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Thoughts On Diceless, Free-Form Combat

by Mick McFadden
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I've been playing since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and I've been a dungeon master for at least the last seven years. In all that time, the one thing that has really gotten under my skin is combat... I don't think that it's EVER been done right.

Before I go any further, I must state that the rulebooks, in most genres, suck my ****. The best tip that I can give anyone who is new to DMing (GMing, whatever) is to throw out your damned rulebooks (not literally, they're expensive). Rulebooks are great for teaching the mechanics of the game, but in real playing, they just slow things down. Explain to your players that you don't care if their Magic Missile should do ninety thousand points of damage, as it is YOUR world, and thus, what you say goes. The more my players pull out their books during a session, the more they are punished. Books slow down the game. As I recall, the Dungeon Master's Guide for AD&D (2nd) states that a DM should feel free to discard anything that doesn't work for their world. And why not? A good DM should be able to think on his/her feet, never needing to stop to go and check in some rulebook. So modifications and split second decisions have to be made, for the sake of the plot. I'm getting EXTREMELY off-topic here, so I'm going to stop here for now. Anyone who wishes to hear the remainder of my thesis on being a good DM is welcome to email me.

My point is, that along with my low opinion of rulebooks, I have an even LOWER opinion of dice. Yes, dice. From four sided, all the way up to twenty, and even those damned one hundred sided ball dice. They ruin the game. Don't get me wrong, dice have their place in the game, but combat is not it. Dice should be used for ability checks, saving throws, and the like. But I'll be damned if I'm going to have my plot screwed by dice in combat.

This is all a recent revelation, as I used dice for many long years. But my NPCs and players alike always seemed to roll certain ways at inconvenient times. It drove me insane. So, here is my solution. Live action combat. No, no swords or weapons, just imagination. But, using this makes it all the more real for my players. They learn to think on their feet, as if they were really in the battle. And when there is a crippling blow, they understand how it affects them because I show them the hit. It's very hard to turn players on to this, but once you do, I don't think that either you or your players will ever go back.

It all started when I was playing in my buddy's Ravenloft campaign and I had a wood elf who came from a primitive tribe that traditionally used tomahawk and dagger. (My buddy is actually the one who began using this idea, and I have just built upon it.) He couldn't envision how my elf would fight and he asked me to show him. So I did, and we ended up doing the entire battle showing each other what our characters were doing. No die was ever rolled. When his monster hit my guy, I understood how his movement would be restricted, and accounted for this in my thinking. It was the coolest battle experience I had ever had as a player. I felt like I was in the battle, not just straining to envision what a DM had explained and rolling dice.

Since that night, no die has ever been rolled in my campaign for battle. I get my players up on their feet and show them the battle. Players not involved in the battle are often used to represent my other npcs in the clash. This way, all of them are exposed to the idea, and they learn to think of battle along those lines.

Players my say, "Well, I don't know anything about this weapon, how can I show you?" I tell them to pick weapons that they are comfortable with. Most everybody can figure out swords and daggers, but what about the player that picks some exotic weapon or picks based on damage, without knowing exactly how the weapon works? I tell such individuals that if they truly want such a weapon, they should do some research on its use.

Logic comes into play as well. If I have a two handed sword, I won't be doing any fancy maneuvers with it, at least not until higher levels and with some intense training at that. There's a lot that is strictly the DM's descretion... hit points, armor class, THAC0, all the crap that the books ram down your throat for lack of a better system. I understand the purpose of such stats, though I think them unnecessary. You, as a DM, have it in you to think outside these barriers. This assumption is based on the fact that you have the desire to run a campaign. Use your head, you may even improve on the idea.

I don't deal with hit points. I don't let my players know that, as they all seem infatuated with the stat. I choose to let them have that security blanket. I'm not out to get anyone.... I have no icthing need to kill off characters. Why do I need to worry about such things? When I say they're dead, they're dead. Otherwise, who cares? For times when my players choose to have conflict between their characters, they've got their hit point stats. I don't have use for them.

Missile combat. This is a little more complicated, as you cannot have your archer forty yards away in the confines of your home. Nonetheless, it can still work. Have PCs that are attacking with missile weapons stand outside of the mock fray, where they can get the view. Then, use your head. How good of a shot is this character? Level? Special training with said weapon? Is the view obstructed by anything? Factors such as these, when stated to the player, can help them feel as though they are part of the battle. But, don't just exclude them from being attacked. Maybe an archer fighting for the other side "mysteriously" appears and starts sending volleys towards the character.

Now, I'm starting to sound like a rulebook, so this is where I shall end my ramble. Let me finish by saying one more time, YOU DON'T NEED DICE FOR COMBAT. It's much more realistic, not to mention exciting, to get up and act it out. You and your players will never go back if you present it to them properly.

Good luck!