April 6, 2010

The Rest of the Turn

At the core of every mainstream RPG game is the combat/conflict turn; an organized system for allowing characters to resolve their actions. One of the major problems, however, has been that when it’s not your turn there is nothing to do. Over the years various systems have addressed the issue with varying measures of success. 4E has gone a long way to maintaining a player’s interest in the combat round when it is not their turn, but there is still a lot a good DM can do, regardless of the game system being used.

In the early days, a combat turn consisted of the player taking his turn alone. To oversimplify it, monsters paired off against their opponents and the two bashed at each other until one went down. The only choice to be made was which monster to attack and which one to attack after the current one went down. Sometimes you had to reassess your target (if one monster was deemed more threatening during the course of the battle you might switch targets) but by-and-large once a decision was reached very little changed it. And honestly, after several fights in a row, why should they pay attention when it’s not their turn. There is little to no payoff for paying attention.

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Along came attacks of opportunity which allows a character to take an action when it isn’t his turn, but it is dependent on the movement of a monster. This requires a player to pay attention during the enemy’s turn beyond simply listening for how much damage his character took. It caused players to become more engaged when it wasn’t their turn, but if they were not in a position for an attack of opportunity (adjacent to a target) they could again zone out.

4E introduced a series of immediate reactions and interrupts. Now a character could do something on anyone’s turn, party member or enemy. An enemy hits, you can do something; an enemy misses, you can do something; an ally hits, you can do something, etc. There is a wide variety of triggers for these immediate actions depending on class and flavor.
This causes players to pay attention during an entire combat turn. They know if they “zone out” they will miss an opportunity. Players now have incentive to pay attention when it’s not their turn, as there is a “payoff” for doing so.

Taking this concept of keeping the attention of players no matter who’s turn it is, there is a lot a DM can do is this regard. In almost all cases this involves changing the environment of a battlefield during the course of the fight. Changing the environment requires the players to change their strategies on a round by round basis.

Monsters are one easy way to do this. 4E monsters are able to set up zones with affects. It might be an area of darkness for extra concealment or a damaging cloud that hurts anyone standing in it. When these come into play a player has to react and change his tactics or let his character suffer (though this is also a form of conscious decision making). As soon as a monster changes the battlefield the players at the table start planning their next move. They are no longer able to use the plan they set up at the start of the encounter.
Non-4E monsters can also be used in this manner. Start giving your monsters from other systems abilities that can change the battlefield. Be careful about putting the characters into a position where they will be forced to suffer from the change as it may be unbalancing. Make it more of an area to avoid; something they can choose to suffer but are not forced to.

Along with monsters a DM can alter the environment on his own, irrespective of the monsters. Earthquakes and tunnel collapses can make once safe areas unsafe or at the very least difficult to move through (each turn make a check to see where-not if-there is a collapse). Lava bursting up out the floor can turn areas into places of danger and damage (each turn make a check to see which square suddenly erupts). Flooding water can cause its own problems. Magical traps can do just about anything a DM might want when it comes to changing the environment. The idea here is to present the players with changes during the fight.
One of the best encounters I recently ran was one wherein there were several pillars spread throughout a large room. The group had to fight several monsters and each turn a magical effect had all beings within 10 feet of a pillar randomly teleported to another pillar. Each turn the battle changed. The players had to readjust their strategies as far as what to kill, who to bring aid to, etc. The players were fully engaged the entire fight. They weren’t just making die rolls every turn; they were making decisions every turn.

Don’t just rely on a game system to keep your players busy during a combat turn. Write encounters that require decision making each turn. Add monsters or special effects that change the battlefield. Give the players a reason to pay attention.
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