Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 3 (23-33)

+Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens threw down a mighty post: “33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player.” I read them, and had thoughts. I will share them, because that’s what I do on this blog.

This is the final part of a three-part response. You can find my comments on the first 11 of his wish list here, while the second third (aroo?) is here.

My comments are in black, while his are in color. The original post was huge as it was, so I’m hiding most of the responses behind a page break!

So here we go, for the home stretch . . .

23. If a combat is narratively unwinnable– which I can accept for storyline purposes– the GM should send those signals clearly.

I think this is good advice to establish as part of the game assumptions and expectations, too. I think +Peter V. Dell’Orto, for example, has either stated explicitly or his players have found by chance that he makes no attempt to balance his encounters. If you walk into the Frost Giant’s barracks, and there are 100 of them and five of you, and your surname isn’t Odinsson, you are courting disaster. “Every fight is one that can be won somehow” is a valid basis for a game, but not every game is like that.

Not to mention that having honest to goodness recon to do lets those sneaky scouty types shine. “Had we proceeded a mile farther, we’d have come upon a large body of the enemy; retreat would have been uphill through a swamp. We’d have been slaughtered” is a great victory for a scouty type.

24. I should feel like I’m fighting in a story, not playing a tactical game against the GM. I also shouldn’t feel like the GM is changing the situation to get me.

Strong agreement with the second one, but my experience has been a bit interesting.

More often I’ve seen the GM adjust things to avoid a TPK than the other way. +Nathan Joy, on the other hand, simply kept ramping up the encounters against our DF party because he was having trouble providing us with a real challenge (GURPS can be hard that way). The very last one, documented in part 1 and part 2, was a very near thing, and we had to pull some pretty blatant rules exploits (mostly perfect situational awareness) to tip the scales.

That being said, Alien Menace started as more or less a series of tactical challenges, largely because I was silly and didn’t provide a pool of points for non-combat activities for my players. That can be fun, too, depending on the character and player mix.

I’ve come to accept that some games are about being a tactical game vs. GM. And that’s cool. It isn’t what I want when I’m playing, but I know some folks dig that. 

I tend to like a mix of both, personally.

25. If I ask about a combat rule, the GM should be able to make a decision quickly– unless it is the first time we’ve encountered that circumstance– and move on. If we get the rule wrong we can fix it after the fight.

That’s fair, as long as everyone understands that (a) not every answer will be “yes, of course the players can do whatever they want,” and (b) that yes, we’re going to roll and shout and if you reach for your books it’ll be for the next time, not a retconn. I prefer to do it that way, but these days, with most of usually on computers and most of our reference material in PDF format, looking up rules has gotten really fast.

26. Even if I’m a heavy fighter, I shouldn’t always go last.

In GURPS at least, your turn order is defined by a blend of your Dexterity and Health (I’ve also seen DX and Perception as a thing; I kinda like that I admit). So if you pay your fees (high ST for encumbrance, and high DX/HT for Basic Speed), you can go first and be a heavy fighter. Now, you might start first, and then show up ten turns late to the combat if your move is low too, but you can only have everything if you have the points for it!

27. The GM should reward clever thinking or clever plans, even if it shifts the GM’s notions about the direction of the fight.

Absolutely. Having a preconceived notion of what the solution to a problem is, whether it be fight, puzzle, or social encounter, is probably something generally to be avoided. Oh, sure . . . you need to guess at a couple options so that you’re not completely winging it, but if you contemplate A, B, and C and your players choose Yellow, that’s just fun.

28. I should feel all players have equal opportunities.

Eh, generally in an overall game, sure. In any particular combat, probably not. I’m starting to come around to the feeling that it’s the players’ role to ensure, through choices they make, to bring their best game.

Of course, if I’m running an all-combat game and a player brings Smoothie McSmoothypants, Social Animal to the table, I’ve done him a disservice if the other players are driving Brianne the Barbarian clones.

29. One bad die roll shouldn’t make or break my experience.

Guess that depends if it’s a death roll.  

Still, it’s a good rule of thumb to ensure that a party should probably have several opportunities to exercise bad judgement, and a few poor die rolls, so that things can at least have a few inflection points before going horribly pear-shaped. 

After that, well . . .

30. I should be able to have all my basic info for managing my character in combat on the front side of a sheet.

Yes. Definitely yes. Though I’ll cop to a few physical tokens as well, such as fatigue or action point markers, or maybe combat cards.

31. Different weapons should neither be too same-y nor vastly different. There should be weapons which are always the obvious choice in all fights, all the time. The same thing for armor. There should be some trade offs (and different initiative values/speed should be worth less in this calculation).

I think that in a game like GURPS, this is mostly true within weapon classes, though you can certainly find exceptions. Gamers seem to want to have game-mechanical differences between weapons – enough to provide reasons to use each one – but then, not all weapons deserve distinct stats (lots of 9mm or .40 handguns are going to be functionally identical; others will have slightly different stats).  

Of course, some game-mechanical differentiation tends to exaggerate the real differences between weapons, but that depends on the resolution of the system. 

In the final analysis, between the skill used, the damage dealt, ability to parry and attack on the same round, and reach, there’s plenty of ways to distinguish between interesting ways to beat the bejeezus out of your foe.

32. I should not feel like one player is intended to take out the major bad guy – and if that’s not me, then I don’t have a shot.

Unless you’ve paid points for a destiny, of course! Lots of the fiction that games occasinally strive to emulate do revolve around one character. Superman, Buffy, and Angel were basically “the main character and the supporting cast” in most cases (but not all!). Firefly and Justice League Unlimited much less so. And movies such as Avengers were clearly ensemble pieces for which RPGs are much better analogs. 

But yeah, if the show is “all Player 1, all the time,” it had better be because that’s part of the gaming concept. Actually, the BtVS RPG handles this very well, with lower powered supporting cast getting a surplus of destiny points (or whatever you call them) that help them survive situations where they should, by and large, be messily devoured in a flash.

33. NPCs should bat clean up– holding strategic points, tying up some of the opposition, and aiding others. Unless there’s a plot point involved they shouldn’t be overpowering or take care of all the bad guys. At the same time, if we have brought some NPCs to the fight, the GM shouldn’t forget them or kill them off to get them out of the way.

I think +Peter V. Dell’Orto‘s players make great use of henchmen. Even in my Alien Menace game, there are enough high-skill NPCs to round out the party and fill needed roles. They’re not Mary Sues or GM-NPCs, though. The players control them and give the instructions, so they’re more like drones than anything else.

Parting Shot

So, that wraps up the response to +Lowell Francis‘ thoughts on what he wants from combat. While I basically spend three posts picking nits and reacting, there are definitely some common themes.

  • Combat should involve all the characters that are invested in combat as a primary pathway, and either have something for other PCs to do that isn’t combat, but happens at the same time, or should be one of many problem solving types.
  • Players, on the average, should probably have roughly equal spotlight time.
  • Combat shouldn’t drag. If you’re not acting, it should be interesting enough that you care about what’s going on.
  • There should be enough interesting choices in tactics to make things interesting. Bad tactics should carry risk. Good tactics should carry reward.
  • Fun must be had.
Goodness gracious, what am I going to write about now? 

3 thoughts on “Musings on “33 Things I want from Combat as a player” Part 3 (23-33)

  1. This has been a very interesting series, I'm glad you responded to Lowell's post.

    And to the things you mentioned about my game: Yes, pretty good use of henchmen (they've learned how to use lower-powered assistance) in general. One NPC graduated to highly valued full-fledged party member, and he's occasionally starred in fights. But that wasn't me, the GM, forcing Raggi down their throats and feeding him heroics. It's just the dice all coming up Ragnarsson in some fights. It says something about the organic nature of how that occurred that the players usually say, "Yeeeesssss!" when Raggi pulls off some stupid thing like decapitating three orcs in a single blow or something of that sort. You simply can't insist on a secondary role for a guy like that, but equally you can't pre-decide the NPC is heroic and equal to the PCs and run him that way.

    As for balanced encounters, yeah, I've stated explicitly that I don't even try. I just put stuff down and see what happens. Kick the door down and it might be one rust monster or it might be 33 elite undead warriors geared up for war and waiting to beat you to death. Whatever, I did my bit, the players have to do theirs and decide how to solve the problem. The only balancing I really do are "the deeper the nastier" and matching, generally, potential loot to the perceived lethality of the monsters.

  2. 23 I dont think there should be narratively unkillable characters full stop. Give your gods vampires etc unkillable if your worried about the PCs getting lucky

    24 I think tactical combat vs GM is fine.

    25 Nothing drives players off faster than a rules system they and the GM dont understand. My preference is to try to only uses rules I and they understand. Missing a modifier is fine, looking up chase rules on the fly and then trying to modify them because the rules dont cover the split up chase your running and having to reread the rules is 10 mins of not fun.

    26 the heavy fighter going last is a dumb trope part and parcel of the rapier fighter beats Knight.

    27 Yes

    28 all players yes all PCs no

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