Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How I run combat fast

My last session had a fair number of fights. Four PCs, one NPC, and one hireling fought:

- a multi-part skirmish with a bugbear*
- reeks (a kind of killer ooze), twice
- a clay golem**
- two giant black widows
- an unknown number of smaller black widows
- three bronze spiders*
- a bunch of orcs with a shaman and some killer apes and a summoned war boar.

That's seven times we needed to break out the dice (and sometimes the map and minis) and start rolling to hit, defense rolls, damage rolls, consciousness checks, and all the other rolls that make GURPS combat take a little while (but conversely, also make it verisimilitudinous and fun)

Yes, we played for about 9 hours that day, but the combats took up only a tiny fraction of that time. I think they spent more time overall working on the question of "what gear do we loot, and how do we get it back to town?" than on all of the combats together.

That clashes with the automatic assumption that GURPS combats take forever. Douglas Cole asked, how do I do that?

Faster Combats

First, I run combat for my vets the same way I run combat for new guys: basic, streamlined, and quickly.

1) 3-2-1 go. If people start thinking about what to do on their turn, I start counting. I don't count while they're moving around or describing their actions, just when they start lollygagging.

2) Simple Combat We mostly use the simplified combat rules from GURPS Basic Set: Characters, modified as I detail here. Briefly, 3 is max damage, no rolls on the critical hit tables, critical misses are a dropped weapon or a roll (depends on the circumstances, really), parries by 1 or more hit an unarmed attacker and do 1/2 average damage, etc.

Mostly, because some PCs really depend heavily on certain rules in order to be effective. So we use those rules. All of the expanded rules for two-handed swords from GURPS Martial Arts are in play, because otherwise the knight isn't nearly as effective (and not using them nerfs his character concept, of a bidenhander master). So are rules for reach (even when we're not using the map), long weapons in close combat (all of the front-line fighters on Sunday were long-weapon users), and a few others.

3) We don't use Extra Effort in Combat. I offered it early on to my players, but they passed on it, so PCs and monsters alike live and die based on their basic combat abilities. This dramatically speeds up combat. I've only played briefly with EEinC, but there were times I could see how FP expenditure bailed you out of a bad mistake to let you live to fight longer.

4) No Rules Lookups. We only nit-pick modifiers when it's critical to do so. You're crawling on your knees in the semi-dark armed with a knife and trying to fend off a bugbear? I pause and check the rules for crawling, quickly look over the modifier lists, etc. and figure out the real offense and defense penalties. But shooting your bow sideways in a cramped condition from a crouch? Uh, crouch penalties and let's just say you suffer Bulk penalties on the bow shot and he's about a -2 to hit away from you. Done. I'm right or close to right almost all the time. I don't get shy about reasonable rulings, either. Raggi is in close combat with a boar that's goring him the in the abdomen but he berserkly wants to chop down with his axe and hit the boar? Yeah, that can happen, call it -3 (half his close combat penalties for a 2-hex weapon) and roll. Look it up later if we think it'll happen a lot.

5) We use round-the-table initiative. If I win the roll, the NPCs all go and then we going around the PCs clockwise. If I lose the roll, the PCs go around clockwise and then the NPCs go. No worries about setting up an interlaced move order.

6) We use a modified mook rule, so unimportant NPCs drop and stay down. This means a lot of fodder types go down in one blow (the front-line guys can knock down most fodder monsters below 0 HP in a single blow with minimum damage).

7) Default actions. We use Wait with a default trigger (attack the next badguy to come into range) so you can just "Wait" and announce a trigger if you need a special one. I let anyone buy a Trademark Move. For monsters I don't get cute with their actions, and pre-write their attack routines and special moves. There is almost nothing to figure out when a turn comes up, because my players are helpful players.

8) We use the map. Placing down some walls and minis doesn't slow down fights, it takes away all discussion about who is where. This dramatically speeds up play, because the players can just look instead of asking.

Add those to the high skill of the PCs, so they can try some crazy stuff with a reasonable chance of success, high damage on their attacks, and their tendency (nowadays) to concentrate their attacks and stay close to each other for protection, and you get a lot of short fights (and this run-on sentence). Their badass levels of skill helps even more, because they're less concerned about a point here or a point there. Close enough is good enough.

All of the above took significantly longer to write, and probably as long to read, as the longest fight we had on Sunday.

That's pretty much how we run through lots of combat quickly.

* Both of these guys are from DFM1. The bugbears were mine, the bronze spiders were Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch's.

** In a move that would drive Jeff nuts, one of my players rattled off the AD&D 2e and 3e abilities of a Clay Golem, and announced how doomed they could be if I was copying those stats. I wasn't. Not for this guy, anyway. It was a heap of clay in seconds. It's funny to me when they recognize the monsters. It's funnier to me when they misidentify them, or identify their powers incorrectly.


  1. Are your players weary of long combats in the first place? Or is it that the thrust of you campaign is in delving deep and getting loot so you all see combats as checkpoints in a bigger picture?

    There are some neat points in here. I tend to have fewer combats, but when there is one around, I found that my players really enjoy every minutes of it. As long as they enjoy the journey as much as the destination, I guess we're doing alright.

    I am a little loose with NPC record's keeping, and uses pennies on their minis as reminders. I really should enforce the 3-2-1 method more, but as a tradeoff set the PCs up so that they can define default tactics.

    1. Good question!

      No, I don't they they're weary of long combats. They don't mind a long fight. We've had campaigns with multi-session combats (as in, we spent 2-3 sessions in one 9-10 real world hour fight!) that we still reminisce about.

      But I think we're all happier when each individual turn takes less time and what turn out to be inconsequential fights are quickly resolved. So the fights can be bigger and longer in the game, but take less time to resolve in the real world. We end up with more fights, and more tension and excitement, than if we take out time with them.

      If the fights were the end-all and be-all of the game, we'd turn the dials up to maximum and get rolling. But the combat is central to the game yet not the whole of the game, so getting more-or-less the same results in less time makes for a better game.

  2. "... verisimilitudinous..."

    This right here? This makes you my hero.

    1. Thanks. My browser thinks it's a misspelling but my dictionary disagrees. :)

  3. I'd like the use 3-2-1, but I find a lot of delay comes in players asking relevant questions while they choose a maneuver. About 10 sessions in now, they are getting their move sets down, and things are speeding up, but the issue is still players trying to make informed decisions. I told them to simply describe to me what they want to do, which works for some people, but not for others, as the multi-turn combos discourage some players.

    1. When it is a relevant question, I don't count it as lollygagging either. Fancy maneuvers in the end are these that makes the whole table roar with laughter once the dice are on the table: time well spent IMO.

    2. It's only an issue when people start mulling options, or start asking if-then question.

      "If I move here, and hit that guy, and then on your turn you move here . . ."
      "3, 2 . .. "
      "I move there and attack!"

      Not to mention the fact you have all of the time I'm moving the NPCs and all of the time everyone else has on their turns to think of what to do on your turn. Questions are okay, but sorting through all of your options and then weighing them carefully? No way, buy Enhanced Time Sense if you want to do that, it's a one-second time scale.

      You'd be surprised, maybe, how rarely I need to start counting. Last session it was once. Most of the time people have a pretty guy idea of what they want to do and a quick question or two, if that. Things move once there is a timer going, even if it's a soft timer.

  4. I don't think my GURPS group can do 3-2-1 due to the chat-based interface.

    1. What, you can't say 3-2-1 over chat? You must have a lot of lag. ;)

    2. It can take a bit to get the stuff typed up, though it's entirely possible to have text done in advance, and then when your turn comes up, just paste it in. I've tried to have my thing ready in the MapTool window, but I often have to nix it to roll a defense.

      We use an Out-of-Character chat window as well, and honestly, with both going, I miss stuff all the time. I can't process that way, and prefer the video-based gaming I do with Pathfinder on the weekends. There you CAN do 3-2-1 easily, since you can start going in real-time, and if you have a rules question or want to discuss plans, you can do that in chat while telling the appropriate string of Monty Python jokes and Star Wars/LoTR/Whatever quotes verbally.

    3. Well, I don't think you need 3-2-1 as an exact method. But giving people a very tight window for actually deciding what to do on their turn and declare it seems fair. Having played by chat, I don't see why you couldn't, say, give a short time before someone says "I'm doing a Step and Attack" and then more time to detail what that entails.

      This is especially true when you can macro out your entire turn - if you do that for most of your actions, state what you're doing and then act with appropriate haste to do it quickly, things can keep moving. My goal with 3-2-1 isn't to count down 3 to 1, but to push people to decide quickly and keep the game moving. If technical issues of trying to move the damn figure on the damn scree in Roll20 slows things down, so be it, but then it's on the players to minimize the other delays as much as possible.

      This is why I look so hard askance on things that need extra rolls, extra detail tracking, extra bookkeeping, and extra anything - they always add time, but don't always add fun time. I'd rather keep the game moving than just about anything else, because when it moves it's a hell of a lot of fun. So anything that slows it down has the high bar of "is this more fun than more action or getting more roleplaying or exploration done?" to jump over.


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