GMing Lessons #12: Running Dynamic Combats

11 May GMing Lessons #12: Running Dynamic Combats

I had an amazing game last night, and it really inspired me to write some more about Dynamic Combats.

We were playtesting our epic fantasy game Myths of Khoralla, and shit just got real. To cut a long story short, our hero ends up finding himself confronted with a black, gnarly, scarred-up old dragon. It’s not big… for a dragon. It’s about twenty feet long, seven foot at the shoulder, all sinewy and scrawny, with small wings… but it’s still a gods-cursed dragon. In an ancient, immense catacomb.

Dynamic Combats can be brutal - Immersion RPG

See how the old manuscripts depict fighting? Looks like more than just “chopping” eh! Funny enough, because plate armour was so protective, they could grab blades… and often used the hilts as “bashy weapons.”

So what’s he do?

The crazy bastard attacks it! 

So this is where things got interesting. Because after his initial attempt to blind it with a blaze of light from his sword, he dives out of the way of its lunging bite (only just avoiding becoming so much sashimi) and lands in front of it.

But now… he’s got a problem. He’s got a fairly short-bladed sword. It’s extra sharp… but a dragon’s scales are going to take that damage no problem (in Immersion RPG, armour Absorbs damage, and the tougher the armour, the less weapons have a chance of even harming it).

Added to that, to be real, he’s likely to just slash it in on the snout, then get bitten and shaken like a rag doll until all his fleshy bits come off. If he tries to dodge the incoming attacks, scrabbling out of the way continually, the great beast is just going to keep him on the backfoot until it gets him. Even worse, the size of it means it actually has way better reach than him (see some ideas on reach here), meaning it can strike him and retreat out of the way before he can do much… which sucks.

So what to do?! He can’t just stand there and trade blows with it. That would be… impossible. And it’s one of the reasons I love dynamic combats. Because you have to now think with the exact situation you’re in. You can’t HP-bash the thing down.

His answer was elegant. He waited until it lunged at him, then he performed two actions – he side-stepped (only just avoiding its slavering jaws), then took a high penalty on his next action to stab with his blade into its eye.

Now this is where being a GM is awesome. I could have just said, “Yeah sure, chop it, roll to hit and roll damage, it absorbs a certain amount…” etc. But instead I was thinking with the situation. Chopping at the bony ridge of its eye… yeah that’ll hurt. It will be harder for the creature to Absorb the damage… but if you were truly awesome and managed to stab the pointy bit into its eye… that will meet no resistance whatsoever.

Ouch.

He succeeded spectacularly, jabbing it in the eye and blinding it. The blade was now firmly lodged in its eye socket, and the thing shrieked and tried to get him off. He tried to press home his advantage, using the pain and leverage of the blade to further push in.

Even cooler. Why just keep chopping at it when you could use the advantage you’ve gained?

It was difficult, because the creature was so much stronger than him… and ultimately that part didn’t work. It thrashed at him, and even though he had elected to try and dodge that as well, he got smashed in the ribs and knocked some twenty feet across the room. This then affected him as he tried to rise and come back at it… lucky for him it was a little preoccupied by having one of its eyes removed, and took a moment to turn and breathe at him.

Related:  GMing Lessons #9: Running Epic Battles

Holy shit it was close… just as he prepared to jump back in at it, using his command of Aeromancy to propel himself through the gap, it breathed… and once again he had a dilemma. Even if he got there in time, how was he going to physically avoid the breath weapon?!

There was again, only really one solution. He had to chop at it (going for its neck) as he came down from the jump, then drop into a roll, going underneath the breath weapon.

Another elegant solution.

And boom! An epic combat ensued. He did win a couple of rounds later, lodging his sword in its neck, though its death throes damn near killed him, breaking ribs and knocking him unconscious for quite some time. It actually nearly killed him by accident. Ironic.

Dynamic Combats are awesome.

How Dynamic could this get? Why bash at each other fruitlessly when you could stab him in the groin? Err…just saying…

The Moral of the Story

Okay, so while that story was cool to tell, it was told for a reason – Dynamic Combats are awesome. They don’t have to take long (this took about 15 minutes of real time, and about 5 rounds in the game), and they just seem so much more… real. Not merely realistic, but actually as though the characters are in the combat that is swirling around them.

This is awesome for the Narrator, as it means all of the cool abilities of the players and the NPCs (particularly the antagonists) really change what happens within the game itself. People can’t stand in front of a gigantic stone golem with a twenty foot sword… they have to run, jump out of the way and then work out some clever means of harming it.

People don’t try to bash plate armoured knights with their swords, without regard for where they’re hitting. Because they actually need to go for the gaps in their armour, or use a mace or hammer. But there are also so many things that suddenly become useful. Like tackling the guy, or pushing him off a height, or using a heavy rock (and dropping it on his foot).

All of these things suddenly begin to affect the game.

I find this definitely works better with some game systems more than others. Those that have declared actions, rather than an Armour Class system, as well as a relatively low HP base, tend to favour this sort of combat.

But it’s still possible with any sort of game. Vary it up. Give bonuses to actions depending on what characters have actually done. Make the description not just fluff, but actually mean what you say.

Anyway, that’s me done… for now. I hope it helps you in your games!

– Oliver R. Shead

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How to GM Dynamic Combats

Realism vs Fantasy

Running Epic Battles

The Importance of Initiative

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