The Saving Throw
Guides for Gamemasters Jan. 12, 2006
Some advice from one gamemaster to another.

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Diceless Adventures: Combat
contributed by Nwash

This guide is part of a series, continued from Diceless Adventures: Characters.

   Combat in diceless adventures is a different sort of challenge from doing so in adventures with dice. In general, I recommend that combat have a minimal role in diceless adventures. In fact, one even might want to consider trying to develop an adventure where no combat will take place. This can be difficult and can seriously limit potential stories, and it certainly isn't necessary to completely eliminate combat from diceless adventures. Done correctly, even a combat-heavy adventure can work well without dice, though the strength of diceless adventures is improved emphasis on the story and character development; this is why I advise giving combat a minimal role in diceless adventures. However, it is important to use different strategies in handling diceless combat than for standard tabletop RPG fights; trying to run diceless combat the same way standard fights are run can make them very tedious.

Avoid running diceless combat in blow-by-blow style
   Standard tabletop RPGs usually handle combat with some sort of turns and rounds, moderated by some type of initiative system to determine which order combatants act in. Thus, combat is being run blow-by-blow; every action is treated separately. This works reasonably well with dice since the random factor can add at least a minimal level of excitement to this approach. It's far more exciting to get a honest critical hit on a die roll than to have a gamemaster award one. A gamemaster isn't really going to be able to find that critical balance between random and balanced, meaning that the odds and figures are adjusted for skill levels and strength. The human mind, unassisted, simply can't do this the same way.

Thus, with this approach, the gamemaster's tendency will likely be to make the battle "interesting" by making it just difficult enough to threaten the player characters, but still allow them to win. This is indeed the ideal approach in combat using dice because the dice provide for uncertainity. The player characters could still lose, but in diceless combat, using this approach will just create a expectation of victory. Combat will generally become something just to get through to advance the story. This can happen even when using the dice, and this is even more likely to happen when not using them.

Try to add tactics and planning to diceless combat
   One way to make diceless combat more interesting is to make it less about the combat skills of the player characters and more about the intelligence and creativity of the players themselves. Make the outcome of the combat dependent more on their planning, tactics, and observational skills. This can be done in many ways. You can give the enemy a weakness the player characters can exploit. Give them a way to surprise the enemy, or a way to split them up. Let cleverness and creativity be more of a deciding factor of victory or defeat, or at least give greater rewards or less injury for intelligent and creative combat.

Make story events a determining factor for upcoming combat
   This recommendation is similar to the last, but story events or goals can be made important to later success in combat. For example, consider a situation where the player characters will be outnumbered greatly in a combat encounter. Perhaps they need to convince a neutral party to help them or to inspire fearful people to rise up. This approach emphasizes the player's roleplaying ability, not the combat strengths of their characters.

Give the players ways to avoid combat
   The choice to go into combat is often as much the decision of the players as it is the decision of the gamemaster. While gamemasters certainly can put characters into situations where they must fight, it is equally possible to provide ways to avoid combat. When using this approach, it is important to provide greater rewards for avoiding combat than it is to fight. Even if the same rewards are used for both the violent and nonviolent approaches, the violent approach can also introduce injury. This ensures the nonviolent approach is still the better way.

Gloss over the unimportant details
   Diceless combat should be run relatively quickly. Give the players enough time to figure out any strategy or tactics they need to. This can be done by keeping them pinned or engaged in melee combat with a series of parries until they come up with an adequately creative tactic. Once the players have done what they need to, don't take too long in wrapping up the encounter. In both cases, avoid doing blow-by-blow descriptions of what happens. In the same vein, just get an idea of the what the player character are trying to do; try to make sure they understand combat isn't being done in turns or rounds. Only mention important attacks or attacks that injure player characters or allies, as well as those that hurt or defeat enemies. The rest can just be described as "furious melee" or "shots going past their heads."

   These suggestions will help run combat encounters in a way that is better suited to diceless adventures rather than falling into the trap of running them the same way one does with the dice. Different styles work best for each type of combat. While blow-by-blow combat can be interesting in adventures where dice are being rolled, emphasizing cleverness and creativity is very important in diceless combat. It's also better to handle combat in a more generalized way, rather than focusing on specifics. These help to prevent diceless combat from being repetitive and tedious, which is more of a risk in these adventures.

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