8 Deadly Combat Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0053

  1. Understand How Deadly Combat Can Help Your Game
  2. Avoid Modifying Rules
  3. Turn Combat Into A Game Within A Game
  4. Use The Players’ Own Tactics Against Them
  5. Let Players Play The Bad Guys
  6. Purposefully Take Prisoners
  7. Have Multiple Foes Focus On The Weakest Characters Vs. Spreading One Foe Out Per Character
  8. Have Foes Give Another, Final Hack To Finish Off
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A Brief Word From Johnn

From Jim Anuszczyk

Hi Johnn!

I have a favor to ask. Wizards of the Coast has stated that 4000 people must sign a petition as proof of interest before they will port the new Master Tools program to the Macintosh. Signing the petition (a web form) is very simple and the page clearly states that the names and email addresses will not be shared with anyone other than Wizards. Would you please consider mentioning this dilemma either in the newsletter or in an email to your subscribers? I’m sure some of the subscribers, like me, use Macs. Thank you.


Have a great week!

Warm regards,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

8 Deadly Combat Tips

Understand How Deadly Combat Can Help Your Game

The spirit of this week’s tips is to have even more fun in your game by making combat more deadly. Your goal should not be to knock off more PCs each session (unless you’re running Paranoia or to flex your game master muscles to show your players who’s boss. Rather, using deadly combat as a technique in your sessions can have any/all of the following benefits:

  • Increased tension and excitement due to the added element of risk.
  • Players avoid unnecessary combat more often.
  • Players seek other solutions to conflicts than combat, and roleplay more often.
  • Players begin to use their heads during combat and perform more creative actions rather than always going toe-to-toe or chop-till-you-drop.
  • Players have more respect for your game world.

Deadly combat can also ruin your campaign. As the players adapt to deadlier combat, so must you:

  • Reduce the number of combat encounters, or at least the need for combat.
  • Always provide players a choice of fighting or not, unless the players make a poor decision which puts them in a combat-only situation.

And watch for players who start powergaming by min/maxing their skills and statistics to become fighting machines. They may be doing this just to survive the deadlier combat, in which case you should address the issue with your players. Perhaps your game is too combat heavy or deadly…

Avoid Modifying Rules

In trying to make combat tougher, avoid modifying your game’s rules or installing new house rules. This is especially true if you make such changes in mid-campaign. The new rule(s) may destroy game balance. It would be a bad blow to your group if PCs died because of an unbalanced new rule–your players would justifiably be upset and frustrated.

Chat with your players and get their opinions and approval on any new rules you’d like to add.

Turn Combat Into A Game Within A Game

This is my favorite tip and, I believe, the best way for you to become one of the best combat encounter game masters out there. This technique takes time, planning and effort, but it’s worth it in the long run!

Your goal is to turn combat into a game within a game for yourself. A self-challenge. The rules are simple: defeat the PCs using the least amount of in-game resources while playing foes to the maximum of their ability.

Doing the most with the least, in other words.

Any GM can bring down a party with super-tough monsters, who are min/maxed to the hilt and armed with powerful artifacts and magic items. But, imagine the pleasure (and reputation!) of taking down a party of skilled adventurers with only a kobold armed with a sharpened stick and runny nose, in a dense forest? Or having a lone stormtrooper, wounded and with no weapons, take-out all the PCs and hi-jack their ship while travelling in deep space.

You need to abide by your game’s own rules and don’t cheat by giving foes non-standard abilities just to tip the scales in your favour. The odds should be stacked against you (even if it’s just because there are more players’ brains vs. just yours). And that’s what makes it fun.

Who cares if the kobold dies? You can create a billion more. But each combat you play, you’ll be learning. You’ll be thinking about tactics and strategies. You’ll be putting yourself in the stormtrooper’s shoes and asking yourself, “what would I do?” You’ll be tracking what works and what doesn’t and building on a growing library of GM knowledge.

It’s the mindset that counts here. You pretend you’re the foes and make the most of it against the characters (which is different than playing GM vs. players–something you should avoid).

It’s a game within a game. And your combat will become much more lethal in the long-run if you play it as such.

Use The Players’ Own Tactics Against Them

Learn from what your players do. Collectively, they have much more brainpower than you. And they have all those moments between turns to visualize and think about what’s going on.

Watch what the players do, notice what works and let your NPCs and monsters employ the same tactics and strategies.

Also, let your players set all the precedents in terms of rules interpretations and actions. If your foes succeed because of a judgement call over an ambiguous rule or a situation which is not covered by the rules, then your players may object or feel you’re being unfair.

But, if you allow your players the first success, then thanks to that favourable judgement call, you are now free to use that same strategy against them in the future. The precedent has been set.

Let Players Play The Bad Guys

As discussed in previous Tips issues, you can make combat much deadlier by letting bored or uninvolved players play the bad guys.

Just step back and watch the fur fly!

Purposefully Take Prisoners

Often, the tip is “take no prisoners”. But, I think if more PCs became the playthings of their foes, then the shame, embarrassment and lack of closure (i.e. death) makes combat much more threatening to the players.

D&D 3E, for example, has very good subdual rules, which foes can use to take characters prisoner more often.

Prisoners can be ransomed back to the party’s mentor/boss (oh the shame!), used as hostages, eaten, used as bait, etc.

The survivors, of course, will try to rescue the prisoners. Just remember Tips #3 & #4 above to make on-going rescue attempts tougher and tougher. Someday, the PCs may just decide to pay the darn ransom rather than attempt a rescue, because it’s safer!

Have Multiple Foes Focus On The Weakest Characters
Vs. Spreading One Foe Out Per Character

Last week I nearly managed to kill the toughest PC in the party with some big fat rats just by focusing the rats’ attacks on that single character. Rather than having the rats attack on masse and spreading them out around the party, I chose to have them leap from hidden places above onto the warrior in pairs, over and over again.

This tactic was pretty effective. But, next session, I’m going to have the rats focus on the weakest characters and then we’ll see some bloodshed!

Have Foes Give Another, Final Hack To Finish Off

When a character goes down, instead of moving the foe onto a new PC, have him deliver a final couple of chops to the downed character to finish the job.

Also, if there’s time, have the foe loot the PC too. That tactic alone will drive your players into a frenzy and their fear of falling in battle will increase dramatically!

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One final word–a repeated word of caution. All of these tips should serve to increase the enjoyment of your games. Deadlier combat often results in more roleplaying and/or more careful thinking by the players. And your goal should be to challenge your players more, not kill more of their characters off every session.

And, if the death rate in your campaign starts to rise, be quick to measure how your players react. If they aren’t liking it, then switch back to your previous style of play, or reduce the amount of combat in your stories (many groups never have any combats at all, or they resolve them with one or two dice rolls and move on).

Do you have any deadly combat tips for other GMs to use, that you could share? Send your tips to: [email protected]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Secret Notes To Encourage Roleplaying

From Omnipotent Dark Overlord

I have found that making each player wary of what the others are up to forms a better caution/inquisitive/aggressive rivalry and makes players compete to be better.

I have two friends that constantly disagree with each other while gaming. Totally fed up with this, I finally started giving them small, handwritten notes that said, in bright red letters, “TOP SECRET; FOR YOUR EYES ONLY… Then I would list a task for them, such as “Keep this information secret for this game and you’ll receive…”

While the first message was being read, the other guy kept saying “What’s it say? When do I get a note?” Then, when they get their note, they get a feel for what the other players are up to. I’ve sometimes only given out one note, with a “…do it or your buddies will get all the good stuff!”

Given the varieties of this ploy, game masters must take great heed to be fair and not play favorites or blatantly lead the adventurers into a sudden demise. Only bad feelings will occur and you’ve missed the point of the exercise.

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A Player’s Perspective On Roleplaying vs. Combat

From Sarah Heacock

There is nothing more frustrating than spending three years rounding your character out, buying things with XP that are in-character–even if they have little to NO effect on the game, developing friendships, and all the other sorts of things that one would consider roleplaying, only to start feeling that your RPing is being used against you.

ie. all of those you have befriended are slaughtered without warning, for one plot or another.

And that those who have created combat-oriented characters are having more successes/better odds of success than simply roleplaying through things. (And having the Story Teller breeze through moments when “all” you are trying to do is develop a relationship for a person, in favor of the tests needed to create a new magical toy or set up the allies for the next big fight.) A character WILL be scarred if they start feeling that their friendship is costing their friends their lives.

It is extremely easy to reward a combat-oriented character (even one that gets that way because they know how to play the rules to make a “weak” physical character effectively strong in combat anyway) for the choices they make in spending XP. From my point of view, it is a lot harder to include backgrounds of characters and what they care about WITHOUT doing it by taking away those things. ie. using it as an impetus to make the character care about where you want their attention focused.

..And a player can start to sense when they are being targeted because they have put care into a character. At which point, there are two options:

  1. You stop RPing the character in order to play “catch up” and try to play the same game the Story Teller is rewarding,
  2. you stop having fun and eventually realize that playing a game you aren’t having fun at, well… what’s the point of play without fun?
[Johnn: Sarah has a good point here about penalizing characters with background elements and characters that are developed well during play. What point is making new friends and having a family if they are just going to be used as future leverage against the PC? Perhaps some balance could be achieved by giving characters as many benefits from these relationships as they receive “penalties”? i.e. a birthday gift, a juicy piece of information, some timely help, some freebies…]
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Helping Players Develop Their Characters

From Indigo Shift

Good issue, as usual…thought I’d throw in my two cents:

Personally, my favorite way of getting my players involved in developing their characters is to sit them down after about their fourth session of playing their new character. This gives them enough time to figure out the basics of their characters’ personalities.

Right before the game, I give each of them a blank sheet of paper and have them write down what they think are their characters’ personal short and long-term goals. I stress to them that these don’t have to be very well thought-out or even “written in stone”; just some basic ideas they can jot down in ten minutes or so. I’m always amazed at how detailed and introspective these goals turn out once I say that.

Once they’re done, I take the sheets and file them away. I wait for about four more sessions to pass, then show these goals to the players again, so they can make any changes they feel necessary. By then, the average player has thought these things through pretty well. I make a copy for them, and keep a copy for myself.

Then I start planning adventures around these goals. You’d be surprised how many of them overlap, or relate to each other. In this way, everyone gets a chance at the spotlight, and (more often than not) everyone gets very involved. Works like a charm, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

And now for something completely silly.

One of the other ways I get players involved in roleplaying other than “hack and slash” is to award “Brownie Points”. I’ve been doing this for five or six years, and to this day I have no idea what the points are redeemable towards. But that doesn’t stop the players from trying to earn them! Go figure.

I do silly things like award 500 Brownie Points to the player who tried their hardest to keep everyone else on task, or 250 Brownie Points to the player who went out to their car to fetch the “mood CD” of the night. I award 1500+ to the player who played in character, even if it meant disaster. Note that I also award regular XP for such things. I think they like it when I say, “Wow! That was great! Give yourself XXXX Brownie Points…”

At this point, I think they realize that I have no clue what these points can be used for, or even if they’re usable at all. They just collect them for fun.

Believe it or not; this really works(!)