Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Role-playing combat

Personally I have a very simple model of role-playing games, be they pen & paper, single-player on a computer, or massively multiplayer online: In general these games consist of a "basic repeatable unit", usually combat, which happens in minor variations over and over. And between those repeatable units of combat, there is something that chains them all together into some sort of story or world. By definition the combat part is more repetitive than the non-combat part, because even if you always fight different monsters, the player(s) will always use the same set(s) of abilities.

Of course no model is ever the absolute truth. But quite a lot of games follow this pattern of fights repeatedly happening inside a story. And for me that has consequences on how I approach combat in a pen & paper setting: I think combat is something the outcome of which is best left to a rules system and random dice rolls. I am not a huge fan of Deus Ex Machina interventions from the game master. Nor of excessive role-playing of combat action which influences the outcome.

That is not to say that in my campaign nobody can "swing from the chandelier" as an action in combat. Innovative use of terrain or abilities is very much encouraged, and can have positive modifiers on dice rolls to determine an outcome. But I sure don't want long descriptions of how the fighter is swinging his sword with a large influence on whether he hits of misses based on his description. It is because I assume that the fighter is going to swing that sword very, very often over his career that I consider role-playing that swing of the sword to be superfluous.

I am well aware that there is a risk of people just rolling dice and not describing any action in combat. But as long as this is just for combat, of which there are many, I don't really have a problem with somebody not role-playing in combat. Quite often I find there are interesting or funny situations arising just from people using their combat abilities or movement. And some people are naturally more likely to role-play what they do than others.

So what do you think about role-playing combat actions? How much of it is just fluff, and in how far should it affect the outcome of combat? Can you play without it?

There are some RPGs which encourage players to describe combat more actively, by having an optional bonus (or drama points, or whatever they are called) if the GM and other players like your description.

When I have tried this (it was a wuxia style setting), it worked really well, players got really into it and were suggesting cool combat maneuvers to each other.

So there is that.
I think it's pretty clear that none of your players' characters are going to die in combat (except when they go out of their way to try). If they are overwhelmed, I know you will find some way of not killing them, such as having them disarmed and taken prisoner, having them knocked unconscious and their attacker switch to another target, having their attacker killed, having the 7th cavalry come charging over the hill, or some other Deus Ex Machina device to keep them alive. That's preferable to trying to find a way to introduce a new character to the group for the player whose character died, and to deal with the players' passive aggression at you killing the character they had invested so much in.

That being the case, isn't it more enjoyable to role-play the combat and not bother with the dice too much. And by role-playing I don't mean "I swing my Sword of a Thousand Truths at the kobold". Like you say, that's a given. Your players know before the encounter begins that you aren't going to kill their characters, so why not see how inventive they can be?

I wonder if less combat might be even more enjoyable? They can't die, but they can fail to solve puzzles and fail at diplomacy without their characters dying, so perhaps that's where the challenge lies? For instance, reading the accounts of the Selune campaign, nobody cares about the minutiae of combat, which is why you've not bothered recording much of it. We are interested in the role-play/story aspects - for instance discovering the spy in the camp and the group's response to that discovery.

My group used to do this all the time, but it wouldn't give you a significant advantage. Maybe it helped you avoid a hit, or perhaps allowed you to skip ahead in the initiative (a bit).

Also thinking outside the box was promoted. Luring people into a 2x2 room and then having the mage ambush-fireball them would be rewarded handsomely, perhaps even with insta-kills if the PCs were facing simple minions. The rogue getting a critical when backstabbing a simple NPC? That prompted a detailed description on how he just slit that guys throat.

Those types of things usually left the characters with feelings of empowerment and were part of the "remember when we..." conversations that would pop up now and again. No god-mode though and it couldn't be used to bypass combat frequently. Those things were uncommon.

When I have tried this (it was a wuxia style setting), it worked really well, players got really into it and were suggesting cool combat maneuvers to each other.

Was it Exalted?
I think really evil DM may require his spellcasting players correctly recite vocal components and perform somatic components of the spell they are trying to cast (in addition to having tokens for material components). :)
White Wolf's Exalted uses a mechanic to encourage descriptive fight scenes, because it's meant to be over-the-top wire-fu-style action. Basically, the players describe their combat actions in what's called a 'stunt'. If they just describe what they're doing, it's a 1-point stunt; if they incorporate their environment (eg swinging from the chandeliers; acrobatically bouncing off the walls, etc) it's a 2-point stunt, and if it's a truly epic and inventive move that would draw gasps and applause in a cinema, it's a 3-point stunt. This is at the GM's adjudication, though.

Stunts allow you to add extra dice to your dice pool, depending on how good your stunt was, or regain one of your limited 'power' resources. It's very clear, though, that the stunt is what your character is *attempting* to do, and the dice rolls dictate the actual outcome. You might say "I use the momentum of my approach to slide between the giant's legs, slashing at his hamstring as I slide through" (which would probably be a 1-point stunt), but just because you've said it doesn't mean it happens -- if you flub your attack roll, the GM will make it clear how your attempt fails, usually in a way that ties in with what you described as your stunt.

It works out really well, and suits the style of game - it gives the players a good incentive to get involved in making the fight scenes exciting and impressive, without allowing them to actually dictate the end results.
I tend to linger on the exciting bits or the unusual stuff during a combat, and encourage the players to describe it....but otherwise I'm of the same mindset that narrating every sword blow is a bit tedious, especially in systems like 4E or Pathfinder where combat already takes a while to resolve. That said, when someone gets a killing blow, a cool critical hit, or otherwise does something out of the ordinary, that's the stuff everyone at the table likes to focus on.
I think it's pretty clear that none of your players' characters are going to die in combat

Completely wrong. The only thing I make sure of is that they aren't doomed from the start, and thus I use recommended sums of monster xp for a given player level and group size. After that, it's hands off. If the dice fall badly and somebody dies, or even the whole group wipes, than that is it.

That is exactly the beauty of not making combat too dependant of arbitrary DM intervention! If combat depends on player actions and dice rolls, it is okay for them to die, because they don't feel unfairly targeted. But if a player dies from the DM having at a whim decided that he's breaking his neck when swinging from the chandelier, then the player will rightly perceive that as unfair.
Combat for my group is about the sytem rules, the dice and the tactics. So we don't roleplay combat much at all beyond describing actions, consequences - tactics and so forth. When I DM I may well give NPCs some in-character flourishes, but I do not expect that or reward that from the players.

That is balanced by healthy doses of non-combat activities (investigation/roleplayed conversations etc). But we never give bonuses for roleplaying combat.
The more I think about it the more I realize I never liked the Role Playing aspects of role playing games. For me it was always about playing the game and playing a role in that game, not acting that role in anyways. For instance I've always hated having to role play discussions. I'd rather direct what my character will do than actually figure out the wording of a conversation in real time. So far as combat goes I seem to remember that most games I played allowed for called shots of one kind or another, they were of course much more difficult to achieve.
But if a player dies from the DM having at a whim decided that he's breaking his neck when swinging from the chandelier, then the player will rightly perceive that as unfair.

The trick is to not have critical successes or disasters at the whim of the GM. If the player is warned that "it really is pretty high, are you sure?" and then he proceedes to completely botch his Acrobatics roll, followed by a botched Reflex save, well... hello Mr. Quadraplegic.

If played right, that critical disaster could even lead to sub-arcs within the campaign, with the party rushing off the heal their comrade, secure a rare herb or whatever.
and then he proceedes to completely botch his Acrobatics roll, followed by a botched Reflex save, well... hello Mr. Quadraplegic.

In that case at least you can point to the dice. But there are diceless systems in which it would simply be the decision of the DM whether the action succeeds or not. That is bound to cause trouble if the result is highly negative.
When I play 4e, I vary the amount of descriptive combat I use based on many factors. Pace of the game, the character, and the powers themselves all factor in. For example, I don't want to add an extra ten seconds of description onto every action of mine if it's 1:30 in the morning and people are looking to make it home soon.

On the other hand, sometimes I design characters that require lots of reskinning. I recently played a monk reskinned as an eladrin smuggler/gambler-turned swashbuckling hero. He wasn't going to use powers like "Eagle Claw Strike" or "Wind Whipping Willows," so I'd describe him tumbling about the battlefield and lunging with his sword to justify all the burst and blast attacks. If the power doesn't make sense as written, descriptive combat can help.

Finally, I think certain powers themselves demand explanation. The Fighter's "Come and Get It" is a good example. If you can describe a good reason why all of the baddies charge the fighter, then that power makes a lot more sense.
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