Narrative Combat

While many if not most modern RPGs tend to favor some other aspects such as investigation, discovery or collaborative narration, the time often comes for the knives to come out. As someone who tends to enjoy these sorts of systems more, but still enjoys a good melee, I thought I’d share some thoughts on combat’s roles and best practices for the more narrative-minded GM.

Don’t Overdo It
-Not every session needs a fight, don’t force one just because it feels like you’re missing out. More importantly, the threat of conflict can sometimes prove more tense than the grimmest firefight, and avoiding it as harrowing a conclusion as a pitched cavalry charge. For your players cast in the role of protectors, their characters can be treated to all sorts of ordeals other than stand up fights: identifying potential threats for instance, or simply being a fish out of water.

Don’t Drag it Out
-I loved techno-thrillers growing up, and what separated a page-turner from a snoozer was the author’s ability to keep the dance between combatants interesting and know how to satisfyingly end things just before that breaking point. When you aren’t in a dungeon crawl killing things to steal their stuff and gain experience points or meticulously modeling the 37th day of the Battle of Stalingrad then, there’’s nothing wrong with a retreat (panicked or planned), a surrender, or even an act of God: where thematically appropriate of course.

Make it Feel Real
-This isn’t so much about accuracy to any sort of reality or fictional continuity, but a basic reminder to keep your players immersed in the story you’re telling. This might be leaning heavily on movie tropes if you have no other background or more reliable common point of reference. Don’t just move miniatures around the tactical grid or tokens on the virtual table, tell your players how the bad guys are walking, talking, using cover, shooting around things. Tell them how well-trained their character thinks the opposition can be, and as always, be ready with the cinematic details.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fudge
-Your job is to tell a story. Don’t let any game element get in the way of that, not even the dice. The one exception to this is your PCs: pay attention to what they’re doing and what they want: don’t get in their way either…

Make it Count
-So you’ve paced the campaign to have one or two pivotal clashes between the good guys and bad, you know just what the bad guys will do and how they’ll do it in a timely way, and you have a few aces up your sleeve; now you can begin to make the PCs care about fighting. Give them something to fight for, something to risk, often best provided by the players themselves. Now set the stakes appropriately high. The rest writes itself.

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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