How to Build a Better Combat
Those that know me know I love a good scrum. Combat is a key reason I play roleplaying games. It is not the only reason, as I have never gotten the wargaming bug, so there is more to RPGs than the general mayhem.
When I look over my past campaigns and I think about the “Swing” in Savage Worlds, my views on how to build key/meaningful combats is evolving. For those not familiar with the term, Swing is the variance in results of in combat for an RPG. This results in less predictability about how an encounter will run. In a game with high Swing, your PCs might just roll Orcus in one fight then get pwnd by a group of Goblins in the next. In SW, Bennies help players alter the Swing, but sometimes the dice just do funny things. Towards the other end of the spectrum is D&D 4e. So long as players run their characters appropriately and the DM sets the encounter up by the book, the outcome of the fight is fairly predicable (ie, it would take an extra ordinary string of rolls to alter the outcome of a “typical” encounter).
Both 3e and 4e have very good systems for building balanced encounters. I think that is great for the regular combats that occur throughout the adventure. Where this system becomes a “crutch” in my opinion, is those key combats that define the adventure. In video parlance, these would be called Boss Fights. There is a tendency with this system in both modules and DM developed material to just have combat that is EL+4 (3e) or 4 Levels (4e) above the party average level. These are meant to be tough, memorable fights with the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). This is not to say that it did not happen in 1e and 2e. I remember making an “Orange” Dragon in 1e to throw against the party is a big fight. The Dragon has all sorts of magic spells. Problem was, it got slaughtered in about 3 rounds and none of the spells really mattered (which is why I do like 4e’s monster design which recognizes the fact that most critters will live about 5 rounds, so best to build the creature to do something interesting during that time). I am postulating that the tools built into the system reinforces this approach to encounter design.
So is this approach bad? Well, no. It is sound. But it is also not the most interesting. It is just a ramped up combat that really is not all that much different than any other combat. The critter might have something interesting (a beholder vs a giant), but what is about it. The ending of both my Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil campaigns ended this way. Both, in my opinion, was rather unsatisfying.
Two campaigns that I felt ended very well were the Eyes of the Lich Queen and Ravenloft. ELQ as written had a battle with a dragon, and then with a Godslayer (basically a mutant dragon that kills other dragons). As written, it was in an interesting location at the top of an old observatory overlooking an extinct volcano. But the fights themselves were just EL+x fights. So, first I changed the order (the Dragon was behind all the plot machinations). Then I made a mini-game for the dragon fight. They would fight the dragon on the wing, not on the ground. This was 3.5 rules and I did not want to get bog down in aerial rules. What I came up with was akin to doing a Dogfight using the Savage Worlds chase rules (I was Savaging before I ever saw the rules!). The PCs got to use all their powers, but the scene was fresh and not bogged down in heavy rules crunch.
In Ravenloft, I was using the scenario when Strahd was going insane. Undead do not have living minds and their insanity manifests as a physical monstrosity. I was running out of steam in the campaign. I really did not want to be doing delve after delve into to the castle. I even considered using Chase Rules in some way (like a Skill Challenge in 4e). But then I just decided to use one delve and get them the goal of freeing Strahd from his insanity. In my campaign, Strahd was a well respected person in his country, so killing him may not be the best option anyway. I really worked on making the final encounters about madness and horror. There was combat, but it was more to shape the scene than to be the solution. In my opinion, it really came off in a satisfying manner.
So where does that leave us?
In Savage Worlds, the focus should be on the story, not the combats (gasp, Jeff said what!?!?!). Do not read that to say less combats, but the focus should be on making the combats meaningful to the story. You can break encounters into two types – supporting and meaningful.
There combats add to the story in a tangential way. The goal of these encounters are not to be “challenging”, but to be interesting,convey information, and set a mood. This is where the the PCs get to shine and cut through hordes of extras. At the same time, the PCs learn something about the plot. For example, the PCs are looking for the Legendary Jade Monkey. When they get off the ship in Cairo, they are attacked by mysterious men in wearing black turbins. The encounter is not trying to drain resources or provide XP, but to put the PCs on edge that their mission is not going to be clear cut. The GM might have an incriminating item on one of the bodies to link to the next part of the adventure.
In many 3.x D&D adventures, you would have a large number of Supporting Combats to ensure the XP flows. Here, you only add the ones you need in order to build tension, provide leads, or deepen a mystery.
These are the combats that define the adventure. These are the 2 or 3 “boss fights” of the adventure that are designed to be memorable. Here is where we must be wary – the temptation is to make the encounter “very challenging.” That is fine, but the “very” part should require the player to think, not just “Go Nova”. This is where the MacGuffin comes in, the wildly crazy environment, the heart thumping chase scene, attacking the Achille’s Heal, etc.