Combat in RPGs
The other day I was talking about the various RPGs I’d like to play next and it got me to thinking about how the different systems work. I’m sure most people are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and how combat works in that game. One of my favorite things about the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (henceforth: 4E) was how crunchy and tactical the combat was. As a wargamer I was constantly manuevering the monsters to gain advantage in combat.
Lately I’ve been playing Dungeon World. It’s a brilliant system but you only get as much as you put in. My players, a different group this time, aren’t grasping the possibilities inherent in such a narrative system. To be fair to them I’ve likely failed to fully explain it. Maybe after this post I’ve write another about how to state intent in games like Dungeon World where fiction is so central to the game.
Watching my players in combat made me come to a realization: if the game puts emphasis on combat it should be tactical and rewarding. I’m not talking only about hack-and-slash games like 4E. If you spend more than five or ten minutes resolving a combat it needs to be more than dry dice-rolling. I’ve come up with some ideas on how to improve combat, to make it a challenging tactical puzzle instead of a story interruption.
Miniatures are Essential
If you don’t have miniatures, use pawns or tokens. Even if all you have are those triangular folded standees with the same art on the front and back you need something for people to see where they are. It doesn’t matter if you are playing a game designed for miniatures like 4E and I assume 5E, or if you are playing something like Mouse Guard which comes the closest to completely abstract combat I’ve seen in an RPG.
I made a set of tokens by printing free token art onto photopaper at Costco, cutting them out with a 1″ circular punch press and taping them with double sided tape to 1″ metal washers. The glossy paper and heavy tokens make them beautiful to look at and easy to handle. Another option is to make generic tokens with just letter and number combinations. Put up a small whiteboard with a legend. All the A’s are goblins with spears while B is a goblin caster.
It is important that the players can see and keep track of where they are in relation to the combat. The first step to an enjoyable combat is to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Don’t worry about movement and range if your rules don’t stress those aspects. For example, in Dungeon World ranges are broadly divided into Hand, Reach, Near and Far and classified by rough descriptions. Hand is the range at which you can strike someone with your fist. Reach is within a couple of steps of someone wielding a sword. Near is about as far as someone can throw a rock while far is outside of shouting distance.
Numenera uses a similar loose range and movement system. Everyone in a melee can reach everyone else. It is assumed that no-one is standing still and that if you aren’t directly adjacent to someone you can easily take a few steps to reach them as part of your attack.
These games are designed to be played without miniatures but can be used with miniatures without any rules modifications. The miniatures just act as a reminder of people’s places and relation within combat.
Terrain Adds Interest
While it is possible to play with just the miniatures keeping track of things having some terrain to fight over really gives players a chance to think tactically in a fight. No-one is going to think to hide behind a boulder if they don’t know there is one.
Like miniatures it isn’t necessary to always have a fully detailed glossy poster map of exactly the encounter area you are fighting over. There is nothing wrong with quickly sketching the field of battle on some paper. It doesn’t even need to be gridded paper, although grids do help with scaling, especially if you are copying an existing map.
Not everyone is artistically inclined or wants to spend a lot of time drawing instead of playing. One trick is to create a bunch of common shapes, like trees, bushes, boulders, small hills, etc. Draw them on white paper and then cut them out with scissors. Lay down on top of more white paper and they’ll look like they were drawn in place, especially if you throw a sheet of clear acrylic over-top.
An idea I had while writing this article was to do the same thing, except using construction paper for colour. Imagine throwing down a few scraps of paper to create a nice, full-colour, playing surface. Make sure to fill it with stuff for the combatants to trip on, climb, leap, or otherwise abuse.
Leave Ro0m for Imagination
Now that we have our positions explicitly defined with each stone and bush known it is important to remember that these tools are not meant to restrict anyone’s imagination. Always remember that the miniatures are an inaccurate snapshot of the action and that not every blade of grass of dip of earth is shown.
These are tools to make the game more awesome, more tactical and more immersive. They still require a GM who knows how to say yes and how to keep things fun.
Do you use miniatures in your RPGs? I know 4E‘s board-game feel put a lot of gamers off miniatures. Sometimes it took longer to set up an encounter than it did to play it. Leave a comment below or hit me up on Google+ or Twitter. Don’t forget to subscribe.
I think some players may have problems with the tactical issue because they’re more into the role-play aspect. That should be fine, but in D&D of all stripes, it’s really not. Your players really -need- to be into the combat aspect of it, or they will check out and/or “sit still and hit.” I think it’s a gaming paradigm issue: when I play RPGs with tabletop gamers, everyone tends to be into the tactical aspect. When I play with people who don’t tabletop (folks who are more into story-driven games), though, the tactical aspect seems to be a chore. Who cares about whether you’re striking someone on the right or the left when you’re more interested in life-defining choices and character interaction?
Not to disparage D&D and games like it, though. It has its place, like every other game. The problem arises when GMs expect players to be RPG generalists rather than having specific RPG interests.
On the topic of minis in gaming, I only use them if we’re playing something to deliberately indulge in combat i.e. a bank heist, a medieval adventuring party, etc. For any other game, we just use imagination and signalling of intent. Minis are definitely important in larger combats, but larger combats generally only occur in systems where characters can sustain a large number of wounds (because they’re willing to engage in large combats, unlike games where characters are realistically fragile).
I say that if the players are bored during combat because they aren’t interested in it the GM shouldn’t be making them fight. There are lots of stories which can be told in a fantasy world that don’t require fighting.
I wonder if there are games which can interestingly hand-wave fighting to a couple of interesting jump-cuts to let the RP-focused players make a couple of in-character actions and then move on.
I’m not sure about that last bit. I’m sure there are very rules-light systems that allow that, but as we said in other comments, those may not be super-appealing.