Part two of my examination of combat focuses on the DM side of things. Many DMs thrive in this area, but others, just like players, dislike it. Why? Well there are many ways that combat can go wrong when you are sitting on the sunny side of the DM screen. Here are three examples that rear their ugly heads often and how I remedy them:
1) Combat can get very stale very quickly. This is especially true when the PCs are of lower level. After two or three really good rounds of casting spells and using talents the characters can start to run low on powers and the combat quickly reverts into a boring back-and-forth hack fest. I have two quick fixes for this issue: Firstly, encourage your players to use improvised attacks and give them the freedom to do so. Hitting one orc out of a dozen with your quarterstaff isn't nearly as impressive or useful as spilling a bottle of oil on the floor and watching “orcs on ice”. Secondly, spice up your encounters. Don’t just throw a gaggle of whatever at them without flourish. Make at least one of the foes standout such as leaders, chieftains, or spell casters and give them purposes/motives beyond senseless killing. I personally believe that the minute you up the game of your monsters, the players will pick up on it and do likewise.
2) Players can quickly come to view combats as “the goblin fight” or “the skeleton fight”. Don’t let the foes be the end all and be all of the battle. Where you are fighting is almost as important as what you are fighting. Terrain, location, and the circumstances surrounding combat can make a good scene great. When planning encounters, DMs need to remind themselves to spend as much time setting up the scene for the fight as they do the fight itself. Why have the PCs fighting a clan of kobolds in simple forest setting when they could be fighting on the top of a fallen tree that spans a deep ravine? Or why fight a horde of zombies in an ordinary swamp when you could be fighting them in that same swamp during a lighting storm and the lighting is periodically electrifying the water? Simple changes can lead to epic battles.
3) Sometimes PCs will have “big ideas” during combat (I know some of you are nodding right now). These can range from strokes of genius to suicide runs (still nodding). How you improvise to accommodate these improvisations will say a lot about you as a DM. Do you shut them down or do you run with it? I suppose the answer really depends on the situation. My first instinct is to run with it and let the dice do the work. Set a difficulty, look at all of the modifiers, and let lady luck roll. But sometimes an idea is so good you just have to let them have it, rules or no rules. And there are other times when a player is asking for trouble or trying to attempt the impossible. When this happens you will have to walk the tightrope between being merciful and being the demon DM that never lets anyone do anything fun. Don’t let them get away with everything but don’t crush their adventurous spirit. Aim for the “hard but fair” cliché and you’ll do alright.
And speaking of balances, when it comes to combat a DM has to be careful to not give or take away too much power from the PCs. Taking too much can make them feel helpless and weak while giving too much can inflate their egos and make them seem more powerful than they really are. These extremes can be better characterized in the no-win scenario when taking away too much power and the destroy-the-campaign scenario when giving too much.
I want to point out that smacking the PCs with an unbeatable foe or the no-win scenario is not necessarily a bad thing, it just needs to be done in the proper manner. I have used this tool in the past and the results have ranged from good to horrible. It can be an excellent weapon to humble a party that considers itself invincible but it can also bring low a party already struggling. I think that the key word here should be moderation. Can you present the PCs with an unbeatable foe? Yes. Should it be used to kill the party off? No; maybe one character at the most. Can it be used as a story twist? Yes; but only if the PCs are given a chance to redeem themselves later on. How often should it be used? I’d say once a campaign at the very most and, if you can manage it, perhaps once every other campaign.
On the other hand, if there is one type of DM that I despise, it is the DM that values their creations over the needs of the PCs and is a power/control freak. In my opinion, the DM exists to give the players the best game/story possible, period. So, when a DM chooses an NPC or a monster over the PCs, things are going sideways. I have seen this happen many times and it serves no one other than the DM. Phrases get thrown around like “mulligan” or “you just screwed up the whole campaign” or even “well, time to roll up new characters”. Almost every DM will do or has done this at one point or another, yours truly included, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong! (Did I mention it’s wrong?)
While the no-win scenario for the PCs should be used sparingly, there should never appear the destroy-the-campaign scenario for the DM. If the DM places the players in a situation where they can ruin everything, is it their fault when they do? That’s like blaming a baby for smashing a vase when you give it the vase to play with. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Remember three vital things to avoid this bottomless pit: 1) Plan ahead for the worst possibility; 2) Bend the rules if you have to; and 3) If something does go wrong, own it and adapt. Chopping the head off an adventure or a whole campaign is not only going to weaken your authority in the eyes of your players but it’s going to create twice as much work for you in the long run. Instead, take a deep breath, step up your game, and make it work.
Finding the sweet spot in combat is no different than finding it in roleplaying. Both depend on quick thinking, inventive and interesting events, and dynamic interactions. When everything is working as it should the battle will flow like a movie and everyone should have a very clear idea of what is going on. But realize that things are not always going to go as you expect and half of the fun of D&D is seeing what does happen in unexpected situations and how things shape around them. Embrace them, conquer your fear or dislike of them, and open yourself to exploring the organized chaos. Being close minded and unyielding is for other games.