Three Shocking Things You Won’t Believe About D&D Combat

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Let’s not waste a lot of time with long-a$&, rambling introductions. I’ve written about handing actions, running basic encounters, building basic encounters, and social interaction. So, it’s time to wade into a topic very near and dear to the shriveled blackened chest-nugget that passes for my heart: combat encounters. As is sort of standard for me, I’m going to break this down into two parts. The first part is all the bulls$&% conceptual garbage that will equip you to RUN better combats. The second part is the nitty gritty, hands on, grease monkey stuff about BUILDING better combats.

Now Part 1, that’s this article, is going to be a little bit different. Instead of teaching you a bunch of neat s$&% to help you run better combats, I’m going to take a drill sergeant approach. No, I don’t mean I’m going to scream insults at you because that helps you learn (I do that in ALL of my articles). I mean that I’m going to be breaking down a lot of stuff you THINK you know. Because you’re wrong, maggot. You don’t know jack about s$&% when it comes to combat. See how this works? Good, now drop and give me twenty.

Also, two disclaimers…

Disclaimer Numero Uno: I’m going to say a lot of unkind things about combat encounters. Partly for hyperbolic shock value (like I do), but mostly because the things I am going to say are true and I am force for truth and goodness, dammit, and I will beat anyone unconscious if they say otherwise. But you might walk away thinking I hate combat. And that would be a damned dirty lie. I LOVE combat. I love fight scenes. I love action. I love grids and minis and tactics and strategies and all that stuff. That’s why I play D&D. That’s why I stuck out D&D 4E so long – it had a great f$&%ing combat engine. I love combat. But if you want to run combat well, you can’t have any illusions. I mean, it’s okay to love chocolate-covered bacon, but you can’t pretend that s$&% won’t kill you. So, don’t assume I hate combat just because I’m going to be mean and nasty to it.

Also, I don’t hate narrative combat. Just as a side note. If you want to run less tactically precise fights without a grid or cool cinematic battles without minis and counting squares, everything I’m going to say still holds true. I run fights like that too. But so help me, if you call it “theater of the mind” combat, I will beat you to death with a copy of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” I hate that pretentious bulls$&% phrase.

Disclaimer Numero Dos: At some point, a few paragraphs from now, I’m going to recommend a game that is of the sort that I am generally very down about. It is, in some ways, one of those bulls$&% story-gamey narrative player agency wankfests. But, if you get past that, it is actually a brilliant minimalist deconstruction of ALL role-playing games. Now, I’m not going soft. I’m not going to run campaigns in it or anything like that. Watchmen was a interesting movie to see, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of superhero movies. So, don’t think you’re losing to me all the Fate and Numanuma and Fiasco and Dread bulls$&% and I’m eventually going to tell you all to play Amber Diceless RPG without a GM. Just trust me, okay?

Now, disclaimers done. Long-a$& intro averted. On with the article.

Angry’s Three Shocking Facts About Combat Encounters

Everything I’m about to tell you, everything you need to know to run less worse combat encounters, everything in this article and the next one; it is all predicated on three important facts. And you’d better prepare yourself because these facts are going to shock the f$&% out of you. I suggest you remove both your hat and your socks because either or both may potentially be blown off and cause serious injury. Ready?

  • Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 1: There is no such thing as a combat encounter.
  • Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 2: Even if there were such a thing as a combat encounter, rules for combat encounters are completely unnecessary.
  • Shocking Combat Encounter Fact 3: Even if there were such a thing as a combat encounter and even if the rules for combat encounters were actually necessary, you should avoid using them whenever possible.

Okay, calm down. Remember what I said in the first disclaimer. I love combat, I love tactical combat, I’m not ruining your game. Relax. Breathe for a moment. Then read on and we’ll break it down.

There’s No Such Thing as a Combat Encounter

If you’ve read my previous articles about encounters, you actually already know that there’s no such thing as a combat encounter. You just don’t realize that you know it. The reason lies in the definition of an encounter which I spelled out in Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck. In that article, I explained that an encounter was a scene in the game that begins with the posing of a dramatic question (basically a goal), that ends when that question is answered (the players either achieve their goal or fail to), and that contains one or more sources of conflict that lie between the players and their goals. Go read that article if you haven’t. Otherwise nothing else here is going to make sense.

But what is a combat? It’s a fight, right? A battle, a fracas, a skirmish, a melee, a brouhaha, right? But what really is it? Well, a combat is a form of conflict resolution utilizing violence. Force. Do you see the problem?

A combat is not an encounter. An encounter has a goal, and an end point, and contains one or more sources of conflict. Combat is conflict resolution. It happens when the players actually play out the encounter and either the PCs or the monsters (or both) resort to violence to resolve the conflict. There’s no such thing as a combat encounter because a combat is NOT a complete encounter. It’s missing s$&%. Utterly necessary s$&%. And I actually hinted at this back in that article when I pointed out that many DMs and published adventures don’t spend any time figuring out WHY a battle is happening and WHAT both sides want out of it. So it defaults to a murderfest. Two sides end up in the same place and just slaughter each other.

And there are at least two problems with thinking about combat as an encounter, rather than as something that happens within an encounter. First, it means you (the DM) are not open to non-combat solutions the players might propose. If you design a combat encounter, there is, sure as hell, gonna be a fight. The players can try to negotiate or flee or sneak past or surrender or bluff, but damn it, you presented a combat and a combat it will be. In fact, most DMs open combats unambiguously with an act of hostility. “The goblins snatch up their weapons, scream a battle cry, and charge! Roll initiative.” And the thing is, you could step back one moment in time and give the players a chance to forestall that charge easily enough. “The goblins see your approach and begin moving to grab their weapons, what do you do?” That extra moment tells the players “hey, you have a second to keep this from turning into a fight if you want to.”

The second problem is that, when you think of combat as the encounter, you’re unwilling to end the encounter until the combat itself ends. Again, in Four Things, I mentioned the danger of letting an encounter drag on too long. Truth is, an encounter might actually be over before the combat ends and that “mop up phase” where people are no longer willing to spend resources because they’ve already won or accomplished their goal, that gets boring.  And even if the encounter, the conflict, can’t end until everything on one side is dead (zombies don’t tend to surrender or run away, for example), that doesn’t mean the encounter can’t end. “You dispatch the remaining two zombies with haste and move on.” Those pointless wasted rounds you save, they can add up to an extra exciting encounter every session.

The point is that once you recognize that combats are not encounters, but instead are just one way that conflicts within encounters get resolved, you give your players more freedom and you empower yourself to cut out boring s$&% from your game. And that’s just the start. But we’ll come back to that. Because now, let’s move on to the next shocking fact.

Combat Rules are Unnecessary

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the chapter in every f$&%ing RPG called “Combat.” Actually, let’s talk about one RPG from which that chapter is conspicuously absent (and remember the second disclaimer, because here it is). Let’s talk about Dungeon World.

If you haven’t played or run Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel you really need to at least once. The game itself is pretty bog standard in terms of the stories it tells. You’ve got your standard D&D classes having standard D&D adventures in a standard D&D setting. You know the type. But the game is a brilliant study in how RPGs are put together on the fundamental level. In fact, the core mechanic of every RPG that every RPG just assumes players and GMs can handle (present a situation, player decides how to respond, resolve action, repeat) is firmly encoded in the system in a way that makes it completely impossible to f$&% up. Likewise, the basic rules of when to roll dice (when failure and success are both possible and when the outcome will actually mean something) are also hard-coded into the system. If you polished up the presentation of Dungeon World, you would have a perfect tool to teach new GMs how to run any RPG. I firmly believe that running a few sessions of Dungeon World will make you a better GM at whatever your go-to game happens to be.

But what’s most interesting is what’s missing from Dungeon World: the combat chapter. And that’s the part I want to talk about.

So, what do you generally have in that stupid combat chapter? We have rules for taking turns, we have an action economy, we often get rules for how to resolve attacks, and we have rules for handling injuries and death. Right? That’s combat. But what’s interesting is that by calling out combat in its own chapter and by spelling out those things that apply only to combats, you create what I like to call the Combat Swoosh Problem.

Did you ever play one of those Japanese role-playing video games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior/Quest? Remember how you’re walking along and suddenly the screen flashes and whooshes and you’re in a different screen and facing a bunch of monsters and now you’re playing a different game? You’re playing a turn-based battle. Contrast that with something like the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In that game, there’s no delineation between combat and not-combat. Your character can swing a sword, do a dragon scream, cast a spell, drink a potion, or eat a cheese wedge anytime. The rules don’t change just because you’re in a fight. And you can start a fight anytime just by whacking someone with your sword or blasting them with a fireball.

Rolling initiative is the Combat Swoosh of D&D. It signals that now we’re playing a different game and everything works differently.


And Dungeon World proves that. Dungeon World doesn’t have initiative. It doesn’t have a special action economy. Nothing changes when a fight breaks out. And when you run Dungeon World for someone who was raised on D&D, it blows their f$&%ing mind. It’s fantastic.

How does that work?

Think back to any other scene in the game that isn’t a combat. Let’s say the PCs pick up the gold idol and suddenly the temple rumbles and starts to collapse. “What do you do,” the DM says urgently. “I’ll hold my shield over my head and flee for the exit,” yells Alice, playing the fighter. “Okay,” says the DM, “you make it to the doorway. What about you Bob?” “I flee after Alice, but I don’t have anything to protect me.” “Uh oh, make a Reflex save!” “Fourteen.” “You get clonked on the head, take five damage and end up sprawled on the floor.” Carol says, “I’ll dash over to Bob and get an arm around him and help him flee for the exit. My shield spell is still working. Hopefully it will protect us.” And so on.

Now, compare that to scene where the players enter a room and there’s nothing immediately threatening. The DM describes the room and then what happens? Alice say something like “I’m going to move toward the open doorway on the far side and watch out for trouble.” Then Bob says “I’m going to examine the treasure chest. I think it might be trapped.” And Carol says “I’m going to check out that statue. Do I recognize the runes?” And the DM responds with “Alice, you don’t see anything coming, but you stand at the ready. Give me a Perception check. Bob, you search the chest. Give me a Search check. Carol, you don’t recognize the runes.”

Notice how, in both of those scenes, the game settles into a natural rhythm. There’s no explicit turn order and no defined action economy, but those things are still happening. The DM manages the pace of the scene and everyone bounces from decision point to decision point, which establishes a sort of action economy. You can do a thing. Then we’ll resolve it. And you or someone else can do a thing afterwards.

Dungeon World simply says “that’s how the game flows, we don’t need to impose anything special on the game just because there is a fight.” And it doesn’t. And it works just fine. Now, the structure of the game itself helps the GM set the appropriate pace, but a skilled GM wouldn’t even need that.

And I kid you not, you could totally run a D&D combat without bothering to roll for initiative. The first person who wants to act, let them act. Then, bounce the action to a bad guy. Maybe the bad guy the PC attacked. Or another PC instead. Shotgun the actions around, and just keep it up. Hell, you can give the players the control over the initiative as I did with Popcorn Initiative and not break a damned thing.

As for attack rolls and damage rolls, people get so caught up in attack rolls and damage rolls and try to impose them on everything. I had a group of players the other night, in a D&D game, confused by the fact that, when they sneaked up on a group of sleeping opponents, I let them just kill them automatically. No attack roll. No coup de grace bulls$&%. Just “yeah, they’re dead.” They made their rolls to sneak. That was enough.

Why? Because attack rolls and damage rolls are there to resolve a specific action: trying to kill someone who is in a position to defend themselves. It’s kind of like a Climb check. I wouldn’t ask for a Climb check for you get onto a horse because, even though there is a similarity between that and climbing, that’s not what Climb is meant to resolve. An attack roll is meant to resolve the combat action of trying to kill someone with a weapon while there is some chance he could defend himself.

Now, am I suggesting you do away with all of the combat rules of D&D? No. Of course not. But what you have to understand is that they don’t override the other rules of the game. Everything else that is possible in D&D is still possible in combat. Any creative, clever use of skills, actions, tools, whatever. Ability checks, saving throws, knowledge checks, all of that crap. None of it goes away. And more importantly, all of the higher level rules, the metarules, still apply. Those rules about the DM describing the situation, the player deciding how to act, the DM deciding if a die roll is warranted and what roll to use, the DM presenting the outcome, and the DM asking for the next action. Those all still apply. You still need them.

The combat chapter of the rule book is an overlay. It applies a structure to the game. It puts things in order. But it doesn’t change any of the other rules. And you could throw the structure away and wing it and D&D would still work fine.

We’ll come back to why this is important to understand too. Because we have one more shocking fact to explain.

Avoid Using the Combat Rules Whenever Possible

I realize this is the most controversial thing I’m going to say: always look for opportunities to throw the combat rules out (initiative, action economy, and so on). Because, the fact is, they are pretty limited. They don’t work particularly well except in very specific situations (remember the disclaimer, I love combat, stay calm). Specifically, they work well in pitched battles between two roughly equal forces (you know, within a few levels and roughly equally sized). That’s it.

Look, you don’t try to turn everything in the game into a Strength check. You don’t try to turn everything in the game into an Interaction scene. You use the Strength check when a Strength check is what you need. And use Interaction scenes when there is actually an interaction. For that matter, you don’t roll the f$&%ing dice just because a person does a thing. You need the possibility of success, the possibility of failure, and risks or consequences that make it matter. Right?

So don’t try to turn everything into a combat just because you have two forces using violence against each other. If you can get away with not using the combat rules and end up with a scene that is just as good (or better), don’t use them. And that goes for even partial things, like initiative. I’ve seen some DMs use initiative rolls in social interaction scenes to keep things going in some kind of order. And that’s terrible. Those DMs need to stop it. Because initiative order is inherently constraining. Especially in something like an open conversation. How do people jump in and support other people’s points? What if they have nothing useful to say when their turn comes up? Why impose that structure instead of just, as a DM, managing the pace.

Always always always ask yourself whether you really have a combat meant to be handled by the combat rules before you ask for initiative rolls. Try to put off the initiative roll as long as possible. And try to drop out of the combat rules as soon as you can. Your game will simply be better.

Putting the Three Facts into Practice

Whew! I wrote a lot of words, huh? And you probably think I’m all done and you’re saying “that Angry DM is a genius! I sure am I glad I relaxed and listened to what he had to say and I look forward to running less worse games! Thank you, sir!” Well, shut up, private! I’m not done yet. And don’t you call me sir. I work for a living.

I’m going to give you a few takeaways now. A few tips and ideas that grow out of a good understanding of these rules. Some of them will be a little longer than brief, but they will be worth it. So read on. And come back in two weeks for Part 2 where we will talk about actually building good combat scenes which I know is the part you really want.

When Someone Tells You To Have Alternate Goals, They Don’t Understand Combat

I’m going to start by debunking a piece of s$&% advice that I see repeated a lot online. People will tell you “include alternate goals in your combat other than just ‘killing everybody.’” This is a well-intentioned piece of advice, but it is utter horses$&% because it actually shows a lack of awareness of the first shocking fact. Combat does not have a goal. Combat is something that happens when two forces find their goals are in conflict and decide to resolve it with murder. The PCs want to explore the tomb, the zombies want to kill all living things that enter the tomb. Conflict. The PCs want to rescue the captive, the goblins want to defend their home. Conflict. Ignore this advice. You no longer need it. Just make sure you know why the conflict is happening and the “alternate goals” will handle themselves.

Combat Outs: Because People Don’t Understand How Combat Ends Either

Another piece of crappy advice that has been circulating for some time is “build a way out of combat so the players can end a fight early if they want to.” There is a LOT wrong with that statement. But it comes down to a misunderstanding about how combat ends. The idea behind the advice is to create some sort of action the players can take to end the fight. Mangalores won’t fight without a leader. If the PCs can sound the Horn of Triumph, the goblins will flee in terror. If the party can activate the shrine of magicalness, the elementals will all be banished. And so on.

Now, having situations like that isn’t inherently bad. It’s cool sometimes to build that sort of thing into a fight. I support it if it is part of the story, especially if it rewards the players for clever thinking, solving problems, or exploring the world. But I do have a problem with the phrase “ending combat early.” It implies that combat is supposed to last for a certain amount of time. And that’s just f$&%ing insane.

Now, I realize that D&D (and games like it) are built around balanced challenges. The numbers in D&D work out so that you can expect a combat of challenge level X to last for Y number of rounds and expend Z percent of the party’s resources. And that’s fine to know. That’s a helpful adventure planning tool (if you want to use it). But that doesn’t mean every combat MUST last Y round and cost Z resources, nor does it mean every encounter must be of challenge X. It’s just the way the game is presented that makes it FEEL that way sometimes.

In truth, a given battle can only end in one of three ways:

  • The heroes are incapable of continuing the fight (because, for example, they are dead)
  • The enemies are incapable of continuing the fight (because, for example, they are dead)
  • Both sides are unwilling to continue the fight

That’s it. Those are the only ways a battle can end. Either one side is dead or disabled or critically injured or teleported to another plane or whatever and can’t keep fighting or both sides have decided the fight is over. And it has to be both sides.

Suppose one side decides, for example, they are done with the fight. They are giving up. They surrender. But the other side (perhaps zombies) do not accept their surrender and instead continue fighting. Well, the side that surrendered can either defend itself or die. Now you might say “oh ho, what if one side simply flees.” And I will say “you are not as smart as you think you are.”

See, if one side flees, the other side has to be willing to let them escape or be incapable of catching them and continuing the fight. So, if the PCs flee and the goblins don’t pursue or give up the pursuit, both sides basically agreed the fight was over. Otherwise, if the goblins can’t keep up, the goblins were unable to continue the fight even though they wanted to and the fight is over. If the goblins do keep up, the fight continues.

But that’s it. That’s the only way battles end. A battle will continue as long as both sides are willing and able to continue the fight.

The Most Important Decision DMs Never Make

Speaking of goals and how combat ends, let’s talk about the one decision DMs always forget to make. At the start of every round of combat, each creature on the battlefield needs to ask itself “am I going to continue fighting this round?” The reason most DMs fail to make this decision is because they don’t think about why the fight is happening and what the monsters want and all that crap I already talked about. But by not making that decision, the DM removes one of the three ways the fight can end. Namely, the DM makes it impossible for both sides to agree to stop fighting before one side is destroyed.

Now, once upon a time, there was a thing called morale. It was a system of random dice rolls that determined when a monster was no longer willing to fight. And I’ve seen people call for its return and I’ve seen people design new morale systems. These people need to be stopped. Find them and beat them with a Rolemaster book until they stop. We don’t need die rolls for morale!

Look, you make every other decision for your monsters, right? You decide what tactics they use and who they attack and where they move. And now that I’ve told you all that other crap, you’re never again going to run a battle without knowing what the monsters want and why they are fighting. So you don’t need a morale system.

But, every round, you need to look at each creature’s situation and decide if that creature is willing to stick out the fight. Does that goblin think it can win? Is it willing to die trying? Does it have an opportunity to slip away? Will it cower and beg for its life? And you need to use your better judgement, common sense, and understanding of the creature. Hobgoblins are more disciplined and militaristic than goblins. Most animals won’t die trying to obtain food, but they will die defending their young. Mindless undead won’t flee, but a ghoul might drag away a disabled or unconscious PC to eat while the other ghouls keep fighting. It’s just one of those decisions that you need to make for every creature every round.

Now, I know some of you are going to point out that players are monsters and will often cut down fleeing foes. And that’s fine. I had a group of players not too long ago insist on murdering a predatory giant bird that took a few hits and decided the party wasn’t a good meal. That’s fine. But that’s the players’ call to make. Your call is how to play the monster in the first place. Eventually, if the players see enough creatures give up and don’t come back to haunt them, they’ll start letting them get away. Especially if they know the get the XP anyway.

Zombie Hordes, Colossal Giants, and Avoiding the Combat Rules

Let me tell you a story.

A few weeks ago on Twitter, someone looked at the cover of the D&D 5E PHB that depicts a tiny human fighting an absolutely huge-ass giant. Like, the giant could probably swallow the human. And the Twitter person (sadly, I don’t remember who and I’m too lazy in this case to scroll back through my long, looooonnnnggg feed to find them), said “when are we going to be able to actually play out scenes like that in D&D?” And I said “when people realize the combat rules don’t apply to s$&% like that.” Because the D&D combat rules really only work when two forces of roughly equal power level are going at each other. The bigger the mismatch, the more the abstractions in the rules ruin the scene.

For example, imagine tenth level PCs facing down a horde of fifty zombies, each with half a challenge level or whatever. Maybe they are guarding a town gate. Right? I’d love for my game to have that scene. And it doesn’t really strain my credulity. Gimli, Will Turner, and Viggo basically won the battle of Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith or whatever. But could you imagine trying to run that in a standard D&D combat? It’d be boring as hell! And depending on the edition, the zombies would pose practically no threat at all. It’d be boring and low stakes. Which is why I’d run it narratively. I wouldn’t try to impose combat rules and an action economy on it. I’d handle it more freeform. Let the players wade through a few zombies with each good hit, don’t roll for damage, just assume a hit kills, give the zombies a few attacks in response to every action the players take, and so on. It’d be a f$&%ing awesome scene.

By the same token, look at the cover of the PHB. Go on, explain to me how a fighter is going to run up to that thing’s ankle and make any sort of useful attack in the standard sense of an attack. At the same time, the giant’s size and bulk start to work against it. Most of the time, it’s going to be reacting to the PCs, waiting for them to provide opportunities to stomp them, grab them, throw them, shake them off, etc. Again, putting that in the standard combat encounter rules makes it way less cool. And it doesn’t make whole bunches of narrative sense. At that point, you’re just following the mechanical rules because the idea of a halfling plunging a rapier into the flank of a dragon the size of a yacht and having any actual effect is patently ridiculous. You need a Shadow of the Colossus type setup. Or Dragon’s Dogma. Narrative coolness. Not combat rules.

Another thing the initiative rules and action economy don’t handle well is evasion and retreat. On the rare occasions when the party tries to get away from something, especially if they go for a fighting withdrawal, they end up tripping over the action economy and the turn order. It becomes an impediment. And DMs rarely seem to want to drop the initiative order once the party has agreed to flee and run things more narratively. And because the players can’t see a good plan for retreat that works within the combat rules, they end up never retreating, no matter how much trouble they are in. And if the players actually recognize the amount of trouble they are in and flee, they are probably in a total-party kill situation. Players are really thick-headed about recognizing emergencies.

Once you recognize that the combat rules are utterly optional and they only work when you have two mostly equal forces, you realize how easy it is to drop out of them whenever you want to or need to or whenever it is just cooler to do so. So, the moment you find yourself in a situation where the combat rules don’t work or weren’t meant to work, drop them. Get out of initiative order, run things narratively, shotgun the turn order however makes the most sense, and go with your gut. You’ll run better fights.

And that’s ultimately what all of this s$&% is about, right? Running better fights. If you can run a better game by breaking the rules – any of the rules – do it! Or else you’re in this for the wrong reasons.

Now, come back here in two weeks and I’ll tell you how actually build better fights.

49 thoughts on “Three Shocking Things You Won’t Believe About D&D Combat

  1. Wow, great article! As a DM I realize I’ve been heads down in the 3.5 mechanics for too long trying to make them work when I don’t need to. Thanks for opening my eyes! I will keep this in mind as our group tries to restore the fun by reducing the unnecessary mechanics. No Morale Checks. Drop init order when fleeing. Good stuff!

  2. At the risk of falling into the “my system is better” trap, it’s interesting to note how non-D&D systems, including those created in reaction to original D&D, handle combat. Tunnels & Trolls literally rolls damage for each side in each round and inflicts the difference on the losing side. (Its non-combat task-resolution method is the “saving throw”, which is a little clumsy for combat.) RuneQuest and its successors treated combat as opposed skill rolls with a more deterministic sequence and “spot rules”, as do most modern systems. Indie games frequently advise GMs and players not to bother rolling dice unless the outcome “matters”, however that’s defined, and usually a few dice rolls end the scene one way or the other.

    There’s something to be said for dropping into shorter and more structured units of time during an adrenaline-driven event like combat. On the other hand, turn-based combat *should* be the exception, not the rule. In the real world violence is the “Oh Shit” moment when subtler methods have failed, and as you point out there are almost no balanced encounters even in fiction. (RuneQuest, Basic Roleplaying, Call of Cthulhu, et. al. are notably deadly.) If GMs treated combat not as a mini-game but as the Bad End, they could discourage PCs’ habit of drawing their weapons in every situation and thereby make tabletop RPGs much more interesting.

    • The problem with that attitude is that, in D&D, combat is NOT the bad end. Combat is fun and exciting and people want to have exciting fights. That’s one of the reasons people choose games with deeper combat systems. So that really isn’t a helpful attitude here. It is USEFUL to look at other systems to see what useful lessons they have. But we’re not looking to dispense with combat. We WANT our battle scenes.

      In the end, even though I play lots of games and look at how lots of games do lots of things, I’m a DM at heart. This blog will always be focused on how to run better games of D&D and Pathfinder and that sort of thing. That’s why, as helpful as Dungeon World is, I also won’t call it “better.” It won’t be my go-to because I want the D&D experience. I just want the D&D experience to be better, more efficient, and more powerful and I want to help other people have that too.

      • Maybe “Bad End” was a bit extreme, but I’ve played too many D&D (and other games) which end up a series of badly justified combats. I’m one of those weirdos who likes game that play less like SWAT clearing a building and more like the stories listed in Appendix N. Notably, most paragraphs concentrate on whys and wherefores, on mysteries and arguments and spectacles, not on detailed fight choreography.

        While events that can end a character’s life naturally draw players attention — not to mention a fixation on “fairness” — I really want to skip over the parry and thrust and find out What Happens Next. Maybe that’s why I prefer systems where even a legendary swordsman or arch-mage can fall to a lucky sword-thrust or a concubine with a dagger. Every battle matters, and people don’t draw steel on a whim, or (unless they’re psychotic murder-hobos) for “fun”.

        Maybe we really do have very different game styles. But for whatever reasons I really do agree with your central point that having two modes of play — combat and non-combat — is one mode too many.

        • Well, again, don’t take my statement TOO strongly. I’m not for removing a style of play. I said pretty clearly I am NOT advocating for the removal of combat rules and structure. I’m just saying “understand what they do and what they are for and their limitations and strengths so that you use the tools the best way you can.”


            Chick this article.

            The thing is that the game’s design in the book, coupled with the zeitgeist of today, might be more affecting than people think.

            Think about back in the 70’s or 80’s. You have little to no knowledge of games, video games in particular. Anything you do know is based around either board games or verbal games like those party games where someone is supposed to be the killer. I think the newer style “Mafia” game takes after this.

            So here we have a fresh, unindoctrinated generation going headlong into a game of D&D, and anyone who has seen an OD&D manual knows it is practically bare bones. Being so light on information and huge tomes of info, players and DMs had a lot more Freedom of Thought, as I’ll put it, which is essentially that when you think you know something, you stop considering alternatives. Knowledge can actually cage people’s minds far more easily than ignorance.

            So if you are an avid gamer today, and pick up the very video-game-like rule books of today’s D&D, you’re going to play the game with a host of preconceptions about how the game should play, and consider the RAW to be You Must rather than “hey, this can help you out when things are uncertain or very complex”.

            It also doesn’t help that much when DMs of the millennial generation create mounds and mounds of D&D how-to’s that revolve around Chronic Dice Roll’s Disease.

            If you see a video that tells you how to play 5E, where he shows how to make a sneak attack and uses roll after roll for succeeding stealth, succeeding a first hit, then making initiatives and going into combat, that’s going to hedge in the mind of new players.

            There needs to be more people showing how to play D&D the Other Way, and being explicit in saying that Dice Rolls are not always necessary.


          >Unlike many later tabletop RPGs, experience points in OD&D were awarded primarily for recovering treasures, not for killing monsters, so combat was something of a failure state – a high-risk, low-reward activity to be avoided wherever possible. It was preferable by far to trick, sneak or fast-talk your way past the monsters; indeed, the desire to have fast-talking always be an option is the reason that most D&D monsters are intelligent and capable of speech, even the really weird ones – a quirk that would carry forward into most later iterations of the game.

          >Out-of-combat activities had a formal rounds-and-turns structure, just as combat did, creating a constant time pressure with the threat of the dreaded Random Encounter Table hanging over players who might otherwise prefer to dally.

          OD&D had the whoosh effect too, or rather, both combat and non-combat were whoosh effect, e.g. turn based style with structure.

          After all, time matters. I think one critically overlooked component of today is time and how that can change things in the game world. In a video game, time doesn’t matter. You get to do things at your own pace in all but the most rare circumstances. Even in timed events, its still all scripted.

          Maybe because you arrive at a town late with the provisions it direly needed, all the people are already dead, or have fled. Now you have to go back having failed that quest and discuss it with the guy who sent you.

          Maybe because of time and the discussion among the players, some king or orc gets angry enough to toss you out of his house/straight up attack you.

          Time keeping is troublesome, but it creates depth and life to D&D. OD&D used time for this reason, and the players fell into order of understanding and even accepting it as natural and part of the fun of the game. Time doesn’t seem to exist in many campaigns today.

          Just look at the modules produced today, and time is not a constraint. They seem to want to “video-game-ise” D&D, or they are built by people who don’t consider time, or they are built by people who suffer from Dunning Kruger, where they are proficient in being able to change up a storyline and dealing with time, and don’t realize that those buying their modules may not be so proficient.

          Final Fantasy partically recitified this, becoming more like OD&D imo, when they introduced the constant egg-timer. The game was still turn based, and you had to “charge up” on your timer, but it was completely possible to die through inaction if you went afk from the controller and didn’t pause, because the enemy/monster would get their timer filled and continue to attack.

          You could still turn that mechanic off, but to say that D&D is more like Final Fantasy or other games in turn based style is putting the failing on the game system, rather than on the DM for not controlling/tracking time, or the players for expecting to have all the time in the world. There’s a few pages in the PHB devoted to time in both 4E and 5E.

          If the game is whooshy, place blame on the people playing, not the system. It can “legally” incorporate timing as much as you want, which makes it feel more fluid.

  3. “I had a group of players the other night, in a D&D game, confused by the fact that, when they sneaked up on a group of sleeping opponents, I let them just kill them automatically. No attack roll. No coup de grace bulls$&%. Just “yeah, they’re dead.” They made their rolls to sneak. That was enough”

    I had a similar situation the other night. The contrast was that my players were brand new to D&D (or any other TTRPG) and the whole scene felt natural (no confusion or surprise). The rogue had rolled a natural 20 on his stealth check. He had spotted 2 goblins playing cards. The player stated that he wanted to grab one and hold a dagger to its throat and say “take me to your leader”. I ruled that he was successful and the goblins surrendered – no need for additional rolls.

    I am also a fan of narrating the “clean up” phase of an encounter where the combat rules are no longer needed. One great take away for me from this article is to delay the initiative roll as long as possible. I will incorporate this right away using some of the tricks I’ve learned from playing a bit of Dungeon World that were mentioned in the article.

    I really appreciate this article. Even though these principles aren’t really that shocking or surprising if you read Angry regularly (and pay any attention), it puts them together nicely for this particular topic. And no doubt a great lead into the next article which I am highly anticipating.

  4. This train of thought solves a lot of issues I’ve been trying to work out in games I’ve run. I will definitely approach my next session design with this mindset.

  5. An excellent read, particularly Fact 1. As a DM, I’ve had varying degrees of success with what you’re talking about here. The times where I’ve given the players an opportunity to do something clever instead of simply charging in an rolling initiative are almost always more interesting and memorable than the times when we simply steam ahead. The encounter where the PC’s successfully charmed and befriend the ogre early in their adventuring careers definitely paid more dividends than it would have if they’d simply gone immediately into beatdown mode.

    It can be difficult to remind yourself to do this when there may be other external factors at work (time remaining in your session, calculating the ramifications on other planned encounters, etc.) but it’s something that I’m definitely going to try and focus on during my upcoming sessions.

    • Probably my favorite gaming session of all time was a game of Dragon Age that just didn’t go the way anybody expected. Our mission was to infiltrate a super secure prison and murder the only prisoner inside – some sort of prince or something.

      Well, it so happened that, due to various circumstances the only two members of the party that were able to act freely were myself and one other player – both playing mages. Stealthy infiltration was simply not going to happen, and with most of the guards being higher level than we were, fighting them wasn’t really an option either (though my group was certainly crazy enough to try, most games).

      My friend then proceeded to introduce the concepts of workers rights, including paid vacation, time off on weekends, weekly working hour limits, unionization, the whole nine yards. He passed multiple charm/persuasion rolls, including one particularly difficult roll to convince the guard that we two mages would watch the place while the guards marched on the palace for their fair compensation.

      Needless to say we simply walked in, murdered our target, and walked out. No magic, no combat, just talking, and it was the most epic event I think I’ve ever been a part of.

  6. This is all great stuff (like pretty much everything that TheAngryDM writes). And I see that some of the little things I do are in the spirit of this article. Now I have had some of my “little ideas” spelled out in big, angry words and it makes great sense.

    One thing that often stymies me is the variability of the players at my table. I do not have a large pool of players from which I can recruit for my games (read that as I have had the same gaming group for years). Some of the players really engage in the non-crunchy parts of the game (I’ve read the 8 kinds of fun article, it was very helpful) and they tend to be very attentive when I use narrative to describe things going on in the game. However, other players will disconnect from the table if they aren’t swinging a weapon at an enemy and therefore getting to roll dice. And so when I say things like “what do you do?” they tend to look confused and fiddle with their dice, unsure of how to proceed. I’ve considered the possibility that I am just very boring at delivering narration. But some of the players will respond, so I don’t think that’s it.

    Usually, I just let the players that DO engage in the narration lead the scene. But I do find myself sometimes defaulting to starting an initiative-based combat sequence just so I can get everyone involved. I see now that I can hone my abilities even more with some of the information presented here to get those “deadbeat players” involved a bit more.

  7. Awesome article, I’ll definitely come back for the next one. I must say, I never was a fan of the combat encounter, and you perfectly summed up everything wrong with the concept.

    That being said, I’m a bit of a moron, and having trouble to figure out how to make a narrative escape scene emerge from the battle. Could you give a somewhat more precise example of how you would do it?

    Anyway, keep up the brillant work!

  8. This helps. A lot. I hate how the flow just comes to a halt whenever initiative gets rolled. I end up making two lists just to get the numbers and then put everyone in the right order. And I invariably start accidentally skipping folks anyway. The last session we had there was a massive fight, tons of mooks involved. I rolled for the first wave and afterwards just kind of slid them in whenever it felt right and none of the players complained. Definitely sending this article to my group and getting some feedback from them!

    • A friend of mine wrote a small javascript that I keep running on my laptop. The pre-encounter setup (or pre-game) is entering characters and init mods. Then when a fight starts, you can choose to see the entire turns initiative order (option: reroll by turn or not, varying dice mechanics for initiative) or only see each action as it comes up (thus giving the GM some uncertainty).

      Not saying this is ideal, but it has helped us deal with inserting chaos into the combat in a way that players, choosing their action order, would never do.

      Coordinating is still possible – you just say ‘I wait until X acts’ and when X acts, then your action kicks in immediately thereafter if your init came up earlier. If not, you act after X, just a bit slower than planned.

      Look at how Spycraft has done chases. They came out with a whole bunch of cards and strategies to resolve different sorts of conflicts. They can handle anything from interrogations to chases of any sort.

      Chases start with a setup (based on how you get into the chase). All chases have a concept of lead and tactics and associated die tests and strategies will affect lead. When lead extends beyond 10 or below 0, the chase is over. Strategies and tests just determine turn by turn happenings (along with the event narrative) and determine changes in lead.

      They use the same sort of metaphor for interpersonal conflicts – social, interrogation, net hacks, etc.

      Yes, it is a mechanical system, but the idea is just to use the random element of the cards, some die challenges therefrom, to weave variety and the unexpected into the narrative. Strategies just influence a bit how things may work out.

      If you want to run them mechanically, you can, but if you want to run them narratively, the mechanical system can be a nice idea generator for moment by moment happenings in these sorts of contests.

      I prefer the narrative aspect to combat. Minis combat is good in that it ensures players and DM all see the same thing (a frequent issue in narrative combat using everyone’s different mind’s eye) but the mechanical rules tend to mean we take 10 minutes to resolve 6 seconds…. that kind of drains the tension out. Imagine if all hollywood blockbuster fight scenes were played one……hundred………times……..slo…..wer……than……nor…mal…..

      Fights need to happen quickly enough to maintain tension and to make people make quicker choices – a fight isn’t a chess match. Speed and violence are usually the keys to close quarters combat.

  9. Pingback: Let Me Tell You About My Sword | This Thread Sucks

  10. I’ve been GM’ing for 35+ years now and this is one of the best articles I’ve seen. In fact, it really reinvigorated my desire to run a game. 4e seemed like a grind to run and this reminds me why. My youthful days of being told, “sure, your character can do that” emboldened me to try new things and cemented some of my best memories of the game. I am an Angry convert! Praise be to the new old game style!

  11. Thanks for this excellent article. I’m a new DM (5e) and I’ve definitely already encountered the limitations of entering the ‘swoosh’ mode. I have noticed that it felt most awkward when there was some sort of chase. For example, lets say combat has turned, and the monster is going to flee. The monster starts with a double move away from the party, and then players move in response in initiative order. It just feels a bit clunky as you count squares (or distance) and move, depending on an opportunity attack to further the combat. I think the important part to realize is — the dramatic question is now “Can the party catch the fleeing enemy?”. This is a question that’s not best answered within the limitations of the combat rules, I’m better off gauging each character’s speed compared to the fleeing enemy, and who gets there first. So thank you for opening my eyes to such freedom. I realize the DM always has full control, but it’s useful to point out that the combat rules don’t strictly define the beginning or the end.

      • Even more to the point: Movement rates in the game are averages that treat terrain in ways that are far simpler than in the real world. I’ve been in the infantry and I can tell you that for a fact.

        Two small thickets… one I might be able to go through at about 1/2 speed, another I might be slipping and falling, tripping, having to crawl or shove some brush out of the way. Two light woods – one is mostly evergreen branches and a pain in the arse to see and walk through. The other is birch trees. I can’t get clear shots at a distant foe about half the time, but I can sure see them as the rest is likely short grass. Two muddy flatlands. One breaks ankles in potholes, the other is made of clay mud and when wet it causes you to fall flat most of the time. The list goes on.

        And on a any given day, I might be capable of sprinting at 3x my fast walk speed, 3.5x, 4x, 4.5x, etc. Depends how tired I am, if I have any niggling pain from my ankles, how uneven the ground is, how hydrated I am, how well settled my load is, etc.

        If I try to chase some goblin through a thicket with patches of bog and intermittent sight lines, a wide range of things can happen. I can come upon hidden drops, stumps (don’t trip there), places to drop a foot and snap and ankle, sudden impassible bits (but 10′ over, I could have been on the first cousin of a path), water up to my knees, etc.

        Forest isn’t just forest, flat terrain isn’t, rough terrain is very variable, as are human and creature capabilities at any moment of the day.

        This is why average speeds, average terrains, etc. aren’t enough to model a chase. You need some random factors, skills, and perhaps strategies. None of these sound exactly like mechanistic combat rules though.

        Different dramatic challenge, different set of applicable assets, different sort of tests along the way….. and a wide range of outcomes….

        I could catch my goblin by just running him down. He could get stuck and sprain a foot. I could lose his track in a stream, not being Aragorn’s first cousin, I could get winded and slow down and he could out leg me, I could find a shorter way through some terrain and get a chance to attempt a leap or other physical test to tackle the goblin, or he could have developed a bit of a lead then hidden forcing me to use a different set of skills than terrain passage and raw strength and endurance (like tracking, searching, spotting, listening, knowledge about Goblins, etc).

        Combat rules are there to make the game more like a boardgame and to make everything deterministic like a wargame (well, other than the dice rolls themselves). They sell miniatures. They don’t necessarily improve the game unless the DM uses them sparingly as Angry DM suggests.

        Heck, I borrowed the True20 concept of mooks/minions and major characters. Mooks/minions go down in one good hit. Minor important NPCs can actually give the PCs a fight and take a few hits. Major ones much moreso. This makes running fights a lot easier… I almost don’t need to track hit points for my monsters. If the player rolls a decent hit, I can just say the NPC mook goes down. If he rolls a near whiff (1 pt dmg), then maybe that mook gets a second hit before going down. If he’s a useful minor or major NPC, maybe he can take several.

        It’s not as ‘precise’ as the rules would have, but yields results the players can’t distinguish from pinpoint precision (note I mean precision not accuracy…). Except it is much faster…. and sometimes I modify NPC or monster hits while the fight goes on, making them a bit tougher or weaker to see the encounter is as taxing as I want it to be (or to make it possible if the dice are being atrocious to otherwise good player decisions). The PCs never know this happens… they just know they get good fights that are faster than at previous times (where I did do everything with more precision and nitpickiness to no good end).

        Keep combat a place for options and reasonable tactical judgment (along with some thrilling heroics), but not a place for chartered accounting. It needs to happen quicker when and if it happens and the rules of grid combat and the other detailed aspects of combat become a time sink.

  12. Hi Angry,

    First off, I think you bring great insights to the game. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a point on which we disagree in any meaningful way. But this article brought up a question in my mind:

    Your advice for action resolution is (and I agree) to not waste time on multiple rolls when a single roll will do the job. Given that combat is really just one example of action resolution, it would follow that we should strive to resolve combat in, if not one roll, then the least rolls possible. In this sense, the D&D combat engine is counterproductive. So what makes the D&D combat engine worthwhile? Is it dramatic effect (I’m guessing the answer is no), a slowing-down effect (to promote feedback and increase survivability), or simply that it’s more fun (I’m guessing the answer is somewhere in here), or something else?

    Whatever the answer may be (the hypothetical variable X), it would seem that X is what Wizards was after when they created the “Skill Challenge” resolution system. Some way to capture the fun (or uncertainty and dramatic tension) of combat within other contexts such as chasing fleeing enemies or negotiating with kings.

    I suppose my question is: where do you stand on this? Should there be equally involved subsystems of resolution for particular actions or action types, or should there be a more reductionist take on combat. I understand that the answer is probably tied more closely to the *significance* of the particular situation than it is the the *type*, but should we be striving for more involved resolution systems when the significance is high? If so, should consideration be given to standardized systems for, for example, negotiations, survival, and investigations?


    Burger Beast

    • Not Angry, but I’ll take a stab:

      Angry has hinted at this question in the articles on running and building encounters, where he specifically calls out the rationale behind 4e Skill Challenges as a bad idea. The truth is, skill challenges are better without standardized mechanics. First, standardized mechanics make every skill challenge function too similarly, which detracts from PC engagement in every skill challenge. A chase, an infiltration, a social interaction; these are very different things to do, why would making them all work the same help the game? Wouldn’t variety keep things far more interesting than repeating the same framework no matter what you were doing?

      Second, when Skill Challenges are the resolution system for all non-combat encounters, it means you have to shoe-horn a lot of things into that which don’t flow from the actual premises of the encounter. Why would 3 failures in a chase allow the baddie to get away regardless of how successful I had been in catching up to him? Issues like that arise frequently with Skill Challenges; yes, as a game conceit, I suppose it’s OK (of course depending on the quality of the math), but it’s an unnecessary and often unhelpful burden on willing suspension of disbelief.

      To make Skill Challenges generic enough to cover everything, Wizards had to strip much of the differentiation from chases, arguments, infiltrations, or obstacle courses. The resulting abstraction became rather far removed from the actual fiction of the game, and didn’t line up with it particularly well. It’s better to create each encounter from the ground up than impose a structure over it.

      Now, to address your broader point about the combat engine itself. You correctly summarize Angry’s advice on skill checks as “to not waste time on multiple rolls when a single roll will do the job.” However, it does not flow from that statement that rolling less is always better. The question we have to ask first is “will fewer rolls actually do the job?” If there are no new decisions to be made, then yes, eliminate those rolls down to one. But if something in the situation has changed, then having a new opportunity to respond to that change is what Angry calls a Decision Point, and having lots of those is great for a big, climactic encounter, like an intense battle. So while the combat engine will often end up making combat encounters (such as they are) last too long because HP remain after the dramatic question of the encounter has already been answered or because PCs have run out of real options and are just resorting to repeating uninteresting actions, it does a good job of presenting many meaningful Decision Points throughout the beginning, middle, and even the end of most combats. This is combat’s strength and IMO is the elusive variable X: a lot of decisions to be made, lots of choices with immediate consequences, all back-to-back. Not just which enemy to attack, but how to attack, which resources to expend at what moment, which strategies to aim for, when to abandon them, etc. It’s difficult to create that kind of breadth and depth outside of combat, though Angry has shown how it can be done.

      While I think there is room for more robust tools than custom making each encounter as Angry recommends, at least for beginning DMs, the highly formalized, standardized structure of combat is precisely what he is criticizing here. Combat needs to be less structured, less standardized, tailored to the individual circumstances more, so that you can fight a Shadow of the Colossus-style giant or a zombie horde without the combat rules getting in the way (as I suspect we’ll see more of in the next article). Taking the combat system’s formality and applying it to non-combat challenges is the antithesis of the thrust of the article.

      Does that make sense?

      • Thanks for replying. The short form of my answer is: yeah, I get all that.

        So, for almost every encounter (combat included), the resolution system is simple. Determine the presence of a dramatic question and roll a resolution. So (to use a familiar Angry example) the party’s goal is to get through a door, but a hungry spider is in the room (conflict). If the party decides to kill the spider as a solution to the conflict, given the low drama involved, we may decide a “whoosh” is not needed. The strongest PC can roll a Combat check (an athletics check with a bonus of the character’s BAB, or 1/2 level in 4e), and the other characters can aid him/her. It’s a moderate DC. Success means the spider dies. Failure means the party is engaged in a fight that they’re not clearly winning, and now a randomly determined PC has to succeed at an Acrobatics check or be poisoned, or whatever – you get the idea.

        But here’s the kicker. When we do decide the situation is dramatically important (Big Chief Cheefbig) we “whoosh” into the Combat Engine. Why? Why not a system like angry’s chase? Instead of using a system for complexity, why not add real complexity, such as a known NPC in a cage being lowered into lava… so the tension is there (choose to capture/kill Big Chief or save your friend). Because whether or not we capture/kill Big Chief is just one question.

        I’ll posit the answer: the Combat system itself provides tension and excitement, at least some of the time. And when it does, it’s worth using. So we’re conceding that, in the specific case of combat, there exist at least some cases where a standardized mini-game gives us something desirable.

        My question then becomes, isn’t it possible that there exist some standardized mini-games that are desirable for Negotiations, Investigations, Interrogations, etc?

        So the challenge is, if we are going to throw out all of the systems for a simplified situation-action-resolution system, then that’s all fine and dandy. But if we discover that in some cases, we prefer the “whoosh” to the Combat engine, then it would stand to reason that there may also be cases when we prefer to “whoosh” to an Investigation engine or “whoosh” to a Negotiation engine.

        I get that this is the antithesis of the article, and that’s why I bring it up… because unless we denounce the combat system, then the reasons we use to justify it may become good reasons to justify other mini-games.

        Burger Beast

        • The problem, I think, is concentrating on “combat” as if it’s a completely different animal, when really it’s a special case of *conflict*.

          One of the key insights of modern RPGs — including d20, somewhat — is the importance of a central conflict resolution mechanism. Usually it’s roll d20/d%/2d6/3d6/4dF/whatever to hit above/below some target number, with the dice results and/or target number modified by properties of the player character, opposing NPC, and situation. The virtue of such a mechanism is that the more the game system uses it, the easier it is to extend it to situations outside the rules.

          Other game systems exploit a central mechanism for all its (it’s?) worth. In systems where the skill system is central, everything’s a skill test (against a fixed factor or the success level of the opposition). If the system can generalize other elements — defense ratings, hit points, difficulty levels, and so forth — parts from one system (like combat) transfer easily to new situations. For example, Diaspora (based on an older version of FATE) extended its zone-based personal combat system not only to space battles but to what they call Social Combat (); essentially the social landscape is a map characters must navigate to get the desired outcome. (You could probably port this idea into D&D with little trouble.) In Diaspora’s Social Combat players roll against different skills, but Fudge Dice, skill numbers, stunts, the Fate Point economy, and so forth all work exactly the same.

          Skill Challenges probably *started* as a good idea: success isn’t a matter of one success, but multiple skill rolls. Constructing a weird state machine or quota system to determine when players get enough successes, though, made the simple idea unnecessarily complicated and offputting. Meanwhile, DMs and GMs have been doing this for decades: Move Silently to cross the field, then Climb to shimmy up the wall, then Pick Locks to pry open the window, etc. HeroQuest (from Issaries/Moon Design, not the old board game) calls these “extended contests”, and sets out a standard procedure: both sides have some number of “points” which they gain or lose depending on their relative degrees of success and how willing they are to risk them on each round. It’s the exact same procedure whether the contest is a sword duel lasting less than a minute, a trade negotiation during an hour, or a seduction taking months.

          The problem with “mini-games” is that, since you use them occasionally, entering them during play becomes stiff and awkward. Suddenly it’s time to refresh everyone’s memory on the rules, bring out extra chips and cards and bits, and get into the headspace to play this little game instead of the overarching one. (D&D 4e combat, for me, was an egregious case of this, and combat happened at least once a session.) AD&D, as it grew, got like that: combat is roll d20 over THAC0 + AC, but thieves roll 1d6 or percentiles (depending), and characteristic tests roll d20 *under* a characteristic (but what about forcing a door vs. pushing a boulder?), and these numbers over here are saving throw targets, and on and on. From a brief skim it looks like D&D 5 is finally learning this lesson; give DMs a few flexible tools, not a list of procedures with a pile of exceptions and mini-games.

        • You guys actually don’t even need me. I’m not sure whether I’m happy about that. On the one hand, it means we have great DMs in the community (other than me). On the other hand, I have a huge ego and being unnecessary is horrible.

          But you’re dead on. The additional die rolls and actions and all of that stuff ADD to the tension. They don’t detract from it. In a simple situation like “sneaking up on a guard” and then “rolling to silently slit his throat,” a decision was made, a single action was declared. Both of the die rolls do exactly the same thing. They overlap. So, after you succeed on the first die roll (sneaking), that second die roll doesn’t do anything extra. It just confirms your first die roll or it robs you of that first die roll. Neither of those is a fun reason for a die roll.

          In a complex encounter like a combat or a chase scene or whatever, multiple actions and multiple die rolls add something. Specifically, they add the possibility of reversals, ups and downs, backs and forths, but ultimately they keep the action moving toward a resolution (one way or the other). They aren’t simple “okay, stop and make the same roll again about the same decision.”

          As for why you use the combat rules, that’s more of a personal question. The combat structure, used in the right places (conflicts between roughly equal foes that can engage each other in normal fighty ways), adds a pace, a progress indicator, and a pile of rules that maintain balance and fairness. If you go back to my article about Fun and Engagement, they enable a component of fair Challenge. That may or may not be important to you. Me? I personally like it, as I said. I LIKE the combat minigame. It is intrinsically fun to play fights. And so, I’m willing to trade the strategy, tactics, and fair challenge those rules enable for the constraints they impose.

          Moreover, if you’re a less experienced DM or you simply don’t want to worry about doing it yourself, the combat rules (properly used) manage the pace and tension of fights very well. They take one thing of the DM’s plate. They make the DM’s job easier.

          But the point to always remember is that they ARE a tradeoff and you COULD dispense with them if you wanted. You just have to know what you are giving up. Make sense?

        • Maybe standardized mini-games goes too far, because then you run into all of the skill challenge issues all over again; at some point manipulating the mini-game, while interesting in and of itself, will detract from and frustrate the purpose of answering dramatic questions. It will slow games down, fill the rule book with bloat to make it more interesting to work with, all while not achieving better games.

          What I would suggest instead is standardized building blocks for encounters. Giving enemies a stat block with pre-made metrics like HP, pre-made weaknesses, etc., both helps the world feel more predictable and real while not forcing the DM to reinvent the wheel for every encounter. OTOH, rolling initiative every encounter and trying to stick to a given initiative order might actually make little sense and not bring anyone any closer to resolving the dramatic conflict.

          I’m not convinced that the Combat Whoosh is *ever* a desirable thing, and likewise, I am skeptical of an Investigation Whoosh or a Negotiation Whoosh. Mini-game bloat increases the learning curve of the game and slows down play, often needlessly. Encounters should be more tailor-made, not mass-produced.

        • I’m not able to reply to those who replied to me, and I’m not up to par on forum participation, so this may end up in the wrong place.

          We’ve boiled it down to two views, that are exclusive:

          (1) “I’m not convinced that the Combat Whoosh is *ever* a desirable thing, and likewise, I am skeptical of an Investigation Whoosh or a Negotiation Whoosh. Mini-game bloat increases the learning curve of the game and slows down play, often needlessly. Encounters should be more tailor-made, not mass-produced.” – Stubbazubba

          (2) “I LIKE the combat minigame. It is intrinsically fun to play fights. And so, I’m willing to trade the strategy, tactics, and fair challenge those rules enable for the constraints they impose.” – AngryDM

          If you advocate view (1), that’s fine. Play a different game or modify D&D so it works (and I don’t mean this dismissively – I might take this view for all I know).

          If you advocate view (2), then I’m talking to you. One of the ideas I’ve been playing around with (and has probably been played around with plenty before I came along) – and it’s related to the recently explicit three pillars of Exploration, Interaction, Combat – is whether there could be three “whoosh” systems, one for each of the three. Since D&D is largely defined by the Combat “whoosh,” I’ve been wondering whether two more “whooshes” are in order: Social Interaction (to deal with social interaction generally, as the Combat system deals with combat generally) and Exploration (to deal with… you get it). It would then be fine for a DM to abandon the general system for the sake of the game, but the system would be there in case it was wanted (as the combat system often is).

          To take the idea further, and in keeping with the class-based nature of D&D, I’ve been wondering if a character shouldn’t be defined by three classes: something along of the lines of Defender/Striker/Leader/Controller + Deceiver/Diplomat/Knowledge Monkey/Manipulator + Obstacle Disabler/Survivor/Scout/Travel Guy.

          I’m not saying this is a good idea (in fact I’m explicitly saying I have my doubts about whether it’s a good idea) but I’m saying that for those who like the Combat engine, the tendency will be to have combat-dominant games (or at least rules). If you like the combat engine and want a balanced game (balanced between the three pillars), it would seem the two choices are to lose the combat engine (for a more tailor made experience), or balance things out by bringing in two more engines to handle the other two main aspects of the game (trading constraint for fun).

          I’m saying consideration might be in order, that’s all.

          Burger Beast

        • I used to think having separate mini-games for everything would be a great setup. I may yet come around to that conclusion again. But for now, I’m more interested in approaching it from the bottom up. To clarify, I’m not sure I advocate the complete overthrow of the combat engine, but I’d like to explore a D&D game without one on an experimental basis, just to see what insights can be gained. I may be convinced that the combat engine is worth its weight after all, or I might be convinced that ad hoc loose frameworks actually drive the dramatic action better. Most likely I’ll find some hybrid that meets those ends.

          On a parting note, one game that does almost precisely what you want is The One Ring. It’s mini-games include Combat, Interaction, and Journeys (since Middle-earth has more wilderness traversal and survival than dungeon looting), but the frameworks are exactly like what you’re looking for. Execution is pretty good, though not perfect. Really, TOR is a fantastic RPG, and is a good, functioning example of what you’re talking about. Highly recommended.

        • One interesting query about the whole ‘sentry kill’ scenario:

          One die roll seems like enough… but there are cases where that seems….odd.

          Case 1: PC very likely to quickly kill goblin if he can get close and has high enough stealth to easily get close…. rolling works fine with one roll

          Case 2: PC not so likely to quickly kill goblin if he gets close but has enough stealth to get close ….. rolling stealth would get him there, but the kill might require a weapon or combat roll to assure success

          The two characters above have different capabilities and the same challenge is not the same difficulty for each and one roll seems like it would model both as the same (they both have good stealth) while losing the fact they each have different quick-kill capability.

          And averaging the two situations skill assets into a skill challenge is okay, yet still not enough.

          Say we had a ‘kill the sentry quietly’ roll and it took your stealth and ability to kill the sentry quickly into account. The character with both of these high would do better than the character with one of these high on average.

          But if for instance stealth was +5 and your combat ability was considered +5, then your total might be +10 to the roll. If your stealth was superduper (hide in plain sight!) but your combat was Mary Poppins level, then you still might get +10 and +0 and end up with a +10 total. Both situations are very different, but adding or averaging won’t get you there when you combine things into one roll.

          Now, stepping back from these distinctions, you always have to ask yourself for any decision or tests:

          How important is this to the story, to my gaming, and to pacing?

          Is the sentry worth a roll, two rolls, or a complex resolution? Two rolls isn’t too much more than one roll, but a complex resolution surely is.

          But if the character chosen is likely to kill the goblin if he gets close, then one roll is likely enough anyway.

          There isn’t a right answer, there are just more and less effective answers given your players, the particulars of the event and its greater impact on the story, and the pacing…. and how many times the players get to make choices that matter…. rather than rolls that determine their fate which are less interesting.

          • Having a hard time figuring out what “kill ability” you’re trying to measure here. The example given was “sneak up on the goblin and cut his throat”. If you’re at all familiar with mammalian anatomy, cutting a person’s throat is a trivial proposition for anyone faced with an unresisting target and a reasonably sharp knife.

          • An unaware target is not unresisting – there’s a decent amount of technique that goes into grabbing a guy and stabbing him fast enough to prevent him from shouting. Not a lot, but not zero.

            And outside of superhuman hide-in-plain-sight abilities, you won’t literally have your knife at the guard’s throat before he notices you, so the attack is probably more complicated than just “cutting his throat.” Maybe you need to jump out of the shadows and bring him down in one smooth motion, or maybe you need to do the Sam Fisher thing where you hang upside down and snap his neck, or some other fancy move.

  13. Wow! This is pure, and I couldn’t stop myself from reading for at least two hours!

    Sir, you just made a new fan. Nice to meet you 🙂

  14. Another game that makes interesting subsystems out of exploration and roleplaying is Dragon Age Set 2. Worth looking over.

  15. “And I’ve seen people call for its return and I’ve seen people design new morale systems. These people need to be stopped. Find them and beat them with a Rolemaster book until they stop. We don’t need die rolls for morale!”

    Dammit. I just started incorporating morale into 4e. I like the fact that my goblins do what THEY want rather than what I want.
    I like the monster powers in 4e. Each monster has its personality built right into its stat block, goblins gang up, kobolds shift around etc. sometimes relinquishing control of the narrative to the dice can make for a more surprising and fun game than tightly controlling the narrative all the time.

    • That’s fine. But, as a DM, you can also just MAKE these decisions. And me, I don’t want to just execute commands at the whim of a random number generator. I want to role-play too. And that means looking at the monsters’ situations and making good, rational decisions for them.

      Being a DM doesn’t exempt you from playing a role.

      • I agree with everything you’ve said above. I have high emphasis on role-playing and usually make my monster decisions based on what the monster or team of monsters would do but…

        When you play by the dice with a morale system your monsters get a life of their own and they can surprise you, the DM.
        Sure your PCs can surprise you (the best part of D&D in my opinion), but a close 2nd is when that last little kobold does something heroic and stupid in the heat of combat that you wouldn’t have come up with yourself in 100 years.

        “and that means looking at the monsters’ situations and making good, rational decisions for them.”

        Chaotic monsters roll the dice, lawful and trained monsters are more controlled. Both get bonuses or penalties towards their disposition as well as how combat is going.

        I find it difficult playing chaotic creatures because they might not be making optimal decisions, they might want to try the big risk high reward move that I would never try in real life. It loosens up my play. I use morale to help me make those decisions as well as retreat/ surrender.

        My monsters have an objective, usually planned by someone higher up the monster chain. The best laid plans are only as good as the agents carrying them out, so my more successful bad guys have considered the strengths and weaknesses of their underlings and planned accordingly. The hilarious failures have come about by me (purposefully or otherwise) not considering the weaknesses of the minions and then having a series of bad rolls.

        I’ve had rolls where the last kobold stayed in the fight after the last orc was slain, it lead to a “les miserables” type situation where the kobold was standing on top of the pile of corpses waving a flag defiantly as arrows whizzed around. His last act was to collapse the mines that everyone was in, sacrificing himself and hopefully the PCs with him. My initial thought would be the kobold would be the first to flee, but he valiantly kept rolling 18+’s and it led to an awesome situation.

        If the enemy has a mixed force (goblins and giant spiders) it can be hilarious when the goblin succeeds his moral check but his spider mount fails. or vice versa

        Even though the monster succeeds or fails his moral, I still get to decide what the creature does. Unless it rolls a 1 then its honourable Sudoku for that poor critter.

        As DM, I want to be at the whim of randomness too. It feels like I’m just making stuff up on a whim if I don’t have some guidelines to follow.

        It re-enforces the illusion of choice to the players. If I’m following dice rolls just like the players then they feel more at ease with my decisions. I do behind the screen rolling so I can fudge it if I really want. (I haven’t done that yet though because I’ve gotten some hilarious situations out of following the dice)

      • I can see that, and yet….

        I have a group of goblins fighting my PCs. I don’t know the individual nature of each goblin. I know as a group, they will tend to fight when they think they can win and flee when they cannot (this sounds a lot like Morale….). But individuals vary. And it might have been a bad day for these goblins yesterday so they aren’t as stroppy as usual.

        Yes, I could figure all this out, but sometimes I like the dice to force me, as the DM, into the same sorts of conundrums that players’ dice sometimes force them into. My Goblins seem to want to bottle out from this fight early…. inconvenient, but not impossible. Or some of my goblins seem willing to flee, but a couple seem to be extra angry and really want to stay and lay a beat down.

        The players often have to live with their plans not working out exactly as planned. By throwing in some random factors, as DM, I like to force some of those same ‘friction’ elements upon myself and my villains. Otherwise I would constantly be having to choose when to apply these things (and the real world shouldn’t let your villains have any more of a pass on ‘friction’ – the unexpected drag the world places on your plans – than the players get). I could do that, but I find sometimes the random turns of fate add a lot of interesting complications or character to the outcomes.

        Obviously I’m not talking about randomly generating all monster reactions or the dungeon map (which often ends up senseless if you do). I’m just saying in situations where 3 or 4 responses from NPCs are feasible, sometimes it is useful to let the dice resolve which the NPC takes.

        My choice as DM is when to apply this technique. I don’t tend to apply it with the arch-villain himself, just with his minions. Figuring out how he deals with his plans working out less completely than he hoped is my challenge and fun while the players are doing the same for their plans that haven’t played out 100% as they had intended because of friction.

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  17. I have been reading this with so much amazement. I myself have done quite some combat sequences in the ways Angry described above, though not nearly as I would want. I especially liked reading the part with the ‘hordes of zombies defending a town gate or whatever’. I have done nearly the exact same thing a few weeks before reading this article:
    A player, along with two NPC friends (A Cleric she convinced to go with her and a mass-murdering maniac who tried to kill her but she was crazy enough to forgive him) were travelling through a ruined city filled to the brim with zombies to find the Necromancer that created them all, because the mass murderer of the team wanted to meet him (He does not remember why). Oh yeah, and when they’re there maybe ask for a flower they needed to heal one of their friends, but if that fails no-one cares.
    So anyway, they were marching through a city filled with the dead and to my pleasent surprise the player (and the sense-making cleric) actually tried to sneak past the zombies. The Maniac danced through and wasn’t even treated any differently by the zombies, either through luck, through some sort of spell of his (he is a caster of unknown sort) or maybe because he is undead as well (wild speculation from this specific player, while the other players think he’s dead because they cut off his head ((magic jar, how I love you)) ). To my even more pleasant surprise, she failed her ‘move silently’ and alerted the horde.
    So soon she found herself surrounded by zombies, and more just kept lumbering towards the party. Every single tile was occupied by either the player, her two npc friends or a one-shottable zombie. When a zombie was killed, she could move on, but next round all tiles would be filled again.
    Eventually, four undead riders came riding towards them, trampling the hordes of zombies beneath them and she suspected a bossfight. And it would have been, were it not for the fact that these undead had relative free-will and she managed to talk her way out of this fight. Long story short, rather then kill them on the spot, the horsemen rode the party to the necromancer in question.

    Further down the line came another similar battle where the Horsemen were the ‘tanks’ or guardians for the party against an army of zombies who the Necromancer could no longer controll. Every round, the horsemen were battered by legions of ghouls and skeletons and whatnot while the party (all casters of varying kinds) attacked the zombies safely from behind the horsemen, without being hit themselves. The trick was to wade through the entire horde to the safe spot untill the horsemen would be slain, because if the horsemen died (again) the wave of undead would wash over the players and they’d probably die.

  18. It should come as no surprise, then, that Pinterest is fast becoming a top social networking tool.
    If you like something from other people’s board you can “re-pin” it to your own. I make boards of animals, quotes, or color combinations.

  19. heya Angry… why do you dislike numanuma when its rules are built to facillitate everything you wrote in this article… hell, it even has rules for more crunchy grid based comabt if you feel the need… just curious, wondering if i missed something in my read of it so far 🙂

    • Numa Numa was a fun meme, but it got way overplayed. Still beats the hell out of a lot of internet fads from now, though.

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  22. One thing I like about having rules for morale is that their existence reminds the DM that not everybody is supposed to always fight until the bitter end. I’ve played too many games where there were Combat Encounters, and the only time I remember ever seeing a foe surrender or run away in those games was in one particular kinda-large-scale battle where an orcish army ran away after its charismatic general was murderdeathkilled in combat.

  23. What exactly do you mean by story gaming when talking about Dungeon World? And is it a ‘I don’t like this thing’ assertion, or a ‘this game is bad’ assertion? Personally I find Dungeon World games to not have a story so much as a world in which things happen, but i may be misunderstanding the term.

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