Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Have at Them!

Image by Wiggers123 at DeviantArt

Combat, for better or for worse, is a central aspect of D&D. I’ve heard good and bad things about the system over the years, but really, even the best made, most well thought out system will become somewhat routine upon repetition. 

So here are some suggestions on how to make your D&D combat more exciting. I’m keeping this edition neutral, so there may be some suggestions that are addressed by your preferred edition of D&D (or version of whatever non-D&D system you are playing), and there may be some that don’t apply.

The Problem
The root of the problem is twofold: 

  • sufficient repetition makes all but the most robust systems seem routine

  • the time a player spends deciding on and executing their actions during combat is time that other players are waiting for their action

The latter issue is a big deal with larger groups. One of my regular groups is rocking 8 players, so that’s 7 player’s worth of decision making and action execution that every individual player has to wait through between their actions.

That’s a decent amount of table time.

Here are some features that I think will make combat more interesting for your players, both in terms of combat mechanics and giving them things to do while waiting for their action. 

The key observation here is that, in our desire to streamline combat, we often take away so many features that “slow things down” that players are left with too few things to do. In actuality, even with a smaller group (say three players) you have to wait on average twice as long between actions as you do to complete your action. 

So really, the ideal system should have enough bells and whistles to give a range of choices, but not so many bells and whistles that you don’t have simple options you can use without a lot of choice beforehand when you want them. 

Any good combat system should also give you things to do between combat actions that are not necessarily combat, as that waiting period can be lengthy. Say it takes a minute to resolve a combat action, that’s pretty fast. Even then, it will be at minimum a 7 minute wait between actions for a player in an 8 player game. 

So the idea is to do two things, one, create more interest in the existing combat, and find things combat related or game related to do in your “down time”, to avoid having players get so distracted they fall out of the game and either get bored or start doing something else.

And just to be clear, there are lots of ways to achieve these results, I will discuss some solutions I’ve used, but they aren’t exclusive or “best”, just what has worked for me. And of course, being an “engaging”, entertaining DM is important, but even if you are engaging and entertaining there will be times when you are focused on one player to the exclusion of others. 

Engaging the Players in Combat
A. Making Existing Combat More Interesting
1. Give players reasons to listen to the details of combat. 
2. Put mechanics in front of them. 
3. Use game mechanics that reward tactical thinking. 
4. Use situational bonuses
5. Iron out initiative
6. Maximize mobility
7. Share the dice
8. Create sub-groups
9. Use Crits/Fumbles
10. Use weapon abilities

B. Game Related Activities for time Between Actions 
1. Leave the books on the table
2. Use maps/visual aids

A. Making Existing Combat More Interesting

1. Give players reasons to listen to the details of combat. One of the reasons players tune out when waiting for their turn is they only want to know if their attack is successful or not, and if an attack is successful on them. Sometimes they will want to know about their allies attacks as well, and the attacks on other party members. But even then it becomes focused on the HP damage done only, the stats. 

One way to counter this is to give them more reasons to listen to what is going on. An easy way to do that is to add or take away information. 

One way I do that is with descriptive damage, e.g. I do not report HP damage done to the PCs, instead the players know that HP are primarily non-physical, and so I will describe “near misses” for some blows (as some HP represent dodging ability) “glancing blows” for attacks that don't do much damage, and “crushing blows” and “deep gashes” for attacks that do a lot of damage. By taking away the exact HP report to the players, they become more attentive to the descriptions.

On the flip side, this has the added bonus of giving them hints as to how badly damaged a monster is from their attacks. Normally a PC does say 8hp of damage to an ogre, if all you do is report the HP damage done, you really have no idea how many HP the monster still has. However, using described damage if the monster takes what I describe as a “serious blow” the PC knows they have done a significant % of the monster’s HP in damage for their attack. Again, the point is that they need to focus on the description to get this information. 

2. Put mechanics in front of them. There is a lot of D&D on tables, but putting information on a character sheet means the players are more likely to see it and put it to use. For example, I put a box on the character sheet that lists the number needed for each PC to hit the various ACs. So when a PC hits a monster with a roll of X, they often tell everyone "I hit AC Y", so they and everyone else knows the monster is at worst AC Y. It often leads other players to ask, “What AC did you hit” knowing that their fellow player has that table on their sheet as well. 

You can achieve the same thing by listing THACO on a PC sheet, as a bonus, because THACO is one number, the other players often get to know each other’s THACO, so they will often note when a PC hits an opponent with a roll of X that since the PC’s THACO is Y, the monster has an AC of at least Z, that sort of thing. The point here is to give them another reason to pay attention to what’s happening with other players when its not their turn.

3. Use game mechanics that reward tactical thinking. If the PCs are thinking about tactics they will have to pay attention to what is happening, not just for them, but for everyone in the fight. It may seem obvious, but having a range of combat options means that you need to think a bit about what to use, and pay attention to what others are doing, as it will help you survive. 

So for example, we use a range of stats for weapons: variable damage, speed, weight, length, WvrsAC modifiers, special weapon effects (e.g. dismounting, sweeping, disarming). Thus in any combat there are bonuses and penalties, plusses and minuses to weapon choices. So that keeps them more engaged during combat. Weapons with lower weapon speeds are faster, some weapons allow you to disarm an opponent, etc. 

The system in 1e is elegant as fighters get the most weapon proficiency slots, so everyone benefits from the use of a large range of weapon stats, but fighters benefit most. 

4. Use situational bonuses. e.g. flanking rules, high ground bonuses, cover and concealment rules, distance penalties, WvrsAC modifiers, etc. You will forget them sometimes, but the PCs will remember it when these bonuses save their lives, then they will seek them out. That will refocus them on combat again. 

I recommend printing out your list of standard situational bonuses, and keeping it handy. My players often ask if they are flanking or not with complex melees, they don’t want those bonuses to go to someone else. And it doesn’t require every player to be interested in this to make it work, those who are interested will become engaged. Those who aren’t won’t seek out the situational advantages in play. 

5. Iron out initiative
The goal here is to avoid anything that is too “rinse, wash, repeat”, order of attack matters to the players in most cases I’ve seen, so that means they are interested, but initiative can’t be too complex, or can’t produce the same distribution of attacks too often, that, in my experience, has made them unpopular. 

So the goal is to introduce SOME uncertainty, to model the chaos of combat, but not TOO MUCH, and to keep the modifiers to a minimum. Some modifiers are good, again, to allow the players to fight tactically, and to allow some choice, but too many are restrictive.

I use a d6 for randomness plus modifiers for dexterity, magic weapon “+” and weapon speed. Because these are fixed bonuses, they are easy to remember, the party thief for example with a 16 Dex gets a 1 point bonus, so on a weapon speed 2 shortsword, he would have a fixed 1 point penalty on their initiative roll. A longsword in the hands of the city watchman with no dex bonus has a weapon speed of 3. 

I use individual initiative as it spreads out the results more, introduces more randomness to the process. It doesn’t take any more time either, which is nice. The time taken for initiative is related to the time the players spend deciding their actions, that’s independent of group or individual rolling. Since bonuses are fixed they are easy to remember. And using weapons with different weapon speeds gives them another tactical choice to pay attention to, speed.

6. Maximize mobility
When PCs can move around it gives them reason to think about moving around, and look at the positions of everyone in the melee. In D&D the tendency is to lay out the minis, everyone states actions and rolls, and we record the results. They don’t move around much. Anything that promotes mobility in the combat round can increase engagement.

For example, I allow moving around your action, which encourages players to pay attention to what everyone is doing to see if they can get a positional advantage.

I also encourage using the 1e assumption that two combatants in melee are at a 10’ distance from each other (melee range), or less. Place the minis with that in mind, and treat each pair as a separate epicyle of combat. Then go through the order of initiative, and for each pair have one move anywhere through that 10’ rad space to get to strike for their attack, and end up near them when the attack is executed. 

In individual initiative, your “pair’ in that fight might not go right after that, their action turn could be later (system dependent), if that’s the case when their turn comes they also should move through the 10’ space as desired to attack. That can produce the possibility of flank attacks. So in my game if you strike the segment after your attacker strikes you are right beside them, if you strike in a later segment and can move beside the opponent with your movement rate, you can strike from the flank, or even the back. 

The point is to encourage more movement by the players, more positioning, that gives them more to focus on. Interestingly, some players focus on specific things and ignore others. The goal isn’t to have EVERYONE take advantage of every rule available, its to have a VARIETY of rules so different players will focus on what they find cool or interesting for them.

I sometimes do theatre of the mind. Theatre of the mind forces the players to focus on you and ask you questions. For some groups that will keep the players engaged. For others it may not. 

7. Share the dice
Have players roll for you, or run your monsters in certain scenarios. They can’t run the BBG for example, but there are situations where you have many “mooks” engaging the party, letting the players do some rolling for you gives them something to keep them engaged between consecutive executions of their action.

Since I use individual initiative, sometimes I will get my players to roll for themselves then each one roll an additional dice for me, which I apply to the appropriate combatant. 

When the two party fighters are captured by the bandits, have their players roll "to hit" rolls for the bandits until their characters are back in play. 

The group was assailed by a sea serpent, it’s only attack was to ram the ship, then try to coil around it. One of the PCs was down due to damage so she rolled for each ramming attack, and rolled structural damage to the ship. 

8. Create sub-groups
One of the factors that can create disengagement is isolation, creating sub-groups in the party for combat can give them another point of focus, tactics with their group and between groups. 

I encourage PCs to pair into "fire teams", pairs or triads of PCs that coordinate their attacks, the classic example is a warlock and a tank, the smaller group will coordinate and be more engaged in their counterpart's action, and looking to see what other groups are doing, both keeps them engaged with combat.

One important caveat, you don’t have to do all of these, some won’t work with your group, some will. This isn’t an “all or nothing” thing, it’s a “lot’s of tools in your toolbox” thing. You may be doing your own version of any of these already. These are ways of addressing the time between your turns, and creating interest in what is going on at the table. 

9. Use Crits/Fumbles
Gygax didn’t like these, as crits were quite deadly, and since the DM had an endless supply of monsters, the players were at a disadvantage they did not perceive. So I get the trepedation, but crits are a way to add some nuance to combat that isn’t embedded in “feats” and extra character abilities. 

One of the advantages of crits and fumbles is that they add flavor to combat, a good crit/fumble table can create the most memorable results at the table. However, it can’t be too deadly, or it’s going to wreak havoc. I think the increased attention and interest that these create is worth using them, adding variety to combat always increases engagement.

In my game I produced a table of 12 results for each, some would need to be re-rolled as they were all situational, e.g. disarm your opponent, knock your opponent down, stun your opponent, blind your opponent, double your base dice bonus, or, fall prone, lose your weapon, lose your next attack, take -2 on your next attack, etc.

The way these weave and spin through combat based on a 5% probability is quite beautiful. And since the monsters also roll them, it is fair. Sometimes a result won’t be possible (you can’t disarm a shark), the group can agree on re-rolling impossible results or just ditching the result in that case. DM’s who are concerned that 5% frequency of crits and fumbles is too much can choose to ditch.

10. Use weapon abilities
The advantage of crits and fumbles is that they create interest in combat but are not tied to a “character build” so they don’t necessitate more work for the PC. Also, they are random as they are generated by the dice, which keeps it interesting.

However, tying interesting combat mechanics to weapons is another way to create more interest. It gives players options that aren’t tied directly to character abilities or scores. And as they are in the weapons they can be switched out easily. The game allows fighters more weapons, so they get more of this, but everyone can get something.

In 1e this takes the form of things like planting a pole arm in the ground to double damage against a charging opponent, or disarming or dismounting an opponent with a weapon. I have added things like sweeps for pole arms, shield bashes for shields, disarming for a range of weapons, these sorts of situational bonuses are tied to character choices and thus create engagement at the table.

B. Game Related Activities for time Between Actions 
1. Leave the books on the table. 
Gygax would have my head for this… 

Presumedly some of your players eventually want to run their own games, so leave the rulebooks there for them to look at, including the monster books and DM's guide.
The only thing I prohibit is looking up the monster you are currently fighting, or reading modules we might play. Any of the rulebooks are fair game.

I think there is a tendency to assume that the more they know the more difficult they will be to DM for, but this is not the case. The more they know the more they want to know, so leaving the books out to be read means they will be able to be engaged in the game even if they aren’t engaged in the combat at that time. 

2. Use maps/visual aids
I would encourage battle maps for combat, and minis or counters, as it helps players to visualize the combat, and gives them options to act upon. 

But beyond that, a regional map lying around during combat is a potential point of interest for the players not currently completing their actions. A city map is an endless point of interest for players to want to explore something of that size. 

Also, where possible I use visual aids, if I can find a picture of an outdoor environment, a cityscape, a monster, the players can focus on that when they are waiting for their turn. It’s why I also encourage character art, it helps to stay immersed and gives them something to look at and focus on while in play that keeps them in the game.

Hopefully one or more of these will be helpful to create more engagement in combat in your D&D game, or at least give them something game related to do between actions. 

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