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Some players in my group enjoy combat and dice rolls and stuff. Others (bunn especially) think that it gets in the way of the role-playing. Pleasing both types of roleplayer is difficult. What might help is if I could find a way to make combat more exciting. I mostly run D&D and Traveller, but I'm mostly concerned with D&D here since my Traveller tends to be quite light on combat anyway.

Reasons combat can be boring:

1. It's just about rolling dice.
2. Most of the time, players are just sat around waiting for their turn. And since when do people in a fight 'take turns' anyway?
3. It takes too long.
4. Some of the PCs aren't very good at it, so they stand around waiting for the fighters to finish.
5. Damage is all about hit points, which doesn't seem very realistic.

I would like combat to be:

1. Based more on the player's descriptions than their dice rolls.
2. Simultaneous, rather than strictly turn-based.
3. Quick and exciting.
4. Something that every PC should be involved in, even if they aren't fighty types.
5. More narrative than arithmetic.

Some ideas and thoughts:

1. Have each player write down (on a little wipe-clean whiteboard?) what their character wants to do for the next few rounds. This stage could be timed (with egg timers?) This way, the combat is fast and nobody is sat around waiting until their turn comes again (since all the players are writing down their characters' actions at the same time).

2. The DM rolls once (1d20? 3d6?) per character and that roll (modified in the DM's head by what he knows about the character and what the character is trying to achieve in those few rounds) determines the degree of success. Except for some special cases, that is all the dice rolling. There are no separate to hit rolls or damage rolls.

3. The DM then describes what happened to the players, trying to use as much descriptive language as he can.

4. One way to enhance this description and reduce the pressure on the DM to keep coming up with exciting descriptions on the fly would be to have some sort of handy, quick-to-use system (on card? or computer?) that could produce a clever description of the more common combinations of attack / die roll / etc. For example, Gunther the Barbarian is attacking an orc with his two handed sword. The DM has rolled an above average die roll, and he knows that a) Gunther is good with his big sword and b) the orc isn't all that hard. Rather than say "With a well-timed blow, Gunther cleaves the orc in twain!" every time, the DM goes to his system and pulls out one of several random results for "big sword, above average attack". It would be important that this 'system' was quick, else we just get back to issue number 3.

5. Hit points are a useful method for keeping track of damage and healing outside of the fight itself, but during the fight, the DM should actually describe wounds. So instead of "The orc rolls a 17 - that's a hit; and does 1d8 = 5 points of damage", the DM would say "The orc parries your attack skilfully with his shield, twists around your defences and slashes his sword down your side. It's a painful wound and it feels like a rib or two might be broken. Now you're mad..."

6. With the possible exception of grand end-of-campaign set-piece slugfests, most combats should be short.

7. Powerful wizards in fantasy books never stop to think if their fireball will catch every opponent in the area of effect. So neither should the DM. Just do what seems the most fun. (Actually, I can imagine wizards in the Dragonlance books thinking about areas of effect, as well as hit points of damage.)

Whaddya think?


( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2010 07:49 am (UTC)
It's definitely worth a try - possibly try an experimental battle this way (over Skype?) and see how it works in practice?

Your initial point 2 is the main reason I sometimes get bored in combat. This was especially the case last year, when some of our party were playing two characters, and there was only one Players' Guide to go around, so there were further delays caused by looking things up. It could take well over an hour to wait your turn, if you rolled high initiative on one round, and low on the next.

I've also found some battles feel over-long when the enemies are low level and it's clear that we will have no problem eventually winning. For example, when I was hurtling fireball after fireball into that ship full of low level dog-faced men, it was clear that I'd kill them all soon, but we were still rolling for each character to make sure if they died or were merely seriously injured.

However, your point 7 worries me. Playing a fire mage last year, I was very hampered by the friendly fire issue. If I rolled high initiative, I could hurl a fireball in before any of the melee fighters rushed in, and do huge damage. If I rolled low, I was generally reduced to magic missile, since my other spells would have harmed my own party. I wouldn't want to write down "I hurl a fireball at the enemy" on my little whiteboard, only for the GM to say, "Oh dear. You've killed the entire party. Again."

It is fun to throw your own dice, though. I think it adds to the emotional immediacy when you're responsible for your own 1. It is also fun to have those great moments when you throw really well, get a good critical hit effect, and watch the mighty warrior die to your puny dagger.

What about doing a combination? If it's a random encounter sort of battle, clear it up quickly, but if it's a battle against an enemy of actual significance, do it in more detail.

Another thought: Some very memorable (and often comical) moments have come out of battles, which I think might be lost if the entire thing was reduced to a single die roll each - e.g. when you're on the point of killing an enemy, after fighting really well, and then do a botch.

Sorry these are formless thoughts. Got to rush now.
Oct. 19th, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
Formless, but echoing some of my own thoughts. This needs further thought...
Oct. 19th, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
Have you ever tried the combat system from the game Lace & Steel? It had its limitations, but it it made a great improvement for non-firearm combat. It should be possible to graft it directly onto Traveller for the use of blades &c.
Oct. 19th, 2010 11:46 am (UTC)
I might investigate that. I've also seen some comments on forums that Fudge and Savage Worlds might be worth checking out.

It was mostly D&D I was concerned about. For Traveller, I actually created my own combat system a while back. (Available here if you're interested.) I'm pretty happy with it, with two exceptions - issues 2 and 3. Issue 2 could be improved by possibly using the 'write-down-what-your-character-will-do' idea, while mitigating issue 3 is mostly a case of me finding a way to reduce the time that the GM has to spend referring to tables. Technology might be able to help with this. Alternatively, each player might have a card that contains all the modifiers, rules etc for every weapon they carry, so they can see easily what they need to hit without having to refer to a table in small print.
(no subject) - knirirr - Oct. 19th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)
I've never seen problems 1-5 all in the same game. A D&D crunch fest wouldn't have non-combatant characters. I think a game should be either a combat game or not, and if it is a combat game, then everyone should make sure they have something to do. If it is not - then combat should be short and resolved quickly.

I'm a fan of systems that allow you 'drama' points, to pull off particularly spectacular or cinematic moves. I would also get rid of silly restrictions on improvised weapons - allowing players much more creativity about what they hit things with.
Oct. 19th, 2010 11:54 am (UTC)
I'd say in my D&D campaign, which uses mostly 3.5 rules, but heavily modified in some respects (mostly in that there are more PC attributes), we have had issues 2 to 4 with a bit of 1. I use a critical hit deck and a hit location die with hit points allocated to body parts, so issue 5 hasn't really been a problem.

I see what you're saying about a combat game or not a combat game. the trouble with my group is that while some of the players really like combat, others really don't. (I don't know whether this is sexual stereotyping or not, but the split is very roughly on gender lines.) From my perspective as GM, most of what I want to do in roleplaying games is telling a story. But the thing is, some of the stories I want to tell involve fights.

I like drama points. I probably under-use the concept though.
(no subject) - clarienne - Oct. 19th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 19th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - clarienne - Oct. 19th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 19th, 2010 10:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2010 11:59 am (UTC)
More thoughts: In games like BG, the combat is what I most enjoy, to the extent of often skipping cut scenes to get to the fights faster. (The big challenging battles, that is. I still get bored when the 49th party of low-level orcs leaps out at me ,for me to defeat without thought.) In "real" RPGs, the combat is one of my least favourite parts.

Now, a solo computer game is obviously a very different thing from a social game, so I think it's inevitable that I'd like different things. However, the reason I like battles in BG so much is that I love the tactical side of controlling 6 characters in a challenging situation.

Can RPG combat be made more like this, I wonder? In our regular group, we seem to play combat in a very different way to the way we play at all other times. We go into combat mode, and it's almost like a different game. It's all die rolls, and every man to himself, with very little interaction between the players. Two people hit a door; two people try to charm it. I want to send in a fireball, but can't, because Palug wins initiative just before me, and rushes into my area of effect.

So instead of changing the system, should we as a group try to coordinate more, and add roleplaying elements to the battle? Character A, who doesn't like combat, can attempt to persuade Character B not to fight. Characters C and D can bicker as they stab the orc. All characters can have a brief huddle at the start as they discuss tactics, and can shout tactical opinions throughout the battle. And so on.
Oct. 19th, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I know what you mean about the tactical side of things in Baldur's Gate. And your observation about combat being every man to himself is also interesting.
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - Oct. 19th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 19th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
oh god, can you imagine the debates!

You like controlling 6 characters because they all obey precisely, like counters on a board - which can be fun, I agree - but I can't see how a game involving THESE real human beings would do that, because nobody is in charge of them and they all have their own different motivations .

You could put one character in charge, but then all the other players would be just dice-rollers and might as well not be there.

In theory possibly you could have a roleplaying battle that was like a team game with the players working together, but I suspect only in a group that wasn't crammed with rampant individualists.

We'd be a disaster as any kind of sports team too, I suspect.
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - Oct. 19th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - clarienne - Oct. 19th, 2010 05:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellinghall - Oct. 20th, 2010 09:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 19th, 2010 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 19th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - Oct. 20th, 2010 07:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 20th, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - king_pellinor - Oct. 20th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - Oct. 20th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 20th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - philmophlegm - Oct. 19th, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 20th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Surely this is why you should all write down your intentions, which then just happen in initiative order.

It's supposed to take a few seconds and some concentration to spellcast and I don't see the power just disipating.

So if you decide to fireball a bunch of enemies and then te impulsive barbarian rushes them then he SHOULD get toasted too.

It's not as though in character you have had any time to react to his decision to charge.

In character your wizard should look up from summoning the ball of fire from the depths of the plane of fire, refocus his/her faculties into the material prime and go "Oops, what's that barbarian doing in my area of effect?"

Also to be fair barbarians get evasion, so I'd stop worrying about it,
Oct. 19th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
Have you had a look at Codex Martialis at all? It's an OGL system aimed at D&D, written by a chap who studies western martial arts (longsword, messer, backsword,that sort of thing).

It has a few things you can do which make the fighting more interesting. His main approach is that being poked with a sword really hurts, so like AGOT wounds matter a lot and the fight is quite short after you get hit. But then he brings in lots of things one can do - you get access to more as you level up - that give the player a chance to decide how to fight, rather than simply rolling attack and defence dice.

I've not looked at it in detail, but I'm dfinitely thinking of getting a copy (it's a pdf, or hard copy through Lulu).
Oct. 19th, 2010 10:58 pm (UTC)
I'll look out for Codex Martialis. It sounds like the sort of thing that knirirr (who also studies western martial arts) could possibly come up with if he put his mind to it.

Oct. 19th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Less use for D&D and the like but the team based combat from Star Trek works really well for ship to ship combat.

Star Trek combat is all about power management. Usually a ship will have enough power to fully supply 2 of the following 3:

1) weapons
2) shields
3) engines

How this works in practice is that the Captain anounces a strategic plan.

"Helmsman, try to circle round behind them. Engineering full power to helm and shields!"

The Engineer then assigns power as he chooses.

The Helmsman then plots his actual moves dependent on how much power they have been allocated.

Then Tactical assigns power to shields/weapons. And shoots at the targets of his choice.

This does mean that even if the Captain gives quite specific orders the other players still get to make tactical decisions based on their own judgement.

Even in some quite long space battles I never remember being bored.
Oct. 19th, 2010 10:58 pm (UTC)
I'm intrigued by that idea...
Oct. 31st, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)
Rather a late (& a long) comment I know. But then I don’t get much chance to post at the moment, though I can spend my lunchtimes writing replies even if they take 2 weeke to get posted…

I don’t mind the combat bits as such, I actually suspect Bacchus is less fond of them than I am, potentially muddying the gender divide somewhat, but they can be dull if they’re long and protracted and you have a non-fighty character. I’m not sure that with the type of parties that we’ve had it would be appropriate for everyone to be involved in every fight in some way. That seems artificially forcing a situation, some characters would naturally go and hide or keep themselves out of the way, to do otherwise would be out of character – for example Mehetabel before she got buffed up by the magic items would avoid a fight at all costs as she had such a low constitution. From that point of view rather than trying to involve everyone, I’d just keep the combat short. But then I don’t mind not being actively involved as I’ve always got some mail, sewing or knitting to do while it’s going on.

I think one of the most frustrating things is when you have a character that’s good at something but you don’t get a chance to use that skill because someone gets in there first, which can be down to initiative or just the willingness to shout louder than everyone else.

I think that the discussions about who should do what, do already take place, the problem is down to the fact that what would be best overall tends to be ignored on the basis of ‘well it’s more in character for my character to do this, so I will’ LoAs example of the door being a prime example. That might be improved by having a nominal leader, but always having to defer to one person might and I think would make things less fun, plus they’re likely to be ignored anyway in a lot of circumstances.

1. Don’t know how that would work, sometime you’re going to do one thing, but then based on what someone else does you may change your mind. Although quite how realisitic this actually is when it’s all supposed to be happening very quickly, I don’t know.

2. Sounds quite good, though it does mean that if you roll a 1 then that could pretty much wipe you out in one go whereas one 1 in a series of rolls might (or not) be less harmful overall.

3. This might make us feel we have no control over our characters. Rolling the dice does at least introduce a random element that is quite fun, even if things don’t turn out how you thought they would. Though I do concede you could let us roll and then say what you like anyway, since GM can decide suddenly 20s are bad, if that serves to achieve the outcome they want.

4. I like the idea of a card system for what happens. In fact I really like this idea and I think it would be possible to remove dice rolls altogether. We could create a deck and purely do a battle based on the cards you draw. Or if you wanted to keep the dice rolling in you could have a number of different cards for each number. You could also customise the decks as to what weapon the fighter is carrying and have different results depending on the armour the other combatant is wearing. If I had more time, that would be something I’d really like to do. I don’t mind if you go ahead and start something, but I think once I’ve finished my exams I might have a go at something along those lines too.

5. I don’t like systems that put a certain number of hits in each location, so if you’re weak you can end up with a fairly mild blow to your head killing you. However I accept that is one of the things you have to be prepared for when role-playing. I do quite like the sound of your suggestion though.

6. Yes, I think that’s probably a good thing, though an occasional longer battle to finish a particular chapter might be appropriate on occasion. I don’t mind battles per say, but it does depend on the amount of involvement and the length.

7. We’d never last the first encounter if we had friendly fire. But I do think that some wizardly types would weigh that type of thing up, particularly at lower levels when they aren’t so practiced at what they can achieve.
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )