I will never forget the time in a play by post game when the GM laid out a combat encounter with twenty enemies on a grid.
The combat was brutal and the players got pretty well wiped out.
But also it took MONTHS.
I remember seeing the map and thinking “it sucks that we can’t just opt out of this fight, I want to go back to the fun part and this isn’t fun”
Or the time my AIM group did an all-nighter so that we could fight Tiamat. It took six hours to play through five rounds of combat.
There’s gotta be a better way to do combat that makes it fun in a way that lets us keep telling the story and doesn’t lose momentum.
Okay spitball time, try this out:
Build different size fights. Not just in terms of conflict scale (duel/ambush/boss fight/gauntlet/etc), but in terms of purpose.
Is this a speed bump, a set piece, or a climax?
Speed bump fights are quick, we include them because it narratively makes sense that they would happen and we want to provide texture to the world as we bump up against its barriers. But the story isn’t about this fight, so we move past it quickly.
A speed bump doesn’t ask you to roll anything; it’s just a quick decision point. Do you spend a point to beat the cops back with spells, or do you lose them down an alley? There might be consequences later but we don’t care about the outcome of this fight. Keep it moving.
Set piece fights are important because they let us show off the things we’ve learned, the tools we’ve gained, or if we’re just now being introduced, our whole selves.
We might lose in a set piece fight, so we’re gonna do some rolling. But not a lot of it.
In a set piece fight, you roll to see if you kicked ass, if you looked cool, if you lost anything important. And in the worst cases, we find out if you got overwhelmed, captured, routed.
Nobody dies in a set piece fight.
In a showdown or climax fight? That’s where we break out the heavy rules. Yes we’ve seen you can shoot fire. But here’s where we define the limits of that fire. Because in the climax, it’s not about looking cool, it’s about whether or not your skills and tools will be enough.
You can die in a climax. You can lose the showdown. You can take too long, the enemy you’re fighting can get away from you and escape.
Anything could happen. Because all those speed bumps and set pieces were building to this question about the outcome of This Fight.
I think that’s all I got for useful design on this. I’m not a combat designer.
But knowing up front whether we’re looking at a set piece or a showdown would be useful, both as a player and as a designer.
Btw this isn’t just a philosophical question, it’s not “am I in actor stance” - the mechanics should address the stakes of the current encounter.
Am I spending a resource to bypass the obstacle? Am I rolling to boast my talents? Or are we REALLY doing this?
In Blades in the Dark I might frame it this way:
Speed Bump: we narrate how we get into the warehouse, the taking out of the guards happens on screen and someone might spend stress to do some cool acrobatics or set up a trap through a flashback, but this is no-stakes.
Set Piece: okay we’re in the warehouse and a guard sees us, it’s gonna be a scuffle, but this isn’t the end of the score and we know it, it’s just a question of whether the guard will sound the alarm before we take them out. Handle it with a roll, maybe push yourself. Done.
Showdown: the Big Boss is in the heart of the warehouse waiting for us, we have to take them out now or our whole operation is sunk.
Big Boss gets an 8 clock. An opposing clock is the boss making a break for the exit. Do the best you can, don’t let them escape, at any cost.
I don’t play dnd anymore, but if you want a d20 version of this, it’s: Speedbump: just describe it Set piece: skill check from every player, take xd6 damage if you fail, spend an ability to avoid damage Showdown: roll initiative