In this week’s DM Advice column I discuss one of the various ways in which a DM can bring the roleplaying back into gaming. This week I am specifically going to concentrate on how to run quick combats without the use of a battle grid or miniatures. I can hear you already “What, no minis? No grid? Why would I want to do that?” There may be some circumstances where you need to have a combat but feel that the foe is so outnumbered or outgunned by the party that there really is no need to break out everything.
Last night I ran into a perfect example of this. The party in Superdungeon had taken on an assignment to check out a Cyclops working for the Ogre Mage in the Small Teeth. The game is set in Amn in Forgotten Realms with some modifications due to the sundering of the World Stone. The party had just spent the better part of the day saving children from burning farm houses and burying dead wild elves and farmers that the Cyclops and his band had left in their wake. After a long day and sending the kids back with their cohorts the party decided to camp outside one of the farmsteads.
I knew three things could happen so I asked for a party watch order and a survival check. I had each player make a survival check that night. Their survival check determined the food that they were able to gather for the evening meal as well as what might happen that evening on their watch as I knew that the party was being watched by hobgoblins and kobolds from the larger group but did not want to actually pull out the figures and get into the nitty gritty.
The first watch had Vayne as a sabertooth cat and his animal companion, a tiger named Scratch on duty. They were able to bag a deer but they also were ambushed by some stealthy kobolds. Only one kobold got the drop on them and the rest were spotted. Instead of getting into what looked like four rounds of combat to showcase that they were being watched I told Vayne’s player to make six rolls -three for himself and three for his cat – while I made seven rolls, one for each of five spotted kobolds and two for the kobold with surprise.
One kobold hit with his attack as Vayne was flat footed and did a minimal amount of damage while all of Vayne and Scratch’s attacks hit. An additional one attack hit from a kobold. I then declared that they were easily able to overcome the kobolds and they looted the kobolds. During the looting they found master crafted weapons on the kobolds. Not something that one would expect to find. Later, the Bard Quinlan was able to identify them as Zhent weapons. The Ogre Mages were being reinforced!
The second watch had Sigrid the fighter (played by my wife) find a small pool and catch some trout. She easily spotted what she thought was an orc as it tossed a javelin at her with a natural 20. The hit did not confirm the crit and Sigrid returned the favor with a well-aimed shot of her heavy crossbow. Walking up to what turned out to be a hobgoblin wearing a strange tunic she finished with a coupe de grace. She noticed a strange symbol on the hobgoblin’s tunic of an orb which she identified as a beholder that had the hand of the beast-god Malar instead of a central eye. She also noticed Zhent master crafted weapons.
The next watch was Quilan the bard who was attacked by a dart. The dart had death adder poison and could have killed him. He did not see the attacker nor find any food to share with the party as the survival check was not all that great.
Finally, the rogue/mage had a watch and nothing eventful happened as it was nearing dawn. He did find some rabbits to cook though.
All of these encounters took maybe 20 minutes to run though with the players and I feel that because we did not waste a lot of combat time with minimal encounters the party was able to get the gist of what was going on, the Zhents were involved, as well as get the idea that they were being watched. The big thing was that I got into some detail about each skirmish as a whole rather than the blow-by-blow fist-a-cuffs that tend to emerge with combat in DND.
As you can clearly see, all of these challenges were done within the theme of the rules and by doing them this way I was able to cut a lot of time in what would have been kind of boring monotonous combat with only one clear winner. I always prefer simple and fun to long and drawn out. Next week I will discuss another method by which you can speed up the game through roleplaying versus rolling dice for every skill check. I hope you’ll join me.