Interesting Combats With Themed Skirmish Groups – Part 2
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #332
Click here to read Part I:
Themed skirmish groups make combats interesting. Players enjoy challenging, unexpected, and unusual foes. As an added bonus, having a theme to design with makes planning and preparation efficient. Last week, we discussed taking the first few steps in crafting a themed skirmish group:
- Craft Unique, Distinct, And Interactive Themes
- Choose An Interesting Game Mechanic For A Skirmish Theme
- What Is Your Goal?
- Determine Your Budget
- Reconfigure Not Invalidate
- Force Interesting Solutions
This week, we finish off the design process and take it into the game.
- Build The Skirmish Unit
Next step is building the themed skirmish unit. You need to create a game element from your game system’s rules so you’ll be ready when the PCs try to attack, outwit, or outmaneuver their foes.
If you aren’t familiar with the game rules, then a themed skirmish group is perfect for you. Its strong concept should give you specific direction in what rules to research and build with. This lets you learn your game system a small chunk at a time.
If your task feels daunting, consider that as a sign your theme is too vague and needs to be reworked a bit. You need to focus on a tight theme, rules-wise, to get the most benefit anyway, so it’s good to design around specific mechanics.
For example, you might have chosen some ranged weapon aliens as your theme. The alien rules for that race are clear, but ranged combat is 12 pages long in the book! That’s a lot of rules to try to narrow down into one skirmish group build. You flip through the section, spot some rules on artillery, which sparks an idea, and you flesh that out until you are able to focus on a small, specific rules sub-set.
Here are some general building tips:
Synergies And Supporting Mechanics
Make a list of synergies and supporting mechanics. This is a handy list to keep around. Update with new information as you find it, and it will become a great cheat sheet to speed up building future skirmish groups.
For example, in D&D, certain skills complement each other. Also, certain combos of feats and skills are particularly effective.
Dependencies And Requirements
You will learn that some themes need certain rules, situations, or other design elements to work. Note these down on a design reference sheet so you don’t follow false trails in the future, and to serve as a reminder while building your current skirmish group.
For example, an alien artillery group might require a certain society tech level (or borrowed tech), one member with the Math skill, a spotter with line-of-sight to the target, and a minimum of 1-minute set-up time after reaching the firing location.
If a dependency or requirement is specific to a theme, then note this in line with your theme notes. Otherwise, craft a global reference sheet with clear labels to help future designs.
In order of preference:
- Build to your chosen theme
- Build to the skirmish group’s primary strength
- Build to other strengths
It’s often best to start building with the design category of offense. How will the skirmish group threaten or endanger the PCs? You could start with defense in mind, but games are more exciting when the PCs are facing risk, and strong defenses tend to be less dramatic (and more time consuming) to play out. As noted previously, you’ll have some sort of budget as well, and it’s best to get the offense schemed out first, within budget, and then use what’s left for defense.
Some categories of offence you might consider designing for:
- Defense penetration
- Specific protection bypass
Build to cover weaknesses that are inherent in the base unit or due to your changes.
The members you pick for your skirmish unit might have hard-coded weaknesses. Spend what budget you have left to shore up those weaknesses.
It’s also important to look at your finished design to see if you’ve inadvertently created new weaknesses. Scan the offence categories list above, only with the PCs’ offensive capabilities in mind, to determine if you’ve created new vulnerabilities.
Note that you don’t always need to fix broken defenses. These are good opportunities to reward PC information gathering and tactics. You also need to ensure the battle is not too difficult for the characters. However, you also need to craft a challenge, and some defensive holes that are obvious and easily exploitable should be repaired.
Ask For Help
Part of the fun in building and combating themed skirmish groups is the challenge. From a GM’s point of view, it’s an art to build a game element that takes advantage of the rules, your style, the players’ styles, and the specific characters, to provide a unique conflict.
From the players’ point of view, they enjoy encountering interesting game elements, especially tough new spins on game elements they’ve encountered before.
However, sometimes you might get writer’s block, you are grappling with new rules, or perhaps you don’t know what you don’t know. So, feel free to ask for help.
- Fan forums
- Publisher forums
- General RPG sites
- RPG newsgroups
- RPG mailing lists
- Fellow GMs who are a phone call or e-mail away
Craft An Identity
It’s important to celebrate your themed skirmish group in the game. It needs to be marked and observed as special by the players. This adds extra excitement, and rewards you for your hard work. It would be a shame if your themed group combatted the PCs and lost without the players ever knowing they were fighting something other than the usual, standard foes.
To ensure the skirmish group gets noticed, and hopefully a little respect, give it a clear identity. Add one or more elements, most often visual, that says, “this is a special foe, beware.”
Advertise The Strengths
Design the group so that some of its strengths are immediately noticeable, to add interest and tension to the encounter.
Though there might be no impact on the game rules, feel free to make things larger than life, extra tough-looking, super-confident. For example, add a belt of opponent heads around each skirmish member’s waist. Increase the foes’ size just to the point before they would trigger a new game rule. Make weapons look razor sharp and specially designed or customized. Have rumors of their dread deeds or amazing prowess precede them.
Theme units with specific color schemes and patterns.
Assign A Cool Name
Give the themed skirmish unit a name. Try to inform the PCs of this name before the unit makes an appearance.
Players know something is up when the GM starts going into extra detail. Usually, you try to disguise this with various techniques so as to not tip the PCs off. In this case, however, use this meta-game thinking to your advantage and heap on the detail.
Give the skirmish unit a personality.
Distinctive Equipment And Clothing
If your game world supports it, give the unit branded equipment. Dress them up in distinctive gear and garments.
Craft A Tactics Sheet
It’s one thing to build a themed skirmish group, it’s another to wield it in-game while you’re trying to juggle several other GMing duties. Give your skirmish group the best chance possible by planning out before the game session good tactics and actions suited to its strengths and weaknesses.
A snag with this plan is that you won’t know for sure the setup and circumstances until the actual events occur during the game session. You can plan for a few typical scenarios, however, and decide how the foes will act and react:
What actions will the foes take to recover from surprise? Use this knowledge to better develop the group’s lair, or the planned encounter’s setting. For example, plan out an escape route, or give them a technique or method to stall until everyone’s ready.
The best method to counteract surprise is for the foes to observe the PCs before the PCs observe them. This requires some anticipation and reconnaissance. It also requires the skirmish group to have skills or equipment to maximize the distance or length of time between first contact and conflict engagement.
What can the skirmish group do to prepare for an upcoming conflict and create advantages for themselves? For example, buff spells, traps, cover, higher ground, and misdirection.
Formation And Position
Consider the optimum positions foes can take to provide each other coverage and protection, as well as increase offensive power.
For example, maybe the group can place a barrier between them and the PCs and soften the PCs up with ranged attacks. Perhaps the group can get a law or guild rule passed that puts the PCs at a disadvantage when a public debate starts. Maybe the skirmish group can place themselves facing the crowd of onlookers, forcing the PCs to have to turn their backs on the crowd, giving the NPCs a small social advantage.
I call a particular situation combined with a particular formation a pattern. A pattern is like a template. Just match up the situation and apply the template to know where to place foes.
For example, if the skirmish group faces spellcasters, then they have two members split and flank their opponents, then start hitting the spellcasters with ranged weapons. You might call this an anti-spellcaster pattern.
In actual gameplay, tactics evolve and get more complex, which is part of the fun. So, you might eventually have an encircled spellcaster template, a rear-guard spellcaster template, and a distanced spellcaster template. These templates might be global (good tactics regardless of skirmish group) or local (specific tactics suited to a particular skirmish group).
As mentioned in the surprise situation, smart foes will have planned out one or more retreat scenarios. These scenarios depend on the goals of the skirmish group. For example, a group’s mission might be to report on the PCs’ strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the number one goal is get at least one skirmish group member back to the base with information after contact with the PCs. A retreat plan might be forming a wall at a bottleneck to give a unit member time to flee.
Prepare For The Encounter
You’ve statted out the NPCs, given them a cool theme and a strong identity, and have their plans and tactics noted. If you have time, you can do a few additional things to help ensure the encounter is entertaining and goes smoothly.
Study the rules relevant to the skirmish group. Print out a copy to reference in-game, or make note of page numbers for fast look-ups.
Do you use miniatures? If so, pick ones to represent the skirmish group and put them aside so you don’t need to go fishing for them during the session.
Will you be using maps, battle maps, or battlemats? Prepare these ahead of time. Pre-draw maps for minis use.
If drawing the maps would reveal too much, then try noting boundaries and dimensions. A sheet full of dots won’t make sense to the players or give the layout away, and I find counting out the squares for big rooms and long corridors time-consuming in-game. Mark dots where big areas begin and end and just connect them in-game.
Likewise, some areas are tricky to draw on a battlemap. You can help yourself by drawing reference points on the battlemap ahead of time. For example, angled walls are easier to draw if you put a dot at the start and end of the segment, and just connect the dots in-game.
Weird caverns are tough to draw too, especially when all the players are staring hard at your artwork. 🙂 So, you might just draw a river that’s in a cavern. The river itself doesn’t give anything away, and you can use it to reference where to draw the rest of the cavern during the game.
It would be fist-shaking-at-the-sky time if the PCs bypassed your themed skirmish group or opted not to engage them. Depending on your style of GMing, consider crafting multiple, interesting hooks to give the skirmish group the best chance possible of engaging the PCs.
With the skirmish group designed ahead of time, you will know lots of interesting facts and details about them. This information makes great clues, hooks, hints, and foreshadowing elements. Make a list and think about how you can seed your game one or more sessions ahead of time to build up anticipation of a confrontation with your themed skirmish group.
GM It And Tweak
Skirmish groups almost never game out to perfection the first time around. It often takes a few encounters with them to get things right. You might forget a special ability, set-up wrong, get a tactic incorrect, miss an obvious weakness, or get mixed up and confused about the rules.
If possible, plan for recurring conflicts between the themed skirmish group and the PCs.
Good retreat plan
The foes escape to return another day.
More than one group
Make the group part of a larger organization, army, or villainous plot. If the PCs defeat the first group, deploy another.
Without duplicating the skirmish group, take what you observed worked in the game and design a new group around those successes.
After game sessions, try to keep a log of what worked well and what didn’t to inform your future designs. Try to track the tactics of the group, the effectiveness and threat level of the foes, the fun factor, time required to play the encounter, and how smooth the encounter went (and what caused delays or problems). Part of gaming is playing and learning. There is no defeat for a GM unless the GM stops gaming or the gaming stops being fun. Take a scientific view to help distance yourself from your designs so you can remain impartial and enjoy your players’ interactions with your designs without things becoming personal. GM your skirmish groups with an eye toward learning, tweaking, and GMing again!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
A Clash Of Culture
From Robert Hubbard
One of the more unexpected monsters that can pop up in a campaign is the beast of culture intolerance. This happens when you travel to a place where one group (or species) has kept a grudge or maintains a different habit of behavior.
Part one: Grudges “If it wasn’t for the peace treaty…”
Gangs have truces and countries declare peace, but people have to hold to them. Players can find themselves in quite a situation when on the opposition’s turf. Trying to walk the line between keeping the peace and not being taken advantage of is only the first hurdle. The other people of their side may need to be restrained by them. Do that often enough and the guard may deputize the group against its will.
Intrigues can form right in front of them. (That wasn’t a real member of my gang!) Subversives in the homeland may try to recruit travelers. Old shippers may need new runners and the old runners will take offense if a rival or enemy gets the job. It’s even more harsh if smugglers are involved.
It’s easy enough to use species’ grudges when they’re obvious. Ogres don’t like dwarves; that’s simple to recognize. But coasthole dwarves have something against bayclifter dwarves. “They’re both hill dwarf stock, but Kobell here says Coasties talk funny, have batty ears, and don’t trade bread.”
Family and clan grudges make for small scale problems in the strangest of places. Shopkeepers may refuse to sell to one person in a group they think they recognize as “one of them” and might go as far as kicking them out. A player hails a cab and gets his ear chewed on about some people only to suddenly realize it’s the cousins they came to get help from.
Part Two: Cultural Quirks “Your shoes are still on indoors?”
Travel to another culture and you’ll find loads of ways to insult them with ignorance. If you didn’t know to walk around Muslim prayer rugs in a home you know now. Most religions have their forbidden temple zones. Some rooms are eunuchs only and there’s only one way to leave alive. You take off your shoes at the door of some Shinto temples. In some countries, bathroom attendants are tipped a minimum (sometimes posted) and their gender can be either. Old private clubs in Germany had attended baths, and it was an insult to the club to refuse their gentile scrubbing. Hat tipping is taken more seriously in some places than others. Then there are gender laws….
In fantasy and futuristic games, the mind can go way out there. Clone intolerance to clone slaves, cyborgs only, mutants only, bioengineering phobia, no elves, no humans, no drakes; all these and more can throw a wrench into the day.
A planet with an arms law requiring a blaster be worn by all adults for the defense against aliens means trouble when you’ve sworn off firearms. And that standard medical kit may turn out to have what’s seen as contraband in the region you just went into. Enclaves that prohibit public dancing. Clubs that hold the right to be offended and refuse the service of a return visit. Races that don’t talk at the dinner table.
Encountering a member of a player’s race that has adopted the culture you’re visiting should throw up some friction at first. Most mountain dwarf men should be disgusted to find some of their kin in a Roman chitton and sandals. Going native can have repercussions when you get back home too.
Only the southern rat rider dwarves make slaves of their giants and everyone else is appalled by it. The temple has penalties for turning your back on the holy shrine. Great King Hipooli has banned red clothes from the palace city.
Lone Wolf Books
From Thorsten Hunsicker
Thumbs up for the newsletter again. I want to share a tip on single player campaigns with the community. In ancient times there was an RPG-novel-like series called Lone Wolf (choose your own adventure type of books). If the winter becomes too cold and long, and nobody wants to come out and play, try to get your hands on some of these RPG-novels.[Comment from Johnn: Joe Dever wrote those books. This site says it’s got official permission from the author to offer the books for free: ProjectAon. I also see a lot of the books available for bid on eBay. Mongoose Publishing has crafted the official Lone Wolf RPG, based on the D&D/d20 rules.
Minis Tip: Use Laser Pointers For Line Of Sight
From Chris H.
When using miniatures for role-playing, I tend to GM with a fair amount of rules leniency when it comes to movement on the map, and try and push for a more cinematic combat. This way, the combats don’t get bogged down in rules details – and I use the dice a lot to resolve situations of whether or not someone is in an area of effect. This is all more of an art than a science (isn’t all GMing?) and it has led to its own share of rules arguments, but not nearly as many as I’ve faced in some miniatures wargames.
One tip that works for either system is to use laser pointers for line of sight. I’ve recently begun using one of those that projects a long line (used for getting pictures and shelves hung straight), and it makes arguments over line of site issues virtually disappear.