How to GM Dynamic Combats

Like most of you, I’ve run a lot of combats down through the years, from all sorts of systems like Rifts (and the Palladium universe), AD&D, D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Whitewolf and then a few smatterings of others. And one thing I’ve found is that combat is usually treated in a very regimented, organised way, which to my way of thinking tends to a) slow the game down and, b) take some of the excitement out of it.

Of course that’s not always the case, but I can certainly remember being a pc and having a mild sense of boredom set in during the long waits in between my go, and everybody else’s go, and then the bad guy’s go. Incidentally, I didn’t notice this very much when I was being a pc in AD&D, when our Dungeon Master seemed to go with the flow a lot, and rarely ever stopped to check for rules (he worked it all out according to his own mad logic — but it worked!). Unfortunately, as the D&D editions climbed, so the action started to slow — and (eek!) started to look a bit more like something out of a computer game, where you are all just trading blows at each other, whittling away Hit Points, until someone wins.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still had epic games during all that time, where I’ve laughed and screamed and cheered (no tears…I held those back…okay fine, there were a few). But still, I couldn’t help noticing that even when I GMed games (which later on ended up being most of the time), I found combats started to get a bit clunky, a little bit slower…and that the dynamism was missing.

These chaps look pretty dynamic.

Ah! Dynamism!

What do I mean by dynamism? I want the combat to feel like you’re right there! I want it immediate, fast, in your face and brutal. I absolutely love it when the pc goes to hit the bad guy, and the bad guy ducks, then grabs his leg, and they both end up on the ground, then the bad guy gets kicked away, only to draw a knife, there’s mud and blood in the pc’s mouth…he scrabbles for a dropped weapon, and whilst still on his back manages to just swing it over and parry, then kicks the baddie in the nuts…

I think you get the idea. To me…it’s awesome. They’re not merely trading blows for ages (though this could happen of course…it would just hurt). Why? I guess there’s a few reasons. One is that it’s treated like real life, and the rules reflect every aspect of that (so some games favour this more than others), and another is that the weapons hurt more. In World of Warcraft people smash at each other for ages, clicking their mice to death in a button-bashing slaughter fest (wow…what a sentence!). But in reality, if you got hit by a sword, without armour on, you’re going to be in a whole new world of hurt. So you’re likely to do something to try to wiggle you way out — you may not just keep swinging your sword when this is clearly not working! Nope. Time to tackle/run/push or whatever will keep you alive longer.

Like Real Fighting

It’s a bit like real fighting compared to some martial arts. I’ve done Tae Kwon Do for twenty years now, and a long time back I came to the stunning conclusion that the techniques we were shown didn’t actually work all that well most of the time. And in reality, people were going to throw messy bunches of punches at your face, they’re going to grab you, you’re likely end up on the ground (where you can’t kick or punch well at all)…and so on.

Not so likely…

Much more likely!

Anyway, with all those ideas bouncing around in my head for a while, I slowly and subtly started to change my combats, without ever fully realising it. Of course, it helped that I ended up making a whole new system. But of course, the entire point of making that system was to fit in with the way I wanted to play, and the way I wanted to push Tabletop RPG systems.

So How Do You Run Dynamic Combats Then?

I find it easier, faster and more fun to do a sort of free form of my combats and systems. And I do that across the boards. Describe the scene (loosely or in detail, but I usually make it quick, with enough detail to paint the picture for the pc’s and get them going “Oh geez I want live! Oh bugger that’s a big axe!”), everyone says what they’re trying to do from the descriptions, from there see if there’s any bonuses or penalties to initiative due to the circumstances, then roll for initiative to see who gets to act first. The GM can really arbitrate the finer points, and just makes sure the combat is going fast, intense, and awesome.

For example, in one of my games recently a pc was wielding a spear on the back of a flying eagle, against another eagle rider with a lance and shield (it was a pretty awesome game). From his Pilot rolls, he totally out manoeuvred the other eagle rider and got the jump on him. This gave him a big bonus to Initiative.

He dove onto the other rider, who was trying to evade him, and stabbed the poor bugger in the side, whilst his own eagle locked the other eagle in a life-and-death ball of biting and clawing. They started spinning and falling, the other guy lost his lance, and my pc kept up his stabbing with the spear, though it was hard due to their spinning, falling and flailing.

It looked a bit like this!

The other eagle died, so its rider leapt off and dove headwards in a pin drop, trying to escape my vengeful pc and his mad one-eyed eagle, who pursued…the poor NPC had no chance. Using Aeromancy (wind magicks), the pc flared the other guy out of his drop, and the nasty eagle chomped in, then tore him to bits… eek!

It was a really unusual combat, and it was absolutely dynamic, and flowed completely seamlessly.

Sometimes when I’m running games like this, I totally forget about Initiative…it’s just “you do this…wow, ok he does this! Now you do this…cool, he does this!” Always going with what just seems to be happening in the game — if there’s any problems, we just roll Initiative.

So what’s the point of it all? Use logic. Don’t follow the rules to exclusion of what seems like common sense. Common sense and flow are far, far more important to the game. And, ultimately give you what you’re looking for in an RPG: awesome fun!

To be perfectly honest, this is what our very own Immersion RPG system is designed for — complete flexibility. It represents the situation and the characters, and then allows them to do as they wish in that situation. So if they want to go for a chair leg or a biro…heck, no problem. If you’re interested in giving it a whirl, check out our free download page for playtesters. We’ve also got some exciting, brutal settings coming up soon (check out Infected!, a nightmarishly realistic vision of the zombie apocalypse here).

Enjoy your gaming!

Oliver R. Shead


Originally published at on December 20, 2014.