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How combat can ruin the entire game

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Recently, @JohnnFour sent out his newsletter with quite an interesting title: This Ruined My Entire Game
I was instantly intrigued. He listed several personal experiences with bad combat. For those of you that don't receive his newsletter yet, for your convenience please find it below:

Szia Stephan,

I remember a combat so terrible it killed an entire campaign for me.
We were mid-level and crawling through caverns and twisty passages.
Suddenly, the GM demanded initiative rolls and we were in combat.

The encounter was terrible. It had no story or fulfilling purpose.
As with most bad combats, we were forced to fight to the last hit point.
And thanks to the crappy CombatScape and slow player turns, the battle took two agonizing hours.
That was time wasted accomplishing nothing.
The foes were dumb but had so many hit points we had to keep whacking until they went down.
Roll attack. Do damage. Move a few feet. Repeat.
And not just repeat once. Repeat for two mind-numbing hours.
So...we finally win....and…

...Moments later trigger another long, boring, meaningless, terrible combat!

I couldn't believe it. An entire session in the toilet because of unending slugfests.
I excused myself from that campaign and never looked back.

So here's the thing, I don't want this to happen to you. I don't want your players to quit out of pure frustration over terrible combats.

Instead, we want our players cheering and hollering and chucking their dice around with glee as each round gets everyone dying to find out what happens next (pun intended!).

Has this ever happened to you?

Has a combat been so un-fun that you felt like quitting?

If you have a moment, hit reply and tell me why it made you want to quit.

Cheers,
Johnn Four
Have more fun at every game!
This is just part one of many lessons you would learn in the Wizard of Combat workshop.
If you are interested, please see the whole announcement here.

So, I talked with Johnn about it a bit, and we decided to open a new thread to collect your opinions.

This was my answer:


Combat CAN be boring. But Combat can also be the best experience in RPs. It all depends on the GM and the players.

Even if I just shortly brainstorm, I find quite a list of reasons for quitting the game after bad combat:
  • Combat that is unavoidable
  • Combat that cannot be avoided later on (unintelligent monsters that somehow want to absolutely kill the PCs for no reason). Solution: humans etc. you can talk to and where motivation becomes clear, monsters/critters where motivation for fighting is clear
  • Whacking instead of fighting (without advantages that can be used, no tactics, no ideas, no situational stuff that can be used, unreasonable amount of armor and hp, hard to hit monsters and PCs)
  • Slow, uninteresting combat descriptions
  • Describing actions and visuals instead of all senses and impressions, stakes and fears
  • Players who don’t want to describe
  • Players and GMs who are totally uncreative
  • GMs that always say no
  • GMs that just love the NPCs or monsters more than the PCs
  • GMs that have not planned anything else than combat
  • Players or GMs that take too long
  • Players or GMs that take too long to look up rules
  • HP grinding instead of atmospheric rush of emotions
  • Monotonous moments
  • Endless monologues
  • Endless fights although the outcome is already clear for all (why doesn’t the GM skip this part?)
  • GMs who have totally misread the players’ interests and what they find fun
  • Unmotivated GMs
  • Players who rush through everything, often playing alone with the GM, not giving the others a chance to get into roleplay because they absolutely must reach the end boss in this session
  • Players who decide what other PCs are going to do
  • Players who’s PCs are “always prepaired as best they could”
  • Players who argue
  • Players who don’t want to immerse in the game
  • Players who don’t want to put their PCs into danger
  • Players who complain when their PCs get a scratch
  • Players who throw everything down frustrated when there is a little setback for their PCs
  • Players who always compare with other PCs and get easily frustrated
  • Players who are rude to other players or the GM (including swearing)
  • GMs and Players who expect and want only specific genres/moods/scenarios and are frustrated with anything else
  • GMs or Players who don’t talk about their feelings when there is something nagging them in other players' PCs (minmaxing, multiclassing, moral, roleplay, whatever)

  • But really, this is not limited to combat situations… this happens in all aspects of the game

I guess, I could go on for hours.
Of course, I don't want to quit the game.
But I think we as GMs should be careful to avoid at least most of the above points (unless of course your players like exactly that).

What do you think can ruin the game for you?
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
What do you think can ruin the game for you?
  • Handwaving
  • Committing to rules but ignoring them
  • Good rolls having no effects, not even a little bit of insight
  • Constantly going out of and back into character
  • Pointlessly discussing options and then nevertheless stumping in head over heels
  • Taking undue control of my or any other character
  • Preaching one way, living another
 

JohnnFour

Game Master
Staff member
Demonplague Author
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Handwaving
Committing to rules but ignoring them
These are a THING for me in my inbox right now. Several GMs are disagreeing.

And I'm trying to figure out how to clarify my position.

Some rules should never be handwaved.

As a player, I rely on rules to help me make plans and decisions. Otherwise, it's like those invisible "Cops & Robbers" games played as a kid that inevitably devolved into the argument: "I shot you!" "No you didn't!" Or the silly game Tonk from Black Company where the game is to figure out the game, and when you do, it's too late and you've lost.

For example, I responded to an email yesterday where the GM arbitrarily changed the paladin's ability to be twice as expensive (can only act every other round). The person I was talking with was very frustrated by this as it nerfed their agency as a player a lot.

I get emails from GMs who demand/expect the right to wave rules for sake of the story.

What I'm trying to figure out is yes, some rules can be left to GM fiat. Monster hit points, for example.

But some rules should never be arbitrary, even if it suits some story idea a GM might have, like class functions and action resolution.

To further complicate this, I do support house rules as a mechanism of clarification, to customize Settings to GM vision, and to tweak things groups don't like. And these are ok if presented at the correct moment - before they become a gameplay factor - or presented in the right way - social contract or my approach of group voting.

So I do not advocate for general, blanket handwaving of the rules, especially in combat where the stakes are life and death.

But I'm not yet able to succinctly convey this to others yet.
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
I get emails from GMs who demand/expect the right to wave rules for sake of the story.
The rules are a contract by which the game is played. Changing it one-sided is breaking the contract.

House Rules are a good way to amend that contract.
They should be made clear at a minimum and agreed upon by all involved in the best case.

That said, I can only recommend the following:

If you want to play a game where "Sake of Story" is premium, choose a ruleset that supports it!

I dislike advocating a specific ruleset only to trump the rules for whatever reason.
Be it "Sake of Story"
or "3d6 yield 'better' results than 1d20"
or "Away with fancy dice, I like d10s the most"
or "Ha, you cannot explain how you repair the hyperdrive?! Then you don't get a roll!"
or whatever...

For most such things, there are rule systems out there.
Please don't say you play X but ignore stuff whenever you don't like it, instead of just playing Y, which would support the way you want to play.

There are people who are not interested in the rules part of the game, but there are also people who are interested in that part as well.
I do like RPGs for all the different rules they come up with, be they simple or complex, story-oriented or simulation-oriented.
Ignoring that part is ignoring part of my interest.

Taking the GM Triangle as a base, you have System, Story, and Setting.
If I join a D&D 5e game, I want to play a D&D 5e game - not something weird you came up with without telling anyone.
If I join a game about cool spy action, I want to play cool spy action, not something about evidence removal teams.
If I join a Forgotten Realms campaign, I expect to play in that world - not in a world where the map is turned north to south and everything is rewritten in your way without being warned beforehand.

I think you get the point. State what you want to do and keep to it. Make house rules clear from the beginning. The GM is "just" another player with the broadest character (world, monsters, NPCs) but still someone who should play by the rules.
 

Morvar

Member
Wizard of Combat
Hey @JochenL
I can relate to all of your points. We have already talked about it.

Basically I fully agree with you, rules are rules and not for nothing there are hundreds of systems that support different systems.

But... And there is my problem. There is NO system that satisfies all the needs of all the people at the table. That is impossible in my opinion. At least if you don't have the luxury of having select players.

You know my style. In the background there are the clear rules, with all possible fields covered.

But then, at the table, there is what we know as dynamics. As GM, I read the game and, in the best case, I should be able to "read" how the flow is.

Sometimes it is then that I have the feeling that a rule is in the way or that a rule is missing.

Now I can just keep going and the flow breaks.... Or I try with all respect for the rulebook and the players to adapt the rule or introduce one to keep the flow.

Afterwards, of course, you have to talk about it.

Example: I have the feeling that there are too few opportunities for action in a combat round and I sense a certain frustration, boredom in players.

Solution : based on existing rules, I give the possibility to change this on the fly. Subsequently, I try to cast this into rules in consultation with players.

That's what you're trying to do now. Difference between the two of us. You do it only afterwards... And I do it already in the situation.

My behavior is, of course, in some ways an encroaching behavior. And breaks rules. That is actually NOT good. The thing is the.... I assume that the bond with the players is such that they know they can trust me and I will not disadvantage them in any way. But will also use this rule with NPC.

Is this a perfect solution? Nah...

But do I have much desire to learn a new set of rules for each group? If I can adapt existing relatively easily, by experience and knowledge to the group.

I fully understand your approach though.

Lg
 

hauke

New member
Wizard of Combat
I think as a GM I have to "obey" the rules for everything what I do with my npcs, monsters and stuff. The GM is THE person, that has to stand for the rules (what Jochen said "it's a contract").
BUT, when my players come up with a brillant idea and a rule stands in the way of doing that, why not go with the player? It has to be an exception and the player has to understand, that it is an "exceptional reward for the brillant idea". It's like in the films... in reality it can't be... but in the film it resuces the hole party from the bitting monster. So the "reality" are the rules, but they have to endure a bending now and then.

That's why I am playing FATE ;)
 

JohnnFour

Game Master
Staff member
Demonplague Author
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
These are all good approaches because I am hearing collaboration with players.

The horror stories in my inbox have three themes:
  • Pure GM fiat - no player consultation
  • Adversarial GMs - where it seemed the GM's definition of win was to personally win
  • Fate (no pun intended) - the GMs forced outcomes regardless of rolls or player actions
 

hauke

New member
Wizard of Combat
  • Fate (no pun intended) - the GMs forced outcomes regardless of rolls or player actions
okay, that is something I've never ever been faced with, and as far I know from my players (we do every sesssion a feedback round at the end) I don't do that either...
Fate has rules as every rpg, I have just far more options as a player and a GM to use the things on my sheet...
... sry it's just weired to blame the system

(and I'm also no pun intendending, just confused)
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
okay, that is something I've never ever been faced with, and as far I know from my players (we do every sesssion a feedback round at the end) I don't do that either...
Fate has rules as every rpg, I have just far more options as a player and a GM to use the things on my sheet...
... sry it's just weired to blame the system

(and I'm also no pun intendending, just confused)
I am quite sure that @JohnnFour is not addressing the system "Fate" but instead the concept "Fate".
I read his statement as "Whether the players roll this or that does not matter because the GM is doing their thing and blame it all to fate".
Fate as in "always destined to happen that way."
 

Morvar

Member
Wizard of Combat
Hey.
I can only conditionally affirm the assumption that a system is necessary to support a certain style of play.
My way of playing, and I'm sure @JochenL o. Stephan can confirm this, is characterized more by representational play than gamistic play.

In my rounds, some of which have been running for more than 20 years, a predominant style is also the rather story-heavy and representational.

Nevertheless, we have used GURPS for decades. I've adjusted rule parts here and there to fit the idea of the world, but never actually thrown the rules completely overboard or ignored them.

I've also played Fate, with @JochenL and it was fun.... But it's hard even for me to understand the rules. I find Fate 100000 times more complicated than Gurps. And in my rounds this is a common thread. Too much: You can do anything! Without a.... Maybe... Through socialization with certain ideas of rules.... Leads us to absolute frustration, confusion what makes the now characters special, because all somehow felt the same could.

This may be due to the fact that we play Fate wrong. Okay. But the claim of the game is that it should be rulelightweight.
But with us, no one was able to use it to full satisfaction.

We have since moved from Gurps to Barabarians of Lemuria. Then to Runequest and then to D&d 5e and found... Our basic problem is that there is NO system that supports one style of play. Or... Which of course can be... We are all just too ignorant... Ingrained... Or not able to use the systems properly..

Greetings
 

Morvar

Member
Wizard of Combat
Sorry for my poor English... IT May be, that some points are not good described because of the Lack of english
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
I suggest you take the discussion of the system "Fate" to another thread. I want to read and contribute your and my experience of that system.
 

JohnnFour

Game Master
Staff member
Demonplague Author
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Sorry guys. I even debated at the time on whether I should've used destiny instead of the pun there.

I definitely meant fate as in destiny, not the RPG.

@JochenL I have played FATE three times. One was enjoyable, two were not. The game seems to take players out of the fiction too often and into the meta rules. For example, we discussed for moments what we should call the benefit the GM wrote on a card resulting from the fiction. Too meta for me. :)

I would love to have you GM a one-shot FATE for me and explain the game. I suspect I just have not properly grokked this very popular game.
 
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