Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Making Combat Fun

So the other day I had a friend complain that combat was the least interesting part of their D&D game. Admittedly, I’ve felt this way before too depending on how the game has been ran. This post is mostly me stealing from myself from that chat, to try and give you all a better idea of what’s going on in my games and in my head when I invent a combat scenario, and also a bunch of opinions on combat and other stuff.

So, the first question is “which better describes combat in D&D for you: Final Fantasy Turn Based Whack-A-Mole, or brutal Jason Bourne desperate life-struggle, or riveting Musketeer Style Swashbuckling?”

The second and more important question is “What do you want combat to be?”

Personally, I want swashbuckling and brutality in equal measures, but with a focus on swashbuckling. Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard were the heart of D&D’s fictional inspiration, and I want my fights to mimic theirs in speed, tone, and lethality. Or as much as they can, given that this is a game and not fiction. 

To begin, I always try to remember what The Tome of Adventure Design said about combat: that combat encounters are only ever as interesting as they are as a game-board. Meaning that a mob of ten goblins in an empty room is boring. 

A mob of ten goblins riding giant wasps while you climb a latticework of climbing roses, in order to get to their wizard employer’s tower is memorable and fun. 

Granted, not everything has to be in weird and wacky locations. Currently I just finished running the wonderful Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart, and had an absolutely lethal dinosaur fight, which ironically took place in a mostly empty room, but was super memorable due to just how bonkers it was. Still, the fight should be interesting or exciting somehow, and fights should take place in interesting locales. The environment should be a danger, a tool, or both. The minute my Barbarian gets two attacks in 5e, I flip the script on the caster with minions every time, because I now have the ability to grapple (as an attack action, doesn’t end rage) and YEET a minion (advantage on athletics checks from rage, it’s an attack so it doesn’t end) INTO the wizard. Concentrate on THAT.  It’s an example, but like, why couldn’t I do that with food at a banquet hall? Or if I’m in a bridge, just kick them off the edge? Why can’t that be my Attack? Interacting with the environment is an onus that is on the player, but you as the GM Set that up.

The other tip I have is that, for me as a player, I know what I’m doing before my turn. And as a Game Master, I expect my players to tell me what they’re doing when I call their name. Combat for me is RAPID pace. I do group initiative between the party and monsters, and for multiple opponents split them into chunks. Only the party’s initiative matters, the monsters go in whatever order I want on their turn. If a player, especially a caster, doesn’t know what they’re doing, or starts flipping pages in a book to find out what their spell does, I’ve told them ahead of time that their character has done a brain fart and is flipping in their spell book during combat and they get skipped this round. We did two rounds of combat last night. Just like boxing, I feel a fight should be three rounds or less. A real fight is over in less than two minutes; D&D should feel that short and lethal.

I also ask my players to briefly describe their attacks when they hit, or describe their misses when they whiff. If they don’t want to, I’ll fill in that gap with a short sentence. I also have them describe Crits and Death Blows, as every player likes to describe their Mortal Kombat Fatalities.

Badguys and players should also be encouraged to do and be things besides chunks of numbers. Have villains tangle and trip the players. Have them take hostages mid fight, have them retreat when half their numbers are killed. Let them try to disarm them.

Honestly, this works so well for me, and this is why I veer much more into low and mid level games. At high levels, monsters and bosses just becomes BLOBs of HP, and it’s a whittling game that’s boring as fuck. No offense to some people’s GMing style, but some people’s boss fights are awful trudges through simple math. As a player, I once had had an excellent boss encounter where we fought in an antigravity room with mystic shields blocking LoS for casters, making athletics checks to astronaut push our way around the room and stop ourselves before overshooting enemies (that would have given them attacks of opportunity). Especially for 5e, that was a great fight, and it owed a lot to an interesting location/gameboard.

By comparison, many years ago I once had my players fight a dragon in an empty room. It was a snore fest, and an important learning point for me. Despite all the working up of the boss narratively and the dread and themed dungeon dressings, by the end of it my players weren’t hooked, and one was actively looking for something else to interact with in the room.

Since then, the outstanding article “A 16 HP Dragon” over at the La Torra blog has informed a lot of my personal Dragon fights. I don’t keep them as low as sixteen HP, but I keep most of my monsters under 200-300hp for a reason. And I put them in better locations. 

Here’s my other combat-related opinion: getting “cool things” per level, like action surge, second wind, etc, is BAD for the game and players. It teaches them to think in terms of what the GAME says they can do and not what THEY think their characters can do. Especially as it encourages players to crave numerical bonuses instead of weird and whacky shit that drives the fantasy genre. 

This is why my humans get no racial bonuses. Humans get a Special Thing. Each player chooses their special thing they can do (typically starting out as once a game session, or once a dungeon room/scene) and if they can’t think of one then I tell them to take a feat, they can do that once a game session/room instead.

“I can teleport 30ft in any direction once a game.” 


“I can echolocate twenty feet in front of me once a room/scene.”


“I can attack with such fury it gives me advantage to hit once a game.”


“I am a kleptomaniac and have accidentally stolen just the right non-magical item once a game.”


“I wear gloves because once a scene I can use psychometry on an item to find it’s history.”


These are all things humans in my world have done.

They aren’t in any books, and are infinitely better than +1 to all ability scores or a feat.

I’m a firm believer that D&D and combat gets creative when players and GMs do.

The other thing to for me is, combat happens when combat is the 1) only choice or 2) the players’ choice.

Meaning that, when the players encounter a Minotaur in The Crawling Gardens, it will attack them back if they choose to attack it. But if they greet that Minotaur with a friendly “Salutations Horned One!” I’m sure the scene will go differently.

And when they encounter cannibal scum cultists of some torture god, they are gonna have to fight no matter what (unless they get cool with some evil shit reeeeal quick).

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Cursed of Circe

The Moon, and thus The Queen of Night has an... unusual influence on some people. The Moon changes. It should come as no surprise then, that the witches, priests, and supplicants of Her darkling faith are both prone to change themselves and also can hold that power over others.

Enter the tale of Wallor Gloll, leader of a modest mercenary group. The stories vary, but Gloll and his crew were not good people, and transgressed a deal with a priestess who gave them food and shelter. In her fury, she cursed them with a change, but not the usual kind that her Queen bestowed: a permanent change, one that they could not shake, and one that grew. Some say it was not the priestess herself who cursed Gloll, but rather The Queen of Night Herself, taking revenge for those who would act with gluttonous greed and callous indifference to Her half-holy servants. 

Wallor and his lot were malformed into half-swine, porcine faces that walked on two digitigrade legs. Nails replaced with hooves for feet on weak ankles, little nailless hands that can’t scratch itches, layers of choking fat between their tissues, sores, boils, and all manner of skin-lesions. And above all, a relentless hunger that could not be filled despite their ability to devour food. Just as Gloll and his crew blasphemed the comfort they were offered, the life of one of The Cursed of Circe is one of constant discomfort.

Since then they have splintered into various tribes and warbands, scattering across the world and seeking work as foot soldiers for anyone wicked enough to hire them, or foolish enough to allow them into their kingdom. For the curse, you see, is transferred to those who share their food and shelter with the revolting Pig-Men, a reminder that this is a divine punishment, and that mortals need not intervene. 

Which war-band has your party encountered?

1) The Lesionnaires: scab and wart crusted warriors in lorica segmenta and horse-hair helmets. Barely regimented mobs covered in pustules. 
2) Refined Swine: Gloating bloated autocrats and politicians covered in the garbage of the elite and hyper-wealthy. Costume jewelry and gold paint, lipstick on ignorant pigs.
3) Slag Hogs: Tusked raiders in heavy, rusting plate. Bursting at the seams of their armor, they screw hot metal into their flesh to brace their joints. Smells of grease and salt.
4) Wild Pigs: Razorback ruffians with sharply crested backhair, they pierce their porcine flesh, tattoo butcher lines. Won’t stop drooling, as dumb as they look. Gluttons for punishment, and anything else. 

What are their horrible desires this time?

1) A feast of flesh! Animal, man, it matters not as long as they can tear sinew from bone and suckle at marrow. 
2) Wealth by the pound! Buckets of gold, glittering gems and baubles galore!
3) Sloth! To sleep, lazing the days away. They refuse to do their work, or anything but lie around farting and telling crass jokes.
4) Drink! Alcohol, drugs, whatever dampens the mind and produces mild euphoria. Great gallons of the stuff, they can never be drunk enough. 
5) Filth! Whether mud or muck, cisterns or emptied chamberpots, they wish to roll about in the mire or man’s making. 
6) Company! Join them, feast with them, tell them a tale and stay a spell. They’re sure you’ll fit right in.