Please note: The Usual Disclaimer, as always, applies.
As part of my running of games over the past however many years, I've noticed a trend in my own GM style - over time, I've moved from a maths-based simulationist way of running combat, to a narrative method of running combat. And, in my experience, it provides a far more entertaining method (for my players) of running combat encounters, be they in D&D or anything else.
Allow me to explain.
The Point of Combat
We're going to get a bit abstract here. Let's start by thinking about what the actual point of combat encounters is. What is it that we're trying to achieve. Obviously what we're doing in a specific sense is that we're challenging the players. But in a more meta sense, we're building tension by introducing threat.
Now, there's lots of other ways to create threat in your game, and I've written before now about the problem that I see when combat becomes the default mechanism for challenging the players. However, be that as it may, that's what combat exists to do - to create an obstacle for the players, which they can hopefully overcome, which has consequences if they fail (namely death/TPK). However, other types of encounter and challenge are the subject for another post I'll be writing soon.
For now, let's just think about this initial concept: the point of combat is to build tension by creating threat. Why do we want to do that? I'd argue that it's to make the players feel something - worry; dread; excitement; fear; anger... And then afterwards, to feel something else. If they win, relief, camaraderie and so on. If they lose, sorrow, desperation, a need to get even.
It's this emotional journey which we're aiming to take the players on that should be why we're creating encounters. So how can we better run that?
A Narrative View of Encounter Building
My view is that encounters should be built around creating a miniature with four parts:
- An objective set
- The journey
- An "oh s^&t" moment
This structure creates tension and resolution perfectly. We create a situation in which the players have an objective given to them, which they can choose to engage with or ignore and continue about their business. Next we take the players on a journey through narrative and see them work out how to achieve it. Then we throw in a roadblock, and make it seem like they're going to fail (this is where the tension and obstacle comes in). Finally we pay off the encounter with their success or failure, depending on what happens.
If that's our basic framework, then for combat, it's obvious how this plays out. Let's use an example from film to look at it...
An objective set: survive
Although this is obviously a combat example, it follows nicely, and everyone knows it. The stages are:
- The arm of Saruman comes to Helm's Deep, and they must now fight to survive.
- The Elves turn up, bringing hope. The battle commences and they're doing OK.
- The wall is breached and falls.
- They ride out, Gandalf turns up and the day is saved, at great cost.
This sort of structure let's us play with an encounter, without resorting to maths, but it's going to require a rewrite of how we run it, which ditches much of what we know about our RPGs for combat.
Combat as Narrative
If we want to create a narrative, then whilst players will be rolling dice to see what happens, we're going to be far more fluid with how our NPCs do, because we're more concerned with creating something that's a powerful emotional experience, than something where maths reigns over all.
Let's say our group of players are in the mountains, tracking down a lost item, when they stumble across a group of antagonists. In our narrative-based encounter, we can simply decide based on the location what makes sense for them to find. Maybe it's cave trolls, or stone giants, or rock gnomes. Bilbo doesn't encounter trolls because they're a level-appropriate enemy. In Narnia, the children don't meet the White Witch because shes a similar level to them. They're mechanisms for good storytelling. In the same vein, we simply pick something that works given the location.
Next we establish threat. The group are trespassing on land owned by the giants, who demand payment or violence will ensue. Violence then ensues. Rather than having the giants go all-out however, we could find ways to make the combat more interesting. The players could outmaneuver the giants, they could negotiate their way around, they could fight but use each other as distractions to turn the giant's strength against them... Or the giants could win, and kick the players back down the mountain, to come up with another way to re-engage and win, or avoid them altogether.
The thing is, most GMs could, if they wanted, squash the party at any point. However, that's not fun. What's fun is seeing the players struggle, find creative ways to overcome their opponents, and then overcome the obstacle in their way. Or even lose, and then return later to win. For example:
He'll be back
This shows us interesting things about our villain, establishes him as vastly capable, even above the heights of our very capable hero, and creates personal stakes, so next time they fight, it's going to be epic.
This is the sort of story that you can create with normal encounter building, but you're reliant on the luck of the dice to give a good story, or not. This is the value of allowing the power of your NPCs to be deeply flexible - you can adjust to the capacity of the party, creature failure that doesn't end in death or a TPK, and ensure that the journey of your players is always one that's rewarding.
Quick Rules of Thumb
By way of summary:
- Consider the narrative before creating the encounter - use what makes sense, not just what's the right level of difficulty
- Adjust difficulty by being flexible on hit points and damage output
- Having fewer, better opponents is generally better than a pile of simpler ones. An opponent or two for four players, with an extra for each extra player works nicely
- Not all encounters have to be hard, and not all have to be winnable
- There's more ways for the players to lose than just death
- The tougher the opponent, the more flexible you'll have to be in what happens - rules (especially in D&D) break down at high level play
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