4 Easy Ways to Amp Up Your Combat


Everyone who’s played RPGs (players and GMs alike) has been there: your characters are in the midst of what’s supposed to be a nail-biting melee—the climax of the adventure—but, for the players, it’s a dull routine of rolling dice and crunching numbers, interrupted only by debating strategy or flipping through rulebooks, until the last enemy falls over or retreats.

It’s a paradox. As far as the story is concerned, combat, by definition, is exciting—the characters are thrown into a life-or-death scenario and must rely on their strength and wits to survive. But the act of playing out the combat all too often fails to capture the tension in the story. As the stakes of the narrative rise, the time needed for calculating each action increases. A single swing of a sword could spell doom, so the story must be slowed down. In D&D, one round of combat represents six seconds of the characters’ lives, but it can easily eat up half an hour of the players’ lives if you’re not careful.

So here are four simple ways to make combat more exciting and fast-paced. I’ve tested them in my own games, and my players agree that our sessions are more fun because of them. Best of all, any GM can start using these right away, with little effort.

#1. Timed Turns

One of the quickest ways to slow a good game down is for the players to take too long to make up their damned minds. This is such a common problem that we have a catchy name for it: analysis paralysis.

So how do you stop the players from over-analyzing their actions? Simple: give them a deadline! I find a small sand timer (about 1 minute) works well, but an egg timer or smartphone app, or even a countdown should work in a pinch.

This is not just a technique for combat—you can use it whenever the characters have a limited time to act but the players start debating what to do. For example, I recently ran an adventure in which Thokk, the party’s half-orc barbarian, came across the camp of an orc tribe that had enslaved him as a child. Of course the party wanted to deliberate the most strategic plan of attack, so I placed my sand timer on the table and said, “When this runs out, Thokk loses his patience and charges into battle.” And before you complain that I was taking freedom away from the players, Thokk’s player agreed wholeheartedly with a grin.

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#2. Roll ‘Em in Plain Sight

You might think that rolling behind a GM screen would be an effective way to keep tension high. After all, when a monster hits one of the PCs for 27 damage, they don’t know if the monster got lucky or if it’s just warming up. I argue, however, that hiding rolls takes away from the tension.

I used to play with a GM screen, but a year or so ago I decided to see how it felt without it, and I’ve never looked back. When you roll in front of your players, they share the thrill of watching the dice tumble on the table and spell their fate. It’s both empowering and frightening for them… empowering because the GM becomes just another player at the table, bound by the same rules they are; frightening because they know you’re not pulling any punches—if a monster rolls a 20 and kills someone in the party, them’s the breaks.


#3. Initiative Cards

In D&D (and most other RPGs I’m aware of), the GM and players make “initiative” rolls when combat starts to see who gets to go first. GMs typically handle this in one of two ways. The first is to roll for each individual combatant, record their rolls from highest to lowest, and proceed in that order. The GM may even require a fresh set of initiative rolls at the start of each new round. To save time, many GMs use a simpler method: make one roll for the good guys and another roll for the bad guys. When it’s the good guys’ turn, each player acts, usually in the order they’re sitting around the table. On the bad guys’ turn, the GM has each enemy act, in whatever order makes the most sense at the time. GMs using the second method typically make only one initiative roll at the beginning of the combat, and each side alternates turns from there.

Both methods have their flaws. The first method eats up a lot of time because it requires so many rolls and quite a bit of accounting. An organized GM can get through the process relatively quickly, but personally I find it immediately grinds the tension of the game to a halt when I have to make upwards of a dozen rolls right off the bat and write down each one. It also gives the game a kind of “classroom” feel, as the GM reads names off the list, telling each player when it’s their turn.

The second method saves time but lacks balance and variety. If the players go first, the combat might be over before the enemies get a chance to fire a shot, and vice versa. Moreover, on the bad guys’ turn, the players must wait for the GM to finish resolving each enemy’s action, and the GM gets no break in between deciding what each enemy does. This often turns into a headache for the GM and a snore for the players.

The way I solve this requires a deviation from the rules of the game, but I find the sacrifice is well worth it. At the start of each round of combat, take a red playing card for each PC and a black card for each NPC, and shuffle. Draw cards one at a time to decide who acts next. If the card is red, any player who has not yet acted may do so (they can decide amongst themselves who should go). If the card is black, the GM acts with any NPC that hasn’t had a turn. When all the cards are drawn, remove a card for each character no longer in the combat, shuffle the remaining ones, and start a new round.

There are four advantages to this system. First of all, it adds an element of tension to the game, as it keeps the players guessing about who goes next. Second, it breaks up player and GM actions so that neither side spends too long waiting for the other. Third, it gives the players the freedom to strategically decide which of their characters should act first. Lastly, it saves a significant amount of time. No rolls, no lists; just shuffle and draw.

One downside of this system is that it makes initiative completely random. In D&D, characters get bonuses or penalties to their initiative roll based on dexterity. Most other RPGs have a similar mechanic. The initiative card system ignores that, effectively stripping speedy characters of one of their advantages. That said, my players love this system and have never once complained that they’re being “cheated” by it. Besides, if you really feel the need, I’m sure you can come up with something similar to my initiative card system that still gives speedy characters the upper hand.


#4. Keep the Pressure On

All too often, combat becomes a matter of simply trading hits until one side falls over or retreats. It could be many rounds until one side is ready to give in, and with nothing to shake things up, each round becomes basically a repeat of the last.

So how do you stop that from happening? Next time you’re planning a combat scene for your adventure, work in some kind of pressure that will force the players to get through it as quickly as possible. Actually, like the sand timer, this is a good method for making any part of the game more exciting, not just combat. It works especially well for a scene that might otherwise drag on indefinitely, such as trying to solve a puzzle or persuade an NPC to help.

My personal favorite is the ever-popular horde of encroaching skeletons. A simple encounter becomes a nightmare when you’ve got an invincible force closing in fast behind you. The PCs can fend off the skeletons for a while, but not for long—they’ll have to overcome the challenge in front of them (be it a battle, a puzzle, whatever) without wasting time. Other forms of pressure I’ve used include: erupting volcano, enchanted tree being cut down, and steam engine about to blow.

Be imaginative, be devious, and most importantly, let the players in on the stakes. Even if their characters wouldn’t have access to this information, it helps to tell the players not just that something bad is on its way, but what it is and how long they have until it arrives.

Puzzles That Make Sense!

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As you probe deeper into the necromancer’s lair, you come across a white-and-black checkered room. Several towering chess pieces are arranged on the grid, standing at attention. After some investigation, you realize that the door ahead will open only if you push the pieces into the right configuration. Make a mistake, however, and a deadly trap will be sprung…

If you’re a fan of role-playing games, I’m sure you’ve encountered something like the above. The protagonists must solve a puzzle or a riddle in order to progress through the ancient ruin, or whatever it is they happen to be exploring. The GM’s intent is obvious—to challenge the heroes’ minds, rather than their might.

But have you ever paused to think, “Who would build such a thing, and why?”

This is one of my biggest pet peeves when I look at adventures others have designed. If I were an evil villain conducting dark experiments in my secret lair, or a mistrustful emperor looking for a place to hide my wondrous treasure, I wouldn’t construct a security system that could be bypassed by anyone who took the time to think about it carefully. I’d create something that I knew would be almost guaranteed to stop or kill all trespassers (no matter how ingenious), while letting me come and go whenever I pleased.

That being said, as a GM, I love pitting the players up against puzzles. In fact, I try to include at least one puzzle in every adventure I run. So what is a GM to do?

The easy (lazy) solution is, of course, to ask your players to suspend their disbelief. Sure, the necromancer has no good reason for protecting the entrance to his lair with a chess puzzle, but who cares? In the end, the players have a good time trying to figure it out.

But, as I mentioned in my previous tip, I try to avoid breaking immersion whenever possible. I want all parts of the setting to feel consistently realistic and believable. It might take a little extra work to design not only a puzzle that’s fun to solve, but one that makes sense, but the payoff is worth the effort.

So, without further ado, here are my tips for designing believable puzzles:

#1. Literally Anything Can Be a Puzzle

First of all, what is a puzzle? The images that probably jump into the minds of most GMs and players are that of interlocking jigsaw pieces, riddles, brain teasers, and movable blocks (a la Legend of Zelda). To design a truly interesting puzzle that feels like it belongs in the game setting, however, you’re going to have to think outside such a narrow box.

I would argue that a puzzle is any kind of mental challenge that is possible and entertaining to solve. That is, there must be at least one solution, the puzzle-solver must be aware that a solution exists, and the process of finding the solution must be a matter of critical thinking and creativity, rather than of tedious work or brute-force guessing.

So any situation that taxes the players’ mental capacities in a fair and interesting way is a puzzle. It’s quite possible that several puzzles could come and go in an adventure without the players (or even the GM) being totally aware of them as such. A trap with a hidden disarming mechanism? Puzzle. A secret door? Puzzle. A combat scenario that requires careful tactics? Puzzle. A murder mystery? Puzzle. Trying to figure out the best way through the arctic wasteland without running out of food or being attacked by dire wolves? Puzzle.

#2. Put Yourself in the Mind of the Architect

Okay, but sometimes you want to challenge your players with something more overtly puzzle-like; something that causes them to put down the dice and put on the thinking caps. There are certain players out there who get a special gleam in their eye when they see that the GM’s just dropped a puzzle in their lap, and all they need to do is figure out the answer.

This is where you need to consider the motives of whoever built the damn thing. If the architect purposefully built a solution into it, that means they wanted someone to come along and solve it. If they didn’t want that to happen, then they’d at least try to take precautions to stop potential trespassers from finding the solution.

In the same adventure I mentioned in my first GM Tip, the players found a pile of encrypted documents inside a mechanical complex. The messages were encrypted because the gnome who had written them wanted to keep notes for himself and his fellow mechanics, but he was afraid that if they fell into the wrong hands, the machines could become disastrous weapons of war. Thus the cipher the gnome created was readable only with a special decoder, which had been disassembled and hidden; and even then, actually operating the decoder was a puzzle in itself. Sure, the gnome’s plan wasn’t perfect (the players were able to read his notes in the end), but the situation is plausible. The gnome was at least trying to make things difficult.

#3. Unintended Solutions

It helps to imagine that the puzzle’s architect had no solution in mind at all; that the only way to solve the puzzle is to “break” it. Of course, you as the GM create the solution, but it should appear to the players as if they’ve discovered some flaw in the obstacle’s design.

In another adventure I ran, the PCs came across a large tree that they had reason to believe housed a hidden gate to Alfheim, the world of the elves. The elves, secretive by nature, had hidden the gate with a simple illusion that made the tree look and feel solid, even though there was in fact an opening in the trunk. However, there happened to be a pond nearby, and if any PCs paid careful attention to it, they found that the reflection in the water revealed the opening in the tree. Once they had discovered this clue, it was only a matter of experimentation until they had found a way through the illusionary wall. The clue was subtle and natural enough that the players felt as if the elves simply hadn’t accounted for the pond giving their secret away.

Along the same lines, you should definitely allow the players to progress if they find an alternative solution to the puzzle that you didn’t think of. One of the most memorable role-playing moments I’ve had came from such a situation. A snake-like monster with a human head and nearly impervious scales had challenged the players to a duel, and all they had to do to win was spill one drop of the monster’s blood. I had intended for this to be a grueling battle in which the PCs would wear down one part of the monster’s natural armor until they finally had pierced her flesh. However, one player came up with the ingenious idea to climb above the monster, wait until she was taunting the heroes, and then leap onto her head, causing her to bite her tongue.

#4. Incidental Puzzles

Sometimes a puzzle has no architect but comes into existence naturally. Perhaps the heroes come across an essential artifact that has been shattered. In order to use it, they need to find all the pieces and figure out how to put them back together in the correct arrangement.

Another version of an incidental puzzle is a battle with a foe that has a particular weakness or that inhabits an environment that grants an advantage to the players if they can find it. You can see a good example of a “puzzle battle” in this video by Drunkens & Dragons.

#5. Tests of Intelligence

Probably the only time the GM gets to use a stereotypical puzzle in an adventure and preserve believability at the same is if the puzzle is specifically meant to test the brainpower of the player characters. For example, the PCs may be trying to join a wizards’ guild, but they must first prove their intelligence by completing a series of trials.

Alternatively, the PCs may find themselves in a dungeon created by a madman, like The Riddler from Batman, who suffers an inexplicable compulsion to leave clues for his enemies. Or the PCs might be participating in a contest of wits, like the old “Challenge of Champions” adventures from Dungeon magazine (if you’ve never heard of them, look them up).

*  *  *

To sum up this rant, it’s possible to insert puzzles into an adventure without breaking the players’ sense of immersion. You simply need to pause and consider what purpose the puzzle serves in the game world and why it has a solution at all. Believable puzzles are not only fun for the players to solve, they also strengthen the plot and setting of your game.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking more about how to design effective puzzles and including more examples of successful puzzles I’ve used in the past, so stay tuned!

Short & Simple, Stupid

These days I’ve been getting back into Dungeon Mastering with a vengeance (that’s running Dungeons & Dragons adventures, for all you sad non-nerds out there). In addition to DMing for two different groups at the same time, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of helpful content put together by other awesome DMs (shout out to Drunkens & Dragons, The Angry GM, and Performance Check).

I started keeping notes to keep track of what I’ve learned, and I thought you, savvy reader, might want to learn along with me. Although I use 5th Edition D&D to run my games, these lessons should be useful for any brand of tabletop RPG.

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What you’re looking at up there is the aftermath of “The Clockwork Dungeon,” my latest adventure. I’ve gotta say, I’m darn proud of the rotating gear-based cipher puzzle I came up with for this one (you can see the decoder in the foreground), but if I ran this adventure again, I’d make one important change, which is the subject of today’s tip:

Keep it Short. Keep it Simple.

The Clockwork Dungeon was pretty short (about 4 hours), but it could’ve been even shorter and a whole lot simpler. The main map, as you can see from the photo, consisted of two large rotating rings connected by a dozen smaller rotating cogs. The scale of this place was daunting—it contained more than 20 rooms to explore (most of which held nothing of importance or interest to the players), and it was filled with over a hundred potential enemies. I say “potential” because most of them could be avoided as long as the players were cautious.

I expected the players to stealth their way toward the obviously important area in the center of the map, skipping past the stuff that was there just to provide context and atmosphere. The thing is, players (being paranoid perfectionists at heart) are inclined to explore every 5-ft square of your setting and over-plan every step of the way. Plus, even if they’re trying to avoid unnecessary encounters, there’s always the chance someone rolls a 1 on a stealth roll and all hell breaks loose.

Clearly, in retrospect, there was no reason to include all those rooms and enemies if most of them were supposed to be ignored. Several times throughout the session I had to nudge the players past the things that weren’t important so that we could get to the cool parts. So what was all that clutter doing there in the first place?

Quite simply, I got carried away. I imagined an immense clockwork complex tended by a swarm of automata. I designed the complex based on what its architects wanted it to be, rather than streamlining it to suit the needs of the adventure.

The truth is I could’ve condensed the whole shebang to maybe five rooms and a handful of enemies, and it still would’ve made sense in terms of the game setting. The players would’ve been significantly less distracted. Moreover, my prep time would’ve been cut at least in half, and the adventure would’ve been more balanced in terms of the campaign world. The players discovering that there’s an army of mechanical wonders nestled inside a nearby mountain has major repercussions for later adventures.

So here’s a summary of what I learned from this and other similar experiences:

  • Keep it Short. If your situation is anything like mine, your group can only afford 3-4 hours every other week. You want each of your players to feel like they had fun and accomplished something by the end of the night. Also, keep in mind that however long you think your adventure is going to take, it’s gonna go at least an hour longer than that. A good rule of thumb is to keep your plans down to about 5 scenes, encounters, or rooms.
  • Keep it Simple. What do you think is really cool about your adventure? Focus on making those aspects as cool as possible and throw out everything else. Avoid including content because you feel like it logically should be there, even though the players aren’t supposed to interact with it. I’m constantly surprised at how long players can get distracted by some random detail I included just to flesh out the environment.

I think keeping these two points in mind will save me a lot of prep time and help me deliver fun, fast-paced adventures from start to finish.