In this episode I’d like to elaborate more on combat encounters. From 10 rats to a gang of cyborgs to a giant, ancient dragon, fight mechanics are a near universal standard of TTRPGs. Over the years I’ve developed some strong opinions on them, so here’s three of them.
1. Monsters are people, too.
It’s been said that every well written antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, which is a great way to RP any Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), surely, but this is doesn’t have to be a strategy reserved for the one on top.
Think of any beings you add to your game as NPCs. They don’t all need full backstories, but you should at least have a concept of an underlying motivation. Is the being mostly looking for a next meal? A salary? Distance from something more terrifying than the party?
I love a good mustache-twirling now and then, but the campaign I’m spending the most time in doesn’t really have “evil” beings. Selfish ones, sure, but no party in my game will round a corner to find 5 orcs tying a heroine to a railroad track. Those orcs have their own society and motivations that might not align with the party’s, but given a chance there can be some parlay and significantly less rope involved. Which brings us to…
2. There can be “win” conditions that aren’t the deaths of all monsters.
The party can bargain, trade, scare off, run away from, or in cases of extreme difficulty, simply survive their opponents, and adding that variety to your game can make it more enjoyable for everyone.
I’ve thrown the Tarrasque at my players on two separate occasions. Neither time were they powerful enough to survive a frontal assault, and they knew it. Your encounters might not always be that obvious from the start, so a few near misses (or direct hits) might be needed to put the fear of TPK into them.
And then of course is the trope of befriending or even adopting the enemy. My after school club once defeated a clockwork dragon with – I kid you not – the power of friendship. (Well, a very well done Persuasion check and the power of friendship, but still, that counts.)
One of my current games adopted the first kobold they met. They were part of a group I designated with letters, assuming they’d all be slaughtered fairly quickly. Aye the kobold is now taking levels in rogue and almost certainly not plotting their demise.
3. Encounters never need to go as written.
If things are looking too easy or too hard, adjust them.
Oops, you forgot about that grenade that you certainly didn’t just give the space pirate.
Huh, that special ability might take a bit longer to recharge.
The henchman union seems to have taken this exact moment to strike! The BBEG’s union busting days are over!
The next rotation of guards has shown up 5 minutes early, doubling the number of opponents!
I confess, I may have on more than one occasion accidentally on purpose forgot about an area effect that probably would not have made the fight too hard, but certainly would have added another half an hour to an hour of combat rolls. I’ve also doubled an enemy’s hit points. Neither one was planned, but both worked to balance the fight a bit.
Just don’t do things the same way too often. This isn’t because your players might catch on – some of them will notice first time every time. Instead, using different means for balancing will add a bit more variety to the game play and, again, make it more fun for everyone.
Music is Deadly Windmills by JAM from modarchive.org, used with permission, as it’s public domain.
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MP3 Download: Crash’s Course Ep 07: Combat Encounters