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Here's my situation. In an encounter I have coming up next week, an epic aerial battle between an Angel and a powerful necromancer rages overhead a group of low-level PC's. Attempting to assist in that combat would be like a gnat weighing in on nuclear warfare, but as the blood of the necromancer begins to rain down around the players, zombie-like undead start to rise from the ground.

Putting myself in the shoes of the PC, I would be seriously distracted by the almost God-level combat taking place directly overhead.

My initial idea to simulate this was to play a video of the battle taking place overhead during the combat encounter, but that would pull the players away from the game when it isn't their turn (thanks to the commenters and @GrandmasterB for pointing that out).

How can I accomplish this effect in-game without actually doing something to distract the players?

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I'd welcome any alternate suggestions to simulate distraction in the comments or in chat. –  dpatchery Sep 26 '11 at 18:53
    
Agree with @Okeefe. I'd rather be "distracted" by having the battle touch down in an awesome way periodically (possibly combined with a penalty to perception checks). But I have no data to support this. –  AceCalhoon Sep 26 '11 at 19:22
    
@AceCalhoon That's a good idea. I had thought of the perception penalty but that seemed pretty boring. But occasional fallout from the battle above is a good way to handle distraction and still keep it interesting. –  dpatchery Sep 26 '11 at 19:27
    
Edited the question to be more about how to simulate distraction rather than "is this idea good". I've come to agree that it is NOT a good idea and would like to see alternatives be the major focus of this question. –  dpatchery Sep 26 '11 at 19:34
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The example implies D&D, but the advice can work for most games. –  okeefe Sep 27 '11 at 19:51
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Have the god combat actively introduce fallout that complicates what the characters are doing. Armor and weapons shattering and falling to the ground, blocked and misdirected effects causing havoc for those below, ichor raining down and blacking out the sun, and, as you mentioned, tainted blood causing hordes to erupt from the ground.

The fight should change the entire environment into something alien.

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+1 for using ichor –  GrandmasterB Sep 26 '11 at 20:54
    
If we're talking about gods, how could you not? –  okeefe Sep 26 '11 at 21:06
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More specifically, for D&D 4e at least, make the fallout from the titanic overhead battle be a skill challenge. Failing a roll to avoid the side-effects ends up reducing Attack or Defense abilities or something. Give them a reason to specify how they're dealing with the distraction... –  F. Randall Farmer Sep 27 '11 at 6:19
    
It depends on what the players are doing. If they're trying to help through prayer, flee, or pass through unscathed, then a skill challenge makes sense. If they're in combat, I would absolutely include environmental effects. Examples: Half of the grid is now covered in blood, it's now difficult terrain and moving more that two squares requires an acrobatics check. Falling debris, these are trap-like attacks targeting Reflex. A cloud of inky blackness grants everyone concealment. –  okeefe Sep 27 '11 at 15:01
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I dont think its a good idea to distract the players like that. You run the risk of them focusing more on the movie than the game, esp as other players are taking their turns. That could really defeat the immersion into the game that they experience, and have the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve.

Rather, let them focus entirely on the game. Interject narrative of whats going on above them. Maybe have them dodge something now and then so they dont forget something really dangerous is going on up above.

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Thanks for pointing that out. I've reworded the question. Could you expand on your idea to interject narrative and throw stuff at the PC's from above? –  dpatchery Sep 26 '11 at 19:35
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There's a battle going on above them, so tell them what they see/hear/feel from above each round. And maybe make them dodge a few errant fireballs or lightning bolts, or other debris from the battle. –  GrandmasterB Sep 26 '11 at 19:44
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I would question the wisdom of making your players only spectators in a major, world-changing plot event. Part of the game is to make your PCs the main characters in the story. It's likely they will do their damnedest to intervene, and get annoyed when they find that they can do nothing.

Instead, consider giving the players objectives that they can accomplish in order to influence the battle. There are lots of different sub-quests and battle concepts that could fall into this vein. Examples:

  • The "light side" (human) forces have organized an array of siege weapons to aid the angel in its battle with the demon. The PCs could be responsible for defending the siege encampment from the falling zombies - at least, until an errant fireball destroys it....
  • The PCs discover that a particular artifact is the demon's bane, or might shield the angel from a certain kind of attack. They have to hurry if they want to retrieve the artifact, while the battle rages....
  • During the battle, the demon's sword is struck from its hand. The players find that they can wield it, but doing so incurs a terrible price....
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+1 for pointing out a really good truth about player mentalities. They want to have an important goal and JUST cleaning up the scraps that drop off the necromancy isn't enough. However, they don't have to help against the necro directly. Maybe the Angel is protecting a certain place or person, but cannot afford to ignore the necro long enough to kill the zombies. The PCs fill in that role, turning aside defeat with their heriocs. –  Iain Anderson Sep 27 '11 at 19:33
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Besides the good info you've received in the other posts, the one thing I can think of that can aid in a sense of urgency, distraction and tension is to use a timer for each players round. This is something I don't normally enforce in my games, so the few times I've pulled out a timer with 30 sec on it I did so because it fit the scenario.

The player has 30 sec to give me their standard/move/minor. Then we resolve them. If they don't give me all their actions, they lose the ones they didn't declare.

This leads to less of a chess-like scrutinization of every possible play and drives the PCs to act rashly. Ultimately, that's what distraction does. It makes us act without taking everything into account.

Your party shouldn't get upset if you clearly lay out how you will run this time limit and do so before the encounter begins. Explain why as well. Tell them how the epic battle above is distracting them from their current battle down below.

Btw, I do think this sounds like a very cool encounter idea. Props for that.

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The easy way is adjudicating a penalty to rolls. Not just perception rolls. Rolls to hit or to avoid things are good. Obviously, it heavily depend on which system is being used.

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The only trouble with this method (though it does simulate distraction well) is that it has the side effect of causing the players frustration as whiff and ping increase. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 1 '12 at 17:45
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