Welcome to Training Day! This feature on the blog is designed to talk about different aspects of roleplaying based on my personal experiences throughout the years. It’s not supposed to be gospel or a “You must do this!” but a series of ideas to get you thinking about how to do things in your own game. Today we’re going to start by describing some of the ways I think about combat encounters from different systems and how to justify these battles in an overall game.
Recently on another forum, someone asked me a question about how I build the combat encounters in my 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons game, Curse of the Black Pearls. I initially began to respond in a way that was very Dungeons and Dragons centric, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that many basic principles behind making interesting, dynamic combats apply to almost every kind of roleplaying game. Obviously the core goals, mechanics and ideas about why you have combat will differ between games, like a fight scene in Trail of Cthulhu isn’t expected to be as common or survivable as your average battle in Dungeons and Dragons. Likewise, Dungeons and Dragons is more interested in the core nitty gritty of fighting than Trail of Cthulhu, where the very first answer to a fight in Trail might well be how quickly you can run away from it.
Why you have combat is very much a subject for style and what you want your game to feel like, because generally speaking any fight scene is where your biggest chance of killing a player character rather permanently often happens. For me, I use combat to build drama, tension and to make for interesting tactical combat situations with these three aspects depending on both the purpose of the fight and the game in question. Reading through Curse of the Black Pearls, I tend to emphasize tough individual combats and tactical decision making. In Trail of Cthulhu most fights are there to scare the investigators witless and to drain resources like stability, health or general skills.
So whenever you decide to pit your players up against murderous opposition in your game, no matter what it is, here are some things you should consider.
Firstly, what is this fight about and why are the players being attacked?
This might seem like a simple question, but actually it’s pretty fundamental to everything that follows. For example, you might be running a Dungeons and Dragons or 13th Age game that’s rather similar to Westmarches where players make the story/direction for themselves. Here the DM often relies on purely random encounters, which are designed more to simulate moving through the world than anything else. Here your players may wander through a forest, only to have their party crashed by a bunch of giant spiders from above, or bandits, or kobolds or whatever else suits the terrain and nature of the area you’re moving through. This is pure random dice, but there is a core idea behind it of simulating the idea that moving through a deadly forest, rumored to be haunted, might not be the best idea compared to taking the idyllic well patrolled roads around it.
On the other hand, perhaps this battle erupts because the players investigators have finally drawn the ire of the evil cult behind several murders. Not wanting their secrets exposed to the world, the cult conspires to murder the investigators by finding what dingy motel they are staying in for the night. While sound asleep, suddenly glass shatters and the door gets kicked in, while someone unpleasant in a heavy coat barges in brandishing a large knife, gun or even hideous magics. Here the antagonists are bringing the fight to the investigators and trying to directly kill them, which can often be the payoff of long periods of tension. This kind of scene in Trail of Cthulhu is designed to intimidate the players and might either force the investigators to take a different tact, or it might just confirm their worst suspicions.
Then of course there is your classic showdown with the awful cult attempting to summon a vile god from the dreaming dark, an ancient vampire hellbent on revenge upon the bloodline of those who wronged him millennia ago or that concluding moment of the adventure where the adventurers finally confront the ancient red dragon that has been terrorizing the country side in its lair. These kind of fights are the conclusion of an adventure or investigation, where finally the characters hard work up until this point is either rewarded or possibly their end. This is often a great chance to reward players creativity in solving problems earlier, by making the battle easier or have them better prepared for it.
Whatever the nature of why I am having my players engage in a fight, I carefully consider the above and figure out what narratively or mechanically the fight is supposed to accomplish. In terms of Dungeons and Dragons, I don’t tend to give players unwinnable battles where they are expected to TPK or lose. There are naturally some exceptions to this, like how I started the first session of Curse of the Black Pearls, but generally speaking I make fights to be winnable or survivable. If they aren’t, they often have a distinct lose condition or way of being ended that doesn’t inherently always mean “The player characters all died!”.
Additionally, in a more combat orientated game like DnD, I think of a fight or encounter as a way of making for interesting tactical puzzles or situations, such as the Yuan-ti ambush over the cliff in “A Bridge Almost Too Far“. Here this battle was designed to show the player’s that Yuan-ti were serious business and capable of fighting proficiently from very long ranges. It also showed how tactically smart they were, by throwing weaker trained minions at the characters who could immobilize them (the spiders) and using the terrain to their full advantage (the steep cliffs, combined with the narrow bridge in the center of the map). This fight therefore introduced an important enemy, showed the players that enemy could think highly tactically and demonstrate the danger they were under: All extremely important points. By thinking about this before I designed the encounter, it made many of the situations, terrain features and similar I needed easier to think about.
The result at the table was an extremely tense battle, where almost all of the characters died and a very healthy respect for the Yuan-ti as antagonists in the campaign was earned. Other than being slightly too difficult, this was exactly what I wanted the combat to accomplish and get across to the players.
Of course, not all combat is designed to be remotely challenging or some kind of tactical puzzle. In Trail of Cthulhu for example, I frequently use a fight as a way of indicating to the players they messed up. For example in “A Dockside Murder” or early on in the game with “Serial Killers and Boxes, oh Heavens!” supernatural or simply crazed enemies of the investigators got the drop on them. In both cases an investigator was badly hurt or injured as a result, with the “combat” being less about the fight and more about consequences of not approaching carefully enough. Similarly, fight scenes in Night’s Black Agents or Trail of Cthulhu can simply exist to expend players pool points in various general skills, so that they aren’t fully at their best for the concluding scene of the investigation.
A major fight scene or tough combat situation can also be used to signal the end of the adventure in the same way as that climactic battle against the red dragon mentioned earlier. Both of my Shadowrun games used an overwhelming horde of enemies to tell the Runners it was time to get out of dodge and that they had nothing further to gain by sticking around. Likewise, the similarity between these conclusions to the first sessions was designed to give hints as to how the two campaigns were linked together as well. Drama, tension and a harrowing escape scene were the key: Not challenge.
Secondly, how difficult is this fight supposed to be?
Whenever you have any kind of combat or fight scene, you should consider how difficult it is going to be and why. Are the players at a huge disadvantage? Are you trying to introduce a new enemy into the game who is very dangerous? Is this supposed to really test the inner Sun Tzu of your players? Do you just want to give the players something to beat the nonsense out of without a lot of threat? Is this just pure random luck that they blundered into an ancient red dragons flight path on the wrong day?
This is where style and what you’re trying to accomplish over a long term view in the campaign matters the most. If you’re going for something that’s a bit like a Game of Thrones feeling “Anyone can die” moment, then fights that have the potential to kill a player character at any moment or just an unlucky dice roll doesn’t overly matter much. My personal style is one where player’s characters can and will probably die if they make a bad enough mistake, but that I write my games narrative around their characters quite a bit. So while I always want to have a threat of death, which may occasionally turn into actual deaths, mostly I want my player’s characters to prevail.
If only by the narrowest of margins!
A good example of my logic is the way I design the combat encounters of my Dungeons and Dragons game. A lot of the time in DnD is spent moving around tokens or miniatures on a grid I prepared of devious terrain, trying to overcome the adversaries against them. I’m going to use Dungeons and Dragons as the primary example here, because it’s the campaign I run that will usually involve the most combat in each session. Usually when I design a combat in Curse of the Black Pearls I go through this little checklist:
A) Why is this happening in the story?
B) Do the players need to fight it at all?
C) Is this combat supposed to threaten the PCs substantially?
D) Do I need to preserve or show off any enemies in particular?
E) Are there ways of ending this battle, which don’t inherently involve one side or the other being dead?
So using the Yuan-ti I mentioned earlier, the cliffside battle meets several of these criteria and had some important restrictions/ideas involved. Firstly, the justification for why I decided to run that battle was it was a prepared ambush by the enemy to show the characters they were in unsafe enemy territory. It also had an important point of introducing the Yuan-ti as powerful enemies and very deadly opponents. You’ll note that point A here is basically a very quick summation of the first discussion point above.
The next point might seem odd, but it’s worth considering if there are ways the players might have of avoiding the fight entirely. If you plan a combat encounter with vicious chuuls in stagnant deep water between slippery rocks the characters need to cross, if the Wizard can cast mass fly and everyone just goes across that way your encounter probably isn’t going to happen. Likewise, intelligent enemies might even encourage the characters to *gasp* talk to them. It’s worth considering what might happen if the mercenaries that the villain is using to bolster their army get a better offer from the characters instead. They might just leave, or perhaps the players try to intimidate or use diplomacy first. Thinking about alternative solutions to a combat encounter ahead of time can make your life much easier – or prepare to deal with them!
In this particular scenario, the two sides of the canyon were separated by a long drop (300′) in the middle with a fast flowing river cutting through the middle. This effectively meant there were two sides to the encounter, with the PCs occupying one and the Yuan-ti archer on the opposite. This meant I could make a narrow access between the two sides, because the players couldn’t get easy access to levitation or flight, this produced a natural choke point. Bypassing the fight was not possible and the range on the Yuan-ti archers arrows meant that closing the distance was essential (because he would invariably win any long ranged shoot out). I already ruled diplomacy out as an option and Yuan-ti are much too arrogant to ever surrender or be easily intimidated by “lesser” species, so this was always a straight up fight.
Of course the trickiest part of the entire process is really that middle part encompassed by C. This answer is the million dollar question in many ways and there isn’t any one all encompassing solution. In my games in terms of DnD, I always strive for “Tough, but fair” and that means encounters should challenge the players tactically, but never feel like they were designed to be unwinnable or “Gotcha” moments. For example, I tend to avoid classic troll creatures like Rust Monsters or using Piercers (a comical stalagmite pretending monster, which does a hefty amount of damage for a very low CR) against players. On the other hand, this encounter used a bunch of low level spiders – which could impose the restrained condition so the Yuan-ti could get advantage on ranged attacks – plus the powerful bow of the Yuan-ti to be very challenging. The Blackscale Lizardfolk were designed to hold the bridge to prevent the characters easily getting to the Yuan-ti.
I picked this example for this post very deliberately, because here I nearly got it wrong. The archer and the advantage from the restrained condition were very difficult for the characters to handle, with some lucky rolls dropping the Paladin and then nearly ensuring a TPK. Of course things did work out and I got the introduction showing “Yuan-ti are damn scary” 100% down, but a TPK would definitely have not been a good result.
Additionally by holding the bridge very deliberately, I bought time so that the Yuan-ti could slither off for a later encounter if I wanted, fulfilling D. Plus this meant with point E in mind that the fight didn’t have to continue until everyone was dead, because the Yuan-ti would leave once the battle turned against it enough.This is a slow process to go through, but by doing it I often make a variety of different interesting encounters. From the Okemera battle at the end of the Sunken Temple, which was designed to face the entire party by itself and the Yuan-ti employing demonic magic at the front of the dragonborn champions tomb it helps me establish a unique place for most fights. Not every battle I design is inherently challenging, because sometimes you just want to introduce a fun or interesting enemy but not in a “This is going to push you to the limit way”.
When designing encounters in DnD though, it’s important to remember that encounter difficulty can be fine tuned in a lot of ways. So without belaboring any points overly much, consider that ranged attackers are more versatile than melee ones. They can easily target any player and can hence threaten that wizard hiding in the back more easily. Likewise, anything with lots of attacks in one turn can potentially get a lucky string of rolls and down just about anyone. Your players might end up in a deadly game of hide and seek as a result if monsters are suitably powerful. It is thus very important to consider how mobile your monsters are, such as that previously mentioned archer being able to fly or if the monster that can make multiple attacks can teleport.
Actually there is so much to say on the balancing of individual encounters for Dungeons and Dragons, we should arguably leave that discussion here for another day (where it can get its own much deserved post). In a similar vein, Shadowrun has a great amount of finesse and fine tuning for how to tweak combat encounters to be just as challenging as desired as well from what I have observed.
Moving away from games with very gritty and detailed rules for combat, sometimes the core of the question being challenge is less relevant and instead the question is more “What are the players supposed to do if they end up in a fight?” In Trail of Cthulhu, fighting monsters directly is sometimes practical but can oftentimes be utterly impossible unless you have the right kind of terrible alchemical liquids or spells. In a horror game like this, a fight is meant to basically give the players a fright and put their characters under extreme duress/risk. It’s not so much “How many bullets can we put in this strange gibbering mound of roiling black flesh?” but a question of “Oh God, did you prepare the right rituals and figure out what this thing was actually vulnerable to?”Usually if the answer is “No” to the previous question the investigators have to make a hasty retreat or alternatively, all get processed into humanoid goo. Unlike with my example from DnD above, I use fights in Trail of Cthulhu with two main goals:
A) Scare the investigators senseless (EG you made a bad mistake)
B) Drain their resources in health, stability or general skills
Fights are thus more desperate feeling and have more significant chances of permanent consequences, given that investigators in Trail of Cthulhu are not particularly bullet (or knife, or fire, or shoggoth…) resistant. This means that even a crazed cultist with a large axe, if he gets the drop on the party, can be a significant threat to the party. This usually means most fight scenes prompt players to use their characters general skill pools quite a bit, so you can predictably drain some resources so that someone can’t reliably put +2 into firearms every round (or perform called shots, if you add some of the extra combat rules from Night’s Black Agents).
So as a summary to this post consider: A) What your fight is supposed to do, either from an interesting mechanical point of view or narratively. B) Make the set up and execution of that fight work mechanically within the system you are using to support that first point.
Next time on Training Day: Combative Roleplaying. I’ll talk about how to describe combat results and hits, plus put “hooks” into combat encounters so you can prepare some interesting moments or startling changes to a fight that seemed to be going entirely predictably. Plus how to add roleplaying interactions to fight scenes between your investigators, heroes or runners and their nefarious opponents to really set things apart.