Monday, February 16, 2009

What I Want from Combat: as a Gamemaster

Better today-- the cold has decided to pause, unsure if it is done or merely gathering up for another round.

Here are some first thoughts on what I want from a combat as a GM. Some of these are mechanics based, some narrative based, and some player/GM interaction based. I'm sure I'll hit more soon, but 23 to start will do. Once I get a full range done, I'll compare this to my player-perspective list and see where they meet and/or disagree.

1. I want the players to enjoy their experience in the combat. They should come away feeling satisfied, even if they lost. They should feel that the combat was either logical or necessary to the plot or that, while it was tangential, it was exciting and cool.

2. Every player should have something to do in the combat. They should be able to do something beyond say “I attack” each round. On the other hand, if that's what they're comfortable with then they should be able to do that.

3. The combat should move fast, with the mechanical aspect not squeezing out the time I have for narrative. A simple combat shouldn't take more than an hour-- a more complex scene more than two hours.

4. The system should be flexible enough that I can fudge and flex things without the system breaking down or those changes being absolutely apparent to the players.

5. That also means I should be able to cheat-- for or against the players-- in order to enhance the narrative. That cheating shouldn't be too obvious.

6. I shouldn't need to use a GM screen-- a can use one if I want, but I shouldn't have to in order to manage the combat system.

7. I shouldn't have to work up every detail of abilities in order to be able to manage a combat. I should be able to run from sketches-- attack/defense values, soak, hit points, some basic powers or attacks.

8. I should be able to put Mooks (as a concept) on the table and have them work with the system-- not just speed bumps but with some risk if not managed by the player.

9. I should be able to cause some damage to the players-- to create a sense of risk. That damage doesn't have to be just KO'ing them-- the system should allow easily for other effects (stun, knockdown, disabled limbs, etc).

10. It should be relatively difficult for me to one-shot the PCs, but it should be feasible in rare instances.

11. The system should discourage Glass Ninjas (can't hit them but they drop when hit) or...I don't know what you'd call them...Iron Butterflies (high soak, but can't do much of anything else).

12. Neither I nor the players should have to go back to the rulebook more than once or twice per fight. There are exceptions for special actions or maneuvers.

13. Players should accept my rulings in play, and if there's a problem, be willing to negotiate those rulings after the session.

14. Players should not bitch about how hard a fight is, especially if they're winning. Not sure how the GM manages this.

15. If I put terrain out on the table (either through description or through miniatures) the system should allow and encourage the players to use that. If they don't make a difference in play, then it is the same as if you had a blank map.

16. Called shots should be effective, but not necessarily easy. If a player takes a risk in making that shot, they should be prepared to miss.

17. Players should gain a benefit from working together-- I'm not sure if the reverse is true-- should the GM be able to penalize for not working together?

18. Initiative should be rolled at the start of the fight and stay in that order. If a player wants to change their place in the initiative, they should have some mechanism to do so.

19. Mages (or those with other funky powers) should be willing to trade off a little straight combat effectiveness for their increased flexibility.

20. Sometimes the story demands that bad guys get away-- players should be willing to accept this every once in a while. The GM ought to make this logical and not abuse this privilege. The GM should be able to offer a benefit or compensation in these circumstances.

21. The system shouldn't require extra maintenance-- special charts or dials or dice types-- that get in the way.

22. There shouldn't be an obvious mechanic or path to victory in all situations. On the other hand, having multiple attack types requiring multiple defense forms can be a pain. The system should have one pool for tracking damage. The example of the worst offender in this case would be DC Heroes. Each of the three attack forms (Physical, Magical, and Mental) had separate pools. This meant that two people dishing out two different attack forms had to both take someone down to zero. It also meant that a person who could take one form of damage, would likely be KO'd by another. So bad guys either had to be resistant to all three or have some people just wiped the table with them. Weaknesses in bad guys are fine, but not to that extreme.

23. Players should be able to track their own abilities easily.


  1. 11. anti-Glass Ninja games, what would be your preference examples? MnM, WoD, D&D, other?

    13. The problem I've seen with this, is when the player builds up an ability/power that they think will be "l33t" and then they get burned when they can't do it. I'm thinking of Charlie in several of my games or Will's character in the MnM game.

    How do you propose to get around/through this situation? If you effectively tell a player at the table, "No, it doesn't work like that," you're setting up a potential arguement or shutdown. Players won't always tell you up front about their cool ability and that can lead up to this situation.

    17. Are the bad guys going to operate like a team or unit? If so, I think the players not working as a team will be a form of punishment. I've seen this happen in many of my games with groups of more than 3 or 4 players. The party splits up, the bad guys are designed to fight as a group (after all, that's what the players have been doing for the past few games), and by the roll of die, I could have wiped them out. I argue that it is not a Glass Ninja effect, but rather a truth.

    Opposite of that, in kaiju's pirate game, when our party acts like a team and really prepares, it seems like there's nothing kaiju can do but sit back and watch us wipe out the NPCs.

  2. 5. That also means I should be able to cheat-- for or against the players-- in order to enhance the narrative. That cheating shouldn't be too obvious.

    I think this totally works, for you. There are some other GM's out there that I wouldn't trust with that power. But a good GM should definitely be able to do this.

    17. No
    Maybe I am not thinking about it the way you are. But, while fighting as a group could be a benefit (especially if you have trained together or know how each other fight) I think each person fighting individually should be neutral, not a negative.

    I could see an individual being at a disadvantage if facing multiple attackers unless they have trained to fight multiple attackers or the multiple attackers are underwhelming.

  3. 5. On Cher Mere's Cheating note: a GM can always cheat if they're a good actor and organized. If not, it becomes obvious and obnoxious. Can you say "That what I rolled," with a straight face?

    9. Any favorite systems on damage?

    11. Iron Butterflies: Paperweights? Siege towers? Fixed positions?

    15. Terrain. MnM tends to make the map pretty useless. There's no bonus for flanking or rear attacks, and if you have even a little movement power you can cover any tactical distance in a half move.

    17. Cooperation: One of the principles I picked up from you is that a PC's skill in combat shouldn't depend on the Player being skilled in rule arcana. If you want the game to be tactical, penalize people for charging without covering fire or letting another PC get flanked. Otherwise, keep it simple.

    18. I like systems where the initiative is fixed. When combat starts, you don't have to have everyone roll, then write down results. On the other hand, I think there should be a mechanism so that you can sacrifice to go earlier.

    On a related note, one of my peeves with the MnM system is that initiative is supposed to be a cycle after the first round. But you can't hold your action until the next round, because then you'd be going 'before' the fast characters. Crazy. That's like saying a horse that's a lap behind is the fastest. MnM's writer has horrible math skills.

    Post Script: Glad you're feeling better!

  4. Reading through Cher Mere's and Gene Ha's comments, let me expand on my comments to number 17.

    If you use my method, which can be seen as a bitch-slap to the players, make sure it's plot driven. It could simply be to remind them to work as a team, or it could be to take a prisoner, or stall them in a fight so something can take place "off screen." Sometimes you have to work this in after-the-fact, but hey, that's part of being a GM.

    And then there's my usual caveat, yes, I'm more heavy-handed then you are!

  5. 17. ...but how do you penalize the player who lets another player get flanked? It's the hapless flankee who is penalized, not the doofus rushing off for the chance at a glorious hit. A stupidity flag? A "you're-so-rude" sticker on the forehead? The GM can only dramatically levy "group penalties"--which are likely to leave little or no impression on someone who's hellbent for a killing blow. Karmic penalties? Not sure how'd that work.

    Basically, the mechanics AND the narrative reward the one who's doing the punching or slashing or blasting.

    Really, let's face it. Combat in RPG is not entirely a goal-oriented pursuit. It is in reality a prize bonanza of cool cookie treats being handed out. Well, if by cookie treats we mean those little gratifying moments where the characters are being acknowledged for being cool or clever or useful or dangerous or badass or whatever-the-frick-it-is-that-black-leather-means.

    Everyone wants a cookie now and again--and some people expect lots of cookies. Getting up there toe-to-toe with the big bad is getting to where the cookie jar is at...and it takes a steely cold leader to slap the hands away and make them line up nicely so that everyone gets a share. And frankly, it's no fun at all to be the steely cold mommy-person ...err... leader and watch the nice orderly line still leave half the kids without a cookie.

    So, at the least, decent rewards for playing as a group. A little color commentary, something... Penalize the glory-hogs by giving them no glory, I suppose--but since the dice are going to hand them the killing blow, I guess you have to be ready to make it the kill that never actually mattered all that much.


    The poor flankee is still back there counting off their rounds of unconsciousness...and there's no cookies to be had there.

  6. " seems like there's nothing kaiju can do but sit back and watch us wipe out the NPCs."

    [sob, sniffle] You guys are meanies.

    I'm still trying to wrap my brain around how opponents in True20 stack up against characters, although I'm glad that there isn't a purely mechanical basis such as "encounter level".

    Generally I try to think about opponents as what seems logical and cool from a story POV instead of "seven lvl.7 PCs vs. seven 7HD creatures" or the like.

  7. kaiju - You know we love you and your game. Not only are you dealing with organized players, you're dealing with experienced players. No worries, man.

    Azumel - You're right, there's no right way to do it. However, I've seen edige do it and I've done it myself and both of us were successful with it. Sometimes, it's not about taking away cookies from the player who's not playing nice, but giving more cookies to the player who's on the losing end. *shrug* Ultimately, it comes down to the group dynamic. I don't think we had a problem with it in the Crux game.