The above scene probably looks familiar to you avid table-top gamers. This is the typical tavern brawl… well, that is, with Beholders and whom I’m pretty sure is either Torog or Baphomet lurking in the background looking stoned. Regardless, everyone knows this scene. You have to talk with the tavern owner; something goes awry; the tavern owner says something or insults someone; and, before you know it, swords, staves, and axes are drawn. Roll initiatives. Boom. Combat. Next we have twenty minutes to an hour and a half of power enacting or spell casting. Ugh.
Recently, I have been having an issue with how to make combat in Dungeons and Dragons a little more appealing. Don’t get me wrong: the system that the folks over at Wizards of the Coast have set up is pretty remarkable. It’s clean, efficient, engaging, and fun. Players can truly gain total agency over their characters through the new combat system: they can set up a series of moves and combos that will deal devastating damage or conjure beneficent boons for the party.
But what happens when combat runs stale? It is possible for this to happen, especially when you’ve been playing in a campaign for several months. Combat can feel stifled or repetitive, especially, it seems, for the arcane or ranged divine characters. In my article last week, I talked a little about formulating strategies to enrich a potentially dry combat experience (and it should again be noted that I believe sole responsibility of this resides with the DM). Only a few hours ago during my Monday night session, I believe I may have stumbled upon a fix:
Yeah, that’s right: I said it. White Wolf makes some tremendous games, and one aspect I’ve always enjoyed and admired is the flexibility of the combat system. In case you’re not aware, White Wolf is a gaming company — like Wizards of the Coast — responsible for such classic RPGs like Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Changeling: The Lost, and Scion. These games are structured to be more RP-heavy and rely on an ardent and creative storyteller (in fact, “storyteller” is the general term for “game” or “dungeon master” in Whitewolf games) to weave a fascinating world. Combat (and skills) are rolled via d10s only and are measured simply by successes and failures. It’s kind of like the pass/fail class of RPG combat systems. I have to be honest: I love it. And here’s why: during combat, you — as the player — are able to describe the exact action that you want to take (a swift glide across the ground, followed by two striking blows with a broadsword to a foe), and the Storyteller defines the DC for all of it. You roll. You see how many successes you have. If you beat a certain number, you complete all the action. Simple.
Now, I don’t suggest using the entire White Wolf combat system for D&D. It doesn’t work. Duh. It’s called a d20. But — and here’s your big “but” — I believe allowing the players to enact more agency over their characters’ moves and uses of powers is integral to boosting the fun of combat. Therefore, I implemented a new combat addendum tonight: something I call “Total Environment Use.” In it, players are able to use any elements of the environment — as far as, even, their characters’ natures and behaviors — to potentially boost their combat outcome. They are allowed, if they choose to take the risk, to use a free-action check of determined kind to perform some sort of bonus, flavor-texty move possibly to result in more damage or affect some element of the combat story. If they complete the skill/attribute check, they can then use the power or spell they so desired and finish their round. The whole point, though, is to get the players to describe their own moves — and, just as in White Wolf, the more creative the move, the better the reward.
Tonight, the group busted up some nasty duergar slavers and seemed to really enjoy the combat experience. Methinks I’ve stumbled upon some gold here. More to come…