Letâs not waste a lot of time with long-a$&, rambling introductions. I’ve written about handing actions, running basic encounters, building basic encounters, and social interaction. So, itâs time to wade into a topic very near and dear to the shriveled blackened chest-nugget that passes for my heart: combat encounters. As isÂ sort of standard for me, Iâm going to break this down into two parts. The first part is all the bulls$&% conceptual garbage that will equip you to RUN better combats. The second part is the nitty gritty, hands on, grease monkey stuff about BUILDING better combats.
Now Part 1, thatâs this article, is going to be a little bit different. Instead of teaching you a bunch of neat s$&% to help you run better combats, Iâm going to take a drill sergeant approach. No, I donât mean Iâm going to scream insults at you because that helps you learn (I do that in ALL of my articles). I mean that Iâm going to be breaking down a lot of stuff you THINK you know. Because youâre wrong, maggot. You donât know jack about s$&% when it comes to combat. See how this works? Good, now drop and give me twenty.
Also, two disclaimersâŚ
Disclaimer Numero Uno: Iâm going to say a lot of unkind things about combat encounters. Partly for hyperbolic shock value (like I do), but mostly because the things I am going to say are true and I am force for truth and goodness, dammit, and I will beat anyone unconscious if they say otherwise. But you might walk away thinking I hate combat. And that would be a damned dirty lie. I LOVE combat. I love fight scenes. I love action. I love grids and minis and tactics and strategies and all that stuff. Thatâs why I play D&D. Thatâs why I stuck out D&D 4E so long – it had a great f$&%ing combat engine. I love combat. But if you want to run combat well, you canât have any illusions. I mean, itâs okay to love chocolate-covered bacon, but you canât pretend that s$&% wonât kill you. So, donât assume I hate combat just because Iâm going to be mean and nasty to it.
Also, I donât hate narrative combat. Just as a side note. If you want to run less tactically precise fights without a grid or cool cinematic battles without minis and counting squares, everything Iâm going to say still holds true. I run fights like that too. But so help me, if you call it âtheater of the mindâ combat, I will beat you to death with a copy of John Greenâs âThe Fault in Our Stars.â I hate that pretentious bulls$&% phrase.
Disclaimer Numero Dos: At some point, a few paragraphs from now, Iâm going to recommend a game that is of the sort that I am generally very down about. It is, in some ways, one of those bulls$&% story-gamey narrative player agency wankfests. But, if you get past that, it is actually a brilliant minimalist deconstruction of ALL role-playing games. Now, Iâm not going soft. Iâm not going to run campaigns in it or anything like that. Watchmen was a interesting movie to see, but it isnât the be-all and end-all of superhero movies. So, donât think youâre losing to me all the Fate and Numanuma and Fiasco and Dread bulls$&% and Iâm eventually going to tell you all to play Amber Diceless RPG without a GM. Just trust me, okay?
Now, disclaimers done. Long-a$& intro averted. On with the article.
Angryâs Three Shocking Facts About Combat Encounters
Everything Iâm about to tell you, everything you need to know to run less worse combat encounters, everything in this article and the next one; it is all predicated on three important facts. And youâd better prepare yourself because these facts are going to shock the f$&% out of you. I suggest you remove both your hat and your socks because either or both may potentially be blown off and cause serious injury. Ready?
- Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 1: There is no such thing as a combat encounter.
- Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 2: Even if there were such a thing as a combat encounter, rules for combat encounters are completely unnecessary.
- Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 3: Even if there were such a thing as a combat encounter and even if the rules for combat encounters were actually necessary, you should avoid using them whenever possible.
Okay, calm down. Remember what I said in the first disclaimer. I love combat, I love tactical combat, Iâm not ruining your game. Relax. Breathe for a moment. Then read on and weâll break it down.
Thereâs No Such Thing as a Combat Encounter
If youâve read my previous articles about encounters, you actually already know that thereâs no such thing as a combat encounter. You just donât realize that you know it. The reason lies in the definition of an encounter which I spelled out in Four Things Youâve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck. In that article, I explained that an encounter was a scene in the game that begins with the posing of a dramatic question (basically a goal), that ends when that question is answered (the players either achieve their goal or fail to), and that contains one or more sources of conflict that lie between the players and their goals. Go read that article if you havenât. Otherwise nothing else here is going to make sense.
But what is a combat? Itâs a fight, right? A battle, a fracas, a skirmish, a melee, a brouhaha, right? But what really is it? Well, a combat is a form of conflict resolution utilizing violence. Force. Do you see the problem?
A combat is not an encounter. An encounter has a goal, and an end point, and contains one or more sources of conflict. Combat is conflict resolution. It happens when the players actually play out the encounter and either the PCs or the monsters (or both) resort to violence to resolve the conflict. Thereâs no such thing as a combat encounter because a combat is NOT a complete encounter. Itâs missing s$&%. Utterly necessary s$&%. And I actually hinted at this back in that article when I pointed out that many DMs and published adventures donât spend any time figuring out WHY a battle is happening and WHAT both sides want out of it. So it defaults to a murderfest. Two sides end up in the same place and just slaughter each other.
And there are at least two problems with thinking about combat as an encounter, rather than as something that happens within an encounter. First, it means you (the DM) are not open to non-combat solutions the players might propose. If you design a combat encounter, there is, sure as hell, gonna be a fight. The players can try to negotiate or flee or sneak past or surrender or bluff, but damn it, you presented a combat and a combat it will be. In fact, most DMs open combats unambiguously with an act of hostility. âThe goblins snatch up their weapons, scream a battle cry, and charge! Roll initiative.â And the thing is, you could step back one moment in time and give the players a chance to forestall that charge easily enough. âThe goblins see your approach and begin moving to grab their weapons, what do you do?â That extra moment tells the players âhey, you have a second to keep this from turning into a fight if you want to.â
The second problem is that, when you think of combat as the encounter, youâre unwilling to end the encounter until the combat itself ends. Again, in Four Things, I mentioned the danger of letting an encounter drag on too long. Truth is, an encounter might actually be over before the combat ends and that âmop up phaseâ where people are no longer willing to spend resources because theyâve already won or accomplished their goal, that gets boring. Â And even if the encounter, the conflict, canât end until everything on one side is dead (zombies donât tend to surrender or run away, for example), that doesnât mean the encounter canât end. âYou dispatch the remaining two zombies with haste and move on.â Those pointless wasted rounds you save, they can add up to an extra exciting encounter every session.
The point is that once you recognize that combats are not encounters, but instead are just one way that conflicts within encounters get resolved, you give your players more freedom and you empower yourself to cut out boring s$&% from your game. And thatâs just the start. But weâll come back to that. Because now, letâs move on to the next shocking fact.
Combat Rules are Unnecessary
Letâs talk, for a moment, about the chapter in every f$&%ing RPG called âCombat.â Actually, letâs talk about one RPG from which that chapter is conspicuously absent (and remember the second disclaimer, because here it is). Letâs talk about Dungeon World.
If you havenât played or run Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel you really need to at least once. The game itself is pretty bog standard in terms of the stories it tells. Youâve got your standard D&D classes having standard D&D adventures in a standard D&D setting. You know the type. But the game is a brilliant study in how RPGs are put together on the fundamental level. In fact, the core mechanic of every RPG that every RPG just assumes players and GMs can handle (present a situation, player decides how to respond, resolve action, repeat) is firmly encoded in the system in a way that makes it completely impossible to f$&% up. Likewise, the basic rules of when to roll dice (when failure and success are both possible and when the outcome will actually mean something) are also hard-coded into the system. If you polished up the presentation of Dungeon World, you would have a perfect tool to teach new GMs how to run any RPG. I firmly believe that running a few sessions of Dungeon World will make you a better GM at whatever your go-to game happens to be.
But whatâs most interesting is whatâs missing from Dungeon World: the combat chapter. And thatâs the part I want to talk about.
So, what do you generally have in that stupid combat chapter? We have rules for taking turns, we have an action economy, we often get rules for how to resolve attacks, and we have rules for handling injuries and death. Right? Thatâs combat. But whatâs interesting is that by calling out combat in its own chapter and by spelling out those things that apply only to combats, you create what I like to call the Combat Swoosh Problem.
Did you ever play one of those Japanese role-playing video games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior/Quest? Remember how youâre walking along and suddenly the screen flashes and whooshes and youâre in a different screen and facing a bunch of monsters and now youâre playing a different game? Youâre playing a turn-based battle. Contrast that with something like the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In that game, thereâs no delineation between combat and not-combat. Your character can swing a sword, do a dragon scream, cast a spell, drink a potion, or eat a cheese wedge anytime. The rules donât change just because youâre in a fight. And you can start a fight anytime just by whacking someone with your sword or blasting them with a fireball.
Rolling initiative is the Combat Swoosh of D&D. It signals that now weâre playing a different game and everything works differently.
EXCEPT IT F$&%ING DOESNâT! THATâS A LIE!
And Dungeon World proves that. Dungeon World doesnât have initiative. It doesnât have a special action economy. Nothing changes when a fight breaks out. And when you run Dungeon World for someone who was raised on D&D, it blows their f$&%ing mind. Itâs fantastic.
How does that work?
Think back to any other scene in the game that isnât a combat. Letâs say the PCs pick up the gold idol and suddenly the temple rumbles and starts to collapse. âWhat do you do,â the DM says urgently. âIâll hold my shield over my head and flee for the exit,â yells Alice, playing the fighter. âOkay,â says the DM, âyou make it to the doorway. What about you Bob?â âI flee after Alice, but I donât have anything to protect me.â âUh oh, make a Reflex save!â âFourteen.â âYou get clonked on the head, take five damage and end up sprawled on the floor.â Carol says, âIâll dash over to Bob and get an arm around him and help him flee for the exit. My shield spell is still working. Hopefully it will protect us.â And so on.
Now, compare that to scene where the players enter a room and thereâs nothing immediately threatening. The DM describes the room and then what happens? Alice say something like âIâm going to move toward the open doorway on the far side and watch out for trouble.â Then Bob says âIâm going to examine the treasure chest. I think it might be trapped.â And Carol says âIâm going to check out that statue. Do I recognize the runes?â And the DM responds with âAlice, you donât see anything coming, but you stand at the ready. Give me a Perception check. Bob, you search the chest. Give me a Search check. Carol, you donât recognize the runes.â
Notice how, in both of those scenes, the game settles into a natural rhythm. Thereâs no explicit turn order and no defined action economy, but those things are still happening. The DM manages the pace of the scene and everyone bounces from decision point to decision point, which establishes a sort of action economy. You can do a thing. Then weâll resolve it. And you or someone else can do a thing afterwards.
Dungeon World simply says âthatâs how the game flows, we donât need to impose anything special on the game just because there is a fight.â And it doesnât. And it works just fine. Now, the structure of the game itself helps the GM set the appropriate pace, but a skilled GM wouldnât even need that.
And I kid you not, you could totally run a D&D combat without bothering to roll for initiative. The first person who wants to act, let them act. Then, bounce the action to a bad guy. Maybe the bad guy the PC attacked. Or another PC instead. Shotgun the actions around, and just keep it up. Hell, you can give the players the control over the initiative as I did with Popcorn InitiativeÂ and not break a damned thing.
As for attack rolls and damage rolls, people get so caught up in attack rolls and damage rolls and try to impose them on everything. I had a group of players the other night, in a D&D game, confused by the fact that, when they sneaked up on a group of sleeping opponents, I let them just kill them automatically. No attack roll. No coup de grace bulls$&%. Just âyeah, they’re dead.â They made their rolls to sneak. That was enough.
Why? Because attack rolls and damage rolls are there to resolve a specific action: trying to kill someone who is in a position to defend themselves. Itâs kind of like a Climb check. I wouldnât ask for a Climb check for you get onto a horse because, even though there is a similarity between that and climbing, thatâs not what Climb is meant to resolve. An attack roll is meant to resolve the combat action of trying to kill someone with a weapon while there is some chance he could defend himself.
Now, am I suggesting you do away with all of the combat rules of D&D? No. Of course not. But what you have to understand is that they donât override the other rules of the game. Everything else that is possible in D&D is still possible in combat. Any creative, clever use of skills, actions, tools, whatever. Ability checks, saving throws, knowledge checks, all of that crap. None of it goes away. And more importantly, all of the higher level rules, the metarules, still apply. Those rules about the DM describing the situation, the player deciding how to act, the DM deciding if a die roll is warranted and what roll to use, the DM presenting the outcome, and the DM asking for the next action. Those all still apply. You still need them.
The combat chapter of the rule book is an overlay. It applies a structure to the game. It puts things in order. But it doesnât change any of the other rules. And you could throw the structure away and wing it and D&D would still work fine.
Weâll come back to why this is important to understand too. Because we have one more shocking fact to explain.
Avoid Using the Combat Rules Whenever Possible
I realize this is the most controversial thing Iâm going to say: always look for opportunities to throw the combat rules out (initiative, action economy, and so on). Because, the fact is, they are pretty limited. They donât work particularly well except in very specific situations (remember the disclaimer, I love combat, stay calm). Specifically, they work well in pitched battles between two roughly equal forces (you know, within a few levels and roughly equally sized). Thatâs it.
Look, you donât try to turn everything in the game into a Strength check. You donât try to turn everything in the game into an Interaction scene. You use the Strength check when a Strength check is what you need. And use Interaction scenes when there is actually an interaction. For that matter, you donât roll the f$&%ing dice just because a person does a thing. You need the possibility of success, the possibility of failure, and risks or consequences that make it matter. Right?
So donât try to turn everything into a combat just because you have two forces using violence against each other. If you can get away with not using the combat rules and end up with a scene that is just as good (or better), donât use them. And that goes for even partial things, like initiative. Iâve seen some DMs use initiative rolls in social interaction scenes to keep things going in some kind of order. And thatâs terrible. Those DMs need to stop it. Because initiative order is inherently constraining. Especially in something like an open conversation. How do people jump in and support other peopleâs points? What if they have nothing useful to say when their turn comes up? Why impose that structure instead of just, as a DM, managing the pace.
Always always always ask yourself whether you really have a combat meant to be handled by the combat rules before you ask for initiative rolls. Try to put off the initiative roll as long as possible. And try to drop out of the combat rules as soon as you can. Your game will simply be better.
Putting the Three Facts into Practice
Whew! I wrote a lot of words, huh? And you probably think Iâm all done and youâre saying âthat Angry DM is a genius! I sure am I glad I relaxed and listened to what he had to say and I look forward to running less worse games! Thank you, sir!â Well, shut up, private! Iâm not done yet. And donât you call me sir. I work for a living.
Iâm going to give you a few takeaways now. A few tips and ideas that grow out of a good understanding of these rules. Some of them will be a little longer than brief, but they will be worth it. So read on. And come back in two weeks for Part 2 where we will talk about actually building good combat scenes which I know is the part you really want.
When Someone Tells You To Have Alternate Goals, They Donât Understand Combat
Iâm going to start by debunking a piece of s$&% advice that I see repeated a lot online. People will tell you âinclude alternate goals in your combat other than just âkilling everybody.ââ This is a well-intentioned piece of advice, but it is utter horses$&% because it actually shows a lack of awareness of the first shocking fact. Combat does not have a goal. Combat is something that happens when two forces find their goals are in conflict and decide to resolve it with murder. The PCs want to explore the tomb, the zombies want to kill all living things that enter the tomb. Conflict. The PCs want to rescue the captive, the goblins want to defend their home. Conflict. Ignore this advice. You no longer need it. Just make sure you know why the conflict is happening and the âalternate goalsâ will handle themselves.
Combat Outs: Because People Donât Understand How Combat Ends Either
Another piece of crappy advice that has been circulating for some time is âbuild a way out of combat so the players can end a fight early if they want to.â There is a LOT wrong with that statement. But it comes down to a misunderstanding about how combat ends. The idea behind the advice is to create some sort of action the players can take to end the fight. Mangalores wonât fight without a leader. If the PCs can sound the Horn of Triumph, the goblins will flee in terror. If the party can activate the shrine of magicalness, the elementals will all be banished. And so on.
Now, having situations like that isnât inherently bad. Itâs cool sometimes to build that sort of thing into a fight. I support it if it is part of the story, especially if it rewards the players for clever thinking, solving problems, or exploring the world. But I do have a problem with the phrase âending combat early.â It implies that combat is supposed to last for a certain amount of time. And thatâs just f$&%ing insane.
Now, I realize that D&D (and games like it) are built around balanced challenges. The numbers in D&D work out so that you can expect a combat of challenge level X to last for Y number of rounds and expend Z percent of the partyâs resources. And thatâs fine to know. Thatâs a helpful adventure planning tool (if you want to use it). But that doesn’t mean every combat MUST last Y round and cost Z resources, nor does it mean every encounter must be of challenge X. Itâs just the way the game is presented that makes it FEEL that way sometimes.
In truth, a given battle can only end in one of three ways:
- The heroes are incapable of continuing the fight (because, for example, they are dead)
- The enemies are incapable of continuing the fight (because, for example, they are dead)
- Both sides are unwilling to continue the fight
Thatâs it. Those are the only ways a battle can end. Either one side is dead or disabled or critically injured or teleported to another plane or whatever and canât keep fighting or both sides have decided the fight is over. And it has to be both sides.
Suppose one side decides, for example, they are done with the fight. They are giving up. They surrender. But the other side (perhaps zombies) do not accept their surrender and instead continue fighting. Well, the side that surrendered can either defend itself or die. Now you might say âoh ho, what if one side simply flees.â And I will say âyou are not as smart as you think you are.â
See, if one side flees, the other side has to be willing to let them escape or be incapable of catching them and continuing the fight. So, if the PCs flee and the goblins donât pursue or give up the pursuit, both sides basically agreed the fight was over. Otherwise, if the goblins canât keep up, the goblins were unable to continue the fight even though they wanted to and the fight is over. If the goblins do keep up, the fight continues.
But thatâs it. Thatâs the only way battles end. A battle will continue as long as both sides are willing and able to continue the fight.
The Most Important Decision DMs Never Make
Speaking of goals and how combat ends, letâs talk about the one decision DMs always forget to make. At the start of every round of combat, each creature on the battlefield needs to ask itself âam I going to continue fighting this round?â The reason most DMs fail to make this decision is because they donât think about why the fight is happening and what the monsters want and all that crap I already talked about. But by not making that decision, the DM removes one of the three ways the fight can end. Namely, the DM makes it impossible for both sides to agree to stop fighting before one side is destroyed.
Now, once upon a time, there was a thing called morale. It was a system of random dice rolls that determined when a monster was no longer willing to fight. And Iâve seen people call for its return and Iâve seen people design new morale systems. These people need to be stopped. Find them and beat them with a Rolemaster book until they stop. We donât need die rolls for morale!
Look, you make every other decision for your monsters, right? You decide what tactics they use and who they attack and where they move. And now that Iâve told you all that other crap, youâre never again going to run a battle without knowing what the monsters want and why they are fighting. So you donât need a morale system.
But, every round, you need to look at each creatureâs situation and decide if that creature is willing to stick out the fight. Does that goblin think it can win? Is it willing to die trying? Does it have an opportunity to slip away? Will it cower and beg for its life? And you need to use your better judgement, common sense, and understanding of the creature. Hobgoblins are more disciplined and militaristic than goblins. Most animals wonât die trying to obtain food, but they will die defending their young. Mindless undead wonât flee, but a ghoul might drag away a disabled or unconscious PC to eat while the other ghouls keep fighting. Itâs just one of those decisions that you need to make for every creature every round.
Now, I know some of you are going to point out that players are monsters and will often cut down fleeing foes. And thatâs fine. I had a group of players not too long ago insist on murdering a predatory giant bird that took a few hits and decided the party wasnât a good meal. Thatâs fine. But thatâs the playersâ call to make. Your call is how to play the monster in the first place. Eventually, if the players see enough creatures give up and donât come back to haunt them, theyâll start letting them get away. Especially if they know the get the XP anyway.
Zombie Hordes, Colossal Giants, and Avoiding the Combat Rules
Let me tell you a story.
A few weeks ago on Twitter, someone looked at the cover of the D&D 5E PHB that depicts a tiny human fighting an absolutely huge-ass giant. Like, the giant could probably swallow the human. And the Twitter person (sadly, I donât remember who and Iâm too lazy in this case to scroll back through my long, looooonnnnggg feed to find them), said âwhen are we going to be able to actually play out scenes like that in D&D?â And I said âwhen people realize the combat rules donât apply to s$&% like that.â Because the D&D combat rules really only work when two forces of roughly equal power level are going at each other. The bigger the mismatch, the more the abstractions in the rules ruin the scene.
For example, imagine tenth level PCs facing down a horde of fifty zombies, each with half a challenge level or whatever. Maybe they are guarding a town gate. Right? Iâd love for my game to have that scene. And it doesnât really strain my credulity. Gimli, Will Turner, and Viggo basically won the battle of Helmâs Deep or Minas Tirith or whatever. But could you imagine trying to run that in a standard D&D combat? Itâd be boring as hell! And depending on the edition, the zombies would pose practically no threat at all. Itâd be boring and low stakes. Which is why Iâd run it narratively. I wouldnât try to impose combat rules and an action economy on it. Iâd handle it more freeform. Let the players wade through a few zombies with each good hit, donât roll for damage, just assume a hit kills, give the zombies a few attacks in response to every action the players take, and so on. Itâd be a f$&%ing awesome scene.
By the same token, look at the cover of the PHB. Go on, explain to me how a fighter is going to run up to that thingâs ankle and make any sort of useful attack in the standard sense of an attack. At the same time, the giantâs size and bulk start to work against it. Most of the time, itâs going to be reacting to the PCs, waiting for them to provide opportunities to stomp them, grab them, throw them, shake them off, etc. Again, putting that in the standard combat encounter rules makes it way less cool. And it doesnât make whole bunches of narrative sense. At that point, youâre just following the mechanical rules because the idea of a halfling plunging a rapier into the flank of a dragon the size of a yacht and having any actual effect is patently ridiculous. You need a Shadow of the Colossus type setup. Or Dragonâs Dogma. Narrative coolness. Not combat rules.
Another thing the initiative rules and action economy donât handle well is evasion and retreat. On the rare occasions when the party tries to get away from something, especially if they go for a fighting withdrawal, they end up tripping over the action economy and the turn order. It becomes an impediment. And DMs rarely seem to want to drop the initiative order once the party has agreed to flee and run things more narratively. And because the players canât see a good plan for retreat that works within the combat rules, they end up never retreating, no matter how much trouble they are in. And if the players actually recognize the amount of trouble they are in and flee, they are probably in a total-party kill situation. Players are really thick-headed about recognizing emergencies.
Once you recognize that the combat rules are utterly optional and they only work when you have two mostly equal forces, you realize how easy it is to drop out of them whenever you want to or need to or whenever it is just cooler to do so. So, the moment you find yourself in a situation where the combat rules donât work or werenât meant to work, drop them. Get out of initiative order, run things narratively, shotgun the turn order however makes the most sense, and go with your gut. Youâll run better fights.
And thatâs ultimately what all of this s$&% is about, right? Running better fights. If you can run a better game by breaking the rules – any of the rules – do it! Or else youâre in this for the wrong reasons.
Now, come back here in two weeks and Iâll tell you how actually build better fights.