[DSA/D&D] How to stage a really exciting battle?

Started by Rimke, February 25, 2008, 03:02:11 AM

Previous topic - Next topic


For 18 years I've played DSA now, which is a rule wise a kind of D&D (though I might offend DSA players by saying that). At first we played everything by the book. In dungeon chamber #whatever was monster #VeryScary 2 with hit points #TooMany and if in a fight it turned out the heroes were eaten by the monster then they were dead and had to create new characters.

Later on we changed our style. Now characters can be stupid and weak and still not lose the fight. All is focused on "Role Playing" which means that even the fights are staged. The GM cheats so no one dies and the heroes save the day at the very last moment.

This also doesn't satisfy me, all suspension is gone, every body knows we are going to win somehow, and nobody is going to die.

Some people say it is just finding the right amount of monsters against the heroes and then play a kind of strategic game. I disagree. The best strategy for the GM (and also for the players by the way) is to single out one opponent and destroy that first. I will give an example.

5 warriors against 5 orcs, both have 10 HP and do 5 damage.

The warriors are stupid and attack each one orc and the orcs are evil and attack 1 warrior at the time until he dies and then focus on another.

First round:

Orc1: 5HP


Second round:


Warriors: All dead!

Moral of this story, focus all attacks on one opponent and you'll be more effective. In my experience players will do that when their lives are in danger (usually they'll start out with each one foe though). But it will be unacceptable for a GM  to behave in this kind of way, because a player will feel it is not fair to his character at all.

My question to all of you is, how do you create a really exciting battle in these kinds of RPGs? Do you cheat with the dies? Do you let characters die because of bad luck? Do you always punish "stupid actions" And how about "stupid actions" that happen because the player is just playing his role as a "naïve enthusiastic 16 years old" very well?

Eero Tuovinen

Well, my solution at the time was to write 200 pages of house rules to fix D&D. It worked, surprisingly enough, perhaps because I'm not the worst designer on this earth at all. Stuff like focusing attacks on individual characters to kill them quickly can, after all, be worked around in a bazillion different ways, beginning with the loss condition: if being out of the battle does not equate death, it's not a problem to begin with if characters fall in battle. Another solution is to specifically give characters abilities that allow them to control the flow of battle, so as to avoing monsters ganging up on them; the fighter could, for example, use the terrain to force the monsters to attack him first, or he could even have some ability to attract the monsters away from other characters. Alternatively, you could attack the strange and unrealistic assumption that orcs will just gladly fling themselves to death by indiscriminately focusing attacks instead of acting in a manner that leaves each individual orc some chance of self-preservation; that's how real people fight, after all, and if the rules-system of D&D does not support actually protecting yourself, then the rules need to change.

Barring that kind of rules-modifying, my solution is to move towards genuinely challenge-based play wherein character death is celebrated as the highest stakes at the table; the player has to be able to choose it, but when he does, the death is never insignificant. Traditional roleplaying games too often recommend a kind of paralyzing DMing method that forces the DM to take control and responsibility for more and more of the game process, coming to head with the notion that the DM is responsible for character welfare. If you allow players to make genuine choices with real information, they can be the ones responsible for the life and death of their characters, instead. That solves most of the problems witha that play style.

Of course, all that first requires that the group has a coherent creative agenda. Often enough the first problem in this kind of fantasy adventure game is that the players are expecting all seven kinds of different experiences from the game. One player might be patiently waiting for the GM to lead the game into situations where his character can be a great hero who saves nations and slays monsters, for example. From what I know of DSA, it might be quite possible to play years and years of grim, deadly adventures with the impression that the real heroic, dramatic stuff is just beyond the corner. If that's what a player actually wants, then tracking back towards real challenge is actually counter-productive - that player really will get his character killed in the process of roleplay, perhaps "sacrificing" his life to "save his comrades", which seems to be the highest point of drama a drama-seeking player can reach in a traditional adventure game when the group is not actually looking for dramatic plots with heroic characters.

But if the group knows what they want, then it's not that difficult to give it to them by simply changing the GMing methods used. If the players know what is likely to happen to their characters if they go into that building, and if they have genuine options that include not going into the building, then it's not a problem at all if the five orcs in the building would probably be the death for the whole group in a heads-on fight; after all, they chose to risk it themselves by going into the building.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Quote from: Eero Tuovinen on February 25, 2008, 04:15:21 AM
Barring that kind of rules-modifying, my solution is to move towards genuinely challenge-based play wherein character death is celebrated as the highest stakes at the table; the player has to be able to choose it, but when he does, the death is never insignificant. Traditional roleplaying games too often recommend a kind of paralyzing DMing method that forces the DM to take control and responsibility for more and more of the game process, coming to head with the notion that the DM is responsible for character welfare. If you allow players to make genuine choices with real information, they can be the ones responsible for the life and death of their characters, instead. That solves most of the problems witha that play style.
group in a heads-on fight; after all, they chose to risk it themselves by going into the building.

I'd like to discuss this idea, because I agree with it, but I think it is less easy than it sounds.

At the end of an adventure in DSA there is usually some kind of "End Battle" between the villains and the heroes. The heroes have little choice in this, unless they'd like to be cowards. Still this battle should be exciting, it should be the climax of the adventure where the heroes beat the villains. The best possible scenario would be that the heroes defeat the villains at the very last moment and win the day. But what are the real changes of that happening if you don't cheat as a GM? In my experience they are next to 0. Or the foes were to weak and defeated easily, or they were to strong and you have to intervere to not get everybody killed. Mind you, you could of course give them opportunity to flee or die, to give them a choice, but the frustration in my party would be high when I gave them an end battle in which they were not able to achieve a victory after a whole adventure of hard work, no matter how well they planned. What are the chances of a really exciting battle when you leave all up to chance? I think they are pretty slim. The solution might be that you cheat (which we used to do), but then it is not fair at all to let a character die.

I hope I gave a better idea of my problem. I am not sure there is a solution, some people in my group don't even need one. They feel tension even when they know the GM will cheat things so that everything has a happy ending. But one of my friends and I (who DM the most (we change DM every adventure are a bit unsatisfied with how things are going). We would like to a game where you have a "Heroic Death" as you described, where a dead means something and is not just a bad piece of luck. But I am not sure how we might achieve such a thing.

Eero Tuovinen

Well, the heroic death I mentioned was actually me bitching about semi-play that happens when players don't really get what they want from play. I always felt that the heroic dressings the GM gave to a character when he died in some meaningless little adventure were like unto bones thrown to starving dogs to placate them when the GM himself was more interested in the grim mood of his game.

Anyway, that's not pertinent. What might be is this blog posting of mine, which some have considered useful. Check the accompanying adventure as well: it's not written very carefully, but it might help you see how a climax battle like you describe can be set up: my adventure does not presume that the climax will happen in the first place, because such a battle will only be possible if the players choose to take an adversial stance against the NPCs and monsters in the scenario. The adventure might happen in ways that sidestep the battle at the climax, or the climax might happen and the characters die in it; if the players were really grogging the idea of the game, however, they wouldn't be frustrated by dying in the hands of Nifur the giant, as the death would happen as a consequence of their own choices and their own decision to risk death in a situation where they could have chosen other paths, instead.

However, all that might not be pertinent for your group; from what I'm reading between your lines I understand that your group would like to have lots of plot and exciting adventure, with perhaps less hardcore stakes than the method of play I'm describing here. So maybe another tack is in order here: have you considered the simple solution of running the rules exactly like they are, with no cheating, but redefining the death condition? I'm not familiar with the details of DSA, but if it's as traditional as they say, then it should be pretty simple to just declare that the condition the game calls "death" is instead just "incapasitated", with the character too tired and wounded to continue fighting, but able to be revived in a relatively simple manner after the battle. This way you don't have to pull your punches when fighting, and the group isn't really suffering anything, unless they all die in the battle. And even then, if this train of thought works for you, you could just take it one step further and just stop putting lethal combats into the adventure. Just stop, it's that simple. If the heroes fail to stop the rampaging monster, have it lose interest and continue going wherever it was going in the first place when the heroes attacked it. If the heroes fail at stopping the evil mastermind, have him capture the heroes and throw them into the slave pits, from whence they can then escape. If the heroes fail to stop the evil demon from escaping to the wilds, then have them live with the consequences; no need for the demon to eat their still beating hearts then and there.

Other than that, changing the rules is still my first and best solution, perhaps because I love fiddling with rules. I'm reminded of a D&D variant I saw somewhere once wherein you could "raise the death flag" for your character in a given fight to gain temporary extra power, representing character motivation or whatever. Normally characters would always survive combat along the lines of that last paragraph, but if the death flag was raised and the character was defeated, well, he'd at least get seriously maimed if not outright killed. This way the player could choose which battles are important enough to risk death and glory be, heroic death starts to abound! It's not that difficult to make sure that characters can still die heroically, you just need to give up the control over it and let the player make the call on when death is appropriate.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Oh I just cheat and lie.  There is a fundamental problem in this kind of "final battle" thing, which is that really we want the players to win.  We want good to triumph over evil.  And if the battle is REALLY fair and even only evenly matched, the odds are at least 50:50 that evil will triumph over good.  Even if the "good guys" do win in the end, they will probably only do so with significant losses.  And that means that rather than a final scene with Bruce Willis limping out of a burning building and gathering his loved ones together for a cathartic hug, you end up with characters mourning over the dead - and thats IF they even win.

So you have one of two choices - either the fight is for real, with all the anti-climactic, anti-story results that this implies, or the fight is fake, with an essentially guaranteed outcome, and doing it is a primarily a matter of stage-craft and storytelling.  Having chosen the latter, I see my job as convincing the players that I could have/ would have killed them, more than any thing else.  Its all about creating that impression, and nothing else.

Probably the best purely mechanical approach I have seen is that in 7th Sea, in which opponents are organised in 3 tiers from minions to henchmen to proper villains.  Realistically, even henchmen are not likely to actually kill PC's, although they will probably inflict some damage.  And what this means is that you are only likely to be killed by a proper villain, and thus such a death has more meaning than simply a bad run of the dice.  If you gert taken out, it's most likely by the Big Bad, and at least you can go down knowing you went down heroically and at the hands of serious and important opposition.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


I once brought up the subject of meaningless character death to a fellow player and I really like his answer, which was that no death has to be meaningless even if it wasn't heroic at the time. I'll give what I think is a great example from D&D inspired lit: In Dragon Lance, when Tanis Half-Elven, hero of the War of the Lance, dies by being stabbed in the back during a struggle with an unnamed evil knight, nothing happens. No one was saved by his sacrifice, no one was motivated by it, but it changed the tone of everything, and for the readers who has known and loved Tanis, it meant the world.

If your willing to let the game meander off the action movie path to addressing questions like how the other player's character's feel about their friends "meaningless" loss, there could be a wealth of significance in the event.

Peter Nordstrand

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
     —Grey's Law

Eero Tuovinen

Das Schwarze Auge, a German roleplaying game akin to low-fantasy D&D. I'm mostly familiar with it because my brother translated a computer game based on it into Finnish several years ago, and because it seems to be a point of common experience for our German roleplaying friends.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Alexander Julian

My group is currently doing a high fantasy style game and we had some of the same problems. Our goal was to recreate anime style epic fights with all the climaxes and still have tension with no dice fudging.
Here's what we did.

Got rid of all our old systems and used a severely hacked version of seventh sea. The gook, henchman, villain mechanic works really well for emulating heroic combat. The final villain is always given stats as slightly weaker than the Hero's. Thus giving them more than 50 percent chance to win. Yet not so weak that there is no tension or that he'll die easily. We've taken out any type of critical hit so it takes a good few blows to kill the big bad guy anyway.

So the question becomes. What happens when they don't win?

Well they don't die unless they want to. Zero hit points means being removed from battle.

If everyone is removed from battle then they still might have won, but at a terrible price.

So in case of having lost say, a player can choose to sacrifice himself and die in killing the big bad guy. No roll required. Dramatic death scene.

Or if they loose they might survive but their failure has meant the big bad guy has gone ahead with his evil plan and destroyed a village, killed a love one, whatever. So vengeance against this act becomes a priority. They seek him down and fight again and so on.

All of this was after ages of trying to emulate heroic fiction with traditional systems and realising that 'no' you can't have both tactical challenges and a dramatic dice roll that beats the big bad guy and saves the day.
Since player death might not be on the cards we had to think of something else they'd loose if they failed.


Kevin Smit

The battle I ran that my players enjoyed the most was a kind of "end boss" style affair.  The characters had decided to disrupt a ritual being conducted by some nasties in a hidden city under Las Vegas.  They decided to do it by summoning a very powerful being aligned with their interests.  Of course, summoning the being required a good bit of work on the characters' parts, so when it was actually show time, I went the extra mile in putting together a description for the event. 

You might try increasing the scale of your combats.  Often GMs will limit the size of combats in order to control how long the battle takes.  Having to roll for 4 baddies isn't too bad, but rolling for 7+ baddies and 4 allied NPCs to boot can get onerous, especially if you have to look up rules for special actions along the way.  Instead, determine the actions and consequences of NPCs outside the main fight by fiat and only roll if something directly affects a player.  This allows you to factor in many more participants than would otherwise be possible.  You can have a bigger battle raging in the background while your characters take actions which affect the final outcome.

In acting there's a saying that goes, "precede every statement with an action."  In roleplaying, turn the statement around.  Take no action without saying something first.  Don't let one swing of the sword or one twang of a bowstring go just by saying, "ok, you attack, roll.  16?  Plus 3...  Nope, you missed."  Spice it up.  Good descriptions are the stuff of good combats.

If you can make it work, try running your combats in simultaneous action.  Have each character announce their action and make the appropriate rolls in initiative order if the system calls for it, then put it all together in one description of what happens.  So instead of going from player to player and making mini descriptions at each stop (snoozefest), synthesize it all into one big action-packed description.

Some of the discussion so far centers on stakes.  I've always been of the opinion that character death should only take place if the player desires it or the player has been intentionally stupid.  System rules for taking a character out of a fight instead of dying sound good to me, but my players have always said that they enjoy the threat (or illusion anyway) of the possibility of character death.

Hope some of this helps.

Evan Anhorn

I think it really depends on the rule system in question.  I play Hackmaster most regularly (I'm not sure why there is so much angst about old school D&D on this board - it is a lot more complex than people give it credit!).  Hackmaster's style is to be all about the highs and lows, ups and downs, and its those lows that make the good times so good.  When you KNOW there is a good chance for your character to be horribly maimed and/or killed in combat, it feels -really- good when you turn the tables and beat that bad-ass monster.  For example, the most exciting battle for my players in the campaign so far was last session (they chatted about it endlessly after the game).  In that battle, the fighter ran up to engage the Trash Ogre, only to be accidentally shot in the ear by friendly fire coming from the magic-user's bow.  The fighter collapsed to the floor flailing in pain (the magic-user crit'ed him and he failed his threshold of pain test), while the Trash Ogre looked down at the fighter in disinterest, walked up to the Pixie-Faerie thief (who would normally be safe behind the fighter) and back-handed her for a one-hit player kill.  Poof!  She turned into pixie dust.  It was a stunning turn of events, but all the players were floored by the results (even my girlfriend, who very suddenly lost her beloved pixie faerie).

For other games, this may not be a strong theme, but it really works well for Hackmaster and indeed makes for the best combats I have ever played.

Kevin Smit

It's partly system, but only insofar as system supports particular GNS divisions.  For players with a Gamist focus, character death can be seen as a natural consequence of Stepping on Up.  You win some, you lose some.  You can't play a game and expect to win all the time, or it's not a challenge.  The thing is, since the character is simply a vehicle through which the player can compete, the details of the character don't much matter.  Character death may even be seen in some circumstances as a way to retune the character's "build" for a more effective playing piece.

Players with sim focus may be more apt to be concerned for their character's continuity if the world element or theme they're primarily interested in is somehow unique to that character.

For players with nar interests, character continuity is almost essential.  It takes a critical mass of play time with a character before the moral choices that character will make become valid for reinforcing the player's play experience.  In this case, character death can effectively deprotagonize the character.

The system may well encourage or require that you play the game in a particular way, so it can exert influence in that fashion.  Character death might not be the best choice of phrase though.  Really it's about character continuity; whether the character is out of the game temporarily or permanently.  Games that have conventions in place for coming back from death (resurrections, rules for "disablement," or clones a la Paranoia) can ease fear of character death.

It seems to me that this forum was created partly as a response to the market not supplying games that fit some players needs, so if you perceive that some games get "bashed," it's because you're visiting a gathering place for those who are disaffected by the games that control the biggest share of the market.


Quote from: Eero Tuovinen on February 25, 2008, 09:44:45 PM
Das Schwarze Auge, a German roleplaying game akin to low-fantasy D&D. I'm mostly familiar with it because my brother translated a computer game based on it into Finnish several years ago, and because it seems to be a point of common experience for our German roleplaying friends.

More information at the wikipedia.  I know Fan-Pro LLC did an english version, because I have it somewhere.
Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.

David Berg

I've had some success with the GM keeping things "just on the edge of manageable for the characters".  This thread contains an illustration of a really exciting battle, though it wasn't with DSA or D&D rules.  Check out replies 3-6 and 14 on the first page.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Hi all!

I recently GM:d a campaign for D&D called "Age of Worms". It consists of 12 parts of which we played the first 11 in a rather relaxed manner, skipping a few dungeons and doing only the interesting fights. Then suddenly, about 8 months after starting it was time for the final fight. I was a bit concerned since I realised that a lengthy fight with lots of dice on the table would not be very exciting. I came up with a solution and I was not really sure it would do the trick until after we played it. Here is what I did:

I prepared a few sets of written instructions (we were four players on the final session) and randomly selected the first player to receive one. It would be to lengthy to include them here but this gives you the rough idea:

Player 1 instructions: Unfortunately the enemy is too tough, right at the start you will be seriously injured or killed as narrated by you, but you will help your comrades bravely, or alternatively you flee the battle or take a similar action that will condemn one of you comrades to take the blow for you.

Player 2 instructions: (player 1 decided to flee) Unfortunately you take a sever hit since player 1 decided to run, and you have to narrate how this happened or if you have another idea with similar effects that does not interfere with the actions of the players who have not acted yet. 

Player 3 ... and so on.

It took some writing, but all choices taken by the players lead to stopping the big bad boss, just in different ways and with different outcomes for the players.

I had a pretty clear idea of which player I wanted to start and what would happen, but thankfully I decided to let the dice determine the order which in the end gave a much more exciting story of the epic fight than what I had imagined. After the fight I let all players take turns and wrap up the story of their character and how they would be remembered long after the cataclysmic events took place. It turned out to be a very rewarding way to end the campaign.

Essentially I learned the following:

  • Randomness is interesting, it may generate amazing stories
  • Fights can be really exciting even when only focused on narration

And finally a personal note: of course you beat the bad guy, the story you want to tell is how you did it (or really did it) and how it is remembered.