If you are reading this soon after I post it, you will know the shock that I do (or an elation I cannot understand). But… I intend to move on.
There is always so much to do. But lets start with something simple.
Today I ask you to think about tactics and emotions. You may not think it, but your groups tactics are shaped by circumstance. Whether you are a tactical leader for your group of players, or a GM looking to predict how your players will act, you should take care to understand the role that emotions play in a fight.
For instance, consider a fight in which there are innocent lives at stake. There is a very much different tone to a fight with an evil dragon in its cave lair than it might be in a crowded church full of children. The final action sequence in the first Avengers movie was a pretty good portrayal of this, and shows not only the difficulty of simultaneously managing a battle and a crisis, but how true heroism can be achieved by rising to the occasion.
If your players are more mercenary, you could even have the treasure (a pile of loot or some mcguffin) being dangled over a pit of lava about to be dropped in at any moment, and suddenly the stakes have changed. Or perhaps the players have the choice of sacrificing their own lives to achieve an objective that may or may not be greater than themselves.
It is actually exceedingly easy to unbalance your players, as long as they are invested enough in the story, or at the very least in their characters. Once the fight has ceased being about “who can make the other side stop moving first”, the tactical themes can shift dramatically.
And I say all of this to highlight that the point is to care. You should care that your characters are making choices that are more meaningful than “kill thing, get paid”, and game masters should really think to craft a story into something that is more memorable than a diablo-clone*. It falls on both sides of the screen to come together and make a story shine with highs and lows of dramatic tension and narrative depth.
With all honesty, this requires less buy in than you would think. The players are already there, and you as the game master should take initiative to really make encounters be as exciting as possible** so as to be a highlight of the game, and not just a statistical break between social interactions and exploration. Your combats and encounters should be as much a part of the story, not because combat is intrinsic to the game, but because it is an ever growing opportunity to blend rules and storytelling in exciting ways.
So I put to you that you should try to think of a great encounter.
- The group find a ghost town where actual ghosts are about to hang a live captive at the town gallows. Use difficult terrain, put a fountain full of oozes between them and the prisoner. Make them work for it!
- A throng of refugees is running from a pack of hell hounds. How does the group hold the line and keep the hounds from maiming a large number of innocents? What do they do to help afterwards?
- An eclipse has caused the sky to open up and rain monsters on a crowded city. How do your characters react? Do they flee the city and leave the rest up to fate, or do they try to enact a plan to minimize the chaos?
There are no bad ideas, only bad implementations. Remember to be kind and let the players decide. If you punish them for any choice, that is bad game mastering. Of course they COULD want to flee with their lives. Of course they MIGHT want to try and take a valiant stand against insurmountable odds. You have to roll with those punches because you are the one that put that situation in front of them.
Just shape the campaign to reflect the choice they made, and don’t crush or judge your players. If there is a “right answer” that you have in mind for a situation, there is no way for the players to know it without some guidance, and at that point it isn’t about their agency or their story, but yours. If you present a unique challenge, always ask yourself what you might do if the players don’t do as you wish them to do, because they are VERY likely to surprise you with an ironic consistency.
That having been said, please share with me some of your ideas. Have you had some exciting encounters that have made you or your players really think or feel? Are you thinking of introducing a gut wrenching emotional choice into your next session? Tell me about it, because I’d love to hear it.
And always remember to reach across the screen.
*Not to trash on that video game genre, but really it exists to scratch that itch so that tabletop doesn’t have to.
** And not every encounter, but really most of them. There is never an excuse for making a mundane boss fight, for instance.