM fiat).

Wow, great feedback/discussion!

Wolfrug:
I tend to ask the players to describe what they are doing before they do it, instead of the opposite. This is not something you discuss in the article, which I found rather strange... Essentially, just like with -any other action- in the game, ask the player to describe what they are trying to do before rolling the dice, and then interpret the roll as it comes."

I am not actually in disagreement with you. I completely agree that you should ask your players what they want to do and then interpret it. I'm suggesting that when you interpret it, the interpretation should include visual color along with mechanical interpretation; "fluff" to go with the "crunch". With regard to "fluff" that seems to disrupt the rules, I can give a clear example of how I handle this. Frequently, when a monster takes a hard blow, I'll describe him as 'lurching backwards'. But I won't move the miniature backwards on the map, for instance. The 'lurch backwards' is merely fluff.

The way I view it, the mechanics of any fight are always representing only the high points and the most important tactical events of the round, not all of the events. In any given round, a character might shift a few fight, step up on a table, step off the table, accidentally slash into the wall, and so on, but none of that matters per se to the mechanics. So describing such fluff is par for the course.

Norm Morrison IV:
However, I disagree with the above statement; as it smacks of the encounter levels and the corresponding lack of internal consistency. If Players meet a bunch of orcs in an area where an orc tribe is supposed to frequent when they are new, they are threatening. If the Pcs are running around in the same area, after playing for a few dozen sessions, aren't the likely to run inot the same type of party of orcs? Or are you going to 'goose' the power level of the encounter to create risk?
I may be a little too sand-boxy, but as much as I believe that combat should be risky and that that logical risk level is the coefficient of the feeling of reward; I also believe that the feeling of immersion created by a logical and internally consistent campaign is threatened by screwing with the encounter to make it more or less risky.

Norm, I also don't disagree with you at all. If you've read my earlier articles you'll know I'm a strong advocate of sandbox play, and I actively DISCOURAGE 'goosing' the encounters to adjust for risk. So to the extent that my comments could be interpreted to be read that you should dynamically tweak encounters, that's not what I meant. What I meant is that you shouldn't adjust the rules of the game or fudge the dice to make encounters less challenging.

That said, I do think that in classic D&D, at least, an encounter is basically defined as something that poses at least some risk to the party. If an event genuinely, really, is of no risk to the party - do you actually run it as an encounter? I do not. For instance, when my 10th level party of adventurers roams through the wilderness, they frequently will see a single wolf, herd of deer, or circling hawk (all monsters in D&D) but I don't run these as encounters. If they want to kill the wolf, it dies. That would be different if it was a 1st level party, of course. Common sense need to be a guideline.

Oops! It turns out we're not on the same page after all, Wolfrug. Citing your most recent post, I would certainly not impose a "severed limb" result based on the spontaneous fluff that comes out of my mouth, or the player's, and in fact I generally would only go with that sort of fluff as a killing blow or other case where it's moot.

The narration is a description of what happened mechanically, not a trump that over-rides it, in my style of GMing. I certainly can see how one could enjoy a game doing it the other way, but it's not how I run.

Archon:
Wow, great feedback/discussion!

[

Norm Morrison IV:
However, I disagree with the above statement; as it smacks of the encounter levels and the corresponding lack of internal consistency. If Players meet a bunch of orcs in an area where an orc tribe is supposed to frequent when they are new, they are threatening. If the Pcs are running around in the same area, after playing for a few dozen sessions, aren't the likely to run inot the same type of party of orcs? Or are you going to 'goose' the power level of the encounter to create risk?
I may be a little too sand-boxy, but as much as I believe that combat should be risky and that that logical risk level is the coefficient of the feeling of reward; I also believe that the feeling of immersion created by a logical and internally consistent campaign is threatened by screwing with the encounter to make it more or less risky.

Norm, I also don't disagree with you at all. If you've read my earlier articles you'll know I'm a strong advocate of sandbox play, and I actively DISCOURAGE 'goosing' the encounters to adjust for risk. So to the extent that my comments could be interpreted to be read that you should dynamically tweak encounters, that's not what I meant. What I meant is that you shouldn't adjust the rules of the game or fudge the dice to make encounters less challenging.

That said, I do think that in classic D&D, at least, an encounter is basically defined as something that poses at least some risk to the party. If an event genuinely, really, is of no risk to the party - do you actually run it as an encounter? I do not. For instance, when my 10th level party of adventurers roams through the wilderness, they frequently will see a single wolf, herd of deer, or circling hawk (all monsters in D&D) but I don't run these as encounters. If they want to kill the wolf, it dies. That would be different if it was a 1st level party, of course. Common sense need to be a guideline.

I normally do run them as encounters, for a number of reasons, though I agree your examples are things I would be hard pressed to do more than ask how they were likking something. But due to various spells in the animist section of our game, all of the above encounters actually allow an animist caster to possibly make friends or commune to uinderstand the terrain. Outdoor encounters to an animist have often been considered giving the smart PC limited omniscience of the area.

Similarly, Encounters with anything intelligent can be useful and intersting, despite the lack of threat to PCs.

However, I totally accept your comments that you meant the comments in terms of not fudging the other way, to keep the world dangerous and stand by the outcomes the dice create, to the large degree. Totally with you, there.

MNRA:
In your presentation you -amongst may other things- point out that generation Y has a very low tolerance for failure, and a short-ish attention span, and I find that this ties in nicely with the discussions on player agency, combat "stakes" and storytelling. Generation Y is not used to character death, nor to the fact that permanent damage (in the form of item loss or similar) can be sustained long before the story comes to its conclusion. I believe that gen Y (generally) are so accustomed to the save function and the "lack" of player agency in games that they fully expect to be able to come out on top from any situation they manage to put themselves in (for further refference, see the escapist article "killjoy" on the topic of save points and its effects on player agency). I think it would be interesting to see how a player group reacts when they after a long and hard campaign face off against a planned final boss, but are unfortunately under-equipped, level drained or somehow unable to take the boss on. The reaction from gen Y players would most certainly be "viceral" indeed. It's almost expected nowadays that players should have fun every second of a game, and that each and every challenge should be tailored to be challenging but not impossible, no matter what has happened earlier.

Agency is a dual edged sword.

Just as it's important not to fudge the rules to make the game easier, it's certainly just as bad to fudge them to make it harder, or to consistently put your players into situations where they cannot succeed (and then are captured etc.).

It's definitely a balancing act, but I've had DMs of both type, and often, their excuse is to not be the other. One DM makes sure to put us into situations where we're SURE TO DIE just to further his plot, and says that "Well, sometimes, your characters will be in situations out of their control". Another DM will fudge rolls to make the players invincible killing machines (or more likely will just play enemies dumb, whether it's intentional or not), and say that he doesn't want to be the "type of DM that browbeats his players"

I'd say the latter is definitely more fun then the former, just because you are actually accomplishing something. Whether that accomplishment is sullied by the fact that the DM didn't play the characters correctly, it's much funner to have a DM fudge to make your party seem awesome, then to fudge it to make them seem weak.

I'm not saying that you should strive for that.. just remember that it's better to error on the side of being soft, because you can always adjust it later.. If you error (and if it's an actual error on your part) and the players die (players WILL die, but it should truly be their fault if they do), then all you can really do is start over, or pull some contrived "EVERYONE GETS RESSURECTED BY AN ANONYMOUS BENEFACTOR!" rabbit out of your hat.

Archon:
Oops! It turns out we're not on the same page after all, Wolfrug. Citing your most recent post, I would certainly not impose a "severed limb" result based on the spontaneous fluff that comes out of my mouth, or the player's, and in fact I generally would only go with that sort of fluff as a killing blow or other case where it's moot.

The narration is a description of what happened mechanically, not a trump that over-rides it, in my style of GMing. I certainly can see how one could enjoy a game doing it the other way, but it's not how I run.

Yep, I do get it. This is, to bring in another video game example, sort of like how they've solved it in most turn-based RPGs: big fancy attack that makes the other person fall over or jump back or get turned into an icicle/eaten by a giant monster etc etc., but once its their turn again they're back to normal (minus some HP). All of that is just fluff, stuff to make the attack animation look more pleasing and whatnot. So, for instance, you describe a jumping-eye-stabbing-kickass attack, but in the end the two little models are still standing in the same square (just like two JRPG parties facing off against one another, always running back to the start after an attack).

I believe this is a point where we can agree to disagree, however. I think you have a good point, but I believe my way works as well :) Especially in a less combat-intensive, 'realistic' present day setting. Carry on writing them good articles!

Altorin:

*snip*

I think you missunderstand me here. I wasn't talking about GM-fiat or fudging. I merely introduced the thought that current genretaion playres are too unused to the thought of "hopeless battles" and "high diffiucly" and generally "screwing-up-so-bad-that-you-can-recover" that I'm making a hypothosis that the best way for a DM to encourage player retention is to make the players believe that they can still win, even though the chances are so slim it's laughable.

I merely find that all stories, even the ones wherein I loose, are worth telling. I finished ME2 the other night and was NOT happy with the ending I got, and the people I lost, but I refrained from reloading or even playing the game further as I saw it as "Liam Sheppards story is now finished, for better and worse". But I think that with the current state of a lot of gamers (gross generalization I know) players will not accept an uphill battle, and that you must as a DM try to create an illusion of hope to keep them interested. It's a sad state of affairs that it "has to" be that way, but a lot of players really will not accept losses or dangers to their characters as they are unused to any real threat to the plotline, i.e. everyone knows the heroes get progerssively better, never totally die (and you can always reload) and finally overcome the many obstacles and kill the dragno, get the princess and move into a nice condo.

Also, this was all hypothetical. I just wanted to see if anyone agreed/diagreed or had anythign to add on this. I'm not certain I'm right, I'm not even sure I'm on the right track. It was just a thought :)

I think this is a great article & great discussion! The only thing I'd do differently would be to go to the players for these descriptions (in addition to setting an example when it's my turn to describe a NPC's visceral and vivid action). I gave some actual-play examples of this approach at The Mule Abides:

when a player missed their dice roll and I felt they could use a little more spotlight time, I'd ask them to narrate the failure: "Okay, your character is obviously a great and competent warrior, so something unexpected must have happened for you to miss like that. What was it?"

Likewise, when characters died, I'd make it an event by:

- asking the player of the dead PC "What are your dying words?"; even if these are usually "Aaargh!" it always drew a laugh from the table and reinforced the idea that death is an especially fun & vivid part of play
- instructing players to "describe your horrible death". This isn't going to be a run-of-the-mill slipping feebly into that good night; even if you were senselessly killed by a kobold, it will be a grisly senseless death worthy of an accursed hero (and as hammy an actor as you want to be)!
- displaying my evident relish of killing the PC with a big grin on my face: this is fun for me at least, and in retrospect it'll be memorable for you too, why not enjoy it now?
- letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player's turn so that losing a character didn't mean missing out on the action

In games that have more complicated character generation rules (and different goals for narrative continuity) than the OD&D we were playing in that session, having pre-gen characters or NPCs for the player of the deceased PC to take over could achieve that last goal of keeping the players involved despite their character's death.

MNRA:
I merely find that all stories, even the ones wherein I loose, are worth telling. I finished ME2 the other night and was NOT happy with the ending I got, and the people I lost, but I refrained from reloading or even playing the game further as I saw it as "Liam Sheppards story is now finished, for better and worse". But I think that with the current state of a lot of gamers (gross generalization I know) players will not accept an uphill battle, and that you must as a DM try to create an illusion of hope to keep them interested. It's a sad state of affairs that it "has to" be that way, but a lot of players really will not accept losses or dangers to their characters as they are unused to any real threat to the plotline, i.e. everyone knows the heroes get progerssively better, never totally die (and you can always reload) and finally overcome the many obstacles and kill the dragno, get the princess and move into a nice condo. Also, this was all hypothetical. I just wanted to see if anyone agreed/diagreed or had anythign to add on this. I'm not certain I'm right, I'm not even sure I'm on the right track. It was just a thought :)

MNRA, I certainly agree with you. In my campaigns there is never a certainty that the players will win. In fact, my taste often runs to what Tolkien called the "pagan themes" of courage in the face of hopelessness. Many of my campaign worlds revolve around empires that are in decline and likely doomed, but are nonetheless worth fighting to preserve for as long as possible. In one campaign, the players knew at the start that the empire was prophesied to fall within the next century, and the campaign was really just about making sure it didn't fall *right then*.

As a GM and player, I find there is a freedom that comes from this aesthetic sensibility that traditional "good guys must win" styles lack. If your approach is that good will always triumph, then if good doesn't triumph, it's not tragic - it's *pathetic* because they messed up a sure thing. Since being pathetic sucks, players cannot accept failure and the GM feels he has to prevent it at any cost. Whereas if good might win, but is likely to lose, and the true measure is how gloriously they try, then the outcome is either heroic or tragic, but never pathetic.

Tavis Allison:
- letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player's turn so that losing a character didn't mean missing out on the action

This is a really key point. Thanks for sharing it, Tavis! This is how I run things as well. In fact, in our Classic D&D campaign, each player started with 5 pre-generated characters. If his first character died, we would introduce the next character as soon as possible. The funniest example of this was when one player (Erik) lost his Dwarf to a pit-trap, I introduced his new Ranger as an adventurer trapped in the very same pit the Dwarf had died in... "Will someone get this bloody dwarf off me?"

I dunno. In the homebrewn RPG I used to run there was no death. But you could lose a fight - then you'd be arrested, or sent elsewhere, or start playing a bit character until you rescued the main characters. It's a videogame based idea, but it worked because since losing a fight wouldn't mean ending the campaign I was a lot more brutal with it.

I remember the first time i was DM and i was describe wounds and such. Now that i look back it was sooooooo..... well, stupid.

K: OH Sweet! 7 damage!
Me: The Ogres guts spill across the floor as your great axe tears its belly open! ((ogre still has 32 health left))
G: No way!! 15 damage!
Me: The Ogres arm is ripped clean from his body as you bring your mace down with a hard swing! ((ogre still at half health))

These days when i play DM i tend to be more comicly orientated.

K: I roll to see if i calm the Witch!
Me: You succeed, her wrinkly hands are now running down your chest from your mighty epicly seductive voice!
K: "please...... Gelvin ((one of our other players)).... kill me now...."

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