I LOVE noncombat-focused characters, both as a player and as a GM. As a player, I enjoy out of the box thinking while working with the group to find something other than attacking to advance, even during combat. However, it can be difficult playing a character- or having a player play a character – that usually doesn’t fight during combat. Most RPG systems have a soft wall between combat and everything else. They usually don’t offer many mechanical alternatives to players who don’t want to hack or slash. Fortunately, even if the system you’re using isn’t conducive to combat creativity or non-combat actions during that phase, there are several things the GM and a non-fighting player can do during combat.
I recently joined a Star Wars, galaxy-trekking game. I missed a week due to work, so my character- whose name is Cutt- remained on our spaceship while the other players boarded a derelict prison ship. They were searching for parts to salvage to repair our own ship. Cutt (controlled by the GM during that session) kept in touch via an open comlink. The next week when I returned, I was still separated from the group with no way to physically interact with them. Fortunately, the GM is a clever guy, we know each other well, and we’ve dealt with situations like this before. Here’s how we worked around my character remaining separate while interacting during combat.
Cutt had access to something no one else did
To help Cutt stay a part of the story while remaining on the other ship, the GM gave Cutt access to a makeshift motion sensor. It allowed Cutt to tell where things were moving on the prison ship, and that allowed him to help direct the rest of the party away from danger. When combat started, Cutt used the motion sensor to guide the players through the ship- avoiding combat for as long as possible- and warn them where things would come from. Relaying that information didn’t take an action, but made a big difference with keeping all of the players connected.
Since Cutt wasn’t engaged in a fight during combat, he could access his ship’s computer when he wasn’t actively piloting it. Because of this, he intercepted some communications and counter-hacked an unseen enemy who was trying to trap the rest of the party in the prison ship. By keeping doors from closing on them and stopping other setbacks, Cutt aided the party while they engaged directly in combat.
While I never fired a shot, I felt like I played an important part in getting the other players off the prison ship and back to safety.
THAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
One of the most important parts of combat is having the player feel like their actions make a difference.
When a person is actually fighting during the combat phase, it’s easy to see how their actions are shaping or changing the game. You hit a foe, and its HP goes down. You miss a foe, now it’s glaring at you, angry and coiling to strike. Or because you missed, someone else is going to get hit or your target can get away.
When someone is doing a non-combat actions outside of combat, make sure that player and the group can see how it makes an impact. It doesn’t have to be huge, not every hit is a critical hit, but it should matter. If they try something and fail, show at least a small bit of how it still made some kind of impact, even if it isn’t obviously useful to them.
What makes combat fun is seeing how you change the game. You need to make sure the player feels that what they do matters, whether they are fighting or not.
Fudging numbers for effect and speed
When combat slows, everyone feels it. Plus,some actions are not designed to happen within the same timeframe as attacking. In our game, this meant the GM fudged some numbers so that the spaceship Cutt was piloting was a bit closer to its destination. This meant Cutt could move it to a spot in one turn instead of several.
Since ship maneuvering is generally a complex action, I tried to keep all piloting actions down to one specific movement. Rotate, ram, drop, elevate, etc. All straight lines and single actions. I knew the GM didn’t want to look up the rules and timeframes for every action in a spaceship, and I didn’t want to make him. Thus, I kept all actions simple and direct so he could fudge any numbers he needed to.
This is a deep subject that doesn’t get quite enough attention. So next week, we’ll dive even deeper into it.