View Full Version : Need Some Advice on Planning a High Combat Game

2009-11-24, 08:38 PM
I am currently separated from my gaming group and will only have a chance to run a game around once a month. I am thinking of doing a high combat low story campaign (different from my usual) with a simple but constant plot. I am thinking of one of two things:

Arena combat: The player's are a team of gladiators (probably not slaves) in a huge arena which can afford to bring in warriors from all over the world as well as capture all sorts of wild animals and magical beasts to fight.

Castlevania / Van Helsing: The characters are sent to overthrow a super evil BBEG who rules a far away land. He rules an enormous castle / dungeon and the surrounding wilds, and they are filled with the BBEG's evil minions and supernatural allies of all types. The players are tasked with defeating his and cleansing his land of monsters. All the local villages are under his sway or intimidated by them, so the player's can expect little help, but goods can still be purchased.

If anyone could give me any advice or ideas I would be thankful. It is using a home brew setting, but one close enough to 3.5 that all advice should work.
It will most likely be a three player game. One of the players is an optimizer who finds characters creation / advancement fun, one a hack and slasher, and one a more moderate character who leans toward narativist.

I foresee the following problems:
1: How do I make non combat skills important?
2: How do I explain a broad variety of opponents and settings for combat to take place to keep it from getting boring?
3: How do I space out the combats to keep the PCs from going nova every fight (or should I just ramp up the challenge and allow them to do just that)? Should resource management be important?
4: How do I have enough storyline to keep the player's, and more importantly, myself interested in the plot, but without enough storyline to detract from the combat or put the game on rails?

2009-11-24, 10:43 PM
1: How do I make non combat skills important?

If we look at gladiators, and modern athletes, an aspect of their job beyond job performance is their ability to cater to the crowd. For gladiators, being popular might even save them from death, as the crowd might be more likely to want to see an entertaining personality than an unknown. You could incorporate this by having PCs make skill checks for (or describe) the various theatrics that they might perform to attempt to sway the crowd to their side (maybe the bard composes an insulting Haiku for every victory his team makes, the Fighter performs a jig after downing an opponent, or the Wizard fires pyrotechnics into the sky as the team enters). Knowledge or Gather Information checks could be used to grant bonuses (ex. “doing a 2-finger salute is a cultural faux-pas, so don’t do that”, or “today is a national holiday, the crowd would appreciate it if you did something appropriate”).

In the Castlevania/Hellsing setting, it might become important for the PCs to have some sort of NPC contacts. They might, if popular opinion is good, help the PCs (discreetly), supply them with information (Gather Information), rumors about the nature of their foes (Knowledge check bonuses), or even provide them with goods and safe places to hide.

If you’re talking about stuff like jump/tumble/climb/swim/balance/etc…, those can be incorporated by changing up encounters. Climb could have some enemies atop of ivy covered stone pillars, firing arrows down from behind crenellations; swim might have the battle taking place in the midst of a river or opponents that disappear/flee underwater; and jump/tumble/balance are pretty obvious.

2: How do I explain a broad variety of opponents and settings for combat to take place to keep it from getting boring?

If you look at the Roman Coliseum, you’ll find that they did all sorts of crazy stuff to keep their populace from getting bored. They’d flood the arenas for navel battles, have fights against animals, fights with handicaps (the blind guy in full plate versus some other guy with a dagger was one I believe), or just have the gladiators plain up beat each other down. The point is, they switched the terrain and the matches up a lot. You could modify it so that sometimes they’d fight on a narrow strip where the sides terminate in a plummet onto spikes, flood the arena, have them leap from sinking platform to sinking platform to avoid sinking waist deep into mud, make them fight while riding horses in a race, etc. In a setting with higher levels of magic, you can take this to extremes. For example some effects you could add would be,

Have the players enclosed in a rotating sphere (of force) with gravity sticking them onto the inside surface. Positional advantages for the high ground would change from round to round and people with reach/range weapons could, depending on the size of the sphere, attack those stuck on the other side. Or do it on the outside. Whatever. Ex. FFX's Blitzball.
Fighting on a pair of platforms which are suspended over lava by pillars/golems (shamelessly copped from Breath of Fire 3).
A fight in an arena where some global spell affects all the combatants, changing every few rounds (web, bless, curse, aid, regeneration, resist elements, etc…). Ex. Disgaea's Geo Tiles.

If an Earth civilization can come up with things like this, what’s to stop a fantasy civilization from doing exactly that? In the Castlevania/Hellsing example, it’s also easy to justify changes in scenery and terrain. Say they’re fighting the bad guy’s lieutenant:

They begin the fight in a courtyard, where the devious villain springs a trap on the PCs, entrapping them in an open area while his minions rain arrows and bolts down into them. As soon as the battle on the ground begins to turn against him, he flees, escaping down a secret entrance and leaving the PCs to mop up any straggling minions. As the PCs chase him down the underground passage, dealing with traps and dangerously uneven terrain, they espy the villain crossing a narrow bridge over an underground lake (the water source for the castle in question). If they chase him, they must fight the lake’s guardian, which he summons to delay (or hopefully kill) the PCs…

3: How do I space out the combats to keep the PCs from going nova every fight (or should I just ramp up the challenge and allow them to do just that)? Should resource management be important?

This would be up to your management style and how your players approach the game. Generally, I’d say a Coliseum type set of battles would lean more towards nova-ing out and the Castlevania/Hellsing idea would lend itself better to forcing players to manage their resources. Of course, you can circumvent this by having the PCs engage in multiple fights in a day as their popularity rises and the crowd demands to see more of the popular fighters, or give the PCs some slack by letting them hole up in a holy place just before they confront the villain (or even have the villain attack them as they’re holed up and still making their final preparations).

4: How do I have enough storyline to keep the player's, and more importantly, myself interested in the plot, but without enough storyline to detract from the combat or put the game on rails?

Again, this is up to both you and your group. The hack and slasher should be pretty happy in this kind of campaign (as you said, high combat), the optimizer should be happy as long as you give them a chance to show off their character design (let him blow through the mooks with his fear-shouting samurai), and the narativist should be happy as long as you can provide a solid reason why they're killing everything in their way (let him interact with townsfolk, play to the crowd, and generally be the face man - throw some lore in for an added bonus). When it comes time for the party to fight the BBEG though, you should not deprive them of their combat abilities. Unless you're running a horror themed campaign, not much ruins a final epic showdown (for me at least) like being unable to throw everything you've got at the big bad and having them reciprocate. Think like a director - go out with a bang!

As for you, just try to have fun designing your encounters and running them. You don't need to break your head trying to balance encounters since, if need be, you can always fudge some dice rolls or gimp the monster halfway through a fight (Oh no, his chronic back injury is acting up!) if you're hell-bent on avoiding player death.

The way I'd try to run a combat heavy campaign is to try to not repeat battles (no matter how cool your sword is, it's going to get boring just standing their swinging Full Attacks round after round). Take the PCs out of their 5-ft-step into Full Attack rut and make them dodge logs, ride horses, and get caught up in exploding dust clouds. Yes, have some mundane combat from time to time, but throw the cinematic stuff around whenever you feel like you can get away with it (steal from movies, games, and books with impunity!).

As for rails, we're already assuming some rails getting the PCs into a Coliseum or taking that job to hunt down the Duke of Transylvania in the first place. Beyond that, make them want to win: gladiators who earn their freedom are granted a parcel of (valuable) land, the vampire duke is in possession of that vorpal sword that the hack and slasher is salivating over, the PCs owe favors to an NPC merchant who's had his trade disrupted by the big bad's recent iron grip of the area, a cleric PC's god shows him visions of the world ending - unless the big bad is stopped, the big bad is a recurring villain, the PCs are hired to investigate rumors of suspicious black-market dealings in the arena but must remain undercover, etc...

2009-11-24, 10:51 PM
If I was to make a high combat campaign, the first question I would ask myself is:

"Is the setting conducive to making the combat fun?"

I can't put myself in your thought processes, but let's say you go with gladiators. Well have you thought about how to make gladiatorial combat REALLY REALLY fun? Does the concept of gladiatorial combat spark all kinds of imaginative fights that you would really want to run?

2009-11-24, 11:17 PM
if you're going arena (evil castle is overplayed these days) just add

Bull fighting with a minotaur

(a good bluff skill is needed if you want to live. or be an illusionists)