Into even the most roleplay-heavy game, some combat must fall. That’s why there are slots on character sheets for weapons and attack bonuses, and why massive tomes full of monsters to fight exist. The hack-and-slash part of RPGs is fun, especially when it’s for the greater good, and sometimes it’s just fine for most of a night’s gaming session to be spent in initiative order.
There are times, though, when a single combat drags on too long and becomes work instead of fun. While I’ve experienced such combat on several occasions, the one-shot I played in over this weekend is a prime example – the game consisted of two major battles, and it took us 7 hours of playing time to complete them both.
Now, this isn’t a knock on the GM (who is a good friend of mine), the adventure (which was a fun concept – a big game hunt in the jungles of Chult) or the system (though it confirmed for me that I don’t care for 4E – more power to you if you do!). It was the first playing of an original adventure, and it became readily clear that the PCs were underpowered to fight their foes. I don’t blame the GM for wanting to play each combat out to the end to see how we did and if we managed to survive so he’d know what he needed to change. But those long battles left all of the players mentally exhausted and more than a little frustrated. Had I been the GM and the situation been different, I would have made some adjustments to the combats.
(PLEASE NOTE: Again, this is not a knock on 4E. I’ve seen battles drag out in all types of systems. This article is not about what game is best, it’s about how to deal with combat that lasts too long. I will send an angry beholder after you if you try to start an edition war in the comments.)
You do 6 points of damage. Again.
Long battles are not inherently a bad thing. It’s a bit anticlimactic if you take down the BBEG in two rounds. But lengthy combats only remain fun as long as two things are happening:
1) the party is making progress
2) everyone in the party feels like they’re contributing to the cause
There is always the chance that you’ll come upon some trolls and have no fire or acid weapons or spells at the ready, or that you’ll face a foe with too high an AC for the weaker members of the party to hit unless they roll crits. That’s just the way the game goes. So long as you can find a way to still make things work – the fighters put a beating on those trolls while the others make fire bombs out of flasks of lamp oil, or the cleric runs around healing those who are actually capable of hitting the dragon – everyone can still have a good time.
It’s when it feels like a losing battle that players start feeling frustrated and dejected. When round after round, you’re just plinking away at your enemy and feel as if you’re paper-cutting it to death, or you reach a point where multiple members of the party can’t do anything useful anymore because they’re out of spells/healing/arrows, you start losing your will to fight. When the GM announced that the young red dragon we were fighting was finally bloodied, my ranger was almost out of arrows, the cleric was almost out of healing, the rogue had already been brought back from the brink of death twice, and the players were getting tired and hungry. We weren’t sure how much more we could take and were starting to feel resigned to the death of our characters.
Fudge isn’t just for Christmas.
When it becomes obvious that a battle is really dragging on, there are a few different things the GM can do to help, and they all involve fudging. It’s all well and good to play by the book and be at the mercy of the dice, but when it’s not going well, sometimes you have to fudge things to save the game.
Weaken the villain on the spot. If the PCs are struggling to even hit the BBEG, there’s nothing stopping you from deciding you made a typo when you put in an AC of 28 for him, and that it should really be 26 (our GM did this with the young red, thankfully, or I’d still be sitting at the game table now chucking rocks at it). You don’t have to say anything to the players if you don’t want to, or you can make a comment that it looks like their last few strikes have seriously damaged his armor. Likewise, you can lower his DR or SR on the fly, or have a protective magic item go flying from his person when the ranger’s arrow slams into him.
Decide it’s “good enough”. The PCs have been chipping away at their foe forever, and one of them finally gets a crit. The villain technically still has 50 hp left, but why not use that critical as a killing blow? This is the perfect time to get creative and describe how the fighter slices through a weak spot in the antipaladin’s armor and the tip of his sword plunges right into his heart. Or if the party has managed to kill the worst of a group of foes, but the leader’s minions remain, there’s nothing wrong with dropping out of formal combat and narrating the remainder of the battle.
Run away. A group of PCs is usually hesitant to turn tail and flee. If you have an influential NPC with the party who can convince them that it might be better to live to fight another day, have him speak up. But odds are it will be easier for the enemy to decide this fight isn’t worth it and get outta Dodge. Everyone in the party can take a parting shot and maybe manage to take him down in dramatic fashion. If not, at least they can take their 8-hour rest to heal and restore spells and then run after him at full strength.
So long as everyone’s adrenaline is pumping and the battle is exciting, even if the PCs aren’t faring the best, it’s OK to let it play out. But if it’s really taken a turn for the tedious or the unwinnable, or if it’s dragging on much longer than you expected, see if there’s a reasonable way to salvage things. There’s no harm in making adjustments like that when needed, and the game will be better as a result.
What do you do when combat is lasting forever? Do you prefer to play it out to the bitter end?