Dealing with Disconnects: Cautious Combatants

May 30th, 2011

Sometimes when you’re running a game, you want to emulate a novel or movie.  Being unscripted, though, a game is a different sort of animal: the gamemaster may be the main storyteller, but he doesn’t have control over the protagonists.  This can lead to disconnects between the way heroes act in the “source” fiction and the way the PCs act in game.  One of the most common examples of this disconnect appears in combat.  In the novels and movies, the heroes charge bravely in, performing risky cinematic stunts.  They take chances.  They risk death in order to end a fight more quickly so they can get on to their ultimate goals.  They’re not necessarily foolish, but they aren’t cautious by any realistic standard.

In a campaign, PCs often act the opposite way in combat.  They proceed with great caution, looking for every possible piece of cover or other advantage.  They don’t use maneuvers that would cause them too many penalties.  They minimize risk in any way possible.

Conan, by Mark Schultz

One doesn't tread the jeweled thrones of earth under his sandalled feet cautiously... (Image by Mark Schultz)

Depending on your game, of course, this might be perfectly appropriate.  Many horror games encourage cautious play; in fact, heroic action sequences are out of place in many of them.  Games sometimes focus on surviving a dangerous expedition and returning alive, preferably with loot; a lot of old-school-style D&D campaign run that way.  Even superhero games have their grim survivalist variants, often “street-level” games based on heroes like Batman or antiheroes like The Punisher.

If you’re trying to emulate the cinematic air of a Conan or an Indiana Jones, though, you may need to encourage your players to have their characters take some risks.

One of the easiest ways of doing this is to institute a “fate points” or “luck” mechanic, to take some of the sting out of bad die rolls.  If your game already has such a mechanic, you may wish to be more generous with these points than usual; for instance, in 4e, you could allow Action Points to be used in new ways.  In Savage Worlds, you could hand out extra bennies for taking appropriately cinematic actions.  In the HERO system, you could give each character a free die or two of Luck that applies only to actions you, as GM, deem appropriately dramatic — or you could assign separate fate points to allow rerolls, or both.

It’s also important to look at die roll modifiers.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that holds a player back from attempting a cinematic feat.  In one of the Lord of the Rings movies, Legolas runs up onto an oliphaunt’s head and fires a point-blank arrow, killing it.  But imagine this act in a 3e game, where the GM ruled that the player had to roll Jump and Balance, with penalties, to pull it off — and then, since he’d moved, he could fire only one arrow, for normal damage.  Alternatively, the player could choose to stand still on the ground and make a full attack, firing three arrows, potentially causing three times the damage.

Why on earth would the player choose the flashy move?  The boring one is clearly far more effective.

In order to incentivize the risky move, the GM has to make it pay off for the player if it succeeds.  The greater the risk of failure is, the more effective a success would need to be.  If the GM wants his players to be doing such things, he might rule that the maneuver required a single check — say, Balance at -2.  On a failure, the PC would still get his single attack.  On a success, perhaps the PC automatically scores a critical if his attack hits.  He might even gain a morale bonus to his attack the following round, or grant a bonus to his allies who witnessed the feat.

Alternatively, the GM might dispense with the check altogether, and allow a flat attack and damage bonus for making the maneuver.  Without the check, there’s less risk here, so the reward isn’t as great — but it’s still significant.  The player isn’t placing his character at a complete disadvantage by attempting a cinematic maneuver.  If the oliphaunt is a hard enough target, it’s still “worth” giving up the two extra attacks the player would otherwise get.

The other important aspect of encouraging riskier play is to tone down some of the fear of death.  The threat of death needs to be part of the campaign, of course; there’s not much thrill in pulling off these grand stunts if the players are invincible.  The trick is to make death a possible consequence, but not a likely one.  The addition of fate points already helps to make a character death less likely, but as the GM, you can go further by giving the enemies a motivation other than outright murder.  Perhaps the villains choose to capture the defeated heroes instead of killing them.  After they’re beaten by that band of kobolds, they wake up black and blue and stripped of all their valuables — now they have to survive, make it back to civilization, restock, and come back for revenge.  The contemptuous villain sneers at their weakness and walks off, leaving his minions to “finish them off” — and the heroes overcome them.  They’re left for dead, but a helpful NPC manages to patch them up.  The villain bargains for their lives — he wants them to perform a service for him.  The villain doesn’t care about killing the heroes; after beating them, he warns them to stay out of his way in the future.

Reward a successful risk; mitigate the penalties of failure; lessen the risk of outright death.  Keep those three things in mind, and you’ll soon find your players less reluctant to take cinematic actions.

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Related posts:

  1. Heroic Effort
  2. Launching a Campaign: The Ground Rules Sheet
  3. Hacking Skill Challenges
  4. Dramatic Timing: The Action Cache
  5. The Lighter Side

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6 Comments

  1. anarkeith, May. 30, 2011, 4:02 pm:

    Great advice, thanks for posting. Motivating players to attempt actions outside the rules, or creative combinations is, I think, the solution to complaints about some current RPGs (I’m looking at you, 4e.) I think much of the disaffection with modern games (and thus the momentum of the OSR) stems from the assumption that the rules are the menu from which actions are chosen, rather than the framework that supports adjudication of possible action choices by the GM.

  2. Scott, May. 31, 2011, 4:10 am:

    I can say from experience that frequent and generous use of improvised actions is one of the key points that determines the feel of a 4e game. If you do it, the game feels like the old Basic D&D game did. (Or like 1e and 2e, for that matter.) If you don’t, then combat is tactical, but also feels rather mechanical.

  3. Sean Holland, May. 31, 2011, 12:14 pm:

    As you say, it does depend on the campaign type, but for action games, ACTION should be rewarded. Supporting your idea above, failure should be as interesting as success. Take the oliphant example, make the roll, get the shot kill the beastie. Fail the roll, get a haphazardous shot and be about to be stomped underfoot -unless- your friends do something cool, like riding in to rescue you or distracting the oliphant or whatever. As long as it builds more action.

  4. Scott, Jun. 1, 2011, 2:25 pm:

    Also a very good point. The consequences for failure can be just as dramatic and exciting as for success.

  5. Narf the Mouse, Jul. 23, 2011, 1:08 am:

    Just wandered in here from The Red Dragon Inn (they’ve got you in their links page); noticed you mentioned Hero. As I’m a fan of the system myself – Deadly Blow/Weapon Master, Only After A Cinematic Action would be one way to encourage more fantastic play.

  6. Scott, Jul. 25, 2011, 12:59 am:

    That is a pretty good approach to mitigating the risks in Hero.

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