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.