null  null
Praise for
Complete KOBOLD Guide to Game Design
“A must-have book for both those looking to get into this industry,
and those who merely want to play.”
“Highly recommended for gaming nerds everywhere.”
Winner, 2012 Gold ENnie Award for Best RPG-Related Accessory
KOBOLD Guide to Worldbuilding
“Class is in session . . . The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding SHOULD
be considered a textbook on intelligent setting creation.”
—Dave Hinojosa, The Gaming Gang
“While the book is aimed at the RPG crowd, a huge percentage of
the material would be just as valuable to an author writing a novel
set in an original world. . . . The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding
will spark some new ideas and help you add the proper doses of
verisimilitude and outlandishness.”
—Ed Grabianowski, i09
“A really great work … if you’re seriously pursuing worldbuilding as
a hobby, I think it’s a worthy investment.”
—Martin Kallies,
Winner, 2013 Gold ENnie Award for Best RPG-Related Accessory
Winner, 2013 Gold ENnie Award for Best Writing
Kobold Guide to Combat
other books in the award-winning
kobold guide series
Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design
Kobold Guide to Board Game Design
Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding
Kobold Guide to Magic
Find all Kobold Press titles at
Kobold Guide
to Combat
With essays by
Wolfgang Baur
Clinton J. Boomer
Keith R.A. DeCandido
Diana Pharaoh Francis
Ed Greenwood
Jeff Grubb
Rob Heinsoo
Miranda Horner
Colin McComb
Rory Miller
Carlos Ovalle
Richard Pett
John A. Pitts & Ken Scholes
Mario Podeschi
Chris Pramas
Steven Robert
Aaron Rosenberg
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Steve Winter
Edited by Janna Silverstein
KOBOLD Guide to Combat
© 2014 Open Design
Editor Janna Silverstein
Cover art Emile Denis
Publisher Wolfgang Baur
Accountant Shelly Baur
Art director/graphic designer Marc Radle
“Tossing Kegs and Smashing Chairs: How to Stage a Great Barroom Brawl” by Steven Robert
originally appeared in Kobold Quarterly #8
“Inspiring Words: A Warlord’s Field Guide to Battle Cries” by Mario Podeschi originally
appeared in Kobold Quarterly #8
All Rights Reserved. Reproduction of this book in any manner without express permission
from the publisher is prohibited.
P.O. Box 2811
Kirkland, WA 98083
Most product names are trademarks owned by the companies that publish those products.
Use of the name of any product without mention of trademark status should not be construed
as a challenge to such status. Open Design, Kobold Press, Kobold Quarterly, and the Kobold
logo are trademarks of Open Design.
First Edition
Kobold Guide to Combat
Table of Contents
Introduction: Entering the Fray by Janna Silverstein .................................... 9
Why We Fight: Combat as Communication by Jeff Grubb ....................... 12
Tactics for Tyrants by Chris Pramas ......................................................... 18
Military Systems at War by Steve Winter .................................................. 23
The Importance of Tension and Raising the Stakes
by Diana Pharaoh Francis ........................................................................ 39
Gaming the Novel: The Differences Between Writing a Game and
Writing Game Fiction by Keith R.A. DeCandido ...................................... 45
Speed of Combat by Wolfgang Baur .......................................................... 51
Scratching the Surface: 10 Things Fiction and Film
Get Wrong about Violence by Rory Miller ................................................ 57
Fighting in a Real Fantasy World by Ed Greenwood ................................. 65
Through the Looking Glass by Colin McComb ......................................... 72
Tossing Kegs and Smashing Chairs: How to Stage a
Great Barroom Brawl by Steven Robert .................................................... 78
A Note on Anatomy by Richard Pett ......................................................... 86
The Magic of “The Gambler”
by Aaron Rosenberg .................................................................................. 92
Taking Aim: The Role of Archery in Gaming
by Miranda Horner ................................................................................... 97
Siege Engines and War Machines in Fantasy
by Wolfgang Baur .................................................................................... 104
Inspiring Words: A Warlord’s Field Guide to
Battle Cries by Mario Podeschi ............................................................... 110
Kobold Guide to Combat
Reconnaissance and Scouting
by John A. Pitts and Ken Scholes ............................................................. 116
Combat from the Shadows by Carlos Ovalle .......................................... 123
Healing Heroes: Combat Medicine and Magic
by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough ................................................................ 130
Monsters: The Pointy End of Fun by Rob Heinsoo ................................. 136
On Being a Target : Bravery, Cowardice, and Retreat in
Game Combat by Wolfgang Baur ............................................................ 141
The Illusion of Conflict: Spoiler-Alerts and Combo-Moves
by Clinton J. Boomer ............................................................................... 148
About the Authors .................................................................................. 154
Kobold Guide
to Combat
KOBOLD Guide to Combat
Entering the fray
Janna Silverstein
torytelling is conflict. Whether that conflict is between a cursed knight
and a half-elf prince at swordspoint, a father and son disagreeing
about the direction of the family business, a troupe of adventurers facing
down a Cyclops at a bridge, or the armies of two great nations clashing
over ultimate power, stories move as a result of conflict. It creates drama,
tension; it pushes a story, an adventure to a turning point. It’s certainly what
gets roleplaying games moving. Interests at cross-purposes, kingdoms in
peril, the possession of treasure hidden, found, stolen and retrieved—it’s
all conflict. In RPGs, and often in fiction, the most explicit expression of
conflict is combat.
With this book, we wanted to examine combat from as many different
perspectives as we could, to talk about everything we could manageably
cover in a relatively brief way: the place of conflict in games and stories, what
makes for a great fight, the roles that different characters may play, and some
of the types of combat you might encounter in your journey as a gamer, a
game designer, a writer or reader.
I knew we’d hit on a key topic when I came across an in-depth discussion of
the place of combat in games on Facebook earlier this year. I read the whole
exchange—more than 50 posts—as players and designers discussed how to
interpret the number of pages a game manual spent explaining combat rules.
Is a game mainly about the combat or is combat merely one element of a
larger gaming experience that’s also rich with social interaction, negotiation,
trickster maneuvers, and more? Clearly people feel strongly about how
combat shapes a game, how it flavors an adventure. This book is here to
contribute to that conversation. And make no mistake: I don’t think we’ve
covered all the answers. We could do a whole volume on different kinds of
weapons, for example. Combat is a huge subject. But I think we’ve gotten a
pretty good start.
I’ve been delighted by the folks who were ready to step onto the battlefield
when I extended the invitation. The table of contents shows the variety of
people ready to discuss it: from gaming luminaries like Ed Greenwood,
Wolfgang Baur, and Chris Pramas to bestselling novelists John A. Pitts and
Ken Scholes, and the Nebula Award-winning fantasy author—and former
combat nurse—Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. We’ve even got self-defense
expert and author Rory Miller, along with so many others. You’ll find essays
here that focus on the nuts and bolts of gaming. Steve Winter’s chapter on
military systems at war is chock full of history. And we’ve got essays that
approach the subject from more of a storytelling point of view. You’ll find
that every essay is only one facet of the larger conversation, each brings a
unique perspective, and will be useful to your gaming, fighting, storytelling
I invite you to enter the fray and get involved in the discussion.
KOBOLD Guide to Combat
The Big Picture
Why we fight
Combat as Communication
Jeff Grubb
know a number of writers who write excellent but ultimately
unnecessary combat scenes. They are fluid and smooth and bring you
into the flow of combat, and are filled with broad sweeps, backhand blocks,
and devilish dispatches. You catch the feel of the clash of blades and the
rippling breeze that follows a longsword’s swipe or a crossbow bolt’s near
miss. They are, in effect, poetic.
But in the larger sense of the work, these combat scenes are also unneeded.
You can skip to the bottom of the combat sequence and pick up the narrative
again and know that nothing of note had happened within the flashing of
blades and the exchange of gunfire. It is the combat equivalent of the musical
numbers in the middle of a 1930s film, where you can comfortably get up to
get popcorn without missing too much of the plot: entertaining but empty as
far as the story is concerned.
Compare this with the climactic combat in The Empire Strike Back, where
Darth Vader disarms Luke (literally), then drops the bomb of his true
parentage on him. Or in the original Star Wars, where Obi-wan confronts
his former student, and ultimately sacrifices himself to provide purpose to
his new pupil. Or in The Princess Bride, where Westley and Inigo converse in
the midst of their swordfight on the Cliffs of Insanity.
Inigo Montoya: You seem a decent fellow . . . I hate to kill you.
Westley: You seem a decent fellow . . . I hate to die.
In the first two examples, the world of the adventure changes as a result
of the combat. The plot hinges on that moment. The stakes are great and
long lasting. In the third example, the stakes are lower, but we already see
Inigo and Westley bonding, forming a friendship as they prepare to duel
to the supposed death. Inigo shows his regret, while Westley is honest and
amusing. Character is revealed, bonds are forged, and we get an idea of who
these people with the swords really are.
Kobold Guide to Combat
This is the challenge of combat, whether in stories or roleplaying games
(RPGs) or massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). Unless there is
something going on with the characters themselves, combat is little more
than raw activity, filling space on the page, at the table, or the screen.
And combat is made more engaging when it is thought of as a means of
communication as opposed to mere action.
Combat as a Dialogue
Combat is dramatized physical conflict between two or more characters. The
simplest example is in the traditional fantasy roleplaying game, where the
players descend into some underground crypt to battle, in search of gold, fame
and/or experience (their purpose depends on the game system, but much of
this discussion will revolve around that largest of gaming gorillas, Dungeons
& Dragons). Much of what occurs then is raw action, of fighting stuff and
savoring the rich rewards of success. It is the base activity of the typical
dungeon-crawling adventure and, for most of us, it is a perfectly pleasant way
of spending an evening with friends.
But it doesn’t have the same emotional underpinning as the more cinematic
examples set above. There may be a particular call or comment or quip
that bears merit but, in general, the bad guys are disposable and the base
communication of that fight is relatively simple.
Yes, combat is a form of communication, where the participants are making
clear their goals and their desires and what they are willing to do to attain
those goals. Conversation works like that: I want to inform, or convince, or
impress, or cajole you. There is a trade of knowledge, of recognition, or of
status. These are interesting exchanges. Dialogue in which we are making
small talk over drinks is literally that—small talk of no consequence.
Similarly, while fighting occurs for a purpose, more often fighting is
merely an activity. The base conversation of most fantasy RPGs (and their
descendants, the MMOs) falls into the small talk category, in that the
bounds of the conversation are already in place and repeated, with variation,
throughout the adventure/dungeon/work. Here’s what it boils down to:
Player: You there! You are evil! You must die for the good of all, and I
shall take your stuff!
Monster: Argh! I am evil and hate you because I am evil! It is you who
will do the dying!
The basic conversation is hard-wired into the game through mechanics like
alignment, which separates good from evil, law from chaos, and provides
an easy justification for violence. The monster is on the other team (notably
waving the “Yay, Evil!” banner) and as such the player is reassured as to his
actions. The monster is also, well, monstrous, an idealized sense of Other, a
slouching beast of unspeakable habits and unforgivable manners.
Why We Fight h Jeff Grubb
Again, it is a reassurance that combat is the easy action. Indeed, many
creatures in RPGs will attack on sight, which saves the player the moral choice
of attacking first. In MMOs, the creatures have color-coded name tags for easy
identification: red for immediately hostile, yellow for hostile only if attacked,
and green for non-hostile. That last also includes hostile forces that you just
can’t attack yet, like a villain who has a monologue before suddenly switching
to red. Sadly, most players confronted with such a bad guy don’t listen to the
monologue, but merely wait for him to finish so they can hit first.
The simplicity of this form of communication works very well within the
fantasy environment, and may be one reason why fantasy genre games do
so well. A bipolar world of right and wrong tends to justify that use of force,
whereas environments where such ethical lines are blurred prove more
problematic. Another genre that does well is superheroes, which also tend
to established clear-cut mores of right and wrong. It is a conversation, and a
method of communication, but a simple one.
But combat can be more interesting if there are higher stakes, or different
rewards, available to the player.
The Surrender Scenario
Here’s an easy one for most players: surrender. You’re fighting your way into
the treasure hordes of some cultist organization. Waves of screaming cultists,
the name of their unholy deity on their lips, come crashing down on you.
You battle fiercely. And then, suddenly, the last survivor throws down his
weapon and surrenders. Now what?
The traditional tendency, particularly toward monstrous opponents, is to
slay the creature and move on. But if the cultist is suddenly human (or one
of the “good” races), the moral justification gets frayed. The creature is no
longer a direct threat. The creature is no longer attacking. He is relatively
harmless. What now?
I have seen (and been part of) groups that have crashed on this particular
shore. The script, as it were, is suddenly changed. Some players will stick
with the old script, killing the now-prisoner. Others will seek to find a way
around this new challenge to their playing style. It is as if, in making small
talk, you suddenly find yourself deeply engaged in a philosophical conflict
with the person you are talking to.
Oddly, surrender is not a thing for most RPGs (given the bipolar nature of
conflict demonstrated above), and there are few raw mechanics to handle it.
The original D&D did have a mechanism that belonged to dragons alone,
which allowed them to be subdued (with the result that dragons were often
more desirable enemies because you could get away with defeating them
while inflicting less damage). Such a dragon could be sold out of the game
Kobold Guide to Combat
or ransom itself with its treasure. The only literary analog I know of for this
was in Farmer Giles of Ham, by Tolkien, where the dragon is brought back to
town carrying its own treasure. But that example is a rarity.
To handle surrender, you have to decide what the rules are in your
campaign. The easy one is that once a creature is defeated, it is defeated, and
will not rise again to fight the victors. Intelligent creatures of a lawful bent
can give their word to leave and never return. Those of a more evil or chaotic
nature (noting how easily the nature of alignment helps determine reactions)
would be more motivated by fear of the victors coming back and doing
worse to them if they ever run into them again.
The point, though, in either case, is that the opponent is removed from
the board as a viable threat. Experience points for defeating the bad guy
are awarded. The prisoner may be brought along with the group or told
to flee, never to be seen again. That part of the conversation is over—the
players have achieved dominance and occupy a superior position in the
communication. A new form of communication begins.
It should be noted that this only works if the GM makes clear it works.
Should the first kobold who surrenders to a party immediately turn on
them in the next combat, biting ankles when the players are fighting other
creatures, then the players will never trust kobolds (or anything else that
surrenders) again. So if you take this route, feel free to help the players
understand that mercy is perfectly acceptable—that experience is rewarded
if the monster is dead or only roughed up and driven away.
The game master (GM) should use this as a seasoning, not as a regular
feature. A set of guards, recruited from the hinterlands to protect a caravan,
may be more concerned about their own lives than the items they are
charged with protecting. However, trained city guards who must defend the
walls against potential foes are more alert, more dedicated, and less likely to
surrender to the first broadsword-waving barbarian that assails them.
A More Valuable Treasure
An enemy’s surrender is an opportunity for the GM. The defeated cultist
will turn out his pockets, of course, and swear off claim on any plunder
the players find further on. But the greater treasure that the surrendered
creature can provide is knowledge. What lies ahead? How strong are forces?
Are there any traps?
GMs usually loathe providing such details of future encounters, but with a
little planning this can be an opening for further development, to give fights
a little more meaning. Often the surrendered kobold is too stupid to provide
detailed plans, but giving general ideas (number of forces, spellcasters,
general layout, where the prisoners are being held) is well within most rank-
Why We Fight h Jeff Grubb
and-file grunts’ understanding. They aren’t going to be able to tell you the
shift changes for the guards, or the secret passwords. They may neglect to tell
you everything (like the pit traps the cult activates in the main hall in case
of attack), but less specific information foreshadows what the players will
encounter. And in doing so, the combat becomes narrative.
MMOs, by the way, can force this change with their ability to set the “agro”
of the creatures. A creature that surrenders suddenly shifts from being a red
hostile to a green non-combatant, and therefore cannot be suddenly run
through by an impulsive player until it delivers whatever information the
designer chooses to share. Tabletop RPGs offer a lot more options, but the
price is that the players may suddenly and violently pass on those options.
The conflict, however, is still present: hero and cultist are still foes, but
the nature of that conflict changes from brute force to negotiation. Such
talks should be relatively brief—you don’t want to get bogged down in
interrogation with every opponent, but it is a strong exchange. Your bad guy
wants to live, and will be willing to provide a certain amount of information
(up to a point) to be able to maintain that status.
And as a result, suddenly the combat has a purpose: the players’ knowledge
base of the area is increased. Future threats are foreshadowed. Something
actually happens beyond a compartmentalized single conflict, and the
conflict becomes part of a larger narrative. Knowledge becomes part of the
treasure, and may influence future decisions as well as any magical ring or
powerful weapon.
Upping the Threat
One of the best things that our newly-surrendered friend can provide is
information about his superiors. Most powerful creatures, including leaders,
last just one encounter, unless specific measures are taken to maintain their
lives (teleports, illusions, delaying devises—again, MMOs get around this
merely by changing the creatures’ tag to “You can’t hit this” and the creatures
escape, which can prove unsatisfying). A captured opponent, however, can
provide some groundwork on the nature of an upcoming opponent, which
may in turn prepare (or daunt) the players.
“Why yes,” hisses the defeated cultist. “Our master, great Orthox, is
awesomely powerful, a wizard versed in setting fire to unbelievers. But more
dangerous are his pets—a pair of terrible hounds with fire in their mouths
and hate in their bellies.”
And at this point the players at the table should look at each other, concerned
about the hellhounds that probably lay between them and the treasure.
This method builds narrative momentum, creating a physical goal at the
heart of the cultist’s temple, and raises the stakes. Now the enemy has a name
Kobold Guide to Combat
and a face and the player has a good idea of what he can do. And the nature
of the cult itself as more than an abstract bunch of enemies is strengthened.
One More Thing
A last piece DMs can use in their scenarios are the famous last words.
They can be as a dramatic as a sudden revelation about true parentage, or a
warning of things to come, or a cry to some previously unknown god, or a
potential death curse. (If using the latter, feel free to call for saving throws,
whether the curse is truly effective or mere profanity.) This is a wonderful
opportunity to sow the seeds of the future adventures, of shadows operating
behind the obvious bad guys, and to foretell future conflicts.
Treating combat as a method to communicate to the players is therefore
a spice that can improve the meal of a standard adventure. Combat, and,
more importantly, informed combat, forms connective tissue within
an adventure. It should not be overused—just as there is small talk that
signifies little, there are small combats that exist merely to test resolve and
resources and to keep the lower classes out. Such fights can be used to keep
the major battles from slamming into each other, and create a sense pacing
within the larger adventure.
Combat as conversation can also create moral grey areas for the players
where their own resolve is tested. The cultist may have rolled on his
comrades in order to save his own hide, but he remains the cultist of an
unspeakable god. Should he be allowed to flee? Was a deal made when he
agreed to help? Of such questions character development is made.
Finally, the use of conversational combat adds depth to both the world and the
players. It fills in the gaps and connects the individual combats with a larger
world, strengthening its bonds. A spared (or escaped) foe may show up later
(but not too soon) in a new situation, creating rivalries and relationships.
Some may go straight, while others may find themselves in similar situations.
All of this makes of deeper stories and more interesting games.
Why We Fight h Jeff Grubb
Tactics for tyrants
By Krovasch the Charnel King, as translated by Chris Pramas
Note from the translator: There is no polite way to say it: this treatise is
full of bastardry. The author clearly hates adventurers and they must have
caused him some trouble in the course of his reign. Game masters may find
some of his recommendations useful as ways to challenge their players.
The point, though, is not to simply kill the player characters. Any GM
can do that. Rather, consider these ideas to liven up combats, to give the
villains some agency, and to make encounters the PCs can’t roll over with
brute force alone. Their use is also guaranteed to make the players hate the
villain(s) responsible!
n my long centuries as Charnel King, I have seen many “dark lords” rise
and fall. Every black-hearted warlord or demonic cult leader thinks he
(or she—remember Gilkera of the Hundred Blades!) has what it takes to
rule an empire with an iron fist. As history shows all too well, this is not
the case and the reason is all too clear, at least from the throne of skulls I’m
sitting on. These so-called dark lords were nothing but jumped up thugs.
They learned nothing of strategy and tactics, never mind the manipulation
of hearts and minds. Their answer was the same to every problem: crush it!
All too often, these dark lords were not brought down by mighty armies. No,
they fell in the most humiliating way possible. I’m talking, of course, about
“adventurers,” the self-proclaimed heroes and self-righteous hypocrites that
plague us all. And the sad thing is that it didn’t have to be that way. With just
a few tactical tricks, these dark lords could have carved their names in blood
for decades to come.
Luckily for you, I am feeling generous. In this short treatise I am going to
share some strategies and tactics for dealing with adventurers that any tyrant
should appreciate. I start from the premise that you have tried and failed to
smash your foes with unsubtle frontal attacks. If that tactic was working for
you, you would not be reading this.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Our first topic is discipline. The thing to understand is that adventurers
rarely have it. They are emotional. They are impulsive. Many of them
are greedy. You can use all these things against them if you instill some
discipline in your own minions.
I have seen far too many tyrants demand that their servants stand and die
when a battle is going against them. You may have thousands of servants, but
it is simply useless to throw them away in this fashion. A much better use
for them is a feigned flight. They must seem to break and flee. You want the
adventurers to believe that they are winning. You want them to follow the
“fleeing” troops, losing cohesion in the process. It’s best if you can split them
up, and have the adventurers chasing fragments of your troops hither and yon.
And where do you lead these glory-hungry adventurers? Your deviousness
is the only limit! Typically, you want to lead them into an ambush by fresh
troops. Imagine their faces when they rush forward only to find three ranks
of archers or giants with a pile of ready-to-throw boulders waiting for them.
Traps are another fine option. Your troops can be briefed so they know where
not to run. The adventurers, without such foreknowledge, are easy prey for pit
and net traps, collapsing ceilings, or any other deadly traps you can devise.
Turn the Flanks
Some adventurers are smart enough not to fall for such tricks. In this case a
simple but effective tactic is to try to turn their flanks, or (better yet) attack
them from the rear if possible. Since you almost always have numbers on
your side, you should use them to your advantage. Cut off the enemy’s route
of escape if you can. Choose your flankers carefully, however. You want to
instill panic in the adventurers when they are attacked from an unexpected
quarter. Don’t send goblins if you can send ogres, as I like to say.
The important thing here is to get your flankers in position undetected.
How you do that depends on terrain and your magical resources. In a
dungeon environment, cunningly placed secret doors can let your minions
emerge behind the adventurers with no warming. In open terrain, disguised
trenches can serve the same purpose. If you have decent wizards under
your command, by all means use them to move troops quickly around the
battlefield or to disguise their movement with illusion magic.
Speaking of wizards, your flankers should be on the lookout for adventurer
spellcasters. They tend to lurk in the back, so when your surprise attack hits,
they will be vulnerable. Your troops should find the enemy wizards and gang
up on them. They cannot stand such an attack for long. If your troops take
out the spellcasters first, they will have an easier time with the rest.
Tactics for Tyrants h Chris Pramas
Another excellent option when turning the flank is death from above. In
the heat of battle, few spare the time to look up for new threats. If you have
harpies, gargoyles, or similar flying minions, their sudden appearance can
turn a battle in your favor. If you have something like a chimera or a dragon,
even better! If their first indication of the attack is fire raining down from
above, you are on your way to victory.
Wear Them Down
When the enemy is fresh, well-fed and -rested, and alert, they are at their best.
After they have been through a few skirmishes and a major battle, they are
likely to find somewhere to hole up. This is a smart approach on their part,
I will admit. You must impress upon your lieutenants that they cannot let it
happen. After a defeat, your forces may be in disarray. Your lieutenants may
be in shock after watching their prized troops get cut up. It doesn’t matter.
You always have more troops (and lieutenants, for that matter). The important
thing here is to keep up the attack. Don’t give them a chance to rest. Don’t let
them get their spells back. Don’t let them replenish their ammunition.
Your attacks should be made with as much power as can be mustered on the
scene, of course, but in this instance it is acceptable to launch attacks that are
likely to fail. Your goal is to wear them down until they become vulnerable
to a final rush.
Spies and Misinformation
When brooding alone in your dark tower, it is often difficult to understand
what these adventurers really want. Sometimes their goals are laughable and
easily ignored (“Give flowers to unicorns for peace!”) but other times they
have specific goals that you wish you knew about earlier. They might, for
example, be seeking the only weapon that can kill you on the mortal plane.
That’s information you need to have! But how to get it?
The adventurers will not give up that sort of information willingly to you or
your minions, but they might to someone they think is an ally. Over time
most adventuring groups increase in size, as the members gain followers or
hire henchmen. This is how you get spies in their camp. Adventurers will say
just about anything in front of their henchmen and won’t think twice about
it. A spy in the right place can get you key information before it’s too late.
If you cannot get an agent into their camp in this way, you can try the
phony deserter trick. You send a few soldiers their way who claim they
are fed up with your evil and are deserting your cause. Humans work best
for this, as they are more believable deserters than orcs and such. The
adventurers are likely to be cautious around the deserters and won’t give up
much information in front of them. You can give false information to them
through the deserters, however. Maybe they know a secret tunnel that leads
Kobold Guide to Combat
right into your fortress. Or they witnessed the start of a magical ritual that’s
going to summon a demon army unless it’s stopped. Whatever the story, you
hope to spur the adventurers into wrong action. You want them to walk right
into your trap. They will do it, too, if the deserters are convincing enough.
Exploit Vulnerabilities
Adventurers often consider themselves invulnerable, and it is true that they
sometimes have the favor of the gods or access to powerful magic items and
spells. Rather than another direct assault, try coming at them through their
support network. They rest between their adventures, don’t they? They must
restock on supplies, spell components, and ammunition, correct? Use your
spies to find out where that happens. Is there a town or city they favor? A
keep on the borderlands, perhaps? (Oh, how they love their keeps on the
borderlands!) Once you have identified their base of operations, simply wait
until they leave on their next adventure or lead them off on one yourself.
While they are gone, wipe that town or keep off the map. Find their local
friends and kill them. Poison the wells. Leave nothing behind for them.
Then, if they establish a new base, do it again.
The advantages to this strategy are many. First, you are avoiding fighting
your toughest opponents and thus preserving your troops. You are sticking
the adventurers in their soft underbelly. Second, you are using your numbers
to best effect. Third, you are instilling fear in them. Now they have to
wonder if their friends are going to die the next time they go off to plunder
a dungeon. This puts them in a defensive frame of mind and gives you the
initiative. If they decide to stay home and defend their homes, great. Let
them waste their time protecting some worthless town while you enact your
grandiose plans!
You may sometimes find it to your advantage to take prisoners. They may be
able to provide useful information on the habits of the adventurers. You may
also find out if there is any tension within the group that you can exploit.
Prisoners also make great bait. You can get the adventurers exactly where
you want them with a few well-placed prisoners.
Your Greatest Temptation
There will come a point when you have simply had it with these verminous
adventurers. They will have ruined more of your plans than you can count,
and slain some of your favorite lieutenants. In that hour you will decide that
enough is enough. You will say you’ve had it with incompetent minions. You
will swear that there is only one way to end this threat: do it yourself.
This will be your greatest temptation. I am here to tell you to resist it and
the reason is simple. You are giving them exactly what they want—a chance
to take you down. If they kill you, they win. “But Charnel King,” I hear you
Tactics for Tyrants h Chris Pramas
say, “I am mighty enough to make nations tremble!” I hear you. I do. You
wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t have serious skills in personal
combat. You must remember, however, that you are not a dark warrior, you
are a dark lord. Your job is to lead. If your latest assault on the adventures
fails, you can always plan another one. But not if you are dead.
Fight Smarter
As you can see, there is more to being a dark lord than an army willing to
scream your name as they die. If you want your reign to last, if you want to
pass on your empire to the heir the Gods of the Underworld have anointed
for you, you need to defeat all your enemies. You can’t do that without some
knowledge of strategy and tactics. You will never reach heights of Krovasch
the Charnel King, but if you work hard and apply these lessons, you can your
write your own bloody chapter in the pages of history.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Military systems
at War
Steve Winter
he notion that warfare is older than mankind has an appealing
cynicism, but it’s hardly true. Fighting is ageless—many kinds of
animals fight and kill their own kind for territory, mates, dominance, and
other reasons besides food—but fighting is not warfare. True warfare requires
organization. It began when people started settling into towns.
This chapter looks at the organization of some of the most famous and
successful armies of the classical and medieval eras. The technology and social
structures of most fantasy settings aren’t much different from classical and
medieval Europe, so it’s an easy extrapolation from these historical examples
to whatever sprawling fantasy empire, seagoing raiders, or barbaric hordes
populate your campaign. Use them as models, and see how they change your
play and your outcomes.
Succeeding Despite Your Limitations
Organization covers many factors in an army’s success. It affects:
• How large the army can be before it fragments or gets in its own way
• How long the army can stay in the field before it dwindles away from
desertion and attrition
• How precisely the army can be controlled and maneuvered on and off
the battlefield
• The army’s ability to fight as a coordinated whole (as opposed to the
fighting ability of individual warriors or small groups)
With primitive organization, large numbers of warriors couldn’t be
maintained for long. An army consumes not just food and water but also
animals (eaten, or killed or wounded in combat or transit), weapons and
armor, medical supplies, transport, and money. When any of them run out,
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
the army starts shrinking rapidly. Efficient organization ensures that essential
material is on hand when and where it’s needed.
Campaigning Season
In the most primitive types of armies, there’s no distinction between
soldiers and civilians. Every able-bodied man fights; every able-bodied
man also plants, tends, and harvests the crops and livestock that sustain the
population until the next harvest. Nature puts the bookends on such an army’s
campaigning season. Soldiers can’t take up arms until after the seed is in the
ground, and they must be home again by harvest time.
An army that relies on professional soldiers is free from that limitation. It can
take to the field as soon as weather permits, and it can keep marching and
fighting until weather forces it back into garrison.
The citizen-type army faces the professional-type army at a huge disadvantage
for a host of reasons. For example, the simple fact that the professional army
can delay its attack until the amateurs are forced by nature either to drastically
thin their ranks or doom themselves and their families to a year of hunger is a
powerful weapon.
Command and Control
Lining up an army for battle was a laborious process that could take hours.
Battles were fought by mutual consent. If the enemy wasn’t interested in
fighting at that time and place, they’d just march away while you struggled
to get your army arranged to attack. The faster an army could array itself for
battle, the better the chances it had to fight on terms of its choosing.
Once an army was deployed, it could be controlled in only the simplest ways.
On a field covered with thousands of men and horses, a commander’s voice
might carry 100 yards, but 50 is more likely. Flags, drums, and bugles were
more reliable means of sending orders across the length of an army, but they
can communicate only the simplest commands. “Advance,” “retreat” (always
risky in the face of the enemy), and “send in the reserves now” are about the
extent of it.
Throughout the ages, one thing has remained constant about soldiering: it’s
all about the team, not the individual.
No matter how fierce its individual warriors might be, an army that couldn’t
maintain tight formation in the face of danger and casualties would be
overwhelmed piecemeal by more cohesive enemy troops until the whole
army collapsed in defeat. The ability to “divide and conquer” is as powerful
tactically as it is strategically. Cracking the enemy formation was almost
always a surer road to victory than just inflicting casualties. The enemy could
Kobold Guide to Combat
be shattered through shock of impact the way the Greek phalanxes and
Norman cavalry did it, or through casualties just as the Roman legions and
English archers did it. Either way, casualties alone were not the goal. It wasn’t
victory until the enemy line crumbled and enemy soldiers threw down their
weapons and ran for their lives.
Ancient armies were defined by their weapons of choice as much as by their
tactics. Specific weapons lend themselves to specific tactics and formations to
the point where those combinations are almost indivisible.
The spear is in many ways the iconic weapon of classical and medieval armies.
It’s also a perfect illustration of the idea that weapons define tactics. Spears are
easy to make and relatively easy to use (using them well is a different issue).
More than most other weapons, the use of spears is optimized when troops
stand shoulder-to-shoulder in close-packed, mutually-supporting ranks. Thus
they are ideal for quickly-raised, poorly-trained troops. All the spearman
needs to do is stay in position, keep the blade pointed at the enemy, and do
what everyone else around him is doing.
A few spear armies rose well above this minimal standard. The Greeks at
Marathon, for example, were citizen-soldiers, not professional warriors, but
they lifted citizen-soldiering to a high level. Alexander the Great conquered
the known world with unbreakable blocks of exceptionally well-trained,
professional spearmen.
The chief disadvantage of spears is that rigid blocks of spears are inflexible. A
phalanx of spearmen can advance slowly to its front and little else; turning is
difficult even with well-trained spearmen and nearly impossible otherwise.
If the phalanx is attacked from the flank or rear, it’s likely to crumble. Quickmoving light troops or cavalry are essential to protect the spearmen’s flanks.
Ranks of spearmen also make lovely targets for archers and slingers, thanks to
their high density compared to other troop types.
Though a phalanx advances by necessity at a stately pace, it’s a shock-ofimpact (usually just “shock”) formation. When spearmen contact the enemy’s
front line, a pushing match ensues, with a strong advantage going to the
side with the longest spears. Casualties during this phase of the battle would
be light, but that changed as soon as one line was pushed out of shape or
casualties opened up gaps in the defense. Then, very suddenly, one defender
would be faced by two or three attackers, or would face simultaneous attacks
from the front and the side. Once spearmen could no longer defend each
other, the formation would crumble rapidly as men turned to the only other
defense—running away. Rallying and reforming a broken battle line in the
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
confusion of combat was almost impossible with primitive command and
communication systems. A highly disciplined army such as the Spartans or
the Macedonians might stand their ground in the face of impending disaster,
but few others could.
Axes and Swords
Employed quite differently from spears, axes and swords are less cumbersome.
A block of swordsmen or axemen in formation can move and turn more
flexibly. Being flexible means that a troop’s flanks are less vulnerable because a
portion of a unit can turn to face a threat from another direction.
In most cases, swords and axes are not shock weapons. Swordsmen don’t
push a wedge into the enemy’s line or bear the enemy over with weight of
impact. Instead, they kill, gradually cutting their way into the enemy until the
casualties are overwhelming.
Swords and axes need room to swing, so the soldiers can’t stand as tightly
together as spearmen do. Low density reduces their vulnerability to missiles
but increases their vulnerability to shock. Compared to spearmen, who might
stand just three feet from their neighbors, a formation of swordsmen or
axemen might have six or even eight feet between files.
An exception to that was the Roman legionnary, who used a short sword
especially well-suited to stabbing. Roman swordsmen could operate in
formations nearly as tight as spearmen did, which gave them a great advantage
against the looser formations they often faced.
Light Troops
“Light troops” is a vague term covering infantry that relied on mobility rather
than armor and formation for protection. Such troops fought in loose mobs
to facilitate rapid movement, and used at least a few light missile weapons
(javelins, slings) to harass the enemy. Chiefly they scouted, foraged, infiltrated
gaps in an enemy position, occupied obstructed terrain that would break up a
rigid formation, and protected the flanks of less flexible formations—mainly
by delaying an approaching enemy, not by defeating it.
The biggest danger to light troops came from heavier, faster enemy cavalry
or chariots. In contrast, light troops were too spread out to be good targets
for missiles, and so weren’t as vulnerable to those weapons as more compact
formations might be.
Skirmishers differ from light troops in that the skirmishers’ chief weapons
are slings, javelins, small bows, and other missile weapons. Otherwise,
they operate much like light troops, relying on speed rather than armor
or formation for protection. Their main function is harassment, and the
Kobold Guide to Combat
main danger to them comes from enemy cavalry. It was common to spread
skirmishers across the front of an army to rain arrows and sling stones on
the approaching enemy. When the enemy drew close, skirmishers retreated
through or around friendly units into protective positions on the flanks.
Missile troops operate in formation, relying on the density and deadliness of
their fire for effectiveness. Their purpose was to weaken enemy formations
and throw them into disarray before their own spearmen, swordsmen, or
cavalry charged. When missiles were used effectively, this tactic delivered a
powerful one-two punch.
A trio of exceptional battles during the Hundred Years War—Agincourt,
Crecy, and Poitiers—created the myth of the almost supernatural lethality of
the longbow. Missile troops on their own, however, stood little chance against
a determined assault from enemy infantry or cavalry. That’s not to say that
bows in general and the longbow in particular were not excellent weapons,
but as usual, the myth exceeds the reality.
Chariots were used only in the early stages of organized warfare. They have
terrific terror and shock potential against loose infantry or against the flanks
of inflexible phalanxes.
Their drawbacks, however, are significant. While individual chariots are
relatively nimble, they’re cumbersome in formation, making them easy
for quick-footed troops to outmaneuver. They can operate only on open,
unobstructed, level ground.
The chief reason chariots were initially favored over cavalry is that horses of
that time were too small to carry men in battle. When horses were finally bred
large enough to be effective mounts, cavalry rose in prominence and chariots
became obsolete in war.
Cavalry: Light, Medium, and Heavy
A soldier mounted on a horse has tremendous advantages over a man on
foot. First, cavalry can cover a long stretch of ground at a fast pace and the
riders will still be reasonably rested and ready to fight when they arrive.
Second, horses are faster than humans. Mounted troops get to choose when,
where, and even whether there will be a fight between cavalry and infantry.
Mounted troops can circle around foot formations to get onto or behind
their flanks. If a cavalry officer doesn’t like the odds, his riders can easily
escape enemy infantry (which is a big reason why the nobility and rich
patricians usually went to war on horseback), while infantry can’t run away
from cavalry that’s bent on catching them. Third, sitting atop a horse lets a
mounted soldier put all his strength and weight into downward stabs and
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
swings of his weapon. A thrust from a lance or spear is nearly unstoppable
with the momentum of a charging horse behind it. Finally, the horse itself is
both intimidating and formidable.
Cavalry reached its full potential only when it was enhanced by the simple but
ingenious invention of the stirrup. Without stirrups, a mounted soldier is at
risk of tumbling from the horse with every sword swing and violent maneuver.
With stirrups, a rider is as stable and sure-footed as a man standing on the
ground, if not even more so.
Light cavalry was typically equipped with swords or spears but no armor and
possibly no stirrups. It was good for scouting, protecting the army’s flanks,
and chasing down a beaten enemy in flight. It couldn’t deal with heavier
cavalry or even with infantry that wasn’t already near the breaking point.
Medium cavalry is differentiated from light cavalry mainly by the addition
of some armor and by more significant training to press an attack. It still
could not attack a steady wall of enemy spearmen from the front, but
almost anything was fair game if the cavalry could maneuver onto the
enemy’s side or rear. In other words, medium cavalry was equipped and
trained to fight rather than to act as a screening and scouting force. In
most regards, this difference in training, not equipment, was sometimes
the biggest distinction between light and medium cavalry.
Heavy cavalry was equipped and prepared to charge into the enemy, shatter
their formation, and fight blade-to-blade from horseback against nearly
any foe. Both horse and rider wore significant armor. All that armor cut
down the cavalry’s mobility, but also made for a nearly unstoppable force.
European knights are the most obvious examples of this type, but the
Mongols, the Goths, and even Alexander the Great incorporated heavy
cavalry into their armies.
Mounted Bows
The difference between cavalry and mounted bows is their method of
fighting. Cavalry closes in with the foe and fights in melee, using the size
and strength of its mounts to overpower the enemy. Mounted bows take the
opposite approach; they use their mounts’ speed and agility to keep out of
the enemy’s reach while harassing them to death with arrows. Some mounted
bowmen also carried swords or stabbing spears; they could ride into foes who
were disorganized or panicked by the rain of missiles and cut them down
as medium cavalry would. Historically, this tactic was an Asian innovation.
European armies didn’t pick up on it until well into the Renaissance.
The famed cataphracts of Byzantium were unique and merit their own
classification. They could skirmish like mounted bowmen, charge and fight
Kobold Guide to Combat
from horseback like heavy cavalry, and dismount to fight on foot as armored
swordsmen. They trained rigorously, devoting all their time and attention to
their profession, which was possible only with the backing of a wealthy state
such as the Eastern Roman Empire. They were arguably the most effective
troops in the world until firearms made their tactics obsolete.
Elephants were the ancient world’s “wonder weapons.” Their purpose was to
look awesome and frighten everything into fleeing out of their path, to crush
anything that didn’t flee, and to generally spread confusion, terror, and panic
through the enemy’s ranks. Unfortunately, drivers have essentially no control
over enraged elephants and the creatures don’t care who they stomp on,
making them equally dangerous to friend and foe alike. They were used for
only a few centuries in war before falling completely out of fashion.
A typical fantasy setting offers many alternatives to elephants. Dinosaurs,
dragons, oliphaunts, and anything with the word “dire” in its name are just
a few examples. Intelligent creatures such as dragons and treants might have
most of the strengths of elephants without their catastrophic unpredictability.
Dumb brutes such as t-rexes might be controllable with magic. The presence
of these types of units on the battlefield, under control, could be the biggest
difference between historical warfare and war in a fantasy setting—even
bigger than the use of magic spells, though that depends on how well-suited to
war your magic system is.
Great Armies of Antiquity
With the pieces gathered, how were they assembled into winning armies?
The “barbaric” armies of the Celts, Gauls, and Germans might not qualify as
great armies, but they did manage to win their share of victories over more
organized foes. They are also staples of fantasy worlds, and that combination
makes their fighting methods worth examining.
Strengths: Barbarian armies are armies of the people. Every able-bodied man,
and sometimes women too, were expected to answer the call when war
loomed. Personal bravery held great cultural importance. Warriors trained
individually to become skillful with their weapons in one-on-one matches.
Germanic society was organized around tribes. A tribe of 25,000-40,000
people could field 6,000-10,000 warriors. Each tribe was subdivided into
groupings of a hundred or so regional families. Armies were organized
along the same lines. The warriors from one family or region fought
together in a block, alongside other blocks formed by other families.
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
Being surrounded by all the fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, and other
men of their extended families bolstered the warriors and gave these
blocks tremendous cohesion. To show cowardice in that company was
unthinkable. A secondary benefit of these family units was that in defeat,
they tended to stick together and protect one another, unlike part-time
armies that tended to disintegrate in defeat. This cohesion reduced
casualties and hastened the army’s regrouping.
Weaknesses: The primitive organization of barbaric societies meant large
numbers of warriors could not stay together for long. With no logistic
support, military campaigns were basically large-scale raids. Their targets
were livestock, tools, slaves, gold, and enough food to keep the army going.
War had to pay for itself in real time.
Individual blocks of Gallic or Germanic infantry were flexible, but as a
gathered mass, they were unwieldy.
Tactics: The typical barbarian deployment for battle consisted of gathering
all the warriors on high ground, with the mass of footmen in the center,
horsemen (light and medium cavalry) on the wings, and young men
spread across the front as skirmishers. The attack consisted of a headlong
downhill charge accompanied by tremendous screaming. Stones and
javelins might be thrown just before impact with the enemy line.
If the initial impact failed to bowl over the enemy, there was little recourse
except to retreat back up the hill, rest a bit, and try again. The army lacked
the chain of command and communication to make anything else possible.
If the enemy held good defensive ground, the odds for victory were slim.
While barbarian chieftains were perfectly capable of coming up with more
complex plans, few of them had enough command over their unorganized,
undisciplined armies to get those plans carried out.
The end: Fighting against better organized, better equipped imperial enemies
had a strong civilizing effect on barbarian organization and command. The
“barbarian” armies that brought down the Western Roman Empire in the
sixth century A.D. had as much in common with the Romans they fought
as with their first-century ancestors who confronted the Roman legions
across the Rhine.
Macedonia and Alexander the Great
There were all-conquering armies before Alexander swept across the known
world—the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Sea People—but there
had been no “great armies.” Much of Egypt’s success, for example, can be
attributed to the tremendous fertility of the Nile valley. The Assyrians had the
immense advantage of possessing iron while their enemies did not.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Macedonia was a poor, hilly country with no such advantages. Instead, it had
superb leadership, stern discipline, and rigorous training. We tend to take
those for granted in the modern world, but it was a rare combination in the
4th century B.C.
Strengths: The core of Alexander’s army was a phalanx. Unlike the Greek
phalanxes that came before, the Macedonian phalanx was equipped with
tremendously long pikes rather than spears, and the formation was as much
as sixteen ranks deep instead of the traditional six (in open order) or three
(in close order). This formation had awesome shock power and was an
absolutely secure foundation around which the rest of the army operated.
The hypaspists formed a smaller, more elite, more mobile phalanx that
deployed between the main phalanx and Alexander’s cavalry, almost
like a hinge.
Macedonian horsemen were the decisive arm. They operated as heavy
cavalry, charging and fighting in close combat with spears despite not
having stirrups; they were some of the only cavalry ever to manage that
feat successfully. Alexander usually led the cavalry in person, which is why
they were referred to as the Companions.
A mixture of light infantry, skirmishers, mercenary swordsmen, speararmed Greek allies, and light cavalry rounded out the army. They guarded
the flank of the phalanx opposite the hypaspists and Companions,
harassed the enemy, formed the reserve, and protected the camp.
Finally, Alexander and his generals deserve special mention. Alexander was
the greatest military genius prior to Napoleon, and he selected and trained
talented lieutenants. It’s easy to understand how an army whose training
and discipline far outstripped its enemies, whose officers were selected for
ability and were fanatically loyal to their commander, and whose general
had no equal for 2,000 years, could conquer every foe it faced.
Weaknesses: Very few. The phalanx, the hypaspists, and the Companions
were the heart and soul of the army and bore the brunt of the fighting.
The allies, mercenaries, and other auxiliary units seldom had decisive
roles. Ultimately, Alexander himself was the army’s greatest weakness.
His genius and charisma held everything together, and the army couldn’t
survive his early death.
Tactics: The phalanx formed a secure base around which all other units
maneuvered. The Companions typically struck first by charging into a weak
point in the enemy’s line. A shock cavalry charge was so unusual in that age
that sometimes this alone was enough to shatter an enemy, but more often,
it would be followed by attacks from the hypaspists, then the phalanx.
This approach would not have worked for a lesser army. It worked for
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
Alexander because the training and discipline of the Macedonian army
were superior to his foes and because the lesser armies it encountered
couldn’t stand up to the repeated blows.
The end: Alexander conquered every foe he could find until his sudden
death at age 32. With no clear heir, his generals fell to warring between
themselves over his conquests. This was a typical end for many charismatic
leaders and warlords; they rose to command and conquered their
surroundings only to die before they could cement their conquests into a
lasting nation. Alexander’s case was far more dramatic than most.
There is no single “Roman legion.” The army of Rome evolved greatly
through the thousand years of its existence. For our purposes, we’ll talk about
the legions in their most iconic form, beginning with the reforms of Caius
Marius in 107 B.C. through the chaotic third century, when the army went
through another significant transformation. This is the army of Julius Caesar
and Augustus, the army that conquered Gaul, Germania, Dalmatia, Galitia,
and Aegyptus.
In contrast to the complex, spear-heavy, combined-arms system of Alexander,
the Roman army was primarily infantry, and those infantry were almost
entirely swordsmen. They used a short sword for stabbing and cutting instead
of slashing, which meant legionaries could stand closer together than the
sword-swinging barbarians they often faced. Closer ranks equals more men in
the fighting line and more mutual support.
The swordsmen were supported by skirmishers (velites) and by light cavalry
on their flanks, but these were always secondary to the infantry. It was the
well-trained swordsmen led by experienced officers who won the battles.
Strengths: Once the Roman army became a full-time professional force
under Marius, it emphasized drill and experience. The greatest innovation
the Romans made was rigorous, professional training of full-time soldiers.
All leaders aside from generals were promoted from the ranks, and there
were no class distinctions between soldiers. Men stayed together in the
same units for decades, giving them some of the same familial cohesion as
the barbarian clans they fought.
The legions were also justly famous for their ability to dig fortifications
rapidly and to build siege machinery and bridges. Engineers were an
essential part of the army. Every man carried a shovel along with his
weapons and armor, and the shovels were responsible for almost as many
victories as the weapons.
Organizationally, the legion was unsurpassed. Every man knew his unit
and every unit knew its position. Equipment was standardized and
Kobold Guide to Combat
designed so soldiers could carry their own gear, eliminating most of the
baggage train and making the legion fast on its feet.
Weaknesses: Cavalry was this legion’s biggest drawback. There was never
enough, and being light, it couldn’t stand up to heavier enemy cavalry in
combat. Rome survived this shortcoming for centuries because most of
its enemies were cavalry-poor, too. Against foes that had plentiful cavalry
and knew how to use it, such as the Parthians, the Marian legion suffered
much grief.
Tactics: Roman tactics were more involved than they appear at first glance.
The legions didn’t simply line up and stab away at the enemy.
Early in their history, the Romans arrayed their troops in an unusual
checkerboard of cohorts in three lines. The checkerboard continued in
use for deployment and movement on the battlefield, but for the actual
fighting, the cohorts linked together into a continuous line backed by a
reserve. One key to their durability in combat is how the legionaries were
drilled to fall back through the ranks at regular intervals. This continually
placed fresh fighters on the front line and allowed exhausted men several
minutes’ rest at the rear.
Such manipulation in the midst of combat was possible only with soldiers
who were drilled to a high level of readiness and led by skilful lowlevel commanders. Their professionalism gave the Romans a significant
advantage over most foes.
The end: The legions’ weakness in cavalry led to its complete collapse when
it encountered the Huns, armies which consisted of nothing but armored
cavalry and mounted bowmen. The Huns’ arrival in eastern Europe
signaled the end of the great, massive infantry armies and ushered in the
age of cavalry.
As the Roman Empire was handing over the keys to the “barbarians” and
turning off the lights in the west, Byzantium was flowering in the east. The
Byzantines adopted and adapted the best elements from the Germanic,
Hunnic, and Persian armies and melded them into an army that stood against
mighty odds for another millennium.
The Byzantine army was composed of three roughly equal parts. The heavy
infantry were well armored with chain mail, helmet, greaves, and shield, and
were most often armed with axes. Skirmishers wore light armor or none at
all and most often used bows, though other missile weapons also appeared,
depending on whether the skirmishers were Byzantines, allies, or mercenaries.
The third arm was the aforementioned and justly famous cataphracts.
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
Strengths: The cataphracts were the supreme soldiers of their age. No one
could match them for training, equipment, or versatility. The Byzantine
army as a whole was the only professional, full-time standing army of its
age. It generally had solid leadership, but even when it didn’t, the army’s
thorough training and fighting skill prevented incompetent leaders from
orchestrating disasters against all but the most capable enemies. Byzantine
generals were adept at judging the weaknesses of their enemies. Because
the army was so well trained and the cataphracts so flexible, there was no
weakness they could not capitalize on.
Weaknesses: An army like that of Byzantium is complex to manage and
expensive to maintain. Keeping it at its best drains gold from the national
coffers and talent from the national population that might otherwise be
put to more constructive purposes than war. Because Byzantium almost
always had enemies, the army couldn’t be allowed to go to seed to save
money (though the navy often was).
Tactics: Like the Roman legions of an earlier age, the Byzantine army still
arrayed itself with infantry in the center and cavalry on the wings, even
though its striking power had shifted from infantry to cavalry. A typical
battle developed with the infantry holding its ground while trying its
best to look weak and outnumbered, to draw the enemy forward. When
the enemy advanced, the cataphracts rode out to envelop the enemy line.
First the enemy would be harassed and disordered with bowfire, then
the cataphracts could charge, mounted or afoot, to complete the enemy’s
destruction. These basic tactics, with variations, were used for centuries.
Since they worked, and the Empire’s enemies never seemed to catch on,
they enjoyed a long run of success.
The end: Perhaps not surprisingly, Byzantium was dealt more serious blows
by its “friends” than by its enemies. When European kings answered
Byzantium’s call for help and launched the Fourth Crusade in 1202, the
crusaders broke their vow to spare Christian cities when they invaded and
sacked Constantinople on their way to Jerusalem. The Empire remained
in existence for several centuries longer, but it never recovered its previous
glory and power.
The Vikings were raiders par excellence. They came for plunder, pure and simple.
Man for man, Vikings tended to be taller and stronger than continental
Europeans. Their ferocity and brutality in combat was legendary, and that
reputation contributed to their success.
Organizationally, the Vikings were not significantly different from the
barbarian tribes discussed earlier, but they were organized around the ship
Kobold Guide to Combat
rather than the tribe or clan. They attacked with a headlong charge using
swords, axes, and spears. They also made good use of bows—possibly an
outgrowth of their seafaring culture, where it was sometimes crucial to be able
to strike an enemy you couldn’t physically reach with swords and axes.
The Viking’s success as raiders, however, didn’t come from battlefield tactics
but from strategy. Their attacks always came as a surprise. Viking longships
had much shallower draft than any other European ships. They could sail up
rivers farther than any other vessels of their size, and they could land along
stretches of coast that other ships couldn’t get near for fear of tearing open
their hulls on rocks. Since it was impossible to know where the Vikings would
strike, it was impossible to position forces for defense, and the raiders would
be gone with their loot before help could arrive.
Strengths: Throughout the history of warfare, the essence of winning strategy
has been to strike where the enemy is weak and change the situation before
the enemy can respond. The Vikings had that part down cold. Combine
that with their mastery of seafaring and their ferocious reputations and you
get a force that can terrorize 20,000 miles of coastline for a century.
Weaknesses: For obvious reasons, the Vikings couldn’t include cavalry in
their raids. They often captured horses locally, but they used them for
mobility when striking at inland targets more than as battle mounts. The
suddenness of Viking raids led their foes to rely on mounted forces more
and more, chiefly because only mounted warriors had a hope of reaching a
trouble spot before the Vikings put back to sea, but also because horsemen
had a tactical advantage over the Norse warbands.
Tactics: As noted above, tactical brilliance was not how the Vikings won their
engagements. They sometimes employed ruses such as feigned retreats, but
their greatest successes were won before any sword was drawn, when the
target was selected and the ships were mustered beyond sight of land.
The end: What we think of as the age of the Vikings started in the late
8th century and raged for about a hundred years. By the end of the 9th
century, Europeans were developing effective countermeasures to the
Vikings’ strategy. Chiefly, this amounted to the feudal system: a ready force
of professional fighters on horseback who could respond quickly to threats,
operating from strong central fortifications where people could retreat
for safety, with a host of fees and duties imposed on those people for the
protection they received.
Cultural forces inside Norse society, however, played at least as large a role.
By the late 800s, Norway and Denmark were becoming real kingdoms
with centralized power, and kings tend to discourage powerful, aggressive,
independent local lords from pursuing their own agendas. After a brief
hiatus, the former raiders would reappear as conquerors, but that was a
very different type of operation.
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
The Normans didn’t invent the heavy cavalry charge, but they perfected it. In
the process, they changed the face of warfare, the political shape of Europe,
and the whole Mediterranean basin.
It’s astounding that an invention as simple and important as the stirrup took
so long to appear. It rates with iron, gunpowder, and mechanization in terms
of its revolutionizing effect on warfare. Unlike those three, stirrups weren’t
waiting for a technological breakthrough to make them possible; all that
was needed was the idea, yet humans apparently rode around on horses for
millennia before that idea occurred to anyone.
When someone finally did think of it, it changed everything. An armored
cavalryman could couch a lance tightly between his arm and his body, brace
himself in the stirrups, and ride full-tilt into a wall of enemies with the force
of a runaway train, with little fear of being knocked off his horse. The age of
infantry-heavy, defensive-minded armies with light cavalry on the wings was
over; the age of aggressive, attack-minded armies with hard-charging cavalry
in the center had arrived.
The Normans were descended from Vikings who settled in northern France
and intermingled with the native Merovingians. They were opportunistic
conquerors who, over the span of two centuries, carved out Norman
kingdoms in Italy, Sicily, the Holy Land, and England.
A typical Norman army was split into three contingents. The core was the
heavy cavalry wearing long mail coats and conical helmets, and carrying
distinctive kite shields, lances, and swords. Their lances were not the heavy
poles of the Middle Ages; they were long but also light enough to be thrown
like spears if circumstances dictated. The cavalry was supported by spearmen
with similar arms and armor. The third contingent was a mix of bowmen,
slingers, javelin throwers, and other skirmishers with little or no armor.
Strengths: Heavy cavalry is only part of the story where the Normans are
concerned. Cavalry was the tool, but the other component in their success
was sheer audacity. Everywhere they went, no matter what odds they
faced, the Normans seemed to believe that there was no foe they could not
best if they simply put their faith in God and their lances in the enemy.
Battle after battle, they proved themselves right.
In addition, the Normans were great adopters of the methods and
traditions of the cultures they conquered. Norman heavy cavalry always
formed the core of their armies, but the infantry and skirmishers were
drawn locally from both Christian and Moslem subjects, and they retained
their traditional, local systems and weapons rather than something
imposed by the conquerors. “True” Normans were always a minority in
their conquered territories (probably even in Normandy) and in their
Kobold Guide to Combat
armies, but Norman generals were seldom disappointed by their allies
when the going got tough. That fact alone speaks volumes about the
Normans’ ability in diplomacy and leadership.
The Normans were also enthusiastic castle builders. Like the Romans
before them, they understood that a small force could dominate a
disproportionately large territory if it had an unassailable base to operate
from. Unlike the Romans, who tended to fortify only their frontiers,
the Normans built castles everywhere and made them the focus of their
system of government.
Weaknesses: On the battlefield, the Normans had few liabilities. Where
they conquered and established kingdoms, Norman rulers were almost
never overthrown.
Tactics: A typical Norman attack opened with archery at a range of 100 yards
or less (a factor of their bows more than a tactical choice). When the fall
of arrows caused sufficient casualties and disorder among the enemy (or
the arrows ran low), the cavalry charged. The charging cavalry could tear
apart a disorganized enemy, or it could stop short and poke at an intact
enemy shield wall with its spears or throw the spears in an effort to create
a gap that the archers did not. The Normans’ own spearmen usually did
not advance until after the cavalry had done its work shattering the enemy
The end: If the Normans had a weakness, it was their low numbers. They
“disappeared” as a distinct people outside of Normandy because they
intermingled, intermarried, and ultimately were absorbed by their subjects.
The Mongols were the most successful of the many nomadic cultures
that arose on the steppes and grasslands of Asia whose wanderings were
combined with conquest. Despite being labeled a horde, the Mongol army
was not that big (it was often outnumbered on the battlefield), and it was very
well organized. It was not a “barbarian horde” at all but an Imperial army.
Organization, more than ferocity or unusual weapons or innovative tactics,
was the key to the Mongols’ success.
The entire army was mounted, and was split about 50/50 between bowmen
and cavalry. The cavalry was further split about 50/50 between armored
(heavy) and unarmored (medium), but both types were armed with lances
plus scimitars or axes and drilled continually for close combat.
Strengths: Mongol warriors were excellent horsemen. With every warrior
mounted, the army could move with terrific speed on and off the
battlefield. Many individuals brought spare ponies into battle so they could
switch mounts when one was injured or exhausted. The army had a logical
Military Systems at War h Steve Winter
structure, a clear hierarchy of command, a powerful tradition of revering
commanders and following orders, and a thoroughly practiced battlefield
drill that was suited for creative modification.
Weaknesses: Mongolian horses could endure great hardship, but they were
smaller and slower than European warhorses—at least, they were slower
than European horses that weren’t weighed down with heavy armor and a
heavily armored warrior. The enormous number of horses accompanying
the army could strip an area of fodder in a short time. The Mongols had
to keep moving to avoid starving. Areas that were barren, arid, forested,
experiencing drought, or that had already been stripped by the enemy
could weaken the army severely. Combat engineering was not a traditional
element of Mongol warrior culture, but captured engineers were
incorporated into the armies whenever possible. A small baggage train was
needed to carry the enormous number of arrows the archers shot off.
Tactics: The Mongols’ basic tactics were simple. The horse archers would
gallop toward the enemy, loosing arrows as they rode, then circle away to
rest and regroup while others repeated the maneuver. When the rain of
arrows had created sufficient disarray and panic in the enemy ranks, the
cavalry charged and completed the enemy’s destruction.
The Mongols were inventive where tactics were concerned, however, and
this simple pattern lent itself well to creative variations inspired by the
situation. Enemies unfamiliar with Mongol tactics sometimes interpreted
the horse archers’ planned withdrawal to be a panicked retreat and broke
ranks to pursue; the cavalry would never hesitate to take advantage of
such a mistake. Feigning a retreat or leaving a gap in their own lines to
lure a portion of the enemy away from the main formation were favorite
Mongol ruses.
The end: The Mongol expansion across Asia created an empire second only
to Rome in size. Their invasion of Europe was one of the most devastating
catastrophes ever to hit that continent. Why they turned back is one of
the mysteries of history. Some historians claim the army retreated to deal
with political upheaval caused by the death of the Great Khan; others that
the Mongols feared they would be fighting at an ever-greater disadvantage
in Europe’s hills and forests; and yet others that, having achieved the
campaign’s goal of safeguarding the Mongol empire against invasion
from Europe (by brutally knocking Europe face down into the ashes of its
former glory), they had no reason to keep advancing.
Whatever the reason might be, if the Mongols had continued their assault,
it’s hard to see how they could have been stopped; the Europeans simply
lacked the means. Europe might well have fallen to Mongol conquest in
the 13th century.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The importance
of tension and
raising the stakes
Diana Pharaoh Francis
he whole point of creating a story is to keep readers reading; this is
true in gaming as well. If you don’t keep your players interested in
the game, then they quit and the game is over. (Come on, say it with me:
Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Really. I’m a doctor. Don’t ask me to operate on you,
though—I’m not that kind.) OK, so it is obvious in a lot of ways. One key
method of keeping your audience riveted is to up the stakes and tension.
The nature of the stakes—or what a character has at risk—can mean the
difference between a snoozefest and an extraordinary adventure. I’m
going to talk about establishing the stakes for characters, and then raising
them and consequently ratcheting up the tension, which is the concern
your audience has for those characters (and is the key to their emotional
engagement in the story).
What Do I Mean by Stakes?
The stakes in a story or RPG outing should evolve and change and the
potential of what is risked should become increasingly valuable. Generally
stakes fall into three different categories: emotional, physical, and material.
• Emotional refers to emotional pain: loss, grief, horror, fear, betrayal,
and so on. I should note here that emotional pain matters as much as
the physical, possibly more because it strikes deeper into the soul and
often lasts a lifetime, unlike most physical pain, which heals. Keep in
mind the two frequently go hand in hand.
• Physical refers to bodily harm: rape, torture, scarring, infertility,
illness, and countless others.
Tension and Raising the Stakes h Diana Pharaoh Francis
• Material refers to something being lost: a house, a fortune, an
heirloom, even a beloved toy.
At this point, you’ll notice I’m referring only to a character’s stakes. I’ll touch
on lands, village, towns, cities, worlds, and so on, a little farther on.
Raising the stakes throughout the course of a story lends urgency so that the
reader turns pages, or in a game, continues playing. You want your players
to be not only engaged in their characters’ successes or failures, but also the
characters’ struggles to get where they are going and accomplish their tasks.
Games and stories are always about the journey, not the destination.
Let’s look at a couple of examples quickly before we move on. I’m going
to use Frodo, the hero of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fairly well-known
character example.
In the category of emotional pain, Frodo goes through a great deal. It starts
fairly mildly. He’s going to miss his uncle, Bilbo, who inexplicably disappears.
That’s the pain of loss, but one that’s reasonably tolerable. But then the
emotional hazards get worse. Frodo is sent running from home in fear for his
life. He’s forced into a world that is confusing and frightening. The book has
barely started and already the reader is worried about his very survival, and
not just because of the threat of the nazgul. As the story goes on, he’s faced
with increasingly difficult emotional challenges: Gandalf ’s apparent death,
Boromir’s betrayal and the need to go on alone, the encounter with Shelob and,
let’s not forget, the incessantly frustrating company of Gollum. He faces many
more emotional struggles as he goes on, most importantly whether or not he’s
even capable of succeeding. If he fails, will he cause the deaths or enslavement
of his friends and much of the world? No pressure there, none at all.
You’ll notice that the stakes step up as the story progresses. The potential
of what Frodo risks increases. While he’s with the fellowship, he’s got help.
If he falls, someone else might take on the task. He sets off alone with
Samwise, but has little faith that Sam can do the job. It quickly becomes a
story of one man’s strength of body and heart. You’ll also notices that he
rarely wins. Mostly, he escapes situations battered and bruised and by the
skin of his teeth. It is important that characters not succeed easily, but are
forced to suffer and struggle, or else the audience/reader/players have no real
engagement. You want them to connect with your characters and feel their
struggles and pain and loss. So you have to start thinking about character
torture—but I don’t necessarily mean thumbscrews and the rack.
Physical pain is easy to throw into a story, but you must consider the
ramifications. Torture can be a dreadful thing. Once you start thinking
through just how horrible it can be, then you have to figure out how far
you want to push it. What can your players/audience stand? Is a character
capable of overcoming that torture or physical harm in order to proceed?
Kobold Guide to Combat
Consider: Jaime Lannister, of A Song of Ice and Fire, loses a hand. Will he be
able to continue to be a knight? How will that loss damage or change who
he is and what he is capable of? If he were to lose a leg, in his world, he’d be
useless and would have to act from a chair. He could be a mastermind and
cause a great deal of trouble that way, but he would most definitely not be
the character he had been, which was entirely wrapped up in his physical
prowess as a knight.
Material stakes involve what might be lost or gained in terms of property,
resources, or treasure. Will someone lose a house or a village or an entire
land? In the case of Lord of the Rings, Sauron means to rule Middle-earth. In
the case of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen means to claim the Iron Throne.
Who knows what the Wildings want? Maybe just to eat everyone. But there’s
something worse, isn’t there?
That something worse that lurks in the shadows is incredibly interesting to
a storyteller—whether it’s an RPG quest you’re building or a novel you’re
writing. It allows you to slowly reveal the various levels of threat and ratchet
up the danger as more is revealed. As long as it makes sense within the story
and you lay the foundations of its existence as you go, it will work. You can’t
get away with, ”Surprise! There’s been this devil monster here all along and
it’s going to now eat everyone!” That’s a deus ex machina; your readers and
players will kill you and then dump you into a vat of acid just to be clear
about how angry you’ve made them.
Exactly How Do you Raise the Stakes?
Start with your characters, of course. What are their personal stakes?
• Ask what’s the worse thing that she thinks could happen to her?
• Brainstorm it out.
• Then ask, what’s the worst thing that could actually happen to her?
Brainstorm it out. Chances are they aren’t necessarily the same things.
What someone thinks is the worst thing that could happen might not account
for what actually might be the worst thing. If your character thinks having
her husband cheat on her is the worst thing that could happen in her life,
what if she’s wrong? What if her child is kidnapped? It’s not even imaginable.
She now discovers that the worst thing is what blindsides a person.
“Nobody,” as Monty Python would have it, “ever expects the Spanish
Inquisition.” You want to both surprise your characters while, at the same
time, remaining within the scope of the game and the world you’ve built.
In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, no one expected the Red Wedding,
but even though it was a surprise, it wasn’t a surprise at all. The world and
the characters were already set up for it to be believable. It was shocking,
certainly, but afterward, the reader could nod and say, “Of course! It makes
perfect sense.”
Tension and Raising the Stakes h Diana Pharaoh Francis
The worst things can be small. The car breaks down today of all days. A man
forgets to clean his gun and, in a crucial moment, it won’t fire. A woman twists
her ankle right before the bridge collapses and she’s too late to get across. She
turns around to find what new horror? Trolls? Orcs? A hungry vampire? A
wizard who plans to enslave her? The context of the moment matters.
Raising the stakes is also not static: you don’t do it once and forget it. You
continue to cause your characters trouble and make their lives difficult, which
increases what might be lost or gained. Be thinking about what else can go
wrong at all times. You don’t want to put them into a situation where they
might die all the time. For one thing, death is boring. It’s over with and the
character is out of the story or game and what’s the fun of that? It can also only
happen once (most of the time, though this is fantasy and there are vampires,
ghosts, zombies and such, but generally, once is usually all a character gets).
If you’re George R. R. Martin and you have a cast of thousands, that’s not a
problem. If you’re running a game, it’s definitely a problem.
It’s better to continually put a character in crisis, and one that depends
on their context and what’s been happening to that character so far. I’ll
give an example from one of my books, Path of Fate. In the book, Reisil is
very happy as a healer for her town. She’s well-respected, she has her own
house and a great life. Then one day, the Goddess sends her a goshawk. The
Goddess pairs people with animals and those pairs become the hands of
justice in the world. They become rootless and have to travel and do things
they never dreamed of. What does Reisil do when given this great honor?
She says no. The worst thing that could happen to her at that time is the
same thing that everybody else in her country would consider a great honor.
But she loves her life, and giving it up would be terrible for her.
Next, the daughter of an enemy country’s ambassador gets kidnapped
in her town. Reisil has befriended the girl and she’s being shut out of the
investigation. War will certainly occur if the girl isn’t found. Reisil now has no
choice but to bond with the goshawk. Circumstances make her give up her
life. She’s forced into a terrible choice. But now the goshawk is very angry at
her and their bonding is not a pleasant one. She has to hunt for kidnappers
without any real preparation or skill, while at the same time battling with her
Goddess-given animal, who delights in torturing her. If she can’t make the
bond work, she’ll fail. If she can’t overcome her physical limitations, she’ll fail.
If she can’t find the kidnappers, she’ll fail. If she can’t rescue the girl, she’ll fail.
If she fails, war returns and people she cares about die. A lot of them.
That’s a key element of raising the stakes. Present your characters with
terrible choices. Does the farmer save his wife or his daughter? He can’t
save both. Does the knight protect the king as he’s sworn to do or stop the
wizard from poisoning an inn full of people? Just how important is the king
anyway? What if the knight hates the king? What if the king is the despicable
Joffrey Baratheon?
Kobold Guide to Combat
Broadening the Stakes
This brings me to the stakes that involve more than just the character’s own
personal pain. What about the world and the effects on politics, geography,
and the populace? Your story might be playing with the fates of a village, a
city, a country or even an entire planet. You might be concerned about an
invasion or an epidemic or a natural disaster. How many will be effected
and how?
The stakes go up when more than just the character’s life or well-being is
on the line, and leads us to the notion of scope. Scope is about how big
the problem is beyond the main character. Epic fantasy, which tends to be
the focus of many RPGs, often has a broad scope and deals with the rise
and fall of one or more countries or races. Urban fantasy may deal with
world invasion by demons, or it may focus on a kidnapping or a very local
phenomenon. In science fiction, it might be about a planet or universe. The
magnitude of the effect is scope: how big will the ripples be when the rock
drops into the quiet pond?
That gives you opportunity to really take your characters on a wide-ranging
journey. They might cross continents or travel across galaxies, or they might
be confined to a city. Whatever you choose, be aware of the potential losses
and risks for the place, the various people, the political regime, and so on.
Think about what could go wrong and make it so.
No matter the risks to the politics, geography, or the populace, your choices
should always comes back to the impact on your characters. After all, they
are the reason for the story. And of course, from that impact, you can judge
what might happen next to raise the stakes.
Raising the stakes means establishing how they affect the characters. It
means potentially losing what they didn’t expect or sacrificing—making
choices. You also raise the stakes when you increase the number of things
that could happen or the risks that the characters take. You can increase
the pace and tension this way. In other words, you want more than a one
or two note sense of stakes. Think of it like a symphony. You have different
movements, multiple harmonies and melodies—lots and lots of notes
making up the whole. For your story, you want to do the same. You want
to put multiple risks on the table that create conflicts and rising tension
situations that lead to more risks. Escalate it all by increasing the danger and
risk, and definitely make sure that failure is an option.
An Exercise
Pick two characters and quickly list the worst things they each think could
happen to them. The goal is to create a list of four or five things that they could
imagine being a dreadful calamity. (Be sure to be in the characters’ mentality
when you do this).
Tension and Raising the Stakes h Diana Pharaoh Francis
Next, brainstorm two-to-three minutes for each character (first one, then
another) about the actual worst things that might happen to them—that they
can’t imagine.
Now pick one thing from each of your four lists, and for each one, brainstorm
the consequences for that character if it should come to pass. Think about the
gains or losses, not only to them, but to other characters and the world at large.
What if Boromir had succeeded in taking the ring?
This exercise can be repeated for the characters as each calamity comes to pass.
Each time, increase the risk and the danger. As your character gets deeper into
trouble, keep making things go wrong.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Gaming the novel
The Differences Between Writing
a Game and Writing Game Fiction
Keith R.A. DeCandido
remember when I first started gaming in high school—playing Dungeons
& Dragons 1st Edition (yes, I’m old)—one of the things I was thinking
was that these adventures would make cool stories. I became more
convinced of that when I read about the Dragonlance novels by Margaret
Weis & Tracy Hickman, which were based on actual games that the two of
them played.
But as I grew older and started writing myself, and also started reading more
gaming novels, I realized that the transition from one to the other isn’t quite
as smooth as one might hope.
For starters, I read far too many gaming novels where I could hear the dice
rolling as I was reading. One thing that both gaming fiction and games have
in common is that there’s a single force that is controlling the storyline. But
while the demiurge in the game is sitting right there at the table with the
characters sharing their pizza, the writer who controls the plot of a work of
fiction really needs to be a more subtle presence.
Yet at the same time, the writer of fiction’s actual control over the plot must
be more absolute. The game master is leaving quite a bit to random chance.
For starters, there’s the x-factor of how the players themselves will choose to
act and react within the scenario. In addition, many decisions are made, not
by the will of the player or the GM, but by the roll of a set of dice.
Fiction writers don’t get to do that, particularly writers of gaming fiction. For
starters, whenever you’re writing any kind of media tie-in novel—not just
a novel based on D&D or World of Warcraft or HALO, but any novel based
on something from another medium like Star Trek or Star Wars—you have
Gaming the Novel h Keith R.A. DeCandido
to get everything approved by the people who own the property before you
take the next step. So when it comes to the plot, that all has to be worked out
before you write the first actual word of the novel.
By definition, a roleplaying game runs by the seat of the pants. While there’s
a general guide as to how things are supposed to go—or, at the very least,
what the terrain is that the players will be covering—what actually happens
will vary from game to game. Which is the point, of course. The fun of
gaming is the uncertainty.
Fiction doesn’t have that luxury. What can be a very entertaining side
journey in a game is an irrelevant plot digression in a story.
That, ultimately, is the primary difference between game and story: a story
has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has to make sense and have
some kind of arc. While game play can often follow the unexpected twists
and turns and digressions of life, a story can’t really afford that sort of thing.
In Combat as in Life . . .
A famous cliché is that of course truth is stranger than fiction, because
fiction has to make sense. Games actually are closer to real life in that regard,
as random chance or a minor screw-up or just a really bad or really good day
can completely change the course of a game. It’s inherently less structured
than a work of fiction.
When it comes to combat, there are actually ways in which the game’s
version of combat can influence the writing, whether it’s the dice-based
melee form of a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game or the grand
chaos of a first-person shooter.
Combat in a game does have rules, it’s true, but those rules do have a basis
in how actual combat works. One side may have a few more advantages over
another, whether it’s one having greater strength, the other having lesser
agility, the weapons used, the defenses being employed, and so on.
But there’s also that random chance element. As an example, when I was in
college, we played the old FASA Doctor Who RPG, and I was able to score a
critical hit with a yo-yo right between the eyes of a big scary monster, which
stopped it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if you put a weaponless Time
Lord against a big scary monster in a combat situation, the big scary monster
will win (unless you count a yo-yo as a weapon which, well, you shouldn’t).
Sometimes, though, fortune favors the foolish, and sometimes you roll a 20.
Real-life combat works much the same way. I’m a second-degree black belt
in karate, but I’m also a very mediocre fighter. When I face off against the
sixth-degree black belt in fighting class—who has won several international
fighting competitions—he’s almost always going to be the superior fighter.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Indeed, he often dials back how intensely he fights with me, mainly because
I’m just not in his league.
However, every once in a while, I’m able to get a shot in. One time I was able
to get a front snap kick to his solar plexus, and he stumbled backward out of
breath for a minute. That was my critical hit with the yo-yo. It was a once-ina-lifetime shot, and I haven’t been able to get in a shot like that since, but it
did happen. That can happen in combat sometimes, and most game systems
allow for that.
Fiction is a much crueler master, though. Yes, we all love the underdog story
of David beating Goliath, but you have to make it believable. Shrugging
and saying, “Wow, was I lucky” is a momentary blip in a game scenario, but
in fiction, you can’t just have a character be lucky without building to it, or
showing it properly.
So combat, like the plot of your story, needs a good deal more care and
construction and structure than the game does. But that doesn’t mean you
can’t use the combat of the game as a basis, you just have to ride herd on it a
bit more, and rely less on random chance.
The Needs of the Story Outweigh
the Needs of the Game
Different games have different story needs as well. I have, over the course of
my career, written fiction in the BattleTech, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The
Gathering, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Command and Conquer gaming
worlds, and it was instructive to see how the different needs of the worlds
affected the fiction.
I’ve only written two short stories in the BattleTech universe. In that world,
there’s a huge timeline of history where you can plug your story in. Also
because the game itself is primarily concerned with the combat end of
things, there’s room in the fiction to flesh out other elements of the world.
Far more structured even than BattleTech is World of Warcraft. In fact, it’s
instructive to compare World of Warcraft with another Blizzard Games
property, StarCraft. I’ve worked in both, but the popularity of the former
game made for a much more constructed experience than the latter.
With Warcraft, because the game is so popular and so multifaceted and with
so many players, the history of the world is spelled out to a very minute
degree. When I wrote my 2006 novel Cycle of Hatred, I spent several hours on
the phone with Chris Metzen, one of the people at Blizzard who directs the
game stories.
After immersing myself in the world of Warcraft (ahem), I had a vague
notion of what I wanted to accomplish with the novel and which characters
I wanted to focus on. Once I talked with Chris, a long and hugely productive
Gaming the Novel h Keith R.A. DeCandido
conversation, marrying my own story thoughts with his encyclopedic
knowledge of the world and his notions about how to proceed, I was able to
turn out a book that was—and still is—popular a decade later.
Of course, as with BattleTech, the main purpose of the tie-in fiction is to
fill gaps in the game story. In my particular case, it was to bridge the gap
between Warcraft 3 & 3X and World of Warcraft. Other authors have filled
other gaps, like Richard Knaak providing Azeroth’s ancient history or
Christie Golden providing Thrall’s backstory. Even so, the general story of
World of Warcraft is one that’s always moving forward, because the nature
of an MMORPG is that everyone is in the same spot in the story as they
play. That also means that a lot of the tie-in fiction is going to be involved
with the ever-evolving storyline. BattleTech, by contrast, is less generally
participatory, as each game is its own little corner of the world.
With StarCraft, which is also a Blizzard Games property, the reins were a
lot looser. While the lengthy conversation with Chris was extremely helpful
in plotting out my Warcraft novel, I also hit several roadblocks because the
things I wanted to do contradicted the very intricate game story. The story
was that intricate because the game was so incredibly popular (and still is).
At the time, however, StarCraft was significantly less popular than Warcraft.
Even now, following the successful launch of StarCraft II, the science fiction
game trails its fantasy counterpart in popularity.
Because of that, the world is less micromanaged and there’s more room for
writers to play around. My two StarCraft writing assignments were focused
on the character of Nova, who was to be the lead in a game called StarCraft:
Ghost—a game that wound up never being released. Where the game was
to be a first-person shooter—one in which Nova was a blank slate character
whose memory had been wiped—the novel was to provide the backstory
that led Nova to where she is when you play her in the game. While Blizzard
provided me with an overview of her backstory, it wasn’t enough by itself
for an entire novel, so I added another chunk of storyline to what they
provided. The result was that the novel Nova was about half of what Blizzard
gave me and about half what I supplied. Where in Cycle of Hatred, all the
main characters were part of the game lore, with only one advisor my own
creation among the major players, I was able to create a bunch of additional
characters to round out the cast and the world.
Worlds and Approaches to Choose From
On the other end of things, both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the
Gathering have always been focused more on the general creation of worlds
that players can go crazy in. That has also been true of the many works of
D&D and Magic fiction that have been published over the decades. The
worlds are wide enough, unformed enough, and flexible enough that authors
of game fiction have many options to explore. Within D&D, you’ve also
Kobold Guide to Combat
got lots of worlds to choose from, since there’s not only the mainline D&D
world, but also Eberron, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, and so on. Some worlds are
more carefully constructed than others, but even within that, the possibilities
for storytelling are as endless as the gaming possibilities.
Magic is particularly flexible, because the game play puts the players in the
position usually reserved for the game masters or writers. The people and
events that would make up the fodder for fiction are on the cards being
played. When you move the combat from the table to the page, it’s easier
to keep the reader from hearing the cards flip because magic is inherent in
everything done in the game, even—no, especially—the conflict; it naturally
becomes part of the story you choose to tell.
As for D&D, I wrote a story in the Dark Sun setting (2011’s Under the
Crimson Sun). One of the conceits of the world is that a lot of bone weapons
are used, as refined metal is hard to come by. This is another case where my
martial arts training came in handy, as my main characters were skilled with
staff weapons, so I incorporated several real-life bo and jo techniques into
the fight scenes in the novel. That made it easy to translate the combat of the
game into the narrative on the page.
One of my more challenging writing experiences was when I was hired to
write a novel tie-in to EA’s, Tiberium Wars, a first-person shooter, and a
follow-up game called simply Tiberium (that was always a working title). The
latter would be more of an MMORPG, and would take place about a decade
or so later in the timeline of the game’s history.
EA licensed Del Rey Books to publish the novel based on the game, and
Del Rey hired me. I was given the opportunity to spend a day at EA’s Los
Angeles office learning about all the things they were doing with the game,
talking with the various designers of both games, and throwing plot ideas
around. They were still in the process of creating both games when I visited
the offices, and we hit on the notion of a plot that was simultaneous with the
events of the first game, but using younger versions of the main characters
from the second game.
The good thing about writing the novel as they were creating the game was
that they were both released simultaneously in May 2007. The bad thing
about writing the novel as they were creating the game was that they were
still creating the game. So the game script I was working from was a draft
that was being constantly revised. I had an entire subplot about a reporter
that focused on her struggles with the censored press. I based this on a line
in the script where a reporter for the worldwide news station W3N discussed
having to have her stories approved by the government.
So imagine my surprise when I sent in the first draft, and was told that line
had been cut and this martial-law future actually still has freedom of the
press. Oops.
Gaming the Novel h Keith R.A. DeCandido
I couldn’t do a straight-up adaptation of the game itself, because the
structure of Tiberium Wars was such that the game player is the leader of a
military platoon—but each player gets to create that character, so we agreed
that it was best that I avoid the game itself and do a parallel story.
This was a case where I didn’t actually have access to the combat style of the
game, but it was supposed to be military, so I just fell back on regular combat
tactics (adjusted for the greater technology of the future setting).
Finding the Story in the Game
The most important challenge when writing gaming fiction is to remember
that you’re not writing a game. Games are more like choose-your-ownadventure stories: you have options, and where the story goes depends on
lots of factors outside the control of the game master—and, for that matter,
outside the control of the person who wrote the game.
Indeed, it’s not really possible to slavishly re-create the gaming experience in
a work of fiction, because the two have different needs. The Venn diagram
of the two do overlap considerably—development of character is important
both in a game and in fiction, and combat can be an important component
in both cases—but games don’t actually require a plot. Stuff happens, of
course, but there’s no particular need for unifying themes or the like that are
the backbone of fiction.
A game is a sequence of events connected by character but not necessarily
by plot mechanics. A story, though, can be a sequence of events, but those
events must form a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When you construct your gaming fiction, it’s best to focus on two things.
The first is the same rule that applies to novelizations of movies, and for the
same reason: try to do something the source material can’t do. Prose fiction
is particularly good at deep internal point of view, getting inside the heads of
the characters. Games tend toward surface characterization, except maybe in
an RPG for your own character. In addition, fiction has the structure of story
that you won’t get in a game. The inherent randomness of game play makes
it hard to have recurring themes or a consistent story arc, but that’s what
makes fiction great.
The other, though, is to embrace one of the hallmarks of roleplaying games,
which is character generation. There are some writers out there who
will actually use Dungeons & Dragons-style character sheets to help with
character creation, and there are worse models to use. The thought and
care that goes into rolling up a character in an RPG can be very useful for
developing folks to populate your fiction—not just stories based on games,
but stories generally.
Finally, when you’re writing fiction, it’s probably not the best idea to decide
what your next move is on the basis of a roll of the dice. . . .
Kobold Guide to Combat
Speed of combat
Wolfgang Baur
ne of the elements of hand-to-hand combat is just how fast it is.
Anyone who has ever been involved in a fistfight, martial arts bout,
fencing, or similar real-life combat has experienced it. A bout begins, the
opponents square up, feint, maneuver—and then it is often over in one or two
passes, with one party wounded or knocked down, and the other in a superior
position, with an advantage that an experienced fighter can then press home.
Games rarely model this form of combat, where results are quick and
largely one-sided, and each fight is largely between two participants. It’s
more fun, frankly, to give more attention to each combatant, to have a series
of successes and failures rather than one big win, and to whittle down an
overwhelming foe (or to recover from a disastrous start). Further, many
game combats involve at least a handful of participants, allowing some to
retreat while others hold a line, or allowing for special actions, tactics, and all
the details and precision of position, flanking, and maneuver.
Timing Costs and Advantages
Playing out a miniatures or RPG combat can—in the most extreme cases—
take hours to recreate a few seconds or minutes of hard-fought struggle. This
sounds terrible if you are used to resolving combats quickly in a novel’s prose
or on the screen of a twitch video game, but it’s part of the appeal. Struggles
are dramatic and unpredictable, but giving players time to make decisions is
a feature that allows for more depth. There’s time to consider your strategy.
There’s time to think two, or three, or six moves ahead. Tabletop games are
hardly twitch games, and that means slow combat can be detailed—but also
somewhat ponderous when overdone. Slow can turn a game boring. No one
wants to wait to take their turn.
The irony of all this is that “faster combat” is one of the things that gamers
want in tabletop games—but no one wants to just flip a coin, either. We want
fast gameplay, just not full-speed.
Speed of combat h Wolfgang Baur
What can we learn about the structure of combat in games and the relative
value of speed compared to other factors? And can we speed things up
without losing all the things we want from slower combat, such as a sense
of back-and-forth struggle, time for teamwork, the ability to weigh life-anddeath choices for character. Which is to say, as gamers, we want the ability to
think about a move carefully. If gamers had to actually make decisions in real
time for a tabletop RPG, you’d gain a lot in speed, surely, but you’d also breed
resentment and, I suspect, lose immersion, because you’d be reacting almost
entirely on instinct and trained reflexes. Nothing wrong with that, but a group
of gamers won’t function as a team if they have 30 seconds to resolve a fight.
Factors That Slow Down Play
The two largest time sinks in game play are decisions and turns. I’ll explain
these in a bit more detail.
By turns, I really mean how many people are going through the decision
process at a time. A single-player game has only one person making all
decisions—it’s always his turn (paradise!). A two-player game cuts that in half.
A 10-player game requires nine other people to take their turns before you
get yours again. Even if someone is always playing, or two players can play
at the same time, the cycle time for the game’s focus to return to you is going
to be much longer in a game with more players in it. This makes the game
seem slower to you, because while the game’s action moves at the same pace
as a single-player game, proportionally less of the game is of interest to you,
personally, when you are a playing a character-driven game such as an RPG.
By decisions, I mean character options, group choices, questions to the game
master, and die rolls. More on each of these in a moment.
Options: The more options a player has in a roleplaying game, the more time
it takes to choose one of them. This is similar to the consumer research on
decision paralysis, which found that a buyer looking at one type of cereal
in a store has it easy (do I want cereal or not?) while a buyer in a store with
5 types of cereal has a more difficult cognitive task (do I want cereal? If
so, what subcategory of cereal? Rings? Flakes? Clusters? And which brand
within that category?).
For most gamers, choices are a kind of freedom and customization. But
the game designer must restrict choices (also discussed in some detail in
the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, in the chapter “The Limits of Design:
Kitchen Sink Design”, Kobold Press, 2012). The weight of decision among
choices leads to the remarkable result that providing more features or
options is a plus that gamers delight in unreservedly, right up to the
Kobold Guide to Combat
moment they reach that one more option—an option that makes the
resulting item or category less worthwhile and harder to choose from.
For example, a wizard with exactly one spell available always knows
what spell she will cast—the only decision is whether or not to use it. By
contrast, a wizard with 50 spells available may take a bit more time (this
also explains why high-level play takes forever). Worse still, a summoner
or necromancer who chooses to summon or create additional minions
now must make decisions for each and every one of his minions, their
movement, actions, and so on. Not surprisingly, such a character can
easily take 10 times longer to play than a fighter who simply has to choose
a target. Conjurers and necromancers may be highly effective in winning
fights, but they are also lethally awful at keeping a combat moving.
Group choices: In addition to the decisions about character options, you
have group choices. You might have a set of combat abilities, healing
abilities, magical abilities, items, dialogue options, and more. In any group
RPG, you must make a choice about how to engage an enemy: stealth,
charge, bribery, threats, etc. Most combats are straightforward—until the
party debates whether to retreat. At that point, things slow down because
you need a group consensus on your combat choice, whether to stick with
the fight or to retire from the field. It’s not whether you make one decision
or another; it’s just that the decision itself takes time for the group.
Questions to the GM: Every time a player asks for information, that
information takes time to either provide or look up. There’s nothing wrong
with asking for information about the combat, the foes, or the terrain, but
it is a source of delay. Players who insist on asking 10 questions before
making a decision are stalling out the game while performing a sort of
research optimization. At my own table, I attempt to force the use of
perception or knowledge skills for characters who do this: if you are being
observant and gathering data, that may be extremely good for the party,
but the mental effort required means your character is not swinging a
mace or summoning a fireball.
Resolution mechanics: Finally, there’s the matter of rolling dice, flipping
cards, or using whatever random or non-random resolution your game
calls for. All games have some way of resolving action, but what sets apart
a fast game from a slow one is how often players must call on that system
of resolution to advance the game. The fastest resolutions are the ones that
you avoid entirely, where the GM says, “That works,” or you never need to
find your lucky dice. But once you start rolling, there’s faster and slower
ways to go about this.
Speed of combat h Wolfgang Baur
Dice are Fast, Dice are Slow
Finally, there are die rolls. I’d never say that die rolls slow down a game (as
a resolution mechanic, they are critical). However, the more rolls you are
required to make (especially, the more you are required to make to resolve a
single action), the slower combat gets. If you must roll three times to resolve
an attack, that’s slower than a single die roll. This is why combined rolls are
so wonderful (like the use of the Dragon die in the Dragon Age RPG)—they
combine two functions into one roll, speeding up play.
In addition, die rolls themselves slow down play depending on the
underlying math of success rates. If your character succeeds with a combat
action 90% of the time, the combat is likely to move faster than a combat
where your character succeeds only 10% of the time, and the game will seem
subjectively slower because you must roll 10 times for one success. This may
be the case even if the number of required successes is higher for a combat
action with a higher success rate. Players remember their successes and are
energized by them. They are discouraged by frequent failure.
The exact ratio of success rates that provides maximum sense of “something
is happening” is actually fairly high, and it is linked to genre (in zombie
horror, you want a high success rate vs. zombies, for instance, because you
need to hit them all the damn time). I think that games can offer a 75%
success rate without falling over into the realm of “too easy” or “boring”
combat, where there’s no sense of challenge. Depending on your exact
mechanics, though, that rate can be better set high or low—playtesting is
the ultimate arbiter of this. Ask your playtesters, “Did the combat feel fast or
slow or about right?” to help set your success rates.
Another way to think about this is that the length of a turn, multiplied by the
number of turns required, gives you the perception of speed. That is, a small
number of short turns can feel very fast, while many turns that each take a
long time make a combat drag. If you’ve ever played a war game involving a
grinding advance where the counters barely move—say, a two-player game
that allows you to take your turns frequently—then because the game state
changes so slowly, the whole experience can feel hellishly slow to someone
raised on twitch shooters and rapid respawn.
I’m not saying that a slow game is in any way inferior or less well-designed
than a fast game. Quite the contrary, a game about a siege or slow attrition
should be designed to feel slow and somewhat frustrating, the better to feel
the relief of finally, finally forcing a breach in the defenses. And likewise,
a fast game can be entirely unsatisfying and seem arbitrary: the results
are quick, but the players feel little investment or challenge because their
options and decisions are so few that the whole thing feels fairly random and
dull. A game with the right pace for its topic and audience is the goal. For
roleplaying games, that tends to vary by group, but few groups of roleplayers
Kobold Guide to Combat
want to just flip a coin and move on to a retreat scene or a treasure scene—
though designing such a game might be a lot of fun.
Factors that Speed up Play
Fewer players with fewer options available to choose from will speed up play,
as will the lack of a tactical board or map of any kind (if you can’t stare at
minis, you tend to think of combat more efficiently but less accurately). In
addition, resolution systems that don’t require players to consult tables and
charts will always beat a game that requires tables. This is why opposed rolls
feel fast: you compare the results on the table and you are done.
At the same time, many of the items that provide extra simulation also require
time: flanking, facing, counting movement, rolling separate damage, rolling
damage locations, rolling defense or saving throws—basically, any math or
resolution other than attack rolls adds to the sense of precision or realism
while taking out a cost in speed. To speed up play, the ideal is to roll the dice
once and for the result to be plain without reference to other materials. Roll
3d6, and all 6s are a success. Roll 1d20, and beat a target number. Roll 3d6 and
pairs are a success. Results are immediate and easy to see.
The other element that speeds combat is abstraction of damage. If wounds
were modeled realistically, they would slow down a combatant, they might
remove a shield bonus or prevent the full use of a heavy weapon, and so on.
But almost none of the popular RPGs on the market do this, because it’s a
fiddly waste of time.
The main point at stake in a tabletop RPG is who wins and how quickly that
can be resolved. Each individual wound has little effect; only when a hero
or villain falls over dead or unconscious is it presumed to affect the battle as
a whole. Anyone who has ever been shot or stabbed can tell you that this is
total nonsense in physical, visceral terms. When you are wounded, it matters
to your entire perception of the world—but not in a game, because games
are not about the individual hero as much as they are about a band of heroes.
The only thing that brings that story to an end is a total party wipeout.
The fastest, rawest combat is a single set of opposed dice: boom, done,
winner! The slowest form of combat game requires players to choose their
moves simultaneously and secretly from a long list of possible options and
variants, then reveal those moves, summon additional creatures into the
battle, roll for their effect, add modifiers and consult a chart to resolve an
attack, consult another chart to resolve damage, consult a third chart for
critical hits or special damage, and then perhaps roll again for defense,
parrying, or saving throws of some kind.
This seems rather obvious when it’s spelled out. But the cruft and addition
of materials to any game system over time eventually bogs down the system
Speed of combat h Wolfgang Baur
as a whole. Add a secondary magic system: that costs time at the table. Add
item damage or special forms of movement: more time. Add modifiers based
on terrain, morale, or magic: more time. The more you strive for realism,
the more you pay in speed. For some groups, that’s a completely worthwhile
trade-off, especially for groups that enjoy skirmish rules, resource
management, and the display of tactical skill. For other groups, getting to
run six fast combats in a night instead of two long ones is the preferred
option. Know your players, and know your own tastes.
Play Less, Play Faster
The counterintuitive conclusion of all this is that, in many cases and for
many play styles, your group may enjoy combat more if there’s slightly less of
it. That is, fewer maps, less tactical movement, fewer choices between 12 or
20 options each round for five or six rounds. You can play a fun, fast game,
but it requires giving up convoluted subsystems, giving up tactical maps (or
saving them only for boss battles and finales), and keeping the party size
small, to allow everyone more table time that’s focused on them.
Kobold Guide to Combat
the surface
10 Things Fiction and Film get
Wrong about Violence
Rory Miller
ou have been brainwashed by the novels you read, the movies you see,
and, yes, by the games you play. I’m Rory Miller, I’m something of a
thug, and I’ve been asked to make a top ten list of the things that popular
media get wrong about violence. Not sure I can do that. Finding ten things
they get wrong is easy, since they get everything wrong. Finding the top ten
things will require some judgment.
1) Almost all of society—in all times, places, and situations—is
designed to limit violence.
If you are a group of adventurers, you are what my friend, Mark Jones, likes
to describe as “murder hoboes.” You have no fixed address, you wander
around looking for bad people, and you kill them.
That’s cool. That’s what gaming and a lot of fiction is all about. But . . . in
reality, people don’t like it much. You see, the random people (or dragons
or ogres or whatnot) are never random. They have friends. They have
connections. If they have been in the area for any length of time, they are part
of the ecosystem. When you kill them, no matter how righteous you feel or
how demonstrably evil the enemy was, you have destabilized the local way.
Back in college, when I gamed regularly, I thought Gygax was an idiot for
instituting alignments, and in my youthful hubris I was sure that good/evil
was more important than law/chaos.
That’s not the way the universe, or humans, work. Given a painful, horrible
and even evil stability, the human animal will prefer it to a risky, chaotic, and
unpredictable “good”.
Scratching the Surface h Rory Miller
Good or bad, characters who resort to violence (and what other kinds of fun
characters are there?) will offend the people around them, and forces will be
set in motion to control or contain their violence.
2) Different societies have different ideas of violence.
One of the greatest weaknesses in worldbuilding, whether in fiction, film,
or gaming, is the tendency to assume that the 21st century, industrialized
worldview is somehow normal. Most people in the industrialized West
have never killed their own food. But not that long ago, killing a chicken for
dinner was a child’s chore.
The mortality rate has always been 100%, but it tended to come earlier.
Women died in childbirth at horrendous rates and children fell to diseases
we don’t worry about now. Two hundred years ago, by the time you were an
adult, you would have very likely buried close relatives, and you would have
prepared the body yourself. Death was an intimate truth.
Death is only a piece. Violence was another. Violence was a tool, at times the
only tool, to solve problems. There weren’t always courts, and when there were,
certain people might have no access or no chance. No police, no investigators,
no lawyers. If bandits or an invading tribe wanted your town, either you gave it
to them (and hoped they would let you live as slaves) or you fought.
Vengeance and vendetta for much of history was as close as one could get to
justice. It was a tool, not an aberration.
Some societies, even today, do not see humans of other tribes as “real”
humans, and they can kill them easily—and evidently without any form of
post-traumatic stress.
It can sometimes be a hard mental transition from a world where children
must wear helmets on their bicycles to one where a third of the sons of the
nobility died by violence, in duels.
3) Violence has consequences.
Read the hospital scene in All Quiet on the Western Front. Talk to a combat
medic from the Vietnam era. Look at the nose, teeth and hands of an old bar
brawler today.
Even in violent societies, people avoid violence—because it hurts. Because
it can end with you dead or crippled, no matter how good you are. The
Hollywood absurdity of “The bullet went right through the shoulder, you’ll
be fine” requires an ignorance of anatomy that is simply breathtaking. There
is no good place to get cut. Flesh wounds, whatever they are, bleed, and
every drop of blood is a step closer to hypovolemic shock.
Arthritis from broken bones. Memory loss from concussions. Difficulty
breathing (and snoring) from multiple broken noses. Limps and popping
Kobold Guide to Combat
shoulders because joints never heal quite right. This is the inevitable
aftermath of a life of fighting. And that assumes you were good enough or
lucky enough to live and not be crippled. When you damage your characters
severely, they ought to pay a price; we do in the real world. Healing them
back to 100 percent health is a cheat. It may make challenges harder, but it
makes success more satisfying.
Violence has other consequences as well. Slaying a foe is also an act of
creating widows and orphans. In one moment of action, you will affect many
people’s lives forever. Do they miss this point in fiction? I think they actively
cower from it.
4) There are no heroes.
“Hero,” my drill sergeant said, “is a four letter word for someone who gets
his friends killed and still manages to look good on the AAR (After Action
“There are no heroes” means a lot of things.
No one feels like a hero. Because violence has consequences and all
marginally intelligent people know that, when someone does something
genuinely heroic, you get one of two explanations: “I didn’t have a choice;
anyone would have done it” or “I was just doing my job.” These aren’t
platitudes. Every time I found myself doing something dangerous and
necessary, I was wishing another way would work, or that someone else
could take the task.
And the iconic hero who stands alone is pretty much a myth. People are
not self-sufficient. The mighty warrior needs a swordsmith and an armorer,
a horse trainer, and someone to grow his food. He won’t have the lifetimes
necessary to master all the skills that allow him to be a warrior.
And a lone warrior is meat for any small group that can work as a team.
We’ll talk about that later.
No one can be a hero to everyone. It is a label of attention, a version of
being a celebrity. If your character gets labeled a hero it will draw attention,
jealousy, maybe retribution. If you save the village from the dragon, there
will be a night of celebration . . . and then days of dark thoughts from the
villagers because they were not “man enough” to save themselves. And the
heroes will be the natural focus for that resentment.
5)There are some Villains.
Just as some fiction has made heroism unrealistic to the point of silly, there
are editors and writing instructors who will tell you that there are no real
villains. Everyone is a good guy to themselves.
Scratching the Surface h Rory Miller
And that’s sort of true. But don’t confuse the rationalization of evil with the
absence of evil.
There are two basic kinds of people who need to be put down: Enemies and
Bad Guys.
An Enemy just happens to be on the other side, whether that side is an
opposing army or tribe disputing hunting grounds, or spy versus spy, or a
monster that sees you as food. An Enemy is not a Bad Guy. She may even be
a hero to her own people. Might be someone that, in different circumstances,
would be your friend.
You’ll call the enemy the bad guys, and they’ll call you that, too, since that’s one
of the ways humans make psychic armor for themselves. Much easier to sleep
each night killing bad people than just people your bosses had an issue with.
But there are real Bad Guys as well. The hallmark of this type is immense
selfishness and self-centeredness. If they are on your side, you despise and
mistrust them, and if they were on the other side, they would be despised
and mistrusted there.
This level of Bad Guy rarely amasses any real power. They don’t work well
with others. They are usually too impulsive to hide their nature for very long.
Common fiction and film presents these Bad Guys as unfortunate creatures
damaged in childhood. That may be true. But if you get access to their
private journals, you will hear something very different: how they enjoy
hurting people, the rush of power they get when they make someone beg,
how victimizing another human is “the best feeling in the world” or “the
only time I feel alive.”
6) Fights for different reasons are different.
This should be obvious, but I see it violated in popular media all the time. If
you are fighting for the honor of a maiden, there will be a ritual. There will
be an audience. There will be an attempt to make things equal. There will be
rules. Whether it began as a formal duel or it started with “You lookin’ at my
girl?” in a tavern, the pattern is predictable and it is about the show.
If you are fighting for the life of the same maiden, there is almost nothing in
common. It might start with a shriek heard down a dark alley or you might
be hired by a baron to save his daughter captured in a raid or your SWAT
team might get paged out.
You will take no chances. You will give no warning. You will do everything
in your power to make sure it never turns into a fight at all, and surely not
a fair one. This is a raid, an assassination, or a rescue. It is not about honor.
It is about getting the girl out alive. Any risk taken to prove your bravery
increases the chance of the hostage dying. It is not for show. If your operation
Kobold Guide to Combat
is perfect, no one will ever know you were there or how the girl was rescued.
A nobleman playing at being a highwayman is robbing people for
excitement, and he will take chances. A band of starving peasants robbing
the same coach will be robbing people for food, and they will take no
chances. If one gets injured or dies, his children will starve.
7) Duels are unrelated to battles.
I touched on this above, but it goes beyond the purpose and social trappings.
The skills are different, and so is the mindset. In the late 1650s, there was a
shift in Japanese swordsmanship. The men who had earned their reputations
on battlefields were not the premier duelists. The mobility, the armor, and the
strategy needed in a mass of bodies were not the same as those in one-on-one
combat. The Roman battle line did not use the same skills as the gladiators.
Dueling, generally, had more freedom of movement, favored lighter weapons
and armor. You did not have to be worried about being speared in the back
if you concentrated too heavily on one person (the reason armor was so
important). For that matter, in a duel, you have one person to concentrate on.
Possibly more important, in a duel you are an individual showcasing your
skill, physicality, and bravery. An individual in a battle is called “meat.”
Teamwork and communication are power multipliers like no others.
Humans are not at the top of the food chain because of our teeth, claws,
strength, or size. We have spread over the planet because we communicate
and cooperate. It may not be dramatic, but a small group that works well
together will defeat a disorganized mass with monotonous regularity, even if
the members of the mass are each individually more powerful.
8) The passionate amateur.
This is more of a personal peeve, but it is endemic in fiction. The character
hires a professional to avenge her father (True Grit) or save his daughter
(Castle) and insists on coming along. Or the rookie forces his way onto the
experienced team and becomes an immediate asset.
Arguably, there are good reasons for this trope in Hollywood. Working with
professionals is high-speed and provides a lot of communication shortcuts. It
is a good idea to have a naive character. For plot logic, it gives the experienced
people an excuse to explain things to the audience by way of explaining to the
amateur. But, since the amateur is the one the audience identifies with, you are
probably going to wind up making the amateur the hero.
How does it work in the real world? About as well as amateur surgery. People
become grizzled veterans by learning things. They pay for those lessons in
sweat and blood.
Scratching the Surface h Rory Miller
9) Drama is bad.
A staple of fiction is the close-fought battle to the bitter end. Drama makes
good fiction. In real life, fair fights are stupid and almost always avoidable.
The dramatic toe-to-toe fight is the hallmark of an amateur, someone who is
unfit for the violence professions.
All pros, all reasonably intelligent people, know that violence is dangerous.
It hurts. It has consequences. And there is never a guaranteed win. So they
go into any action with every advantage they can muster—information,
numbers, a plan, superior weapons, and surprise at the minimum. Smart,
prepared people come in hard and fast and do everything in their power to
make sure that the target never has a chance to recover.
If they might be targeted, pros have trained so that their responses are
pure reflex that might turn the tables. They’ll catch their opponents by
surprise and regain the advantage. They will do this as quickly as possible, as
ferociously as possible, because to fail is to die.
If there is one thing I want you to take away from reading this essay, it is
that fact. Unlike in fiction or gaming, in a force incident you don’t have a
screenwriter to protect you and you don’t get to do things over. To fail is
to die, and you only get one failure. That fact drives everything else—the
reluctance to fight unless absolutely necessary as well as the cold ferocity
once the decision is made.
It also explains the almost complete absence of the bombastic, arrogant, hero
archetype in real force professions.
10) Things must be maintained.
One last detail to take away. Things, including people and animals, break.
They run out of fuel or food or ammo. And all of the things you need take
weight and space.
Steel rusts, and sweat has the right salt content to be really bad for steel
armor. We won’t talk about blood. A steel sword that has been used in battle
for hundreds of years would have lost mass to sharpening to the point of
being a different style of blade.
If you’ve ever bow hunted (I bow hunted from horseback for a season), or
shot in any kind of wild environment, you know that you won’t find all your
arrows, and many of the ones you do find will be broken and unusable.
Arrows are not heavy, but they are bulky, and actually quite annoying to run
through the woods with in any kind of quiver. It’s also really hard to find a
way to carry them and mount a horse.
It’s not just equipment maintenance you have to think about, either.
It’s animals and people as well. Your characters and their mounts need
sleep, food, and water regularly. Dehydration or sleep deprivation are not
Kobold Guide to Combat
things your character can tough out. Both, on top of physical effects, like
clumsiness, will make your character stupid. Sometimes adrenaline can get
an exhausted fighter back in the fight for a short time, but adrenaline doesn’t
last for long.
That’s just a quick list off the top of my head. Is it important? People game
and read fiction and watch movies largely because these elements are
missing. Everyone wants the good parts: challenge, a touch of adrenaline, the
sense of victory, the right to tell a good story. No one wants the ugly parts:
the memories of horrible smells, the body that never works the same, or
trying to find the words to say to a child or wife at a funeral.
But the ugly parts are where the real growth is. The real world may be darker
than any fiction, but it is richer, too.
Scratching the Surface h Rory Miller
Fighting in a real
fantasy world
Ed Greenwood
n the “utter fantasy” world of films, combat occurs against a soaring
soundtrack that, if it could be heard by the participants, gives clear
warnings and alerts to all involved, heralds coming victory, and flags who’s
winning—and losing—as the fray unfolds.
And because the camera needs to show the viewer clearly what’s going on,
bad visibility is present only as a plot device and is fleeting, soon fading to
the background or away entirely.
That’s why my players love to have their characters fight in movie conditions.
Unfortunately for them, my campaigns aren’t utter fantasy, because I’m
trying for something more realistic.
What? What in tarnation is “real” fantasy?
Well, there’s a pertinent real-world saying, from the Colonial era when the
British Empire stretched far across the globe, that I’ll paraphrase here: “The
British Army seems to fight most of its battles on a steep hillside, in the
pouring rain, at a spot where the edges of two maps meet.”
I like to bring that “the laughing gods damn all one more time” element of
sheer bad luck, the “Can you believe it? Gah!” flavor to my roleplaying.
Not everyone does, in part because fantasy roleplaying is an escape from
the vicissitudes of real life. There are many campaigns in which—aside
from dungeon traps—it is always warm and dry, the ground or floor under
the player characters’ feet is stable, and “weather” (snow, rain, hail, blowing
dust, sandstorms, and even choking smoke) is something that happens
outside the windows.
Fighting in a Real Fantasy World h Ed Greenwood
After all, only crazy people would try to fight in such conditions, right?
Crazy people and desperate people and rapacious monsters, all of whom
see adverse conditions as affording them cover and helping them against
formidable foes—player characters, for instance.
We’re all familiar with the monster or pack of monsters that attacks by night,
but many a cunning monster attacks with the blinding sun at its back, or
in the heart of a blizzard or blinding rainstorm—particularly when that
monster judges its targets too strong to take on toe to toe.
Fiendish DMs know that, of course.
Fiendish DMs see no reason not to involve site conditions in their battles.
Bad weather or terrain or extremes of climate can pose interesting challenges
for players. Tactics must be adjusted on the fly, and ho-hum “Six kobolds?
We kill them and stroll on” encounters can swiftly become formidable
indeed. Battles in adverse conditions also impart atmosphere and color (and
memorability, making achievement or failure hard-fought and therefore
strongly meaningful) to play.
Trying to fight in metal armor with big swords and axes in a blinding
rainstorm with lightning crashing down and arcing or crawling all over the
battlefield can be . . . interesting.
So can trying to swim and fight in muddy swamp water in full plate armor,
against foes trying to grab or entangle you and drag you under, when the
ground under the water isn’t solid, level, or known to you—until it’s too late.
So yes, I’m a fiendish DM, but not a megalomaniac. I may deal in unfairness,
but it’s limited unfairness, because I want there to be rules. By which I mean
common sense general outcomes players can anticipate.
Published rules systems (and many a referee’s house rules) attempt various
mechanics to try to reflect adverse fighting conditions, often with limited
success. This is largely because the effects are variable and therefore the rules
may seem either unfair or inconsistent, or the rules try to be detailed but
only achieve being cumbersome, slowing down what is supposed to be swift
and dangerous and exciting.
So rather than make one more attempt at Perfect Ruling, it might be more
useful to explore suggested effects.
In most areas of the real world, rain happens. A lot. We tend to ignore it and
edit it out of memory, but even when rain isn’t coming out of the sky, the
temperature changes that attend sunrise and sunset cause dew or morning
mists—and wetness underfoot.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Running or charging in wet conditions is more apt to bring on a slip than
planting one’s feet and waiting for a foe, and then smiting. When it’s slippery
under the soles, a reaching swing off-balances and so loses both accuracy
and force. A tight, close thrust remains effective, but a wild hacking swing
becomes far more of a gamble than in dry, well-lit conditions with good
footing and visibility—so the high-damage cleaving blows are apt to miss
more often than low-damage, less spectacular close-up work.
The Steady Downpour
Everyone gets wet and eventually cold, earth becomes mud and travel slows,
and morale literally dampens. Long-range scrutiny (“seeing trouble ahead”)
becomes impossible as visibility gets restricted. So a lurking enemy can get
much closer before being seen than in dry conditions, and evidence of their
presence may be hidden or pass unnoticed. A kobold lying down under a
heap of wet leaves blends into a fallen-leaf-strewn field better than a pile of
leaves in the same field in dry conditions—true; I’ve tried it, substituting
small-of-stature humans for kobolds.
Unless there’s magical means of warding off rainfall, bowstrings get wet,
so accurate archery becomes impossible after a few arrows are loosed;
most slings soon lose their accuracy, too. Leather bindings stretch, making
some weapons and siege engines wobbly or worse, and making the process
of getting out a weapon, or fire-making materials, or any sort of gear
(particularly if it must be kept relatively dry) slower and more difficult than
in dry conditions.
In tactical terms, footing becomes slippery on all slopes and wherever there
are loose stones underfoot, or bare earth or sand (which will or already has
become mud or even quicksand).
Driving Rain
The big brother of the steady downpour has all the effects just mentioned,
but increased: visibility is sharply cut (foes can’t be seen until very near, and
motionless enemies standing amid trees can often be overlooked, as can
those who just lie down in open fields; player characters can often tramp
right past them obliviously), and all missiles lose accuracy thanks to the
force of the falling or blowing rain.
Fog or Mist
Take away the deflection of missiles that driving rain causes, but increase
the restriction of visibility still farther. Player characters may only be able to
see as far as the pointy end of their own extended swords—but this sharply
reduced visibility usually varies continuously, from arm’s length to as much
as twenty paces away. (The strength of any breeze determines this; I have
Fighting in a Real Fantasy World h Ed Greenwood
been in fogs where I couldn’t see the end of my own paddle when sitting in
a canoe, but even a gentle breeze thinned the fog until I could see forty feet
away, then make out large things twice that distant.) Thirty or forty feet is a
fair average. “Fog” and “mist” may be synonyms to some, but I use “fog” to
mean a light, thick vapor that’s almost entirely opaque, and “mist” to mean
thinner, wetter clouds that drench anyone in them or moving through them
(like a steady downpour).
In still conditions, the smoke rising from even a small fire is visible a long
way off—as a vertical column that starts to drift only when it encounters
an upper layer of moving air. More often, a breeze closer to the ground
will send smoke in a particular direction (though anyone who’s tended or
stood near a campfire is familiar with the old “wherever you stand around a
campfire, the smoke moves to follow you” problem).
In short, smoke creates the same visibility problems as fog or mist, though
in a far more limited field (except inside a building, where walls and ceilings
trap smoke and cause it to fill all the available space). However, gaps of
visibility are fewer and much shorter in duration than with fog or mist.
And then there’s the big problem: whereas most creatures can breathe just
fine in fog or mist, smoke presents a potentially lethal breathing problem for
almost all living beings (in most real-world fires, suffocating on smoke slays
long before actual flames reach victims). Moreover, smoke not only obscures
sight, it degrades the eyes for some (variable) time after the creature trying
to see gets out of the smoke. That length of time depends on the severity of
the smoke and its components; some smoke is highly toxic or corrosive. In
many a fantasy world, veteran warriors and priests who create smoke effects in
temples will possess and know how to use various powders, woods, and scents
that can be added to flames to change the hue, smell, and effects of smoke.
Frozen Rain
I happen to live in a part of the world that has punishing winters. That
“punishing” is not hyperbole. Extreme polar climes and sufficiently elevated
regions (mountains) should inflict such punishment in any fantasy setting
that isn’t using magic (or open volcanic rifts everywhere) to cover a
multitude of climate-related sins, too.
Yes, freezing rain is deadly—covering everything with a heavy, mobilityhampering ice rime, and brightening the ground with glare or an icy
crust atop already fallen-snow. Not to mention creating visibility-stealing
mists in close-to-melting-temperature conditions. So everyone—beasts
of burden included—slips a lot and falls fairly often. When your horse or
prowl-lizard or riding tiger falls on your leg, your leg loses. The results are
Kobold Guide to Combat
broken bones, smashed gear and cargo, and slow travel. And let’s not forget
the combat-debilitating effects of numbness (swing your weapon, drop
your weapon) or the eventually deadly effects of exposure.
Even where the snow is deep enough and the icy crust thin enough that
slippage is rare and crashing through is the norm, travel is slow and
exhausting. Swift maneuvering, against any foe that can fly or is light enough
to run atop the crust without falling through, is difficult. (In game terms, an
armor class penalty applies, or the foe gets a “better” to hit modifier.)
Just plain wet or deep snow has the same effects, though usually to a lesser
degree, but another danger arises: snow covering unfamiliar terrain conceals
gopher holes, entangling fallen trees, and other ankle-breaking, movementhampering perils—deliberate trenches or pits prepared by a waiting enemy,
for instance. If the band of kobolds that lairs nearby gets all its food and
treasure from passing peddlers or caravans, they will have prepared snares
and pits and traveler-funneling choke points to wait near. Snow is the best
(for them) and worst (for you) means of concealing such passive hazards.
Not to mention the other sort of lurking hazard: six heavily-armed kobolds
waiting under a creature-hide tent or blanket.
Heavy, “wet” falling snow obscures long-range visibility and thereby
hampers missile weapon use the same way driving rain does because a
heavy, wet snowfall really is driving rain, just made fluffy and white for your
viewing pleasure.
Snow can also form avalanches wherever there are cliffs or slopes for it to
plummet from or thunder down, but more of such delights later.
Wind and Sandstorms
Wind is most often encountered as a factor that increases the severity or
determines the direction of precipitation. However, if the wind is strong
enough, it can be the ultimate rending and scouring weapon all by itself.
Wind can fling various solid items (tree boughs, for example) through the
air as deadly and unpredictable missiles. It can prevent even the largest and
strongest creatures from standing upright or effectively wielding weapons.
And as real-world hurricanes and tornadoes have shown us, sufficiently
strong wind can drive straws and pebbles right through the bodies of living
beings, batter those bodies into shapelessness, or rend them into spattered
fragments suitable for monster stewpots. It can prevent successful climbing
up or down ropes by pinning and battering climbers, and can even rob
creatures of enough breath to go on living.
Fighting in a Real Fantasy World h Ed Greenwood
Swarming insects, and even the swirling clouds of birds that can arise from
rookeries or flocks resting on water, can have the same debilitating effects as
smoke. Flocks of massed birds usually do more actual battering or piercing
damage, but for a much shorter time, than do insects or smoke—but if in a
confined area such as a room or cave, where they can’t get away, damaging
effects can persist. Although bats do avoid most obstacles, even in pitch
darkness, any spelunker who’s walked through a cave full of disturbed bats
will tell you that bats quite often smack into any moving intruder (and in a
cloud of many bats, many will hit; I learned this the hard way).
Myconids—innocuous fungi, not just the ambulatory fantasy sort—release
clouds of spores that can have all of the adverse effects of smoke, plus
whatever fun things that particular sort of spore can do if inhaled. In fantasy
terms, that can range from causing hallucinations or a transformation into
a fungi creature, to swift blindness, uncontrollable wheezing or sneezing, or
death. Burning the spores sometimes avoids the problem—and sometimes
causes a worse one.
Bad Footing
Slipping and falling, which can foil your own attacks and leave you
vulnerable, is possible at all times and likely when the surface underfoot is
wet or uneven. Add to that being unable to see the surface properly—as in a
swamp or bog—or a loose, shifting surface (scree), and the danger increases
And then there are avalanches. Most often, these are caused by prior heavy
rain or a buildup of snow combined with steep slopes, but they usually
involve slides of mud, stones—and deadly bounding boulders, too! Local
monsters will often help slides to happen, or position boulders where
they can readily be launched down on the heads of intruders. Against a
sufficiently large falling rock, even the mightiest knight ends up looking like
a bowl of smashed eggs.
Putting It Together
Adverse effects are cumulative. If you’re fighting on an icy or snow-slick
hillside (slippery, sloped terrain without a level rock to stand on or a tree to
brace against), in strong and gusty winds with heavy snow or driving sleet
coming down, the penalties will stack.
For example, if we decide the slipperiness penalizes attack rolls by 1 or 2
points (even/odd die roll) and robs damage done by 1 point, and have the
wind harm chances-to-hit by 1 or 2 points (another even/odd roll), these
Kobold Guide to Combat
detriments are combined. Heavy precipitation restricts visibility and deflects
missiles, penalizing attack rolls by an additional 1d4+1 points for deflection,
plus a visibility-of-target penalty that’s zero if within 40 feet, 1 or 2 (even/
odd) from 40 feet to 70 feet, and 1d4+5 (6 to 9 points) from 70 feet to 90
feet, and 1d6+8 (9 to 14 points) thereafter.
An allowed exception would be missile weapons launched at a familiar spot,
such as a door, narrow mountain pass, or rock cleft, at which the launcher
of the missile has practiced hurling in the past. (In effect, the wielder of the
missiles is “firing blind” in hopes of catching a target in that spot.)
Some simulation wargamers will find these mechanics achingly simple, and
some acting-foremost roleplayers will find them tedious and apt to slow
the flow of play. You should use whatever specific mechanics best suit your
group of players.
As previously mentioned, monsters familiar with a locale will use its weather
and conditions against foes. (One relevant note: reptiles go into torpor if
conditions are too cold, but fantastical monsters that have overt physical
characteristics we associate with reptiles, such as scales or serpentine bodies,
may of course not really be reptiles.)
Happy fighting and dying!
Fighting in a Real Fantasy World h Ed Greenwood
Through the
looking glass
Colin McComb
“Go then—there are other worlds than these.”
—The Dark Tower, Stephen King
n most of our tabletop games, we see desperate battles on stunning
mountaintop vistas, hand-to-hand struggles in ancient temples buried in
jungles, thrilling encounters on the high seas, and—depending on the system
you use—attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion in epic space battles.
But what if your team is ready for an adventure into unknown Kadath,
H.P. Lovecraft’s fabled dreamlands? What if, for example, they have laid
hands on an artifact that translates them into sonic waves? What if you
want to replicate the surreal movie Mirrormask, or visit some of the places
in Calvino’s Invisible Cities? Maybe you’d like to take on the Red Queen
in Wonderland, or perhaps you simply want to simulate the effects of a
particularly potent hallucinogen. Whatever the case, if you plan to add the
strange and the surreal to your campaign, you’ll need to know how to handle
conflict in those alien atmospheres.
In Roger Zelanzy’s Wizard World (potential spoiler warning for a book
that’s over 30 years old), wizards duel each other in a shared hallucination,
where the sorcerers exert their willpower against one another to shape their
perceived reality and thus gain the upper hand. It’s similar to the way one
fights in Planescape’s primal chaos, Limbo, where the environment roils and
spills through constant changes and only the force of the traveler’s will can
maintain any semblance of normalcy.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Now, you might have started the campaign weird—perhaps you’re playing
Numenera, Planescape, Deadlands, or Amber (among many others; this isn’t
an exhaustive list by any means), in which case you’ve got the rules you need
for the strangeness in your game—at least some of them. But you might also
start normal and go weird (Call of Cthulhu, for instance, or Pathfinder, or
Dungeons & Dragons, journeying into the planes).
But you’re set to go, if a journey into the surreal is your plan, then you need
to come to the table prepared. Your first job is to define your surreality. It’s a
difficult subject to pin down, in part because it encompasses so many things.
Its defining characteristic is that it is dreamlike, strange, and its rules do not
conform to the normal world.
A Shove in the Right Direction
You should know where you plan to take your party. Really, that’s the most
important part, because it’s going to determine what they face, how they face
it, and what lies beyond that. Are they journeying to a realm of pure mind?
Are they entering a place where physics is the plaything of the mad, an asylum
where their deepest fears are torn from their dreamscapes? Are they in the
City of Clocks, where competing factions of clock-keepers wield the flow of
time itself as a weapon? Each of these is wildly different from the others, and
each requires a vastly different approach to creating it. You’ll need to consider
a number of variables. For example: time, space, gravity, atmosphere, causality,
imagery, and symbolism, just to name a few. And, once you’ve constructed
your surreal environment, how can you use these in combat?
The Elements of Surreal
Let’s break these down. Each of the following subheads contains questions
to ask to help target your ideal surreal experience. These questions aren’t
exhaustive—each of these categories could fill an essay or twelve on its
own—but they should help to point you in a direction that can be helpful
in considering the direction for your setting. Then we’ll consider how to
implement these best in your campaign. I’m using Dungeons & Dragons as
my base assumption here, but you should feel free to ignore my suggestions
and pick something that works better for you. (Chances are good I won’t
show up to correct you.)
So, with that said, let’s get on with building your surreal environment.
Does it flow forward or backward? Does it hop around, or is it an arrow?
If the inhabitants can traverse time, what is the causality chain? Can they
change the flow of events, or does time snap back into its ordained, historical
events? On a more personal level, how far forward and back can they travel?
Can they hop a few moments, or do they leap back years?
Through the Looking Glass h Colin McComb
For the purposes of this chapter—that is, for the purposes of combat—we
should assume that time skippers employ it as a weapon, using it for doovers, optimizing attacks, or otherwise generating effects similar to those of
a displacer beast.
What stats are helpful here? Whatever power you use for time-jumping will
inform the most applicable stats. Maybe you use Dexterity, because it’s a
measure of reaction time; maybe you use Intelligence, because you need
to anchor your spot in time; maybe you use Constitution because timetraveling makes people want to vomit in your world.
How to simulate this: As mentioned above, displacement is a good one for
short hops in time, simulating making the target harder to hit. You might
also allow stat checks to determine whether the PC can redo an action
or re-roll a missed attack. If you choose to get more involved, you might
consider the martial art of temporal fugue, which allows the attacker to
move both forward and back in time to fight their foes—and if two of
them fight together, they fight recursively.
Playing games with distance and perception of distance can be a huge help
in developing a surreal feel. But, in order to make that work, you’ll need
to answer some questions about that space. Does the adventure take place
in normal space, or is space disrupted somehow? Can inhabitants traverse
space through folding pieces of it together, like a tesseract, and if so, how
do they do it? Is this a skill they can teach the PCs? Alternately, you might
choose that space be expanded, so that every meter the PCs traverse takes
five times as long to cross—or, conversely, they cross it five times as fast. You
might even choose to make the entire fabric of space fungible to someone
who knows how to manipulate it. The tremendous possibilities inherent in
variable space can help you create the mental dislocation necessary to craft
the truly surreal place.
What stats are helpful here? Dexterity is clearly an important stat in order
to react to any sudden changes in spatial coherence. Strength is also
helpful for traversing foreshortened or lengthened spaces far more quickly.
How to simulate the effects of changed space: The blink spell allows for
short-distance hops; a longer distance requires something akin to a phase
door or teleport spell. If used in close combat, space folding can allow for
enhanced initiative, bonuses to hit through unexpected angles. You can
change movement costs, allowing PCs to travel ten times as far in a turn,
or reduce their movement range at a whim. Likewise, decide what happens
to ranged weapons: do they drop short of the target, or do they fire farther
and faster, thus causing more damage? Does visual perception play a more
important role here?
Kobold Guide to Combat
No trip to a surreal place is complete without gravity manipulation. But
you’ll need to figure out exactly how to make that work. Generally, you’ll
want localized effects, pockets of gravity that vary depending on the
environment through which your party travels. Gravity can be Earthnormal, switching to a pocket of low- or no-gravity, in which the objects
float and collide with one another. You could alternate this with heavy
gravity—probably no more than three times Earth-normal, which would
begin to crush your party.
What stats are helpful here? In low gravity, you’ll want to increase damage
from Strength attacks by a step or two, depending on how light the
gravity is; you’ll also provide a concurrent penalty to Dexterity, because
the muscles will be used to normal gravity and will overcompensate. In
high gravity, you’ll lower damage from Strength, but you’ll also reduce
Dexterity again (because the muscles won’t know how to compensate for
the high gravity).
How to simulate this: As with Space, missile weapons become tremendously
problematic in changing gravity—especially if you have your PCs firing
their weapons across pockets of localized, different gravities, in which
case you might be better off using Angry Birds Space for a to-hit roll.
Alternately, you might just use the adjusted Dexterity scores to simulate
the effects. You could investigate the feather fall spell for longer-term
movement effects. If you can get your hands on some Spelljammer
materials, they can help provide you with some more guidelines.
Sometimes you’ll want to keep your party on their toes and mess with the
atmosphere a bit. I don’t mean “spooky”—I mean the stuff they breathe. While
much of the time they’ll have normal (if perhaps slightly stale) air in their
lungs, that’s no reason for you not to mix it up and give them some mildly
caustic air, or perhaps air that renders them euphoric (after all, what’s the
point of a surreal environment if they can’t enjoy it?). If you choose to go this
route, you should consider whether the air in question has a different texture,
different look, different smell, or if it’s indistinguishable from their normal air.
What stats are helpful here? As with any environmental effects involving
breath, Constitution is the primary stat. It determines how affected the
PCs will be and how long they can resist the effects of the atmosphere.
How to simulate this: If the air is foul or caustic, the PCs will have to
make Fortitude checks, with failure indicating penalties on ability and
combat checks. Too many failures can lead to unconsciousness, unless the
afflicted PC is carried to a place of fresher air. If you plan to use euphoric
atmospheres, you could make the air itself an intoxicant, and treat the
Through the Looking Glass h Colin McComb
effects of failed checks as drunkenness or light poisoning. This can lead to
greater DC checks, damage to Intelligence and Wisdom, and penalties to
Dexterity checks.
This may be one of the most difficult pieces of surreal combat to simulate,
because tabletop gaming is by its nature a causal activity. Breaking these
rules can have far-reaching effects, so tread with caution. Ordinarily, an
attack causes damage—in an ordinary causal relationship, this is true.
But if you choose a correlative model of causality, it might simply seem as
if the attack caused the damage . . . but instead, the damage might have
triggered because of a secondary action the PC took: the number of steps,
the distance of the sword swing, the amount of gold in her purse. That
is, the PC takes an action, and then you determine whether it correlated
with the appropriate signifier for a successful attack. More difficult foes in
a correlative environment would have fewer signifiers, and thus would be
more difficult to hit or to damage. Note here that you also don’t need to limit
correlative relationships to attack rolls—you might also use them as damage
indicators or resistance modifiers. At some point, you’ll need to give the PCs
some pointers about the signifiers you use—hints, clues, monster behaviors,
and so forth—in order to help them crack the puzzle. Whether or not these
signifiers make any sense is entirely up to you.
I don’t recommend combat in a non-causal environment, only because it
leaves the realm of the surreal and veers into the truly insane.
What stats are helpful here? Intelligence and Wisdom are the obvious ones
here. This is a place where Strength and Dexterity may have little effect, but
Intelligence can help suss out the signifiers and Wisdom can help the PCs
apply them.
How to simulate this: As noted above, develop signifiers appropriate for the
environment, develop the behaviors of the creatures within, and provide
clues for the correlative effects of the attacks, damage, and resistance
checks. Don’t make them explicit—you want the PCs to have to wrap their
heads around why their natural 20s aren’t doing anything.
Imagery and Symbolism
Most surreal environments seem to be awash in strange imagery—indeed,
that’s part of the definition of the environment—but what does it all mean?
It’s entertaining to describe the man-sized fish (wearing human-hide armor,
of course) riding past on a destrier that wears hats on its hooves, but too
much of it to no purpose makes the players tune out. If you’re going to the
surreal, it should have a purpose behind it, and that means you need to
consider what your imagery and symbolism actually mean. You have three
basic options: nonsensical, dreamlike, and metaphorical. The nonsensical
Kobold Guide to Combat
choice means that you’re simply delivering a visual kick to the PCs, without
any actual correlative effect.
A better choice is to choose dreamlike imagery, in which the PCs can find a
meaning within themselves that has a specific analogue to the imagery you’re
presenting. Alternatively, if they’re in the mind of a dreamer, the images
should provide clues as to the nature of the environment and the challenges
the PCs will be facing: the branches of a tree might provide the solution to
an actual branching labyrinth, for instance.
Similar to the dreamlike imagery, metaphorical imagery should provide
clues—but these are broader metaphors, something that should be apparent
to residents of a specific culture. Simile, analogy, and so forth can play a role
here as well: blades of grass might blossom into steel blades if plucked, while
a PC who deviates from a course to loot nearby gold might find himself
undergoing a transformation into an avaricious dragon, or an encroaching
storm might herald imminent danger.
What stats are helpful here? Wisdom is the most helpful—interpreting these
images requires empathy and insight. Intelligence could also play a role—
whether or not the PC is conversant with a particular metaphor might find
some mitigation in knowledge of a wider variety of cultural expressions.
How to simulate this: This is strange terrain, and it’s going to be difficult
to adjudicate players’ interactions with metaphor. Instead, let the players’
imagination to run wild. Let the PCs summon imagery of their own to
combat the things they find here. If they are playing in the terrain of
mental pictures and descriptive language, allow them to develop language
of their own. The ease of the task should be commensurate with the power
of the metaphor they develop themselves.
Slipping Away
Of course, sometimes the surreal turns silly (Exhibit A: Expedition to the
Barrier Peaks), and that’s frequently the death knell for a game: whatever
coolness you have planned disappears before you have a chance to deliver.
Worse, your players won’t trust you with the strange again. Handled right,
though, adding these strange dimensions can be awe-inspiring, magical, and
truly memorable.
Through the Looking Glass h Colin McComb
Tossing kegs and
smashing chairs
How to Stage a Great Barroom Brawl
Steven Robert
magine the party wizard careening across the beer-slicked floor with
angry peasants launching mugs at her as she slides by, the fighter wildly
waving a broken chair while perched precariously on top of a rickety table
about to be smashed by the town brute, or the rogue swinging to their rescue
dangling from the chandelier.
These images are iconic, and having a brawl in a pub is a great way to spice
up an evening’s play. You can even set a finale there, where the number of
innocent bystanders makes it tougher for good-aligned PCs to break out the
area-effect spells.
A barroom brawl can fill many roles. It can be the pseudo-friendly,
machismo-filled challenge where everyone awakes hours after with a
headache but no serious wounds. It can be the perfectly choreographed
diversion needed to cover up other deeds. It can be a deadly earnest fight for
the safety of the town. It can start as an innocent misunderstanding only to
turn sour in a single palpable drunken moment, going too far and escalating
an aggression that can end only in regret. These fights are different things to
different people, and with a little practice, it is easy to start looking at your
local drinking hole with tactical eye.
Spice up combat
The chaotic whirlwind of a brawl can be a new arena for PCs raised on more
straightforward challenges. Unarmed combat is usually extremely inefficient,
which at first glance seems to make it uninteresting, but it opens up tactical
opportunities that encourage cinematic and unorthodox play precisely
because standard strategies are less useful.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Improvised Weapons
Most fantasy cities are civilized enough that drawing blades will have
serious repercussions with the law but not so civilized that clubbing an
opponent with a chair leg is out of bounds. For some general advice on using
improvised weapons most effectively, see “Eight Ways to Up the Action!”
(Kobold Quarterly #3). Chairs are obvious choices (treat them as clubs), but
they are also fragile and may break on a successful hit (with hardness 0 and 5
hp; they suffer the same amount of damage they inflict). Storage containers,
such as smaller ceramic amphorae and casks, are somewhat sturdier; they
deal damage like clubs but have hardness 5 and 1-5 hp.
Larger amphorae or kegs could also be available, but only the strongest
brawlers can even lift them (requiring a DC 15-25 Strength check), but they
deal significantly more damage (2d8 hp). Mugs of ale make memorable
thrown weapons, shattering upon impact and inflicting damage comparable
to a sling. A bowl of piping hot soup or a pan fresh off the fire is even better
and add 1d3 fire damage.
Finally, sprinkle squares with broken glass or ceramic as windows and trays
of mugs are smashed during the combat. Treat these as caltrops for those
without shoes, and even well-shod characters suffer 1d6 points of damage
from a fall (or trip) into such a square and another 1d3 points when exiting
or standing up (unless they expend a full-round action).
Bull Rushes
Few players will forget being bull rushed into a wall, window, or fireplace.
Each 5 foot square that a character would be pushed beyond what is sufficient
to place him next to a wall inflicts 1d6 points of non-lethal damage (plus
Strength or other bonuses). Also, allow the attacker to make a free Strength
check against the wall’s break DC (20 for normal wooden walls) to send the
victim crashing through to the other side. With glass windows, the impact is
less forceful causing 1d6 less non-lethal damage), but the glass shards deal 1d6
points of lethal damage. Ending in a large fireplace inflicts 2d6 points of fire
damage and requires a DC 15 Reflex save to avoid catching fire.
Crank up the Chaos
One of the most difficult aspects of a traditional brawl for the DM is the
sheer number of participants: the more the merrier but, also, the more
difficult to adjudicate. The following system accounts for the many nameless
combatants in a chaotic brawl.
1) First, assign a rough area to the mob and assume that every square is
either occupied or threatened by a combatant. Moving through these
spaces inflicts 1d3 points of non-lethal damage per 10 feet of movement;
a DC 15 Reflex save halves this damage. Alternatively, a character can
Tossing Kegs and Smashing Chairs h Steven Robert
avoid any damage by tumbling (as if to avoid attacks of opportunity) or by
moving their speed as a full-round action.
2) At the end of each character’s turn, determine the number of adjacent
squares occupied by these nameless brawlers. Roll 1d4 for each such
square; the character suffers one attack, which is considered to be flanking,
for each 1 rolled. If the mob has reason to dislike a particular character (for
example, the party rogue whose cheating triggered the fracas), increase the
odds of targeting that character by also including each 2 rolled.
3)Assign a total hp to the mob (rather than track individual members). To
resolve area spells, estimate the number of affected brawlers and apply the
results proportionately. As the mob’s hit points fall, reduce its size; most
mobs will disperse when reduced to half their hit points.
Of course, never use these rules to describe the PC’s principal opponents.
Emphasize the Terrain
PCs may not immediately recognize it, but taverns offer countless
opportunities for innovative use of terrain during combat. The classic
examples are tables, slippery floors, and chandeliers.
Table 1: Improvised Weapons
Str DC to lift
Cask, Small
Cask, Large;
or keg
on impact
Soup, boiling
Broken glass
or mugs
1d3 or 1d6
if falling or
Kobold Guide to Combat
Tables may be meant for eating and card playing, but they also offer numerous
options to enterprising combatants. Standing on one grants higher ground
(+1 to attack rolls) but also leaves a character vulnerable to being thrown off
(inflicting 1d3 points of non-lethal damage and leaving the character prone
unless they succeed on a DC 20 Tumble check) either because of a bull rush or
because the table collapses following a well-placed strike.
Typical tables have AC 2, hardness 5, and 10-15 hp (or break DC 18-23).
Old or poorly made tables have weak spots to be exploited. A creature next
to such a table may notice that it is rickety; as a move action, it can make a
Craft (Carpentry), Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering), or Disable
Device check (at DC 15) to identify the weak point, or a DC 20 Spot check.
That character then ignores hardness, automatically scores a critical hit on any
successful strike, and receives a +5 circumstance bonus on break attempts.
Characters can flip tables over—always a dramatic way to start a fight.
This requires two free hands and a DC 5-8 Strength check (depending on
sturdiness) if the table is empty. Raise the DC by 10 for each medium-sized
creature standing on it (or 5/15 per small/large creature).
Slippery Surfaces
Areas covered in spilled ale or greasy food pose special challenges. Treat
them as difficult terrain, requiring a DC 10 Balance check to run or charge
or after suffering damage, adding 2 to the DC of any other Balance or
Tumble check, and rendering creatures without five ranks in Balance flatfooted. More importantly, such terrain can easily be used for cinematic
effect in combat. If a creature is bull rushed along such a surface, the pushed
distance is doubled and the character must make a Balance check or fall
prone (DC = 10 + the difference in the bull rush checks).
Creating these conditions is not difficult: small kegs or casks cover a single
5 foot square while larger ones substantially more. Slicks can be produced
during melee, by characters intentionally smashing stacked kegs, or even by
ranged attacks that miss their targets but instead puncture a barrel (imagine
the burly fighter’s surprise when his own improvised weapon trips him!).
For a high fantasy setting, a waxed bar also provides a slippery surface: the
bar’s narrowness increases the Balance DCs to 15 for running or charging
or for taking damage. A fall to the floor inflicts 1d3 points of non-lethal
damage (plus another 1d6 if the character falls in a shower of mugs).
Climbing onto a bar also grants the higher ground bonus.
The key to using the bar effectively is luring the PCs onto it to set up a bull
rush, either by tempting them with an opponent already atop it or taking
cover behind it (and harrying them with thrown casks of beer).
Tossing Kegs and Smashing Chairs h Steven Robert
Prosperous establishments may have a hanging light fixture, which can be
tempting during combat. Swashbuckling rogues may leap to the chandelier
and swing to someone’s rescue.
Reaching a chandelier requires a standard jump and grabbing it a DC 10
Str or Dex check (player’s choice). The chandelier doubles the horizontal
distance of the jump, and the PC may also drop to a lower floor (decrease
the effective distance fallen by 10 ft. with a DC 15 Jump check). A PC who
misses the chandelier can make a DC 15 Reflex save to dangle awkwardly
before falling (reducing falling damage by 10 ft.).
And few events will energize a combat more than a well-placed arrow
dropping the entire chandelier (see Table 2 for chandelier hp, hardness,
and AC). Smaller chandeliers may be held up with a single rope or chain
secured to one side, making them vulnerable. Large chandeliers have
multiple supports; give them a chance to fall equal to the fraction of support
missing at the beginning of each round. A large iron chandelier (200 lbs. or
more) deals 1d6 points of damage per 10 feet of falling distance to all those
below it. A smaller one (100-200 lbs.) deals half that. Characters under the
chandelier must make a DC 15 Reflex
save or be pinned; escaping a pinrequires a DC 10 Strength check as a
standard action (and leaves the PC prone).
Use the Entire Menu
Taverns serve food and drink, and it pays to remind your players of that,
even during combat. Characters drenched in alcohol make take a -2
circumstance penalty on Hide checks, and bull-rushed PCs may sprawl into
a table full of greasy food.
Tapping Kegs
Kegs of ale can be shaken and tapped (usually with a hammer and a spigot,
but a dagger will do in a pinch) as a full-round action. With a ranged touch
attack, a keg can then be pointed toward a character within 10 ft., who must
succeed on a DC 10 Concentration check to cast spells and suffers a -2
penalty on attacks and skill checks. Small kegs can spray an opponent for
five rounds.
(Heavily carbonated beer—and, thus, pressurized kegs—are a modern
invention and are not appropriate for worlds hewing closely to historical
realism. Anything is possible in fantasy worlds: if an explanation is required,
blame it on the gnomes!)
Kobold Guide to Combat
Table 2: Chandeliers
Swinging On
Check Type
To grab
Str or Dex
On a failed grab
Reflex save
15 to avoid fall
per 10 ft.
Artist DC
Chandelier, Small
Chandelier, Large
Chain support
A character may untie a secured rope with a DC 15 Use Rope check.
* Chandeliers and their supports are immune to bludgeoning damage, and
ranged weapons do half damage to objects.
Brewing Vats
Many taverns brew their own beer in large fermenting vats, in a side room or
cellar. Such vats occupy a 5 foot square and are 5-8 feet tall. Small pubs have
freestanding vats with makeshift stairs to their tops; larger taverns might
have platforms built around a set of them (effectively putting their tops at
floor level). The earthenware or wooden vessels are sealed or loosely covered
at the top. Brewing vats are sturdy, with Break DC 23 (20 at the tops), AC
2 (-1 size, -5 Dex, -2 inanimate), hardness 5, and 150 hp: 15 hp damage
suffices to cut a hole from which beer will flow into the room, coating two
4-ft. squares per round (and eventually even filling the room with a shallow
sea of yeasty ale).
Characters can push each other into the vats (or, alternatively, throw
grappled characters into them); again, allow a free break check with the bull
rush. Characters inside full vats must make a DC 10 Swim check to reach the
lip and breathe, plus a DC 10 Climb check to pull themselves out—especially
difficult for those in armor.
Tossing Kegs and Smashing Chairs h Steven Robert
Final Thoughts
A chaotic tavern fight offers many tactical options. Consider the battlefield
and select one or two special features to use each round; your players will
quickly follow your example and no doubt develop ideas of their own. Use
these guidelines to encourage them—especially in a non-lethal brawl, most
players will be happy to follow your judgment. Then, sit back and watch the
mugs fly, the chandeliers crash, and the tables flip.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Arm Yourself!
A note on anatomy
Richard Pett
“Grip the sword, feel it; it’s a heavy instrument, but true. Think of it as an
extension of your arm, an extension that kills, and cleaves, just as your
opponent’s does.”
—Guard Captain Serrus Brine’s opening speech to new
recruits to the city watch
ur anatomy shapes our tools and our tools can become weapons.
It’s an obvious statement, but one that has a bearing upon this short
treatise on how different anatomical layouts and quirks of the body may be
used in your game. Change the body and you change the weapon. What is
fine for a two-armed, two-legged humanoid to use may be impossible for a
six-armed, tentacled, carapaced horror to wield, and vice-versa.
Often, the tools of a race or civilization can be as frightening as the wielder.
Discover a weapon with six handholds, three blades and a hook at one
end and you begin to wonder what the wielder must look like. Imagine a
group of Norse heroes happening upon a hammer the size of a longhouse,
or explorers in some vast alien jungle discovering the shed body-shell
and barbed limb-hooks grown as weapons by horrors beyond mortal
understanding. These can be the beginnings of memorable encounters for
your players. It is not just the amount of damage a weapon does that makes
it remarkable, but who or what might wield it.
The Basics
The basic humanoid shape—two arms, two legs, hands with opposable thumbs,
a brain and eyes to focus intent—form the basic types of humanoid weaponry.
The most basic of weapons—a hard, hand-held object to put force behind, later
aided by some sort of piercing or bladed attachment—becomes a thousand
different types but is basically an extension of the arm and hand. Wield it with
Kobold Guide to Combat
two hands and the force is increased. A tough, thrown object enables attack at
a distance. This weapon is eventually modified by some mechanism to increase
the weight, velocity, and range it may be thrown or delivered. In time, the
creation of puncturing projectile heads perfects the weapon further.
The basic nature of our anatomy drives the weapons we can use until, that
is, mechanical means are brought into the mix. At that point, we change
the game by creating vast catapults and all manner of efficient machines of
destruction. We add to their effect with the ammunition they propel: boiling
oil, rocks, pitch, and more. We leave anatomy behind, and the only limiting
factors that remain are the skill of the creator and operator. But we are not
here to discuss technological progress. We are here to talk flesh and bone.
Different Body, Different Mind
Fantasy games are full of cold and cunning opponents, devils and demons,
dragons and mythical creatures, all of which have differing forms. These
creatures are often intelligent, but it is rare that one sees a dragon that uses
a weapon or has a coat of glittering mail. While devils often use weapons,
they are generally larger versions of more earthly weaponry. Surely such vile
minds can concoct things worse than a halberd, falchion, or flaming sword?
Does such a creature’s natural weaponry strike such fear into its opponents
that the creature does not think to modify or supplement it?
Simple variations could involve enhancing that creature’s natural weapons: a
tail sheathed in spikes, a helm with a crown of barbs, a belly-plate dripping
with poison thorns. Such simple weapons could enhance the creature’s
ability to inflict damage, but at the cost of accuracy. A helm crowned in
spines is fine if it scores a critical hit, but seeing what to hit may not be so
simple. Consider the rule of thumb that, more often than not, more damage
equals less chance to score a hit, and that clumsy may mean more deadly
only when an opponent is unlucky enough to be struck.
Where such a creature is inherently cruel or wicked, its need may not just
be to win in battle, but to create a diabolic spectacle, to maim, to terrify. Just
as a modern weapon such as a flamethrower is designed to create terror,
so a devil wielding a weapon unseen or indescribably cruel may create
havoc that is as much psychological as physical. Do such weapons become
legends in their own right, attributed their own foul personalities or spirits?
Fantasy games offer such options to the GM: the addition of powers to
unique weapons, or the ability to wield something that seems impossible
by modifying the anatomy of the wielder—an extra arm, head, or tentacle.
Do not underestimate the impact of something known; a type of weapon
attributed to a terrible tribe, devil, or cult can be the start of its effect.
Sublimely evil creatures may devise weapons that are horrific in effect but
clumsy, perhaps combining a torture device with a weapon of war. Consider
A Note on Anatomy h Richard Pett
the possibilities: a man-trap that crushes the life from victims through
clockwork, a complex device that needs four hands to work that unleashes a
spinning whirl of saws or blades, or maybe a vast imprisoning iron maiden
that requires incredible strength and eyes in altogether the wrong places to
enable its use as a weapon.
What of the more mythological races? The centaur? The lamia? The
manticore? Different creatures develop different kinds of intelligence and
perspective. They will apply those resources to create weapons appropriate
for their physical attributes and their kinds of combat. Would a centaur or
manticore consider armor embellished with a lance or spikes to enhance
its charge attack? The hooves of lamias and centaurs become deadlier with
the addition of iron-spiked shoes. A spiked helm enhances a head-butt to
deliver a deadlier blow. Do characters hear of a strange race of aggressive
unicorns eager to take human prisoners, only to learn that it is not the
unicorn, but a brutal tribe of centaurs in single-horned helms behind the
attacks? And where such an intelligent creature is vulnerable, surely it
would take action to mitigate the weakness, a back bristling with spikes to
prevent a foe mounting its most vulnerable spot, for example.
The stranger the shape, the stranger the weapon. A look through any
fantasy bestiary provides a bewildering number of repulsive shapes and
sizes, from the formless ooze to the mightiest beasts of legend. Edward
Topsell’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts and his Histories of Serpents,
published in the 17th century, describes countless monsters and creatures
from folklore, observation, and myth. Assign any of these creatures
intellect and an ability to create weapons and you have a rich vein of
possibilities. His Boa—an Italian dragon that feeds upon the milk of
cows—is terrible enough alone, but when equipped with a coat of spears,
or a bracer of blades taken from fallen heroes who have faced it, it could
become a terrible weapon of war. Embellish even the most mundane
creature and it can take on new menace.
When you look at monsters, go back to the basics and consider whether
weapons might give the encounter an edge. Go back to the basics of how
it would wield a weapon and, if it is feasible or perhaps desirable, consider
what it might create and use to terrify and destroy.
A Friend for Life
Could armor and weaponry be altered and used as additions to the natural
anatomy of your creature? Perhaps grown into or even fashioned using
part of the anatomy of the creature—a sharpened horn, a cultivated chitin
breastplate? What happens if the weapon becomes part of the creature, or
two different creatures entirely? Would a devil balk at armor and weapons
covered in all-seeing eyes grown from the souls of the fallen? And would it
Kobold Guide to Combat
end there? With an ability to command the dead to rise, could a devil use
other parts of those same pitiful creatures as weapons in their own right?
The grafting of undead limbs as weapons opens another avenue of thought
to use in fantasy adventures.
Magic gives you a wonderful reason for things to happen and to exist that
should not be possible, and a potential new avenue to consider when using
anatomy as a guide for conceivable weapons.
The option of creatures encouraging their bodies to grow weaponry, or being
subject to painful tribal rituals to ensure it, offers you an alternative. In the
same way that some tribesmen sharpened their teeth, does a tribe of satyrs
have a ritual to grow their horns into strange and wicked shapes that enable
them to attack with great ferocity? These variations could become badges of
honor and a way to identify a mundane foe from an exceptional one.
The next option—the armor or weapon attached as a permanent accessory
to the body—not only modifies the natural attacks of such creatures, but
enables you to bring stories and legends to them. A tribe of medusa with
snake bodies undertakes a vile ritual at the end of childhood where tribal
decorations of bones and iron bands are put on so tight that over time they
become part of the unfortunate creature. These iron tails extend—or perhaps
more truthfully distend—the creatures, giving them an increased size,
reputation and method of attack. Do these spines drip with poison, rotting
meat, or the body parts of taken foes and lovers?
This variation upon the more mundane additions discussed at the beginning
of this chapter makes a permanent commitment to the object, tribal fetish
weapon or unholy object of warfare. In making a marriage to the weapon
in question, the creature commits its body to the union, and takes whatever
benefits—and painful detriments—that combination entails.
A third option—that of living weapons and armor—may involve a complex,
arcane ritual, a magical boon from a benevolent (or malevolent) god, or
maybe a curse. These weapons may be golems or homunculi in their own
right, or could simply be the souls of wicked people given form. More
importantly, what is their relationship with their host? Is it master and
slave, friend and ally, or is it darker, host and parasite perhaps? They may be
nothing more than a curiously well-fitting suit of armor or an exceptionally
light and strong weapon, but they could also be so much more. Do these
weapons actually modify the anatomy of the wielder and perhaps become
loathsomely useful treasure even for humanoids? Are they something as
simple as living parasites that form mandibles grown from humanoid faces,
claws or fangs? Or do they change the form completely, riddling the bodies
and twisting the anatomy so that what is used in combat is familiar but all
the worse for that familiarity?
A Note on Anatomy h Richard Pett
Imagine what strange shapes and vile forms you can create by reversing
the process of the anatomy being the guide to the weapon, and instead
becoming the blank canvas for it.
Some Options
When flicking through a bestiary for new foes, perhaps those that form the
backdrop of your next campaign or adventure path, consider the options
below as starting points for using the anatomy of the foe in a new way, or as
variants for troops, spies or leaders. The base creature has:
A tail
Can the tail wield a weapon? If so, how is said weapon gripped, or is it part
of the creature’s anatomy? If the tail is used to bash, what would happen if it
had something attached to it—blades, an axe, spikes? Could a prehensile tail
be combined with a hand-held weapon to add more strength?
More than two arms
Can the creature wield more humanoid weapons? If it has the ability to wield
only one weapon at a time, could it wield just one weapon and put its entire
strength behind it? Would a weapon of siege warfare, such as a ram, be used
by the creature due to its peculiar biology? Could a new weapon be devised
that allows the creature to wield it with all its hands?
Do the wings end in hands or other grasping appendages? Consider
whether a weapon could be utilized that combines a gripping hand and wing
appendage. Could both wings grip a weapon that can be used when flying
into attack? Could the wings themselves be fitted with blades or edges and
used as extra weaponry?
Four or more legs
Has the creature the ability to stomp or does it charge? Would the addition
of weight or slicing metals have benefit upon attacks made with legs and
feet? Can the flanking sides of the legs be used to hold attachments such as
blades to assist a charge?
No remotely humanoid shape
That which has limbs can hold a weapon. That which does not could still have
them stitched, grafted, or embedded into them. Consider what the creature is
and who it serves. Would an insane wizard graft weapons onto such creatures
if possible? Could a vast, multi-limbed, insectoid horror not be fitted with
mantles of swords or festooned in spearheads and lead an army or party into
Kobold Guide to Combat
A snakelike shape
Can the snake-appendage be used to attack? Like the tail, can it be used just
to bash or can it grip something? What would happen if such an appendage
is used to crush and grip? Would spikes help or hinder? How about hooks to
make it harder for a victim to escape, or spikes outside to prevent help?
Bear in mind that such modifications may also be used as an advantage by
opponents. Not every modification should be purely beneficial. Do huge
weapons lead to weak spots, or have opponents modified their own weapons
to counter these new threats? Considering the argument both ways can help
to create realism and perhaps further innovation.
Strange Weapons for
Unusual Anatomies
With countless combinations of anatomies, the variants that may be
encountered are boggling, however, here are a few samples of weapons that
have been brought back or reported by explorers, heroes, and temple robbers.
The flense
This weapon is used by creatures who possess both wings and hands. The
weapon consists of a strong wire festooned with smaller blades, hooks, and
nails, hooked to the wing, and held by an armored glove. Creatures often use
the weapon as part of a diving charge, which, when successfully completed,
allows the attacker to cast off the hand-held part, leaving the victim held by
the hooks, which in turn are held on the wing, grappling the foe and keeping
it nearby to enable the wielder to use another attack against her foe.
Tail anvil
This hefty weapon is used by intelligent creatures with prehensile tails, or by
trained mounts with the same. Essentially a very heavy, hooked blade that is
fixed to the appendage, the weapon can be used to deadly effect, its weight
and sharpness inflicting potentially lethal wounds at the expense of very
poor accuracy.
Girth blades
Often used by creatures with snake-bodies or those with tails, these weapons
are iron and leather girdles with blades attached at right angles to the body.
They can be used to pierce or slash opponents as the creature turns, to
puncture those nearby, or to use as weapons when the creature swings its tail.
A Note on Anatomy h Richard Pett
The magic of
“ the gambler"
Aaron Rosenberg
n the classic Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” he explains that “you
gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em/know when to walk
away, know when to run.” The same could be said for including mages in
combat. Do you stand and fight? Do you use your magic? Or do you run
away, either to find a better position or just to survive the conflict?
Know Thyself
The key to surviving any combat is always to know your own strengths
and weaknesses, and those of the tools at your disposal. Are you a heavily
armored tank? Then you should not be the one trying to sneak around
behind the enemy, but you absolutely should be the one leading the charge
right into their midst. Are you better with a longbow than a sword? Stay
back, seek higher ground, and pick off key figures in the enemy ranks. If
you wade into battle you’re liable to discover that your bow doesn’t do very
well at parrying sword strokes and axe swings, and if you’re dead your
phenomenal aim won’t be of much help to anybody.
This advice holds just as true for magic users as for mundane fighters, and
possibly more so. If you possess magic you may be capable of stupendous,
awe-inspiring feats, but only if you know how to use that magic to best
effect and how to avoid being tripped up by its shortcomings. Look at the
classic Dungeons & Dragons wizard. He can cast fireball, lightning bolt, and
other spells that cause massive damage. Everyone who has ever played a
wizard character, however, has quickly learned to hate two simple phrases:
“concentration” and “attack of opportunity.” That’s because casting a spell
Kobold Guide to Combat
requires a great deal of focus—so much so that, if you’re interrupted while
casting, you’ll most likely lose the spell completely. At the same time,
because you’re standing still and so completely absorbed in your task, you’re
a sitting duck for any foe nearby. If an enemy is within reach of you while
you’re casting they get a free attack, which is called an attack of opportunity.
Needless to say, having a sword suddenly swing at your neck or jab at your
chest will almost certainly shatter your concentration.
Wizards face other problems with combat. One of those is the whole
question of armor. Technically, a wizard can wear armor, but doing so means
there’s a chance any spell he casts will fail whether he’s attacked or not. The
heavier the armor, the higher that chance. Plus a lot of wizard spells have
casting times of a full round or sometimes even longer, and every round
means another chance for enemies to attack you, injure you, and disrupt
your spell. That’s why, in D&D, most wizards know not to be in the middle
of combat. They stand off to the side, or better yet up on a nearby hill, and
cast from a safe distance. After all, a lot of their more damaging spells—
including both fireball and lightning bolt—are long range, meaning they can
be cast from hundreds of feet away. Why stand in the middle of the fighting
when you can be more effective and safer somewhere else?
The Time Factor
Of course, some characters are not just wizards. They have levels in more
than one class, and some of those other classes might be more combatoriented. That certainly gives the character more options, but it doesn’t
change the limitations on the spells themselves. Look at Gandalf the Grey
from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is a wizard, one of
the most powerful in Middle-earth. But in combat he uses his elf-blade,
Glamdring, instead. He may cause a burst of light or something like that,
in order to disorient and frighten his enemies, but he doesn’t stand around
casting spells when hordes of goblins or orcs are charging him. There simply
isn’t time. In the movies Gandalf is a little more powerful, and typically
wades into battle with his sword in one hand and his staff in the other—he
uses the staff to blind people with light but also to sweep them back by
bursts of pure force, then uses the sword to attack anyone who got past those
effects. It’s an effective technique, but only because the magic doesn’t require
time or effort. If he had to stand still and concentrate a few seconds before
each burst, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
For another example, look at the Harry Potter books. Harry and his
classmates are taught how to wizard-duel, which involves two wizards facing
off and casting spells at one another. These spells are all short, one or two
words, and take effect immediately upon casting, but there’s still that second
or two between when you raise your wand and when you finish uttering
the last syllable, and if you’re distracted your spell may fizzle out uncast.
The Magic of “The Gambler” h Aaron Rosenberg
That’s probably why, in actual battles, we don’t see people like Sirius Black
and Bellatrix Lestrange using spells. They don’t have time to waste running
around shouting “Expelliarmus!” at each other. Their battles seem to involve
more innate magic use, still with their wands but without any incantations.
The effects may be less precise but they are faster and thus more effective
given the pace of battle.
Some magic is well-suited to such a frenetic scene. In Brandon Sanderson’s
Mistborn series, the Allomancers gain their powers by ingesting small
amounts of metal and then essentially “burning” those metals inside
themselves. Each metal releases a different sort of power, and they typically
come in pairs, one for an internal or self-oriented version and one for an
external or others-oriented variety. Once an Allomancer burns the metal, he
or she only needs a small amount of mental effort to maintain it, allowing
them to talk, run, or even fight at the same time. Thus the Thugs, who burn
pewter, enhance their strength, agility, and resilience, making them superior
warriors. Coinshots burn steel, allowing them to push nearby metals—they
earned their nickname because a favorite trick is to essentially “fire” coins
and other small metal objects at opponents. Mistborn can burn any and
all of the Allomantic metals, and can do so in various combinations, so a
Mistborn can burn both pewter and steel at once, gaining increased physical
prowess and the ability to hurl metal at people. Most Allomancy doesn’t
work well at a distance—affecting other people or objects can often only be
done at close range—so if Allomancers are involved in combat they tend to
be right there in the thick of things, using their magic to give themselves an
advantage over nonpowered foes.
A Leg Up
Sometimes, having that small advantage is the difference between winning
a fight and losing one. In Richard Kadry’s Sandman Slim novels, the main
character, Stark, is a magician who got sent to Hell, became first a gladiator
and then an assassin there, and finally escaped back to Earth. Stark is always
getting into fights with everything from vampires to zombies to angry
warlocks to demons. Does he cast spells when that happens? Not a chance.
Most of the actual spells he knows require long, drawn-out rituals, and there
isn’t much time for that if someone’s trying to stab you, shoot you, bite you,
or otherwise injure you. Instead Stark relies upon a variety of pistols and a
magical knife. That’s not to say he avoids magic entirely in a fight, however.
He just turns to Hellion magic, which he calls “hoodoo” or hexes. These are
spells that are extremely quick to cast—typically a single gesture and a single
Hellion word or phrase—and take effect right away. Most of them aren’t
lethal all by themselves but they can hurt like hell and they can throw an
opponent off completely, leaving them open for Stark’s gun or knife. Because,
as someone who had to survive pit fights with demons, Stark knows that in
Kobold Guide to Combat
order to beat somebody who’s genuinely trying to kill you, you use any and
all tools at your disposal. Including fighting dirty.
Harry Dresden, of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, understands this as well.
Dresden is an extremely powerful wizard, and particularly good at quick
spells that hit hard and fast but without much precision. He also uses a
variety of magically enhanced items to give him additional attack capability
or to provide defense, like the silver rings that can store physical force and
then channel it back out for an attack, or his leather duster that has been
enchanted to protect from not only gunfire but also magical energy bolts.
Dresden is capable of casting more involved spells, but those usually take
inscribed pentagrams and long chants and so on. In the middle of a fight
there’s only time to use his blasting rod or his shield bracelet and a few quick
and dirty spells.
Ain’t We A Pair?
Of course, one obvious solution to the classic “wizards are sitting ducks
when casting spells” problem is never to fight alone. In Raymond Fiest’s
Riftwar Saga, the Great Ones of Kelewan are capable of immense magical
displays, including summoning storms, shielding whole platoons of troops,
and raining fire down upon an entire flank of an army. They can do this
magic while in motion, such as riding on a horse, and don’t need words or
even gestures, but they do have to concentrate to control such awesome
forces. To give them the time to do this, the Tsurani army assigns soldiers to
take up guard positions around the Great Ones, and to defend them to the
death. Once surrounded by armed warriors, a wizard can cast spells without
having to worry about being attacked. And once his spells take effect he can
destroy whole swathes of enemy soldiers, saving his guards from having to
fight them instead.
In the same way, a wizard can pair with a fighter, the one casting spells from
a distance while the other battles the enemy up close. In D&D there exists
a pair of magical items known as Spellguard Rings that are perfect for such
a pairing. There is a gold ring and a bronze ring—if the wizard wears the
gold ring, whoever wears the bronze ring becomes immune to any spell he
casts. That way, the wizard can cast fireball into the midst of the combat,
knowing his fighter friend won’t be injured by the blast. Of course, the
wizard could also simply coordinate with the fighter so that the spell would
miss him anyway. Regardless of how they arrange it, the pairing of a longrange spellcaster and a melee combat expert is extremely effective because it
gives enemies not one but two problems to worry about and gives each half
of the pair optimal conditions for their particular method of fighting. That
can sometimes be as simple as in David Eddings’ The Belgariad, where the
sorcerers call one another out and battle magically while the armies slam
into one another using standard nonmagical weapons. With the sorcerers off
The Magic of “The Gambler” h Aaron Rosenberg
to one side they don’t have to worry about being interrupted or about getting
hit by a stray arrow or crossbow bolt, and the soldiers and fighters don’t have
to worry about having a spell suddenly strike them down.
Choose Your Poison
It all comes down to the way magic works in the system and the setting in
which you’re playing and what the character not only can do with magic
but is comfortable doing with it. If magic involves long, drawn-out rituals
and complex spells, you either shouldn’t be down there with the fighters
or you should have more conventional weapons you can use until you can
find the time and the space to cast spells. If magic is more innate or at least
more rapid you can step into the fray rather than having to hold yourself at a
There’s also a question of tactics, of course. Even if you can use your magic
at close range against a horde of soldiers, you might be better off either
hanging back and waiting for the right moment or staying off to the side and
using your magic to aid your allies, either by giving them strength and other
advantages or by casting spells to hamper and harm their opponents. Don’t
resign yourself to a certain type of magical combat just because that’s the
safest or usually the most effective. It’s fine to prefer the style that you know
works best for you, but keep your other options in mind for those conflicts
where your usual methods either won’t work or simply won’t work as well as
some other actions. After all, even an expert archer knows there are times
when you simply drop the bow and draw your long knives. The same is true
of magic-users and their spells. Sometimes that silly little close-range spell
can wind up being exactly what you need to turn the tide of battle and save
the day. It’s all about knowing what’s in your hand, and which cards to pull at
any given moment.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Taking aim
The Role of Archery in Gaming
Miranda Horner
ot everyone wants to wade into the thick of combat like your basic
warrior character. Perhaps the arcane and divine arts of the caster
or healer don’t quite apply to your play style either. The appeal of distance
brings with it both the promise of avoiding the cuts and thrusts of meleeoriented foes as well as providing you with a certain amount of cover—if
you’d rather have your foe not see your first attack at all.
Enter the archer. Armed with a bow, whether it be shortbow, longbow,
or crossbow, the archer can work alone in the distance from an ambush
position or set up with a group of similarly range-oriented companions and
bring down the pain from afar with a volley of arrows or bolts.
But that isn’t your only option. Some archers work from horseback (or while
upon other more exotic mounts). When combined with the mobility of a
fast-moving steed, archers can take out important foes while remaining
maneuverable upon the field of combat.
But, fair warning: some games require you to keep track of ammunition
and the like, and if you’re out of ammo, you might have to fall back on other
means to defend yourself in bad situations. And sometimes you’re stuck with
close-range combat. For those times, having a few back-up options can help
you get out of that situation so that you can once again start taking out those
despicable enemies of yours from the safety of distance.
So, what’s it gonna be for your character concept? And what should you
think about in terms of mechanics when playing an archer? Let’s dive right
in by taking a look at the solo archer.
Taking Aim h Miranda Horner
Going Solo: The Hunting Archer
When your mission requires stealth—whether it’s for hunting down the prized
stag in the queen’s forest or setting up a shot for an assassination—you might
be going solo. The gear and skills you need should reflect these situations.
For those whose targets tend to be more wilderness-oriented than urban,
knowing how to track animals, how to move silently and swiftly through the
terrain—all while remaining aware of the direction you’re traveling and the
geography of the land you cover—are valuable skills. The last thing you want
to do is stumble into someone’s bear trap as you’re tracking down the bear that
brought down half the village the other week. Remaining alert and perceptive
to the subtle nuances of your immediate vicinity can also be a requirement.
In short, anything that provides your archer with an advantage in natural
surroundings can serve to increase the chance that when he or she tracks down
the quarry, the quarry will be in the worst position possible to defend itself.
Perhaps, though, you hate the wilderness and want your archer to stick to
urban landscapes. Evil people and organizations might be your preferred
enemy. When choosing to use your bow in the middle of a city, you’re going
to be at a disadvantage. Getting a shot lined up could require you to find
higher ground with a direct line of sight. That means knowing the area you’re
in or learning it quickly and discreetly. Additionally, being able to pay off
the right people so that you can take your choice spot, make your shot, and
quickly get out of town before those who want to bring you to justice? These
are all excellent things to know. So, if you’re more the urban assassin, skills
that lend you stealth, provide you with the ability to gain knowledge from
others quickly, and perhaps gain you some time ahead of your main event
so that you can scout out your escape plan (always have an escape plan) will
be of great use to you. Having contacts in the city or town you’re in is also a
tremendous boon—sometimes that innkeeper you drop a few extra coins to
each time you’re in town can share with you the juicy bit of information that
allows you to set up a perfect spot for a glorious headshot (or, ahem, muchneeded removal of a certain very bad individual from the world).
If you want to be versatile and work within all sorts of environments, you
might find building your perfect character challenging. Many games will
have some means of keeping a sort of balance in check through the use
of skill points or feats or other such mechanized resource management.
Pick carefully, and look for those mechanics that allow you the most
flexibility. If your character build isn’t as optimal as you’d like in a particular
environment, it never hurts to work with your game master to see if you can
tweak a mechanic to make it work better for you—but be careful not to steal
the spotlight from other party members. In fact, if you’re taking on a lot of
solo missions, with your GM’s grace, you two could plan to have these take
place outside of your normal gaming session.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Wait! Let’s Not Split the Party: the
Grouping Archer
Archers who choose to stay with their adventuring group can take full
advantage of the distractions their fellow adventurers provide. Wow, that
sounds bad. But think of it this way: any distraction your group can provide,
whether it be as an intimidating meat shield or a caster ready with fiery bolts
of magical destruction, can allow you to line up the perfect shot and take out
a specific foe—such as that lich that’s about to send a wave of magical force
right at your entire party. And your party will be extremely grateful if you
can somehow stop that lich from getting that spell off. So, use the noisier
and flashier members of your group to your advantage, and see if you can’t
provide a sort of distraction of your own when it comes to other ranged
attackers by engaging them—with your arrows or bolts.
While you’re in combat, seek to use the terrain and environment to your
advantage by ducking behind tables, scaling stairs to gain a height advantage,
and dipping into shadows like your party’s rogue loves to do. Just try not
to vanish into the same spot as your sticky-fingered friend just did. Bear
in mind that you probably aren’t the only person in that combat who can
be sneaky; watch for others who might be lurking in those shadows. They
might mean you harm.
When you’re with a group, consider this: you don’t always have to shoot first.
Even if your initiative comes up first, if the field of combat isn’t to your liking,
be patient and make the battlefield advantage yours in some way. High ground
is helpful because it can allow you to see so much, and sometimes your foes
might not be looking up. Shadows, when extensive, can provide you with
places to slip into when you need to reload or take extra time to aim carefully.
Some games have ranged weapons that require longer load times, plus
mechanics that grant you a benefit if you take longer to line up your shot.
Although it’s not always to your advantage to be the first person to damage
your foes, weigh that carefully against the potential for dropping a very
important or strategically placed enemy on that first round of combat. If
you have someone in your party who is immediately threatened, it might be
worth making that first shot so that, for example, Ms. Spikey-Armored Evil
Warlord doesn’t drop your squishy wizard in that first round.
In other words, think before you choose to try to cut short the NPC’s boxed
text monologue. How best can you use that very first shot? Does it need to
be the first attack of the combat?
With all of the above in mind, having the choice to act first is a strong option
for your character. Being able to move freely about the area and use cover
and shadows to hide within can help you make the most of your shots.
Taking Aim h Miranda Horner
Commanding the Field: the
Mounted Archer
Fantasy roleplaying games allow you to use mounts other than horses but,
even so, horses still provide you with a tremendous boon on the field of
combat: mobility.
Whether you’re on a horse, a spider, or a pegasus, you have an advantage over
others you face in combat while mounted. When on mounts that can take
advantage of more than placement on the ground, use that advantage fully.
Send your spider mount crawling across the ceiling so that you can make
some shots from above your opponents in the cavern below. (Just make sure
your spider mount has the right gear to ensure that gravity doesn’t summarily
remove you from the saddle when this happens. Falling damage is not fun.)
Even better: train your mount. That horse can become a fully capable warhorse
that deals viciously and effectively with any who would seek to dismount you.
A spider could potentially tie up a group of foes with webbing, and you could
either focus on others or take the webbed baddies down at a more leisurely
pace while they struggle in futility. Your pegasus could buffet a foe with its
wings, perhaps knocking that person down from a great height on a keep wall,
before gaining altitude again and giving you a command of the field.
Special Gear: the Tools of the Archer
When equipping your archer, you should consider what sorts of tactics you
want your archer to use in the game. Hopefully you gained some inspiration
above. Now, though, your gear can help you fine tune your character
concept. How? Let’s take a peek at some potential concepts to explore.
First, if you plan to make a lot of long shots, choose a weapon that gives you
the most advantage in this regard. If you don’t mind being rather obvious
in terms of gear you’re wearing, then a longbow would work. If you need
or prefer to be discreet, however, some of the smaller and more specialized
crossbows might be more your thing, but be mindful of the reload times that
some games place on crossbows—and the cost. Some game systems like to
make these things pricey.
If you envy your wizard’s or cleric’s ability to affect people with magic, you
have options, too: poisons. Whether magical or mundane, these substances
can provide you with a much wider range of options in combat. Sometimes,
for example, you need to kidnap someone for further questioning—not kill
him or her. And sometimes you really do want to make sure that you have
the best chance for removing a potent threat in that first round. Poison can
be very deadly and effective. Just poke around in the game’s mechanics to see
if there are things that will allow you to apply poisons quickly in the middle
of combat or even craft them. You really don’t want to accidentally stab
yourself with your poison-laden arrow. That’s never fun.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Now, let’s discuss ammo: if you’re using a bow or crossbow, you’ll need
arrows and bolts. Some games allow for different types of arrows and
bolts—magical or mundane. Keep your character’s preferred fighting style in
mind when picking out ammunition. It might be that you want to add more
oomph to your ability to take out a foe in one blow. Or, perhaps, you’d rather
pick up some magical ammunition that can entangle foes instead so that
your party has fewer foes to deal with in combat. And then there are magic
quivers that give you an endless supply of arrows—so utterly useful!
When the Combat Closes: Things to Think
about in Melee Combat Situations
Sometimes the combat comes to you. In these cases, having a melee weapon
or close-range ability is necessary so that you don’t feel left out of the fun
while your compatriots are whaling on your enemies. If you’ve already made
the choice to use poison, having a special poisoned dagger for melee combat
could give you enough space to set up for another shot—especially if that
poison drops your target into a deep sleep.
You can also take advantage of any alchemy or equipment rules your game
might have by using smoke bombs or other ways to temporarily distract
your foe and slide on out of combat. And, finally, many game systems have
improvised weapons rules. Don’t be afraid to simply punch your foe with
bow in hand, or perhaps try to trip up the baddie that’s in your face. If all
goes well, you might have the opportunity to sneak in another bow attack
at close range. Speaking of which, and this is the most powerful option of
all, see what abilities your game might provide you when it comes to close
combat with a ranged weapon. Or come up with a house rule that works for
your gaming group and keeps you involved in the combat even when the
base game might normally see you stymied for options.
Basic Gear and Identification
Because an archer tends to use bows or crossbows, plus carry around
a quiver, it can be challenging to operate in an environment without
cluing people in to what you can do. Maybe you don’t want everyone to
know that you can shoot people with arrows or bolts.
If that’s the case, then making sure that you have a secret stash of
equipment inside the location you plan to use your weapons within is
a solid plan. If your skills don’t run toward bribery, diplomacy, or even
streetwise-oriented methods, then ask your adventuring party “Face”
buddy to make arrangements for your gear to be where it needs to be
when it comes time to use it. And please excuse the A-Team reference.
Taking Aim h Miranda Horner
And . . . Releasing
If you’re still stuck for inspiration when it comes to creating an archer
character for your fantasy roleplaying game, there’s an easy starting point for
you: a lot of wonderful fantasy movies have come out in the past decade that
feature archers. Some of the things you might have seen Legolas do in the
Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies are astounding—maybe you can poke
around at your favorite RPG’s mechanics to emulate those attacks (or seek
out others who have already done the work for you online!). And we’ve got
Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy to look toward for her archery skills. You
can start with mechanics then come up with character story as you go.
Whether you start with the type of archer you want your character to be or
simply focus on figuring out how to mimic those exciting moves that you
want your character to emulate, you should have a lot of fodder to think
about now. Go out there and hit them with your best shot. Those bad guys
await you, whether they know it or not.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Realism and Archery
If you’re interested in introducing some realism to your game, be mindful
of how the weather and environment can affect the bow, bowstring, and
arrows. You can dive deep down an Internet research rabbit hole learning
about how to take care of your gear and come up with an interesting
range of things Thou Shalt Do To Properly Take Care of Your Bow and
Accessories. Failure to do any of these things, when combined with
inclement weather of any sort, has the potential to provide the GM with
interesting ways to stymie you. Maybe you don’t want that, but maybe
you live for such details. We don’t judge.
Some quick topics of research:
• Waxing a bowstring
• Unstringing your bow when not in use
• Storing your bow
• Cleaning your bow
So, if you’re not actually on guard while the party is resting, and if
you’re an archer, did you keep that bow strung? And what are the
consequences of doing so? And what happens to that basic bow you’ve
had since you started adventuring when you’re crawling around the lair
of the fire elemental king? Things to think about, most certainly!
If you’re interested in learning how to shoot a bow, you might want to
check into archery ranges near you for lessons and organizations that
can help. There’s nothing like learning to use a bow to start thinking
about how you’d use the weapon in a gaming session!
If you’d rather stick to online resources, the following sites, as well as
Wikipedia, might be of interest to you.
Taking Aim h Miranda Horner
Siege engines
& war machines
in fantasy
Wolfgang Baur
uch of fantasy gaming and storytelling is skewed toward the story of
the lone hero or—in games—the plucky band of ragtag heroes who
overcome terrible odds and triumph over darkness. This makes for a great
story, and yet it doesn’t, at first blush, seem to have anything at all to do with
the drudgery and modern way of war machines and bombards, the great
historical sieges, or the mass artillery at Verdun.
I’d argue, though, that some fantasy settings have done something very
clever indeed, by picking and choosing how they present siege engines and
war machines. There are many approaches to making war and its engines
accessible in a game of heroic individuals, and I’ll get to those. First, though,
a very, very brief history of war machines.
War Machines in Fantasy and Reality
We all know something about modern warfare, the industrial slaughter made
possible by powerful new weapons and machine-driven tactics. These kinds
of conflicts make the news. We learn it in the histories of the American Civil
War (railroads!), World War 1 (gas! Machine guns!), and the World War 2
(blitzkrieg! 88s! firebombing civilians!). There are even quite modern twists;
drones are our newest mechanized and autonomous weapons.
However, older war machines exist, perhaps much older than people
realize, and some of these were just as much a shock as later war machines.
Gunpowder weaponry was probably first used in sieges by Ghengis Khan
during the invasion of the Caucasus and Persia in the 13th century, and then in
Europe at the battle of Mohi when the Mongols destroyed the Hungarian army.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The first such recorded weaponry in a stationary siege was in 1262, when
King Alfonso X of Castile besieged a city in Spain whose Spanish-Arab
inhabitants fired primitive gunpowder arms against the Spaniards. These
were cumbersome weapons, but effective because of their novelty. Certainly
no one had planned to besiege a castle whose defenders had such strange
weapons, but the records of the time are sketchy. They soon proved their
value to attackers as well.
Though gunpowder is an element in many war machines, it’s hardly
required. Even further back, consider the use of war elephants (by the
Carthaginians and Romans and Egyptians). Elephants could roll over a line
of shield-and-spear troops, and they were terrifying. I’d argue they make
a very good example of why bulettes, remorhaz, dragons, and other large
fantasy animals might be employed in a highly-magical context. Sure, you’ve
seen an elephant at the zoo. Have you seen one charging you when you are
holding a spear and a shield? It’s a tank in living form.
And if you’d ever watched someone fire a replica ballista or launch a boulder
hundreds of yards with a trechubet—well, those count as big, fairly scary
stuff. Wherever there’s war, people strive to build big, powerful weapons.
Weapons as Characters
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that these ancient war machines are
all one-offs and, at best, were cast similarly to church bells. They were not
produced by the tens of thousands; the technology didn’t exist. Instead, they
were made by armories and workshops, and the good ones were as lavishly
funded as the Pentagon or the People’s Liberation Army is today. Look up
the pictures of Ottoman bombards like the Dardanelles Gun and Russian
behemoths like the Tsar Cannon of 1586, or the Faule Grete of the Teutonic
Knights from 1409. They are handmade and precious, in the same way that
each castle is built to make the most of a given site or hilltop.
War machines made this way are far more quirky than the industrial,
mass‑produced weapons of the 19th century—they have inscriptions like
“By the order of the Emperor, DuriDurran, Shah Wali Khan Wazir made
the gun named Zamzama or the Taker of Strongholds.” These weapons are
largely immobile, and that makes them a form of weapon that can also be
seized by the enemy.
Each of these named guns has a history and mystique and a character: its
owners, its battles are known just as the wielders of a famous sword or the rider
of a famous dragon would be known. Taking one little step further, any war
machine truly worth its weight in a fantasy game or tale should have a name, it
should have its own devoted and elite crew, and it might even be inhabited by
spirits or powered by magic to help move, aim, and empower its effects.
Siege Engines & War Machines in Fantasy h Wolfgang Baur
This means that fantasy war machines should not seem mass produced, but
rather should be treated more like ancient warships or warhorses: each with
unique characteristics. Imagine a gun loaded with necromantic shot, flinging
disease into an army’s ranks. Imagine a Dragon King’s Cannon that screams
with the fury of wyverns whenever it is fired, terrifying the enemy. Imagine
a gun that is also a clockwork automaton, and walks to the commands of
its maker. Each of these is the expression of the culture that made it. If the
Greeks built that walker, you can bet they’d paint eyes on its head or prow,
just as they did on the galleys they rowed to Troy.
Yes, we’re heading into the territory of the battlemech here, and we should
look to SF for some inspiration and design choices. For flavors of fantasy
that want maximum violence, maximum destruction, and a sense of pure
horror you want the machine to be superhuman and intimidating by virtue
of all the elements that make a battlemech work: they are enormous, they
are stronger than any person, and they have a vast potential for destruction
with fire, energy, boulders, some unique attack. That Dread Sultan’s Walking
Cannon will certainly live up to its title as Taker of Strongholds, blowing
village after village and town after town into dust. Surely there’s an adventure
or tale in there somewhere?
And of course, some such weapons need not be clockwork items or
animated constructs; war machines can be living things in fantasy. They are
dragons, war elephants, and dwarven tanks powered by coal or enchained
fire elementals. One way of making fantasy conform to the standards of
action movies and heroic war dramas about the 20th century is to turn all
the bombers into dragons and all the destroyers into Korean turtle ships, and
so on. You’re not really playing to the role of the individual hero in an older
time so much as you are mimicking the modern style of warfare with older
tropes. That’s not my favorite approach (it feels forced and weird sometimes
to have a fantasy air force, artillery, and so on), but it totally works.
Selective Heroism: Schwerpunkt and
Turning Points
So, once you’ve chosen the look and feel of your enormous war machines,
what do you do with them? One way to make these sorts of large and ofttimes stationary war machines worthwhile for adventuring tales is to make
them targets of a quest themselves (“Destroy the Sultan’s bombard before it
destroys the city!”) or to use them as special terrain elements, sites as worthy
of capture as any ley line nexus, holy shrine, or giant’s flying cloud castle.
The difficulty is in balancing the needs of the heroic band with the larger view
of an enormous battlefield filled with hundreds or thousands or even hundreds
of thousands of soldiers, officers, undead, and summoned monstrosities.
Kobold Guide to Combat
How do you make that work? One option is to use a war machine as a
stand-in for the larger battle. The heroes have a war oliphaunt, or they have
captured the Dread Sultan’s Walking Cannon and must defend it against the
elite troops of the opposition, whether those are dragon-riding wraiths or
undead swarms or a squadron called the Sultan’s Own Blood Sorcerers. If the
PCs can hold the war machine against attack, or move it into a commanding
position, the battle is won. If not, their failure is a microcosm of the whole
battle, and the PCs must retreat (or at least, they are ordered to retreat—they
can always choose to stay and become prisoners).
This aligns neatly with a term that wargamers will surely recognize: the
Schwerpunkt (focal point) and the principle of concentration (familiar from
the days of Napoleon and the US Civil War). In planning an adventure
or a battle, the schwerpunkt is the point of maximum effort and leverage,
the place where the correct application of troops and firepower will bring
victory. In a fantasy or SF setting, the schwerpunkt is where you send the
heroes, the bridge or tower or supply line or jump gate that must be held or
must be seized. War machines are made for these sorts of vital points, where
a single change in the balance changes everything.
Ammunition and Destruction
Having a war machine at your disposal can be exciting and empowering
for your players—and you want that! They command a rain of destruction,
they are impervious to bowshot and hurled boulders, they stand athwart the
ramparts and defy the enemy at that critical focal point. That’s the point of a
big empowering machine, and you should play it to the hilt. Emphasize the
power and impact of this machine, and you give players a thrill and a sense
of mastery. Chances are, your players will eat that up. Let them relish it... for
a while.
However, there are some pretty big downstream consequences of player
characters seizing powerful engines of war—especially any machine that
is the least bit mobile. In particular, if you have clever players, they’ll very
quickly find ways to turn any captured war machine to their own ends, and
this is where a story of a war oliphaunt or a Great Sultan’s Cannon can turn
into a story of adventurers carving out their own kingdom or levying tolls
on the main merchant track of your campaign. War machines will empower
players to defeat the Big Bad Villain and an opposing force many times their
size, but some players will always see the purely mercenary potential for
these devices as soon as the battle is over and victory is won.
This is why you should decide ahead of time whether the main war machine
will be destroyed when it secures victory (the cannon ruptures) or when
enemies overrun it or destroy some vital component (sorry about your
planet buster, Lord Vader), whether it will be claimed by allies (the war
Siege Engines & War Machines in Fantasy h Wolfgang Baur
oliphaunt is reunited with its mahout and trainer), or whether it will become
disabled or useless somehow (its magic depleted, the walking cannon-golem
sinks into the swamp).
It doesn’t matter which approach you take, but keep in mind that a war
machine should be a rental or (at best) a very expensive lease in any typical
roleplaying campaign. If you want to make it a core part of the game going
forward, you certainly can bring in foes to match it: just realize that you’ve
gone from a game of individual heroics to a game of giant fantasy robots and
tanks. It may not be what all your players want: does the bard really want to
sing about the triumph of Old Clanky? Does the druid want to oversee the
construction of an improved Imperial Behemoth? Maybe not.
Bigger Fields of Battle: Tunnels Through
The alternative solution to chaining the PCs to a particular hill, cannon, or
war oliphaunt is to give them free range on a vast and sweeping field of battle
where a war machine is an absolutely vital bit of equipment. Imagine being
there for the Rain of Colorless Fire from the Greyhawk campaign setting, or
a similarly apocalyptic moment in the Wasted West of the Midgard campaign
setting. Picture a whole thunderstorm made of cloudkill spells and unleashed
in one of the struggles between the Five Nations in Eberron. Think big. Think
of a clash so huge that, no matter where the player characters choose to focus
their attention, something important is happening.
In an environment like this, they might command a scouting group on
dragon wings, be shot down by magical nets hurled from catapults, land
nimbly behind enemy lines and seize a siege tower, only to spot an important
enemy officer’s camp from the tower roof and make their way through
a chaotic maelstrom of hand-to-hand combat in the wake of a towering
and enraged demon-walker—to that general’s tent and to take a crucial
prisoner—who they smuggle back to their own lines atop a war oliphaunt.
In that example, siege engines and war machines function as aerial
reconnaissance, as semi-fixed strongpoints, as mobile shock troops, and
as pure transport. Their role is what you make of them, but machines like
this on the battlefield are wonderful tools for a larger story, for magnifying
the heroism and possible accomplishments of what might otherwise be just
another group of scout cavalry or irregular footmen.
Death zones: Dragon Fire and Poison Gas
One of the functions of war machines is to make a place completely
unlivable. Artillery, gas, and even Greek fire were all created with the goal of
slaughter and control of a battlefield. Think of the battle of the Black Water
in Game of Thrones, think of trench warfare with gas, think of napalm in
Vietnam. A war machine might easily include the catapults that hurl dragon
Kobold Guide to Combat
fire or cloudkill spells, or the dragons that simply set forests aflame.
These are extreme examples by the standards of medieval warfare, but they
are familiar enough to gamers that they might make for very interesting
challenges. Don’t give them the dragon fire or the cloudkill spells. Make them
figure out a way to survive it.
In these cases, the heroes are not looking to capture or destroy a war
machine—they are just looking for a way around it. This might mean using a
disused postern gate and a series of tunnels and trenches (how conveniently
dungeon-like!), or it might mean using a special magical shield that protects
them while others die around them in droves (rather grim, but this is
Sparta), or it might be that the war machine they face has a single weakness
and can be immobilized from the enemy ranks if only someone were
foolhardy enough to send a small band of adventurers into the enemy ranks
in disguise.
The stakes are high, the consequences of failure are huge, and the goal is
pretty clear. This premise (like The Guns of Navaronne) makes a great war
story for a motivated platoon. Give it some thought the next time you design
a villain’s well-nigh impregnable fortress. Make it a little more impregnable,
in other words.
War Machines as Story Tools
All of this is to say that siege engines and war machines are elements of a
storyteller’s toolkit, useful in some instances, ways to raise the stakes or
make a thuggish brawl into a larger conflict, and potentially a way to make
a skirmish, battle, or war into something with grand and epic sweep. Use
them wisely, and your stories of combat will have a great set of options and
perhaps, a few much bigger hammers that readers and gamers will know by
their own names, as familiar as Enola Gay and Gypsy Danger. War machines
are a lever to turn a tale of single heroes into a tale of an entire army and the
crucial moments that brought them victory or defeat.
Siege Engines & War Machines in Fantasy h Wolfgang Baur
Inspiring words
A Warlord’s Field Guide To Battle Cries
Mario Podeschi
A rallying cry rose above the din of the battle, inspiring the Halfling to fight
on long enough for Captain Titus to get to his side: “Try harder!” Titus cried.
“Huh?” thought the halfling. “That’s it, try harder?”
attle cries have long been a staple of fantasy gaming. A good battle cry
brings an exciting touch of character into a combat encounter, whether
it’s the barbarian’s savage yell or the elven fighter’s solemn oath to slay his
foe. With the advent of 4e, inspirational one-liners are even stronger—
after all, the warlord class restores hit points and grants saves based on
heartening words. Most of us don’t have the improvisational skills to invent
an inspirational shout every combat round, though, so a list of one-liners,
ready for use and stapled to a character sheet, can be invaluable. Bards and
marshals from 3.5e use very similar powers, and a cutting line can add
personality to bold heroes of any class.
The battle cries below are organized by types. Several are inspired by literary
or historical battle cries.
Call to Arms
These aggressive battle cries signal either the beginning of a battle or a major
shift in a battle’s rhythm. Use them when your warlord PC grants your allies
speed and bonuses or to unleash that daily powers that make the difference
between victory and defeat.
• Awake the irons!
• At them, my brothers-in-arms!
• Onward, mongrels; do you want to live forever?
Kobold Guide to Combat
• Into the fray, you dog-hearted cowards.
• After me! Forward!
• If we should die, let us die with sword in hand and courage in heart.
• Clear the way!
• No step backwards!
• No retreat, no failure. Only move forward!
• Faster! Faster! Fasterer! [a goblin stand-by]
• Ka-kaw! [Native American warriors once used animal sounds as battle
cries, which the European colonists found quite terrifying]
• They are nothing to us. They are leaves to our wind!
• Let valor not fail!
• When we meet in hell, let us dine together as friends.
• We will win this fight, and with it, our place in history.
• Let us fly to glory on wings of steel.
We Happy Few
Since many powers target individual characters, you may find it useful to
develop personalized encouragements for your allies. Revise these battle
cries to match your own party members.
• Stand up, Shorty. Otherwise, I’m going to trip over you on my way to
the others.
• Ha! You’re already falling behind.
• We can’t do this without you.
• You’re not going to let me have all the fun, are you?
• Get up. I didn’t give you permission to die.
• Get up. Either we all go home, or no one goes home.
• On your feet—I’m not carrying you out.
• On your feet, or it’s not them you’ll have to worry about.
• Arise, and let your steel sing.
• Kai keryth-karlanis. [Elven for “Long life to the war-souls”]
• Labbaik. [A grim dwarven call for defense that means “we are here”]
• Be strong, comrade. The day is not lost so long as we stand together!
• These fools have not yet learned to fear your dance of death. Make
them fear you!
• Worse the weather, longer the march.
• Don’t give up now! This will be the greatest part of your legend!
• Their swords will shatter on your shield.
• Giving up so soon?
Inspiring Words h Mario Podeschi
Warlord’s Challenge
Sometimes, the best way to encourage your allies is to demoralize your foes.
These battle cries taunt the enemy and blend well with powerful attacks that
bring other benefits to your party.
• Do you so fear my blade that you bother us with these peasants?
• I have sworn to be slain by better than you.
• My name is Titus, and this is Death!
• Which limb shall I rend first?
• This is the last time I humble you.
• Stand down, or be put down.
• Might I have the pleasure of your name before I run you through?
• Challenging us? You’re about as bright as a dying firefly.
• Two strokes and ten seconds is all you’ve left in this world.
• Never have you been so doomed as when you provoked my wrath.
• Hell hungers, and my sword shall feed it.
• Let your eyes look their last—soon they will be food for the crows.
• Repent, villain, for this is your final hour.
• Fight your last, look your last, breathe your last.
• We will speak more while you twitch upon my blade.
• I must warn you, knave: only cowards have faced me and lived.
• There’s nowhere left to run.
These battle cries, many inspired by real-world history, are used to invoke
patriotism, religious zeal, or moral conviction. When your party fights for a
shared goal, these saltues can add an epic flourish to an encounter. They also
work well for clerics and paladins, and for inspiring allies in larger battles.
• Long live the Queen!
• Land and freedom!
• The Empire forever!
• For honor!
• Forever Zobeck! [or any city you’re defending]
• And when get to Heaven / to Saint Charon will we tell / four more
men reporting, sir / we’ve served our time in Hell.
• Fight well, for the fallen will receive a chosen place at Khor’s side!
• After this day, the Red Goddess will know our names.
• Svarog aid us!
• Mithras guide our sword-arms; Isis guide our souls.
• Remember the dead, fight for the living!
Kobold Guide to Combat
Making your own
You may need to expand this list depending on how often your characters
fight. Though it requires some work, it is incredibly rewarding when you
develop a line that is completely your own. Just start with a simple phrase
like “kill that guy” and expand it into something epic.
The terms introduced here are taken from the study of rhetoric—the art of
using language to inspire, educate, or persuade. Even if you are not familiar
with these terms, they describe concepts that we instinctively understand.
Using cool-sounding synonyms is the most common tool. Rather than killing
that “guy,” have your comrades kill villains, knaves, corpses-in-training, and
fly-bitten boarpigs. Similarly, you can slay rather than kill, swear instead of
promise, and persevere instead of win. Metaphor is another sharp blade for
rhetoric. By expressing simple ideas abstractly, you can turn dozens of epic
phrases. Powerful animals provide great imagery for this, as your party can
“catch this prey in their iron talons” or “strike with a lion’s fury.”
Synecdoche is a metaphor that substitutes a part for the whole. For an
adventuring party, this means referring to your allies as their blades, hands,
hearts, staves, and so on. Rather than saying “we will end you”, a hero might
say “our blades will end you.”
You can add more life to a cliché by using metalepsis, where you renew an old
phrase by referring to it without repeating it. As your allies get used to battle
cries like “let fly to glory on wings of steel,” you can reinvent it with similar
cries like “our wings of steel will carry us through!”
Chiasmus is one of my favorite ways to turn a phrase. It contrasts points
with very similar structures. Politicians love chiasmus, using it in phrases
like “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for
your country” and “what counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the
fight—it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” In your own battle cries, reverse
sentences to provide a ringing tone.
Alliteration makes your battle cries more poetic and memorable by
repeating similar sounds. The warlord’s cry “their swords will shatter on
your stalwart shield” sounds more impressive than “their weapons will
break on your hard shield.”
Winston Churchill used anaphora to inspire British soldiers when he
proclaimed that “we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the
landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.” By repeating
a phrase with different endings, this technique can turn a simple phrase
into a memorable speech: “Together shall we slay their skeletons, together
shall we slay their trolls and their basilisks, together shall we slay their
mighty dragons!”
Inspiring Words h Mario Podeschi
Conversely, epistrophe repeats sentence endings with similar effect. It was
used in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, when he called upon a government of
the people, by the people, and for the people. With epistrophe, you can insist
that your friends live as heroes, speak as heroes, dream as heroes, and, if
they must, die as heroes.
The halflings’ foe dealt a vicious smack of his morning star, catching the
Halfling under the chin. Fading fast, he knew his enemies would have the
advantage soon. A rallying cry rose above the din of battle: “Don’t give up!”
yelled the warlord.
“This will be the greatest part of your legend!” The halfling smiled at the
thought—and fought on.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The Right
Character for
the Job
and scouting
John A. Pitts and Ken Scholes
As Moth slipped through the trees, her feet seemed to barely touch the ground.
A dozen yards away, Reginald lay back, watching the young waif disappear
amongst the shadows, praying that she would come back to him safe and
sound. Of course, she always had. This was her seventh time out, scouting
a village in the path of Reginald and his remaining troop. Each time she’d
gleaned enough information to allow his men to bypass a hostile settlement
without incident or, once, allowed his men a much-needed chance to resupply
and rest. He thanked the gods for the day he’d found this young woman, a
native to these lands, fighting off two attackers, with a third dead at her feet.
She never spoke of her family, but her familiarity with the local dialects and
customs had saved his men time and again. Maybe, with continued luck, and
her amazing skill, they’d get home alive.
couting and reconnaissance have been integral to combat across the
history of human warfare. Regardless of the era, military commanders
have relied upon the most accurate information, both of the terrain and the
enemy forces occupying it, to determine the tactics and strategy necessary to
achieve their mission.
Missions come in many variations. Sometimes you are driving deep into
enemy territory and are looking to hit a certain objective: blow up a bridge,
destroy a supply depot, capture a particular landmark, or generally strike at
the enemy’s soft underbelly. Think of Sherman’s march to the south during
the American Civil War, or Rome’s Gallic wars against the Germanic tribes.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Moth counted to three before reaching out with one hand, cupping the orc’s
face and sliding the dagger into the back of its neck. She followed the larger
body down, guiding it to a quiet rest before rising and signaling to Reginald
in the woods behind her. One sentry down, one to go, she thought. Then the
mages can get in close enough to disable the magical wards on the temple
doors. With luck, the orc high priestess won’t know anything until the
halflings are stabbing her in her putrid green ankles.
Sometimes, scouting is just to get the lay of the land so you can move your
forces with the least amount of trouble, including finding good places to
camp and forage, as well as avoiding hostile forces. Knowing where the
swamp starts and the mountains end is vital to your forces’ survival. You
really don’t want to get caught with an abysmal swamp standing between you
and safety while a ravening horde of ogres bears down on your exhausted,
wounded compatriots. The true beauty of a well-played scout is being able
to keep tabs on all the threats you could face, finding a way to avoid them,
and maybe, if you are very good, entangle the enemy in those traps you’ve
discovered. Sure, the mage could just fireball that group of ogres, but how
sweet would it be if you ran them straight into the den of manticores you
just discovered? A good GM would reward you for cleverness, creativity, and
chutzpah (as long as you survive).
Evolution of an Ancient Skill
From the first group of hunters who sought to take down a mastodon to
modern armored cavalry and even satellites and spy planes, the fine art
of scouting, tracking and reconnaissance has been part of the continued
success and evolution of thriving tribes, communities and even nations.
One of the best-documented, early examples of the use of scouting and
reconnaissance is found in the Roman Empire—which brings us to one
of the earliest and most profound technological advances in scouting and
recon: the horse. This four-legged wonder could move men at unprecedented
speeds, allowing for quick incursions, more rapid communication, and a
broader sense of the environment an army would face.
The Romans, faced with brutal defeats at the hands of the Visigoths and
Huns, evolved their idea of combat, began to deploy more scouts, and even
expanded their use of cavalry as a potent weapon all to itself. Successful
battles don’t always go to the stronger force, but to the force with the best
knowledge or intelligence, and the most diverse strategy taking advantage of
said knowledge. Speedy and nimble troops don’t hurt either.
Of course, the emergence of cavalries came with disadvantages. Horses could
be killed, and horses had to be fed and trained, making them a resource used
with care. Early on, of the approximately 6,000 soldiers in a Roman legion,
only 120 were cavalry. They were used initially as messengers and scouts. But
Reconnaissance and Scouting h John A. Pitts and Ken Scholes
by the 5th century, as the use of the horse became more prevalent in combat,
the Roman cavalry expanded up to roughly one third the size of the infantry.
The Roman army used two types of scouts: the speculatores and the
exploratores. The exploratores, who were often natives familiar with the
terrain, patrolled ahead of the army sometimes up to a day’s ride out. Their
job was to identify potential campsites, ambush points, enemy positions
and any other notable information found, and to verify information taken
from prisoners or deserters. The speculatores, fewer in number, operated
as spies for the legion, sent in disguise to gather intelligence behind enemy
lines. As members of the cavalry, the Roman scouts were armed with bows,
carried small shields and wore armor designed for maximum mobility and
protection while horseback.
In the sixth century, far removed from Rome, Sun Tzu described useful
information scouts could gather to determine the size and make-up of an
enemy force on the move, identify problems like hunger, thirst or low morale
with enemy ranks, and preempt potential ambushes or traps.
Today’s scout looks nothing like his Roman or Chinese predecessors,
but the function remains largely the same, and the principles that drive
scouting and recon have not changed much. Like the Romans, the U.S.
military has employed natives, both as enlisted men and as hired scouts.
Native Americans, familiar with the terrain and the peoples occupying it,
were hired as far back as the Revolutionary War to provide scouting and
reconnaissance services to the U.S. military. From the end of the Civil War
to the beginning of the first World War, there was a permanent Native
American presence in the U.S. Cavalry as scouts.
Use of NPC scouts could add a lot of flavor to your campaign. Are they
truly friendlies, or are they leading the party into an ambush? Do you have
a common enemy? Are they using the party as a tool to exact vengence on
personal enemies? There is no end to the complications this can bring. Think
of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. He wasn’t exactly a trustworthy character,
but he definitely led Frodo and Sam with care—to Shelob’s lair. So, it was a
trap. It ended up working out in the end.
Reconnaissance has to be an ongoing venture, happening before, during
and after combat, and recon assets are never kept in reserve; scouts are
tools kept in use to assure the flow of good information for the strategists.
To accomplish this, scouts must stay hidden and, from that concealment,
gain and maintain contact with the enemy. And as information is gathered,
it must be communicated accurately and quickly or it becomes useless.
Maintaining mobility and avoiding decisive engagement with the enemy is
also key, particularly if the scouts are discovered.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Information gathered by scouts falls loosely within three categories:
Information about the enemy forces, information about the terrain or
geography and information about the civilian population. It’s obvious
that information about enemy forces—the number and make-up of those
forces, its leadership, morale, supply chain, its own recon and scouting
capacity—gathered by scouts on the ground with their eyes, ears and noses
gathering data can mean victory or defeat. Observations about terrain and
geography—things like weather, choke-points, water sources, wildlife—
provide commanders with a sense of the environment they are sending
infantry into and allow them to consider the potential advantages or
disadvantages of their location. Information about the civilian population—
its infrastructure, holidays, religious beliefs, customs, economic and health
conditions—can be useful in shaping strategy. When you are invited to dine
with the local tribe, it’s always good to know: are you are a guest, or are you
on the menu?
Game Play and Storytelling
Anyone can scout, go ahead of the main group and see what’s going on.
Hell, sometimes the sheer audacity of that act, when coupled with a nondescript appearance, can confuse the locals and guards into thinking you
are innocent and safe. But a warrior clomping down the road in plate mail
may not be the exact thing that you’re looking for when it comes to the main
purpose of a scout.
The basic skill set of any good tracker or scout is uncannily similar to that of
a good upper-story man or a successful horse thief. These individuals must
move quietly and unseen, while at the same time being able to track multiple
threats and obstacles all the while seeking their goal and always keeping a
ready escape plan if things go poorly.
Your job is to determine if the land ahead is safe or not. Where is the enemy,
and can your people survive the next few miles without getting wiped out?
You can be looking for a good campsite, foraging for food, or looking for a
way around an abandoned castle full of giant spiders. Or, you may be the
front man who goes into a town to pave the way for your folks coming in
later: the lead for a traveling troupe who set up the locals to anticipate a
show, or prepare them to buy your snake oil by drumming up business. You
are the forerunner. She who blazes the path forward keeps her people safe
and softens up the suckers so her side comes out ahead.
Reconnaissance and Scouting h John A. Pitts and Ken Scholes
Skills of a Good Scout
Facility with language, the more the better
Languages help—as long as they are used in the region you are in, of course.
Knowing high Elvish while stuck in the middle of kobold territories may
not prove to be very useful. Being able to listen to sentries, guardsmen and
even local farmers and such is one way a good scout can gather needed
information without exposing themselves to danger. The critical skill here is
a high intelligence. Scouts aren’t all hiding and sneaking.
The best scouts are never seen—moving like the wind and never leaving as
much as a broken branch or foot print for others to find. There is a reason
most scouts are not hulking brutes or mail-clad warriors. Quiet and hidden
are the key ingredients here. Think dexterity, agility and spacial awareness.
When you are out looking for the enemy, trying to find a good place to
make camp, or generally trying to avoid running into enemy patrols or, you
know, the local large, toothy, eating machine, it’s important for your scouts
to be able tell the difference between black bear markings that are weeks
old and the fresh tracks left by a minotaur or squad of goblins. The type
of track, its freshness, and its direction of movement are all vital to either
following or avoiding the critters in question. Again, intelligence is key here,
as well as specialized knowledge. You’ve gotta be able to rub more than two
brain cells together if you are going to tell the difference between a black
bear and a grizzly.
Excellent Senses
Sometimes you smell the fires of an encampment or hear the whicker of
horses before you actually see the line of pickets. Knowing how sound
travels, which way the wind blows, and direction of said input can make the
difference in surprising the encampment of lizard men or Mongol warriors,
and being surprised by them. Add skill points to various traits such as
listening, spot hidden, heightened smell, and intuition.
Knowledge of Flora and Fauna
A good scout knows enough not to allow the folks he’s scouting for to set
up camp in a big thicket of poison oak, or worse, in the midst of a colony of
fire ants or killer bees. Understanding what grows where can lead to fresh
water. Being able to tell the difference between edible and non-edible plants
will allow your side to forage more efficiently. This is all about smarts and
again, specialized knowledge. A GM might offer skill points in various
regions, perhaps, or classes of beasties. Knowing the habits of a kobold
Kobold Guide to Combat
pack can spell the difference between finding their latrine and their pit trap
where they catch dinner.
Stalwartness, Forthrightness, Decisiveness and Commitment
Look, you creep through a clearing and find that the enemy has scouts of
their own. You see him; he sees you. You have a breath to make a decision
on how to react. Do you hare off in a direction that diverts the enemy away
from your camp, hoping to circle back and lead them into a trap? Or do
you strike, taking down the enemy scout before he can alert his troops that
you are out there, plotting their demise? Hesitation will always kill you,
maybe not with an immediate thrust of steel, but letting the other guy live
makes your job harder and puts your team at risk. Besides, you don’t need
the competition. Seriously, do you want the other scouts finding out you fell
out of that tree, allowing the goblin scout to see you? Embarrassing. You’re
gonna need chutzpah, fortitude, and a “what’s the worse that could happen”
attitude. Wisdom plays heavily here.
A Talent with Pointy Things (or Maybe Heavy, Blunt Things)
No matter how much you want to be like a ghost, vanishing before anyone
even knows you were there, there are going to be times when you need to
take out an enemy to preserve your own skin. A knife in the throat is a simple
solution; knowing how to kill a person (or an orc, a tiefling, or a centaur) with
minimal fuss and muss can really keep your day from going totally downhill.
See goblin scout above. Any and all martial skills will be useful here. Pick your
favorite killing implement and stack the stats and skill accordingly. Twohanded sword is a bad choice, but a garrote, now, that’s a thing of beauty. Also,
do not forget the bow. A scout needs to be able to bring down that bounding
deer from a distance. Have you ever tried to stab a running deer?
A Glib Tongue, a Quick Wit, and a Sharp Mind
Not all scouting is creeping through the underbrush avoiding brambles and
the inevitable pile of bear dung. Some scouts, infiltrators, or advance men
spend their time mingling with the locals, taking the pulse of the community
and determining if a town is a good place to bring their people to or a
good place to avoid. Is it a good place to re-supply, or are these iniquitous
bastards in cahoots with the evil overlord? Knowing how to talk your way
out of a tricky situation, convincing a bar maid to give up a bit of vital
information, or talking your way past a pair of bored guards can make the
difference between full bellies and fat purses, or the hangman’s noose. Skills
in speaking—see above re: facility with language—decent intelligence and
charisma help here. Being able to spin a tale or two wouldn’t hurt when you
finally get cornered. It’s bound to happen.
Reconnaissance and Scouting h John A. Pitts and Ken Scholes
Many classic societies and secret organizations had networks of like-minded
individuals who one could contact to gather information, get next orders,
or even sell information to. Spies and agitators tend to work in intricate
networks of compatriots who are willing to stage a riot or burn down a
building to help you and yours achieve a goal, or just flat escape with your
skins. The more people you know, or the more secret handshakes you have,
the greater your chances of being successful in unknown territory. Skill
points in secret societies, contacts, special tattoos, markings, handshakes,
and catch phrases are all part of this expertise. Know the difference between
“the celery stalks at midnight” getting you access to a secret meeting, or a
quick stab in the neck.
Fun with Animals
Remember earlier when we talked about horses? Mounts are critical to the
range and speed of the scout. The faster the knowledge gets where it needs to
be, the better off everyone is. Besides, you may need to make a hasty escape,
and pulling a horse from the enemy picket line could just be your ticket
home. Skills in animal husbandry, animal psychology and the like help here.
Again, a good intelligence will add additional levels to all your skills, but
being able to discern a horse that’s been plowing fields for fifteen years from a
battle trained stallion could mean the difference between staying alive or not.
Find Your Style
In character generation or story building, it is always good to understand the
tone you are going for, the style of play you want, or the overall story arc you
want your character to have. Do you want to be that Brick who can stand
toe-to-toe with the Ogre and allow the mage time to get off a few magic
missiles, or are you the type to catch that Ogre napping and kill him before
his battle cries alert his cousins in the next hollar over? At the end of the
day, as you’re dividing the loot and drinking ale in a tavern, you can sit back
smugly while the warrior and mage brag about their conquests, while you
pocket that bauble you found while the Ogre was napping.
Think About It
And hey, if you get out maneuvered and the enemy falls on your party
with the wrath of a thousand kobolds, you’ll be in the woods, hidden away,
waiting for your chance to slip into the wilds and head back to that lovely
tavern you found a few days back. I’m sure the bar maid there will remember
you fondly, especially if you whisper to her in high Elvish again.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Combat from
the shadows
Carlos Ovalle
t might be considered a bit dishonorable to stab an opponent in the back,
in the dark.
You might take such actions out of necessity, however. Maybe you don’t have
the combat training to go head-to-head against your opponent. Maybe you
don’t have powerful magic to fall back on. Maybe you have to rely on careful
planning or your own cleverness to defeat your enemies.
Maybe you have to fight from the shadows.
There’s a grand tradition of combat from the shadows in tabletop RPGs. The
original Dungeons & Dragons Thief began this style of combat. “You should
not fight hand-to-hand unless you have to,” warns the Thief entry from the
Mentzer box. The entry later reads: “[i]f a thief can sneak up on a victim,
completely unnoticed, the thief may Backstab.” The Thief stayed out of direct
combat and struck from hiding.
The Thief ’s direct descendent is the D&D or Pathfinder Rogue, and the
Thief has spawned a number of other scions that tend to share a few
characteristics. I find the term Rogue a bit more inclusive—not all Rogues
are thieves, but most thieves are Rogues—so I’ll use the term Rogue to talk
about the general fantasy archetype.
So what makes a Rogue a Rogue?
Rogues are clever. Rogues are good at opening locks and disabling traps.
Rogues might be a bit selfish or greedy; acquiring something is their
Combat from the Shadows h Carlos Ovalle
primary motivation. Rogues often rely on speed more than strength. Rogues
tend to be a bit more physically fragile than their martial counterparts
but they are survivors, and when they can surprise you, you’re in trouble.
Rogues have to be smarter or cleverer than their foes. Rogues are stealthy.
Rogues hide in the shadows.
So where did these tropes come from?
The Fantasy Rogue
The trickster archetype has been around for most of recorded human
history. Loki of Norse mythology spread chaos amongst the Æsir and is
currently both battling the superheroes of Marvel’s cinematic universe and
starring in his own comic book as an anti-hero agent of Asgard. Coyote
of several Native American traditions now makes disruptive appearances
in many works of fantasy and urban fantasy, like Patricia Briggs’ Mercy
Thompson series, where he provides cryptic clues that generally only make
sense after the fact. We also find folk heroes like Robin Hood, Puck, and
Reynard the Fox recur in stories up through today. Some commonalities
between these tricksters: they outwit their opponents, they are rule breakers,
and they often fight—and win—by cheating.
The trickster archetype in turn inspired the literary archetype of the rogue.
Gary Gygax was directly inspired by Jack Vance and his tales of the Dying
Earth. Many of us have heard of Vancian magic, but Vance also inspired the
Thief with the anti-hero Cugel the Clever, whose “less-than-ethical exploits”
often left him fleeing directly from the results of his actions. (“Cugel the
Too-Clever-for-His-Own-Good” may have been a better epithet.) Gygax
also referred to Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack as a source of inspiration for the
Thief—a particularly dark anti-hero whose power only worked in the shadows.
They are also tricksters—they lie, cheat and do everything they can in their
power to defeat their enemies, no matter how questionable their actions.
Other works of classic fantasy provide us still more examples of the rogue.
The reluctant burglar Bilbo Baggins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
certainly shares some of the rogue’s characteristics. He avoids direct fights
and relies on his wits to overcome obstacles and enemies. Fafhrd and
the Gray Mouser of Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar are quintessential
adventuring rogues in the picaresque tradition. They are consummate
swordsmen, but just as often use their cunning to overcome their enemies.
We even find rogue characteristics in Robert Howard’s Conan, the
barbarian thief and king. While Conan’s battle prowess is legendary, his
skills as a rogue are also impressive. Gygax even gave Conan levels in the
Thief class when he created statistics for him in Dragon magazine. These
characters were the acknowledged direct inspirations for the earliest rogues
of tabletop RPGs.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The rogue tradition continues in a number of recent works. Tabletop RPGs
have existed long enough to have potentially informed the rogue archetype
these characters represent. Locke Lamora, Jean Tannen, and Sabetha
Belacoros of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series plot, steal, double
cross, and cheat their way across their brutal world. Arya Stark from George
R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire uses her wits and her speed to survive
incredible hardships. Her early lessons with the Braavosi fighting style and
her later training in poisons, lying, and knives bring her directly to the path
of the assassin. Speaking of assassins, Vlad Taltos battles adversity (and
occasionally kills people) in the Dragaeran empire in Steven Brust’s epic
series—and his one-time mentor Kiera the Thief is the absolute best at what
she does, earning her sobriquet many times over.
Tie-in fiction directly based on RPGs provides us a number of memorable
thieves, rogues and assassins that in turn inspire rogues in games and fiction
today. Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis gave us the incorrigible kender
and Hero of the Lance, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, whose constant “borrowing”
of goods, insatiable curiosity and general good-heartedness help his
companions triumph against the forces of evil. R.A. Salvatore created starkly
contrasting characters—the thief with the heart of gold, Regis, and the
ruthless assassin Artemis Entreri. From Pathfinder Tales, Dave Gross’s rake
Radovan fights and charms his way across Golarion.
There’s an entire trope dedicated to the Lovable Rogue at that real-world
equivalent of a maze spell, website, describing those “who
break the law, for their own personal profit, but [are] nice enough and
charming enough to allow the audience to root for them.” They break laws
and con, hurt or kill people, but they’re still the heroes (or anti-heroes). They
are still the ones we usually want to win. These heroes, their styles and their
abilities, are the models for our RPG counterparts.
So what do we learn from these characters that we can apply to how they
fight in a tabletop RPG?
Fighting as a Fantasy Rogue
The Gentleman Bastards provide an excellent variety of examples. Jean
Tannen is a terrific combatant. He’s talented and skilled, using his pair of
axes, the Wicked Sisters, to devastate his opponents—and he was taught
by his master not to fence “with its many sporting limitations and its
proscriptions against dishonorable engagements,” but to “kill men with a
sword.” Sabetha Belacoros, in her appearances in The Republic of Thieves,
excels at everything she does, including swordsmanship. She’s a far better
fighter than Locke Lamora. Locke has never been a great combatant and
he knows it. And his friends know it. His mentor taught him how to win,
not by his skill with a blade, but by using his weapons “sneak-style,” “in the
back, from the side, from above, in the dark.” And Locke does win fights—
Combat from the Shadows h Carlos Ovalle
sometimes against incredible odds—but he has to rely on his planning, his
wits, and not a little bit of luck. When he wins, he almost never comes out
unscathed. And sometimes he loses fights spectacularly.
So we see that rogues can vary in their battle prowess. Although some of
them are amazing fighters, the stealthy ones tend to be more physically frail
than the standard warriors. They rely on charm, cleverness, stealth, speed
and, occasionally, tactics that might be considered dishonorable but give
them an edge, like the use of poison. They might use longswords, but they’re
more likely to use smaller weapons: daggers or other items that can be easily
hidden. They’re tricky in combat. Things go best for them when they can
plan in advance. And they cheat.
They cheat by misdirection and deceit. They cheat by using stealth and
trickery. They cheat by breaking the rules of engagement. Taking advantage of
planning, cheating and stealth can be complicated in an RPG, especially in a
team game in which characters have different skills and varying motivations.
Rogues have been a staple of fantasy tabletop games since the earliest days
of the Thief. In those days, they could use skills that other classes couldn’t:
pick pockets, open locks, find and remove traps, hide in the shadows and
move silently. They had a relatively restrictive set of weapons and armor
available to them, but they could come out of the shadows to backstab their
opponents. Later editions and game systems refined the class further, calling
it the rogue, and added additional roguelike classes: the assassin, the bard,
Pathfinder’s ninja, Kobold Press’s shadowsworn, and others. These roles
share elements of the thief ’s skills, but possess their own foci and skill sets.
As the rules changed, the rogues gained new ways to take advantage of their
opponents. The creation of extensive simulationist rules that provided more
situational options and utilized tactical maps allowed players new strategies.
Instead of only attacking from shadow, these characters could take actions
that took advantage of their opponents’ distraction. Rules existed to create
different types of rogues, with many different avenues available to them in and
out of combat. These changes opened up an incredible number of possibilities.
In some ways, though, GMs and players may find such extensive rule sets
Some people debate how to maximize a character’s choices for combat,
belittling the choices others make that aren’t optimal for such situations. Some
people don’t consider how to allow for actions that aren’t explicitly included
in the rules. That mindset can be difficult for characters whose defining
characteristic is to break the rules and think of clever ways to defeat their
opponents. The rogue often suffers in these discussions. But they don’t have to.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Affordances and Potential Actions
I’m going to appropriate a word from interaction design: affordance.
An affordance is basically a functional characteristic of an object in the
environment that allows a particular action to take place. The most common
example is that a doorknob affords a twisting motion that can be pulled or
pushed in order to open a door; the design of the doorknob makes those
actions—twisting, pulling, pushing—possible. Affordances come from
design, and a person has to be able to perceive an affordance for that design
to be useful. In a tabletop RPG, the rule sets and interactions with a GM
provide affordances for player characters.
One of the challenges in playing a stealthy character in a tabletop RPG is that
it is, perhaps more than other types of classes, beholden to its environment
and environmental interactions. The rules have to provide affordances to
the players in order for the players to know what is possible using that rule
system. And the players have to be able to perceive that such affordances exist.
Let’s return to the Pathfinder RPG. The character sheet lists the Stealth
skill as an option, and Stealth and its interaction with the Perception skill
are described in the Skills chapter. The combat rules describe how Cover
and Concealment works. The Vision and Light section describes different
degrees of light. These are all affordances that should show the player how
the use of stealth in and out of combat is possible and how those actions
should work.
But there’s more to stealthy combat than the rules. The most important and
greatest affordances in a tabletop RPG come from the GM, and that begins
before a campaign even begins. The GM needs to inform the player what
type of game they’re playing from the outset. Is it a kick-in-the-doors-andloot style of game? Is it going to emphasize roleplaying? The answers to these
questions can contribute to how a rogue can be designed so that the players
and GM can each enjoy themselves. Those discussions determine what
actions and activities will be emphasized and allowed by the GM during
the course of play. If a GM never uses vision or light in a game, for example,
the combat utility of the stealthy rogue may be greatly diminished, and the
player may want to consider a different rogue archetype or help the GM
create opportunities for using stealth.
A player’s interaction with a GM during play is always key to a successful
game. A fighter can charge her enemies. A wizard can cast a harmful spell.
Those actions don’t require much in the way of description. For the most
effective use of a character that relies on stealth, however, the GM must
describe the environment and what is occurring in the environment in
such a way that the players realize that stealthy or clever interactions with
the environment are even possible. Those descriptions are the affordances
provided by the story. What’s the lightning like? Are there trees? Are there
Combat from the Shadows h Carlos Ovalle
crates? Can a person hide behind those trees or those crates? Are there
rafters in the room? Can a person climb up into those rafters? If such
information isn’t revealed, players need to ask these questions to help the
GMs create these circumstances if they don’t yet explicitly exist.
The GM also needs to create and allow for the creation of clever
opportunities by players. Similarly, players need to be willing to be advocates
for their actions. A player needs to be able to ask questions and create
advantageous situations for his- or herself. Rogues in fiction often need to be
creative during combat. Their tabletop counterparts need to do the same. If
Locke Lamora is going to send barrels crashing down on advancing pirates,
Locke has to know that the barrels are there and that he can make such
an attempt. In fiction, the author creates those opportunities. In a game,
Locke the player would have to work together with the GM to reveal those
potential actions.
GMs have to create these affordances and, even more challenging, allow
these opportunities to occur. And it is challenging. There aren’t necessarily
rules for cutting a rope to send a crate of barrels to crash down upon your
enemies. A GM has to be able and willing to improvise when the rules for a
given situation don’t exist, because rogues break the rules.
Breaking the Rules
The rules for stealthy combat can add a layer of complexity to a game, both
at the meta-level of the system rules set and within the framework of the
game world itself. The rules for stealth only come up when stealth is being
utilized in a game, so it’s possible the rules may be unfamiliar to people. A
GM and stealthy player need to learn these rules at the game’s outset to allow
for their use and better learn how to deal with actions that aren’t necessarily
reflected in the rules set.
And within the game world itself, breaking the rules of engagement can
only occur when the rules of engagement are well understood. To do the
unexpected, you have to know what the expected is. The GM needs to be
able to convey that information to the players in some form. In many games,
we can rely on general conventions or stereotypes—deceit is unethical, the
use of poison is considered dishonorable, stabbing someone in the back is
frowned upon in polite society—but those conventions have to exist in that
world, and if there are additional considerations, the GM needs to make sure
the players know about them.
In your typical adventuring party, not everyone will be stealthy. Stealth
requires effort. Perhaps the mage doesn’t have the mental room to focus on
such pursuits. The warrior or cleric might be clanking around in loud, bright
armor. The rogue may be the only character who can use stealth. Those are
the situations where the environment is key. It’s the player’s responsibility to
Kobold Guide to Combat
discover and seek out information from the GM that can be used to give that
player the advantages they can use in a fight. In such a group, the stealthy
character may need to focus on skills that allow her to move ahead of the
party stealthily, but also skills that allow her to survive on her own in such
situations. The stealthy character can take advantage of the environment—
darkness, cover, the conspicuousness of her companions—to contribute
greatly to team combat. That’s part of the grand tradition of the fantasy rogue.
The classic rogue is clever, and the player rogue needs to be clever as well.
Mechanically, stealth can be amazing in a game. Stealth offers an incredible
advantage in combat. In the Pathfinder RPG, for example, stealth can be used
to set up ambushes, to sneak attack, to snipe, and to deal devastating damage
and effects while your opponents are still unaware. Breaking down the door
and loudly charging in headfirst (“Plan A”) doesn’t have to be the only tactic
that parties use. A group that focuses on stealth can take advantage of feats
like Stealth Synergy to surprise everyone they encounter. I’ve seen it in play;
it’s stunningly effective. Even a smaller commitment to planning and attempts
at stealth from the group can lead to combat situations where everyone,
stealthy or not, can take advantage of their efforts and the stealthy characters
can shine. Most important of all, it’s fun. Making elaborate plans, hiding
from enemies, setting up ambushes and attacking from the shadows can all
be enjoyable. Those plans certainly won’t always work, but dealing with what
happens when things go tragically wrong can be incredibly fun in itself.
Being Sneaky
Playing an effective rogue can be challenging. There’s potentially a lot of
planning and effort that goes into playing a stealthy character. But the
rewards are terrific as well. The rogue’s dependency on environment is also a
strength. It adds complication and complexity, but it also allows for creativity
from the players, creates great opportunities for player, group and GM
cooperation, and provides a great outlet for roleplaying. Some terrific stories
come out of these types of interactions, and planning and plotting your way
through adventure can make for an incredibly exciting and fun game.
So, sure: it might be a tad dishonorable to backstab someone from the
It can be pretty damned entertaining, though.
Combat from the Shadows h Carlos Ovalle
Healing heroes
Combat Medicine and Magic
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
n The Princess Bride, Count Rugen tells Prince Humperdink to take care
of himself instead of attending the torture of the hero because “if you
haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” But any self-respecting
vampire with the accumulated wisdom of several hundred years of
undeadness knows that immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are
many stops between life and death on the pendulum of mortality and they
provide drama and conflict in stories from antiquity to the present, whether
or not the illness or cure can be attributed to magic.
Healing: Not for the Faint of Heart
As a magical motivation for a quest, healing is right up there with gold
and love. Many fairy tales begin with the illness of the king or the beloved
mother and the need for the offspring (or suitor if the afflicted is a princess)
to sally forth and find the magic item that will provide a cure. Then there’s
the obstetrical variation, in which A) the queen can’t conceive without the
help of the witch or, B) the wife has a craving that can only be satisfied by
a veggie belonging to the witch—but since we’re talking combat medicine
here, we can skip those.
The item that heals is always more unattainable and expensive than the flip
of a card or a roll of the dice may suggest. It might be a flower that only
blooms once every thousand years on top of a crystal mountain set in the
middle of an uncrossable desert, or a fruit that is entirely poison except for
one small, inaccessible portion. And, oh, yeah, both of them are usually
guarded by one or more monsters that can be defeated only with the aid of
Kobold Guide to Combat
animals or geriatric magical beings repaying favors done for them in the
course of the quest. In some cases, the real healer is the helpful animal or
person who must be sacrificed by the adventurer, and their head or heart
carried back to the patient for the cure to take place.
Healing is clearly not for sissies. As with anything, there is always a cost and it
is always higher than the hero realizes when she or he accepts the challenge.
Healing in Tradition, Story, and Song
Traditional healers, midwives and herbalists were often known and persecuted
as witches. Learned males wise in astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, art,
and medicine were sometimes considered wizards. Leonardo Da Vinci comes
to mind with his anatomical studies. Both of these designations are hazardous
to the health of the healer and may involve practices that are essential to the
pursuit of knowledge (like the dissection of corpses) but unsavory to the
average citizen.
The suspicion of these people comes not because the “witch” or “wizard”
actually harmed anyone but because perceived power over life and death is a
dangerously potent skill set. If someone is that powerful in an area that doesn’t
give them political power or wealth, those who wish to take them down,
probably people in good health, are free to do so—or, at least, to try. On the
contrary, if the healer fails to cure someone, that also can land them in serious
trouble. Sometimes even successful healing can present a danger to the healer.
The first known prosthetic limb belonged to King Nuada of the mythical
Tuatha de Daanan. Nuada, the greatest warrior of his day, lost his arm in
a battle for half of Ireland against the enemy Fir Bolg. According to the
laws of his people, a king had to be physically perfect, so the loss of his arm
made Nuada ineligible. A physician, Dian Cecht, fashioned a silver arm for
him and he wielded it to great effect against his enemies and unseated the
usurper king. Later, the physician’s son, Miach, was able to replace the silver
arm with a real one, making the father so jealous he killed his son.
One of my favorite stories about a “combat healer” is the song, The Witch
of the Westmoreland written by Archie Fisher and popularized by the late
Stan Rogers. In this song, a wounded knight undertakes a long and perilous
journey to seek healing from a “witch” whose form, like a pooka’s, is half
horse and half maiden. She is connected to the land in which she resides; she
cannot go to him so he must go to her. After a certain ritual on his part and a
reciprocal one on hers, the two of them kiss and lay together. Thus he is not
only healed but “none can slay the knight who’s lain with the Witch of the
Westmoreland.” It’s an exciting and intriguing song.
Several years ago I had a short conversation about it with Archie Fisher.
He told me that the traditional sound of the song is no accident, since it
Healing Heroes h Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
was based on an obscure folk tale he and his sister (the two of them being
from one of the great Scottish musical families) found in their research.
Then he said, “Of course, we stopped short of taking the song to its logical
conclusion.” I asked what that was. Archie replied that if laying with her
could cure anyone and make him immortal, then once the knight had been
cured, he’d need to kill the witch so his enemies couldn’t make use of her too.
I was disappointed in this observation, at first because I wanted everything
to go well for this unusual creature and her patient, but on reflection, it isn’t
really as logical as the songwriter seemed to think.
The laws of magic protected the witch, even from the knight who knew she
existed, knew how and where to find her. He needed to know what he would
require to summon her (his hawk and hound) and how to use the witch’s
powers once he’d done so. When you consider that the knight was gravely
wounded enough to risk going through all of that and yet was able to do the
necessary, you can see where a lack of similar endurance might disqualify
the majority of the casualties. He must have been an extraordinary fellow.
Also, the witch could not be moved from her place to service whatever
battlefield was convenient. She rose from a particular lake in a particular
way after being summoned with a particular ritual by someone who had the
right credentials, whatever those may have been. Otherwise, she appeared to
be just another wetland.
Archie’s assumption would have only been valid if all of that was common
knowledge and her assistance available to anyone and everyone who could
command it. Life and death are never so cheaply bought in magical tales, be
they games, songs, or stories. There is always a price, a sacrifice required, and
always a ritual involved.
The ritual in magic (and medicine) can serve a couple of purposes.
Presumably, an elaborate ritual is required to make the incantation or
spell or series of actions work. But it may also serve as a cop-out to cover
the practitioner’s rear. If the cure doesn’t work, the petitioner must have
performed the complex ritual incorrectly. If the witch doesn’t like the looks
of a petitioner, she could find fault with his summoning and lie low. Of
course, in modern medicine, sometimes the ritual is a matter of a chemical
reaction. A friend of mine made a miraculous recovery when his caregiver
discovered she’d been giving him his medication with his meals instead of 20
minutes prior to the meal, as the directions, on closer examination, required.
Ritual and Sacrifice in Contemporary
and Combat Healing
Some rituals matter more than others. In Vietnam, we healed a lot of
infections with outdated antibiotics, which was all we had at times. Placebos
can relieve some symptoms if the patient is told they will. On the other hand,
Kobold Guide to Combat
blood types matter when giving a transfusion. The universal donor type is
not O+ for all people and giving the incorrect type will probably result in
anaphylactic shock and possibly death.
Aside from the financial sacrifice required to buy treatment for illness or
wounds, people endure other kinds of trials as well. Miracle drugs that will
cure anything can have side effects worse than what they’re curing or cause
allergic reactions that can kill. No treatment or procedure is without risks
or its own share of atrocity stories. No doctor or nurse is all-powerful and
always cures every patient who comes to them. Sometimes considerable
discomfort and illness is part of the treatment, as with a lot of chemotherapy
treatments. Then there are the invasive procedures just used for diagnosis,
some of which involve lying on hard tables for long periods, doing without
food, having tubes inserted into you, being stuck with needles.
The cost of curing, or attempting to, doesn’t only fall on the patient, but on
the healer as well. There’s education, for one thing. Healers at most levels
spend years training, either through formal education or on the job learning
to do the right thing, but working under pressure and with little sleep may
lead to mistakes.
Health care is a high stress profession and combat nurses and medics, like
other soldiers, suffer from emotional illnesses such as post-traumatic stress
disorder. Their fear may not be of their own mortality, although in recent
wars where there are no front lines, that is certainly as jeopardized as anyone
else’s, but of fear of failing their patients, or regret at having done so.
No matter how objective a nurse, doctor, or medic tries to be, there are
always patients who touch them more than others. Losing them takes with
it some of the energy the healer has invested in them. It is a grief experience
and it happens over and over again. Even though healers are taught to be
objective, they invest their own energy in the sick person, to use their own
strength to help them, so when the patient dies or is taken from them, it
leaves its own kind of wound.
Healers are a minority in a war. Everybody else’s mission is to kill people,
whereas the healer is continually swimming upstream against the tide of
injury and death, trying to stop the steamroller of war long enough to snatch
a life from it.
Contemporary combat medicine of my time featured such magical enabling
devices as dressings, antibiotics, transfusions, debriding, skin grafts, IV’s
and the time it takes to heal in real life. There were so many times when I
would have loved to have had one of those gizmos on Star Trek that cures
everything from ingrown toenails to punctured lungs.
Since games are about conflict and overcoming great odds, I wonder if
some players and games aren’t, by simplifying the process, overlooking
Healing Heroes h Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
an opportunity to explore a critical element of combat as well as another
dramatic facet in their arsenal of virtual events.
A Few Strategic Considerations of
Combat Medicine
Triage is a word that gets bandied about pretty casually even at the
Department of Veterans Affairs these days. It’s used to denote sorting out
almost anything from clinics to equipment. In military medicine, during
wartime, it has a specific meaning that at first seems illogical. When a
“push” (a helicopter full of casualties) arrives at the hospital, the patients are
examined and sorted according to the severity of their wounds to determine
the priority of their treatment. Patients are sorted into three categories:
1.Those who will live regardless of the treatment they receive (who may
require minimal treatment to be returned to duty)
2.Those who will die regardless of the treatment they receive
3.Those who may survive if given immediate care.
The first group to be evaluated and sent elsewhere are those who will live
regardless. Once they’re identified, the third group is readied for surgery
or whatever other treatment or procedures are required. The second group,
the most badly injured, are set aside—not heartlessly, but from necessity
to save the greatest number of people—to die if they must die or survive to
receive treatment when available. They’re not totally neglected. Bleeding gets
staunched and pain relieved if possible, but they are not the first to be taken
to surgery or receive the massive effort that might be given in a big, modern,
stateside hospital.
To Kill or Not to Kill
This makes sense in military terms when you realize that killing people isn’t
the most effective thing to do in battle. Wounding people badly enough
to put them out of commission not only neutralizes their effectiveness as
opponents, but also ties up a number of other people required to care for the
wounded and remove them from harm’s way, if possible, decreasing the odds
against the enemy.
Long-Term Effects of Injuries
People don’t usually get slammed over the head with blunt objects repeatedly
without long-term effects. Even if they don’t incur immediate brain damage,
they might need surgery for depressed skull fractures or observation for
subdural hematomas, which are sneaky because they may occur hours, even
a day or two, after the injury. Soft tissue crushing injuries can be worse than
Kobold Guide to Combat
fractures, harder to heal, more painful and more susceptible to infection.
I would think there might be a lot of these sorts of wounds when heavy
swords, maces, and other weighty weapons are used.
Consider the weapon that inflicted the wound. Poison tips on arrows aren’t
the only thing that can keep someone from healing. During the Vietnam
War, M-16s were equipped with bullets that “tumbled” when they hit soft
flesh, so although the entry wound in a normally non-lethal part of the body
might look small, the tumbling action of the bullet broke bone and destroyed
organs as it plowed through, with a massive exit wound, if any.
At Scutari, where Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing, it’s said that
the legend above the entry to the hospital carried the message from
Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” Because of the
lack of sanitation, communicable diseases and infestations of vermin,
more soldiers died of disease than wounds. The hospital was a death trap.
Weapons and wounds aside, a human enemy is only one of the obstacles to
surviving a battle.
In Vietnam, the air seemed full of germs. Although we had modern sanitation
and cleaning supplies, I wore the wrong kind of boots and got an ingrown
toenail that escalated in a few hours to a fever of 105, a red streak running
up my leg, and delirium. As often as possible, we avoided doing surgery incountry, and instead shipped patients out to the nearest military hospitals in
other countries. When we got patients in from the field, if they had dressings
already applied, we left them on and reinforced them but did not re-expose
the wound to the atmosphere. Civilians carried diseases long defeated in this
country and carried parasites that would have killed most of us.
In Conclusion
Illness, wounds, and death are as much part of a battlefield as the
armed enemies that march across them, if not more. They’re also less
discriminating or responsive to negotiation. Rather than having a onepanacea-fits-all cure for your troops, try giving your healers skills as specific
as those wielded by mages or magical creatures. Of course, if you can find a
unicorn, that would be a big help, too.
Healing Heroes h Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Monsters:the pointy
end of fun
Rob Heinsoo
y favorite anthropology professor used to tell us that twenty
years after college, all we’d remember of her courses would be the
anecdotes, the moments when theory and analysis made room for simple,
bizarre, or hilarious stories. As someone who learned just enough social
anthropology to become a game designer, Professor Kelly’s affirmation of the
anecdote made an impression.
So welcome to today’s special class, “Monsters: The Pointy End of Fun.”
We’ll tiptoe towards analysis and design advice by leading with stories—
stories of D&D!
Death of the King
We’d come to the climax of a three-year D&D 3e/3.5 campaign called the
Nine Chords. I played a bard. Don’t laugh. The nine great gods were all
bards who appreciated songs of glory and power sung in their particular key
of the alignment chart. We were kick-ass heroes who had run afoul of the
master plan of the Ogre King, who was looking to remake the world with the
nameless orcs, goblins, and ogres elevated, and high ones like us cast down.
So this was the big fight against the Ogre King, ready for us in his carefully
prepared ritual stronghold, a long procession of trees arranged like pillars,
each tree a vampire death-trap sucking the blood and soul out of a captive
human or elf and channeling that mana to the king.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The Ogre King was awesome and the GM explained just how badass he looked
as the fight began. And then the d20 system took over and the Ogre King
was completely obliterated in a round-and-a-half. Our GM, who’d prepared
for every eventuality, but not this one, said, “Oh. OK. You win, I guess. The
nameless can’t believe what they’ve just seen. Neither can I. I spent four hours
working on these stats. A round-and-a-half? So yeah, they all flee. Huzzah.”
We felt like true heroes. We also felt a little sorry for our GM, but the
alternative world in which he grokked all the ins-and-outs of d20 combatmonster design and combat dynamics as well as he understood the thrills of
dramatic storytelling . . . well, in that world, there would have been fewer of
us alive celebrating. It wasn’t a failure—story awesomeness won. But our GM
still thinks of that Ogre King as the one that got away.
Let’s use this story to poke at a type of tension that’s baked into most dierolling traditional RPGs: the tension between simulation and drama. RPGs
started as D&D and D&D grew out of wargaming. Most wargaming is about
simulating a particular contest between a particular set of antagonists. In the
early days of gaming, character life was cheap because monsters were not
there to provide a satisfying dramatic experience; like traps, monsters were
there to kill your player characters if you rolled poorly or if the monsters
rolled high or if you made a stupid mistake like pressing the button that
released the monsters. Or maybe just because it was a killer module.
Of course, people realized that there was more going on here. The creation
of a story—and an understanding of the story-telling possibilities of RPGs—
blossomed into all our many wonderful ways to play. Some RPGs favor
simulation, others favor drama. Personally I’m most interested when I can
merge the two. As a GM, I’m happiest when there’s a bit of a simulationistthreat that the players can overcome by dramatic heroism. But of course,
most crunchy games aren’t set up with systems that also account for drama,
so that’s where the game designer hat springs to the brow.
As a game designer, I try not to create false-effort traps for players or GMs.
I don’t want to design a game that rewards spending four hours working
on designing a monster’s mechanics. Systems that are that crunchy, with
that much of an illusion of balance, are traps for good intentions that aren’t
backed up by system mastery. Monsters in my most recent design, 13th
Age, start as a level-dependent set of stats that get modified slightly and
then have two-to-five attacks and powers added on. The thinking is that a
highlight-film approach to how a monster fights in combat fits the timing of
the monster’s appearance at the table. The monster is not there for the whole
game; it’s there for its highlight. Ideally the system should help that highlight
be memorable in a way that’s not like other monster’s moments.
Monsters: The Pointy End of Fun h Rob Heinsoo
The other element of 13th Age design that fits into this conversation is that
it has a mechanic for adding a dramatic curve to each combat. All our
monsters start with defenses that are one too high. After every round we
add +1 to the attack rolls that the player characters will roll the next round,
calling that bonus the escalation die. The result is that the monsters often feel
unbeatable at the start of the fight. There are moments of panic and frantic
action. But as the PCs hang in there, heroism pays off. The pendulum will
swing, and when it’s swung, the battle is over quickly, aided by an escalation
die that stacks probability in the heroes’ favor.
Of course there’s another obvious moral of the story of the death of the Ogre
King: whenever dice and game mechanics are involved, the GM has to be
ready to flex into a story they didn’t see coming. Here’s another story of a game
that required that precise type of flexibility. This one is from Jonathan Tweet’s
original 3e campaign, a near-climactic moment when the monsters were just as
tough as the GM thought they were going to be, but the players were different.
So A D&D Party Walks into the
Wrong Well of Souls . . .
What our 17th level characters didn’t understand toward the end of
Jonathan’s epic Elysombra campaign was that he was telling us not to go to
confront the undead at the Well of Souls. Everything about that campaign
was Jonathan attempting to play by the book. So when he said, “No, the
undead are probably just too tough for you. I mean, a lot of things have died
lately,” he wasn’t making GM smack talk. He meant it.
But we went anyway—a teleport thing, porting into the Center of All
Undead Badness.
Our first hint that it might be a serious problem was when he started placing
four-inch-tall Nightwalker “miniatures” from Wizards of the Coast’s huge
prepainted set on the battle map. And didn’t stop. He’d gone around at WotC
and borrowed as many as he could. Something over seventeen dark blue-black
undead giants surrounded us. This was the center of undeath. There wasn’t
really any way we were supposed to survive this. He thought he’d warned us.
As players we also didn’t know that the campaign was designed to have us die
at some point, because there was an afterlife component coming, so Jonathan
was pretty sure that was about to happen tonight, and thought the real
challenge was going to be how our souls might escape to the afterlife.
The nightwalkers were just as terrible as Jonathan thought they were,
blasting away with spells like Finger of Death. He’d powered them up by
making them deal at least twice as much melee damage as normal. This
was the nightwalkers’ place of power, after all. Seventeen too-huge undead
creatures and various sorcerous minions cut into us, and Jonathan’s certainty
that we were all going to die finally started to penetrate.
Kobold Guide to Combat
But a funny thing had happened that evening. One player whose character
was the cleric—a barbaric female named Gliss—spent nearly every session
drinking pretty heavily. It was his night out from home and he used the
night to cut loose, not to optimize his character. But that night he explained
that he had a medical procedure scheduled the next morning. “Don’t get
used to it, but tonight Gliss is in the house. I’m just saying you shouldn’t
expect this ever again, but tonight, it’s on.” Before the game he spent almost
an hour going over his character, discovering spells and abilities he’d never
bothered to read or write on his sheet. This all took place while everyone else
was working through pre-game rants or catch-up conversations, so no one
paid all that much attention to the studious cleric . . .
. . . until midway through the session, when the soberly-played cleric
revealed power after power against undead that we, and Jonathan, had never
seen coming. Even late in the game, Jonathan thought we were done. But
Gliss cast another glorious spell she hadn’t been able to access before and
one night’s sobriety became the stuff of legend.
That Elysombra campaign was great. I learned a lot from Jonathan’s GMing
and I learned a lot about D&D systems by playing for years in a constantly
escalating consistent storyline.
Part of what fascinated me about the campaign was watching Jonathan work
within the tension of the game he felt responsible for. The reason he wanted to
play by the rules of 3e, and then 3.5, was that “somebody had to.” He wanted to
know what really happened if you took all the rules seriously. He would never
have run the game so rigorously if it had just been for his own entertainment.
So in the years since that campaign, my RPG design attempts have been to
forge closer toward that point where we can play maybe-as-written and have
a lot of fun doing it.
Monsters are key to the D&D/Pathfinder/13th Age-style design because they
are such flexible antagonists and so much more fun than traps.
In 13th Age, monsters are a key part of how the GM gets to have fun. In
a nutshell, 13th Age monsters use their attack rolls to determine not only
whether they hit or miss, but also which special ability or extra effect they
create that turn. As GM, I don’t know precisely what each of my monsters
is going to accomplish each turn. Neither do I have to decide. There are
decisions to make but, at a certain point, the monster’s set of abilities is going
to generate interesting consequences, or just as often not.
Early wargames, and many RPG scenarios, used random event tables and
random reinforcements to generate this style of unpredictability. 13th Age
tries to build a little bit of random event table into many of the monsters
Monsters: The Pointy End of Fun h Rob Heinsoo
that matter, so that heroes can’t be certain how a combat is going to play out
and so the GM acquires hooks for interesting story descriptions of combat
instead of having to generate new language for the same-old effects.
I started this essay thinking, “Monsters in combat are entertainment for the
GM.” It wasn’t until writing my second 13th Age example that I realized I
haven’t fully been living up to this notion as a 13th Age designer. The overall
effort of making monsters simple but elegantly and interestingly variable
helps the GM have fun. But I’ve been doing a lot of my actual design work
thinking only about the way the monster intersects with the PCs. On my
next project, I’m going to experiment with how I can make a few of the
monster abilities directly entertain the GM, abilities that face away from the
players and will only surface into their world later. Yeah, this should work.
Combat doesn’t have to be a completely closed environment. Supernatural
consequences during one battle can be summoned into later play, in fact,
and even players appreciate elements of earlier battles surfacing later in the
dramatic arc.
So thank you! A couple of old war stories, a bit of fast-moving patter, and
I’ve got something new to try.
And speaking of old war stories, fast-moving patter, and new tricks (ever try
being a target?), Professor Baur will be with you in a page or so. See you all
in d20 years when we do this again.
Kobold Guide to Combat
On being a target
Bravery, Cowardice, and Retreat
in Game Combat
Wolfgang Baur
ne of the ways to view roleplaying game combat is as a character
who is out to smash, slash, spike, and ensorcel the foes in the game.
The other—and far less frequently emphasized perspective—is that your
character in the game is a target for violent mayhem. That is, the character
is the first target for every burst of dragon breath, and at the business end
of hellfire maces and extra-pointy arrows and crushing tree-trunk clubs
wielded by cloud giants.
It’s a lot more fun to imagine being the heroic fighter smiting goblins than
being the same warrior about to get crushed by the cave troll, or deciding
when it might be best to run. But I think it’s important to spend at least a
little time thinking about games and characters in which the hero’s role in
combat is not always purely heroic.
The Downside of Melee
While hand-to-hand combat is many things, the one thing it is not is
impersonal combat-at-a-distance. Ranged combat has been disparaged
by some warriors as “not quite worthy” since the days of Mongol archers,
Flemish crossbowyers, and English longbowmen—all reviled by their foes
for fighting from a distance. Standing and fighting has always been seen
as brave and virtuous—holding the shield walls with your fellow Vikings,
riding down peasants with your fellow knights. Getting your cleaver dirty is
one of the foundations of medieval combat and heroic stories since . . . well,
at least since Beowulf, and probably since The Odyssey.
On Being a Target h Wolfgang Baur
But the very nature of hand-to-hand combat puts the attacker in harm’s
way, and it makes every participant take some measure of risk. Even if (as
in the knights vs peasants example) the odds are heavily tilted by armor, a
trained mount, and superior tactics and weaponry, there’s always a chance
that a high-ranking knight will get pulled off his warhorse and beaten to
death by peasant clubs. In more D&D-ish terms, sometimes the kobolds
have prepared an ambush, brewed a potion of fire breath, and trained a
friendly owlbear, and suddenly your 1st level party of heroes get its asses
handed to them. There’s risk, even if the risk is much smaller than the risks
in a real combat.
This risk and danger makes fantasy combat exciting (and can make real
combat terrifying), and in games it usually goes the way you expect. But
sometimes, just sometimes, the heroes suffer a reversal.
Bravery vs. Cowardice
In most games, the monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) are subject
to various forms of morale checks, fear spells, intimidation, panicked status
conditions and so forth. As a result, they retreat or fall back, lose actions, or
suffer various penalties to their attacks. This all seems fairly straightforward:
the various monsters and foes don’t all fight to the death, and certainly in
a game you want the players to come out on top. They should benefit from
their superior morale, esprit de corps, and even divine guidance and bravery
(just look at the cleric spell list for D&D and Pathfinder RPG).
The Targeted Player
The trouble comes when we try to apply this sense of fear, panic, or
cowardice to the player characters, or even to the heroes in fiction.
Cowardice is shameful, and choking under pressure is not the least bit
heroic, even if it is very, very human. Most soldiers in real combat have
moments of crippling doubt and fear, and witnessing real death and
destruction handed out by the mayhem of modern war—or by the much
more personal and equally horrifying nature of ancient, hand-to-hand
combat— surely affects the spirit, courage, and morale of any soldier over
time. So at some point, it might make sense for a character in a game to
feel fear, panic, or at least hesitation. How does this work in a high-fantasy
context? Does it work at all, really?
Here are a few things that may help you bring morale and bravery a little
more prominence. Note that different solutions work for different groups
and play styles; you’re the best judge of which techniques will work for your
group and play style.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Pure Player Decision
One way to address the problem is just to ignore it: Player agency over their
character is complete and absolute, and the character will never panic or
show cowardice unless that’s something the player wants to have happen for
story and character reasons.
That’s a simple solution, and my own experience is that it means characters
are never the least bit bothered by walking through hell, whether on Earth or
elsewhere. It’s a dodge that implies, “My character is superhuman and never
shows weakness.” To some players, that is a positive thing, because a fantasy
character should be well beyond the normal range of heroism. And to be
fair, even if this is entirely a player choice, the gamemaster has options that
are rarely fully utilized: taunts and threats issued in character by monsters
against a character in the game. This sort of optional taunting has some pros
and cons, so let’s take a closer look.
Taunts and Threats
When I say “target a player character,” I really mean that the NPCs and
powerful monsters need to turn a baleful eye on that character. Ogres must
command their goblin foot soldiers to “kill the elf! Kill it! Kill it now, all
arrowgoblins—kill the elf!” An undead commander might whisper in a
sepulchral voice that creeps across the battlefield: “Destroy the last living
son of the Nordhammer clan. Bring his line to an end, my ghouls.” You need
to lay it on fairly thick to really generate a sense of unfair discrimination
against the character’s class or race, or you need to clearly pick on some icon
of the character’s identity, such as their heraldic shield or holy symbol. “Ten
rubies to the giant who brings me Cuthbert’s holy symbol!” is certainly going
to get the cleric’s attention.
Beyond shouted commands and volleys of ranged attacks, targeting a
character should make the party nervous on other levels. The targeted
character is taking a lot of damage, and it might be a wizard character or a
wily rogue with few HP. That character might also be the target of magical
attacks (ask for lots of saving throws, some without visible cause) and might
also be the target of combative mobs in town (“Kill the half-orc! His father
slaughtered our caravan just last week!”).
Basically, this level of targeting is about us-vs.-them racial profiling of
fantasy races, and the abuse of some feature of a (fantasy) character. If
it’s a one-shot thing, you might not want to warn the player ahead of
time. However, if you think it’s going to cause hard feelings for someone’s
character to be the target of raging monologues and orders (and it certainly
might), you might at least want to warn that player ahead of time. It could
be as simple as, for example, “Your character might get a fair bit of nasty
attention in the game today. Throw your character sheet at me if it’s over
the top.” A certain unfair sense of targeting can bring out better emotional
On Being a Target h Wolfgang Baur
or character reactions from a player, but you don’t want to lose friends over
this, so use your best judgment.
Finally, not every threat need be an order barked on the battlefield. Some
threats can be carried by diplomats or delivered Robin-Hood-style on the tip
of an arrow, saying, “You are next” or “Death to dwarves”, or best of all—a
supernatural message might appear in the midst of battle that completely
plays into a character’s fears. A devil speaks to the pious cleric of failure. A
black cat with a human voice speaks a curse to the gypsy rogue. A ghostly
spirit speaks to the superstitious barbarian, telling him that his ancestors are
waiting for him.
Combine that level of eerie supernatural threat with the more blatant
dangers of a pack of ogres, and your “never retreat, never surrender” crew
might at least take a short tactical retreat to figure out why one of them is
such a target (and of course, as a wise storyteller, you have an explanation
that they can uncover when the time is right).
Dice Decide the Supernatural
The second way to handle this sense that player characters are not fallible
or don’t really show breaks in morale is through magical targeting or saving
throws for game effects. That is, the player controls the character completely,
but part of that control is rolling saving throws against dragon fear or a
wizard’s soul-sucking spell of ultimate panic. This seems to be rather more
acceptable to most gamers, as their hero faced a supernatural threat and the
dice said he or she was paralyzed with fear or dropped a weapon or spent
a turn running away. The dice absolve the player of inflicting some kind of
weakness directly on her own character.
The third way is to me the most interesting, as it requires that a player and
gamemaster agree ahead of time to some form of panic or morale system,
that removes player agency or that (even better) imposes some strict new
conditions on character behavior. This sort of morale check removes some
agency from the player, but it also removes the sense of fault or weakness.
The character has cracked in some way, and it’s a roleplaying challenge to
make that interesting at the table.
This approach might also make players re-evaluate the utility of some
common tropes, such as a remove fear spell or the bolster spirits cantrip
from Deep Magic (Kobold Press, 2014), if morale and fear of overwhelming
supernatural power is a bigger factor in the game. Mind you, this is a choice
that designers should make carefully; players should still retain heroism, and
the game should not be structured to make the entire party panic in every
other brawl. But it adds a new dimension to a game, and one that we see
frequently in films and novels. Fear can be as interesting as bravery, and can
lead to some terrific story elements.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The one outstanding example of this that springs to mind is Call of Cthulhu’s
insanity system, which requires a player to act out various forms of madness
that the rest of the party is generally not informed about if the character’s
sanity breaks. Pendragon has something somewhat similar, and I believe that
using such a system for certain types of heroic fantasy combat could also
bring some big rewards at the table.
Now, those are the overall options for handling character fear and morale.
Let’s talk about retreat mechanics for a minute.
A Retreat System
Using dice to decide the supernatural is fairly standard in D&D and
Pathfinder and similar games, but the use of dice to determine bravery is not,
and for good reason. There’s not much point in playing a cowardly frontline warrior in a high-fantasy setting. Yes, being forced to retreat by dice is
normal in wargames and skirmish games like War Machine or Saga, but it
runs counter to tradition for most styles of roleplaying game, where each
player commands a single, special snowflake.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider this, and revisit our hobby’s wargaming roots. I
think that forced retreats can provide a good gameplay challenge and a more
interesting story, if such a system is designed correctly. I’m tinkering with
one myself, so here are some thoughts on how I see going about it in a way
that improves story elements, but doesn’t completely trammel player agency
and control for long.
Events Trigger Fear and Retreat
Rather than spells or the flight of a dragon triggering saving throws, the
events that require heroes to show fortitude in the face of battle might be
slightly more mundane, but they should be clearly spelled out. This means
not just wounds, but the loss of companions or the turning tide of battle
might require a check of some kind.
For instance, if a character drops to 20% of his or her total health or hit
points, a morale check might be required. Likewise, the death of a comrade
or the arrival of a powerful supernatural foe might require such a check.
Goblins would not trigger a morale check, but a dragon would and so would
a demon lord.
Morale Effects are Fleeting
However, while checks would make a character hesitate or falter, they need
not require a character to flee in total panic. This system can be graduated to
show greater and lesser degrees of heroism: the affected character might no
longer be able to charge or use full movement, the character might hesitate
and lose a partial action, or the character might even drop an item. However,
On Being a Target h Wolfgang Baur
a single moment of doubt from one failed check does not knock a hero out
of the battle!
Recovery Could be Swift and Valorous
Making a check on the player’s next turn returns things to normal: they
hesitated and were assailed by doubt in the face of Sauron, but then they
overcame that fear. And if I were designing this system, I’d sweeten the
pot a little for players: those who make a morale check and overcome their
fears gain a positive bonus for the rest of the fight. That is, facing that fear
gives them a bonus to damage or gives them an extra attack or a critical hit,
as the character’s fear is transmuted into aggression and a desire to prove
their bravery.
The Spiral of Fear
Being hesitant and fearing some element of the fight could turn into a larger
problem. If the demon lord sees the paladin hesitate and uses some magic to
weaken his spirits, another morale check might be required, and the effects
could grow steadily worse. I see this as a spectrum of morale, from, “Oh no,
they are all after me—I don’t want to advance” to “I think we’re losing, time
to step back in good order” to full blown panic.
Targeting Better Play
I would not recommend using something like this all the time, but I think it’s
entirely fair in a roleplaying game to sometimes turn the tables and put the
players on the defensive. Villains and monsters can take actions that surprise
a group with an ambush or kidnapping. Combats can turn against a party if
overwhelming evil reinforcements appear on the horizons. There’s no rule of
RPGs that says every combat has to be a fair fight, and there’s every reason
for villains to fight dirty, talk trash at those irritating heroes, and attempt to
break their spirits with both mundane and arcane means.
So, spend a little time figuring out what makes the player characters in
your favorite game bend a little, and give them interesting choices if their
morale does buckle. I can promise you that when they come back to fight
another day, they will be loaded up and prepared and focused. Sometimes a
little sting of defeat is what’s needed to make your players put away the cell
phones and bring their best game to the table.
Kobold Guide to Combat
One More Thing...
The illusion
of conflict
Spoiler-Alerts and Combo-Moves
Clinton J. Boomer
“Oh—what are we whispering about? Well, see, me and Mike have a combomove worked out for next round. It’s gonna be awesome. It’s like the fastball
special, but it has more back-flips. And some pirouettes. Spin-kicks, really.
And it also has a hadouken involved. Anyway, we can’t find the rules for it,
so you’ll need to give us a difficulty.”
—Overheard at the gaming table
hat I’m about to say here is controversial, so let’s get the big scary part
out of the way—the part where I totally blow your mind—and move
directly on to the part where I present my thesis, give my clever examples and
then 100% convince you just as quickly and painlessly as possible.
After that, we’ll move on to all of my delightful insights about how you can
make your in-story, tabletop combat more fun for everybody involved.
Ready for the controversy?
Okay, here goes: combat isn’t important.
Not really. Not at the end of the day. Not as regards the purest form of
cooperative storytelling.
Not in the fundamental context of a great tale, well told, featuring you and
the greatest of your friends taking on the roles of legendary heroes, cunning
scoundrels, mythic monsters and diabolical villains, overcoming amazing
odds and triumphing epically in adventures of the most dragon-slaying and
dungeon-crawling sort. Combat isn’t important.
No. The only thing that’s important, really, is the grand illusion of combat.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Spoilers Ahead
Ah! So, illusion in this instance is a fine distinction to draw—a remarkably
fine distinction, perhaps—but it’s a distinction nonetheless.
What do I mean by it? Well, I mean that it doesn’t really matter if everything
is on the line, all “coming down to this,“ as long as some tiny part of you
thinks that it is. A fight—a conflict—can be fun to watch or participate in
even if we know how it all turns out. We can observe the fundamental truth
of this illusion’s power in the beauty of achronological storytelling, most
especially, including the oeuvres of such grand fiction masters as Quentin
Tarantino, Stephen King, and William Goldman.
For example: in the movie Kill Bill, we know from the very end of chapter
one—only a few minutes into the movie—that The Bride confronts Vernita
Green and kills her. We also know that Copperhead was the second name
on The List. From that point forward in the film, as it winds backward and
forward in time, leading up to right before that moment, we the viewers
know that it is literally impossible that our heroine will die while facing
O-Ren Ishii—or Buck, or Hattori Hanzo, or Gogo Yubari, or Johnny Mo and
the Crazy 88!—or otherwise fail and fall during her quest to (and through)
the epic showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.
Those events are set in stone.
We have spoilers, and yet they don’t ruin our enjoyment of the piece.
To take it a step further: we know, from the first moment we begin reading
Roland’s tale of his youth—and of a girl named Susan Delgado, and of
John Farson and Rhea of the Cöos, told along the quiet Kansas turnpike in
Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass—that he’ll make it to meet up with Eddie
and Jake by the end of the adventure.
He has to.
In fact, we know that the shrieking eels don’t eat Princess Buttercup;
Granddad literally tells us so. We know that nobody “gets” Humperdink, too;
the villain is destined to live. We’re told from the very outset, the opening
lines, that the story has fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters,
chases, escapes, True Love, miracles. . . . The first time we watch The Princess
Bride, we have to know in our heart of hearts that the mysterious Man in
Black will not be brutally killed by Inigo Montoya nor the other way around.
Heck, we literally know that there’s a miracle coming.
What can you call that, except a spoiler?
And yet we can enjoy these tales again and again. We can sit down and
re-watch Star Wars—even the prequels!—with joy in our hearts, despite
The Illusion of Conflict h Clinton J. Boomer
knowing how it all turns out. Good triumphs over evil, a hero resists
temptation to the Dark Side, a villain is redeemed by the power of love,
freedom wins out over tyranny, and there is a kiss. The illusion isn’t ruined,
at least for those singular moments.
Why, then, do conflict-heavy scenes from these wonderful stories still make
us tense?
Why are we on the edge of our seat when The Bride appears to be at the
mercy of her foes? Why do we get so palpably nervous when Roland very
nearly succumbs to the vile power of the crystal orb? Why are we so . . .
concerned, then, when Princess Buttercup and Westley are on the precipice
of what seems to be such terrible danger? How can we be afraid like this?
It’s about our love of the scene and the players in it, even if we know, in the
back of our minds, that we’ll get a happily ever after. It’s about diving into the
tale, experiencing it with fresh eyes—for the first time or the thousandth—
and letting the magic of story wash over us.
So there it is. The illusion of life-and-death risk: that’s the part that gets the
heart racing and the blood flowing when you get down to brass tacks. Once
you can fake it, and fake it well, everything else is gravy and high-fives.
How do we fake it, then?
Glad you asked. Let’s get right to that.
The Illusion of Conflict
Let’s move away from the term “combat” just for a moment—despite the fact
that it’s still really what we’re talking about—and briefly use the more general
catch-all term: conflict.
Conflict isn’t just a sword-fight. It can be a battle of wits, or a chase, or
a weird mystery, or even just a hero holding on for dear life. It can be
a brilliant character matching raw will against a sinister and seemingly
superior intellect, or a series of riddles in the dark. It could be a brutal
political campaign, or a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in a crowded mall, or
someone climbing a mountain, holding their breath, overcoming a terrible
fear or letting go of deep-seated personal trauma.
It can be a character learning to forgive, or accepting that she doesn’t have to
be the villain, or buckling down and accepting her responsibility.
It can be a hero finally perfecting the technique she learned long, long ago.
It can also be a sword fight, which is awesome.
Conflict is deeply interesting, insofar as humans are adapted to winning fights.
Fights involve danger, and danger activates the lizard hindbrain in the back
Kobold Guide to Combat
of your skull, sending jolts of white-hot adrenaline to the sleepy part of your
brain that used to deal with tigers, forest fires, and alien raiders in the long
dark of night. Being scared can be fun as hell: roller coasters, white-water
rafting, bungee jumping, haunted houses, driving fast.
Those are all scary, and people pay good money to experience them.
Real conflict involves risk, of course: someone loses the big poker
tournament or the big basketball finals or the big chess match or the big
kickboxing brawl, and that agony of defeat makes the thrill of victory so
much sweeter. In some forms of gaming, there’s actual conflict because there’s
actual risk: most collectible card games, board games, war games, teambased shooters, and so on.
But when you’re at the tabletop, playing a cooperative storytelling game—or
reading a wonderful novel—there’s no real competition. Not fundamentally:
the storyteller is not trying to beat the players or the reader. Only if a game
involves any measurable amount of temptation toward “cheating to win” is
there real risk.
The only way to win in storytelling is to enjoy it, at the end of the day: maybe
have a little fun, maybe be emotionally moved, or learn a lesson.
The only way to lose is to not have an emotional experience.
So how do you create interesting, believable, illusory conflict, which doesn’t
involve real threat of defeat but is emotionally satisfying nonetheless?
Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist
There’s a whole wealth of info out there about Gamist, Narrativist,
Simulationist (GNS) Theory, which you are welcome to—encouraged to, in
fact!—look up and read up on at your leisure; it’s fascinating stuff, and I’m
not going to try to synthesize the entire concept down to its essence here and
now. In broad strokes, though: an awesome guy named Ron Edwards posits
that there are three different ways that roleplaying games “work,” and that
different players get different things out of the events in different ways.
The three break down like so:
• Gamism: This perspective espouses competition among participants
and focuses on conditions for winning and losing based on strategies of
play, with the game acting as an arena for competition.
• Narrativism: This perspective focuses on the creation of a story of
literary merit (according to the standards of the participants), including
player protagonists and a cohesive theme. The premise of the game
should embody an ethical/moral conflict, and the game provides the
materials for creating the narrative.
• Simulationism: This approach encourages enhancing one or more of
the five elements of RPGs (Character, System, Setting, Situation, and
The Illusion of Conflict h Clinton J. Boomer
Color) to heighten “experiential consistency” and maintain logic within
the bounds of the game. Exploration of Character is a form of this
approach, as is exploration of Setting and Situation.
In theory, each group takes something different from good conflict:
• A pure gamist (who would be just as happy playing chess, poker, Magic:
the Gathering, or a really good tabletop war game) wants fights and
intrigue alike to run as smoothly as possible, because conflicts have a
set system and measurable values. Damage has hard and fast rules, and
should run according to the established metrics; if new rules for fighting
are introduced, that changes the design goal of making a character,
which complicates things—and complications are fun, or we else would
all be playing checkers.
• A pure narrativist (who would be just as happy with her nose buried
in A Song of Ice and Fire, Neuromancer, or Fate/Stay Night) wants the
combat to help tell a cohesive and interesting story . . . if it’s brought
up at all. Struggle, warfare, duels, and assassination are each ripe for
powerful scenes—in different ways!—that explore the boundaries of self
and personal identity vs. overarching goal in relation to society at large.
Mature troupes of mutually trusting storytellers are free to dive further
into what it means to be a warrior or a killer, as well as to make combat—
and reaction to conflict—a defining part of each character. As long as the
scene is dynamic, even losing a fight can be the best part of a tale!
• A pure simulationist (who would be just as happy camping in the
woods, touring a castle, or playing Minecraft while in character) wants
every knock-down brawl, cunning plot, and heated argument to feel
as real as possible. A good session of describing sword practice or
plotting political assassination may not add to the story or have rules,
but it’s what makes the game worth playing. Knowing the details of
your opponent’s stances is as flavorful and lived-in as knowing that the
seventh chime on the city bell-tower—primarily used to announce the
approach of hill giants toward the southeastern walls, built 157 years
ago by St. Ebbroguile, also called Kayvlock the Just, Fourteenth Heir of
House Kayvlock and redeemer of the family line—is slightly out of tune,
and that each year during the Fool’s Festival (also called the Feast of
Bright Autumn) a ribald toast is raised to St. Ebbroguile when it rings,
and that the toast is always proposed by the winner of that year’s pieeating contest.
If you can hit on all cylinders, satisfying everyone, that’s awesome. Failing
that, figure out what kind of game you enjoy most and what your players are
looking for, and hit that one corner of the triangle as hard as you can.
Kobold Guide to Combat
“Yes, and . . .”
The three most important parts of illusory conflict are, in no particular order:
• Snappy dialogue (character): The difference between a famous but
ultimately two-dimensional monster and an actual, memorable villain
is that a great antagonist always has something to say. Whether it’s a
grandiose monologue about their goals, a barbed taunt, a boast, a threat,
or a casual and eerily-detached explanation of what they’re doing, give a
PC’s opponent some character.
• Chaos and excitement (stakes): If the fight is going just a little too
easy—or hard!—for your players, add an earthquake or a landslide.
Throw in shooting stars or a forest fire, another group of wandering
monsters or unexpected reinforcements, a crashing ship, a sudden
snowstorm, or something. No fight ever takes place in a vacuum. Even
in an arena, the crowd throws things. In the dungeon, it only takes one
wrong step to activate an unseen trap.
• The twisting knife (drama): There are amazing rules for critical hits and
failures out there, but you don’t have to wait for a natural 20 or a natural
1 to pop up before you do something extreme. The best moments in any
story are when a character—whether villain or hero—hits a sore spot,
reveals a flavorful vulnerability or takes an unexpected stumble. Using a
bit of a player’s revealed history to up the stakes is awesome, turning any
minor scuffle into a serious character-moment.
The most important lesson of improvisational theater—whether comedy or
action—is that you never negate the actions of anyone else participating in
the scene. If somebody wants to try something, you always let them attempt
it—even failing at something cool is more exciting than being limited to
vanilla options.
The Combo-Move
I’ve heard it said that a badly-designed game can be fun with the right group
of friends, but that the best-built game on Earth isn’t fun if you don’t have
the right players.
The trick of great combat is to have fun; once you’re having fun, others
will join in. With this tool-kit, a little extra spice and flavor can start to be
introduced to your conflicts; you may find that you can add dimensions to a
fight that players will be talking about for years.
And that’s worth getting excited about.
The Illusion of Conflict h Clinton J. Boomer
About the Authors
Wolfgang Baur is the founder of Kobold Press, its publisher, and its general
go-to kobold. He enjoys Gothic architecture, Turkish candies, and Seattle
coffee to an alarming degree. Wolfgang is the co-author of the Midgard
and Dark*Matter campaign settings, as well as a co-author of the Tyranny
of Dragons adventures for D&D and the first contributor to the Kobold
Guide to Game Design. He lives in an impenetrable set of warrens near
Kirkland, Washington, with his wife and two daughters, and he flies a
multitude of kites when the winds are fair and strong.
Clinton J. Boomer, known to his friends as “Booms,” resides in the quaint,
leafy, idyllic paradise of Macomb, Illinois. He began writing by dictating
stories to his ever-patient mother about fire monsters and ice monsters
throwing children into garbage cans. He began gaming with the 1994
release of the Planescape campaign setting, and he was first published
professionally in the ENnie-Award-winning Pathfinder Chronicles
Campaign Setting from Paizo Publishing after placing in the Final Four of
Paizo’s inaugural RPG Superstar Competition.
He currently devotes a full 99.9% of his waking hours to thinking about
fantasy adventure in general—or ninjas, more specifically. Boomer is a
writer, filmmaker, gamer, and bartender; his short comedic films, the
“D&D PHB PSAs,” have over 3,600 subscribers on YouTube and have been
viewed more than 1.5 million times. A member of the WereCabbages
creative guild, a frequent freelance contributor to Rite Publishing,
Legendary Games, Sean K. Reynolds Games, Paizo Publishing, Green
Ronin Publishing, Zombie Sky Press, and the Hellcrashers setting, his
debut novel The Hole Behind Midnight was released in 2011. Boomer is
currently the happiest he has ever been in his whole life.
Keith R.A. DeCandido has written tons of novels, short fiction, and comics.
Many are based on games: novels based on Command and Conquer,
Dungeons & Dragons, and World of Warcraft, a novel and a comic book
based on StarCraft, and short stories based on BattleTech and Magic: The
Gathering. He novelized the first three Resident Evil films, and wrote an
adventure for the Firefly: Echoes of War RPG. Other recent and upcoming
work includes Star Trek: The Klingon Art of War, Sleepy Hollow: Children of
the Revolution, Mermaid Precinct, Without a License: The Fantastic Worlds
of Keith R.A. DeCandido, short stories in Stargate: Far Horizons, Out of
Tune, Bad-Ass Faeries: It’s Elemental, With Great Power, and upcoming
V-Wars and X-Files anthologies, and more. His rewatches of Star Trek: The
Next Generation and Deep Space Nine appear on Additionally,
Keith is a freelance editor, a black belt in karate, the percussionist for
the Boogie Knights, a member of the Liars Club and the International
Association of Media Tie-in Writers, and a prolific podcaster. Find out
Kobold Guide to Combat
less at his cheerfully retro web site at, which serves as a
gateway to his entire online footprint (blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
Diana Pharaoh Francis has published The Horngate Witches series, The
Crosspointe Chronicle and The Path trilogy, as well as a variety of short
stories and essays. Her novels have been translated into German and
French. Bitter Night was nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers
Choice for Best Urban Fantasy of 2009, Crimson Wind best urban fantasy
heroine for 2011, and Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts
Reinhart Award. Her latest book, Trace of Magic, was published in August
of 2014, and she is currently working on sequels in the Crosspointe and
Horngate worlds. She hold a P.D. in Victorian literature and literary theory,
and an MA in fiction writing. She’s been teaching for more than 15 years,
and now writes full time as well as teaching for the M.F.A. in Creative
Writing program at Western Colorado State Universitry. She’s a member of
SFWA. For more about her writing, visit She can
also be found on twitter as @dianapfrancis.
Ed Greenwood is an amiable, Gandalf-bearded Canadian writer, game
designer, and librarian best known as the creator of The Forgotten Realms®
fantasy world. He sold his first fiction at age six, and has since published
over 200 books that have sold millions of copies worldwide in more
than two dozen languages. Ed writes fantasy, sf, horror, steampunk, pulp
adventure, and comic books, and has won dozens of writing and gaming
awards, including multiple Origins Awards and ENNIES. He was elected
to the Academy of Adventure Gaming Art & Design Hall of Fame in 2003.
Ed has judged the World Fantasy Awards and the Sunburst Awards, hosted
radio shows, acted onstage, explored caves, jousted, and been Santa Claus
(but not all on the same day). He shares an old Ontario farmhouse with
his wife and the head of the household (a small but imperious cat). This
ramshackle mansion sags under the weight of more than 80,000 books.
Ed’s most recent novel is The Herald from Wizards of the Coast (the last
book of The Sundering Saga), and his upcoming books include The Iron
Assassin, a steampunk novel from Tor Books and Spellstorm from Wizards
of the Coast.
Ed hangs out on the Internet at:
Jeff Grubb is an award-winning game designer and bestselling author.
He has helped created a myriad number of worlds (Forgotten Realms,
Dragonlance, Spelljammer, Al-Qadim, Guild Wars) and then proceeded to
tell stories about them. He currently lives in Seattle and builds worlds for
computer game companies. Nice work if you can get it.
Rob Heinsoo is a game designer and storyteller who blogs at robheinsoo. He worked on rpgs at companies including Daedalus,
About the Authors
Chaosium, Wizards of the Coast, and now his own company, Fire Opal
Media. As you’ll have noticed, he has his most recent RPG on-the-brain:
13th Age, co-authored with Jonathan Tweet. Previously he worked on
games and worlds including 4th Edition D&D, Faerun, 3e, Glorantha,
Feng Shui, and Al Amarja.
Miranda Horner learned how to shoot a bow while in high school, and
although it’s an on-again and off-again hobby for her, she loves playing an
archer or ranger in tabletop and online games so that she can vicariously
experience the meditative qualities of target shooting—just maybe it’s not
as meditative as it is in real life! (There might be some cursing involved
with gaming. Might.) These days, she’s the managing editor at Steve
Jackson Games, and she has also been editing D&D, Pathfinder, and other
roleplaying games since 1994.
Colin McComb has been a professional writer of one sort or another for
over two decades, working for companies including TSR, Paizo, Malhavoc,
Kobold Press, and Interplay Productions/Black Isle Studios. His work
includes the Origins Award winning Dragon Mountain, the Birthright
campaign setting, extensive work on the legendary Planescape line, and
design work on Fallout 2 and the classic Planescape: Torment. He is the
Creative Lead for Torment: Tides of Numenera, and is co-owner of 3lb
Games LLC.
Rory Miller After 17 years working corrections (including booking, ma,
mental health, and tactical team leader) and a year in Iraq as a contractor,
Rory Miller in now a full-time author and lecturer living in the Pacific
northwest and traveling the world. Rory is the author of two of the most
influential books in the self-defense field of the last decade, Meditations
on Violence and Facing Violence, as well as the award-winning Force
Decisions, and the self-published Violence: A Writer’s Guide. You can reach
him through his website at or at one of this seminars
in the US, Canada or Europe.
Carlos Ovalle is a doctoral candidate, Information Technology Coordinator
and occasional lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a
Masters of Library and Information Science and studies copyright and
digital archives. He has contributed to works published by Kobold Press,
Misfit Studios, Rogue Genius Games and others. He reads a lot of fantasy
and volunteers at the SCARE for a CURE charity, where his wife Holly
makes some amazing costumes.
Richard Pett delights in bringing the unexpected and revolting to your
gaming table, and was in one guise or another nominated in part of 5
ENnies this year. His favorite quote of late was at this year’s Paizocon UK
when he heard of a player who was so desperate to kill a perfectly charming
NPC Richard had written for his delectation, that he couldn’t sleep at night.
Kobold Guide to Combat
The game had ended that evening at a point when, to do so would risk the
whole party. Richard worries whether it is wrong to find joy in someone’s
insomnia and if instead he should start writing about puppies and kittens.
John (J.A.) Pitts resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons,
trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.
Check out his award winning Sarah Beauhall series from Tor books
(Black Blade Blues, Honeyed Words, and Forged in Fire), or his short story
collection, Bravado’s House of Blues, from Fairwood Press. Find him at, on Twitter at @johnapittswriter and on Facebook as
Chris Pramas is an award-winning game designer, writer, and publisher.
He is best known as the designer of the Dragon Age RPG and Warhammer
Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition, and as the founder and President of Green
Ronin Publishing. He has been a creative director at Wizards of the Coast
and Flying Lab Software and a lead writer at Vigil Games. Green Ronin
continues to thrive under his leadership, publishing roleplaying games
like Mutants & Masterminds, DC Adventures, and A Song of Ice and Fire
Aaron Rosenberg has been writing and designing games for the past
two decades, and has worked for everyone from Wizards of the Coast
to White Wolf to Pinnacle to Decipher. He has an Origins Award for
Gamemastering Secrets and a Gold ENnie for Lure of the Lich Lord. Aaron
is also a novelist, and is the author of the best-selling DuckBob humorous
SF series (consisting of No Small Bills, Too Small for Tall, and Three Small
Coinkydinks), the Dread Remora space-opera series, and, with David Niall
Wilson, the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series. His tie-in novels include books
for Star Trek, Warhammer, WarCraft, and Eureka. Aaron has also written
children’s books, such as the original series Pete and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles,
the award-winning Bandslam: The Junior Novel, and the #1 best-selling
42: The Jackie Robinson Story. He is the co-creator of the ReDeus series,
and one of the founders of Crazy 8 Press. Aaron lives in New York with
his family. You can follow him online at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @gryphonrose.
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is a graduate of Bethany Hospital School of
Nursing, from which her mother also graduated. She joined the army
during her senior year in training under the Army Student Nurse Program
and following officer’s basic training and an advanced medical-surgical
course, served a year in Vietnam in an evacuation hospital where she
cared for both military and Vietnamese civilian personnel. After leaving
the military in 1972, she worked for the Indian Health Service and then
various civilian nursing jobs. In 1987 she graduated from the University
of Alaska Fairbanks with a BA in history. All through her college years she
About the Authors
continued writing fiction and sold seven books before writing The Healer’s
War, a fantasy novel loosely based on her experiences in Vietnam, which
won the 1989 Nebula award for best science fiction novel. In total, she
has written 24 solo books and also has done 16 collaborations with Anne
McCaffrey as well as numerous short stories.
Ken Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and over forty
short stories. His series, The Psalms of Isaak, is being published both
at home and abroad to award nominations and rave reviews. He cites
tabletop RPGs as key in his development as a writer. He has a degree in
History from Western Washington University and is a winner of the ALA’s
RUSA Reading List award for best fantasy novel, France’s Prix Imaginales
for best foreign novel and the Writers of the Future contest. Ken is a native
of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon,
where he lives with his wife and twin daughters. You can learn more about
Ken by visiting
Janna Silverstein grew up on Long Island, where her parents encouraged
her to watch Star Trek, to read National Geographic, and to write. A lot. In
third grade, she edited her class newspaper, and she’s been telling writers
what to do ever since. She has taken the occasional hiatus but, apparently,
she can’t . . . be . . . stopped. She has written and edited for Wizards of
the Coast on Magic: the Gathering fiction, and for WizKids LLC on Mage
Knight and MechWarrior. For Kobold Press, she edited The KOBOLD
Guide to Game Design, vol 3: Tools & Techniques, the ENnie Awardwinning Complete KOBOLD Guide to Game Design, and the two-time
ENnie Award winner, The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Her own writing
has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic
Medicine Show, 10Flash Quarterly, and in several anthologies. Though
she’ll always be a New Yorker, she lives in Seattle with two cats, many
books, and a respectable—if somewhat smaller—collection of games.
Steve Winter got paid for his first roleplaying-related article in 1980, landed
a job at TSR, Inc. in 1981, and has been clinging to the RPG industry
ever since. He has worked as an editor, developer, designer, fiction author,
creative director for AD&D, website producer, and managing editor of
Dragon and Dungeon magazines. More of his RPG-themed thoughts are
posted at and on Twitter @StvWinter.
Kobold Guide to Combat
Make your Game
Your own!
Let the Kobolds show you the way with the
award-winning series of Kobold Guides covering
every aspect of game design and game play.
Kobold Guide to Board Games ......................................................... $19.99
Kobold Guide to Combat ................................................................. $19.99
Kobold Guide to Magic .................................................................... $24.99
Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding ....................................................... $19.99
Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design ......................................... $29.99
All titles also available in Kindle format ........................................... $9.99
Available at and wherever
better books are sold!
t the heart of every adventure lies conflict. Whether it’s between a cursed
knight and an elf prince at swordspoint, adventurers facing down an ogre, or two
great armies clashing for ultimate power, combat changes everything.
Between these covers, more than 15 master game designers and storytellers get into
the thick of it. These essays cover strategy and tactics, and the history of military
systems at war. They demonstrate how to increase the tension in a conflict, and use
monsters, magic, and war machines on the field. And these creators show you how
to create great combat on the tabletop and in your storytelling.
Open these pages and enter the fray!
“If you’re an aspiring pro, this book is
a must. If you’re a rules hacker like me,
this stuff is solid gold.”
—Berin Kinsman, UncleBear Media
“Highly recommended for gaming
nerds everywhere.”
“A fantastic resource.”
—Skyland Games
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF