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.
In offering this advice, I fully acknowledge that I am both a reactionary and a contrarian. Since the beginning of the Hickman Revolution, in 1984, most RPGs have gravitated towards removing actual risk from the game in the interest of allowing the players to experience an ongoing narrative with some certainty that they will see its finish. Loss and death are considered “not fun” and excluded from the gaming experience. In Fourth Edition, Rust Monsters don’t even destroy items any more. I believe that this, more than any other trend, explains why RPG combat is so often boring. If the players will always win, then why bother to pay attention or even care?
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:
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.
If you’ve been “trusting in the Fudge”, i.e. fudging your dice and outcomes, try putting something like the above at stake in your next combat. It doesn’t take much to get the players to sit up straight and get involved in the combat. The moment they realize they could lose something, they start to pay attention. And if they realize they could lose everything, the increase in intensity is palpable. If nothing else, you’ll be able to tell whether you’ve run a great fight by how the players react to someone getting the killing blow on the main bad guy. If they’re bitter that they weren’t the “cool kid” who got the kill, then there was no real risk – they were just competing narcissistically amongst themselves. If they are fist-bumping the player who got the killing blow and cheering with relief, then you ran a great fight.
The spectacle must be awesome!
RPGs are always described as games of the imagination, in which the players and the gamemaster weave the action and imagery with their words. And yet, all too often, combat is just run by the numbers: “Bob, roll to hit.” “14! I hit it. I did 8 damage.” “OK, the orc dies. Jim, you’re up next.” Such a fight can be intellectual stimulating, if you’re a wargamer, and it can be worth paying attention to, if the stakes are real, but it is nevertheless lacking in emotional punch.
Given that everyone comes into RPGs wanting to use their imagination, the reasons why combat devolves to simple mechanics are somewhat mysterious to me. I think it may be because nothing is at stake. It’s hard to conjure up the energy for vivid imagery when it doesn’t really matter. Whatever the reason, running a role-playing game by the numbers is a crime akin to serving chips without salsa: Violators should be taken out and shot. Violence demands viscera!
Now, I am fortunate in that I have, through long practice, refined the art for conjuring up visceral violence nearly at will. You smash your iron-flanged mace into the orc’s chin, the force of the blow smashing so hard that its teeth shatter into sharp shards that embed themselves in its bloody cheeks. The orc’s axe carves your belly open, and your intestines leak out like wet, pulpy worms. See, it just flows out. For the less practiced, I’ve prepared a short list of rules of thumb to help you out.
Brutal Blows: Most games will feature results that represent especially brutal blows – a critical hit, max damage, death blows, and so on. If you narrate nothing else, narrate these. Aim for body horror – the graphic destruction of the body. I’ve found the most visceral reactions come from gruesome penetration of soft, pulpy body parts, or the shattering of bones that we all secretly fear breaking. Go for thrusts through the soft palate of the upper mouth or the loose skin of the neck; impacts on the fragile bones of the knee-cap or elbow; slashes through the tender skin of the belly. Carve off the breasts and leave them dangling, Crack open the cranium and have grey jelly spray outward, shatter the spine and let spinal fluid leak onto the floor.
Hits: Every good hit deserves a good description. However many RPGs, most especially those based on D&D, give creatures the ability to survive dozens of hits. If every successful attack is narrated as a brutal blow, the result can become silly, as no one could still be standing after that much trauma. When narrating a hit that’s not a critical or a kill, focus on damage to the target’s armor and shield, its state of pain or fatigue, and its position. “With a metallic crunch, your mace slams into his shield, leaving a dent. The knight swears in pain and recoils backward.” Fortunately, the English language leaves us no shortage for words you can use to describe the backward movement after an attack: Fall back, lurch, stagger, recoil, withdraw, retreat, and limp are all words to remember.
Misses: Nothing is so frustrating for the player as to miss an attack that he has waited all round to roll for. Even worse is when his narration is “ok, you miss. Steve, you’re up.” You owe it to the player to explain why his adventurer missed. If he’s a highly experienced fighter, it’s because the opponent fell back, or put up a desperate defense: “Still reeling from your last slash, the orc retreats before your onslaught. You can’t penetrate his defenses but you and he both know his time is coming soon.” If it’s because he’s a novice, your narration will reflect that: “Your blood is pumping with the heat of combat, and you over-extend your sword blow.”
Near Misses: If you roll a near miss on the player, a great rule of thumb is to vividly describe the attack before you provide the mechanical outcome. If the player knows you missed him, there’s no tension no matter how vivid your imagery. But if he’s not sure yet whether you missed, he will hang onto every word for a clue as to what’s coming.
Player Character Death: If you’re following my recommendations for play with real consequences, player character death can and will happen. Here’s what not to do: Don’t focus on the numbers and then express contrition, and don’t move quickly on to the next event. A player character deserves a death worthy of the sagas, a memorable death that will be talked about forever. Now is the time to pull out all the stops! Combine all of the recommendations in brutal blows above with foreshadowing of darkness, vengeance, and rage. If a troll rends the character to death, then what happens is that “you scream in agony as the trolls claws dig deep into your shoulders, deeper until finally it tears outward and your torso is rended into three parts, left and right arms spinning outward as a torrent of blood and lymph flows from your shattered rib cage. As death greets you, your last thought is of the vengeance your comrades will take for you.”
Slow Motion: One of the coolest techniques you can achieve through vivid narration is the effect of 300-style fighting, with its alternating sequences of slow motion and high speed violence. The trick here is to use the present continuous verb tense (“is cutting”) when describing slow motion sequences, and the present tense (“cuts”) for fast action. “Marcus is leaping through the air, his blade is cutting to the left and right, gutting an orc with each slash, and then suddenly he lands and thrusts forward and his sword impales the orc chieftain through the heart.”
As you can guess from my descriptions above, my campaigns run more towards “Conan” than “Lord of the Rings” but even if you enjoy PG High Fantasy I’ve hopefully provided some useful insights. If these ideas don’t directly help you, turn to your favorite books and movies and take notes on how the authors and directors show fight scenes. Take your notes into your next session, and make things visceral! With practice, you will develop your own repertoire of techniques to make your RPG battles come alive. It’s worth the effort.
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.