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Random DM Tips: Running Combat

An Essay by Justin Alexander

1. ROLL INITIATIVE LAST: Have your players roll their initiatives at the end of combat. Use this initiative for the next combat. (Initiative modifiers essentially never change, so it doesn't really matter when you roll the check.) When it looks like the PCs are about to encounter something, roll for its initiative and slot it into the order. If they don't encounter it for some reason, no big deal. If they don't actually encounter it, no big deal.

Using this method, by the time combat starts, initiative is already completely resolved. As a result, there's no delay while you ask for initiative, the dice are rolled, your players tell you their results, and then you sort the results into order. This allows you to start combat off with a bang and keep the ball rolling with that same high intensity. It means that when the players are ambushed, you can maintain that adrenaline rush of surprise instead of immediately undermining it with the mundane task of collecting initiative.

This method also means that initiative results are generally being collected at a time when other bookkeeping chores are being done anyway: After the heat of battle, wounds are being healed; corpses are being looted; equipment lists are being updated; and options are being discussed.

2. INITIATIVE CARDS: Write the names of each PC on an index card. Do the same for each group of NPCs. When initiative is rolled, jot down the result on the PC's or NPC's card and then sort them into order. During combat you can just flip from one card to the next. If someone readies or delays an action, turn their card sideways so it sticks up. When they take that action, pull the card out and put it back in the rotation.

3. INITIAL PRESENTATION: The other thing which can deflate the initial tension of a battle is the set-up for the battle. Sketching the scene on the battlemap and positioning the miniatures takes time. Learn to work your set-up into the presentation of the battle:

"Suddenly you hear the mournful baying of wolves and the battle horns of orcs!" <as you say this, start sketching the scene on the battlemap> "Aragorn, what are you doing?" <finish sketching the map as you go around the table and find out what the PCs' first action is going to be> "Over the top of the ridge a dozen warg riders suddenly surge into view!" <begin placing the warg rider miniatures as you say this> "Aragorn, you're first: What are you doing?" <finish placing the warg riders as Aragorn declares his action, then more smoothly into resolving his action>

The point is that you're putting out the enemy figurines (even if they're not dramatically painted miniatures) can be a dramatic moment in itself, if you make it the moment of revelation. On more than one occasion I've had players murmur "oh shit" or "how many of them ARE there?" as the number of miniatures comes out onto the table.

It's also not a bad idea to get an erasable battlemap and use it more often than not. Even if the players aren't going to be fighting in a particular room, the visual reference isn't going to kill anybody. And it helps to have a firm visual reference of positioning even when you're not in combat. (When a trap goes off, for example.)

And the pay-off when you can reach down into a drawer; declare, "Suddenly, out of the black abyss, a black dragon emerges!"; pull the miniature out and, with a dramatic swoop, place it on the battlemap is totally worth it.

Also: When you're drawing a battlemap, don't sweat the details. If you're off by 5 feet, your players are never going to know.

Of course, if you don't use a battlemap (which is more than possible in D&D, despite what some would tell you), none of this makes the least difference to you. Get initiative preemptively out of the way and you're good to go.

4. GLASS BEADS: If you're fortunate enough to be able to always have enough miniatures at hand to cover every single monster in the scenario, then you're a lucky bastard and the rest of us resent you terribly.

While we're resenting you, however, we're going to head down to our Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store and buy some of those glass beads that people use as counters for CCGs and the like. For $10-15 you can pick up more than a hundred beads in fix or six different colors. These are great: Not only are they cheap, but they can also be used to stand-in for miscellaneous battlefield scenery and the like. (Use the green ones for trees.)

Some people recommend dice for the same purpose. Dice have the advantage that you can use different numbers on each die to represent different creatures within the group. But the problem is that there are dice flying all over the table during combat as people make their rolls. The counters are easily distinguishable and, if they (or the table) are bumped, they aren't designed to roll away.

I’ve been known to start epic combats against a horde of mooks by literally pouring a handful of counters out on the edge of the map (”Suddenly, on the far side of the cavern, a horde of goblins — hooting and gibbering in their barbaric tongue — leaps up from their hiding places!”) and then rapidly shifting them to make sure they’re all in different spaces.

5. CHEAT SHEETS: I use three useful cheat sheets during combat:

  • A cheat sheet with key PC stats, particularly armor class. One of the biggest things that used to slow down my combats was having to ask, "What's your AC?" and then waiting for the player to look at his sheet. If your party has a lot of abilities which cause their ACs to move around (like a rogue using Combat Expertise a lot), get a whiteboard and have the players update their AC on the whiteboard whenever it changes.
  • A separate cheat sheet with the monster stats on them. I generally find that having all the stats for a monster on one page, in a large font (12 or 14 pt.), makes it a lot easier to find the information that I want quickly.
  • A cheat sheet briefly summarizing the mechanics for all the combat maneuvers in bullet-point style. My version of this is about two and a half pages long and it makes a huge difference. Sure, there's still the occasional need for a manual look-up when I need to know a particular detail, but generally glancing at the cheat sheet is enough to jog my memory.

Basically, you want to get rid of as many interactions in which you're just asking people for a number or waiting for someone to roll the dice as possible. You also want to get rid of any dead space created by simply flipping through pages trying to find the information that you need. "What's your AC?" is a big one. "I rolled X on my saving throw, did I save?" is another. Which brings us to:

6. BE OPEN WITH YOUR TARGET NUMBERS: The uncertainty of rolling against a DC you don't know can certainly increase tension for the PCs, but it gobbles up time. A good compromise here is to let the first few roles be made in the dark, but then be open about what the number you're looking for is. And only do this when you can use it to good narrative effect.

For example, it can be effective to say, "Your shot is true, but you're shocked to see it shatter on the creature's skin as if you had struck a wall of stone." That serves as a revelation of the creature's nature (high natural armor bonus). But after a couple of rounds you can simply announce the AC and move on (they're going to figure it out eventually in any case). And if they're just fighting bog-standard goblins in scalemail, there's really no reason not to let them know what the AC is from the get-go.

7. MULTITASK: Waiting for a player to make his attack roll? Ask the next player what they're planning to do. Did one of your monsters just drop a fireball on half the party? Ask them for their saving throws and then -- while they're rolling -- move on to the next monster and resolve its action. (In the case of a fireball you can also announce what the damage is, what the DC of the save is, and then let the players proceed with rolling their saves while you move on to the next set of tasks.)

You can also encourage players to multitask in small ways. For example, one common trick is to roll your attacks and your damage at the same time. If the attack roll results in a miss, you can just ignore the damage roll. But if the attack roll hits, there's no delay while damage dice are picked up and rolled.

8. ROLL A LOT OF DICE: Invest in a lot of d20s. Then, when the mooks are attacking en masse, roll all their attacks at once. I use a simple left-to-right metric: The dice which ends up furthest to the left after rolling is assigned to the monster farthest to the right in my field of vision. In a lot of cases, there'll be multiple mooks on one target -- as long as they've all got the same stats, I can roll all of their attacks at once without really worrying about exactly which die goes to which monster.

Some people suggest using color-coded dice instead: For example, the blue die might be monster #1, the yellow die might by monster #2, and so forth. I've found that this can work fairly well at low levels, but once iterative attacks kick in I find the color-coding is more useful to distinguish between iterative attacks. (All the black dice are attacks at the highest BAB, all the blue dice are attacks at the second highest BAB, and so forth.)

9. BE DESCRIPTIVE: Don't let a quest for speedy combat resolution reduce combat to nothing more than completely abstract and rapid-fire dice rolls. It doesn't matter how fast you roll the dice: If you've taken all the flavor and excitement out of the experience, even the shortest combats will still feel tedious.

So, describe the rapid flurry of blows. Describe the blood flowing. Describe the awesome wuxia swordplay. Describe the grunting and the sweating. Describe the amazing near misses. Describe the steel beating on steel. Be imaginative and remember that not every descriptive element needs a mechanical representation: A person can be staggered by a blow without necessarily being dazed. A person can be knocked back a step without actually repositioning themselves on the combat grid.

Here's an exercise I do every once in awhile: Take a really great fight film -- like The Matrix or 300 or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- and narrate the action as it happens on screen, as if you were describing it to your gaming group. It sounds corny, but it builds your repertoire and helps loosen up your description instincts.

One more tip: Don't feel like you need to narrate every roll of the dice. Sometimes its okay to just let the dice speak for themselves. Sometimes its better to resolve a couple or three actions and then weave them into a post facto description. The orc misses his attack roll, then the player makes his, but the damage roll is low. Thus: "The orc throws his entire body into swinging his axe. You easily sidestep the obvious and awkward blow and counter-attack with a dextrous thrust. But the orc manages to twist his body lithely to one side so that your sword only scratches his arm. The orc turns that twist into a save counterblow which <roll the orc's next attack> swings wildly over your head as you duck under it at the last possible second."

10. DESIGN INTERESTING SCENARIOS: Try to shake things up every three or four combats by adding some sort of "spice" to the encounter. This might be an unusual tactic by an opponent (for example, pulling some of the PCs onto the ethereal plane in order to split their forces). This might be unusual terrain (fighting on a cliff-face or a rain-slicked street). It might be a location with interesting props (a bazaar where rickety tables are destroyed or a building that catches on fire).

Just a little something extra that breaks up the monotony, possibly disrupts the normal PC tactics, and makes the combat a little more memorable and unique.

Not every interesting scenario will require a new mechanic. But if it does, try to keep it simple. A rain-slicked street can be modeled by requiring a Balance check (DC 10) whenever the PCs run or charge. A bazaar full of rickety tables might require a Reflex save (DC 12) to avoid hitting a table (hardness 5, 6 hp). Don't ask your players to learn complex new mechanics just for the sake of the encounter -- you'll spend more time explaining the mechanics than you will enjoying them.

11. BE JOHN WOO, JACK KIRBY, AND STEVE DITKO: Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man. Jack Kirby basically co-created every other classic Marvel superhero of note. And John Woo essentially created the modern gun-fu genre. What these creators have in common is their ability to create dynamic and exciting action sequences without putting their stories on hold. With most comic books and action movies, you can literally remove the fight scenes and insert a placard which reads "They Fight" and lose nothing except some cool visuals: All of the character development and important plot points happen when people aren't throwing punches. 

But you can't do that with a story by Woo, Kirby, or Ditko: The fights scenes are an integral part of the story. They are a crucible in which characters are revealed and developed. The plot continues to flow and evolve. The fact that they're incredibly awesome fights is just sauce for the goose.

Try to find that same quality in your own fight scenes. Ask yourself what purpose a fight can serve other than just straight-up violence.

Even a properly designed random encounter can serve as a source of information or character development: For example, in my Rappan Athuk campaign one of the frequent random encounters in the dungeon was with gelatinous cubes. The PCs had been wondering what was responsible for cleaning out the corpses they left behind them, and when they encountered the gelatinous cubes a light bulb went on over their heads. It was a minor thing, but those gelatinous cubes still stick out in the memory. 

12. TRAINING SCENARIOS: Quite a few people have annoying sections of the combat rules that they're constantly having to look up. Tripping, for example, is usually high on the list. Grappling and mounted combat are other common examples.

Here's a suggestion: Design a few combat scenarios in which a particular set of rules will be used over and over and over again.

For example, maybe the villains of your next adventure can have their combat tactics developed around tandem tripping combos (one villain trips the target and then the others beat up on the prone character). Familiarize yourself with the rules for this one specific combat maneuver, and then use the game session as a way to cram both your players and yourself on them. By the time you've resolved the twentieth trip attack in less than an hour, you'll have those rules down pat. (Which means that it will be a lot easier to throw a few random trips into your normal fights, which will help you spice them up with a little variety.)

Ultimately, we learn best by doing.  This is why we know how to resolve a sword swing so well: We do it several dozen times a night. 

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