|Art by Wayne Reynolds|
A new year, a new series. Rule of Three is a gamemasery advice series where I tackle a specific topic by presenting three tips and tricks for handling it at the game table.
I feel like I have a confession to make, something that will sound like blasphemy to some of you. However, for me to properly discuss this topic, I have to do this.
I find combat in roleplaying games incredibly boring.
Before you start calling for me to burn at the metaphorical (at least, I hope it's metaphorical) stake as a roleplaying heretic, let me defend myself. I enjoy a good combat encounter just as much as the next player, but I'm very rarely enthralled by them as much as I am by straight roleplaying scenes.
However, this is mostly due to game masters designing and running combat encounters that are devoid of anything interesting or unique, coming off as lifeless, mechanical bouts. Thankfully, I have a handful of tips you can utilize when writing and running combat encounters. Just remember, these are not rules to cling to, but guidelines to help you. Just keep them in the back of your mind when writing your session notes and running the encounters at the table. They've helped me and I'm sure they'll help some of you too.
#1. MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS TO EVERY ENCOUNTER
I know it might sound weird, but combat should not be the one and only solution in a combat encounter. Instead, consider alternate ways for your players to tackle each encounter. For example, your players are traveling down a country road and stumble upon an overturned wagon. You know this wagon is a trap laid out by a small group of bandits who are hiding among the trees that line each side of the road. The players could handle this situation in so many ways, from straight out fighting the bandits, to reasoning with them and striking up a deal to let them go, to even possibly evading the encounter entirely due to some quick scouting by the party's ranger. Allowing your players to defeat encounters with non-combat solutions will help make said encounter feel more three dimensional and will makes the players feel like they actually have an effect on the situation.
#2. HAVE OPPONENTS ACT INTELLIGENTLY
When running your NPCs, have them act in an intelligent & logical manner. You could have the bandits simply rush the players in the above example, fighting them to the death, but that's not interesting. Instead, you could have the bandits ambush the players, using simple hit & run tactics. When they realize they are overwhelmed and will most likely die, have them run away and use the archers they left in the trees to distract the players so they can escape. This makes the bandits much more interesting opponents, acting with some sense of intelligence and helps make the encounter more memorable.
#3 ADD FLAVOR EVERY CHANCE YOU GET
This might seem obvious, but you will be surprised how many times I've seen a GM give very little flavor to the NPCs and the setting of the encounter. You might have something simple like "the PCs stumble upon six orcs camping within the mouth of a small cave" written in your notes, but you need to give it so much more life at the table. Maybe those orcs worship the god of slaughter, scooping up an opponent's blood and spreading it across their faces each time they land a critical hit, attempting to demoralize the opponents still standing. Maybe you describe the mouth of the cave looking a little unstable, meaning the players could cause it to collapse onto the orcs before they even noticed them, maybe the orc leader actually follows a cruel warrior's code and will surrender if reduced to a certain number of hit points, respecting the players' strength and letting them pass unharmed because they managed to best him. However, he mentions the next time they meet he'll be looking for a rematch. These are just a few ideas that came right off the top of my head, and if you put your mind to it, I believe you can do the same.
Designing interesting combat encounters might seem like a daunting task, but it's actually rather easy. Just remember these three simple tips and I believe you'll be creating and running encounters that are much more unique and entertaining in no time.