Battles in most tabletop RPG games are notorious for being tedious. Long repetitive battles can lower player investment and in the worst-case scenario, can just be flat-out boring. We’ve tackled how to beat this repetitive nature in boss battles before, but what about those other battles? We’re going to introduce a number of techniques, including our favorite: the Zerg Rush.
You know, the ones where you’re fighting guards, or low-level monsters on your way to the sessions boss battle. These can be some of the least interesting fights for players. The stakes for death aren’t usually there, and everyone knows that this is a war of attrition; trying to lower the player characters stamina. The solution to the problem, however, is an easy one to resolve. Cut the battles short!
I have no problem with having players engage in fights that they know they will win. In fact, I think this is an important part of RPG’s. You need to give your players a chance to shine. In a dungeon crawl adventure, for example, the lich at the end of the cavern is more than likely going to have minions, traps and safeguards in place to protect themselves from wandering adventurers. This just makes sense.
The problem, however more lies in how these battles are fought. When a player win is imminent, but they know there is still going to be two more rounds of combat, it can be mentally draining. The problem is, at this point in the fight, there is nothing interesting left that can happen. When the combat ceases to be fun, it’s time to call it quits, so let’s find some interesting endings to this conundrum.
Surrender and Fleeing
This is touched upon by many articles for Game Masters from many eras, but our article would be incomplete if we didn’t mention these two techniques. The will to live in creatures is universal. When faced with mortal peril, most creatures fight-or-flight response will flip direction and fleeing will take priority.
In some cases, fleeing can become an interesting tactic again. If it’s a guard, they may be trying to raise the alarm, in which case your players will have to make a decision to chase him, or let everyone be on high-alert. In the cases of monsters, this method will still help in the sense that your story can continue.
Surrender can also bring interesting role-play aspects to your game. There are many aspects that a GM can take, and how the players will respond. For example, how would a common guard, who’s just trying to support his family, barter for his life versus a known war criminal that has personally wronged the party? Would the players react differently to each of these characters?
Of course, many GMs are already ending battles this way, with great success. However, if this is the ending of each combat, your players may get bored of the similar feel to each low level combat. They’re not able to show their full capabilities as amazing, legendary adventurers!
The rule is simple, when the players are close to victory in a low-stakes battle, give it to them. Let them win. A Zerg Rush is a term popularized by the game Starcraft, in which you outnumber an opponent with overwhelming force. In this case, the players are that force. Their conquest is imminent, let them have it!
I know this may go against what the rule books may say, and it may just feel wrong. Down to the deepest fibers of your GM core, this may go against how you’ve played before, but stay with me here. You know they’re going to win, they know they’re going to win, what’s the point of sticking to the rigid combat structure? There isn’t one.
Instead, use this moment to let your players shine. Call a Zerg Rush, allowing each player to do something utterly awesome to end the combat now, instead of in another 15 minutes. Consider having your players yet again fighting guards who are honor-bound to protect the kings chambers. They aren’t going to run or surrender. But when your players have wiped out 8 of them and there’s only 2 remaining, instead of letting them continue down the regular combat route, instead prompt them with this. “With that last attack only two guards remain. It will only be a few more moments until you are the victor. How do you do it?” Give each player a hand in ending the combat. This is their moment, just enjoy it!
Blaze of Glory
There are of course some times when a Zerg Rush just doesn’t feel quite appropriate on it’s own. Mini-bosses, for example, are supposed to be made of tougher stuff. They’ve done something to earn their rank. The difference is, this target is a threat. This target may not be able to win, but they can still put the players through their paces.
Instead of low-level guards, let’s consider a high-ranking knight, renown for their battle ability. In this case, a regular Zerg Rush will feel a bit cheapened to your players. In their eyes, this character just wasn’t all that they were made out to be. A regular Zerg Rush will just steal a satisfying victory from their hands. A minor change to the rule can do wonders for creating dramatic tension.
Instead of the GM initiating it themselves, however, this is something that should be given to the players to decide. When the time is right, a prompt should be given to your players. “You know that victory is close at hand. A few well placed strikes can take down your foe, but you know that this will be at your own peril.”
This is when the powerful enemy can go down in a “Blaze of Glory”. They know they will not walk away from this battle, but they’re going to do all they can to ensure the eventual defeat of their enemies. When initiated, the enemy should be allowed one final powerful attack. This can target all players, or whichever seems most appropriate to the GM.
Your players will know that they are taking a risk to end it here and now, but that’s their decision to make. Your duty is to make it interesting.
Have you used these techniques in your game to speed up combat? What options do you give your players to end combat? Let us know in the comments below!