One the easiest traps to fall into as a new referee in tabletop rpgs is to treat violence the same as video games do. Video games are particularly well suited for testing your reflexes and hand eye coordination, as well as your ability to make optimal decisions from menu-like option trees. However, in order to excel at testing these things, they must limit your choices down to what can be simulated by the game’s engine. Basically, its the constraints and limitations of video games that make them fun and as they become more powerful and expansive, seeing those limitations shrinks is also exciting.
Tabletop roleplaying games don’t have this burden. What makes them fun and exciting is that you can attempt to do anything. Instead of relying on the programming of a video game, it relies on the humans playing the game to be impartial arbiters of what does and does not happen. The lack of system is a feature, not a bug.
The game designs itself, procedurally, as you play it.
For new referees, this can be incredibly daunting and difficult to understand. We rely on the rulebook to work the same as a video game cartridge. To limit us to what can and cannot be done, to have all the answers. Games that promise “universal resolution mechanics” are essentially promising that everything you can attempt will be handled more-or-less the same way. This is a sort of false god in rpgs. It’s useful, for sure, but it again obfuscates what makes rpgs beautiful: that we’re building a thing together.
My game will have different needs than your game. We should design rules that work for us. Make rulings that are a complex and nuanced language, only understood by the people at our table. Like every relationship, our table-talk, our house rules, operate like inside jokes: incompressible to outsiders, and deeply resounding to insiders.
We can’t help from doing it whether we want to or not. No matter how slavishly devoted to the rulebook your group may be, you’re always making calls. Always emphasizing some rules more than others (“Oh, we don’t use encumbrance.”). This is great, this is the game working. A good recipe can’t tell you how much salt your partner prefers, or what your mother’s allergies are. It’s just a baseline, a starting point.
But one of the consequences of treating tabletop rpgs as if they were video games, is that we end up incredibly bored interacting with the game’s core systems. My primary example here is combat in adventure games.
“Okay, it’s your turn. What are you doing?”
“Is the orc still standing?”
“Yeah, he looks pretty rough, but he’s here.”
“Okay I attack.”
“Okay, go ahead and roll your attack.”
“Miss. Alright, Jenny, it’s your turn. What are you doing?”
“I’ll attack the orc too.”
If this sounds familiar to you, then you know what I’m talking about. The chaos and uncertainty of a truly dire situation becomes this rote and generally boring encounter. Greater emphasis on combat abilities and encounter balance, in my experience is definitely one way to increase engagement, but for me it stops short of making the encounter thrilling in any way. The common advice is that this is bad DM-ing, and in general I agree. However, what I haven’t seen often enough is ways to rethink these scenarios, to reframe the imaginary space they inhabit so that no matter where you fall on the rules-lite to rules-might spectrum, your encounters have real stakes.
One party is situated far above the other and thus has an advantage when trying to hit enemies, defend themselves, or do more damage while taking less risk.
Gaining the high ground can be an objective where once you get it, the encounter is basically over. Escalating high ground, like chasing someone up a tower, or jumping from scaffolding to scaffolding can make your encounter super dynamic.
One party is basically impossible to get to without first defeating a barrier.
This can be a castle wall (and combines well with high ground), but it could also be something like “you see the target through the window, attacking an innocent.” You have to defeat an obstacle first before you can engage with your enemy. This engages players who have interesting movement abilities (or the ability to remove barriers, walls, etc.).
Reversed, this works well too, where you place barriers between you and the enemy, allowing you do deal much greater damage without taking too many wounds.
The encounter takes place on a limited area, where straying from the bounds risks damage or death.
Whether this is jumping from rooftop to rooftop, or fighting near a lava pit or cliff, the situation presents a way to instantly remove opponents from the battle. This is great because it levels the playing field — magic weapons and armor may save you, but you’re just as likely to die from tripping on pebble as you are from a Vorpal Blade.
The longer the encounter takes, the more likely something truly awful will happen.
Flooding chambers, fighting in a house that’s on fire, knowing that enemy reinforcements are on their way, casters summoning a greater demon, a ticking time bomb. This prioritizes bringing about some kind of endgame, and punishes wars of attrition.
There are non-combatants in the area which must be considered and may be leveraged by enemies.
Hostages and innocents rapidly change the stakes of a scene from “kill hostiles” to “save innocents.” Saving innocents can also propel the story forward, and failing to save them can as well. The innocents also add an element of chaos as they can be helpful or harmful to the situation at hand.
Stealth and silence are required for the situation not to escalate.
Thief-types of course love this scenario, but creating a situation where everyone must be silent or risk setting off alarm bells, radically changes the situation. This is another situation where you’d want the rules to heavily favor surprising enemies. Hit points, in most games, shouldn’t be dutifully adhered to in these cases. Forcing every encounter to become a “well you’ve gotta get them all the way down to zero” all but guarantees every encounter turns into a slug fest.
The encounter ends as soon as an important item has been retrieved.
This is about making the situation about something other than killing all your enemies. One side basically gives up as soon as the magic item, key, important individual, is reached or taken, or stolen — or the item in question is so valuable as to overwhelmingly give the upper hand to the side which has it.
One side has a powerful asset which is defended by guardians. If the asset can be defeated, the rest of their forces are essentially defeated.
A powerful leader or sorcerer defended by shield bearers helps give focus to the players. If you’ve ever been asked “Who should I attack?” then this is a helpful tool. Morale rules help in this situation, as does just deciding “Okay if the big guy goes down, the rest will run away.”
Items in the area have the potential to deal a great amount of damage, radically changing the situation.
Whether these are actual exploding barrels, or a stack of logs tied by thin rope, the idea is to get players thinking about the world around them. The trick here is to make environmental damage do more damage than the players attacks/magic weapons/spells. You have to get them to stop thinking that the best thing to do statistically is pick their greatest weapon/attack/spell and spam that action until combat is over. Let them know that if they use the environment, they’ll do more damage quicker.
If one side is surprised, the encounter will end quickly.
Most game systems have some kind of surprise rule which usually account for an extra turn of actions. However, the tooth of these rules has often been taken out, making them just another thing you have to go through. Let your players know that an ambush will do greater damage, or force enemies to flee quicker — or better yet, don’t make them roll for their attacks, just let them hit.
One side is attempting to get to a location and the other party must stop them.
This is essentially a chase scene. The goal is not (necessarily) to kill the other party, just to catch them. When combined with any of the other patterns on this list you can create something really complex.
One side must capture an objective and defend it until reinforcements arrive.
Very similar to Capture the Flag, the idea here is that you have to take an area by force and then wait until more troops arrive. This could be taking a house infested with zombies, then reinforcing the windows to survive the night. Or it could just be defending your own camp from wild animals. This is largely about resource management and combat should be scaled or zoomed out so that in game time passes quickly, otherwise your entire session will be about this one encounter.
One side is required to be non-lethal.
This radically changes things when paired with another objective or pattern from the list. Maybe the villagers are trying to stop you, but you can’t kill them because technically they’re on your side. Or maybe if you kill anyone, your intrusion will be discovered. Again, this forces characters to look to new abilities and solutions outside of “what is my best attack.” Sleep spells, tranquilizer darts, and then the best of the best: the con, are all useful tools here.
The goal of these patterns is to create interesting decisions for the players. Oftentimes, players are just on autopilot, not really considering their options or deciding anything at all. Time has taught them that their best bet is to just attack, its the optimal choice. What these patterns are attempting to do is create situations where actions other than attacking would more quickly bring the situation to its conclusion, or next turning point.
None of this is to say that complex mechanics don’t provide for robust tactical situations with interesting decisions. But rather, that by thinking of your violent encounters as these moving situations, whether the participants have goals other than eat or be eaten, you’ll be rewarded with more engaging encounters and players who will more actively immerse themselves in the world.
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