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When my players are in combat, they mostly spend a moment figuring out what the most effective target is for each of them, and how to attack it, and then everyone rolls until combat is over. They sometimes change tactics when a major change happens (e.g. a player is seriously injured, a powerful foe dies earlier than expected, etc.), which is about every third battle. This means we often spend several rounds just rolling dice at each other.

I'd like to change this, and make it more interesting. My players are usually exited when they're fighting, but it gets monotone after a while and if I keep the stakes high to keep them invested eventually they're going to get unlucky and die.

I don't want to change the combat every round - I'm pleased that they're being tactical. However, I'd like to add opportunities for them to do something more, that will actually have an effect on the game and characters, without hindering their fighting.

Does anyone have any suggestions? Ideally this wouldn't involve dice, and would be based on the players being able to discuss amongst themselves and have to decide from several clear-cut options.

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AD&D 2nd Edition Combat & Tactics supplement has more rules options: rpgnow.com/product/16862/… –  Rob May 21 '13 at 13:58
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Related/Partial Duplicate: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/16577/… –  mxyzplk May 21 '13 at 14:50

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Fights aren't played out on grids.

Well, they are played out on grids, on tables - but in "real" life they take place in dungeons and swamps and forests. Use this to your advantage. Make one fight in a tight hallway so your players have a hard time maneuvering or are trapped between two sides. This makes your players change tactics between fights.

If you want your players changing tactics within fights, you need to change the fights within fights. A round in, when your players have their plan and are getting complacent, throw a curve ball. Put an unseen archer in a tree, or have another foe appear around a corner, behind their mage. Now, your fighter may need to back up until your archer can cover him, or your mage needs to get closer to the melee characters to not get taken out from behind.

Like you said, you don't want to do this every round, nor should you do the same thing every fight, but introducing another combatant after you see how your players have decided to approach the fight allows you to make the combat more alive and keep them on their feet.

P.S. You say "a player is seriously injured, a powerful foe dies earlier than expected... about every third battle." Why is this? Perhaps this is one of your problems as well - your fights are too easy for your party and consist merely of hitting it until it dies, with no real danger or strategic advantage to be exploited by the PCs.


They're just fighting kobolds, you say?

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The "hitting it until it dies" is kinda accurate part of the time. I'm running a sandbox game which means, effectively, the players get to pick the difficulty - they might be level 10 and fight Kobolds, or level 2 and fight dragons. They're currently fighting a little below their level because they're finishing a side-story type thing from a few sessions back. –  Dakeyras May 21 '13 at 14:50
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@Dakeyras: It's amazing how much damage you can do to a L10 party with Kobolds, if the kobolds are smart and prepared and taking full advantage of their propensity for ambushes. –  Tynam May 21 '13 at 15:45
    
I love the Kobold link. +1 –  kravaros May 21 '13 at 17:35

Context is the single most important factor for making combats varied in a simple combat system like AD&D 2nd edition's. There are few combat options because that's not where the variety is meant to lie: the variety is in why you fight.

Context includes the obvious terrain and PC goals, but also includes:

  • Opponents' non-combat goals
  • Opponents' purpose in fighting this fight
  • Purpose of the fight for the PCs
  • Whether there is an option to disengage
  • Whether the combatants are fighting in self-defense or as aggressors

When the opponents have varied motives, they fight in varied ways. If their opponents are not fighting in varied ways, there's no reason for the PCs to bother either.

A fight in which the opponents' goal is to delay and distract the PCs while their superiors prepare an ambush is going to be a very different fight from one where the PCs' aim is to get through a cavern stealthily and the opponent's goal is to opportunistically capture something tasty for dinner. In the former the enemy is going to be striking hard initially then fighting defensively, and then breaking into flight after a while in order to draw the PCs in pursuit. In the latter, the enemy is going to strike quickly and withdraw quickly, with or without dinner. That variety in PC goals and enemy goals means the combat is going to shift and move, and force the PCs to respond, possibly without full knowledge of why the fight has shifted. These make for interesting choices!


Context begins long before the fight starts, and even before the fact of the fight is established. The PCs goals must be such that carelessness can compromise them (if not cause outright failure, which is less fun). The opponents goals must be more than fighting to the death in order for them to fight with variety.

An important tool 2e gives you to establish context is the Reaction table. Even for inimical, monstrous opponents, the Reaction table is valuable. Not every horse your PCs meet immediately charges them, knocks them down, and searches their pockets for sugar lumps and apples – so why should a monstrous carnivore behave that way? The Reaction table gives you as DM a hard kick in the habits, preventing you from setting up dull, predictable combats. A result of "hostile" is obvious, but what about "cautious"? Perhaps it means that the opponents have pressing matters to deal with elsewhere, and they'd really rather avoid losing time and able bodies in an unnecessary fight. Even a rabid pack of goblins might only warn the PCs away from "their" halls, and then retreat. In real life it's foolish to join every fight that an opponent offers, since then you are fighting on their terms – even goblins are not so stupid or bloodthirsty that every fight offered them is one they want to take. A lone predator is even less likely to join an even fight head-on, since any injury at all can kill them, off in the cold wilderness, even after a fight they win.

Even when the opponents do fight, make sure you use the morale rules – without them the NPCs are just cardboard cutouts to be knocked down. And besides, notice that the morale rules are reactive to the PCs' actions in the fight – not using morale robs your players of those tactical choices that they can use to force the enemy into a route faster, and giving them more useful fight options is the goal, right?

Let the Reaction table give you hints of when the NPCs might have better things to do, or want something other than the PCs' blood. Let the morale rules hint when the fight is done, in the enemy's eyes. Perhaps humanoids want allies against a more powerful aggressor? Perhaps the slavering creature is sore and tired and just wants to roar at them to go away? Perhaps the enemy will call a truce and parley when they see the fight is no longer worth fighting? And even when the PCs force the fight, your rolls for morale and on the Reaction table and can hint to you that the NPCs or monsters have different motives than just fighting to the death, which will inform your tactics. Again, varying your NPCs' and monsters' fighting tactics and purpose is the first step in making sure your PCs vary their fighting tactics and purpose.

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Narration is everything for getting a battle interesting.

When players have a good idea I don't focus only on the rolls too much, and I try to reward those ideas with a nice bit of narration. If the players don't come up with good ideas themselves, show them what is possible from time to time with the NPCs, using team moves or other options. (This goes for both their enemies and their allies.)

I've noticed that I usually only have to remind players of the possibilities from time to time. For example, having an NPC in a tavern or around a campfire ask for a good fighting story of the heroes. When they begin to tell their heroic stories of how they worked together to pull off that epic tactic back in the day, players often remember what their PCs are capable of.

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This is good, but do you have any examples? –  Dakeyras May 23 '13 at 12:20

Build an encounter so that their standard library of tactics is ineffective.

Make them run

And give them a time limit.

Have the villain retreat with the loot/hostage/activation key to a secure location. This forces the players to move hazardously through the dungeon, not taking time to thin out opponents, spot ambushes and disarm traps.

This is critical: if they don't chase and catch the villain by the time he reaches the escape vehicle/sacrificial ceremony/doomsday device, then the players lose. They do not get the powerful artefact. They do not rescue the girl. They do not prevent the destruction of a city. Do what it takes to make them realise that time is real.

Don't use hand-held weapons

Set an example. You say they just roll dice to-hit. Don't just roll dice yourself.

Sure they might just be kobold soldiers, but make them do something different that the players have to react to. Roll logs at the party. Release the hounds. Harass them all night so the party is fatigued the next day.

Have a couple of simple flying monsters. They don't attack, but try to fly away... to the nest. A couple of turns later, the players hear the fliers approaching again, only in large numbers this time. Several hundred brethren enter the area, swarming the party.

Elevation

The monsters have the high ground, then break open a river dam to flood the party. The party may have split up to chase monsters on either side of the ravine, and now they are separated by a newly formed, piranha-infested lake.

Fight in difficult locations, such as on a cliff face. Have monsters that can fall from the ceiling, negating any human-shield tactics they might use.

Forced Choices

Since you know your players so well, so does the villain that has been sending spies to watch them. Rig an encounter that requires each player to be in two places at once if they followed their usual tactics.

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The mention of kobolds made me think of Tucker's Kobolds, the classic (1E!) account of some very low-level baddies wiping the floor with a decently optimized party.

As far as "letting" players make more choices, it's really not a lot harder than making a point to trying to find any possible way to say "yes" to what they want to do and leading by example. To the first point, it's also really important to invoke the time-honored Rule of Cool: that is, if a PC wants to leap onto a chandelier and attack a guy 30 feet away, a good response is to not just say "well, that would be an Acrobatics check just to not fall and then you'll be -4 to hit", but to be like "okay, that's pretty awesome, and the guards will never expect it so if you make your Acrobatics I'm giving you a +3".

Of course, the Rule of Cool also means you can't expect to use the same thing over and over again to the same effect, and you should feel free to enforce that as well. Not even Errol Flynn did that thing I explained in the above paragraph in every movie.

The second point has already been explained by previous posters, but the point is, by and large, if you want everyone to do more than just say "I roll to hit the orc", you have to do the same. It's hard to give personality to cannon fodder, I know, but I swear, if you make just one goblin size up the numbers, throw his goblin-mead in one of the PCs face, and then tear off running, not only will your party remember it, but it'll go a long way towards getting them out of the "roll and hit" rut that infects so many gaming tables.

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