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Have you ever been in this situation? You spend time planning elaborate combat encounters for your player characters to face only to have them attempt to negotiate, fool, sneak by, or otherwise evade your monsters’ claws, jaws, eye beams, and blades. The players’ plan is clever. Their checks are succeeding. They just might pull this off!
But what about the epic battles you’ve planned? What will you do for the other three hours of game night after they bypass these encounters that were meant to take the whole time? What about the time you spent preparing the battles? So you force the fight anyway. There was nothing they could do! Battle was unavoidable. Everyone slogs through, but it’s clear the players aren’t having as good a time rolling dice as they normally do. Why? Their agency was taken away. No matter what they did, you were going to make them fight.
For about the first decade or two of running roleplaying games I did this constantly. I had a fight prepared and therefore it must happen! It took me a long time to realize that whenever I forced my players into a battle they tried to avoid, those encounters were slower and less exciting because the players were less engaged. It’s not to say a few failed checks or a bad plan shouldn’t result in combat, but if the players are clever and luck is on their side, don’t force combat on them. The players are telegraphing the kind of story they want to tell with their actions. It’s important to pay attention when they try to avoid combat (and when they rush headlong into secure facilities with guns blazing seeking a fight).
All of this is easier said than done. In many game systems combat is the most comfortable arena for new GMs and players. The best way you can break out of the cycle of forcing combat on your players is to get comfortable with all aspects of your chosen game.
Why Combat is Comfy
Let’s look at why combat is comfortable then I’ll break down some techniques to help you get comfortable in all other aspects of play (also known as exploration and interaction in Dungeons & Dragons).
Clearly Defined Rules
Because combat in many roleplaying games is deadly and/or has a big outcome on the story it tends to have the most clearly defined rules of the game. Time is broken down into rounds and turns, everyone acts in an order according to the initiative, and all participants can only perform a certain number of actions on a turn. In many games it is easier to adjudicate combat as a GM because we have so many rules working for us. A GM doesn’t need to make a judgement call. They just need to know the rule. If a case comes up that isn’t covered by the rules, it’s easy to make an on-the-fly ruling because there are so many rules surrounding the rule-less space.
Outside of combat the safety net of lots of specific rules drops away in many games. It can be scary to adjudicate in a more lawless arena, especially for a new GM, for fear of messing up the story, accidentally treating player characters unfairly, or simply freezing and not knowing where to go next.
Easier to Estimate Time
While there are exceptions, it is much easier to estimate the time it takes the player characters to fight a group of enemies than the time it takes to do almost anything else in a roleplaying game. When I was playing fourth edition D&D, I could plan on each combat taking 45 minutes to an hour, which made preparation a snap! Got four hours of game time? Plan four battles! Looking back it’s easy to see that is a LOT of combat, even if every battle is on the lower end of the time spectrum.
If I had been more comfortable with improvisation and group storytelling, I could have planned for less combat and my players (who like variety as many do) would have probably enjoyed those games more.
Easy to Prepare
Because combat has so many rules attached to it, it’s easy to prepare. Put a few goblins and worgs in a room and you’re good to go! But if you need to give those goblins and worgs names, personalities beyond murderous, and motivations beyond slaughter, preparation takes more time. When a GM is starting out, combat seems to be the easiest part of the game to prepare, so it gets prepared a lot.
The truth is being flexible and learning to come up with story on the fly is even easier than preparing for combat, but it takes some getting used to!
Getting Comfortable Beyond Combat
So how do you get comfortable with other aspects of your game of choice beyond combat?
Have Improv Tools and Techniques Ready
My first recommendation is to have a few safety tools ready to go. I wrote a blog post about a few good improvisation techniques and tools. In addition to the tools and techniques listed there have a few random tables or lists with names, NPC personalities, and random encounters (including noncombat encounters) ready to go! Not only are these useful, but these tools have another function. They make you feel comfortable. Being comfortable is essential to improvisational storytelling. If you have a net to catch you, you’re more likely to take risks and figure it out as you go, rather than having it all planned out.
Include the Players
Invite the players to build the story with you by asking questions. Did they bypass your combat encounter and get through everything you prepared earlier than you planned? Ask them, “What do you want to do next?” Let them provide ideas of where to take the story. That takes the burden of storytelling off of you, and a direct question like that tells you EXACTLY what your players want out of the story. You might be surprised at the responses you get, and enjoy the exciting new direction your game takes!
Don’t be afraid to take a break from playing to think about and prepare the next leg of the journey. Players are often grateful for a chance to stretch their legs, check their phones, use the bathroom, chat, or grab food without feeling like they’re missing something or being rude. This gives you an opportunity to make a rough plan.
Save Your Prep
One reason GMs force carefully prepared combats upon players is because we spent time planning and don’t want to lose the investment. Fear not! Save that prep. You can use it for another game, another group, or another time. If you remember this, no prep is ever wasted and you won’t feel the need to force a battle.
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