Aug 072010

You’ve been there – we all have.  The fight, just, will, not, stop.  You’re thinking, “Man, this fight is taking FOREVER.” Yep, I feel your pain.  In this article I’ll be talking about how to shorten combat drag – not through the altering of specific system mechanics, but by something that would actually happen (or not happen) in a real fight.

There have been plenty of articles and forum posts about how to mechanically shorten combat by changing the rules.  That’s great for some gamers, but for me, it makes me feel that the game is broken.  No, I want a real-world solution (yes I know that it’s a make-believe world).  I simply don’t want to have to make mechanical changes in order to enjoy a combat encounter.  Here is the single solution that has been working for me for the last few years:

Not every fight has to end with every enemy dead. That’s it.  That’s my big secret.

This is not a computer game.  PCs don’t have to kill every enemy.  That’s simply not a plausible solution in most fights.  It’s that simple.  Is every

  • orc
  • goblin
  • ogre
  • kobold
  • wolf
  • minion
  • henchman
  • bounty hunter
  • street samurai
  • dark Jedi
  • etc., etc., etc.

going to fight to the death?  I don’t think so.  Unless they absolutely, positively, have no other choice, they will not fight to the death.  If it looks like their side is not going to win, they will turn tail and run away.  If they can’t run away, they will surrender.   Guess what?  The combat is over, the PCs win, and they get full experience points/rewards for winning the encounter.  Done and done.

As the GM, you can have your bad guys run away or surrender at any time.  I suggest you do it when it becomes apparent that they can’t win.  Perhaps they are not courageous to begin with and run away after only one or two rounds of fighting.  Maybe you could have them surrender whenever he reaches half hit points or wounds?

Why is this NPC going to fight the PCs?

  • Is he getting paid?
  • is he getting paid well?
  • Is he defending his family, his home, his most prized possession?
  • Is he bloodthirsty?
  • Today, is he being lazy?
  • Is he all bark and no bite?
  • Does he really care if the big, bad boss gets overthrown by the PCs?

Really, I think it’s important to define why an enemy, NPC, or monster is in the fight to begin with.  What is his motivation for fighting? Once you figure that out, you’ll automatically know when he stops fighting to either surrender or flee.  Of course, some monsters will always fight to the death, but after awhile, plausibility starts getting strained when every single enemy fights to the death. That’s just not roleplaying; that’s farming.

As a player, is it a necessity to kill every enemy?  Does the last kobold that turns tail and runs away HAVE to be shot down?  I’m sure others have already gotten away, so it shouldn’t really matter.  When you’re fighting the big, bad boss, do you think it’s possible to get him to surrender, or do you assume that he’ll fight to the death?  My players just about exploded with epiphany when they tried to capture the main bad guy halfway through the fight.   “You mean, he agrees to surrender?  I was just trying to roleplay a bit.  Cool!”

I’m sure there are other ways to eliminate combat drag (like using a timer on a player’s turn).  What non-mechanical ways to shorten combat do you employ?

More awesomeness...

Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  16 Responses to “Eliminate Combat Drag with Realism”

  1. One thing that I’ve noticed has passed out of popularity in RPGs is the old ‘Morale Check’. My thought is that people might have started seeing it as just a common sense thing that should be handled through roleplaying. And then they forgot to roleplay it… or at least a bunch of them did. Orcs and Kobolds regularly ditch combat in the pathfinder game I’m in. Sometimes this comes back to haunt us, other times they’re just gone.

  2. I’ve never seen (or at least I’ve never used Morale rules). Now that you mention it, I’d like to see how some games handle morale.

    By the way, thanks for commenting!

  3. I had some homebrewed rules for morale in 4E D&D that came in quite handy, especially in later tiers. It was something Kaeosdad and myself tossed back and forth…at bloodied state, do a Saving Throw for possible morale loss. If ya had the extra prep time, assign a condition for when that save fails — flee, panic, pass out (blood loss/trauma), I even had some go berzerk which upped their damage but drastically reduced their AC (making them easier to take out at least.)

  4. Fighting to the death every time has a name in roleplaying- hack and slay, pointing I suggest to a style of game in which players’ antagonists fleeing is simply giving the players something for nothing, ie. the loot. The most reliable way to give both sides reasons to cease hostilities is to run scenarios which aren’t loot-driven, so that all sides in any encounter which might turn violent have credible reasons for escalation to violence. These credible reasons are important because they also give either side motives to try to stop the violence should it turn out to have been a stupid move.

    If players will insist on hack and slay then they should soon find that people’ll be reluctant to talk to them- penalties on social skills, and that they’ll be attacked on sight by their enemies- it’s own penalty.

    The real difficulty arises when the antagonists the players face are some kind of mortal enemy of the all-too-familiar evil stripe. I had this problem in my run of WFRP2’s ‘Ashes of Middenheim’: all the antagonists were monsters or cultists. This made it very difficult for me to stop the players just going for the hack and slay. 😉

  5. @ Rev. Lazaro –
    I vowed never to house rule a game again, especially 4e. What you suggest seems kind of interesting, so now I might have to. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

    @ JMcL63 –
    I totally agree. Motivation and reason for being there is key. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Yeah, I second the morale rules thing… It was very helpful; nowdays though everyone “should” take into account the complexity of the NPCs’ motivations yadda yadda, in practice every animal. mook, etc. flings themselves lemming-like upon the swords of the PCs. It’s computer RPG disease infecting tabletop.

  7. mxyzplk, you say it with style 🙂

    Tourq, by the way, I like the picture with Jango Fett. Thats the perfect caption!

  8. Thanks Charisma. This is a little bit off topic (ok, a lot), but do you remember the scene in that movie where Bobo Fett picks up his dad’s helmet and stares at it? I just about died when I thought something* was about to fall out of that helmet…

    It’s the small thing I always knew was missing in 3rd edition from the 2nd!
    But yeah, it’s really a BIG problem in almost ALL D&D games I’ve been in. I’m preparing a new D&D game (classic style, with a dungeon (!) and a wise and old dragon (!!)) and I’ll make sure to take this into account.

  10. @ Elfteiroh – You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting.

  11. I remember Morale rules from AD&D. While I don’t use the same exact math, most of my opponents are not suicidal and will break when the fight goes south.

    A couple of things to help break players of slaughtering every foe – don’t put loot on the opponents, and have surrendered opponents be the sources of valuable information and plot hooks.

  12. @ Oz –
    “have surrendered opponents be the sources of valuable information and plot hooks” That sir, is fantastic. I’ll definitely be doing more of that. Thanks for commenting.


  13. this makes alot of sense. i haven’t used it much, though i HAVE done this in the past without fully realizing what i was doing. i will prolly do this alot more often in the future.

  14. Dude, it really is a nice tool to have in your shed. When the combat is grinding, and it’s just a matter of time and hit points, I say help end it.

  15. Yeah, I would say that the fastest way to end a fight is start having the NPCs run away or surrender. Caveat emptor, of course, because this plan doesn’t work out so well if the PCs are playing under the assumption that their characters are a bunch of bloodthirsty psycopathic berserker killers. Once your opponents realize that they will die if they surrender, and that escape is difficult at best, then they’re bound to try harder than ever to put you in the ground.

  16. If I were a kobold and most of my buddies were dying in room #1, I don’t think I would hesitate to run to room #2 and #3 to go get some more friends…My players are starting to learn that they need to somehow “corral” the baddies.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>