GM Lessons #1: How to Run the Most Epic Combats Ever

10 May GM Lessons #1: How to Run the Most Epic Combats Ever

Laverenii Berserker vs Direwolf - Immersion RPGI’m sure you’ve watched a movie before today, and seen some epic combat in it, where the guys are smashing the hell out of each other, using lots of different moves, using the environment, and generally making an epic mess of the area.

And like any hard-core gamer you probably thought about gaming, and how to make your combats as screamingly intense as that (or at least, I hope you did)! You want it fast, intense, blood-pumping and different.

This is a far cry from the MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online) that are around these days, such as World of Warcraft and quite a number of other computer games, where the combats seem mostly to be a matter of standing in front of each other and trading damage. Where’s the dynamism in that?

Pen and Paper RPGs can tend to be like this too unfortunately. And whilst the GM can spice it up with awesome descriptions (“Your sword describes a brilliant arc as you smash into his shield, battering him back for 7 HP”), it can still start to seem a little…pale.

It’s sort of like, whichever way the GM describes it, the situation you’re in plays very little role in the actual fighting. Of course, you can be on your back, or behind a wall or something, and most games have rules for this. But in real fighting, even when you’re standing face-to-face and trading blows, it’s never like hitting a punching bag. No way. You’re both moving too fast, and the attacks are way too dangerous for that.

It’s far more likely to be like this:
Bernard comes sweeping in for a haymaker, which glances off Bill’s head, because he was weaving in close. He swings back with a vicious hook to the body, which with his proximity is impossible for Bernard to avoid. Bernard twists even as more blows rain in, one of which splatters his nose. He can barely see through tears and wants to kick Bill, but he’s too close, so he grabs Bill’s head and knees upwards with all his strength, thumping directly into Bill’s face and knocking him out cold.

This is what I like to call a “Dynamic Combat.” It has a life of its own. The situation is changing from moment to moment, and the way the combat is playing out is playing a huge role in what each person will then do. In fact, the way I play it, it plays a big role in game mechanics too.

Here’s another example, with a bit of game mechanics thrown in:

The woods resounded with a scream as the last two Logros T’arn came barreling towards Ithorial. To the front he saw a long-shafted spear with a rusted head and from behind a heavy hand axe. To stand was to die. He was weary, but he lunged forwards, taking the fight to them. The spear-armed Logros was the most dangerous, and so he tried to close with him fast, to get inside the range of his spear and cut him down. But the spear was ready, the Logros skidding to a halt at the last instant. Ithorial had no time to stop and exchange blows. He could smell the rancid breath of the second beast behind him. He had to take the lunge.
He stepped forwards, two hands on the bastard sword – then at the last instant, changed to a single-handed grip, twisting his body and extending to full reach. It was weaker this way, without both hands to create a hacking blow – but it gave him enough reach to lunge over the Logros T’arn’s formidable spear. The point of that pigsticker jabbed his leather cuirasse – but it was only the surprise jerk of the beast as Ithorial’s blade pierced its throat.
Triumph welled in Ithorial’s heart. He ripped the blade free, spinning to chop down the second Logros T’arn – but was an instant too late. The beast was already inside his guard, arms spread for a bone-crunching tackle.
Ithorial dropped the blade and grabbed his dagger even as the beast grabbed him and smashed him to the ground, knocking all the air from his lungs. But no so stunned that he could not draw the blade and slash it across the Logros’ face. The beast fell back screaming, and Ithorial rolled to his feet. Where was his sword?! There! Directly in between them both.
The beast looked up. It, too, saw the sword. And both lunged for it.

This is a Dynamic Combat. And sure, it’s a novelised description, but it’s how games can be played. Ithorial wins Initiative but the Narrator (GM) deems that he doesn’t have the range the strike the spear-armed Logros T’arn with a two-handed strike. He could parry the spear aside, using an action, or he could use his blade one-handed for a desperate stab. So he chooses that. Then, just as he turns around the other one’s already there. It did really well on its Athletics roll to close with him, so it’s too close for his sword strike. Instead he goes for his knife, and has a good grip on it when the hit the ground in the next round – even getting to slash the thing and drive it back.

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The best way to do this is for the Narrator to have a fairly good idea of how the combat is going from a dramatic point of view. Basically, it’s a movie and you’re making it into a good, exciting scene. Don’t worry about hexes or absolutely precise movements – life isn’t exact like that anyway. Just work out what’s happening, tell the players, and make it a dramatic movie. Then you can make the combats dynamic by making small changes as you go. The fight spills onto a floor, which incidentally gets covered in marbles… well, make them make an Athletics check to stop themselves stacking it. It also means they can’t move fast, and have penalties to attack and strike – and are falling over at terrible moments.

It’s also a great Narrator trick to decide that something dramatic happens. This usually means it gets more difficult for the player! Something happens that means his standard attack won’t work. He has to try something different. Or, a certain attack (like a kick) will get a bonus, due to the other person’s position (trust me, gamers love to be able to boot someone off a ledge, or knock them flying with greater than normal ease).

Too Much of a Good Thing

There can be too much detail too, and that gets onerous really quickly. Basically, the Narrator is giving rules for everything for the sake of being “absolutely accurate,” and making the game slow down. To do this is really missing the point. Don’t get too involved with the rules. Look at the story, the dramatic situation that is unfolding, and then work out something based off that. Don’t start being picky with it!

The whole idea is to make the game fast, dynamic and ridiculously intense. And to do this, you should make sure you look at the story and the characters rather than the rules.

So try some Dynamic Combats in your next game, and let me know your feedback. I can’t really vouch for how it will go in all systems, as not all systems will reward your players for using a chair leg as a makeshift weapon, or for scooping up a pencil to jab into someone’s eye (nice!). Immersion RPG has been designed with such a loose, intense combat system in mind, as well as being set on characters rather than combat (even though combat is heaps of fun, who cares about it when you don’t care whether the characters live or die?).

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That’s all for now. Keep up the gaming!

Oliver R. Shead

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