Shortly after penning my column on running an RPG session, I had the chance to take a weekend off to attend MACE, a local RPG convention at Highpoint, North Carolina. While in my day-to-day gaming I am generally a gamemaster, at MACE I made an effort to play under as many different GMs using as many different systems as possible - everything from unreleased story games to D6 Adventure to Savage Worlds to Pathfinder. Playing in an RPG when you're usually a GM is something like watching a play when you normally work stage crew - part of the time you're immersed in the experience, but part of the time you're watching to see how the tricks are being pulled off.
One of the things I perennially notice when I play is the wide diversity in how fun combat is. At MACE, I played in one session that used a crunchy, combat-oriented rules set, and yet the combat was dull and uninteresting; while in another session, a game with the simplest of combat rules had exciting and fun fight scenes. Why might that be? As part of our discussion of the art of game mastering, let's find out.
What's in it for me?
Combat encounters are, as a general rule, the most complex and time-consuming rules element of any RPG. (Certain extended scenes of role-playing may, of course, take longer than a fight, but this is not due to the rules). When running lengthy and complex activities, unfortunately, it's easy to lose your players' attention. Concentration is hard, and the lure of munchies, doodling, or - even worse - mobile phones is strong. Every player is continuously tuned into the radio station WINI FM, or "What's in it for me?" Players will pay sharp attention to facts and details that relate to their character, but they quickly tune out if they deem the information or action irrelevant to them. As a result, it's often the case that during a combat encounter, only the currently active player and the gamemaster are paying attention at any given moment, while the rest of the players are sitting there bored, merely waiting for their turn to have fun.
So, how can this be overcome? While there are many techniques that are specific to individual games, there are a few techniques that work in every game. They are high stakes and vivid imagery - the violence and the viscera of a combat encounter.
The stakes must be real!
As I've discussed at length elsewhere in this series, RPGs must offer their participants real choices with meaningful consequences, not merely the illusion of challenge. This is doubly important in combat! And yet most game masters practicing today will openly admit that they fudge the dice and the rules to ensure the players win. Then they wonder why their players are bored ...
When I run combat, the stakes are always real. Beloved henchmen are brutally slain. Favored magic items are destroyed, never to be seen again. Heroic sacrifices can be in vain, and the entire party can be wiped out no matter how invested the players may be (in my ongoing house campaign, everyone was slain in the climactic fight against the arch-villain in the 67th session.) If you want your combat to be exciting, leave the outcome of the fight uncertain and make sure the stakes really matter.