Game Master tools: Keeping combat challenge level right

Here’s some further musing on a SJG GURPS Forum post I just made. The question: How to keep “challenge level” right for PCs going into combat – not so easy as to be dull, but not so deadly as to litter the cave with PC corpses?

The question was posed by a D&D player just starting to GM GURPS, which makes it a particularly good one for him to ask; GURPS combat can be much deadlier than D&D players might expect, leading to that cave-floor litter. But it’s a good question for any GM to ask, new or experienced, whether changing game systems or not.

Whatever the game, the right level of challenge is something you have to learn to eyeball. That’s true even using D&D’s “challenge rating”; that’s a guideline, best tempered by the GM’s experience and his knowledge of the PCs’ capabilities, fighting tactics, etc. Just as important is environment: whatever a “challenge rating” number may say, a “weak” foe suddenly becomes terribly deadly when given thick armor, a powerful missile weapon, a well-defended ambush position, and so on. The experienced GM adjusts for that, but the beginner (or harried) GM might not.

Ideas to keep them entertained but alive

Two bits of advice for the wary GM:

1) Sample combats! Run lots of example combats, for your own education and the players’. An out-of-campaign, deadly battle for learning purposes is a good idea, whether using the PCs (death doesn’t count here!) or other sample pre-generated characters. It’s only fair that players later begin the actual campaign with a feel for how combat works. (Unless the PCs are meant to be completely inexperienced in fighting, that is, in which case tossing the players into a new game’s combat system without experience sounds about right. : )

Once the game starts, a “light” combat or two – barroom brawl, non-lethal tournament combat, etc. – is also a good idea before the campaign brings on the deadly fights. Foes won’t fight to the death; weapons may be blunt or even padded; etc.

2) GM contingency plans! For the real fights, fake a proper challenge level with secret contingency plans, pre-planned or on the fly. Take a dungeon encounter: If you’ve misjudged things and the PCs are going to win the night’s showpiece battle without even sweating, have reinforcements rush in from the caves. Or throw in a sudden earthquake that lets the monsters regroup (while also opening up an interesting new tunnel, so it looks like you planned the event all along : ). Or to use an example from a game of mine: the beleaguered Ogre breaks off its melee attacks and climbs up to a fallback defensive spot, a high ledge not easily reached by the PCs, where it has a ready supply of rocks to hurl.

(Tangent: On the other hand, sometimes the PCs should steamroll the competition; gotta have some of that, too.)

Things are a little harder when you’ve misjudged and the foes are winning. As a contingency plan, be ready with a reason why the victors would capture instead of kill the PCs. “Questioning” or “ransom” are good excuses for human foes. “Eat later” and “save as sacrifice to gods” are classics for monsters. Or let a monster be scared off by a mysterious huge roar just as it’s about to deliver the death stroke to a PC; that’s the bigger monster you had planned for another encounter (or just made up), drawn by the sound of combat. (That Balrog may have caused Gandalf some trouble, but prior to that, he saved the whole Fellowship from the Orc horde!)

The RPG challenge

Let’s face it, we GMs have one big disadvantage compared to book authors. They get to write every combat or other encounter to just the right nail-biting, made-it-by-the-skin-of-the-teeth specification. We GMs, who let rules and dice have a say, don’t get that luxury. To generate tense life-or-death excitement, we have to give combat the genuine possibility that PCs might die – with the huge drawback that, well, PCs might die. (That’s sometimes, but not often, fun.)

Unless you play a pure “let the dice fall where they may” game, you’ll have to respond with GM metagame tricks. That isn’t everyone’s style, but I don’t knock it, especially for a beginner GM; a game with too-hard or too-easy challenges is dull (or short).

I like “hero point”-type systems for helping PCs achieve “just made it” feats like book characters, but that’s imperfect too; too many hero points can just end up feeling like “I can’t lose”.

Faking GM die rolls is another classic tactic with a gloried history; sometimes, it’s just gotta be done. But it can look too obvious (“Um… I’m going to make this roll behind my screen… Wow, the dragon missed you again, you’re still alive!”) and rob the players of that “we did it all on our own” sense of accomplishment.

So my favorite tactic has always been to adjust the encounter on the fly, as required to keep the challenge right. Done right, flexibly adjusting the encounter doesn’t look like GM meddling – and regardless of how the GM fudges things, PCs still satisfyingly overcome the obstacles by their own doings, not by dice trickery.

Wrap

All the above is wildly obvious to most GMs, but if you are a newbie, place those two suggestions into your mental toolbox: sample combats to create realistic expectations, and flexible encounter adjustments to smooth things over when expectations and luck go wrong. You can never have too many tools!

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