Medieval Knights Engaged in Combat

What’s “stand and deliver”? I’m glad you asked. Stand-and-deliver combat is the style of combat still used by most RPGs, D&D being the most well known. PCs roll initiative, take an action on their turn,* then repeat. Most of the time, that action will be to attack the enemy. Each round represents a few seconds in real time. Participants have a pool of abstract hit points to represent their physical health. The vast majority of combat is spent in one spot, delivering damage to the enemy. Hence, “stand and deliver.”

The Problems With Stand and Deliver

Unfortunately, for a method that’s so common, stand-and-deliver combat is remarkably bad. One of the first complaints experienced gamers start making is how boring combat is. This is worse in some systems than others, but it’s nearly universal. Combat is referred to as “slow,” “a slog,” or “impossible to understand.”

These combat systems don’t create any interesting tactical choices, and they certainly don’t help tell a good story. Consider Delta Green, one of the less terrible systems in this category. Characters who get into a fight will almost always stand in one place and shoot at the enemy until one side runs out of hit points. The GM or PCs can narrate that their characters are more active, but according to the rules they’re standing still. That’s terrible for an atmosphere of desperate horror, which is what Delta Green is trying to create.

Worse, none of these systems know what hit points actually represent. In Delta Green, a rifle deals 1d12 of damage. On a 12, most humans will instantly die. On a 1, it’s nothing. So is a low-damage roll supposed to represent a graze? If so, shouldn’t that be more contingent on a character’s skill? A better marksman should be better able to put their round in the target’s head or center of mass, but with the rules as written, a death shot is just as likely as a minor cut, no matter how good the character is at shooting.

If your group actually enjoys stand-and-deliver combat, then you’ve no need to read further. But for everyone else, don’t worry – I’m here to tell you how to make combat in these systems fun.

Throwing Out the Rules

The sad truth is that stand-and-deliver rules are always bad. So your first step when trying to make this kind of combat fun is to throw out most of the rules. Initiative rules, damage rules, movement rules: all of it must go.

The only thing you’ll be keeping is whatever core mechanic PCs use to take actions. In Delta Green, that’s the percentile die roll, trying to get equal to or under the character’s skill. In Legend of the Five Rings, it’s the Skill+Stat roll with d10s. You’ll need this core mechanic so that the PCs can interact with the world, but the rest is history.

A final consideration for throwing out the rules is what to do with abilities your PCs took that are useless without the system’s combat mechanics. Improved Initiative doesn’t help much if no one rolls for initiative. To keep players from feeling like they’ve wasted their points, I recommend granting them a bonus to their core roll whenever one of these abilities feels relevant. Improved Initiative would certainly be relevant if your PC needs to disarm a ticking bomb before it goes off.

This might sound scary at first. How will you handle combat without all those rules to support you? Don’t worry, I’ll explain how. Those rules weren’t actually supporting you anyway. Instead, they were forcing you into a bad dynamic of play that has survived almost unchanged since the first roleplaying game. Time to move beyond them.

Choosing a Mood

Before you can do anything else, you’ll need to decide what mood you’re going for in this combat. A near infinite amount of possible moods exist, but for roleplaying combat, these three come up most often.

  • Dramatic Action: The default for most blockbuster films. Bullets fly everywhere as the protagonist jumps their motorcycle over an exploding tank. Starfighters fill the sky, arcing in elegant and deadly loops. Swords flash in the morning sun as master fencers clash on the field of honor.
  • Gritty Bloodsport: Death and gore central. Monsters tear people limb from limb. Heavily muscled mutants carve through flesh and body armor alike with terrifying claws. Living alien tanks explode in showers of acidic blood.
  • Horrific Realism: Combat that’s as close to the real thing as you can feasibly make it. People with minor-looking wounds die of shock or blood loss. A grenade leaves combatants on both sides with permanent hearing loss. Swords inflict terrible wounds that never heal right. There can be dark comedy here, because real combat is darkly absurd, but the horror is primary.

Sometimes the mood is obvious from the system. In Delta Green, nearly every fight should be horrific realism. In A Song of Ice and Fire, gritty bloodsport is the default. In other systems, the mood will be less obvious. Legend of the Five Rings can feature dramatic action when two honorable samurai meet on the field, and gritty bloodsport takes over when demonic armies rise from the Pit of Fu Leng to feast on the living.

It’s also possible to blur the line between moods a bit. Perhaps you want a combat that’s mostly dramatic action, but you plan to wink at horrific realism by having a minor NPC die from an infected wound. Whatever the case, figuring out what mood you want is paramount because that mood will flavor everything else you do.

Making a Plan for Your Bad Guy

Next, look at your party’s opposition. What do they want, and what can they do? This assumes that it’s not a PVP fight, because PVP is its own can of worms.

Determining the Bad Guy’s Objective

First, know the opposition’s objective. In most cases, you’ll want to make it something other than “kill the PCs.” Killing the PCs is an objective that usually can’t be achieved without doing critical damage to your story.

Instead, give the bad guys an objective they can succeed at. Perhaps they want to steal a vital piece of gear or demolish a fortress the PCs need. If the villains succeed sometimes, it will make them far more threatening. That will enhance everyone’s enjoyment. If you really want a goal where the bad guys tries to kill the PCs, save it for the climax of a major story arc or somewhere it’s actually feasible to lose a protagonist.

For example, if you’re planning a game of Mage and want the Technocrats to attack the PCs’ sanctum, first consider what the Technocrats are after. They might consider it a bonus to kill some mages, but their main objective shouldn’t require PC death. Perhaps they’re after the reality node at the sanctum’s center.

Factoring in the Bad Guy’s Abilities

Next, look at what the bad guys can do. Consider how they will use their abilities to accomplish their objective. Plan it like you are the villains’ leader, and their objective is your objective. If the bad guys can fly, they’ll probably make an aerial attack. If they have primarily ranged weapons, they’ll attack from a distance.

Your goal here is not to defeat the PCs but to create enemies that act like they’re trying to defeat the PCs. Your players will notice if the bad guys are pulling punches, and resentment will build. If you can’t imagine the PCs winning, then reduce the bad guys’ strength.

How your bad guys use their abilities will depend a lot on the mood of your combat. In dramatic-action combat, those abilities will be flashy and obvious. In a horrifically realistic fight, the enemy will almost certainly try to gain the element of surprise.

For example, let’s say you’re preparing a Delta Green scenario where four cultists need to get inside a fortified compound and kill a witness that the PCs are guarding. The cultists have spells that let them phase through solid matter. You decide their most likely plan would be to approach the base as stealthily as possible, then walk through the walls of unoccupied rooms to reach their targets. You also realize that there’s no way the PCs can hunt down four cultists who can walk through walls, so you reduce the number to two.

Planning for Your PCs

Now it’s time to repeat the last step, except with your PCs.

Consider the PCs’ Objective

Sometimes you won’t have to wonder what their objective is because they’ll tell you. If they say, “We’re assaulting that hill so we have somewhere to set up our catapult,” then, congratulations, you know their objective.

Other times it won’t be so easy. Your PCs might tell you, “We start a fight with those guys” and then say nothing else. This could be because they’re using the default objective of “we fight until one of us is dead,” or because they don’t realize they should make their desires known.

Either way, you can have trouble. If every combat is a fight to the death, it’ll get boring quickly. And if you don’t know what the PCs’ objective is, you can’t facilitate it properly. Ask your players what they want to accomplish with this fight, and take some time to let them figure it out. For example, let’s say you’re running a Legend of the Five Rings campaign, and the PCs are planning to assault an enemy castle. Their ultimate objective might be to capture the enemy lord alive or burn the castle’s grain silos. Make sure you know which it is ahead of time, or you might not remember to include their objective in the battle.

If the players can’t agree on an objective, it’s fine for them to pursue separate goals. Half of the party might want to capture the enemy lord while the other half is set on burning the grain. The players should understand they’re not all trying for the same objective and not expect the rest of the party to back them up.

Another situation where it’s difficult to know the PCs’ objective is when you’re planning an ambush. You don’t want to spoil the surprise by asking in advance. In this case, consider how the bad guys’ actions are likely to endanger something the PCs care about. If the enemy fleet drops out of hyperspace above the PCs’ homeworld, you can be fairly sure the party’s objective will be to defend their planet.

Accounting for PC Abilities

The PCs’ abilities will also feature heavily in combat, and you’ll want to plan a fight where as many PCs as possible get to do something useful. Sometimes this is easier than others. It’s easy to make combat skills matter in a fight. It’s harder if a PC is mostly invested in social or mental abilities, but it’s still doable. Perhaps a diplomat’s persuasion skill will be useful in convincing bystanders to assist, or perhaps a scientist’s chemistry skill will be mandatory for countering the enemy’s deadly acid breath.

Remember not to stage a fight that the PCs can automatically win, unless you think they really need a self-esteem boost. If one PC has the ability to control metal, the bad guys shouldn’t be entirely made up of androids or else you’ll be in for a boring scene.

In my previous Legend of the Five Rings example, if one of the PCs has high ranks in the Battle skill, you might make the castle’s defenses formidable. Next you might consider how another PC’s fire spells will affect the combat, and so on.

Creating Turning Points

Now you’re at the stage of actually running the combat* and not just preparing for it. You threw out the rules, but you still want to roll some dice. So when are you supposed to roll them?

The trick is to focus on turning points in the battle, moments in time when the tides of fortune can shift to favor one side or another. Each turning point should require a roll with clear stakes. If PC Shawna succeeds on her sword roll, the enemy general is wounded and must retreat. If she fails, she takes a wound and must pull back. Alternatively, if you want the enemy general to retreat no matter what happens, PC Shawna’s roll can be to determine if she manages it without taking damage. This isn’t whether or not a PC with high ranks in firearms can hit the enemy, but whether they can take the enemy down before a grenade is thrown.

You’ve already considered how your PCs’ abilities will affect the fight, and now it’s time to put that into practice. Any powerful ability can be used in a turning point. PCs with a high sword skill should have the opportunity to clash blades with a formidable enemy. If your party contains an ice mage, stopping an avalanche makes an excellent turning point. If a PC has absolutely no abilities that can realistically affect the fight, that’s fine too; make their turning point an internal one. The gun-shy newbie might have to roll willpower to keep from breaking when the enemy attacks. This still gives them a moment in the spotlight.

Sometimes your players will helpfully provide a turning point for you. If you describe the enemy charge, and a player says, “I raise a wall of earth to block their advance,” then you have a turning point ready to go. Facilitate these turning points whenever possible so your players will feel more involved with the combat.

Ideally, you’ll want at least one turning point for each PC participating in the conflict. If you like, each PC’s turning-point roll can be in support of a roll for the overall conflict. PC Luther is leading his squad into battle, so you can save his tactics roll until the other PCs have faced their turning points and then assign Luther bonuses and penalties based on how everyone else did. It also works fine to make each turning point independent of the others. This makes them a series of smaller objectives within the larger fight. Don’t worry if one character gets more spotlight than the others, especially if that character has an ability that’s critical to winning the fight. Give the other PCs a chance to shine later.

There’s no hard number for how many turning points there should be in a given fight, but I’ve found that three is a good place to start. Fewer than that, and the fight doesn’t feel very big. But the battle shouldn’t take too long. That’s why you threw out all the rules earlier. Six or seven turning points is the most you’ll need for all but the most epic of fights.

Narrating What Happens in Between

You’ve gotten the hard parts out of the way, so now all that’s left is to narrate what goes on between turning points. This is when it’s most important to know what the mood of your combat is. If you describe a horror scenario like a dramatic-action scene, you’ll damage the game’s atmosphere.

Keep your description on the short side. Three or four lines is usually the most you’ll ever need. More than that and the players will lose interest. This limit is flexible for those who are really good at description, so use your own discretion.

Your description shouldn’t require any rolls, at least not until you threaten something the PCs care about. You can narrate the enemy shock troops blowing a hole in the keep wall, but if they’re going to kidnap a PC’s true love, you should be prepared to roll dice. If a PC ever interrupts your description with “hang on, I want to stop them from doing that,” then you know it’s time for a turning point.

Once you’ve gotten to the final turning point, it’s time to narrate the combat’s end. Describe the enemy retreating in disorder if your PCs have done well or standing victorious if the dice have been cruel. That’s it; your job for this combat is done. Time to move on with your story. Throwing out the rules and doing this yourself will feel weird at first, but I guarantee it will lead to a more positive experience for all. There’s a good chance you’re already doing it to some degree, and you just need permission to go all the way.

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