Make ‘Em Dance: Moving During Combat in RPGs
During combat rolling the same attack against the same opponent over and over again can quickly become boring.
Sometimes playing a roleplaying game boils down to determining how many times you need to roll the dice before you can move on to the next thing. In many of the games I play an encounter is designed to consume the party resources so by that the third or forth encounter things are looking a little bleak. There’s no risk and this makes the earlier encounters less obviously important. Sure, wasting resources in the first encounter may make the fourth one lethal, but this alone won’t interest most players.
Lack of Player Choice is the Issue
When the combat has fully broken down, when a player’s entire turn consists of rolling a d20 and maybe rolling damage, this can often be attributed to a lack of choice. The player has one attack, or no reason to use anything other than the same attack over and over again. There are some GMs and players who can elevate this to a compelling battle. For example, watching Matt Mercer and Travis Wilmingham narrate the epic brawl between Gro — I mean Patrick, and The Hammer, was savagely delightful.
While “narrate better” is certainly an option, for us less talented GMs and players finding ways to give players choices in combat may be an easier solution.
One of the design decisions behind Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was to try to give all players options on their turn. This was accomplished by giving every class a few at-will powers, plus some encounter and daily powers. This introduced more choice into combat and was one of the things I liked about running the game as the GM. I’ve heard that things break down at higher levels where players have too much choice. I find that hard to believe but I’ve never run or played a high-level game of 4th Edition so I’ll have to take people at their word.
Moving Is a Frequently Ignored Choice
What 4th Edition did do well was have powers which encouraged players to move their characters around the battlefield. This was something that I understood better than my players, to the point where a normal difficulty encounter became very challenging for them because the monsters and NPCs were constantly moving for advantage and the players always stayed still. It seems that even with powers that made moving more attractive players, my players at least, are just used to sitting in one place attacking.
## Give Players a Reason To Move
As much as I could simple remind my players that they are able to move I don’t think that would be effective. Even though 13th Age, the game I’m currently running, makes moving in combat possible, I find my players don’t see the point if it doesn’t help them in the current turn. Instead I need to give them a reason to move.
### Give Them a Place To Move
The first way to get your players to move is to give them a place where they’ll have an advantage in combat. I don’t use a map during my combat encounters. I expect, and need to remind my players, that my players will invent something to give themselves an advantage. This is the point of going without a map; who is to say there isn’t a boulder in the right place to give the players a bonus to their attack or defense. I own a good selection of miniatures, tokens and a large box of modular dungeon tiles but I’m trying to keep the amount of crap I need to lug to my game to a minimum while leaving my players the opportunity to be creative. Also, with my players I find the maps and tokens gives me more of an advantage that it does my players, so there’s that too.
Here are some ideas. These could either be invented by the players or discovered by an appropriate roll. The roll should not take the place of their attack and shouldn’t be difficult. The point is to involve their non-combat stats to make them feel worthwhile. If I found one player using the same skill and attribute combination turn after turn I would impose a limit by saying they need to choose a different background or attribute.
- A shallow pool or other water feature which favours strength over dexterity. STR.
- Fighting on a pile of rocks where it’s easy to slip and twist an ankle. DEX.
- Fighting next to a lava pit or fire or some other radiating damage hazard where people who can ignore the pain have an advantage. CON.
- Maneuvering so your opponent’s weapon or size puts them at a disadvantage. INT.
- Finding a piece of high ground. WIS.
- Finding a spot where the natural acoustics will make your battlecry more impressive. CHA.
Giving the players an advantage can be a great motivator but should not be over-used. Some advantages will last the turn, some for longer. If a player is inventing a way to have an advantage every turn of every fight it would be worthwhile to make them roll for it. Between that and the need to disengage to make use of the advantage it should limit how many shenanigans players can get up to.
Be aware also that this can make the Ranger Tracker Talent and Rogue Swashbuckle Talent feel redundant. Don’t forget that both those talents don’t require a roll to accomplish, nor do they require disengaging from melee. If the above terrain rules were heavily used in my campaign I’d make sure that Swashbuckle or Terrain Stunt were all that more impressive.
Punish Them For Standing Still
If giving players an advantage is the carrot this is the stick. Sometimes the incentive to move to another spot can be provided by making the current spot an unpleasant place to be.
I don’t think there’s a faster way to make a player move than to tell them their character is standing on an ant hill and the little critters have decided to defend their home. Perhaps when the PC stepped into their current spot they heard a click and are now hearing a low metallic ticking noise. Or, spring the trap and describe how it is resetting itself so that it will go off in a couple of turns.
This cannot be used too often or the players will wonder at their unfortunate string of “bad luck.” Also, the damage cannot be too much or too often because it may take a couple of turns for a PC to disengage to avoid it, by which point the damage will have accumulated to lethal levels.
Still, having an hazard every session or two makes things more interesting. Using it occasionally to spur the PCs to movement is a nice bonus.
Gang Up On One PC
As I GM I sometimes have to fight the urge to spread damage around too evenly in a fight, especially since piling all the damage on to one PC can feel mean. The same can also happen with how the monsters array themselves for battle, obligingly paring up with PCs. Overloading one PC gives them a reason to disengage. Outnumbering the PCs will allow you to put an enemy on each hero and then multiple enemies on one. Those heroes fighting a solo monster should disengage to move to help their beleaguered ally.
A similar technique is making sure that the caster or ranged PC is engaged by an enemy. If they disengage to be able to use their ranged advantage their opponent can simply move back to melee on the next turn. If another PC joins the fight and then the caster disengaged the enemy will be pinned by the second PC and unable to follow.
If the Monsters Move, They Will Move
Since it is unlikely that your players will move unless they have a reason to move focus instead on the things you can control, the monsters. There isn’t much downside to disengaging in 13th Age. Have the monsters attempt to disengage and if they succeed, they move away. As long as there’s no obvious disadvantage to popping free of melee it won’t seem weird that the enemy is doing this. You could explain it as them trying to find a better position, or gain the upper hand. Depending on initiative order this can actually be a good tactic. If the monster acts between the rogue and the rogue’s ally, disengaging from the ally avoids a possible Sneak Attack.
What Are you Ideas?
I’m looking forward to using these techniques in my next encounter. I am going to try to use each idea once, and hopefully multiple ideas per encounter. For example, if I add a trap and some difficult terrain between the players and the monsters they can move to avoid the trap, or move to put the difficult terrain between their ranged characters and the enemy.