02 Apr Story in Combat : GMing Tips #23
Combat can be awesome, or it can simply be one grind after another. But how do you keep each combat from blurring into the next? Even more so, how do you make it so that your players don’t just attack every obstacle and kill everyone as their first response?
How do you put story into combat?
Actually, it’s quite simple.
In real life, there are consequences for every action. In an RPG there should be consequences too. People tend to have friends, and sometimes those friends are well armed. In the real world, what’s to stop you blowing up your neighbour’s apartment? The police – they’re too strong, too well armed and organised for any lone gunman to overcome.
The same should apply in your RPG.
The PCs come up against some dudes giving their town trouble. Okay, there’s just a few of them, and the PCs could probably kill them all… but then again they’ve already heard that these guys are part of a small army encamped nearby. If they kill them, then word might spread – what if there are others who hear the shooting, or who see it? Can the PCs take on a whole army? Hell no.
This makes conflict undesirable. Yes, you can kill some of them – but then you, and all your friends, will likely perish. Particularly in a setting like Infected! this is critical. PCs in this setting might be able to take on a couple of opponents, but not a dozen or more.
Make sure your players realise that there are forces more powerful than themselves. If they don’t, then the consequences come ramming home. Next time they’re confronted with thirty soldiers causing trouble… then what are they going to do? Just start shooting?!
Confronting forces as powerful, or more powerful than yourself will result in tactics. The players will start to think around the problem. How can they escape this problem, how can they avoid conflict, how can they negotiate, or how can they defeat a numerically superior opponent.
Now that you’ve shown your players that there’s a larger force, you should complicate matters and force them into some sort of conflict. This makes your players think fast.
Let’s say that your players are part of a town, and there is a small army encamped nearby. That army is causing trouble… and uh-oh, now apparently some of them have kidnapped someone important from the players’ town.
So now what do they do?! They can’t leave that person in the captivity of the other force, but they also can’t face it. Even worse, if they do end up getting into a fight with the soldiers, then it will just start a war that they can’t win.
All of a sudden, the exact weapon fitout your players have chosen really doesn’t matter nearly so much as the tactics they choose to employ. If they want to take on the soldiers in a battle, they’ll need more people than themselves, and they’ll need to be able to convince others to join them.
This is a very different concept to most D&D adventures, so it’s wise to just realise that this is a different sort of game. In D&D it’s assumed that the PCs will do 99% of the fighting and will be able to take on all comers. That’s totally fine, and a lot of fun – but it’s a different sort of game, and that viewpoint will not work in this sort of scenario.
Likewise, in D&D this sort of game wouldn’t work very well, because only heroes can take on heroes, and large numbers mean very little – they can’t get through the PCs’ high Armour Class.
A side effect of the D&D approach is that it does tend to promote the “kill them all” philosophy. The PCs are powerful enough to kill most of what they face, so all they have to do is kit out their character enough, and use the rules and powers and abilities cleverly enough to be able to kill everything.
In the example above, the players might decide to use a stealth attack to engage the soldiers in the other town. However, when they arrive they find that there are dozens of soldiers in the settlement, and it’s walled and well patrolled. However, they also find out that there are many villagers being used as slaves, and that they are kept in a different section.
Even finding this out could be an interesting example of diplomacy and smarts over fighting. The PCs stumble upon several villagers out working in the woods. A woman and two men. Several soldiers are nearby, and the town isn’t far off – any shot would alert the garrison and mean the PCs would be hunted down by dozens of troops.
The PCs have to choose – do they try to silently kill these villagers who have seen them, or trust them and get information out of them. If they do the latter, they might find out that some of the villagers are slaves, and where the armoury is located. However, there could be other complications – one of them might be an informant. They might also hear about their lost comrade, and know where they are in the town.
However, if the PCs want to take on the enemy soldiers, they might decide to stage a rebellion with the locals – but to do that would mean they’d need some coordination. Using these locals could be the start, with secretive little meetings organising when and where the strike will happen.
On the chosen night, the PCs have to sneak up to the fence, get past it and the guards somehow (burrow a hole maybe?), then get to the armoury, and get the weapons to the villagers. That’s a lot of work. All while being undetected. Watch how they sweat as they sneak past an unexpected dog patrol, see the players groan as everything goes sideways and the shooting starts – the last thing they wanted to hear right now!
Notice how the PCs are already having to use their wits? If they just sail in and “kill them all” then everything will fall apart, and all of them will die.
Give them consequences, foes that are larger than themselves, and then give them complications. You’ll be amazed at what a different story you’ll run, and at how your players’ attitudes change – quite suddenly, the exact weapon they’ve got isn’t quite as important as improving their Diplomacy, or working out just who is behind a recent spate of raids. Tactical thinking replaces brute force.
How do you do this in an actual fight though?
So you’ve born all of this in mind, and despite everything your PCs are just in a fight… again. It’s shaping up to just be a boring slug fest. They’ve taken cover. The enemy has taken cover, and they’re both just trading shots.
In this case you need to hit them with a twist. Give them the complication straight away.
Ideally, every combat will propel the plot forward in some way. They’re not just fighting for no particular reason. So there will be consequences, which adds tension and importance to it. What are they fighting over? What happens if the baddies get away? Are there reinforcements on the way? Is one of them carrying something precious? Have they been duped, and are they really killing allies?
But let’s say you’ve thought of all that, and despite it all, you’re just in a combat. It’s not particularly amazing.
Now think tactically. The antagonists also want to survive, and if they’re fighting D&D style PCs, chances are there’ll be no prisoners. So make them think smart. If you understand real life combat at all, then you’ll be able to think of ways in which you can surprise, ambush, out-flank and out-smart an opponent on the battlefield.
But if you’re not sure exactly what that could mean in game terms, here’s some examples.
There are a few PCs pushing forward against the same number of NPCs. Both are in cover. Both have similar weapons. The PCs probably have slightly better skills. The NPCs keep just one or two guys firing wildly back at the PCs, making them keep their heads down, while the rest of them move over to one side, crawling so they can’t be seen. Then the guys who were firing wildly take cover and hide. If the PCs push forward, then the NPCs on their flanks will open fire when they’re out of cover, possibly gunning them down.
An Infected RPG example.
There’s a sniper in the woods. The PCs have already been shot at once and they’ve taken cover. They think they know where he shot from. They wait… and then another shot rips out. They fire back! It looks like they hit something… silence. Then, as they go to investigate, a shot comes from a completely different position, possibly gunning one of them down. What happened?! The sniper set up a rifle in advance that would fire by itself (there are really simple mechanisms that can do this – check out how the Aussies evacuated Gallipoli). It was just a lure.
The PCs are in a fierce firefight and are seriously pinned down when a pack of Infected come after them. Now they have to choose – do they expose themselves and flee, or try to fight the Infected while still being shot at?
The PCs are winning a battle, when an armoured vehicle comes barrelling into the fray. It’s impervious to the PCs’ weapons, so only a really clever attack will succeed against it. Fleeing may also be difficult, as it may expose the PCs to gunfire. What do they do?!
Put the PCs in an unusual position. They’re driving, they get bogged, then Infected or soldiers come along. Now the enemy can move and the PCs cannot. The PCs will likely find themselves rapidly outmanoeuvred and may have to abandon their vehicle and all their supplies, or even surrender.
The PCs want to attack some soldiers (the ones who blew up their car in the swamp), but those soldiers are in an old military bunker. It’s got massive bulkheads and there’s no way to get in. How do they lure the soldiers out? And then how do they overcome their defences?
Alright, I think that’ll do! I hope this helps you to bring tactics, meaningful diplomacy and consequences to your gaming table!
~Oliver R. Shead
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