View Full Version : DM Help Fighting Dirty - For Fun and Profit

2014-06-03, 12:46 PM
I've been playing D&D 3rd Edition and Pathfinder for over a decade and combat has always been rather bland and never close to cool action scenes from movies or video games. And from all the things I've read from other people and the descriptions of encounters in published adventures, that's not just my poor GMing, but kind of the default assumption of how combat works. Square room with clear floor, enemies on one side, PCs on the other. Everyone fight until the other side is dead (which is almost always the monsters.

It's not that the combat rules of any game system actually demand that combat is played that way, but the whole issue of spicing things up is almost never adressed anywhere. The only few mentions I've ever seen was in people saying that OSR games need their battles to be dressed up or they are incredibly boring. More complex games attempt to make the chosing of actions and rolling of dice somewhat entertaining in itself, but that only covers up the fact that you can easily make any fight a lot more complex and exciting.
I've only started actually applying the idea of unique and variable fights very recently, so I'd love to hear everyones ideas and experiences on how to spice up combat.

1. The room is not empty and the floor clear. But in some big furniture like tables or benches, which the combatants have to either walk around, climb over, or shove out of the way. Hang up some curtains that devide rooms and get slashed to pieces in a fight. One attack with a sword may be treated as sufficient to remove them, but an archer or wizard can't aim at anything behind it while it's up.
2. Place range attackers in hard to reach places. In a game with powerful firearms, this can make a simple skirmish extremely dangerous and require a lot of smart tactics from the players to take out the enemies without getting killed. Archers are often not particularly threatening to characters with good defenses, but when there's a bunch of them and you can't easily reach them, they become a lot more bothersome.
3. Learn the rules to trip and throw enemies. These rules are not always immediately obvious and almost everyone I know never bothers with actually using them a couple of times to get them memorized. But the possibilities of fun action with these are endless. Can be a bit problematic against PCs, but when used against weaker opponents there is very often an opportunity to instant-kill some of them with a very long drop on something hard or spikey.
4. Attack with lots of minor enemies. Fighting 20 goblins in a square empty room is super boring. Having such a horde in a situations where other elements make the fight more complicated can make them a lot of fun, though. And it doesn't have to be goblins. At higher level you can also use orcs or human soldiers, who are barely any more threatening.
5. Use multiple entries into a combat area. Keeping the fighters in front and making a wall against a swarm of dire rats is easy. But impossible if they come from four different directions.
6. Give the PCs opportunities to block some entrances to slow down pursuers or protect their backs.
7. If you want to have huge boss monsters for the party, it's very often better not to simply use a creature that is a high level all-rounder. In many games these either don't have the defenses to last long, or they have such strong offenses that they can easily kill any PC who gets a bit unlucky. To have a big boss battle, take a creature with relatively moderate attacks, but significantly boost its hit points. Most creatures are designed with a balance of offense and defense, but for a boss fight, you want a lot of staying power to make it a long fight, but at the same time relatively restrained attacks, as the PCs will also be taking a lot of hits, since the beast stays alive for longer than normal.
8. Almost all creatures want to stay alive. Except for mindless undead and insects, almost everything will try to get out of a fight if winning becomes impossible. If two of your friends just died, that does by no way mean that you will die for sure, they just got unlucky. If twenty of your friends died and there are only three of you left, then it's obvious that you won't stand a chance to win. So when defeat is certain, have enemies attempt to end the fight. This can mean surrender, but more often trying to run away and escape. And in a dungeon, the PCs will never want to let anyone escape. Because that means they will probably alert someone else and then you have to deal with a much larger force that is not suprised.
9. Speaking of surprise. Always begin a fight by determining suprise. The PCs may open a door and find a room full of guards, then everyone is suprised. Or they might first listen on the door and hear the guards, then only the guards will be suprised. Or the door is locked and the PCs try to break it open, but need more than a single attempt, then the PCs will be suprised, but the guards are not. And there's a lot more nasty things enemies can do when they know the PCs are coming, then just drawing their weapons and not being suprised when the door opens.
10. Some enemies might even do tactical retreats and do hit and run attacks. A guy with a ring of invisibility and lots of flasks of alchemist fire won't be fun for the PCs, but can be great for the players.
11. Consider wandering monsters. Wandering monsters are not random! They are specifically selected encounters, which don't wait in a specific room until the PCs arrive. It's a planned encounter, but one that does not have a fixed time or location. By making regular rolls to determine if the wandering monster runs into the party (10 minutes seems to be the traditional standard), the players have an incentive to move quickly.
12. And if in doubt, set something on fire. Fighting on a bride... on Fire!. Escaping in a horse cart... on Fire! A room full of slippery oil... on Fire! Giants throwing boulders... which are on Fire! Fighting giant boars from hell... on Fire!

2014-06-03, 01:15 PM
An interesting read. I would like to add though:

13. Give secondary objectives. Nothing forces improvisation and new tactics like trying to do two (or three) things at the same time. It is an incredibly easy way to break apart the normal fighting pattern and force players to think creatively for a way to solve all things at the same time rather than focussing on a single objective. If nothing else, it forces them to choose.

14. Make the primary objectives something other than killing the opposing side. This works for both monster and PCs and don’t even have to be incompatible.
- Killing a corrupt noble without killing any of his innocent guards is always fun.
- “There are too many goblins, just grab the chalice and let’s fight our way outside”.
- Try to hold the enemy at bay for at least 6 rounds, no need to kill any, just keep them outside the temple for the duration.
- Get to the airship before the others get there, whoever is left behind won’t survive gravity suddenly working again.
- The goblins just want to steal food, not kill anything. But your people need that food to survive the coming winter.
- etc….
The point is, giving any side a new and unexpected objective forces both sides to quickly adapt and alter existing strategems.

2014-06-03, 01:49 PM
15: Make your encounter ask a dramatic question by resolving one or more conflicts. (http://angrydm.com/2013/05/four-things-youve-never-heard-of-that-make-encounters-not-suck/)

2014-06-03, 03:49 PM
Oh yes, Angry DM is pure gold on this. Since I started approching encounters with dramatic questions, I think my adventures have significantly improved. I first was thinking only of actual tactics for combatants during a fight, but the whole situation and context in which the encounter takes place also makes a major difference.
Something taken from the Alexandrian for example, is to never have dungeons which allow only for a single route to get to your "destination". If there are more than one way the party can take, they need to make descisions which dangers they risk facing. This opens up the possibility to have encounters that don't have to be easily beatable for the PCs to reach their goal, and then they can never be sure that the GM will help them to defeat everything they encounter. Sometimes they will have to flee and try a different path.
This can quite significantly change how players approach any combat, and is a motivation to always use smart tactics and make use of every possible advantage. Since you can never be sure a fight will be an automatic victory.

Martin Greywolf
2014-06-04, 05:56 AM
16. Weather. A fight in heavy downpour where you have to get up a muddy slope (balance checks), archers maneuvering so that they have wind in their backs for greater range, fire spells made less effective by heavy rain, trying to outrun both attacking nomads and impending sandstorm...

17. Magical weather. Nothing says magic can't have it's own patterns. Maybe today, evocations are more powerful, or teleports go a bit haywire. Sometimes normal weather may as well be magic weather - waterbender in a rainstorm is the key image here.

18. Enemy equipment. Intelligent enemies usually have weapons. Weapons are made to be used in a certain way. A group of few kobolds with pikes making a corridor into AoO-laden deathtrap, supported by archers. Approach to a lair guarded by a few ballista emplacements.

19. Deep, Deep Defense. Have enemies retreating, when PCs kill a few of them, back to the next line of defense. After three or four layers, PCs will either have to wise up, or fight against overwhelming numbers. Coming to think of it, fight against a big horde of enemies that was recently in a fight and is still injured sounds interesting too.

20. Mounts. Use them, they are often forgotten, and oh-so-much fun to spring on an unsuspecting party.

21. Information Warfare. Tell PCs what they will go against, then change a thing or two. Maybe the orcs hired an ogre shaman, maybe villagers can't tell a difference between a wyvern and a small dragon. That being said, always make it at least somewhat possible to find out enemy composition through appropriate means. Your players will feel so smart and happy.

22. Fighting styles. DnD, save for ToB, isn't really too friendly to them, but still. Even if it's a little detail like that guys' style is unusually stabby, considering he has a sabre, can add a lot of flavor, and fuel for paranoia.

23. If stuck, deploy ninjas. You can think of a reason for their pajama-clad wrath later.

2014-06-04, 08:04 AM
Fighting on a bride... on Fire!.

Oh my. That's better than Tarantino movies. :smallbiggrin: