Struggling figures swarm over the doomed ship’s deck as huge waves break over its side. Caught on barely submerged rocks, which have ripped its bottom out, the ship begins to break up as the PCs battle a group of monstrous, depraved cultists struggling to open an extra-planar gate through which their be-tentacled master will enter the world!
Now that’s a dynamic fight and a worthy climax to a campaign! Of course, not every encounter in an adventure can (or should be) this dynamic and exciting. Sometimes a fight is just a fight. However, it is a rare GM who couldn’t do more to make the fights in his campaign more exciting and dynamic.
I’ve recently received several questions and comments about combats and how to make them more dynamic. It’s a great subject to ponder—after all much of the games we play revolves around combat (unless you play Call of Cthulhu in which case if you get to the point where you have to draw a weapon you are probably already doomed).
Of course, one way to make combats more exciting is to add more or tougher monsters. That’s the easy solution. It’s also the lazy, unimaginative solution, that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of static, relatively dull fights. A harder encounter might not be more exciting; it might just more dangerous. For example, imagine the excitement: instead of fighting an ogre you fight an ogre with a level of fighter! Thrill as the ogre gets an extra +1 to hit! Marvel as it takes slightly more damage before it dies!
Fear not—there is a better way. A wise and skilful GM can use other tactics to make the fights in his adventures more exciting. Here—in no particular order—are five such methods to make your combats more dynamic.
A combat where—essentially—the two sides line up and flail at one another until one side falls over or runs away isn’t exactly exciting. It might be dangerous, but it probably won’t be that exciting. Robbing the players of the ability to gain advantage through movement essentially nerfs half their actions in any given round (depending on the system you play).
Movement can add an extra dimension of excitement to a fight. Create a location that rewards clever movement and tactical positioning. For example, can the combatants:
- Take cover behind pillars, or snipe from behind them?
- Outflank their enemies by sneaking down a side corridor?
- Force or lead their opponents into a dangerous position; perhaps they can push them into a pit, trap them in a corner or knock them off a cliff?
- Gain the benefits of higher ground?
2. Changing Environment
In Pathfinder (and D&D) most combats take place in an essentially unchanging environment. This could be a forest clearing, dungeon guardroom or hidden cavern. No matter—in any event, for the duration of the fight the environment does not change. That’s fine as far as it goes, but adding an element of change—particularly an escalating or random change—can add excitement and uncertainty to a fight. For example:
- The PCs are fighting on a beach as waves crash over the rocks. Every round—or every couple of rounds—another wave throws spray, and perhaps stones or other storm-tossed debris—onto the beach. Can combatants be washed away by the waves , blinded by spray or struck by wave-borne debris?
- The PCs are fighting in a forest in the middle of a sleet storm. As the fight progresses, wind gusts across the battlefield throwing sleet into the combatant’s faces. The random gusts of wind and driving sleet can hamper missile fire, help individuals hide from—or sneak up—on their enemies and so on. (I used this mechanic in the opening encounter of Retribution.)
- The PCs are fighting some goblins in a cavern. The ceiling is crumbling away—perhaps because the goblins trapped it—and every round chunks break off, plummeting onto the battlefield. Combatants must not only defeat their enemies but also avoid being squished by falling debris.
- The PCs are fighting orc raiders through the streets of a burning village. Sparks fly (literally), smokes swirls across the village blinding and choking the combatants and now and then a building collapses dumping burning material into the streets.
The key to all the examples above is to make the mechanic for resolving the changing environment as quick and easy to resolve as possible. Don’t slow the encounter down while you determine the wind speed to the nearest one mph; that defeats the point. Design the encounter so you can quickly resolve the environmental conditions every round (or whenever you need to) and make the rules the PCs use to interact with the environment simple to understand. Preferably, use rules that are already part of the game, so you don’t have to explain them ad nauseam.
3. Manipulate the Environment
Not all encounter areas or battlefield are immutable—immune to the actions of the various combatants. In a dungeon, it is unlikely the PCs will be able to routinely knock down walls, make the ceiling collapse and so on. That doesn’t mean they can’t manipulate the environment to gain an advantage if the GM includes such features in his design. For example, in a dungeon can the combatants:
- Tip over a pile of barrels, to crush or knock prone their enemies?
- Pull down a tapestry onto their enemies?
- Flip over furniture to create a barricade?
- Kick over a framing brazier to set an opponent on fire?
- Drop a portcullis on enemies as they pass underneath?
- Flip over a barrel of water, oil or wine to make the floor slippery (or perhaps even flammable!)
4. Time Constraints
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how long the PCs take to slay their enemies. In other battles, time is crucially important. For example:
- The PCs are fighting to slay an archvillain’s guards so they can stop him opening a portal. Every round—or whatever—they see the portal open further and further—beyond lurk the massed ranks of a demon horde; clearly, the PCs’ defeat is imminent unless they can close the portal before it is open enough to let the demons come through.
- The PCs are fighting to get off a sinking ship (the rate of which could change from round to round). If they don’t get to the lifeboats quickly, they’ll fall into the water and sharks have been drawn to the site of the battle.
- The PCs are battling one set of foes and know—either because they can see or hear them—that another group is approaching. Both groups together might be more than they can handle and so they must defeat their current enemies quickly.
5. Non-Whacking Solutions
The PCs resolve most fights by beating their foe to death. Now, a bit of (gaming) violence never hurt anyone, but sometimes cunning PCs employ other non-fatal solutions to defeat their enemies. Such solutions—assuming they involve risk to the PCs—are much more memorable than just another fight. For example:
- The battlefield features an open portcullis. A PC beating her enemies to the portcullis could drop it, trapping her foes on the other side. (Not only is this a clever solution, it probably saves a fair bit of game time.)
- A goblin tribe lives near a hostile minotaur. Instead of fighting the goblin guards, the PCs could lure them into the minotaur’s clutches and let the two groups battle it out while the party sneaks into the goblin lair. Alternatively, they could use illusions and trickery to make the goblins believe the minotaur is approaching; this might terrify the guards into fleeing allowing the PCs to sneak into the tribe’s lair unopposed. Both solutions—to me—are more satisfying and elegant than just beating the goblins to death.
- The PCs suddenly encounter a gelatinous cube—or perhaps a gelatinous cube swarm for added (GM) fun! The encounter takes place in a large cavern replete with crevices, escarpments and sinkholes. Instead of fighting the cubes, the party could lure them into the fissures and sinkholes and win the battle without having to fight! That would be so much more memorable than whacking the cubes the death.
Putting it All Together—A Note of Caution
Don’t go crazy with the tips above. If every fight takes place in the depths of a storm and/or on the deck of a sinking ship your players will quickly become overwhelmed, jaded and/or frustrated. Remember, sometimes less is more.
Consider gradually adding this kind of fights into your sessions and see how your players react. Depending on the game system you use, the PCs might need to invest in particular skills (in Pathfinder—Acrobatics, Swim and Climb being the chief targets) or feats (Nimble Step and so on) to take advantage of a dynamic battlefield. Give them time to get used to the different style of play before going balls to the wall with dynamic fights.
When introducing dynamic fights, it is tempting to go all in. As the example at the start of this article, your fights could all take place amid a storm on a sinking ship dashed upon the rocks as waves break over the side as an octopus plucks tasty morsels from the deck. While such a fight could be AWESOME, it’s worth saving for a notable moment in the adventure or campaign. It shouldn’t be an everyday experience. Instead, consider using just one or two of the methods above in any given fight.
And one final note of caution: don’t design dynamic encounters to deliberately screw (or seem to deliberately) screw your PCs. Dynamic encounters are a great way of adding extra fun to the game and shouldn’t be used merely as a way of just making combats harder.
The Final Word
One subject I’ve deliberately avoided in this article is investment—investing the PCs in the action by somehow making it more personal. For example, does the villain have a PC’s brother hostage and is he using him as a human shield? This is absolutely a valid tactic to add more excitement to a fight but is beyond the scope of this article. Perhaps I’ll dig into PC investment in a future article.
In any event, how do you make your combats more exciting and dynamic? What have I missed? Let me know, in the comments below.