Bill and the Gnome Punters wrote to me about a common GMing dilemma: Do you use PC tactics against the PCs — specifically, focusing attacks on a single target rather than spreading the love — or do you pull punches in combat?

Bill ran into this situation with his group a little while back, but he didn’t mention how he handled it in his email. (Care to share here, Bill?) There are really only two choices here, though, so I figured I’d take a look at both of them — along with four things you should take into account when making this decision.

Most GMs blend these two options together, switching between them on the fly as needed. But at the moment when you have to make the decision to pull a punch or go for the jugular, you’ll be choosing between one of these two options.

That moment of choice is what I’m most interested in exploring here — let’s pull apart both options and see what’s under the hood.

Choice #1: Follow the Directions

Your game world, the tone of your campaign and, most importantly, the nature of the party’s foes can all be seen as sets of directions for how to handle this situation.

If you’re playing a game like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, both the world and the campaign theme are dark, grim and bloody. That suggests taking a no-holds-barred approach to combat, even if it means PCs die in the process.

NPC motivations and monster instincts are the most important factor, though. Ask yourself what the villain(s) would do. Are they cold-hearted bastards bent on taking the PCs down, or are they just trying to scare them off? Do they act on instinct, fighting like wild animals?

Once you know the answer to that question (which can also be asked of the setting and the theme, in a more abstract way), you should have a pretty good idea how to handle the rest of the battle.

Choice #2: Go the Meta Route

Going the meta route means putting meta-level concerns ahead of everything else: Will killing a PC now derail the game for the evening? Should I cut them a break because they’ve been rolling badly all night? Will everyone have more fun if I spread damage around, and they win the fight?

Most players can tell when you’re doing this, and they’ll either approve or disapprove based on their expectations about the game (along the lines of the game/sport distinction).

Adjusting things on the fly is part of what you’re there to do as a GM, and some players like that to extend to situations like this. Other players, however, prefer knowing that the GM isn’t pulling any punches — even if that means their characters might croak. To further complicate things, your group probably includes both kinds of player.

Which Option Should I Use?

This depends on four factors:

What’s in your group’s social contract? It always comes back to the social contract, doesn’t it? It’s a good idea to make sure everyone starts the campaign on the same page about whether or not you’ll be pulling punches in combat.

Do you make combat rolls in the open? If you roll in the open, you give up a tool that can get you around this dilemma: fudging die rolls. If you roll behind a screen, you can combine options one and two without your players knowing that you’ve done so.

What does death mean for a PC in your game? In some RPGs, PC death is really just an inconvenience — in others, it can completely change the direction of the campaign. It’s important to know where your game falls on this spectrum.

Do your players have meta-options? Action points, fate points and other spend-as-you-go bennies all give your players options to exert meta-level control over the fate of the PCs. Without options like these, you need to be very sure that everyone has the same expectations about pulling/not pulling punches.

How do you handle this dilemma in your own campaign? Are there other factors that you take into account?