His hands trembled as he notched yet another arrow to his bow. Cowering behind a great rock column, he counted out his remaining flights in the dim light of the cave. Not enough. Behind him, the beast let out another gout of flame from its mighty jaws. The heat singed the hairs on the back of his neck, but the fiery breath was wild and untargeted, a burst of fury more than an attack.
He could see the bleeding, broken forms of his friends on the rocky ground. The once-proud warlock now lying shattered under a stalactite. The fighter, burnt by flames, groaning as he rocked in and out of consciousness. The gnome, buried under rock, struggling to breathe. The archer and the wizard, both trembling, frozen by the icy breath of one of the beast’s many heads. He was the last one left.
Of course, he could always run. There was nothing between him and the exit, nothing stopping him from beating a retreat. But then his dying friends would have no hope of survival. Worse than that, the beast would be able to escape into the settlement above. No. He had to stay and fight. He was the last line of defence, and he’d be damned if he left his post at a time like this.
His whole body shaking, sweat and tears mingling with the grit on his face, jolts of pain running through him from a dozen wounds, he spun around. And with those trembling hands he drew the bowstring back, stared into the eyes of the creature and with gritted teeth let loose his arrow…
What makes a combat encounter feel epic? Not just a fun game, not just a well-run session, but a truly awe-inspiring fight that you will end up remembering for years to come even though it happened with inch-high figures on a tabletop. It’s a question that all GMs should ask themselves at some point, as it’s the key to creating fantastic gaming sessions.
I’ve been a GM for nearly nine years, and creating memorable combat encounters was one of the last skills I developed. I think a lot of other GMs probably feel the same way. I’ve seen (and run) so many combats that immediately degenerate into a meaningless slog as the party cut down enemy after enemy in a way that can feel more like a chore than a game.
It took me a little while to work out the key to making combat genuinely epic, and the solution didn’t come from D&D or Savage Worlds or any other roleplaying game. In fact, it came from my experience as a martial artist. While sparring and rolling dice are completely different in many ways, they are similar enough that a nerd like me can learn from them.
See, the first question you have to ask when tackling this question is: “What do my players want?” The answer will depend on the type of game you’re playing, but in general the answer is success. This comes in many forms throughout a game, but we’re only going to look at it regarding combat.
When fighting enemies, the way players experience success is pretty obvious. They succeed when the bad guys are dead, imprisoned, have run away or are otherwise defeated. So far, so simple. The problem is, after a while victory becomes a given. As your players defeat dozens of villains, it loses its impact.
This occurred to me when I was talking to a friend about a recent martial arts session. I had been dumped on my head and mildly concussed by one of the bigger guys in the gym in practice. I realised that I only ever told stories about me getting hurt in some way.
I’ve told people about the time I got choked unconscious, the time I got face-locked so hard it tore an inch-long gash in my bottom lip, the time a guy bit me and the time all the capillaries in my eyes burst. Those are the memorable fights I’ve been in. I rarely ever talk about the sparring sessions I succeeded at, because those don’t make as good stories.
So why is that? I think it’s because there’s a common factor in each one of those sparring mishaps: I succeeded despite them. The guy that bit me? I arm-locked him until he stopped. When I got dumped on my head, I kept holding on to my opponent and ended up securing a choke. Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that I came back onto the mats after getting knocked out.
So, let’s get back to RPGs. How can all those little mishaps help your combat encounters? Well, I’ve started structuring mine in a similar way. If I have a session I want my players to remember, one with heightened drama and a feeling of epicness, I need to make sure they succeed despite the odds.
That’s really important. The best stories in the world are about heroes who overcome challenges they shouldn’t be able to get past. That’s basically the entire plot of Die Hard, and if you don’t think that’s one of the greatest stories ever told then you are a negative influence that I don’t need in my life.
I think this is where the stereotype of the GM who wants their party to die comes from. Well, actually I think it comes from bad GMs who want their party to die, but bear with me. Nobody competent actually wants their players to lose, but they want them to come close. Because when they’re inches away from total failure and succeed anyway, the feeling is fantastic.
So one key to epic combat is to ramp up the difficulty. You can do this in a number of ways. D&D is built around a kind of ‘war of attrition’ model, where difficulty comes from fighting lots of battles without the chance to rest and wearing the players down. Other games work better with single, more powerful boss monsters.
It’s worth being prepared to change the difficulty on the fly. If it looks like your party is going to tear through your boss without breaking a sweat, double its hit points. Or have it summon some other bad guys to help it. Alternatively, if the villain is knocking the stuffing out of the players then you’ll want to power them down a bit.
It’s not always easy to get the balance right. For the most epic struggles, you’ll want the entire party to get close to death, but you never want to lose more than one or two at most. Ideally, everyone will pull through. The only way to get better at this particular aspect is to play around with difficulty levels and keep experimenting.
But wait! There’s more. You see, great combats have another element to them besides the difficulty: a narrative. There should be a story to them, which is not the same as there being a story to the campaign.
For example, let’s say your plot has an evil warlord terrorising the land. Your party fights their way up to the castle and corners him on the roof. There’s your campaign plot – it’s why your players are there, fighting this particular person. But it’s not enough. There needs to be a separate narrative within the combat itself.
Let’s return to my martial arts experience. Remember the guy that bit me? There’s a story there: the opponent who wouldn’t play by the rules, but succumbed to courage and purity of heart. When I was dumped on my head but hung on anyway, that’s the classic narrative of brute force versus thoughtful technique.
I’m embellishing these of course – and making myself look like way more of a badass than I actually am – but you can see how there are themes to the fights themselves that are different from the plot. In an RPG, you have a lot of options to add a narrative to your combats.
In the example above with the warlord, you could have him destroy parts of the castle in a frenzied attempt to stop the players. He could try to run and have the players chase him down a secret passage full of traps. He could drink a Dr-Jekyll-esque potion and become a wild beast with the strength of ten men.
It’s not enough just to fight a villain if you really want the combat to be epic. I opened this article with a story from a recent session I ran, which I thought illustrated nicely how this works. In addition to the fact that the party was left with just one person standing (who succeeded in slaying the beast, by the way), there was also a good narrative running through it.
In this case it was that of the fearsome beast from beneath the ground trying to escape to wreak havoc on the surface. It’s a very simple story, but it transforms the combat from a simple fight into a last stand against a force of destruction.
There’s a lot more to creating truly memorable combats, and there is a lot you can learn about things like enemy types, use of scenery, open spaces vs choke points and other aspects of this part of GM-ing. But at it’s heart, the best fights are the ones you can tell stories about later. And the best stories are about overcoming the odds.
This article is a guest contribution by Joe Boyd. We’d like to extend our thanks to Joe for this brilliant article. The subject interested both of us GeekOut guys big time and when we read what he’d produced, we knew we wanted to share this with you all. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or over on Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to get involved as a guest blogger, why not contact us?