Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hard Times

I have found since venturing online eleven months ago with this blog that there is a definite sentiment against combat in D&D. While I’m sure that most of those whose blogs I’ve read would steadfastly defend the importance of combat when it is necessary to move the plot along, this does little to balance off the subtle and not-so-subtle repeated statements that combat is boring, that hack-and-slash campaigns are boring, and that the game is markedly better when players concentrate on character and role-playing.

I agree with the last—I just don’t see why character and role-playing must be viewed as the opposite of combat.

I have been reviewing the combats in my world as of late, both online and offline, and I find that there is a distinct pattern—invariably my players get stuck into situations where the combat happens under difficult or unbalanced conditions.

I don’t know if anyone out there is familiar with the 1973 and 1974 films, the Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers. I have always enjoyed them, and in the last year had the opportunity to possess them in my library.

What is interesting about the various combats featured in the films is the ground on which they are fought. Richard Lester does not, until the very end of both films (they are essentially one long movie in two parts), have the protagonist and antagonist duel under convenient, direct circumstances. Prior, the swordsmen must fight amid hanging sheets, in a laundry, on an ice-covered river, atop a sieged, ruined wall amid gunfire, knee-deep in water and so on. One of the more profound scenes comes at the end of the first movie, where the two swordsmen fight in the dark, each carrying their sword and a bull’s-eye lantern, forced to flip on the lantern in order to see their opponent (while simultaneously exposing themselves in the process).

While the films suffer somewhat from film stock, lighting and camera limitations in accordance with 1973 technology (Lester was more ambitious than the instrumentation would really allow), the concept is clear: never, ever let your characters fight a battle on smooth, easy ground.

Whenever possible, cramp the space they have to fight in with obstacles—such as putting a small pond in a room, or an open hole. Have something break or shatter over the floor so that characters in soft boots cannot step without taking damage. Put your foes on horseback, or atop a long arduous slope the players must rush up in order to fight face-to-face. If you can think to do it, make the obstacle animated in some fashion, so that it is changing moderately over time.

I can give you an example. Two months ago my party fought a polar worm within an ice castle. The worm was dormant, not at all present, when the party entered the castle as a means of getting over the slit pass through the mountains. Everything on the castle walls was rimed in clear, blue ice. This suggested that the ice had been melted repeatedly, then allowed to cool and freeze in perfect transparency. But no one in the party guessed immediately what that might be (to be fair, none of them supposed for a moment I would throw something as nasty as a remorhaz against them).

From the central courtyard, none of the surrounding towers had doors. Each entrance snaked away in a tubular corridor, which again did not tip off the party (there was much head-smacking afterwards). As the party explored a method to get up into the tunnel, presuming it might lead them up to where they could seek means to the castle’s far side, they noted that a thin rivulet of melted water was beginning to run down the inside of the tunnel.

What was happening, in my imagination, was that the remorhaz had awoken, and having done so moved from a dormant, cool state to a heated, active state. This I played out as the ice around the remorhaz melting and running down the tube from the top of one of the towers. The players were mystified.

As the remorhaz warmed, the ice melted at an increasing rate, so that the stream at the bottom increased in size. But since it was moving on ice, all the party could detect was that there was something big moving above them (no sound of claws or such, as the worm would “slide”). It wasn’t moving quickly I reasoned, and the water flow increased to six inches wide.

Meanwhile, a pool of icy water was forming in the middle of the courtyard, a few feet wide and inches deep to start, but growing larger. The remorhaz paused, still not where it could be seen. Water now began to rush out of the ice passage. When the remorhaz finally showed itself, there was quite a lot of it.

At the same time, the walls surrounding the courtyard all began to sweat when the remorhaz stepped into the open. This too fed the central pond. During the combat, the party had to contend with the ice surface they were walking on (much falling down), as well as the growing inconvenience of an enlarging pond that made it harder and harder to move around the periphery of the courtyard. The remorhaz, of course, had no trouble at all moving directly through the pond whenever it wished.

I didn’t plan all this. I actually had described the castle’s ice covering, pretty much on the fly, before thinking what the effects might be of the remorhaz moving about above them. That is what a DM has to do. Create an environment which suits the monster, not the players. It isn’t just a question of traps—it is a question of having the whole environment one of inconvenience, difficulty and threat. One wrong step and the player is off the edge, his foot is wedged between rocks, his magic sword is skittering across ice or lost under the snow, unreachable for several rounds, the precariously stacked barrels are about to fall if the big monster backs against them one more time, the ruined ceiling can’t support the web thoughtlessly cast, the pelting rain is turning to hail, night is coming on, the fog is thickening, there’s no way to stab the enemy on this dew-glistened moss without potentially slipping down the hill, there’s no room for a halberd, the sunlight is blinding after a week underground, we’re all sinking inch by inch into mud, this fetid pond smells so bad my eyes are watering, everyone has been made deaf by the explosion, the smoke is so thick I can’t tell friend from foe.

Watch your players role-play when they must struggle against all the elements just to reach the combat, then struggle against all the elements to retreat again. Watch as it brings out the best in people and the worst in people, as it becomes more than their ability to roll a d20 in order to hit…when they will take damage if they remain where they are from the heat, the magical gloom or DM knows what else. Expose the bravery, expose the cowardice. Expose the character.


Anshelm Helbelinc said...

Whatever my character's actions might indicate, I definitely found myself agreeing with your points. Good post.

The battle with the remorhaz sounds like it was epic. I never got to sic one of those on my players.

Alexis said...

Definitely epic, more so in that the remorhaz had 263 hit points (for 8 HD). It was the first application of my size/hit points per hit die methodology.

Thing fought like a barn door in the wind...I've never rolled so badly in my life. But it worked out very well.

Badelaire said...

Great post. Those two Musketeer movies are some of the best fight choreography in the history of film, in my opinion. Wonderfully imagined, no two fights alike, and done in a "realistic" but still "cinematic" manner. Not an easy task to pull off.

And your game example - also great. Nothing like introducing natural elements in such a way that a textbook "take on the big bad monster" scenario gets turned on its head.

Alexis said...


Richard Lester was a brilliant and mostly ignored director.