Game Master’s Guide: How To Run Fast & Exciting Combats
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.
Master’s Guide: How To Run Fast & Exciting Combats. Tony Medeiros
and Johnn Four.
Roleplaying Tips Publishing http://www.roleplayingtips.com
I wrote a little while back about combat not really being my favourite part of Traveller—although it can be exciting enough, and as I learn how better to run it, I think I’m growing more appreciation for it as a player. My biggest problem isn’t combat in principle, but that it can slow down a game quite considerably if not handled well. I’ve sat through convention games where a fairly brief fight can take up nearly half of a four hour game with not all of the players directly involved.
It was therefore with some interest that I saw this book, Game Master’s Guide: How To Run Fast & Exciting Combats, and wondered if there mightn’t be some help there that could assist as I thought about running my first formal combat at TravCon. My approach up to then had been to keep my combat fairly limited and specific, and to simulate it over and over until I felt I understood and could manage the wrinkles that rolls and weapons and movement would throw at me. This Game Master’s Guide widened my approach and thinking considerably.
Let’s be clear from the outset: This isn’t a Traveller book and doesn’t consider Traveller or even science fiction role playing games at all. It’s fair and square aimed at fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. Having said that, while the examples and routines are specific to that kind of game, there’s much here that can be mined generically and the canny Traveller referee will find enough here to give plenty of hints and ideas on speeding up Traveller combat even if not everything applies directly. But not just speeding it up – the book has great advice on making it much more integrated into the story, relevant to the adventure and exciting for the players.
A supporting website at http://fastercombat.com/ offers options to have the content in 52 segments with access to a members’ area and some bonus material, if a single PDF book to teach yourself isn’t your cup of tea. I’ve not investigated the course. It’s fairly clear that the book has grown out of this ‘course’ but is certainly none the worse for having been thoroughly tested out before this compilation. The title on the cover of the PDF is as given above, the title page gives a longer version which adds a little more information: Faster Combat: How to GM Fights in Half the Time While Doubling the Story and Excitement. There are six chapters: Knowledge (Game), Combat by Design, Launch, Finish, Mastery, and 1d6 Extras. A map of the full layout of the book, which only gives a hint at how useful this might be for you, can be downloaded for free at https://s3.amazonaws.com/FasterCombat/bonuses/faster-combat-mind-map.pdf. Each chapter is made up of several of the segments.
The book begins by encouraging you to examine your own practices and what’s going on in your combat sessions. It gives detailed notes on how to track time (where’s it going?), measure performance, and profile characters. Of course, mastery of the actual combat rules you’re using is critical and there are sections on this as well.
Chapter 2 looks at how the referee can design combat to improve the playing experience. It’s not all about speed, it’s about considering the goals of the combat (not just to the death!) and making it relevant and punchy (if you’ll forgive the pun). So, for example, under combat goals, it highlights five of the authors’ favourite missions: to acquire something, to escape destruction, to hold the line, to infiltrate, and to save the innocent. For each of these missions it notes what success and failure consists of, what encounter elements might be considered, what tactics help that kind of mission, and what twists might be thrown in. This is just five pages of the book and yet already had me thinking more clearly about the what and the who and the why of a combat session. A particularly interesting section following this covers story structure which can help plan a scene and develop a ‘combat encounter plan’. There are considerations too of the ‘combatscape’ or where the combat is actually taking place.
Having now planned more comprehensively before the actual game, Chapter 3 moves onto launching it at your players. It kicks off with 17 excellent (and generic) tips that can immediately speed things up, but continues with ideas that will work in any combat: checklists, good descriptions, initiative trackers, and faster decision making. There are considerations for rewarding speedy play, playing as a team, tracking damage and using props such as maps and miniatures. There are some sections that are more fantasy specific such as those dealing with monsters, but to be honest I’d already got so much out of this chapter it didn’t matter much.
The fourth chapter, Finish, covers wrapping up the combat with good advice on actually ensuring there is roleplay and not just die rolling, ways to negotiate, and ensuring that the foes are not just abstract ‘monsters’ but may even be leaders with some honour! The next sections deal with making sure there is a way out – from surrender to various forms of escape. Again, a section on ‘monster waves’ (i.e. waves of monsters rather than giant tsunami or friendly ogres) is more game specific but can still provoke thought about what constitutes enemies in Traveller. The final section on making quick judgement calls suit any role playing (for #2 ‘complex monsters’, simply read ‘complex opponents’, etc.).
The penultimate chapter is entitled Mastery, and is wonderfully applicable to any combat – whether in a dungeon or an Imperial Domain. Keeping a rules log, (un)breaking the rules, creating cheat sheets, multitasking and delegation, adding atmosphere, post mortems (analysing the combat session not actually going through the bodies of the slain…), style and consistency, and leading by example are all covered in ten sections that every referee should read. Just to take one of those at random, analyzing encounters gives advice on taking apart a scene after the session to see what worked, what didn’t work, what consumed time, what was ‘unremarkable’ even, and most importantly to learn from this analysis to improve things for next time.
Finally, chapter 6, 1d6 Extras, gives lists of helpful material that doesn’t quite fit into the above. Some of it’s useful in Traveller: alternative character rewards, splitting the party (or not), and adding more story. Some are partially useful: 20 cool places to fight covers the usual fantasy possibilities but includes some interesting items that might inspire an SF setting referee. And some such as 50 monster quirks are perhaps not so useful for Traveller, although it’s quite amusing to apply the list to a typical Traveller opponent, let’s say a Zhodani agent or something and “#6: Dance - Breaks out into dance, even while traveling, whenever it rains or snows.”
At the end of each section there are links to further related resources which can be very useful. Some of the resources continue the theme of the chapter in books, articles, or blog entries; others support the referee in tasks the chapter recommends, and may be online tools, useful software, and so on.
There are few illustrations: some beautiful woodcuts (I think I recognize one from Treasure Island) at the start of each chapter of which only the chapter on Mastery is in colour. Subtle! I like it! There are also a two photos of “3D” initiative trackers and a half dozen screenshots. There are supporting tables where relevant.
The book is immensely readable and the short sections with plenty of headings keep you reading. The pages aren’t dense with text which helps with that as well but does contribute to the page count. You don’t get bogged down in it and the headings have the additional bonus of allowing you to locate sections you want to reread very easily. The authors clearly bring a lot of experience to the issue and their advice one suspects is born out of a lot of frustration in the past and a desire to help others avoid the same. I’d recommend it to anyone running combat in any type of role playing game although obviously some of the specific examples are going to be more directly relevant to those running fantasy games. You may have worked towards many of the solutions offered by trial and error, but this could well save you a lot of time in working out how to improve combat sessions as well as within the sessions themselves.
As I said at the start, it’s not Traveller but will help any referee running combat and has actually inspired me to not be afraid of including combat in games I run and perhaps even looking forward to the next round of combat I’m involved in as a player – if only to analyse how the referee is handling it!