Jan 112009

As a follow up to one of my gaming resolutions, I thought to share some of my own tricks and tactics for making fights a bit more dynamic.  This list is by no means exaustive, but these bits of advice have worked well for in the past.  By way of example I’ll be using two of my favorite systems to showcase how these techniques can be used.

Create A Living Environment
One of the most successful tactics for creating a dynamic fight is also the most GM intensive.  When setting up an encounter area for a game, try to create an environment that lives, breathes, and changes.  I think too many of us (me included) create these incredibly static encounter areas that don’t change over time or in response to player actions.  This can quickly lead to characters standing in one spot and wailing away at enemies until one drops.

So, when I design an area for a fight I try to include three different aspects.  The first, and most important, is littering the area a bit with objects that can be interacted with.  The prime example of this would be the bar fight – you have tables, chairs, and beer bottles that can all be used as improvised weapons.  You have bars and perhaps a stage that can be used as cover.  The area is littered with objects that hamper movement and limit where you can fight, forcing players to move around and use the terrain to their best advantage.

It’s important, however, that this not become nothing but a limiting factor.  You have to use the carrot as well as the stick.  If you’re designing an area that can be interacted with, it’s important that their be bonuses for doing so.  Perhaps ducking behind the bar gives you a bonus to defense.  Using a chair as a weapon might give a bonus to disarming that warrior using the big weapon.  Jumping up on the table should give you a bonus to attack people lower than you.  The basic idea is to reward your players for using the environment, and these rewards should be noticeable.  Error on the side of generosity if you must, at least until it becomes more of a habit.

It is also equally important that your enemies make use of this feature as well.  In fact, having the enemies using the terrain in this manner is a good way to exemplify how the environment can be used.  Be sure to declare (loudly if you must) what the enemy is doing and what tangible benefit this action has.  If the players discover that the enemies like standing on bar tables to get attack bonuses one of two things will happen.  Either they’ll do it themselves to get that nice bonus or they’ll start destroying the tables to negate the benefit the enemy receives.  Either way you’ve suddenly started changing the field of battle.  Which leads us right into method #2.

Change the Environment
Just as you can create an interactive environment, you can also change the environment as play progresses.  This generally comes in two flavors: change that’s independent of the players and change that is initiated by the players.  Both types are equally useful but tend to evolve differently as play progresses.

The first type, player independent change, is best exemplified by the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  This new edition added encounter traps that act somewhat like a monster.  I’ve used this to great effect in all of my games by designing some aspect of the area that keeps changing over time.  A prime example is an encounter I ran just recently for my D&D game.  The players entered a room that had grates in the floor.  Every round a few of the grates would fill with flames from an underground volcano sort of deal.  Smoke rising out of grates each round would indicate what grates would be filled with fire the next round.  The players quickly started using this to their advantage, pushing and pull the kobolds into the smoking grates to burn them up quickly.  It made the fight a lot more mobile.

That’s a pretty specific example, I’ll admit, but there are dozens more that you can find in the real world.  A fight in the sewers might have changing water levels, pipes that spew raw sewage every round, or other such things.  Just so long as there is some aspect of the terrain that changes in a mostly predictable way you should be good to go.  But as above, make sure that there’s some benefit to using this terrain to your advantage.  The idea here is to get the players interacting with both the enemies and the environment.

The second aspect of this technique is player initiated change.  If players break a window consider making the area right next to it damage people who run over it or make the square more difficult to move through.  If the players are in the sewer and break a pipe, have it start spewing sewage.  Basically any time a player interacts with the environment it should change in some manner that makes the battle interesting.  This can even be combined with player independent changes, so that the players can change how the environment works with some thought.  In the above fire trapped room example, I gave players with some control over fire the chance to make a square burn permanently or not at all.

Just remember that your enemies can use this same technique as well.  It might be more valuable for the enemies to change the terrain to their advantage than it would be for them to directly attack the characters.  Again this shows the players what they can do and changes the fight dynamic a bit.  And sometimes the ones changing the environment might not even be the players or the villains, but random NPCs that are part of the fight.  Which leads me into my third point.

Use NPCs to Your Advantage
This one really works well in superhero style games.  So long as you’re making an interesting environment, you might as well populate it with people who are mostly just extras in the fight.  This gives you a direct tool to change the environment from round to round and a method of increasing tension as well as limiting player actions for a short period.

The first use of extras is that they can be used as hostages by enemies.  This forces a player to decide between hurting the bad guys or rescuing the innocents.  If you go this route, be sure to reward players for actually rescuing the mother and her baby.  If you’re running mutants and masterminds, give them a bonus hero point right then and there.  If you’re running D&D, use an action point.  Mostly just give them whatever temporary but useful bennie you can to reinforce their actions in a positive manner.

The second way to use extras is as mobile hindering terrain.  If you have a fight taking place in the mall chances are that some of the extras are going to panic and start storming the doors.  Now running through areas with a bunch of civilians is going to be a lot harder.  Enemies might use this to their advantage, putting the extras inbetween them and the heroes.  Now you either have to find a way around them or think creatively to get through them (or over them).

You can also use extras as a sort of trap or mobile benefit.  In a supers game all of the civilians might throw objects at the enemies for a little bit, earning his wrath but giving Captain Hero a chance to get up and rejoin the fight.  In a D&D game all of the Orc mothers and children might try to mob the adventurers with crude sticks and rocks, forcing them to either fight them off or retreat to a less crowded room.  All of these can make the area seem a lot more exciting and lively, as players have to deal with both all of the extras and the people they’re actually fighting.

Create Optional Goals
Finally, I’ve actually adopted a tactic from war games: optinal objectives.  If you give the players something to accomplish beyond simply fighting the bad guys it will make fights more interesting.  This one can be hard to do and it’s something you shouldn’t use all the time, but in big or important fights it can make all the difference in the world.

An optional goal should be just that: optional.  It shouldn’t generally relate to beating up bad guys, but might make that job easier if accomplished.  Basically you create other things your players can do beyond fighting someone and then make sure accomplishing this goal either adds an extra reward or makes the main fight easier.  You’ll have to be pretty up front about this fact, either using a visible goal or using knowledge type skills to inform the players of extra options they can take.

Example #1: The heroes encounter the sinister Dr. Twilight, a mage of great skill.  His minions are enacting a ritual that will summon forth monsters from the beyond that will fight with him.  Now, the players can ignore the mooks until last and just fight Dr. Twilight, but if Mister Magic uses his magic skill to distrupt that ritual suddenly they don’t have to fight the monsters from beyond at all.  Sure, it takes Mister Magic out of the fight for a bit, but in the end it has a greater reward of making the fight easier.

Example #2: A band of shadowrunners has to extract a doctor from a corporation.  When they finally meet up with him he informs the runners that if they can also hack into the computer and retrieve his research he can reward them extra.  It will take extra time and might make the extraction harder, but if they succeed not only do they get an extra reward but the doctor can use his research to install new cyberware into the characters.  Plus it sets the doctor up a bit better in his new life, which in return might mean he can lend them a hand in future games.

Example #3: The hearty adventurers finally catch up to the great dragon Roazun.  Outside the cave they can see a few kobolds working on a ritual.  The party wizard informs them that this ritual is strengthening the dragon but the kobolds are so distracted that they can sneak past them.  Now the players can either kill the kobolds and stop the ritual, which makes the dragon weaker when they fight him, or ignore them and just go fight the dragon.  One path is faster but harder, while the other is longer but makes the end fight easier.

As you can see, some of the optional objectives happen during the fight and some happen outside of the fight.  Either way what they do is change how something functions, giving the players more control and making things a bit more interesting.  If at all possible, try to make the optional objectives happen during the fight, as it makes things more interesting.  But as you can see, even my examples don’t all happen in fights.  It’s a hard thing to do and is usually best used sparingly.

In closing, I’d like to mention that the one thing that helps more than anything else is simple enthusiasm.  If you bring a lot of energy to the table and describe actions well it will do a lot towards making the game more exciting.  It might not change how fights really function, but it will help folks get into things.  It’s also important to remember that everything I’ve typed here works well for me, but it might not work well for you.  If you can find something that makes your fights more dynamic by all means use it!  And tell us about it too, either here or on the forums.