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So You Want to Play an RPG?: Managing Threat

November 26, 2013

Today I want to talk about something specific within the world of tabletop roleplaying that might not apply to every game or even every system. I feel the best way to phrase this concept is, “managing threat,” which is a vague way of talking about how to provide tension explicitly in combat scenarios.

As annoying as some people might find it, violence is a large part of our media and since roleplaying games are an extension of our violent media as well as a prime place for many people to imitate it, violence can be a large part of many table top games. After all, countless fantasy and science fiction novels and films will have action sequences, westerns are renowned for shootouts, and modern crime shows are replete with scenes of horrific violence. Video games, now often a strong precursor to people sitting down to play games like Dungeons and Dragons, have multiple genres where, for better or worse, killing is the main mechanic. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising when the first instinct of many of your players will be to stab the first obstacle they come across right in its obstructing face.

Now, the problem with combat in RPGs really flows out of the idea that the fate of the main characters dying may be left up to dice rolls is somewhat unsettling when you remember that you’re all trying to tell a story. Some people might not find that unsettling, because their goal is to kill the players and make things difficult for them. If you find yourself GMing with this sort of adversarial attitude, you should probably take a step back and question why you’ve agreed to run a game in the first place. The flip side of this is the idea that a GM’s goal is to let the player’s win, which many people will step right up and say they’re not too thrilled by.

I’ve touched upon this before but find it’s important to reiterate, especially when approaching the concept of combat in RPGs, that the GM’s job is to provide tension and obstacles as part of the adventure and setting. There is no tension in the player’s always achieving their goals because there is nothing to strive against or work toward. In combat, the tension is derived from threat of injury and the possibility of death.

The first thing that you need to get over is that killing players is part of running games. Once again, you shouldn’t be gunning for anyone or be particularly vicious about it but it’s important to accept that if the players are taking on the role of brave adventurers death is a possibility. The players should also be prepared for this, though it can definitely come as a shock for people new to the whole experience. You just need to accept that sometimes the players might get beat up or be unprepared. It is terrible when players are just having an off day (arguments with spouses, stress at work, etc) that makes them not pay attention and make bad moves but trying to compensate for that is also part of your job.

Managing threat is about being able to judge when to play rough and when to make softer nudges, which players know how to work together or make use of the system, and which don’t. Once again as the arbiter of the rules, you should feel free to remind players about different maneuvers and abilities that might help them out. Don’t go overboard and tell them how to play their characters or mention the specific ability they need, but plenty of people might need to be reminded that grappling or disarming are abilities that exist in a game to remember that they can also do things like trip someone or dive for cover.

One of the best ways I’ve found for running combats smoothly and with plenty of tension is a theory a friend of mine introduced me to that he called the “Cresting Wave.” This is one of the harsher methodologies since it basically starts from the perspective of ‘we all know that players, and whole parties, can die in an rpg and are ok with that.’ The thing is though, it works very well in providing tension and triumph for the player characters. The Cresting Wave is the idea that combat is like a wave, things start off strong; the enemies are working together strategically, they use their best equipment/spells/etc, they’re working to take out the PC’s in a way that is sensible. This initial phase wave is where the players will either learn to surf or get swept out to sea. Eventually the wave crests, either because the enemies are tiring or the players are pushing back, and the combat comes to a close as the wave crashes against the shore and recedes. The last phase of combat is not the most exciting but it makes the players feel triumphant because they’re now steamrolling enemies that seemed so strong just a few turns ago.

The only real problem with this is the fact that the players can just be wiped out. In one game there was a total party kill because we just simply were unable to handle the wave. It really sucked but we did manage to go out in a blaze of glory, holding on to our beliefs.

For some people, the threat of derailing their whole game might be too much, and so I suggest stemming the tide a little bit or looking for other ways to manage threat.

The many iterations of Dungeons and Dragons have brought managing threat down to a quasi-scientific method. In D&D, combat is actually about the accumulation of resources; how many spells will the casters use, how many potions does this require, will they use their magic items, if so how many charges do they have, do they have special abilities, and so on and so forth. In the Third Edition it was stated that a level-appropriate encounter for a standard four person party should consumer twenty-five percent of that party’s ‘resources.’ Therefore, you know that a tougher battle would require a larger expenditure of resources and weaker ones the opposite.

Sadly, this is harder to implement outside of D&D and other d20 systems (d20 Moden, True20, etc) because it is so specific to how those systems are constructed. It allows you to construct adventures around the items the party can buy, the loot you can dole out, and so on. If you’re trying to build things around your story more than mechanics, it doesn’t help you. Neither does the threat of killing off the whole party in every major combat.

The real thing to address when looking at combat in RPGs, and action sequences in general whether they be in video games, film, or books, is to learn to not separate them from the story. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons I gravitated to more human enemies in my own GM-ing is because they have the capacity to think and reason, in addition to being characters. When the party gets into a fight, one of the most interesting things you can do is have them fight people that fight like people actually do.

Since that’s an awkward sentence, I think an example is best. Let’s say you’re running a game and the party encounters a guard who is trained to fight alongside a guard dog. We can all agree it’d be pretty low in tension if the guard and guard dog just fought the players as if they weren’t aware they were fighting alongside each other. It also wouldn’t make sense for the two characters behind their stats to do that either. Yet, plenty of times I’ve seen GMs and adventure designers act as if groups of enemies will just break off and act as if they’re unaware of each other. A K-9 Police unit (the modern equivalent of guard and dog) work to bring down criminals in a very particular way, especially if they’re against multiple opponents. Also, remember, that sometimes it is in the best interest of an enemy to retreat and try to warn his fellows rather than engage the PC’s. Just think back to games like Goldeneye or Perfect Dark and how infuriating it was when you saw someone going for an alarm if you’re not sure if this will provide a tense scenario.

When creating combat and action sequences you need to look at the enemies as more than mere stat blocks or ways to break down resources for the party. They should be built from the ground up to have a sensible fighting style if they’re characters that are trained to fight. Even if they’re simply monsters you’re picking at a book, look at how analogous creatures fight in the real world, and look over their abilities to understand what their best tactics might be. Ask yourself how they respond to certain actions, or how they will operate given certain scenarios.

Everything about running an RPG comes back to being adaptable and making a world that is living and breathing. Some characters might surrender, some might pretend to surrender to escape or get in a cheap shot, and some might just come out swinging with their best spells. I don’t want you to think that the Cresting Wave or even the Resource Drain styles of D&D are antithetical to building combat scenarios that take into account characters, but you will provide tension in them if your enemies react like they’re real people.

Look to real world fighting methods to understand how someone or something might react when it’s in danger. Stop and think how the last man standing might view his chances against the party, will he go out in an insane blaze of glory or is he the surrendering type? When building the venues for your combat, ask yourself how the enemies and the PCs will use the terrain. Remember, no one stands on opposite sides of a hallway shooting at each other and hoping for the best.

Yet, in that final return to adaptability, remember that your players are not hardened combat veterans operating off of muscle memory just because their characters are. If a PC is standing in the center of a room shooting lightning bolts because the player is tired or distracted, provide some kind of threat but don’t perform all sorts of crazy flanking maneuvers against them. Managing threat is about knowing when to hit someone hard and when to pull the punch.

In conclusion, creating tense combats can be achieved through a lot of different ways and you know best how to make your players excited, but a combat can always be improved with characters that fight sensibly and intelligently in terrain that they make use of.

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