Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How To Keep Keep Simple Combat Interesting

Oddysey does a great job here of explaining how just because D&D has a lot of rules for combat it doesn't mean it's about combat.

She touches on something which you hear a lot from newies raised on WOTC D&D which is: well isn't combat without all the feats and ninjitsu dull?

Initiative. Roll to hit. Damage. Roll to hit. Damage. Initiative.

No it is not. But, and this caveat goes for all Old School D&D: you have to have a good DM. Oh well.

Let us say you would like to be one of those good DMs? How do you make simple combat interesting?

Get yourself a simple combat-moves system.

Want to trick the catpegasus into charging the wall? I use d10 + stat vs. d10 + target stat. High roll wins. Other people might just use chances on a d6. If you trust your DM to come up with fair chances, these systems are nice and easy and fast. If you do not, do not play role playing games and make gingerbread cookies instead and then mail them to me so that I can eat them while I GM well.

Monsters love grabbing people.

Monsters are the grabbiest!

Roll to hit. Target number is as if for a touch attack or dex-as-(ascending)-ac. Success means target is grabbed. Less damage is done than usual but the target is still grabbed and can be hurt at will next round unless they do something about it.

Or their friends do--which isn't that hard, since their friends should get a +1 or +2 for trying to hit the monster while it is busy trying to rip their paladin in half. Unless it has like 20 arms...

Monsters Love Throwing People

Especially at other people.

Monsters Are Smart

Do your PCs use hit-and-run tactics, heal a lot and shoot from cover? Well so do the goblins.

They also hate your party's cleric above all other foes.

Monsters Are Dumb

Monsters (like players) often don't just sit back, look at their ability scores and go "Hmmmm...what't the most effective attack I could make?" they go "Gah! Shiny man hit Gorg! Gorg mad!"

Just saying, in a combat, "Well since Caroline keeps whaling on him, he's definitely going after her" both adds a little texture to the encounter and reminds the PCs they are acting in a cause-and-effect world.

Try To Use Your Half Of The Combat To Change The Tactical Situation Every Round

There are lots of things you can do that are mechanically identical to roll-to-hit-AC, roll-damage that nevertheless move people around and mix things up. If the bear hits the thief, see if the thief tumbles back and knocks a torch off the wall. Then roll to see if leather armor is flammable. Then roll to see if bears like the smell of cooking thief more than they fear fire.

Make The Tactical Set Up Interesting To Begin With

Pool of water, fireplace, ledge, multiple exits...if you are making a dungeon, put the monsters next to something they or the PCs can use to their advantage.

Use The Die Rolls

Take fumbles and crits and use them to complicate the situation:

If someone rolls a 20 you are totally allowed to go "Ok, hold it, lemme think..." and take a second to imagine that if the vampire was about to bite the ranger and the wizard rolled a 20 to throw the holy water than that probably means the vial of holy water went right into the vampire's mouth and so the vampire has a throat full of holy-water-covered-broken glass going on.

If someone rolls a 1 while charging the lizard man this means s/he's charged right past one, tripped over a lizard tail and landed in the pile of lizard eggs. Oh they are terribly upset now--but they don't want to break the eggs either...

Monsters Make Noises

A strangled gargling sound can go a long way, I find.

If you ever feel like breaking your players' hearts--have Orc A suddenly say Orc B's name as Orc B is dying. The effort-to-effect ratio is staggering.

Fear of Death Is The Mother Of Invention

This is standard OSR cant but it's true: a scared player is a thinking player.

If You Have To Say "No", Explain Why

Sometimes a player has an awesome plan and it should work. Sometimes a player has an awesome plan that is not going to work and why this is so would be clear to their PC.

Explain why it won't work in enough mechanical detail that the parameters of the problem are clear. "We need something stronger than silk, hmmmm...."

Recap Continuously

"Ok, you're grappling the plover, you have one leg in its mouth and you are in the lava" Players are easily confused in the hurly burly of the speedy exchange of blows.

Everybody knows a good DM narrates combat, but remember sometimes you just have to say it all again so that everybody is always in it.

Is It Easier Than Backstabbing?

This is standard: A thief gets +4 to backstab an opponent who doesn't know s/he's there. Basically any bonus that you give players or foes in combat should use this as a baseline: is this easier or harder than backstabbing some goggle-eyed cluelacker?

If You Can Remember It, You Can Have It!

You want to keep things moving.
"Is it d6 or d8, can't remember...."
"Well I'm telling you it's d6 since you didn't write it down"
Next time they'll write it down. In big red letters.

Relax, You Can't Do It All

(DM Energy + DM Attention) Divided By (# Of PCs + # Of foes) is a limiting factor here. Sometimes you just have to go "12? You miss. Next!" and move on to something you can do a little more with.


P.S. Answer to yesterday's Latin American literary mystery is coming, be patient.


  1. If you ever feel like breaking your players' hearts--have Orc A suddenly say Orc B's name as Orc B is dying. The effort-to-effect ratio is staggering.

    I would like to refer readers to this chart:

  2. How about miniatures and terrain? I think there is a time and place, but there are times when the use of one or the other is downright engaging. New and shiney things often catch the players' attention and will inevitably draw their attention to the middle of the table and, therefore, to the battle at hand.

  3. @Ozreth

    I figure a DM is either going to use minis because they have them and like them or isn't because they don't, I don't think it's across-the-board-good (or bad) advice to say "use minis" or "don't use minis". I've done both many times.

  4. Great post, very useful and inspiring!

  5. @Zak

    Good point, I guess the above points you made would be had to argue against, whereas miniatures and terrain can have a strong case against them.

    Anyways, good stuff!

  6. Excellent post! Another thing I do - which I copied from Tavis Allison - is requiring players to make graphic descrptions of their crits and lethal hits. This often leads to kooky stuff happening with monster fluids, body parts, emotions, etc. Sometimes this can end up playing a substantive role in the outcome of the combat. I also try to keep things fast and tense by not allowing players to liesurely discuss strategy - they have to move, role, and scream!

  7. I give almost every monster I use two things it can do in the fight. The simplest version is "attack with a sword" and "attack with a bow", but it might as complex as "Everyone makes saving throws or they're paralysed and poisoned as it sprays gunk around it" and "It injects its leech babies into you, take 3d6 damage and make a saving throw against leeches inside you".

    I find that two abilities allows the monster to alternate tactics between rounds and keeps things interesting, without being overwhelming or confusing for players. It also keeps me from loading on tons of irrelevant junk, so monster concepts stay clear and simple and easily visualised (leeches in exoskeletons, krakens who are shoggoths; wights painted white; Voldo but dead and blue; an astronaut with a laser gun and grenades).

  8. *Excellent* post. I'm going to print it out and stick it to my screen.

    This will be old hat for Zak, but:

    Monsters may have overriding motivations that are bigger than the current fight. Maybe those goblins are fighting so hard to get past your group because something worse is chasing them. Maybe they're pulling back not so they can draw the group into a trap (although that is a timeless family classic), but so they can get around the group and go somewhere else to do something completely different. For many groups, the monsters may want to be in the fight much less than the PCs do.

  9. Thinking back to a Nicodemus session, I remember hoping the FleshGiants would fumble and I could put one of their massive swords through the front of one of the overhanging stone balconies, thus showering balustrade chunks on the group. In retrospect, I should have just done it, rather than waiting for a 1 to come up.

    Hopefully, though it was a lengthy combat for OD&D, it was still entertaining.

  10. I find the AD&D open doors d6 and bend bars/lift gates d% checks can be used for all kinds of stuff in combat. Knocking someone back or grappling them - open doors. Grappling an ogre - bend bars.

    The important thing is not to make it an opposed check based on the monster's stats - monsters don't have stats. :)

  11. @S'mon

    I am amazed and baffled that you have the capacity to decide a bugbear is basically like a door but not the ability to decide he has a 16 strength.

  12. "Monsters are the grabbiest!" made me smile.

    You forgot that monsters love hitting people with other people, over and over and over again. one attack for twice the damage.

  13. Well played, Zak. This is all good, and the kind of thing I was trying to get at in this post, but you said it much better.

  14. I'm pretty sure I fought some Goggle-Eyed Cluelackers near the Moathouse one time. That DM had the weirdest wandering monster charts.

  15. awesome. Printed for my tonite session :-)

  16. The only reasonable thing to do when confronted with a name like Goggle Eyed Cluelackers is to work up a monster.