Combat: My Changing Tastes

Posted 07 Jul 2021 to Musings

I've noticed my preferences in RPGs have been morphing. I don't think I enjoy traditional combat as much as I once did.

At a recent gaming session we had a big combat. We were playing Worlds Without Number, and the players had decided to ambush a large group of an enemy faction. They hoped to rescue some prisoners as the enemy was marching across the countryside.

I did all the normal things. I found a good image to use as a tactical map. The players took up their pens and drew some traps they were preparing, and they positioned their tokens where they wanted to be lying in wait. Soon, the first enemies began walking onto the map and the ambush was about to be sprung. There was an exciting tension in the air.

The fight broke out when a PC was spotted and the alarm was raised. Now it was 15 baddies against 3 PCs. What followed was a 2 hour marathon of attack rolls, damage, dodge, saving throw. The enemies were working to deplete the hit points of the PCs, and the PCs were trying to do the same. It was a tactical problem to solve. The PCs were trying to funnel the enemies into disadvantageous positions, while exposing themselves as little as possible. It was like chess.

Except, whereas each player only had to control 1 actor, I had to control 15. Each had a token on the map and their own hit points, and their own conditions (like prone, asleep, etc). Each had a Move Action and a Main Action to take each round. One of the enemies was a spellcaster, so I had to know his spells and their range and how they worked. It was a lot to track. It felt like there were a million dice rolls.

After the session, I knew it had been a mistake to handle this the normal way. But what were the alternatives? Should I have called for a single roll to see how the ambush went? That seems unsatisfactory. The PCs wouldn't have had a chance to use their fun spells and abilities. And if the single roll had gone badly, would the players have accepted capture or defeat as a consequence?

A good solution will be one where the monsters are not run using the same rules as the players. Tracking multiple goblins with their own actions and minutiae is unnecessary and places a heavy load on the GM.

The best solution I am finding is the one in Ironsworn. The fight has a progress track, a number of ticks that need to be completed for victory. Players take turns describing what they are trying to do, they make a dice roll, and if they succeed then ticks are added to the track. If they fail, then they take damage or something bad happens. There is no battlemap. It's just in your mind. The GM does not need to track individual actors, because the progress track abstracts all that.

This method is quick. A normal fight will probably take 15 minutes. An epic one a bit longer. This feels like the right length to me. It is enough time for PCs to show off their special moves, and for there to be some tension.

Of course, it has disadvantages. The PCs are only threatened when they fail a dice roll. A fight that is rated "Epic" (the highest ranking) would still take forever to resolve, because the progress track would fill up so slowly. But it still feels like a better solution to me.

I'm not interested in playing mini-wargames with goblins and heroes any more. I still enjoy a bit of action to create a tense scene of risk and danger, but I'm not interested in simulating the trading of blows with tokens and a battlemap. This is curious to me, because I started out as a tabletop wargamer. That was my entryway to RPGs. I was never very good at wargames anyway, to be honest.



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