This month’s RPG Blog Carnival theme is “The Combat Experience” selected by Samuel Van Der Wall over at RPG Alchemy. We all know combat can (and should) be really fun, but who among us hasn’t gotten bogged down in a slog of simply rolling dice until all monsters are eliminated? So for this month’s carnival I’m going to share some of my tips and tricks for keeping combat fresh and interesting. If you weave the ideas below into your combat encounters with frequency and variety, I promise you no more dull combats!
Adventurers fight their way up an airship docking tower to leap onboard a vessel as it pulls away. PCs battle an umber hulk in an underground cavern while a nearby drow mage completes a ritual to collapse an elf city above. The floor slowly opens beneath our heroes revealing a spiked pit as they battle angry aarakocra guards, one of whom holds the key to the door locking them in the deathtrap of a room. Giving the players a timed objective can really spice up combat. In the examples above they may only have so many rounds (determined by the DM) before the airship departs, the mage completes the ritual, or the floor completely opens beneath their feet. Suddenly the point is no longer kill everything, but rather accomplishing a goal before the timer dings. Watch as movement becomes more important than ever and PCs try all kinds of crazy improvised actions and risk opportunity attacks to get their goal accomplished in time.
The Third Dimension
It’s often easier to deal with only two dimensions in combat. Most games take place on flat battle maps or in the theater of the mind. We’re used to just length and width, but when you add height into your combat encounters, things instantly become more interesting. I don’t mean just adding a few flying creatures so now PCs have to use ranged attacks. I mean adding some high ground like hills or guard towers that both sides can try to take advantage of. It can be fun to see a great weapon fighter forced into using a longbow against flying foes and cursing with every miss, but isn’t it more exciting to see that PC charge up a hill or scale a wall to take down an enemy sniper? Being on higher ground provides a natural defense PCs can overcome or exploit, but if you want to spice things up a little more in the third dimension, give non-flying creatures with higher ground advantage on attacks against creatures on lower ground. If a creature is in flight it loses this advantage because they have to concentrate on, ya know, flying. Keep it simple, have only one or two areas of high ground and you can still use those flat maps (by simply marking off an area of high ground). A limited number of high ground areas also makes it easier to track this in theater of the mind.
Cater to the Monster
When the craftiest DM I know, Mike Shea, ran the Tarrasque Takedown, all of his encounters were specially designed monster lairs which catered to the beasties we were fighting. The Tarrasque’s encounter was in a tight space with low ceilings (so we were always within its deadly reach) and featured a river of fire (which the Tarrasque wouldn’t care about, being immune). The beholder death tyrant’s lair was bowl-shaped, so that he could get us with his eye beams and central eye as we struggled to climb the smooth walls to get up and attack him. The red dracolich’s lair was full of small platforms suspended above a sea of lava all of which were within perfect reach of the dragon’s massive breath weapon. When you create an encounter, especially for a monster in its own lair or on a battleground of its choosing, take a look at the creature’s abilities. What sort of natural defenses might that creature prefer? What defenses might it construct? How can it get the most out of its attacks? Don’t do this for every encounter, but it makes good sense for boss fights and prepared, intelligent enemies.
Give players difficult moral choices during an encounter. Perhaps a devious villain makes them choose one friendly NPC to die and another to live. Perhaps they were asked to bring back a bandit leader alive, but she insists on fighting until the death. Perhaps the PCs could end a dangerous threat once and for all, but doing so requires they use a weapon of mass destruction that would harm many innocents. Perhaps they face child soldiers in combat. It can be difficult to put characters in a moral quandary, especially in the middle of combat, but play to their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. These quandaries can cause debate amongst the players at the table, so if you’re in the heat of combat and don’t want to stop to argue a moral issue, give each player one minute to make their case, and then let initiative determine who acts and speaks when. Suddenly combat is more than just hacking up some baddies. It’s making choices and living with the consequences. If the PCs figure out a way to get what they want without any bad consequences, so much the better. Their cunning has made this a memorable and exciting encounter indeed.
Traps and Hazards
Rockslides, pits, crushing walls, swinging blades, earthquakes, lava-spewing vents, spider webs, and so much more can really make combat interesting. You don’t need to make things complicated with an enormous maze of traps (though if you do, kudos to you). Keep things simple. The trap or hazard activates and attacks random targets on initiative count 0. If it’s a one time thing like a rockslide, let it attack many targets, and if it happens every round, it should only attack one to three targets.
How fun is it in a video game when you get to use a cannon, enormous mounted machine gun, tank, or AT-AT? Super fun! Give your players the same option once in a while. Don’t make it easy. To use the catapult, ballista, or arcane cannon against the baddies, they first have to takeout the enemies who are operating the siege weapons against them.
Add a Puzzle
Giving players a puzzle to solve can really be frustrating for them and boring for you… but it’s fun if you add in some monsters for them to fight while solving it. Maybe the PCs can only close a portal to The Nine Hells by arranging colored gems in a specific order while the portal spews out devils for them to fight. Maybe the adventurers have to answer a sphinx’s riddle to a raise a bridge across a chasm while a throng of zombies presses down on them. Maybe summoned elementals endlessly attacks PCs until they complete a complex ritual honoring the god of nature. Give the players something to do aside from fight to end an encounter, and suddenly they have to decide who will fight and who will work on the puzzle.
I’ve written a lot about chases already. Turning a combat into a dramatic chase sequence means a constant change of terrain, a whole bunch of complications, and a lot of new environments to run through while battling. It can a little complicated to run a chase, but use the tips and tricks in my older post and you’ll be ready to rock.
Another thing I’ve written about are dungeon brawls. These battles are really a few encounters rolled into one, separated into waves. Take a look at my comprehensive post on these bad boys and you’ll be able to spice up a whole session’s worth of combat encounters.
Why not have a timed puzzled? Or a chase through an environment that’s been created for a villain? Or a dungeon brawl with siege weapons? Go ahead! Mix and match the ideas above. You’ll be glad you did.
Above All, Say Yes
When a player asks if a character can do something crazy I almost always say one of two things, “Yes,” or, “You can try.” Sometimes combat can be made more interesting just by allowing your players the freedom to try whatever they want rather than restricting them to the options present in printed texts. Before you know it they’ll be taking all kinds of risks and trying to top one another with the most creative combat maneuver. Give saying yes all the time a shot. Let the PCs roll and set a high DC if the task seems nigh impossible, but let them try! It’s not about being a slave to the rules, that’s what makes combat stagnate. It’s about having a grand time telling a story together.
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