For 2017 because we couldn’t make Worldcon, my wife and I decided we should take the chance to go hit up Gencon instead. I like tabletop games; I want to do freelance writing for game companies, so it seemed like a great place to see people at network. Still, it was my first time at Gencon proper and I learned quite a bit. Why, 10 lessons in fact.
It’s that time of year: Worldcon. This time Worldcon 75 was in Helsinki. Bittersweet in a way, because there was no way my wife and I could make it. We instead lived vicariously through friends’ social media. On our fifth-year anniversary road-trip, we saw the live-tweets of the Hugo awards. Seeing all the social media posts about the con, it made me wistful. Apparently, it also made me a mirror because I feel compelled to reflect.
I’ve been away for a bit because I’ve been preparing for retaking my actuary exam (again). I’ve iterated. I’ve got the tools. Planner? Check. Pretty log? Yep. Colorful pens, stickers, note-pads full of practice problems? You want em I got em. Flashcards? Oh yeah. I’ve systematically reviewed over two months. In just the last two weeks alone I spent almost 50 hours preparing. This morning was show-time, my shot, my moment, my chance, my opportunity.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well.
Fights happen in RPGs. Whether it is a kung-fu punch sending someone through a building, a super-hero launching an enemy into the stratosphere, or a barbarian wading into a room full of goblins, sooner or later even the most die-hard role-players are going to get into a brawl. Here’s 10 tips to help you improve your fights!
Understand why the combat is happening
Know why you’re having the combat. You might just be trying to add some contrast to a session of heavy role-playing. Maybe you’re having a brief random encounter to show the players an area is dangerous. If you’re wanting to challenge the players tactically, that means the bad-guys won’t fight fair and will be dangerous. In contrast, if you are just trying to give the players a chance to cut loose, a few big dumb mooks are just what the GM ordered. This also means worry about the important ones – don’t spend a ton of time (in game or in prep) worrying about the random slime in the hallway, but do spend time preparing for the dramatic show-down with the big boss.
Know (and change) the player’s goals
Make sure the players know what their goals are. Frequently combat is simply “defeat all the bad-guys”, but it doesn’t have to be. To spice it up, try changing their goals. Players could worry about defending a base, escorting an NPC, escaping over-whelming forces, or in a race against time. Just make sure that you are communicating to the players that their goal is something different, lest you accidentally kill the party.
Pay attention to the table
This is one of the simplest, but some GMs get so caught up with their charts, notes, and maps, that they forget to just look around at the table. It doesn’t matter how much time you spent lovingly detailing the battle-map and painting the miniatures, if people are sitting there playing on their phones, they’re bored! Wrap it up. Skit, omit, cut or drop as needed. It will pay dividends later when all they remember are the awesome fights you did.
Keep it fast
To avoid the players from being bogged down waiting between turns, focus on keeping combat moving briskly. Don’t let players spend excessive time looking up skills / feats, or rules-lawyering you. While every group has different preferences, even just minimizing down time makes a big difference. Roll damage dice with regular dice, adjudicate quickly, tell the players to know their actions, and keep it moving. A little bit of nudging can vastly speed up a game.
Interact with the environment
Have the kobolds start picking up vases and throwing them at players; have the Ogre pick up a table and hurl it out of the way. Let the ninjas jump across roof-tops or climb walls. Interacting with the environment doesn’t have to be elaborate improvised attacks either. Fighting in a room with statues? Have a bad guy lean against one as they taunt the players. Got a fancy antique table? Let the enemy drag their claws along it. Even in a wrestling ring, the ideal environment, wrestlers still use the ropes and corners for drama. Plus, if the bad-guys start interacting with the environment the players will too. There’s no better example than a kung fu movie how many ways you can do this.
Look, it’s very dramatic in movies when the protagonist runs into a room with 20 ninjas and proceeds to flail away in an awesome whoosh-pow barrage of kung fu. Games aren’t movies. Mobs take a lot of book-keeping, risk over-powering even powerful players, and can seriously bog down combat (see rule #3). Try to avoid using needlessly large mobs. If you can get away with few opponents, better. And if you do insist on using a large mob, consider using something like the minion / mooks / extra rules to minimize the book-keeping and maximize the cool. It’s okay to abstract some here if it makes things awesome.
Vivid sensory description
Remember that fights have lots of sensory information, and that player characters are awesome. Describe the hum of the laser blasts, the smell of the scorched metal from the missed bolts. Don’t let the wizard get away with saying “fireball” and picking up a bucket of dice – describe how the crackling bolt of fire launches through the air, the whump as it explodes, and the reactions of the NPCs. Coming up with description on the fly is intimidating but a simple rule of thumb is sight + one other sense (sound or smell most common, but don’t be afraid to let the players feel the blistering heat from that fire-ball or shiver at the cone of cold that covers the ground in frost). Good, vivid descriptions will get players engaged and let them feel that their character is awesome.
Respect Dramatic Timing
Every fight should have some pacing and important dramatic moments, the feeling of a countdown as tension mounts. If the players are fighting an arch rival, there will be lots of tension as they hurl taunts, get worn down, and there is always the tension of “is this going to be enough to stop them?” Pay attention to those beats around the table, and if it is coming up on a suitable dramatic moment, ere on the side of drama. Did the player, in a last desperate stand, manage to make a critical hit as they lunged across the room? That could end the fight on an awesome note, instead of me noting “well technically he has 3hp left.” Don’t kill the buzz; if what the players did will end the combat on an awesome note, ere with the awesome.
Look, I know your bad-guy is a level 5 wizard with 15 levels of Paladin. You need him to be challenging. You don’t need to know every single spell that the villain knows. It’s not like the villain is going to be using create water in the middle of the fight anyway.
For especially complicated bad guys (Dragons, a Lich, opposing high level wizards, basically any Exalted NPC), sketch out their plan before the fight begins and worry about that. Instead of staring at a huge sheet of spells and determining what they’ll do, instead you have a simple plan with a half-dozen spells that you can work from. Is it completely accurate? No. But we’re not going for accuracy, we’re going for dramatic, dammit.
Sometimes GMs treat fights like they’re in an early Final Fantasy game where the map disappears and we are brought into this sudden fight. You can create more tension for the players if you can foreshadow the fight. Describe the sound of goblin drums in the distance (it worked for LOTR). Show the players scratch-marks in the wall long before they get there. And what player doesn’t get nervous with they see a cavern with webbing on the outside? The more you can foreshadow the fight, the higher the tension when it actually happens.
I have finally finished a solid near-decade long project. I have finally finished the massive Wheel of Time. I originally picked up the first book back in 2007 with the intention of reading influential epic fantasy. And let’s be clear: it is does fulfill the epic scope. With 14 books covering about 4.4 million words (Thanks Wikipedia!), it is massive. Read on to see my musings on just how it stood up.
Look, you didn’t mean to, but it happened. Maybe you had imbibed heavily and still had social media access, maybe you just had a lapse in judgement and shared something you shouldn’t have. Either way, you done fucked up on the internet. It happened, and you’re embroiled in a full social-media snafu. What do you do now?
Well. MAN it has been a hard month, hasn’t it? But I know I should keep writing, even though that feels like it is the last thing I should be worried about. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these goals (and trying to get caught up on my exam studying), so here they are, laid out for everyone to see. It may be hard, but it’s important to keep creating, even when the world is on fire.
It’s become a bit of a yearly tradition to do a post looking back on the state of writing in the prior year. Inspired by a similar post by Brandon Sanderson, it’s a good exercise for me to see just what I’ve accomplished. And boy, this year, it has been a hard challenge. Some drafts of this felt artificial, others rambled for thousands of words. Hopefully this is a bit of a happy medium between the two. As late as it is, I want to get this retrospective out there. Next week, I’ll lay out the goals I’ve set for myself for 2017.
I’ve spent seriously WEEKS fussing over how to kick off 2017 with blog posts. There’s lots of ideas I want to share, points to comment on. Nothing seemed to quite fit, however. And then I realized that, ultimately, the most apropos post could only be a big “Thank you” to social media. Which is, I admit, a bit weird. Let me explain.
I love tabletop role-playing games. I tend to play all sorts of cinematics, over-the-top, character driven games. I’m frequently the DM, and that’s fun because it scratches some of the same itches that writing does – laying out a story, taking my players on a journey, and building suspense until you can execute a climactic scene that’s TOTALLY AWESOME. But I don’t want to talk about any of those things right now, I wanted to start with what I’d like to call a simple golden rule for gaming – it is an absolute must for any tabletop game to succeed.