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I'm about to run a premade adventure, and reading through it I see a potential situation where one group of monsters could, though PC actions, end up fighting each other.

As a PC, I hate seeing my DM, for lack of better words, play with himself. NPC vs. NPC combats played out blow-for-blow in initiative order, while the party fights other foes or just ends up watching.

Is there a tried and tested better way of doing this?

I want the PCs to be able to take advantage of the situation, but ideally not track HP and roll damage round for round if they decide to sit and wait.

If it's a full "background battle" then I'd assume the highest CR group wins, with losses.

But if this is not the case - both enemy groups are hostile to the party and each other - how do I resolve the NPC-NPC combats quickly and cleanly so my players aren't bored waiting for the results?

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, you are wanting to create a scenario where the PCs may jump in, but you don't want it to take up a lot of time of tracking HP/actions, but if the PCs jump in, you'll need to have that info? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 24 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: this is not for idea generation. Please support your answers. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 24 at 20:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Before the point at which the players choose to jump in, are the details (location, NPC numbers, etc.) of the fight immutable, or can the players influence the situation earlier than that? Might be important as if it's the former, that enables additional options (like pre-simulating the fight and just giving a round-by-round breakdown to the players until they choose to join or it resolves). \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Apr 25 at 7:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch indeed, I'm expecting them to be clever and realise they could avoid fighting both groups separately, and set them on each other, but ultimately their objective is past both - they could chose to wait for the last critter standing, try and rush through the chaos, etc... \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 25 at 7:29
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Ask the players when they want to intervene, and narrate until that point. Don't get bogged down in mechanics.

The normal flow of the game is for the DM to describe the scene/scenario, the players to declare their actions/intentions, then listen to the DM describe the result (with dice rolling as necessary). If the players choose to sit out of a conflict between NPCs, there isn't much else to do. The players are there to have fun, and if they want to sit out of a fight, they must not think that that fight would be fun, so hit the highlights and move on.

In my experience the best way to handle this is to make your best judgement on either what the outcome would be, or what it should be, either what makes sense or what makes the best story, then start describing how you get there from here. Roll one or two dice if you want help deciding some major turning points, but the story isn't about them, it's about the players, so keep it brief. Focus on the highlights and things of particular interest to the players.

If you're concerned that the players will want to intervene eventually, then describe the conflict in stages, giving the players easy/sensible times to do so. This can be done either explicitly, where you ask "Do any of you want to jump in yet?" or implicitly, where you pause and gauge the players by their expressions, body language and questions. If they still don't want to act, then move on.

In my opinion going through the full combat rules isn't necessary here. As DM you should be familiar enough with both the rules and the story to be able to make a sound judgement call on what the numbers should be if the players decide to surprise you during or after the fight. If the players do decide to jump in, reroll initiative from scratch, as the addition of a new fighting force is enough to throw everyone scrambling.

Remember that experience points should be granted for overcoming obstacles. If the players orchestrated events to cause one band of monsters to eliminate another, then I would reward that success. If this conflict was already in motion and the players sat idly by, then at least their time wasn't wasted while getting to the parts they were interested in.


I know that I've handled situations this way at least a few times, but the most recent was when I was running Sunless Citadel for a group of new players. They had formed a cautious alliance with the kobolds that are found earlier in the dungeon, and after softening up the goblins' defenses further in the kobolds drove the goblins out. My players, being both new and cautious, decided to stand back while a great melee broke out in the goblin warrens.

The players had moved on and taken out the hobgoblin chieftain, and then taken a look back at the rank and file. While I could have spent over an hour letting the mechanics play out, I instead decided that the side that the players' chose should win, and started describing the results. Within five minutes the players were back to the interesting bits: experience points, the hobgoblin's treasure, and this mysterious, vine-lined well (my players wouldn't let me call it a shaft) that descended deeper into the dungeon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, especially "describe the conflict in stages ...". There is absolutely no reason to engage with mechanics until the PCs become involved. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Costa Apr 24 at 23:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Without backing this up with how it worked for you I can't say if this is a good answer or just an idea that you have had. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Apr 25 at 6:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for including some of your own experience! However, this doesn't address the situation in which the PCs do want to engage part way through the npc-npc combat. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 25 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a much more eloquent, thoughtful, and well-written version of my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Apr 25 at 19:52
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Let the PCs control the fighting NPCs

I have only been in a situation like this as a player. My DM had a somewhat unique approach to this problem which I believe is worth sharing.

As for some background information, our party also met two separate hostile groups in close proximity to each other. Let's call them the Orcs and the Undead. Given our character levels and body count, both monster groups meant a hard or deadly encounter, and the most obvious solution to the problem they were posing to us was combat.

However, due to some player shenanigans, we were able to parley with the leader of the Orcs group, and we were also able to stir them up against the Undead. So instead of attacking us, they agreed to attack the other group, provided that the PCs also joined their ranks for the fight.

We all felt that the resulting enormous encounter was borderline unmanageable, due to the same problems the OP mentioned (bookkeeping, player boredom, etc.). But then, our DM quickly improvised a solution.

He outsourced the controlling of the opposing NPC groups to us players. Every player could opt in to "run" a smaller group of monsters alongside their own PCs. One such group consisted of three, maximum four homogeneous creatures. Some players picked from the Orcs (the player who fast-talked the Orc Chieftain into this uneasy alliance was the first to do so), others from the Undead. The monsters were not henchmen; they had their own - luckily, very simple and clear - agenda.

The DM retained the control of the leaders of the groups: the Orc Chieftain and the Necromancer, respectively. Apart from fighting, the bosses sometimes gave orders to us minions, and the DM had the general authority to override a decision that a player made in the name of a monster, but as I recall, he almost never had to use this power.

The evolving fight was messy, chaotic, epic and tons of fun. The alliance wore down very quickly, so basically three sides were fighting with each other, but we, the players, did almost all the work. And at one point - after considerable losses on both sides - we agreed to fall back to the "normal" combat mode (i.e. players vs. the DM).

Considerations

  • This approach was extremely time-consuming. The complete resolution of the encounter took about three-four actual hours; the bulk of our session time. Therefore, I don't believe it is a general solution that is always usable.
  • The DM had to give out the required monster stat blocks to the players. Revealing this kind of data may have its own drawbacks.
  • The additional (smaller scale) bookkeeping was manageable, but also noticeable for the players. Everyone was responsible for tracking their monsters' HP, resolving their movements and actions, etc. The monsters acted on the initiative of the respective PC to make things easier.
  • The approach is vulnerable to player metagaming, which is universally shunned at our table. In my experience, no PCs were favored by any monsters and no punches were pulled; nevertheless, it's still a consideration.
  • In a way, it was a player vs. player situation a little bit. We considered it to be very funny, but be prepared for a PC to go down due to the actions of another player.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Brilliant answer backed up by experience and with a list of considerations! This is how answers to this kind of question should look! +1. Also welcome to the site :) \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Apr 25 at 6:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Apr 25 at 6:57
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What you're basically describing is a script. All you need to do is roll up the fight during the campaign preparation phase, and jot down notes about the fight. At a basic level, it can look like this:

NPC 1 HP     NPC 2 HP
20           14         NPC 1 uses burning hands (3 damage)
20           11         NPC 2 hits with sword (4 damage)
16           11         ....

As you describe the fight, players can jump in at any time. You don't necessarily need to give a blow-by-blow account to the players, but you yourself will know exactly where the NPCs stand when/if the players choose to jump in. By using a script, you can reduce a relatively long fight down in to just a few minutes of narrative.

I have used this technique in the past with success; it gives the players a chance to engage or not, and if not, then my campaign planning reduced the campaign runtime accordingly, and if so, then my campaign retains "game realism". Obviously, once the players engage, you'll have make new decisions for the NPCs, so the script effectively ends in that scenario.

I'd suggest that this only be used sparingly, since it does eat up campaign preparation time, but you can use it for effect to help the narrative. The moment the players jump in, roll initiative, and treat it as a surprise round (if applicable). This means that there's the possibility for sneak attacks, flat-footed defense, and so on.

As an alternative to scripting this way, just say that the combat will last X rounds, and each combatant will take an average amount of damage per round, effectively just countdown timers. This reduces campaign preparation time somewhat at the expense of "game realism."

Also, as a final note, if the players choose to simply leave (assuming that's an option), simply end combat and declare the last line of your script complete (e.g. someone's now dead). There's no point in observing the combat if there's nobody there to observe it. Be flexible in your technique.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer +1! Can you talk a little bit more about whether or not they did jump in and how it went? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 25 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Generally, yes, they would; I would build up an expectation that something was amiss and only they could prevent a greater tragedy by stepping in and choosing the right side. The one time where they didn't have enough information, they just let it play out. I think the point is that they need to have a reason to get involved or they probably won't. As long as they had a reason to get involved, they definitely did. \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Apr 25 at 15:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Definitely recommend adding that to close the loop on all the bits from OP's question. Well done! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 25 at 15:51
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Give the players something else to do while the sides fight

If you're concerned about them potentially getting bored watching an NPC vs NPC battle, you could give them the chance to do something else while it's ongoing.

Examples:

  • Are the NPCs no longer paying attention to the party? - If so, the players could see if there's a camp or something nearby of theirs's to raid while they're all busy fighting.

  • Are there any hostages that need freeing or suspicions that there might be?

  • Do the players favour one NPC side over the other? Or even a specific NPC? - Give them the chance to try tip the scales. Maybe an archer sends off a potshot or a magic-user casts a ward.

  • Perhaps they want to use this opportunity to try sneaking away and so need to try that - while the NPCs are hypothetically too busy fighting to notice each other to notice.

  • Have something going on/extra details that an observant PC could potentially spot. Reward observation and such initiative. Perhaps an NPC is holding a MacGuffin or there's another observer watching in the shadows, or someone has a plot relevant insignia on, etc.

This of course depends on your campaigns specific circumstances and is not an exclusive list/all options - the players themselves depending might have ideas too on how they'd want theirs PCs to (or not want to) get involved so definitely make sure they're consulted on that, which also helps them be involved and stay invested - but giving some other options is a good way to prevent the players from twiddling thumbs and keep a feeling of agency.

But

Keeping in mind that as they may well jump in (which you yourself say is an option you want had), you will need to keep a track off the individual HPs and initiatives. Otherwise that could be an issue - if a rogue does let off a potshot at someone, for instance, you need to know if that does some significant, which isn't possible if you don't know the HP of who is hit.

This can be integrated with "give them something else to do" - while the players are busy with that, you could be rolling at the same time/on the side (roll for them, then while they do their bit you roll for the NPCs), so things don't stall up and keep moving faster than they would otherwise.

On experiences as a player:

To give more specific experiences/contrasts to hopefully help:

  • What worked: There's been a campaign I was involved in, which involved a big fight with a monster and several guards. The players also got involved and tried to fight the beast - for the NPC vs NPC aspect of that, what the GM did was roll on the side, like what I mentioned before. We would only really hear about the guards when they died and the specific details were quite vague - which helped move the fight much faster along than it would have otherwise (meaning less of a tedious wait). And it also meant we as players could still land damage or hypothetically assist the guards if we chose to, with their HP being quietly tracked (opportunity didn't arise, but it was there - so feelings of agency).

  • Potential Risk: With the something else to do, there is a definite risk of going a way not expected I will say that and that may need quick thinking (if someone runs away for instance - what then? Especially if there's a party split, which I have seen happen).

  • Consideration: But - if you don't ask and give opportunities, there's a risk of feelings of railroading/being ignored: for instance, if a character has a specific way they would react to the situation (flee/get involved/pickpocket) and you don't give them that chance other than to watch, that can lead to upset players who are taken out of the immersion. Even if they choose to just watch, at least they were asked and given that player/PC agency- and that's a happier table there.

  • What worked: With the investment - NPC vs NPC fights work best when the players have either investment or reason to get invested in them. If that cult is fighting with that adventurer over there - and you are on a mission about that cult - then you are invested in the outcome. If it's people you have never met before and have no reason to care about either way what happens in the fight, or ways to learn about why you should, then it's more of a drain. Another example again being the monster vs guards above - one, good characters may want to help anyway but even aside, players were invested because that monster had also nearly killed one of them once - and was near where they all currently lived. So, the outcome of the battle was important to them.

  • What Worked: With the extra details - In several games I've been in, players will try look for this anyway - roll observation. Whether to learn and/or to help decide what to do next, depending on the Player/PC. Thus making this something that could be used and I'd advise be at least considered - as "nothing special/of note" in response to a high roll can be hard to progress from, from the perspective of player trying to reach a decision. Also potential plot hook material here, depending on your campaign.

  • What worked: I've also been in a oneshot where a lot of it was background by default. Those NPCs off there are fighting, you hear it and you know it's getting closer and risking effecting you - the players were all still progressing on their own agenda of that mission, but the details of the other stuff also added an urgency to it and feeling of risk: we were involved/invested as a result of that, even though we physical weren't. In that case, the HPs weren't tracked - but there was not a chance to join in, it being too far away and not in player reach. This meant, that when the NPC vs NPC finally did catch up too - it felt like a pay off more than anything of all the build up (making build up another positive thing to increase investment): although at this point, the GM did have to start tracking HP as players also got themselves involved in this: deciding to back a side.

So TLDR: Going from experience as a player - in games where agency "things to do/options" are provided the players tend to be much happier as a result rather than twiddling thumbs, and when rolls are done on the side/in-background it's often streamlines and progresses events faster, again keeping the players more engaged.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used these techniques at your table? Can you talk about how the players reacted and how well they worked? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 24 at 20:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: Speaking here, it's more me talking from what I've found better experience as the player myself and using that, with the aforementioned tactics having been used by other DM/GM. The NPCs being rolled for on the side so that you don't even really notice (NPCs vs Giant monster for instance other than "5 are left") and the "what you want to do" approach. To compare, I've found that way leads to a happier group as we're all still involved/things are moving, than when you're just sitting and waiting. Would you like me to edit the answer, or delete if you want a more GM-view on it? \$\endgroup\$ – anon Apr 24 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ It can definitely be as a player! If you add in your experience and can even include what worked and didnt and why, you'd have a great answer! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 24 at 20:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch okay, thank you for the feedback/advice! I've edited now to talk about some more specific experiences as evidence of what can be effective, although I'm hoping it's not become too cluttered/opinion-based on that? \$\endgroup\$ – anon Apr 24 at 21:31

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