Steal My Idea: Keeping Combat Interesting


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I love swinging scythes, utilizing superpowers, and crashing spaceships as much as the next player. Combat in RPGs can be thrilling and very fulfilling. However, when round after round results in the same “attack, get attacked, attack, etc” combination, it can get a bit stale.

One thing I’ve learned as a GM is to stagger new elements into combat as a fight progresses. These new elements can be problematic or helpful to the players, but they have to change up the fight in some meaningful way to spice up the fight so it does not become tedious.


For example: just recently, I had my players fight while riding the lightning rail at night in an Eberron campaign (the lightning rail is a magical fantasy train). The Orcland Raiders, a band of thieving orcs known for their overwhelming numbers and overpowering lust for robbing trains, rode mounts beside the lightning rail, busted through the windows, and boarded the train. They were equipped for battle and ready to take whatever they could get their hands on.


It was pretty standard combat at first, and the players were doing well enough. After a few rounds, the orcs managed to reach the magical fuse box (a very technical term) and turn out all of the lights. Since only one of the players had dark vision, the orcs gained an advantage on them. Now the players had to change up their tactics and use some creative thinking in order to keep from being stabbed to death in the dark.


There are a lot of ways to infuse a simple idea into your game to make combat more dynamic. Here are a few broad examples you can bring into your combat scenarios after a few rounds:


  • One of the enemies turns out to be a very different class in disguise (The warrior drops her sword and shield and starts slinging spells. One of the archers shooting at the players from above draws twin daggers and drops on someone’s head for sneak damage).
  • A spell, trap, or wall divides the group, placing one side at an obvious disadvantage.
  • An NPC turns on the players.
  • Have one apparently common-looking enemy become a much greater threat (such as having one enemy grow in size, start breathing fire, or gets an extra action controlling something in the environment).
  • Have a new type of enemy enter the fight (Bulettes spring up from the ground. Trained pterodactyls swoop down from the skies).
  • Have some enemies cause destruction to property (such as setting a building on fire) and inform the players the problem will quickly worsen if no one takes care of it.
  • Have an enemy take a hostage or two.
  • If the story allows it, do something that gives everyone bonuses or penalties. Example: the mad scientist’s tectonic disrupter is working, and the ground begins to shake. Everyone takes penalties to attack rolls, moves at half speed, and takes an increased penalty to climbing and balancing if applicable).


You can also introduce things like this when a player rolls a critical failure rather than making something bad happen just to them. Changing up what happens on crit failures and crit successes, especially if they have a lasting effect, also makes combat more dynamic.


If you have an idea, suggest your own in the comments here or through some other form of communication. It’s 2016, there are about 10 different ways to contact me.

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