We're Fighting More Than Just Stat Blocks  

Posted by Michael Donaldson in

Having been playing Tabletop RPGs for many years now, the one thing I have seen an excessive amount of is combat scenarios. The vast, vast majority of our statistics are centered around quantifying our character's combat prowess (or lack thereof), and the vast resources available to us allow us to make an almost limitless amount of unique and exciting characters.

So where is the variety in our combat scenarios? (continued after the jump)

As a player, I know that I am most engaged when I am using my brain. Hard fights are engaging to me for this reason - similarly, social and skill encounters that require the players to use their noggin are often times more enjoyable and involve the entire team. I feel as if the one section of good design that often gets left on the wayside is the "goals" of combat.

Why are the players murdering goblins? "Well, because the goblins have the eagle totem of the friendly nomads, that's why," the GM responds. How do the players know when their task is accomplished? This will typically boil down to the players entering the dungeon, killing everything that so much as dares to breathe, and then finding the totem in a chest in the corner of the deepest part of the dungeon. The encounters may very well be designed well - they're balanced, feature challenging and uniquely-built enemies, and carefully crafted terrain. But the end goal, ("Kill the goblins, get the totem") requires little of the players except for APPLY VIOLENCE HERE TO RECEIVE EXP.

I once ran an encounter for my party that took place in an urban setting, where they were holding all of the necessary legal documents for one of the players to become the magistrate of a small town and had ventured to the bureaucratic capital to file them. A hooded hobgoblin rushes past in a blur, snatches the documents, and speeds into an alley. Players immediately roll initiative, and the hobgoblin wins, using his excellent skill checks to quickly scale the side of a building. The bumbling party follows after, some of them prepared and others climbing a ladder on the side of the building at a much lower speed. A chase ensues, with ranged attackers whittling away at an increasingly bloodied hobgoblin who is hopping from building to building and unhooking a grappling hook from his belt. Across the battle-mat, they can see an impossibly long jump and can easily surmise based on the path of the buildings that the hobgoblin will likely escape of the players cannot incapacitate him before that. Players must decide whether or not the risk of falling several stories is worth attempting to follow the nimble thief-acrobat, and know that if he escapes the adventure will go on but their morale will be severely dampened.

The party thinks quickly, and eventually cuts off the hobgoblin, who is forced to use his grappling hook to swing over to one of the closer buildings. As the party desperately gives chase, he attempts the long jump and fails, falling to great personal injury. They used a wide variety of combat and skill checks to defeat him, but the out-of-the-box nature of the fight and the use of urban terrain kept everyone brainstorming on how to stop the hobgoblin from escaping. If they had tried to simply replicate the hobgoblin's actions it is likely that they would have slowly fell behind, as the thief was quite ineffective in combat but quite effective in escape, and essentially an at-CR encounter designed to run away.

When the party is given a clear goal, they will use their brainpower to solve it. When the goal/problem is something they have solved before a thousand times (apply hit-point damage to monsters until they all stop breathing/seething) they will not be as active or engaged in the activity. Spruce it up. The goblin is wearing the totem on his face, for example, and is standing on a hastily constructed rickety bridge over a river. Or, have the party be forced to take the evil cursed sword away from a misguided prince without doing much harm to him. Have the party board a massive airship weapons platform while it rains destruction on the city, and give them the goal of disabling the airship in as few rounds as possible by allowing the airship to destroy something they hold dear every round it still functions.

I'm getting ready to run a new game in a week or two, and the players are all founding members of a nomadic warband of monstrous humanoids. Part of the game mechanics will involve efficiently building their tribe up with powerful warriors - either recruited, or captured - and many of their best potential members will be enemies they face in combat. When attacked by the son of a dangerous warlord and his personal raiding party, they may wish to spare the life of the young ravager - or, kill him as a powerful statement. Simply slaughtering every encounter will quickly lead to unwanted attention coupled with a slow growth, and likely the end of their upstart little tribe. I'm hoping that the lingering promise of ransom, slaves, or additional powerful warriors will help erode the kill-everything mentality and lead to much more engaging and involved combat in almost every encounter.

What do you think? As always, I love to hear your opinions.

This entry was posted on March 19, 2012 at Monday, March 19, 2012 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


You make some very good points here. I think I'll be stealing that hobgoblin encounter for my own campaign. Also, i would love to play in your warband game.

April 28, 2012 at 5:44 PM

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