Friday, November 27, 2015

Better, Faster Combat: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 50

I'm posting this on Black Friday. I always get that mixed up with Black Sunday...which was a movie I wasn't allowed to watch as a kid, though I saw all the previews. Someone bombs a stadium, I think? Anyway, it's an auspicious day for a Play on Target podcast on Combat, given the fighting in the retail trenches today. It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!

Anyhow it has taken us fifty normal episodes to arrive at one just dealing with combat. Yes, you heard that in your head as you were reading it right. This is our fiftieth show. More if you count our interviews and GM Jams (but let's not because that sounds less cool). This time do a round-table of advice about combat. It makes us sound like blood-thirsty monsters and beasts who have fights every session. Scary! We're not and it isn't (or something...). It's a topic I've written about a little on the blog here. Check out my 33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player & 23 Things I Want From Combat As a GM posts. Note how tremendously wrong I am!

Play on Target: Better, Faster Combat 
Play on Target Episode Roundup

  1. Options and Complexities come at a cost. I know it sounds obvious, but that can get away from you. As a GM I want to have lots of cool details and options for the players: maneuvers, conditions, special actions. But each one potentially adds to the time: through choice paralysis, rules look-up, or time to resolve. GMs who hack and modify should carefully examine combat choices.
  2. One approach is to put most of the choice and special options in the hands of the characters. For example, 13th Age offers little in the way of “global” special maneuvers beyond Grappling and Disengaging. All the cool stuff comes from your class. That works if everyone knows and has a handle on what their character can do. It breaks down when new players join ongoing campaigns and have to play catch-up. The bulk of mastery should lie with the players, but the GM should also have a modest grasp. Not necessarily to prevent abuse, but more to remind players when they have forgotten an obvious option.
  3. Mooks are fun. They’re useful to provide everyone a target and they can “crowd control” the party. But it’s easy to get carried away with these. Unless you have a system for multiple strikes, Mooks and lower powered baddies each take at least a hit to take out. If the player misses, that’s another potential uninteresting action. That can slow a game to a crawl. On the other hand, single Big Bads permit the players to coordinate and pour on the damage. Without support, these will go down faster than you expect.
  4. Play accelerated once I gave up on measuring. I use Zones (from Fate) or relative distance (13th Age) for everything now. Even before that I’d go "yeah, you can move that far," just to keep the fighting moving and interesting.
  5. Know the lethality of your system. How many HP does the average character have? Do any of the PCs have glass ninja builds? That’s especially true with new systems: I ran The Warren and Monster of the Week for the first time last week. They have very different damage/HP mechanics from my usual games. Dial things up slowly- if you massively jump up the difficulty of your fights because you’ve had some weak sessions, you run the risk of blowing out the group. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times. There’s nothing quite like an unearned TPK.
  6. Sometimes players will come up with plans to do things. Schemes, plots, ways around. My instinct in the early days was roll, roll, roll until you die. I had combat ready and they were going to get there. Maybe they’d get an advantage from their plans, but we would get to the fight. Eventually I learned better, but the instinct to push to a sharp and clear conflict can be immense.
  7. Combat shouldn’t be punishment. This was a comment I saw on G+ a few months. If the cost for failing a skill roll (like a Stealth check) or making an uncertain choice is a road bump fight, that’s kind of crappy. Eventually you train your players that doing anything could risk being bogged down in another throwaway row. Consider other options and consequences. Make the fights significant.
  8. FIGURE OUT WHY YOU’RE HAVING THE FIGHT. What are the stakes, who wants what, what could end the fight other than total annihilation?
  9. Shout and point. Works better f2f than online.
  10.  Keep things moving, but give the players enough time to work through what they’re doing. I try to go into one of two modes when I’m listening to actions in combat. 1) Let them talk & describe their actions, and then translate that into the mechanics or 2) Let them declare and then ask for color (what does that look like?).
  11. Support proactive and creative players. If they try alternate approaches, don’t just shut those down. Some things obviously won’t work, but if there’s room in the rules & your play style let that happen. I’ve played with GMs who would assign low chances and almost no benefits to anything beyond swings in combat. So we swung in combat.
  12. If the game doesn’t provide good options for non-combat builds, that might not be a good game unless you want to be playing miniatures. 

Play on Target: Better, Faster Combat 
Play on Target Episode Roundup

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