PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing it up

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Songsayer
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PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing it up

Post by Songsayer »

New DM and PCs here playing a AD&D 2E campaign in the setting of Mystara. We have a druid, a fighter-cleric, and a thief. All levels 1-2.

My PCs have complained in the past about combat being, basically, too boring and abstract. I've tried to address this by reading through and using bits of 'Player's Option: Combat and Tactics' but found the rules too be a little too numerous and intimidating for me to seriously consider implementing at this stage in my DMing 'career', if you will. I've tried to explain to the PCs that an attack isn't just a single thrust of your blade; it's 60 seconds worth of cut and thrust, taunting, parries, advancing, retreating and that you should use your imagination to describe your attacks and misses and so forth.

This is the most recent message I've received from my druid:

"Like there is no strategy, you roll initiative, everyone on one side goes, everyone on the other side goes. Back and forth until battle is over. At one point we had the tokens-on-a-grid thing which was cool. There were those attacks-of-opportunity-things. There's like different weapon speeds and stuff idk exactly how that figures into combat but I'm assuming if you attack a dude with a knife and he simultaneously attacks you with a warhammer, your attack would land before his (assuming both attacks hit) and you could potentially kill him before he could land his strike. Maybe something where If there's an archer shooting at you, you could take cover behind a barrel or something and the archer would suffer some sort of penalty (also vice versa enemies behind cover would be harder to hit) idk if cover is even a thing in d&d but if it is that'd be cool"

I'm hoping that someone here could give me some advise on how to handle this situation. Could anyone offer any tips on how to spice up combat, or perhaps any specific rules from Combat and Tactics that I can implement rather than trying to tackle the whole book? Are my PCs simply not being imaginative enough and is there something I can say to encourage them to RP a little more, for flavor?

Thanks for the help! :)

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Havard
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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by Havard »

I actually like the abstract combat system. I think strategy could come into play in choosing which battles to fight, which battles to avoid and perparation for combat, including choosing where to fight, what spells to have ready etc.

It sounds like your players are interested in more tactical gaming. Here is a very different system that you could try out though:

Describing actions:
Every time a PC attacks an enemy, ask him to describe his action. Then award bonuses accordingly

DESCRIPTION | BONUS "I hit the orc with my sword" | no bonus desciption with some adjectives and a bit of color | +1 to hit and damage as above, but taking advantage of the surroundings | +2 to hit and damage The most amazing description ever. All the other players stunned | + 3 to damage, 100 bonus XP


Make sure the table above is known to the players and ask them if they would be willing to try this. This is adapted from a rule in Exalted and obviously makes for a more cinematic and colorful combat.

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Isuru
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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by Isuru »

Songsayer wrote:Are my PCs simply not being imaginative enough and is there something I can say to encourage them to RP a little more, for flavor?
This was my groups' problem for a while as well. Found it's alleviated with PbP play actually. Reason being, by nature of the format, everyone has to describe their attacks and actions and there's not as much time pressure.

So instead of blurting out "I hit the orc..." it becomes "Norval runs up axe at the ready to Arthune's side to help him from the orc about to slam its hammer into his flank." (We don't share a map in real time, so we can't just move our mini or icon to the desired space, we have to describe it.)

A near miss would go from "The orc missed you" to "Orc's sword nearly bit a chunk of flesh from the Norval's arm, instead it tore a scale off from his armored."

A natural 20 would go from "That's a critical, you hit the orc, and it's dead" to "Finding the right moment of weakness in the orc's guard, Norval's plunged his axe into the orc's skull. The orc came to an instead standstill. It slipped loose from the axehead in the next moment and collapsed to the fortress floor, barely a twitch in protest."

Paraphrased for concept, but something like that.

We keep decent track of movement, spacing, and positioning as it helps keep things interesting. Those things also have a potentially major impact on a battle.

For instance, in one battle, my group had to face off about a half dozen ogres in a cave/dungeon complex. We stumbled upon them and were not too prepared, so had a fighting retreat back to a narrower passage. Full of bravado, one of the ogres pursued, but the space was just enough for two of our strongest melee characters to fight side-by-side against a single ogre. We did pretty well against that one ogre, but then his brothers charging through, one at a time, because we killed their kin. The two warriors in the front starting getting worn out. The cleric, druid, and mage frantically dispensed our limited healing and a few minor offensive spells to even the odds, the druid or cleric switch out with the melee guys for a couple of rounds while they downed a healing potion and went back. It was a long, gritty, skin-of-our teeth battle. We couldn't retreat because the next room back would have left us exposed on all sides to ogres who could move as fast as us and they were heavy hitting melee guys. Our two warriors wouldn't be enough to distract them, while the extra ogres would have made short work of the extremely squishy mage/thief and cleric (has a kit that prohibited heavier armor or weaponry). Finally as the tide gradually turned, the last ogre lost morale and fled deeper into the ruined keep/dungeon.

Battles don't last as long in 2E (IMO; goes for 1E and similar era games as well) because the characters have less HP and defenses on average than later editions. meanwhile damage seems to outpace health by quite a bit and healing is less plentiful/efficient. Battles feel like quick life-and-death skirmishes even with the "limited options" characters have in combat. That may change as the casters gain spell.

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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by Big Mac »

Songsayer wrote:New DM and PCs here playing a AD&D 2E campaign in the setting of Mystara. We have a druid, a fighter-cleric, and a thief. All levels 1-2.
Hi Songsayer. I don't think I've bumped into you yet, so Welcome to The Piazza. You might want to pop over to the Introduce yourself here topic and say "hi" and let everyone know what stuff you are into.
Songsayer wrote:My PCs have complained in the past about combat being, basically, too boring and abstract. I've tried to address this by reading through and using bits of 'Player's Option: Combat and Tactics' but found the rules too be a little too numerous and intimidating for me to seriously consider implementing at this stage in my DMing 'career', if you will. I've tried to explain to the PCs that an attack isn't just a single thrust of your blade; it's 60 seconds worth of cut and thrust, taunting, parries, advancing, retreating and that you should use your imagination to describe your attacks and misses and so forth.
This is probably the thing that players were complaining about, when the 3rd Edition design team moved from 60 second combat rounds to 6 second combat rounds. It sounds like a solution, to move to one round per attack, but it isn't. (And I say this as someone who now prefers the 3e rules over the 2e rules.)

Combat is always something that slows down time in tabletop games. (3e combat slows time down even more than 2e combat.)
Songsayer wrote:This is the most recent message I've received from my druid:

"Like there is no strategy, you roll initiative, everyone on one side goes, everyone on the other side goes. Back and forth until battle is over. At one point we had the tokens-on-a-grid thing which was cool. There were those attacks-of-opportunity-things. There's like different weapon speeds and stuff idk exactly how that figures into combat but I'm assuming if you attack a dude with a knife and he simultaneously attacks you with a warhammer, your attack would land before his (assuming both attacks hit) and you could potentially kill him before he could land his strike. Maybe something where If there's an archer shooting at you, you could take cover behind a barrel or something and the archer would suffer some sort of penalty (also vice versa enemies behind cover would be harder to hit) idk if cover is even a thing in d&d but if it is that'd be cool"
Maybe the strategy is to avoid some of the combat. Suppose you allow your PCs a choice between sneaking around people or fighting them?

D&D sometimes gets described as "kill the monsters and take their stuff" but you could send your players on some adventures where they are not supposed to kill the monsters.

Or give them an adventure, where they can easily kill the monsters, but need to rescue an NPC with low hit points, who will easily get killed if a fight starts out near them.

But if your druid liked the tokens on the grid thing, then maybe your players would like to fight with tokens or minis.

If you do use tokens and or minis, you could then use the terrain to control the shape of a fight. In a big room there would be the ability to surround people and flank them. In a small corridor one or two PCs can hold off a larger force, while the rest of the group retreat and set up a proper defence. In the Underdark people might not be able to retreat and move around to get behind you, but in open terrain they could. And on a clifftop path, or a bridge, it might be possible to knock opponents over the edge of a cliff, rather than have to knock them down to zero hp.

Maybe you could even look at something like Battlesystem, and put your player's PC's in charge of a militia for a one-off adventure. Imagine The Seven Samurai as a D&D adventure, with your PCs needing to show a village how to protect itself from a bandit raid. The PCs couldn't just charge into the enemy, as they would get all the villagers killed by the bandits. They would need to arrange the villagers into teams and use tactics to lure the bandits into traps, to reduce the number of attackers.

If you try a few different things, you will find that you can make the combat have a different feel.

But you do also need your players to play differently in different situations. If they always run head-on into any monsters they hear, they will get a stand-up fight every time you play. So have a think about how they are reacting to combat and see if they can be encouraged to try different things.
Songsayer wrote:I'm hoping that someone here could give me some advise on how to handle this situation. Could anyone offer any tips on how to spice up combat, or perhaps any specific rules from Combat and Tactics that I can implement rather than trying to tackle the whole book? Are my PCs simply not being imaginative enough and is there something I can say to encourage them to RP a little more, for flavor?
Sadly, I don't own Player's Option: Combat & Tactics, so I can't give any specific advice on the book. But according to the description in the blurb, the book covers shield walls and disarms.

If you gave each player a small number of NPCs with roman-style shields, they would be able to go to testudo formation to get up close to archers and then go back to regular fighting, when the distance advantage of the archers was gone.

And, a clever way to use disarms, would be to go with the idea of capturing nobles during warfare and then ransoming them back to their families. We actually had a discussion about man catchers recently. Suppose there was a war between two families, and the PCs were hired to capture the eldest son of one of the family, to force the other family to make peace. The normal combat tactics would have to go out of the window, as the PCs could kill the followers and hirelings of the noble, but would need to try to avoid killing the noble they were stalking. That would force them to think differently. They would have to plan an ambush. Make a live capture, and then get away from the enemy as fast as possible.

:twisted:
David "Big Mac" Shepheard
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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by Tim Baker »

You could consider borrowing mechanics from the 13th Age fighter. Rather than force the player to describe their attack, let the natural d20 die roll help shape what's happening in combat. This is especially helpful for new players (and I run a lot of introductory games, so I'm speaking from experience), as it reduces their nearly infinite choices down to a matter of describing a category of attack that was determined by the d20. It takes a bit of effort to get used to doing things "backward" for those who are used to describing their action and then rolling, but for most players, once they get the hang of it, they enjoy it.

Here's a brief description from the SRD, as well as a single sample maneuver.
13th Age SRD wrote:Flexible Attacks

Fighters have flexible attacks called maneuvers; you roll your attack and then choose which maneuver you want the attack to use. You only get to use one maneuver with each attack, so it's usually best to choose maneuvers with a few different triggering rolls

Precision Attack

Triggering Roll: Any hit with a natural 16+

Effect: You gain a bonus to the damage roll equal to your Dexterity modifier.
So if your player rolls a 17, he/she could elaborate on the precision that granted the extra damage (or you could cut the mechanics out and simply use the list of descriptive combat terms, if you choose) when describing the attack. The terms are general enough that you're still free to flesh them out in play, but help provide some guidance (and a little mechanical "oomph," too).

For more information, you can check out the Fighter section of the 13th Age SRD, or you can download the entire SRD and check out other goodies that you can apply to your AD&D game.

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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by RobJN »

Set the scene: Combat doesn't happen in a void, and in many cases, not in an empty room. Make sure the PCs are aware of their surroundings. Is there a campfire? If they're fighting near it, they can try to push their opponents into the flames, or kick up embers in an enemy's face in an attempt to blind him and buy some time for the wizard to get off his sleep spell. Tapestries in the throne room? Use those as improvised soft cover from the crossbow fire from the assassins in the upper gallery. Tables can be tipped and either used for cover, or used to try to pin enemies into corners, or blockade the doorway so you're not completely overrun by orcs from the corridor outside. Spill that ale on the floor so footing is dangerous for foes closing on the group of PCs. Better yet, spill some oil, and then light it up when the kobolds charge in.

Never tell the PCs how many hit points they lose. "The orc slashes Crabin across the arm. His grip weakens, and he can't swinging quite as hard when slashing from overhead." "How many hit points was it?" "The orc on the other side smashes its axe into Crabin's shield. The wood spinters a bit, and his whole forearm goes numb." Nothing perks up a player during combat than not knowing how close to death they are. I wouldn't tell my players how many hit points they'd lost until after their PCs were out of danger. In most cases, the descriptions don't really have any concrete mechanical effect.... but the players don't need to know that. :twisted: If a bugbear kicks the thief in the leg, and the player has the PC spend the rest of that adventure limping, it'll make the chase scene towards the end of the night that much more exciting.

Don't tell the PCs if they kill the monster(s). "The orc's squeal is cut short, and it collapses in a pool of sticky, greenish blood." Is it dead? Unconscious? Faking? Does the PC really have time to check when three more orcs are still trying to split him from chin to groin? On the flip side, let the player narrate results for you. Playing in a game this weekend, the DM would usually ask a player "Got him! How do you finish him off?" This kept the energy level at the table running pretty high, despite the late hour.

Combats outside of a set-piece or centerpiece encounter should be short and sweet -- every swing of an enemy's sword could end a PC's life, so the idea should be to either avoid combat or keep those orcs from swinging their swords too many times in your hero's direction.

Hope these tips help!
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Re: PCs find combat too boring/abstract, need help spicing i

Post by AuldDragon »

I agree with almost everything RobJN says. The players should be detailing their actions, rolling their dice, and then the DM describes theatrically what happens. PC rolls his attack roll, and you compare it to the creature's AC, and realize it is a miss. Rather than saying "You miss", you can say, "You loose your arrow towards the charging orc, but it sticks in his upraised shield." Or, if it hit, you can say "The orc snarls and stumbles back in pain as your arrow lodges itself in his shoulder, having found a weak spot in his armor." My one significant disagreement is that I think PCs should keep track of their own hit points; DMs have enough to keep track of without doing that too.

Remember to describe the terrain, and have the monsters use it to their advantage; players who don't do so themselves will quickly learn to look for advantages of their own. Make intelligence enemies talk, too; have them taunt, curse, or otherwise banter with the PCs, especially if there is racial animosity between them. Even if it is a random encounter, give them mini-personas. Maybe Orc 1 is brash, and Orc 2 is a weaselly coward. Have that alter their actions. It doesn't have to be very in-depth, just enough to govern what they do, like going after the clear weakling in the party, or the one who is clearly the strongest, etc. If you know one of your players tends to just always say "I rush the orc" create a situation where it should be very obvious that would be a bad idea. You can get them thinking about terrain advantages this way, especially; just make sure you're describing what the area is like, and encourage them to experiment and try tactics out.

If you're pulling your punches and not trying to think of encounters they can overcome, stop doing that. Some challenges are definitely going to be too much for the PCs, and they'll have to run, but if they can defeat them, they will feel that much more accomplished. Think about what makes sense for where the PCs have decided to go rather than what they can overcome.

In general, there's very little need for new mechanics, and any new mechanics should only be things that you feel are genuinely missing. One thing I would recommend based on what you said you recieved from one of your players is to use individual initiative for the players (and for the monsters if it makes sense), along with casting times and weapon speed. It's very simple to keep track of, but it makes the flow of battle much more dynamic instead of "side A attacks, then side B." It may also get players thinking about what spells and weapons they want to use.

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