Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to make combat interesting - addendum

I felt I still had some thoughts about fighting and cool manoeuvres, that didn't sort themselves out in my head when I posted the original post. This will be a bit rambling, and I haven't finished this train of thought yet. Hop on for a ride while the train is gaining speed...

Having just quit a D&D 4th ed campaign (and started to play Call of Cthulhu instead, wohoo!), I realized that the idea of making cool stuff is there. The problem is they have just taken out everything that matters. The effect.

See, when I was playing a dwarf fighter in D&D4, I had a cartload of small cards with "powers" that had funky names like whirlwind strike or dizzying blow and stuff like that. Nothing wrong with some whirling and dizzying, eh? Well, if only I had been able to do that!

I know a lot of people grumbled about how in 3rd ed you couldn't do anything cool in combat unless you had a chain of feats. Sure, I bitched a bit about that too, but at least you could do those awesome things when you got the feat.

The problem which made me quit D&D4 was that even if I had, say, dizzying blow nobody became dizzy!! I just rolled more dice of damage! That became boring after a while. I never understood that while I was playing. Oddly enough. This makes me think of a couple of conclusions about combat rules.

  • Combat rules can be very crunchy, or very rules light. Anything goes. But, there has to be an effect to what you do. It can be either a simulation of what could/should happen or something that makes narrative sense. But, it must matter.
  • The combat rules must be there for a reason. If the combat is used show off the muscular warrior battling hordes of monsters, it better have a mook rule. If it's there to inject a sense of danger or daring it better be able to make the player feel a little bit tense (AKA known as the fear of death or the fear of having to go through an involved character creation process again)

I still haven't thought about what it all means, and what game systems work and not. I'm thinking maybe Jared Sorensen's three questions are involved in this. You can count on me getting back to this. It boils down to this: Combat should be interesting, otherwise why spend so much time on it?


  1. I fear that Tunnels and Trolls may also fall victim to the "just numbers" criticism. I hadn't really thought to much about having cinematic fights, just that blows be exchanged and results computed.

    I do feel that T & T has a chance to be interesting at the beginning of a fight when the GM says something like "34 goblins are charging down the corridor at you. They are armed with short spears and daggers all made of flint". What do you do?

    If at this point the gamer is creative enough to say anything other than "We fight.", then the game has possibilities for wild action, and the savng roll system can be applied to see how successful other actions might be.

    However, this depends on the gamer being creative, and imho, getting gamers to be creative is often like pulling hen's teeth--a hard job for a phantom result.

    The chaotic 8th edition will have to examine combat in a whole new way. Perhaps we can stop and force the gamer to give us a 1-minute description of his player as he goes into action. Perhaps we can have an xp bonus built in for colorful adjectives and verbs used in describing the fight. Perhaps we can have the GM make the gamer stand up and pantomime the actions his fighter takes in the sitution. If that didn't embarass the player out of the game, it could certainly lead to merriment and mirth for all.

  2. Merriment and mirth is why why game, so it would be fun to generate more of that, right? :D

    Well, unless the players want to be creative it's not very fun to force them to. XP bonuses to give them the idea to be creative (while I realize you are not stone faced serious in all your suggestions) or some kind of enticement, is a good idea though.

    I strongly believe that have something on, say, the character sheet to remind the players of what they can do is one way to entice creativity. But, as you so rightly say, once the slogging starts it is slogging till the end...

    BTW I 'm beginning to like the almost Homeric epithets of T&T editions. Mystical, Chaotic, etc is actually tickling both my funny bone and my sense of aesthetics.


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