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Fight scene flow chart

We write a lot about combat in role-playing games. They’re a core part of most (but not all) RPGs, and deserve just as much narrative and gameplay consideration as any social or political scene. Not every combat should be of the same type, difficulty, or tone. But how do you decide what kind of fight to set up for your next RPG session? Until recently, I never gave it much thought — not until Aron wrote a post about one of my tactics — and I’ve been rolling it around in my head trying to figure out what I do.

So I’ve come up with a list of questions that I ask myself that let me gauge fight scenes and play with the tone and pace of combat, even mid-fight.

Questions to ask before a combat

These questions help me set up a fight scene. When I’m preparing to run a session in which there will be combat — or the high probability of it — I run through some quick questions so I know what my goals are and what tools are required.

Does the game need a tone shift?

How have things been going for your player party lately? Have things been tough? Are they staggering under the weight of their world-saving responsibilities? Did they lose the last fight? Have they lost an NPC they cared about? Now might be a good time for them to score a resounding victory. If the players need a pick-me-up, give them an easier fight, one that makes them feel powerful when they win with nary a scratch.

Or maybe things have been going a little too well, and it’s time to remind the characters of the deadly danger they face. It’s probably not a good idea to kill the entire party, but they probably need a good challenge about now, something that will require all their skills and resources, and where they’ll have to pull off some clutch moves.

Now, story tone isn’t binary. It’s not party-wipe versus being invincible. The tone and challenge of a fight scene is a gradient, but we can put some points on it to help conceptualize. Let’s use Near TPK, Pretty Tough, Evenly Matched, Easy Workout, Not Even Breaking a Sweat. If the last combat was Evenly Matched, then the next one should probably be either Pretty Tough or an Easy Workout. Now, I try to avoid jumping two spots along the track — like going straight from Evenly Matched to Near TPK — because it can be jarring. Sometimes we want jarring to shake things up, but also keep in mind that if we go all the way to one end of the spectrum or the other, it limits choices for the next tone shift. In a fight that’s Not Even Breaking a Sweat, I can only tone-shift down.

Whichever direction you move the tone of the story, no two fights should have the same one; after all, stories that don’t change become stale.

How long should the fight last?

Sometimes it’s fun to spend half a game session on a long and involved battle. Everyone gets to use all of their spells and powers, best moves and probably scramble for some healing.

But not every time — some sessions, it might be better to have a short fight that’s over in a couple of rounds. Just a little danger and spice to a scene, a chance to showcase a villain, keep a long journey eventful, or just give the group a taste of combat when things have been heavy on RP for a while. It’s good to make a conscious choice about the length and complexity of a fight scene.

Are there any powers that the characters are itching to use?

In many role-playing games, the player characters have unique powers that are (hopefully) enjoyable to use. Did the characters level up and are eager to try out their new ability? Has it been a while since the wizard got to throw a fireball or the monk got to catch an arrow? RPG fights are supposed to be fun; so if there are fun skills to use, give the characters a chance to use them. That might involve shooting arrows at a character who can catch them, clumping up enemies for a fireball, or beating on the highly armored tank character for a few rounds — even if you know that you’re unlikely to hurt them much. That’s what the players built their character to do, so give them the chance to do it.

Does the fight call for a new type of enemy?

Your game might have a central antagonist who heavily uses a certain type of minion — demons, naga, goblins, or something like that. While it’s great to develop a theme and flavor, it can also get pretty stale or even frustrating to fight the same creatures over and over and over again. The same moves, the same defense and damage; sometimes the same resistances or immunities. If your player characters are always fighting demons who are utterly immune to fire damage, then that makes a whole host of their spells and abilities useless. If every opponent is immune to mind control, a psychic warrior’s player might begin wondering how quickly they can roll up a new character.

That’s not to say that you should never make enemies impervious to certain PC abilities. Running up against the occasional monster who shrugs off tried and true moves will prompt the players to try something new. And there are always major enemies that need a few special defenses to ensure that they can stand up to the party for a few rounds without dying an undramatic death or spending the whole fight doing a silly dance because they failed to save against a low-level mind-control spell. It’s okay to use the same enemies more than once, but if you overdo it, things get stale again.

So shake things up. Make sure that your players face a variety of enemies across the battle map. Give them the chance to learn, adapt, and use the full array of their character’s powers.

Image: A huge lion-warrior brandishing a huge hammer as his tattered red cloak billows out behind him and embers fill the sky.

Is there some interesting terrain or combat event that would make things interesting?

Most fights can happen on more or less flat ground, rooms, or corridors. That’s fine, it lets everyone focus on their abilities and playing with them. But it’s worth asking if there’s anything in this combat scene that might make it more interesting. Restricted lines of sight, an aerial fight, traps, or weather can make things a little more complex. Does the swashbuckling character need some chandeliers to swing on? Does an acrobatic character need rooftops to jump between? Or what if some exploding barrels are inexplicably placed for PCs and NPCs to blow up.

I usually only do this one out of six or seven combats — mostly because I have limited ideas, and don’t want to use them too many times close together — but perhaps my recent combats have been too much alike and none of my other options are a good fit. Maybe I can’t use waves, bosses or any special opportunities to let my players use some great ability. But I can pretty much always make it rain!

When getting ready to apply the new terrain or combat conditions, put yourself in the players’ shoes for just a moment. Is this going to be so difficult or frustrating that it won’t be any fun? If the characters can never get line of sight on their enemies, things are quickly going to tip over from interesting to aggravating. If your changes to combat circumstances seem like they might be a little too much, just reel it back a bit. Instead of a hurricane, maybe a thunderstorm would suffice.

Do any of the enemies need to escape?

Most opponents placed on a battlemat are there to be killed or otherwise defeated. But every so often, we need some scout or recurring enemy to escape the battle. (Don’t do that too often or your players are going to begin frothing at the mouth, but escaping enemies can sometimes be a really great bit of story.) If the plot needs a combatant to escape the battle, have your escape plan ready ahead of time. Unless you’re a top-shelf improver — and I’m sure some of you are — it’s likely that you might have to pull out some heavy-handed tactics when the player characters corner your NPC.

Plan ahead, and get that plan moving when combat starts. That way, when it’s time for the enemy to escape, you’ve set things up properly.

What if everything goes wrong?

Role-playing games are unpredictable. That’s part of the fun, and why they’re different from books, movies and plays, video and board games. Players can — and will — make unexpected decisions, and the dice can always ruin their plans and yours. While we should most always plan combats for the players to win, enough failed rolls can unbalance the fight and put the player characters in serious danger. What if an enemy pushes a player character off a cliff and you expected that character to just teleport back to safe ground… but they already used that ability?

Maybe they fall to their death. Character death can and (usually) should be on the table during an RPG. That’s part of the stakes and that tiny tinge of real-world danger to the game. But do you want to risk that some bad dice rolls might wipe out the player group and end your campaign prematurely?

I always ask myself if I need a backup plan. Maybe taking characters prisoner instead of killing them, or some extra chances to catch themselves on roots jutting from the cliffside to halt their deadly plunge.

Most of the time, the answer to the question of wiping out your characters is no. Now, the number of failed rolls that it would take to put the whole party and campaign in danger is often so low that you likely don’t need to plan for it. But when pitting your player party against particularly dangerous enemies like dragons and gods, or setting the battle in a particularly treacherous bit of terrain — a flying carpet high in the clouds, a bridge over a pit of lava — maybe take a moment to consider some ways to let the player characters save themselves if the dice turn on them or otherwise just get too unlucky.

Questions to ask while running the combat

Preparing a fight scene is only part of the process. Then it’s time to run it, and there are always adjustments to make on the fly. Some of them are the same as above — has anyone not gotten the chance to use the cool move that you hoped they would? Maybe line up some enemies for a lightning bolt, or send the biggest monster on the board to uselessly chew on the armored cyborg for a round.

When the combat is in flight, you can ask a couple of questions to help you fine-tune along the way. Maybe at the end of each round, just run yourself through these ideas real quick — and I promise that they are actually quick! Practice a little and before long, it’ll be a habit.

Has the fight gone on too long? Is it too short?

This is probably something you asked yourself before the fight began, and balanced the battle accordingly. But it’s still an RPG, which means that things can and will turn out differently than you expected.

Maybe you planned a longer combat, but after a few critical hits and high damage rolls from your player characters, the whole thing is over before it’s properly begun. In some cases, that’s fine! Let your players have an unexpected and resounding victory sometimes. But at other times, the session or the story might call for a longer fight. In this case, I highly recommend bringing in a second wave of enemies. Reinforcements arrive, bringing the challenge level of the battle back up to where you want it to be. Depending upon exactly how long you want the fight to last and want it to end, read our Avoiding the wind-down post for some options on managing the difficulty curve of a combat.

The more difficult problem is when the fight has been going on too long. Maybe the enemy you selected is tougher than you really accounted for, or some bad luck on the players’ part means that they can’t land a hit and they’re on their last legs or spell slots. Now what? Maybe have the enemy surrender after they’ve taken enough damage to justify the change of heart, or retreat to lick their wounds. Or perhaps some allied reinforcements arrive as a second wave on the characters’ side to give out some bonuses that would help the PCs finish the villains off faster. You can always bring the monster back later to leap into the fray again — once the characters have another level or some new powers under their belts. There’s no shame or harm in trying again.

Which leads me to…

Is the enemy too weak? Too strong?

The length of a fight isn’t the only factor that can tip the balance of a combat in a direction that you don’t want to go. We all do our best to gauge the enemies that we place opposite our player characters, but sometimes the play balance just comes out wrong.

Misjudging the strength of the opposition is a common reason for combats to go sideways. Maybe the players just aren’t strategizing well that session, the dice have turned on them, or you just didn’t realize how much damage that enemy does to your squishy casters. Or perhaps the monster that you chose to be a challenge for the player characters is just going down like a punk and never going to make the impact that you hoped they would. Make sure to give the end of the fight a little punch.

How you handle that is up to you. Some Storytellers take the lumps and accept that things went wrong. Others might bring in another wave or give the boss a second stage, video game style. I’m a fan of abilities that trigger when an enemy is bloodied (D&D 4e speak for half hit points), either making them more powerful as they get hurt if I need them to survive a little longer or hit a little harder, or make things a little easier by weakening the enemy once they hit half health, losing special abilities as they take damage.

However you want to deal with an unexpected power difference mid-fight, it’s worth taking a moment to think about how this combat is going and if you need to change it. You’re not stuck with the combat you started with, and have the license and the ability to change things up mid-combat.

This is by no means a complete or exhaustive list to consider when putting together or running an RPG combat scene. Nor do you need to go through all of them before every single fight. Sometimes, it’s just fun to make up something and see it realized at your table. But if you’re running into problems with fight scenes, come at it with a loose flowchart like this — if X is happening, pause and whip up a solution. It works most of the time, but is hardly infallible. There are plenty of problems that I haven’t even thought of here! But one of the greatest things about role-playing games is that if you mess up a session, there will be another one later to try again.



Table-top gaming advice, how-to, and more from the RPGuides, Aron Christensen & Erica Lindquist. Updates every Wednesday.

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Erica Lindquist

Writer, editor, and occasional ball of anxiety for Loose Leaf Stories and The RPGuide.