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Pulling Punches in Combat: A GMing Dilemma

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 [1]).

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 [2]? 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 [3]? If you roll in the open, you give up a tool that can get you around this dilemma: fudging die rolls [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6] 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?

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#1 Comment By Mark On May 24, 2007 @ 9:15 am

Our GM typically plays NPCs based on their intellect. Thus, if they are smart, they don’t pull any punches. In fact, we’ve learned that casting spells generally draws a lot of NPC attacks. In fact, we call this unlucky PC ‘the apple’.

If you don’t play this way, it might take some adjustment. However, in the end, I think it encourages PC strategy and ultimately, makes for a more exciting game.

#2 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On May 24, 2007 @ 9:25 am

Another important thing to consider is the intellegence of the foe you’re playing.

Something mindless like a zombie or an ooze uses no tactics, and it would be almost like cheating if they did in and case except accidentally.

Something with animal intellegence might have a rudmentary understanding of tactics, understanding ambuses, flanking, the advantage of tripping your opponent, attacking while prone, or ganging up on a lone target or stragglers (always pee in public in an RPG) but they’re not really going to put any of that together into a cohesive strategy. They’re just going to take opportunities as they’re given.

Something with human intellegence will know what gives them an advantage and work to take advantage of tactics and to create opportunities to take advantage of them further or reduce their opponent’s advantages. (attempting to break an opponent’s formation so they can be flanked, drawing foes out from behind cover, etc…) They’ll also sometimes have tactics, plans, contingencies, etc… planned out ahead of time (Take down magic wielders first, Group A engages while group B moves behind and flanks, etc…). Given enough time and experience, they can come up with a few truely frightening tactics.

The higher you get above human intellect, the more and better tactics the opponents should use, making use of obscure situations, items, abilities, and positioning. Of course, then you’re in a situation where you’re having to make up tactics that a creature smarter that you would think of which is always a catch 22, so be sure to spend a lot of prep time on fights like this to make sure you’ve got everything buttoned down.

#3 Comment By Sarlax On May 24, 2007 @ 9:33 am

I typically follow the directions. In my current D&D game, I don’t impose death for -10 HP; rather, PCs remain alive below 0 HP and can be brought back into action pretty easily, so long as another character can help with some healing.

This means I can run fights according to the nature of the enemy. Battles in the game have ranged from cakewalks to serious challenges. If the PCs are fighting faceless minions, they will drop like dominoes as they should, but when they confront the mind flayer in his layer, they ought to be prepared for serious trouble.

I feel that a battle which is important within the game should feel intense to the players, and that happens best if the players believe they’ll win on their own skill and luck.

#4 Comment By DNAphil On May 24, 2007 @ 10:24 am

As for tactics of my NPC’s, I made a mind map of all the kinds of things my NPC’s would evaluate during the course of combat: position on the battlefield, ability to hit target, amount of damage done, amount of damage taken, etc.

Then came up with tactics that one could to in response to those things. For instance, hitting well..but not enough damage. Could use two hands on their weapon, or in Iron Heroes could use a combat challenge.

Then finally to make it fair to the players, I grouped the tactics up into things intelligent creatures would do, and things that any creature would think of.

When I play out a combat, I have the mind map in printed form in front of me. I rarely read it in detail during the combat, but I do look at it for a solution to a problem. Then I think would the creature who they are fighting really do that.

Recently my party has been fighting Giants. The giants start taking a ton of damage, and they drop there melee weapons and start grappling the party. It worked great as the Giants quickly overpowered half the party and put the players on the run for part of the combat.

As for killing a player in combat, my Iron Heroes campaign is Heroic in nature, so I will let a player drop into the negative Hit Points, but unless there was some direct story benefit for killing them, I would likely leave them this way, and see if the rest of the party could save them in time.

My own view on it, is that monsters dont really check to see if someone is dying or dead. If they fell in combat, they are done. Sure they could hit them one more time, again, I would only do that if I thought that the character’s death would benefit the overall campaign.

I may pull a few punches or fudge a few die roles to let the players gain back the upper hand. I am not above that.

#5 Comment By Martin On May 24, 2007 @ 10:33 am

I probably should have put NPC/mob intelligence in the example for following the directions — that’s definitely one of the most important criteria to consider. Muddy example notwithstanding, that’s one of the things I had in mind. 😉

#6 Comment By Sarlax On May 24, 2007 @ 10:46 am

Regarding the impulse FINISH HIM Mortal Kombat style, I figure that NPCs are like PCs: they’ll cut the enemy’s head off when they’re good and ready – and that means waiting until they don’t have a lot of other PCs trying hard to murder them.

If there’s some compelling reason for them to neglect their own safety, like a blood feud, they might go ahead with the coup de grace (or equivalent).

#7 Comment By Telas On May 24, 2007 @ 11:13 am

How many rounds does it take to don asbestos armor? 😉

Good analysis. I’d possibly add the following to the “four factors”: Is this the Big Fight, or just a prelude? Because nothing sucks more than losing someone to a stupid mistake right before the climactic Boss Fight. OTOH, the Boss Fight should endanger the PCs.

Like most GMs, I’ve been all over the map on this one at various times. Currently, I try to think of intelligence as a “combat multiplier”. In D&D terms, the intelligence of the opponent should affect his Challenge Rating.

So the intelligence of the opponent is definitely a factor in the fight. An automaton will probably attack whoever is closest to what it’s protecting. A mindless undead will attack whoever’s closest. And a genius-level opponent will attack long enough to get the casters to cast spells, then withdraw and attack later on, when those spells are dissipated and the casters can’t get them back yet. (They don’t call them evil geniuses for nothing…)

#8 Comment By VV_GM On May 24, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

It depends on who the opponent is. Like everyone else has mentioned, the more intelligent the NPC the better the tactics that will be used. If I’m playing an evil super genius well above human levels of intellect, chances are the party has already lost before the cofrontation begins (“Those seemingly random events that took place before you made it to the main chamber were actually the elaborate parts of a trap that Dr. Destructo put in your path to weaken you for this very moment . . .”). Of course, the PCs might have items and/or secret advantages that the evil super genius did not know about and hence plan for, and when the PCs use those tactics it tends to level the playing field a bit.

#9 Comment By Frank Filz On May 24, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

I tend to run combat heavy, very gamist games, and I usually don’t pull punches. Sure, sometimes, I take pity on a poor player, but for the most part not.

My monsters know how the combat system works. I do probably tend to play mindless creatures as overly mindfull, but then I guess I assume the animation comes with some “programming” of the combat system.

In general, monsters will gang up when it makes sense, especially if there is a serious combat advantage to doing so, or if they need to to try and break a line to create a combat advantage.

In the past, I have played undead as very vindicative. They will swing at downed PCs quite often. So will other “villainous” NPCs. Or NPCs that are under attack and have nothing better to do.

In my 2nd Arcana Unearthed/Evolved campaign, one PC made the mistake of flying over a wall into an enemy compound solo. He was the only target. Two NPC casters blew him out of the sky. Some warrior types were on the ground nearby. There was nothing else for them to do. They took a coup de grace.

More intelligent NPCs will surrender or flee if it becomes clear they will lose and I feel they think they have a chance of getting something from surrendering or fleeing. Of course there’s often the problem that the system doesn’t handle captured foes very well, and fleeing often is mechanically extremely difficult (and PCs in these type of combat heavy games rarely let an opponent go).

One thing to consider is that any animal with a pack mentality will use gang up attacks on the (apparently) weakest foe, or the most exposed, or whatever. They will coordinate and flank. Most creatures that attack in mobs will be pack creatures, though things like birds (stirges?) aren’t usually pack animals, and will randomly attack targets, but will also tend to go for the easiest target. To be honest, they might even fight with each other over targets.

Of course that also brings up the fact that often there is no real sense to why the PCs are being attacked. Why would a couple wolves attack a well armed (and obviously alert and combat aware) group of humans?


#10 Comment By Mark On May 24, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

Frank makes a good point. The opponents should have a reason to attack that matches their strategy. Four wolves attacking a single PC that gets separated makes sense. Heck, they might tail the PCs looking for the opportunity. On the other hand, no pack of wolves is going to take on a large group of humans.

If a GM keeps a logical rationale for how enemies operate, the PCs can have a basis on which to build their own strategies. (i.e. “Let’s stick together, so those wolves we heard don’t attack.”)

#11 Comment By VV_GM On May 24, 2007 @ 3:47 pm

Actually, the last part of Frank’s post is why I rarely have wild animals (whether real or mythological) attack in my games unless there is a very good reason for the creature to be involved with the party to begin with, and to go on the offensive/defensive. Although I really like Martin’s idea of a hungry wolf pack trailing the party in the hopes of catching a straggler.

#12 Comment By Abulia On May 24, 2007 @ 11:15 pm

All I ask for is a fair shot. If a battle isn’t really winnable then why was it put there? Perhaps there’s a larger storytelling reason, but as an active participant in the game, trying to make the experience enjoyable for everyone, I have a limited sphere of control (as a player).

Death happens. It’s a trademark of drama. Reward without risk is a hollow victory. Risk without hope isn’t just hollow…it’s no fun.