Know Thy Combat

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.

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Get your gaming fix

Get your gaming fix

When the kids are battling you for attention, work is pounding down your door with a double-bladed axe and your wife is looking for her white knight, how do you get your gaming fix?

Weekly gaming sessions are a bygone era with the hustle-bustle of being a grown up. Even a monthly gaming session might be an elusive beast hidden deep in the forest of life. What’s a yearning gamer to do?
Here are a few tips to help take the edge off while you eagerly await the feel of your dice in your palm:

Read a book

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But, let’s be honest, this is where true roleplaying started. If you’re anything like me, when you read a great novel you are already gaming in your head. You put yourself in the role of a character and consider what sort of stats and special abilities they have. It’s not exactly roleplaying, but it can be enough to just give you a taste. Sometimes,

Stat out characters

I watch a lot of kids shows. Usually, the same ones over and over again until I’m dreaming about it. You parents know what I’m talking about. I discovered that I can get a little gaming fix by filling out character sheets for the characters in the show as I watch with the kids. I’ve statted out the characters from Cars and Finding Nemo so… many… times. It’s fun to imagine the plot of a good kid’s movie–like Big Hero 6–as a full on campaign.

Solo Roleplay

I’m very much on the fence when it comes to Solo Roleplaying. There are a ton of resources out there for doing it, and doing it well, but something about it just feels weird, like drinking alone (well, maybe that’s not so weird.) If the idea of Solo Roleplaying appeals to you, I think SoloRoleplayer.com is a good place to start.

Write

Writing might take a little more brain power, but, like reading, it is a classic way to experience a story in any setting you can imagine. There are many free online writing tools (like Google Drive) or you could go old-school and grab a pen and notebook and long hand write. It’s actually very therapeutic.

Play by Post

PbPs may require a bit more commitment, which may take a bite out of the valuable time you don’t have. I’ve found that if you keep good boundaries and only post once per day at maximum, it’s not that bad, actually. Sometimes, just going through the character creation and application process can give you a taste of what you’re looking for. Storium is a superb implementation of a Play-by-Post-ish game I was very impressed with – you could even play it solo if you wanted a little less commitment.

Nothing can ever take the place of storming the castle face-to-face with your friends, but amidst the torrent of life, sometimes you can gain the favor of the gods and receive just a glimmer of gaming goodness.