I recently ran a game that had a far too long and not fun combat in it. The party size is a little bloated, and I had planned out a combat with lots of combatants (mostly mooks who got taken out very easily, but a few actual threats) that became very un-fun. The mooks didn’t get creamed like I expected, one character decided he wasn’t going to participate in the combat based on character reasons, other characters didn’t make the most of their multiple attacks, some rolls went awry, the main baddies got taken out by a sacrifice play early in the scene, and the combat just went on longer than the players or I wanted. We pushed through and finished out the combat but I kept thinking there were ways and reasons to end it sooner. So here is what I’ve come up with.
1. If the combat you are running is no longer fun, for any reason, and there isn’t a reason that it is necessary to finish it right, then end it early.
Ok. We’ve all been there before. For some reason, any reason, the combat just isn’t catching the players anymore. There are many reasons that a combat could turn un-fun. It could go on too long, it could provide no challenge to the players, the gaming session might be at the ending time and people are anxious to leave, etc. If it isn’t fun, and you can’t find a good reason to keep it going, then end it early.
2. End it on a good note
While you should end a non fun combat early, you don’t want to abandon it without resolution. The players will feel more cheated by that, than by having to finish out a boring combat. Just saying "Hey, this isn’t fun, let’s move on to the next thing" won’t usually cut it, even if the players are bored out of their skulls. If you find yourself wanting to end a combat early then work it into the story, change the dynamics, or provide some appropriate exit. However you do it, do it without letting the players know that you are doing it. One of the Game Master’s best tools is actually looking like they planned whatever they improvised. Even if whatever you changed was pulled out of your ass, make it look as planned as possible.
3. Tweak a factor of the enemies to make the combat quicker
In the system that I run the easiest way to make a combat quicker is to lower the hit points of the enemies. In another system it might be making the enemies easier to hit. Find whatever factor of the system you are running and, if possible, lower it. Yes this is fudging. It’s the same as intentionally failing a saving throw. Make sure not to do this with something visible to the players. If the players see that a 15 that didn’t hit an enemy before hits now, they’ll feel a little slighted. Don’t worry if you’re group isn’t into this, there are other ways to change a situation.
4. Enter stage left – Exit stage left
Introducing some new element that is designed to interrupt and end the combat quickly is fairly easy. A new combatant might appear and take out some of the enemies that the PCs are having issues with. A sudden de-railing of a nearby train may make enough chaos to end the fit. If your new element fits into the story, excellent. You might even set this up as a just in case element beforehand. If the combat becomes un-fun you can trigger the element and interrupt it, if it doesn’t then nothing happens. If you do this, make it look planned. Have some reason for the NPC to be there, or for the train to derail. Roll some dice before you do it to give the impression that there was a random chance it happened. If you can’t find a way to fit an element like this into the story then make it a complete non-sequitur. A mining crew might break into a dungeon that the PCs are exploring. It will be a WTF moment, but it will seem less forced than other deus ex machina might.
Rather than bringing a combat interrupting element into a fight, you might arrange some way for it to be an exit creating element. A sudden change in the dynamics might have the PCs running from an overwhelming force. Enemies might run because they realize the PCS are an overwhelming force. Some element coming from off-stage might make the escape possible.
5. "Shit, I miscalculated."
If you really need to ditch a combat, you can always ask one of the player’s a question about the damage they did on their last attack or pull on a puzzled face and ask for a moment to look over something. Once you’ve done this, and brought up in the Players minds that something isn’t quite right, you can then proceed to end the combat. "Sorry guys. I miscalculated this guy’s saving throw. You actually got him with that last attack." I don’t recommend fudging of this level unless it is necessary to end a very un-fun combat.
Ok, free bonus on this one, because it just popped into my head.
It’s the classic way to defeat the un-killable enemy in any movie. Blow it up. Very few things can survive a great big explosion, and boring combats have no immunity. If you can introduce the concept that an explosion could occur, then the reason to fight goes away. Maybe the self-destruct was activated and the PCs have a reason to run. Maybe the villain springs an un-encountered trap and massively decreases their own hit points. Maybe there just happen to be an errant grenade rolling around on the battlefield. You can trigger an explosive to seemingly defeat an enemy, but have it provide the ability for the BBEG to make an exit. The key to this tactic is in how you introduce the explosive into the combat. Make it look realistic and make it look planed.
Remember, un-fun combats can happen. Watch for player cues to see if a combat is dragging on or becoming tedious. Changing something on the fly is always tricky and sometimes hard to justify as a GM, but an un-fun combat can prevent you from getting into something truly fun farther on in the game. So, have you ever had this situation? How’d you get out of it?
Good suggestions, but I had a GM once cut off a boring combat in the middle by introducing another group to help us out. I have to admit I felt cheated of my kill.
So, when I was the GM and the combat started to drag, I’d roll about half the combat, them describe the other half to the players. There are some things I learned doing this, though.
First, players like combat for the cool, Matrix moves they can do. Combat needs to go on long enough that they get their chance for something really cool.
Second, the combat needs to go on long enough that everyone knows what the outcome would be. It’s generally pretty obvious by about halfway through whether the good guys or the bad guys will succeed and how they do it. So, after everyone figured out what would happen, I stopped rolling and just described the rest.
Third, I wouldn’t recommend this for a new group. I did this only with an established group and only after we had talked the situation over. The players had been involved with each other long enough that they knew what they could do, so it wasn’t necessary to act it out every time. For that reason, they were okay with me cutting the rolls short and just describing the final outcome.
@ Protohacker: I’d never, ever recommend narrating the rest of the fight to the players. If you’re going to go that route, let them do the narrating, and only if you’re sure they want to (ie ask them).
@John: your list is solid. Now can you go back in time? I need you to tell my old DM how to spot when his players aren’t having fun (having side conversations, playing games on cellphones) so that he doesn’t run an 8-hour combat that causes me to give up his game in disgust.
It’s so very easy to get sucked into detailed combats and just keep going, even when it’s not fun. I had that experience a few months ago, and wrote about it in pacing and transitions.
Options 2, 3, 4 and 6 are pretty much the same thing, I think. They all come down to tweaking the encounter, and they’re the best options, I think. This cool fight on a rope bridge has gotten boring? The rope bridge snaps. Now the fight’s over, but there’s an obstacle to overcome. Fighting in a room that seems mundane, and the fight’s getting boring? The doors suddenly seal and the monsters disengage and try to break down the doors. Their panic and fear ought to indicate that something wicked this way comes… a trap being triggered is a good one. The enemies can be cut down with hand-waving and the trap must now be dealt with, or some big baddie is about to enter the scene.
I don’t think miscalculation, as noted, is too great a tool to use.
Exit Stage Left: Morale failure is a great way to end the combat. If you have time, I like to build up to it. If you have a bunch of baddies, have a few of them start to falter, go defensive, and back away toward the exits. The next round add more, and let a few just panic, dropping their weapons and running. The round after that, it’s a full on rout. If the players are invested in killing one hated opponent, you can leave them on the table, cursing the cowards who are fleeing, and selling himself dearly as the players focus their efforts on him.
I’ve started using morale failure as well, only to find out that the players don’t want to give up the chase. One of them has a shapeshifter power that lets him turn into a wolf that can outrun a horse. I’m going to have to ‘discourage’ that – the rest just get left behind, and complain about it later.
I’ll cut hit points and defenses on the sly if things start to drag. If a fight drags too much or I think it is not worth rolling out I just take it to narration.
Obviously, you didn’t read my last point. We talked this out as a group. They were okay with it. If a group’s not okay with it, you don’t do it. That simple.
Instead of narrating things, why not switch to a system like Wushu for the second half of the combat? This admittedly will only work with some groups, but it’s a system where how effective you are depends on the quality (well, quantity) of your narration. It can spice up boring fights in a hurry when suddenly vaulting onto the worg’s back and stabbing it in the ear deals /more/ damage than “I hit it with my sword.”
@Swordgleam – Thanks for the idea.
That (sort of) was one of the options we discussed. I gave them the choice of using Serenity for the combat (they didn’t like that idea much; Serenity is pretty lethal).
Our problem was that in our Chaos Earth game, everyone has great armor, but not great weapons. So, combat frequently devolved into a pop-gun contest. They didn’t want me evening out the weapon vs armor (they like being able to survive), so we are trying to come up with other options.
Would Wushu help with this?
@Protohacker: Wushu has barely any crunch at all, and combat is very survivable for the heroes. Each hero gets 3 chi, and against a mob, it’s assumed the mob only gets one hit (worth one chi) in per round. That’s one hit, IF the hero chooses not to even try and block it. Boss badguys are more dangerous, but there’s usually only one of them.
I personally like to be more transparent about it, but I’m the kind of person who’s allergic to DM screens 🙂
I’d step back for a moment and say something like “You guys are really kicking ass, and you’re going to win this fight. Let’s focus on something really challenging. But first…” and then I’d ask if the players were ok with some narration, and then I’d go around the room and let everyone narrate their character’s baddassery, let them loot and so on, and maybe say that in the remaining fight everyone lost 5 more hit points.
Once its clear that a combat, or *any* scene, isn’t fun anymore, I personally want to drop it as quickly as I can and move on to something fun. And, next time, while planning, I take what happened into account and maybe cut out the minor “trash” fights, just focusing on the big bad.
Which reminds me – I’d *love* it if D&D had a system for rolling through minor threats in a narrative fashion, so every room-full of mooks doesn’t necessitate rolling initiative, rolling out the battle mat, and so on…
Maybe I’ll have to come up with one. Thoughts?
Great post! Thanks for this! I’ve added it to my DM’s Notebook 🙂
@Nojo – In the post as described, why wouldn’t the mooks just run away? As Nojo brings up, morale failure seems appropriate here.