This just a quick list of some of the tips I’ve learned and use to try and keep RPG combats quick and interesting. This is mainly GM/Group dynamic focused but there are some player tid bit’s in there too.
-Roll all dice together. For most games Damage is separate from landing the attack. Some games separate rolls into other actions, perhaps an attack roll vs a defense roll. No matter the case, make sure you are rolling everything at once. This does two things for you. One it saves you 1-3 second per turn, which with 6 PC’s, 4 NPC’s, and 10 rounds of combat comes to 1-5 minutes of time saved per combat right there in total. It also keeps the gaming flowing. Anything that pauses combat is bad. The other good thing it does it give a bit more narrative information about what happened, for example a missed attack with a high damage roll suggest that the attack was very powerful and had it landed would have done alot to the person. So maybe the narration is a heavy swing with an axe that is easily ducked but buries it self to the handle in the wall, only to be pulled free in a shower of wooden splinters. It will help guide the narration if you are stuck for inspiration and should make it a bit quicker to come up with a description, keeping everything flowing quickly and maintaining the level of intensity you want in combat.
-1 responsibility per person. In general most groups front load all responsibility for tracking combat on the GM. Considering he’s the person adjudicating rules, handling interesting encounter elements, and running the most people, this makes little sense. So off load some of that responsibility, along her to keep more of her mind on keeping the pace and tension up. This has an added benefit of forcing players to pay attention when it’s not their turn. In particular I suggest one player tracks initiative and will tell both the person who’s turn it is and the person who’s on deck so they can prepare. Another good one is one player tracks status effects. Another possibility is one player tracks damage dealt to any creature so the GM can continue on with combat while he does the addition and simply compare total HP to total damage.
-More HP and Longer Combats != better combat. Don’t fall into the trap of making enemies tougher in hope of making a combat more intense. At that point it just turns into a slog fest. Instead try to make things more dynamic, a high defense that can be reduced over the combat by taking specific actions, multiple “forms” where an enemy changes in some noticeable way, allowing you to reset HP and start a “new” combat. Lots of easily killed mooks. Minion rules from 4e, 13th age, and Edge of the Empire are great examples of this. Mowing through a horde of enemies is often far more satisfying than continuing to blast the same guy over and over. Damage with a noticeable affect. Every time the enemy loses another 1/4 of it’s health it looses an ability or alternatively if a single attack ever does 1/X of it’s total/current health, it is stunned or raging, or other effect.
-Let the players narrate their own success and failures. This requires you to trust your group, but if you don’t stop playing with them. Let them roll both dice before they declare an attack, so they can do it as soon as their turn starts. Let them know their DC/TN and HP so they can see if they have hit or not and as soon as it has happened they can give narration to their action, describing a great cleaving strike or a terrible miss leaving the character flat on their face. Letting them own their success and in particular their failures really engages them further in the story. Another version of this is to let them narrate anytime they hit or are hit(or any time they successfully dodge instead of are hit) or a more mild form, Crits and kills.
-Keep the intensity up in your voice and actions. Make sure you are excited with each action you narrate. I like large gestures and over acting but I’m a ham. When telling some one it’s their turn, remind them of the stakes of the situation, of a party member that just dropped or the enemy that is right now about to open their guts. Never describe something as just an attack and try to ask your players to up their descriptions as well. When moving between players try to vary the pace you start them. Sometime a fast sharp sudden “Bearith, You’re about to be stabbed!!! what do you do” after a more mellow discussion. Other times take the time to set the scene more, “Findar, your friend Bearith has run across this body strewn field trying to kill his sometime nemesis and sometime lover Merriden the black sorceress. He is heedless both of the swarms of goblins turning to stab and cut him as he sprints and the two ogers rising up behind her, focused only on her inviting wry smile. You however see them and more, the archers on the rise about to perforate the Jovian Pilgrims under your protection and the easily toppled stone pillars left from long forgotten towers that once stood guard here.What action will you take?” Varrying this pace will allow you to keep tension ramped up without having to continually trying to top yourself in excitement and energy. This works best in an initiative system that isn’s set in stone, like those in games Powered by The Apocalypse but it works in standard initiative too.
-The rule of cool bonus. There is a corollary to this. Whenever someone wants to do something cool or gives a cool description, don’t just let them, reward them. Give them a +1 bonus or perhaps just let them succeed because it’s awesome. Anything that brings your players more into engagement with combat will improve it and rewarding them for that incentives them to stay engaged.
Alright this ran alittle longer than I had planned so I’ll quit now. Comment or message me with your favorite combat tips. If you want to that is. I can’t command you, I’m not God…..or am I?
I am not. Don’t worry.