Conflict is the essence of drama, or so they say. After all, there isn’t much plot to be had if there’s nothing going wrong and everybody is in perfect agreement with one another. With that in mind, the easiest way to add conflict is to utter these three words:
“Roll for initiative.”
This method can be a cop-out, but if the GM was intending for this outcome to occur in the first place, is there really anything wrong with that? After all, if you’re playing a game where a character’s defining feature is, “How do I make things dead?” you may as well opt for the violent conflict from time to time.
With that in mind: today, I am going to give you some pointers on how to effectively design combat scenarios, regardless of what game you’re playing!
1) Start Small
Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
What this meant was that if you know what your army and the enemy army could do, you would know how a particular fight would play out. However, this scenario is an ideal one; you won’t always know what what both sides in a conflict are capable of.
In RPGs, these circumstances could be that you’ve never GMed the game you’re designing a combat encounter for. Your lack of experience with the system means you may not comprehend how the combat mechanics will work. You may not know how they’ll react when their characters are in a kill or be killed situation.
The most practical way to get this information is to observe, and the best way to observe is of course to start small: use a few fairly weak or cowardly enemies to suss out how vicious the players can be. Once you get the picture, you can always scale things up later on if you decide to pose a challenge to the players.
2) Know The Terrain
If you’ve got a hex or grid map: break it out. If you don’t have one, plain paper or even your imagination will do. Draw up where the fight takes place, and for the love of Pelor, don’t make it a 25ft by 25ft square, featureless room.
A few details and features in the battleground can make for a more interesting or even challenging fight; one that might allow for characters to try things besides hitting enemies with their strongest weapon or spells.
Take for example a fight on a terraced mountainside, kind of like the ruins of Machu Picchu. In a game of D&D 5e, spells like Jump or Thunderwave become more valuable for aiding your own movement or disrupting others, respectively. Although, the booming of Thunderwave could also cause a landslide in such a locale as well!
3) Making The Most Of Using More
Bigger numbers usually make for a bigger threat. This is true not only in enemy stat blocks, but also when counting how many enemies there are. An otherwise harmless enemy could be made tougher depending on how many of their allies are present, as well as who those allies are.
I’ll give two examples here:
D&D 3.5 (and perhaps, by extension, Pathfinder) is somewhat notorious for the levels of optimization its players will put into it. Some of these players are able to get armor classes as high as 40 by level eight. However, AC is only one method of avoiding harmful effects; a high AC won’t protect against a fireball sweeping through an area.
Thus, in D&D 3.5, having weaker enemies in a group that can use a variety of attacks would be an effective way to make a battle more challenging. In the case of using templates on creatures, picking one that grants a somewhat less accurate attack that goes against a different target number could achieve a similar effect.
For my next example: D&D 5e introduced the concept of Bounded Accuracy. I’m not much for discussing theories, but the long and short of it is that Armor Class is harder to raise than Attack bonuses, meaning that one of the most heavily armored characters (Full Plate and Shield for 20 AC) can still feasibly, if unreliably, be wounded by even the least competent character.
Consider the Goblin with its +4 to attack. This means that against our 20 AC character, he has roughly a 20% chance to hit and deal damage to him. A character isn’t likely to have the 1,5000 gold necessary for a Full Plate well into their career, so one goblin getting a lucky shot isn’t going to do much.
Several of these Goblins, perhaps using ranged weaponry from a several different angles, would be considerably more dangerous.
4) Spread Out The Big Clumps
Just because more can be better, doesn’t mean you need to throw more out all at once. In fact, that can actually be a terrible idea: nobody in their right mind would think that in D&D 5e, throwing 30 goblins at once at a level 7 party is a good idea. There is a way to make that work, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.
“At once” is the operative phrase here. You can throw 30 goblins at the party over time, sending them in waves of five or so throughout an adventure is somewhat more reasonable, and can used to various effects. It can be done to interrupt player characters sitting around an area too long humming and hawing around something insignificant.
On the other hand, if you have characters that are prone to stopping to rest all the time, this reserve of goblins could be used to interrupt their rest. Though, in the interest of being fair, I’d give it a certain probability of it happening. To make it seem less like you’re being a vindictive GM, have the players roll to determine if their rest is interrupted.
5) Till Death Do Us Part (NOT!)
There’s a very weird phenomenon I’ve noticed in tabletop RPGs. Enemies and player characters alike will often fight to the death. This probably happens because of the suspension of disbelief that happens when people are playing games.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that there are many examples in the real world of creatures and people that flee when things get too dangerous. So, this can be used for a convenient way to end a combat that’s otherwise taking longer that you would have wanted.
For example, in Shadowrun, it’s unlikely that a Lonestar officer will be willing to fight to the death if they’re outnumbered or outgunned. They’re basically the rent-a-cops of the 6th world: overworked and underpaid. Shoot an extra hole or two into them, and if they aren’t dead, they’ll probably turn tail and run.
Most wild creatures based on real world critters in literally any game are likely to behave like this as well: wound them, they realize they’re in for more than they can handle and run. For more fantastic beasts, that’s entirely your call, Gamemaster.
So there you have it, five things I usually keep in mind when designing combat encounters. The cool thing about considering these ideas is that some of these can be mixed and matched. Remember that practice makes perfect; add everything in a little bit at a time, and you’ll eventually wind up with players whose eyes light up upon hearing those words:
“Roll for Initiative.”
According to legend, Aaron der Schaedel, was born on Gary Gygax Day. This unfortunately didn’t grant him any super special powers.. Instead, it was years of experience and practice are what made him the GM he is today, and he’s only a terrible player to help his fellow GMs get the practice they need.
Picture Reference: http://wallup.net/fantasy-battle-artwork/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.