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

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

There was a time when I would have combats in a story just because I liked combats. The game actually revolved around them. The combats seemed to be the story. We would calculate bonuses very carefully, feats and abilities, the powers of swords, exact actions in every single round would be checked and worked out, and books would be consulted to ensure that the rules were being correctly followed.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun. But after years and years of every sort of combat you can imagine, it started to become stale.

After a while, I was running characters who were insanely powerful. Their hit points were immense, and battles seemed more like a lesson in accountancy. There was very little flow, and there were plenty of combats where there was almost no chance of them even getting injured, let alone killed. So why was I running them all the same? And what was the point of them anyway?

I was missing something.

In fact, I was missing the story.

Looking at an RPG as a story, kind of like a TV series or a great book, rather than a computer game, is a refreshing point of view. Computer games have battles all the time, because the computer generates them. You grind through, get some loot and Exp, and move on. But it often does nothing to enhance the story. The games are usually about fighting though, so it gives an excuse to fight and to use your character.

In TV series or books, on the other hand, you will notice that there’s rarely very much fighting. If there is a fight, it’s usually short, and it affects the story in some meaningful way.

These days, when looking at combats, I look at them solely from the viewpoint of: How will this combat advance the story? If it won’t advance it at all, then I generally don’t have a combat there.

For example:

Ishamon has just raided the crypt of an ancient temple. It was difficult to find. Several of the local woodsmen pleaded for his aid, saying their sister had been stolen by a beast. They were too terrified to enter, so he went in alone. Now he has defeated the monster that lives there, rescuing the damsel and several bags of treasure. On his way out, he is ambushed by the woodsmen, who politely ask him for the treasure and the maiden. In fact, they are just local bandits who wanted the treasure for themselves.

How will this combat advance the story?

You could actually run this without any combat occurring at all. Ishamon talks them down, and they leave, knowing he is too powerful, or he has outsmarted him (with several friends coming to his aid), or he has to surrender, and they take the maiden. On the other hand, it could be a sudden ambush, he is shot with arrows and left for dead, and now has a revenge story to play out as he realises that they played him false.

The story is in the result – the twist and turn of the plot. The woodsmen leading him there with a lie, then ambushing him. How many rounds it takes, how many HP everyone’s got, is entirely secondary to the plot (though it can be fun too). If the rules get in the way, then they are to that degree hindering the story.

Another Example: 

Carlos has been investigating a local drug lord, when he is attacked and kidnapped by several of the drug-lord’s goons.

(Ask yourself here – what’s important at this point? A long, drawn-out combat, or the intensity and shock of being suddenly kidnapped? Or if he escapes, then the heart-pounding chase and cat-and-mouse of trying to avoid the attackers?)

Related:  GM Tips #19: Use Your Best Ideas

Carlos does end up escaping, and he flees, hiding in an alleyway as the thugs just miss him.

(Here he doesn’t want a combat, because he would certainly lose. In this case, that’s the story and it makes it intense! He can’t just fight and kill anyone he wants, and he has to respond in different ways – creating a story.)

Now Carlos is too scared to go home… but his wife is there! So what’s he going to do? He gets a call… and oh shit, they’ve already kidnapped her. Now he’s told to meet the thugs on a street corner, where he knows they’re going to kidnap him. But if he doesn’t do it they’ll kill his wife. So what does he do?!

(Now you’ve got a story going. What’s more important here? The progression of the plot, and finding out how he solves the problem, or running each individual round and second of each combat? You could spend the entire night running the chase and fight sequence, or it could be over in five minutes, and the plot moves to the next nail-biting section.)

Rules For Combat Vs Rules For Story

Funny enough, this has led to my games evolving in some unusual ways. I find HP and rounds less and less important. While a combat rages and is intense, I view it far more as a story-like combat, with drama and intensity, and consequences rather than just fighting for the sake of fighting.

The rules of your game will show a lot about where your emphasis is in your game. If half of your book is devoted to rules on combat, then it’s fair to say that combat is the most important part of the game. On the other hand, if your rules for combat are of a similar depth to those of diplomacy, drama, intrigue, and other parts of the story, then it’s easy to see that your game is focused on the story and the general character more than anything else.

The Evolution of Immersion RPG

Personally, this is leading me to an evolution. Immersion RPG works beautifully for what it is, but in many ways its focus has been on combat, similarly to D&D and many other games. Gradually, it has evolved into a more story-based game, but it is now becoming even more so. Of course, games are and should be whatever you prefer to play – I’ve had some awesome times grinding through a dungeon! It really depends on what you’re looking for in your game. Just make sure every combat advances the plot in some direction, no matter if they’re fast, or massive and epic.

What mechanics do you like to see to help advance story, and to use combat as a story mechanism?

~Oliver R. Shead


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