Whether you are a seasoned, veteran Game Master, a tough-as-nails Dungeon Master, a wily, eagle-eyed Storyteller, or a brand-new, just-out-of-the-box runner of tabletop roleplaying games, I’ve got some words for you: Your players are bored. Okay, maybe I could’ve said that a little nicer, a little more PC, but that’s just not me.
Sure, they might not say it out loud. They probably don’t pull you aside to give you a stern talking to about the four hours they just wasted rolling dice and fudging skill checks, Hell they probably don’t even know it. And that is the problem. Every weekend, all across the world two to eight people are sitting down around a table to game and they don’t even know they are bored.
By paragraph three I hope you are asking the question, “What is this idiot blathering on about?” (And if you didn’t use the word blather you should. Expand that vocabulary!) Let me reframe. We’ve all watched really awesome movies (fantasy, science fiction, horror) where the characters fought their opponents it amazing, sometimes mind-shattering environments: The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Terminator, John Carter, or Harry Potter. We watch these breath-taking, heart-racing, gut-clenching, bowels-turning-to-water fight scenes… and we want to live them!
Now, aside from learning parkour, taking up fencing or mixed martial arts, most people only get to watch. Not so with gamers. We get the chance to live through scenes like these in our games and make them better! We fight from crumbling bridges over lava floes, battle multiple opponents in the midst of a cataclysmic war and… wait, you don’t do that? Oh. Well, to be honest… neither do I. There is my secret for the day: “Hi, I’m Darius and I’m a poor GM at times.”
Tuesday evening my wife and I went out and watched the final chapter of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. There were so many twisting, turning, churning, bouncing, sliding, mobile battle scenes and I loved every minute of it. The fight that spurred this whole post was between Thorin Oakenshield and Azog the Defiler. Atop the frozen river that spills from Ravenhill, south of the entrance to Erebor and southwest of the ruined city of Dale, they clashed. What really caught my attention as Azog’s make-shift chain and block weapon ripped, cracked and broke the ice apart, was how both combatants not only adjusted for the other’s movements, but how they reacted and used the environment in the fight. I won’t spoil it, but Thorin’s use of the ice is genius!
As I watched, riveted to my seat, I wondered, “When was the last time a character of mine fought like that?” And then the next, inevitable question, “When was the last time I ran a combat like that?” I’m here to admit, I am ashamed to say, it’s been awhile. Well, the good thing about seeing a problem, admitting it is there, is that you can make changes. That is what I plan to do and I want to help you do the same! So, without further ado, here are ways to spice up your combat and rally your players to exciting arms!
1. Environment – Terrain – Rarely do I see players nor GMs consider the terrain of where a fight occurs. Most times we’re busy worrying about distances, squares, hexes, cones, etc. Forget all of that! Give your players somewhere interesting, exciting and challenging to fight on. Group is being jumped by orc bandits on the road to the city? Put it on an old wooden bridge ready to collapse and have it do so mid-fight. Giant attacking a town and the players are fighting it from a rooftop? Have it attack the foundation and then let your players return fire as the building crumbles beneath them. Party is trying to take down a lich in his cavernous lair? Make in a volcano that decides to erupt mid-fight. Players want to feel like their characters are the heroes in the story. They want exciting combat and challenges that they can talk about for years to come.
2. Environment – Weather – The weather always seems to be an afterthought, a piece of the setting and just something that the GM tosses in for flavor. Change that shit! Combat too easy for the party? Open up a thunderstorm on them and give them penalties for attacking, moving and perception. Drown them in massive waves out on the high seas, where the deck of their ship pitches and yaws making combat that much harder. Fighting trolls up in the mountains? Break open the clouds in a snow storm and let their opponents use the meager visibility to attack from.
3. Multiple Opponents – One of the greatest things 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons introduced was the concept of minions. Not the yellow, pants wearing kind, I mean extra monsters or NPCs that have only a few hit points. You can do this in virtually any game. Think of those fight scenes where the hero wades through hordes of monsters to reach his true foe. That’s what your players want. They want to cut down enemy after enemy with one swipe and then fight the true villains in challenging combat. Give it to them. Add in extra NPCs to the combat with 1-3 hit points, who can only hit if they roll an 18-20. Then watch as your players cackle with glee as they cut them down in one stroke!
4. Player creativity – There is an idea in business that can help your game and combat, it’s called “Say Yes, and…”. It works like this: You’re sitting around the conference table brainstorming a new proposal. Andrea says, “We could offer more discounts at our store to bring in customers…” You say, “Yes, and we could connect it to returning shopping carts, which would save on employee stress.” Apply this to your games. Let your players do things that they think are awesome. When Andrea says, “I want to kick that vase at the lead mercenary’s head before wading into the fray…”, say “Yes, and it shatters, flinging porcelain shrapnel everywhere. Each person within 2 squares takes 1 hit point of damage.” It doesn’t always have to be negative, or hinder the players either, it could help them. Bill says, “I slice the rope to the chandelier, gripping it and letting it carry me to the second-floor landing where the fight is thickest.” You say, “Yes, and it also held up the massive tapestry along the back wall. It comes free covering all of the opponents on the first floor who were trying to reach the second. They’ll have two turns before they can get free and reach you.”
5. Beg, Borrow or Steal – Let’s face it, we’re not all Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro or Steven Spielberg. We can’t always come up with some amazing set for our players to battle in every single game. We have other things that demand our attention: life, work, other hobbies, children, football, etc. Sometimes we just don’t have the time to plan that much in advance. Most of us, while gaming, have a plethora of books around us. We’ve all seen countless movies and we have an amazing assistant, normally standing by at the ready to help: the interwebs. Use these resources. Beg, borrow and steal from those sources. Flip through a book looking at the artwork. Think over the last few movies you saw and dwell on the fight scenes. Open google images and search up images to spur your creativity. My favorite way to do this is to present the players with something, and then let them discuss it between them. Especially in character, players can spend hours arguing in character. This gives you the time to research, borrow and tweak to fit your game.
There you have it. Five ways to spice up your combat or any part of your game really. Use one of them, use all of them. Watch your players come alive and be drawn into the shared story that you are telling. If you find that it helps, that it improves your game at all, share this with your friends on social media, anywhere. Comment below, I love hearing how you all take my ideas and make them your own.
Monte Cook Games has posited that January is NaNewGaMo or National New GM Month. You can read about it here on their blog. Having participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I am all for this. Having run RPGs for the last 25 years, I love seeing new people get involved with gaming and especially new people taking a turn at running a game. Keep your eyes peeled for this event in January, I will be covering and participating in it! Cheers!