You: You enter a dark cave, your torchlight slowly creeping across the floor to fall upon a pair of huge, green feet. As your light ascends the figure, you see a two-headed troll-
Roger Rogue: I crit-strike him for 500 damage.
You: You see the bloodied, crumpled remains of a troll on the floor…
We’ve all experienced the horror of a sweet critter getting taken down so fast we don’t even have time to get a single attack off. The players, of course, revel in this, and you try to roll with the punches and pretend like it’s no big deal. But, inside, you’re pretty damn bummed.
Balancing combat is a hard thing to do, and it’s not something you can do doing preparation alone. You need to be able to do it on-the-fly and be adaptable. A few things can help with this during your game prep:
- Know thy system
- Know thy enemies (PCs)
- Know thy options
Know Thy System
Whether you are partial to D&D, Fate, Dungeon World, The one Ring, or what have you, you need to be intimately familiar with your system of choice. This knowledge will provide you information about your options when things go south. Think of it like playing a piano. You need to understand you have 88 keys and you can mix and match them without ever venturing outside them.
It’s important that you get comfortable with adding game elements during play that you had not originally intended to add. It is no more dishonest to add elements during the game than it would be to switch octaves during a song, especially if it makes things more interesting.
If the monster goes down too quickly, have more baddies rush in and attack. Make the enemy a straw-man who looked tougher than he really was and send a second one (although, the players may not like that one, hey, I’m not perfect here) or have the baddie be the pet of something even worse and make the players pay the piper later in the adventure. Revenge is a dish best served cold!
Know Thy Enemies
Enemies?! You can’t think of your players as the enemy! Yes. Yes, you can. Because in this moment of combat they are your enemy. If you treat them otherwise, then everyone loses out. You lose out when they wipe the floor with your baddies because you were afraid they might be too hard, and the players lose out on the opportunity to be pushed to the limit of their abilities and pull out a last minute victory that will go down in the annals of your gaming history.
The number one thing you should remember is the end result of losing does not have to be death. Maybe the monsters take the downed fighter and use him as a bargaining tool to get the PCs to back off. Or, in a TPK, the party wakes up tied to some maniacal contraption that will be used to sacrifice them to the gods. Remember, there are much worse options than death. You need to learn to be creative in the moment.
Know Thy Options
You recall I said there are 88 keys on a piano, but let’s not forget that great musicians can go off-keyboard. How about banging the key cover against the body of the piano to create a beat or drumsticks along the top, or maybe even use those little peddles at your feet to change things up.
All this is to say your options are not limited to your current system. Just because there is no specific ruling in your game of choice that covers a specific course of action by no means requires you to say “That’s not possible”, let the players try and make up the ruling as you go. You’re smart, I know you are.
The best thing you can do is to explore other gaming systems and borrow big concepts from them and retrofit them into your game. No one system is perfect.
I know, I know. The purists out there are aghast right now. Get over it, your system isn’t the perfect one and you know it. The sooner you admit it, the more fun you and your players will have.