GMing Lessons #11: How to Make Combats Important

29 Apr GMing Lessons #11: How to Make Combats Important

Have you ever found that sometimes combats can seem to lack punch? They start to seem like “just another combat” that the players have got to get through. “Oh, it’s a goblin encounter, okay,” and then the players go through their well-rehearsed system of blasting the goblins to bits.

I’ve had this happen in high level campaigns, and found that it takes a lot of the interest out of the game. The combats can actually start to seem pretty boring…which is downright weird when you think of it. Combats, in reality, are terrifying experiences that few people ever go through more than a few times in their lives.

So how do you bring a sense of that terror, exhilaration and adrenaline back to your combats?

How do you make combats important?

There are a few ways to do this.

One of the simplest is to play a game where the health base is lower. This makes every combat super dangerous, and so you’ll find each and every one of them is important…because you could die!

But if you don’t want to change systems or mechanics (which is fair enough), how do you bring more interest to your combats – particularly at high levels, where the HP base is higher, and your players are less likely to regularly be in mortal peril?

1) Scarcity

First up, have less of them. You want each combat to be relevant and important. So don’t make them trivial by having so many of them. Just like in economics, the more there is of something, the less valuable it is. How much attention do you pay to grass? I guarantee that if you have loads of it outside, you’ll barely notice it. The same goes for combats.

2) Relevance

The second thing to do is to make each combat mean something. Each combat encounter should have some relevance to the plot, should do something to advance it, and it should matter how it goes down. For instance, if you’re chasing down a suspect and he’s trying to get away with valuable intel, it matters whether they kill him (and lose his info), blow him up (and destroy the intel he’s carrying), or actually catch him. Having unusual and interesting circumstances and objectives will make them think more strategically in each encounter.

Don't Fight Too Many Battles - They Can Get Boring

Killing these guys may be fun for a while…but it’s ultimately kind of boring after the thousandth zombie falls under your bullets.

3) Build Up

The third thing to do is build up to the combat. This can be short or long. But it is a great step for adding suspense. Suspense is basically just an uncertainty as to which of two things will happen. Will they win, or fail? The more you drag out the lead-up to a combat or battle, the more suspense they will feel – and the more intense it will be when it erupts.

For example, one way of doing buildup is to describe their opponents in some detail. You could say, “You’re being pursued by an eagle rider with a lance,” or you could say, “You are being pursued by an eagle rider hunched low in his saddle, a long, white lance held out in front, with a fluttering pennant of a Pegasus on it. You are surprised to notice his armour is of black dragon scales, and seems marked with countless scars and notches.”

Woah. Hang on a second… Did you say Dragon Scale armour? How far away is he? Do I recognise his face? What about his Eagle…is it tough looking?

These are all questions your players may start to ask. This guy is suddenly not just any old Eagle Rider – he’s a character. It will also give you a chance to build him up into a living, breathing person. You could make him someone of importance. Someone that they may see again and again. They may end up talking to this guy, getting a feel for who he is. They will almost certainly want to scope him out a bit to see if they can actually take him.

Related:  ONLY Use Combat to Advance the Story: GMing Tips #24

4) Skip to the Good Bits

It’s almost inevitable that not every combat will be super interesting. Sometimes, particularly as your characters go up level, you will find some combats just aren’t all that relevant and important. They kill a few guards that get in the way, they get involved in a bar fight, etc. Where these are really not important to the plot, and aren’t of any real danger to the players, you should skip through them rapidly. It will take judgement to work out exactly how and when to do this – you don’t want to rob your players of their glory and fun, but if it’s becoming repetitive, try this system for skipping through the combats swiftly and getting to the good bits.

5) Danger

It really goes without saying that danger is the ultimate attention-grabber. If your characters are sure to be in some danger from a combat, they will have their attention glued to it. As mentioned previously, that’s not always possible in high-level campaigns! But when they do come up against a serious opponent, it’s wise to think about making a concerted effort to kill them. Seriously. The bad guys are going to be trying it to the best of their ability, so you might as well let them give it a good crack!

By this I simply mean, make your bad guys dangerous, cunning and intelligent. They’ll throw the whole god-damned tool-box at the pc’s, fighting mean and nasty. Bad guys should be scary… and particularly if you have heeded my earlier advice, when it comes time for them to lay the smack down on the pc’s, it will be an intense battle – not something they are likely to forget for some time.

I hope this helps your games!

-Oliver R. Shead

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