Combat by Scene

Finally, it’s my turn! I’ve been waiting patiently waiting for the past 15 minutes to be able to get ready to take this Tarrasque down! Please, god of dice, bless my d20 as it rolls a… 5. A miss. Well, I’ll check back in another 15 minutes then.

Let’s face it, combat in almost every system out there is repetitive. It’s usually just going around the table for a roll-to-hit, and almost entirely waiting in between. Let’s fix that.

Set the Arena

Here we go: set the stage, have an intro to the enemy, roll initiative, and buckle in. The first part of combat won’t change much from the traditional. The heroes and villains trade a few blows.

In terms of combat, it’s always the first and last turns are the ones that will grab the players attention the most in any situation. It’s the middle parts that really drag on, unless there’s something to break up the monotony. 

Epic Moments

Your players are the heroes of the story (Well, the protagonists at least), allow them the most epic moments of a campaign. During battle shouldn’t be any different. If they do something clever, or roll particularly well, or even if situational circumstances are in their favor, give them some extra benefit while they’re attacking. Any additional benefit will engage the players when combat has slowed to a crawl because it’s changing the formula.

One problem with the slowness of combat is the number of hit points that are assigned to enemies. Depending on the system, you can lower their attack from the beginning, but I recommend the following: Let them roll extra damage when something good happens for them. Did they just break the first 1/4 of HP for a dragon? Have that be a particularly brutal hit, granting them an extra attack, or an extra die or two of damage. 

Additionally, if you feel that the encounter is becoming tedious, create openings for epic moments. If your players realize the openings, grant them a free action to make a quick attack. This can bring in your players attention, even when it’s not their turn.

Already I can feel some of your hesitation in thinking of granting extra damage, and outright ignoring rules in some aspects. I understand, truly I do. However, even if you’re firmly in that camp, the concept of Epic Moments still holds. When dealing with an abstract like Hit Points, you have a lot of freedom, you can still spice it up. Did they score a critical hit? Have the sword go through their thigh! You can explain that they are now favoring the wounded side, creating openings and targets from the players.

Changing the Scene

What is your favorite part of boss battles in video games? Is it doing the same action ad nauseam until you or the boss runs out of health? 

No. Absolutely not.

In many video games, when you hit a certain threshold, the bosses attack pattern changes. This is a tried-and-true method used in games for years, use it! In my battles, I usually plan on changing the scene a minimum of two times at certain intervals (or when I can feel the players getting bored).

an example:

Here’s what I mean. Your players are battling a giant sandworm. The worm stays above ground (basically just getting hit and attacking). 1/4 way through its health, even this creature must realize that its tactics must change if it’s going to survive.

This is when you change the scene. It borrows underground! Now instead of attacking directly, it’s free to make attacks against the players from right underneath them. Your players have to wait for the right moment to strike. 

Of course, they pick up on this pattern fairly quickly, so it’s time to change the scene again; the sand starts trickling beneath the characters, leading way to a huge sink hole. Your players are plunged into an underground cavern the sandworm had tunneled to. This is an appropriate place to slay such a creature.

Adding Dramatic Tension

All of my advice so far has been to allow your players to do achieve incredible things and to make sure that the surroundings and tactics don’t get stale. But, these two things alone won’t make every fight interesting. The best fights have risks, a real chance of not coming out of it the same. Only giving your player these moments cheapens boss battles, and can make combat feel as though it’s pointless.

However, adding dramatic tension shouldn’t be just increasing the attack of the enemy to make him more difficult and have the fight take longer, it should be to have them seem more powerful. And scenes are the perfect way to do this.

When changing scenes, you can have the villain be prepared for the landscape, or some variable to change. Show this in combat by working in an attack, or a saving through that the characters must succeed. If they fail or are hit, they will take damage or a minor debuff for a short time. 

Power, in this case, is more of an illusion. It’s showing the best of their attacks, which they use at carefully planned times. 

Putting it all together

Getting excited to set up your next fight? Excellent! Here’s your moment to shine. Prepare by watching a few movies with epic fight scenes. Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones, and many more action movies are perfect for getting you in the state of mind for how scenes can change during a conflict.

Happy Fighting!