Monday, 17 December 2018

TFP DMG: How To Run Combat

To my surprise and delight, there are people out there running my rules as-is!
This is wonderful, but also made me realise that I've got a lot of assumptions about how to run a game that don't necessarily come through!



Getting in Fights

The classic OSR rhetoric is to say that "combat is a failure state".
That is, the optimal tactic is to avoid combat at all costs.

This is true but let's be honest - violence is both inevitable and interesting.

Let's get into it!





Real Basic Assumptions


Let the dice run the combat.

Congrats! You've become a part of the audience with your players!
It's not your show any more, you're here to be an interpreter.
Sit back, relax, and get worried with your players when it looks like they're at risk.
Remember: It's not your fault. It's the dice.


Roll in the open.

Roll monster attacks and damage and everything in the open. It's fun, means you can't fudge, and shows newbies more examples of how the game works.
Plus the players get to celebrate or despair when they see what you just rolled with a big baddie.


Explain what you're doing.

Get into the habit of saying "this guy has 14 AC because his skin is like leather" or "this thing has a +4 to hit because it's got a whip-quick lashing neck like a snake" or "the poison bite gives you bleed poison equal to damage".
Not only does this help people understand how the game works under the hood, but their character can probably tell that a living statue will be harder to hurt than a robed tentacle cultist.


Simple initiative.

Simple, aka side-by-side initiative, is when each side (DM and player) has all their turns, then the other side has all their turns.
Roll 1d6 per side, highest wins, players win ties since I'm nice.
Not only does this speed up the actual game around the table and allow greater player cooperation, rerolling initiative each round has the added bonus of occasionally letting one side have two turns in a row.
Truly the easiest way to chuck balance out the window and watch it splatter on the pavement below.
There's little more nail-biting than an initiative roll when someone's about to die and facing down a massive hit from a big monster.


Be lenient.

Combat is messy. It's easy for a player to have a different idea in their head of what the situation is compared to you.
If someone says they're doing something, make sure of two things:
- The intent. What is the outcome they're hoping for?
- The consequences. What happens if it doesn't work out?
These are usually pretty obvious, but if you notice somebody trying to do something exceptionally stupid or impossible make sure you (and they) are on the same page.


Justify results retroactively.

Whatever you rolled, make up a reason why it happened! Or even better, work with the players to work out why it happened.
"These massive dragon jaws, this huge mouth comes down, about to bite you in half, and holy shit a fumble wait wait ok... it's stunned!?... what even happened here?!"
"THE SOUL OF ARACH-NACHA DID IT!"
Divining meaning from randomness is the heart of this game after all!


Read this.

It's half a decade old but this post about simple combat from Zak is still fucking solid.



I give this handy combat option summary to Fighters, so they can be the ones who tell people how best to fight
Link.





Fuck it I stab him - Adjudicating Players in Combat

Violence

I've got three ways to resolve PC violence:
- Attack. Your classic roll to hit then roll for damage.
- Wrestle. For when they get in close and grapply.
- Gambit. Combat manouevres and other cool moves.

Attack.

Any time someone simply wants to make something die with their weapon, it's a regular Attack.

1d20 + modifiers vs AC. On hit, roll damage.

Players have got a fair few options for messing with the attack roll, mostly centred around weapon type modifiers (see Fighter handout above).
Also if multiple PCs are Flanking an enemy, they can roll Backstab on hit to upgrade it to a crit.
Most PCs only have a 1 in 6 chance of this, but Specialists and people who chucked in a point or two for Failed Career might bring their chance up.

One good thing about an Attack that might not be obvious is that you're not opening yourself up to immediate repercussions. If you Wrestle or Gambit you might get hurt on your own turn!

Wrestle.

Usually comes up when someone says "I want to stop her from attacking" or "I tackle them!", very useful for resolving PC-on-PC conflict where nobody actually wants to hurt each other.
Monsters love to wrestle too, so another common reason is "I want to get this off me!"

Contested d20 roll, melee bonus applies. Winner chooses Hold, Disarm, Brawl or Kick Away.
Hold: Try to pin them. Three Holds in a row makes them pinned and helpless.
Disarm: Snatch something from them, or throw something they're holding away.
Brawl: Deal damage with Small, Minor or natural weapons.
Kick Away: Kick them back in the direction of your choice.


One interesting thing to note is that since it's a contested d20 roll, wrestling effectively bypasses armour. The only exception is that Shanky weapons like daggers get a bonus Brawl attack if your Wrestle roll beats their AC - win or lose.
Sometimes it's better to wrestle an armoured foe and shank him in the ribs rather than keep plinking away at his armour, especially if he's got a larger weapon that can't be used to Brawl.

Since starting your go in a Wrestle means your only choice is to roll to Wrestle, it's also a real good option for locking down an enemy that might otherwise run away or attack a friend.

Once the Wrestle gets going you effectively roll twice a combat round - once on each wrestler's go. Since they're both at risk with every roll it makes things feel much more intense.

Gambit.

If they want to do something that's wacky/interesting/otherwise not covered by Attack or Wrestle, it's time to go to Gambit!
My table fucking loves Gambits. They're exciting!

Roll to hit twice.
Two hits - it works like you wanted it to!
Two misses - Ironic reversal, often the thing you wanted to do happens to you.
One hit one miss - partial success or success at cost (I tell you the options, you get to choose).


The advice above about intent and consequences is most important here.
Make sure you're clear on their intent. What happens if they succeed?
Make sure you're all clear on the consequences. What happens if they fail?

Once you're on the same page, say something like "ok so you'll do this if you succeed but this happens if you fail. Still want to do it?"

Sometimes there's a situation where you could adjudicate it as a Wrestle or a Gambit.
An easy example is a disarm - you could do that via a Wrestle (roll off, if you win you can choose to disarm) or via a Gambit (roll to hit twice, on success you've disarmed them).
In a case like this just ask them what they'd prefer, telling them the difference and the stakes.


Non-Violence.

There's a ton of stuff people can do that doesn't directly hurt, hinder or otherwise mess with the agency of others.

Much of the time you can just say "yea that happens". If someone wants to run away or use an item or whatever, just let them do it.

If it feels like there should be some chance of failure, like they want to do something super quickly or while they're in melee or are otherwise in direct danger, make them roll an appropriate skill.

I use Climbing for this fairly often. If there's a real difference in elevation, like you're on the street and want to get up to the fighting on the roof, I'll have you roll Climb to get up there in a hurry.

Even if it's something that seems impossible to do in a single round, like grab an oil flask and stuff a rag in it and light it, feel free to say it takes a few discrete rounds of actions.
In my game this often results in "fine I'll throw the oil and then someone else lights it" which is legit. Teamwork innit!
Also remember - Sleight of Hand to quickly do fiddly things is a legit way to use that skill.

Don't make it too much of a ballache to do non-violent stuff in combat!
The worst thing that can happen is that someone goes "oh fuck it whatever it's too hard, I just stab him" and just attacks instead of doing something more interesting or memorable.





It leaps at you! - Running Monsters in Combat


The main thing with running enemies is that generally you want to run them as quick as possible so the players can get back to making decisions.

What do they do??

You get all sorts of monsters with all sorts of bullshit abilities.
Make sure the powers are easy to adjudicate! Sometimes I'll make a monster and give them some cool fiddly power and oh no turns out I made them come in packs of 2d10 what was I thinking!?

I know Spwack has success with letting monsters use Gambits, but I don't do it personally.
That means monsters are either Attacking (probably with some bullshit monster ability) or Wrestling (monsters love wrestling, especially if they have teeth and claws and/or can jump great distances).

Don't be cagey about why monsters are doing what they're doing.
"It's protecting its master!" or "you hurt it last time!" or whatever.
Hell, if they're tactical enemies have them talk to each other about their tactics!
"Hit the wizard before she casts that spell!" or "stay at a distance from the one with the greatsword!", that sort of thing.

I'd reiterate a bunch of stuff about how to make "simple" monsters fun in combat, but again, Zak did it better long ago.




Sidebar: Monster Wrestling

If multiple monsters gang up on one PC, they could be in trouble!
Since everyone rolls at once and the winner chooses what to do to one of the losers, it's hard to win and hard to kick them all off even if you do win!

Tying a PC down with a few little baddies is a good time, and if they've got Shanky weapons like knives they can all potentially deal damage by beating the PCs AC.


Who do they kill??

Sometimes you know exactly who an enemy is going for, like they're in deadly melee with a PC or they always go for the person with the least HP or they hate goblins.

Other times, I roll and decide why they did what they did after rolling.

A common phrase at my table is "high or low?", meaning that there are two potential targets and you've got to choose whether you're attacked on a 4-6 or a 1-3.
Roll the dice, see who they go for.

Sometimes I weight the results. "Ok you're down and no threat, but they might come to finish you off anyway because you killed their best friend. How about on a 1-2 they go for you and on a 3-6 they go for your friend nearby?"

If someone goes "hey no why are they attacking me?! Why don't they attack that guy?" then rolling to see who they go for is a good shout.






When do they stop??

When you:
- Kill them
- Make them stop
- Run away

Kill them!!

The obvious one! Kill them before they kill you!

I roll monster HP on Xd6+X, where X is HD.
Not necessarily for mechanical consistency reasons, I just have lots of d6s and the bell curves line up. If you've got enough d8s by all means use them!

I've got a couple of gimmicks with monster HP too.

If it's a gang of small enemies, like humans, I'll roll HP in the open after an attack hits them. If they survive, I put the die I just rolled on that enemy to show how much they've got left. (This is easy because I use pennies or other flat tokens for baddies).

For big beefy boys I roll all their HP behind a book or something, then as they're damaged I chuck the dice back into the box behind the screen to show how hurt they are.
It's fun to throw a few back when someone hits with a particularly meaty blow!


Make them stop!!

Morale is the main one! Roll on first death, when there are half left and/or when shit's starting to get slow and it's obvious the PCs are going to win.

Otherwise this is because my players have tried to initiate negotiations or something. If this happens just keep in mind what the enemy probably wants ("not to die" is a common one) and what they've got to bargain with.
I love a chatty baddie, so I'm usually open to this sort of thing!


Run away!!

When the going gets tough, the tough get out of there!
Chase scenes use the snakes and ladders minigame. I've got this on the back of the laminated marching order sheet, so I can flip it for chase scenes!

All you've got to do is work out how fast the baddies are on a scale from 1d10 (fast and light) to 1d4 (slow and clumsy). Since the maximum for an unencumbered character is 1d10, extra super fast enemies might roll on a 1d12.

Since the minigame is intentionally fairly abstract make sure to tie it into the fictional events! If the someone rolled really poorly or particularly well, make up why!







THE BEAST COMETH - Boss Monsters

I don't often use boss monsters. It's a lot of work for something that, if all goes to plan, dies and can't be used again.

But hey, I do them sometimes! Most recently with Elemental Dragons, and usually one-shots end with a big baddie.
Like that one time versus Santa Claus.
And that other time versus Trump.

Basically boss battles work best in a one-shot railroady format, so they turn up a lot then!

What I do use sometimes is a powerful foe with fiddly abilities - and isn't that what a boss monster is when you get right down to it. You don't want to have more than one or two fiddly foes in a battle!

The main thing to remember is that the players have almost always got way more actions and agency and attacks than a lone baddie, and mine have enough alpha strike potential to nuke a single target to the ground in the course of a single turn. Unintuitively, boss monsters are more vulnerable than a mob.
A boss monster that's just a big lone guy with lots of health is going to die.

So how to run them? Be aware of this. Give them abilities that allow them to be a threat outside of turn order. Make sure it's not just one meaty boi in a room - have them call for help.
Sometimes this can be a bullshit aura. Sometimes this can be immunities or resistances to certain attacks. Maybe they fuck with terrain, or have weird abilities that fuck with the players instead of the characters.

On their turn, try to change the battlefield a bit.
Smash characters around with a huge and powerful monster, pounce on the back rank with a fast and leaping monster, command the troops intelligently with a smart and tactical monster.

While your usual rabble might just act at random, give a bit of extra thought to boss monsters and other more complex creatures.
If they're chatty and can negotiate with PCs while they're carving them up, so much the better!







A Final Note on PC Death

Sometimes, a character will die.

For a PC death to feel legit it has to be:
- a consequence of player agency, and
- a known threat

If it feels like the PC had no choice in the matter, or couldn't have done anything to prepare for it, it feels cruel and arbitrary.

Look at Jon Snow up there. He made some dumb fucking choices and deserved to die for those choices, but they were his choices.
If it feels like you've railroaded a PC into a situation where they had no choice but to die, it's bullshit.
If the PC just dies out of nowhere and couldn't have discovered the thing that killed them, it's bullshit.

This is why it's important to telegraph traps, or at the very least telegraph that this is a place where traps are possible. 
It's also why my Death and Dismemberment rules are so complex, it means that you can survive a poorly telegraphed attack better!

Basically, make sure that if a PC dies it's their fault!

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