Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fleeing Combat

"Cowards die many times before their deaths." 
- William Shakespeare

September is here!  Well, technically it was here last week too, but it suddenly feels like autumn over here, so September seems even more real.  The school year is just beginning, I'll soon be watching my little little brother play football, and I'm getting ready for all the fun releases to come out (Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins, I'm looking at you!).

I was supposed to start my Winter campaign this Thursday, but due to some unforeseen circumstances with my host, it was not to be.  Hopefully this Thursday.  While preparing for the adventure though, I realized that I would need to create some encounters/enemies to battle (this was actually fairly obvious).  However, I've learned one thing about myself.
Creating combat encounters make me nervous.
Not nervous as in anxiety, just nervous as it is not my favorite part of the game.  The more I've read and brainstormed and created all sorts of characters and dungeons, I become more and more aware that combat does not excite me.  I would rather explore than fight.  Combat can drag on, and hack and slash is not my idea of fun.
And so, I had to stop and think about why I didn't enjoy combat.  I came up with these reasons, and the solutions to them.
I don't like combats where the monsters are simply dealing damage.  That just becomes a huge hack-fest, and it gets slow really quick.  As my friend P@ put it, "it just becomes about dice rolling and math".  Truer words were never spoken.  In the last few sessions I've DMed, I've been trying to create some fast encounters.  These generally involve lots of minions.  Combat feels more cinematic, and the players are generally more involved.
The other thing I've really pushed myself to do is to create more exciting combat locations.  Without giving away one of the encounters in my campaign, figure out ways that the players and the monsters can deal a lot of damage to one another, based off of where they are battling.  Nobody wants to fight goblins in a hallway, they want to have to jump pits, climb ledges, and pull levers to open and close doors.  
I ran a completely non-combat session once.  In it, the PC's interacted with the Council of Genkar.  The players were intrigued by all the NPC's and their interactions.  They were many people to talk to, and many relationships to learn about.  Combat should be the same way.  There should be things that intrigue the party.  One of my favorite combat combat encounters was the one where Chris Perkins has the Robot Chicken guys battle in the Tomb of the Orc Slayer.  In the center of the room are dangerous runes surrounding the sarcophagus.  Jaundice the Mauve, the party's wizard, pretty much chose to focus on those runes every round.  In a previous encounter, he chose to try to a get the mechanized contraption under his control.  Both of these encounters involved him not damaging any monsters.  He was so wrapped up in the other features of the room that he was content in dealing with those.

Combat should not be about fight to the death.  If characters really value their survival, they will look for other means to speed things up.  Mike Shea, of, references an article often, but it really paints a good picture of what DM's should hope to achieve with combat.  The article, called 'The Combat "Out"', by Dave "The Game" Chaulker is an excellent read and resource.  It can be found here:

Dave makes a lot of good points (he's also a really nice guy, and looks exactly the picture on his Twitter handle).  Most importantly, he says that combat shouldn't always end simply when one side dies.  Characters should flee, monsters surrender, terrain gets in the way, etc.

I've started to look at combat like movie fight scenes (something referenced to by Chris Perkins in his weekly column).  I ask myself a few simple questions:
  1. Is the scene cool?
  2. Does this fight serve a purpose?
  3. Are there ways for the PC's to excel/do exciting things?
  4. Is there a combat out?
  5. Is there emotional connection to this encounter?
  6. Does it advance the story?
  7. Is this encounter against a major campaign villain?
  8. Do I think the encounter will last super long?
If I have some solid answers to the majority of these questions, I generally feel better about running this combat encounter.  It helps my combat anxiety so to speak.

With that being said, I'm typically looking only to have 1 or 2 combat encounters in a 3 hour session.  Any more will generally bog down the evening, and I want players to be able to explore as they want and develop their characters.

As always, thanks for reading and be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf


  1. I agree completely - an encounter needs more than monsters to be fun for me. That's why I'm generally opposed to wandering monsters. I want a story, a premise, a story pivot based on what happens, some things to interact with, some cool terrain, and so on and so forth.

    I think this first came to be with playing I3: Pharaoh, my favorite AD&D adventure. Seeing how the authors made rooms so interesting changed me. Playing Living Greyhawk was another big influence, since I saw great authors create really compelling encounters that brought players to the edge of their seat. What PCs chose was huge. A friend of mine said "a great adventure is one where you learn something about your PC, where they stand, what they will do when faced with moral decisions, who they are as a person."

    One of the reasons I love 4E is because you can fairly easily do this. I've ripped off nearly every favorite Indiana Jones scene! You can truly have encounters on moving vehicles, in temples with floors covered in snakes, and with hard decisions whether to fight or deal with a slowly closing door (and have those both be fun choices).

    1. I'm glad you think so. I don't mind wandering monsters if the encounter is short and sweet (generally, it is not). I think D&DNext might be a more appropriate place for wandering monsters.

      I will be quoting what your friend said. That quote is gold.

      I need to start using Indiana Jones stuff. I've been mostly using various Star Wars scenes for inspiration. :)

  2. Great post. The D&D boards have been on fire about this approach to combat lately. So much so, that I've compiled a list of good "Outs" to combat on there. Check it out sometime:

    1. I saw that post and loved it. Unfortunately, I read it after I wrote this article. I'll give you a shout out next week though.