Monday, January 24, 2011

D&D 4e Combat Modes inspired by Shooter Multiplayer

Most feedback about 4e that I read out there in the blogosphere attacks the issue of combat encounters and failure in those encounters from either of two general camps: 1) the DM’s are pretty sure that going into the encounter the players are going to get out of it fine, so making the encounter is simply about making it interesting and 2) Challenges and combat encounters should be designed to challenge the players and should be potentially lethal, the TPK becomes the win condition for a DM vs. Players environment. That is all well and good, but I think a lot of people miss out on a lot when the end result of an encounter is either the death/retreat/surrender of all monsters involved, or the death/retreat/surrender of the players. I hardly ever read about combat encounters which are designed with other purposes, but I honestly think that these “other” style of combat encounters provide the most interesting opportunities for both interesting role-play as well as truly tactical combat by the players. Today, I want to talk about some of the video-game inspired combat encounter styles.

I am a video-gamer. I enjoy my PS3 on a daily basis and other than RPG’s, which you can pretty much figure that I love, I really like RTS games as well as shooters. I haven’t gotten a chance to play Black-ops yet, but I am a big player of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. One of the great things that is offered in that game is a real plethora of game styles. I think a lot of those game styles would be very well suited for a game of D&D around the table rolling dice. Maybe you could think about running combat encounters in some of these shooter game based styles.

FFA/Team Deathmatch/Bloodbath
These are the typical encounters that you see in standard D&D games. The win condition for these type of games is simple – kill everything; the side with the most kills wins. With games like D&D, players aren’t likely to respawn in the middle of combat in order to continue the battle until the end of some imposed time limit, but they are likely to go until one side drops, this side is usually not the players unless your DM is a real jerk who has enough friends that his game can change players every week.

Capture the Flag
This style of combat is one of the easiest I think to run, but I don’t see it used nearly enough. One team has to capture the opposing team’s flag and bring it back to a designated point on the map. How easy would this be to run in a D&D game? C’mon. The flag doesn’t have to be a flag per-se. It could be anything from an enchanted skull, or some kind of magical text/tome. The battlefield itself, in an encounter like this might span an entire city. The players have to get into the enemy base, steal the object of importance, then get it back to the city guards before they are caught and captured by a group of Thieves sent to retrieve their stolen, stolen merchandise. This might be going on while at the same time another group is trying to move into the player’s base of operations and make off with something important of theirs.

Take and Hold/King of the Hill/Global Thermonuclear War
This type of combat forces the players/enemies to take and hold a certain point on the map for a set period of time in order to win the combat. I think this type of combat encounter makes for a great opportunity for some fantastic tactical combat. Each round that the players, and the players alone, occupy a certain zone on the map, they rank up a point. The players need to achieve 3-5 points in order to win the combat, but counter to that, if the enemies do the same thing, the players end up losing. I could see this in a D&D style game, by having the players attempting to defend a crucial ritual casting zone. Presence in the zone for a certain number of round allows direct communication with a player’s/enemies deity. Both sides want the zone, and the ability to talk with a god, but while the players are fighting over the zone, the ritual doesn’t know who to target, so it won’t proceed.

Shoot the Messenger/VIP
I don’t see this in games so much, but essentially this style of combat forces the players to attempt to kill a certain priority individual in a given amount of time, before that individual can either escape, or gain some critical power. I could see this style of combat being GREAT for D&D. The PC’s have been given critical advice that a messenger, carrying an important letter which will band two cults of Orcus together, creating a much larger and more formidable force. However, when the PC’s finally encounter the messenger, the realize that he is in disguise – all the individuals in the messenger’s party look and dress alike. The messengers, and his look-alikes all spit and run when they are confronted and attacked by the PC’s. Now, the players have to figure which one of the messengers is the real one and get him before he has a chance to slip out of their grasp and get away.

Search and Destroy/Sabotage/Bomb-Mode
In this style of combat, one side controls a “bomb” and has to plant it somewhere in the enemies territory, while the other side has to try and disarm the bomb or prevent it from getting planted in the first place. I feel like this style of combat could be very easy to pull off. The players might be on either side; I could see either one being very fun and interesting. Perhaps in one version of this combat style, the players possess a powerful relic which, when planted in the Necropolis somewhere, has the power of bringing down the light of Pelor (or some other random good deity) and destroying said Necropolis. The undead forces of this evil citadel come at the players in endless waves trying to keep them from detonating this relic. On the flip side of things, perhaps a group of cultists is planning to summon in demons somewhere within the PC’s stronghold or home city. The players have to scramble to find where this is taking place and then stop it from happening. You see this type of combat a bit in D&D, but now image if it is all done in initiative and your players have only rounds to stop it from happening. That might get them hopped up in their pants.

Snipes & Knives a.k.a. Limitation modes
This one goes back to CS. I like the idea of having limited power/weapon combats. Though these type of combats may ultimately be decided like the typical Bloodbath type of combat, they are interesting in that certain powers/combos simply don’t work in the combat itself. This one would be easy to implement, but might not be so fun for your players. Think about taking all their weapons/implements away and making them fight a combat or two bare fisted. Or, think about having everything for a day cost more effort. Maybe all of your players at-will powers become encounters, encounters become dailies, etc. This could lead to some interesting happenings. You could also think about magical barriers which prohibit certain types of magic from crossing them – that might get on a player’s nerves if you pick on a single power source. Or, maybe you want to make the entire combat done only with longbows, and have your players trying to snipe people from really, really far away. That could be fun.

What all of these different combat format options provide is a way for you to end combat in a failure, but not by killing all the players involved. You see this thought process in the way skill challenges are developed now. Those challenges provide the players with the pass to success, which, when achieved, grants the players a cleaner path to success in a particular adventure path, but failure does not mean the end of all things for the PC's. If you use these type of combat encounters, rather than the simple Kill or Be Killed Deathmatch style combats, you have the option of making failure much more interesting and having the results of failure mean that you end up with interesting roleplay encounters and more varied encounters to come. I hope that you take these ideas and roll with them in your games. I know I will.


  1. I am totally on-board with this kind of adaptive encounter design. Have you tried doing anything like this in-game yet? What do you do about maps for "battles" that might span an entire city or an area larger than your typical flipmap?

  2. I am definitely gonna have to write up a few delves based on these situations! Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. @Jon - Thanks for the enouraging feedback. I haven't yet tried out many of these encounter types. Most of the players in my current game, which is about to head towards session 4, are very new to D&D 4e and some are very new to the hobby as a whole, so I have been taking it slow and designing on the side. I will be going toward this style in their new upcoming arc where they have to head towards a bandit city and try and make it out alive.

    With regard to maps, I am not really sure how I would do it. One option, that I like to use a lot is with graph paper or a poster and a push pin used on a large bulletin board. By using the pins to represent the players, you minimize the scale a lot. You can use that method to have them travel around the city and then zoom in, using the battle map, or flip map to represent combat on a small level. But really, the city is just a big spread out dungeon. It doesn't have to be taken any different than that unless your city is something huge and complicated, like Sharn. If you are dealing with a standard sized city, it might be around the same size as some really large dungeons or sewer complexes in which case just run it like that. What I think you want to keep in mind though is that maybe you are not running these encounters over the entire city, but rather just in a district within a city; if you simplify this kind of encounter down to a battle area which is only 15% of a large town, it beomes much more manageable.

    @Sully - glad you liked it. I hope they serve you well.

  4. That sounds like a ton of fun. Also like a good way to divide up a book full of encounters.

    By the way, you should enable name/url commenting on your blog - I rarely comment if I have to log in to something, and I know I'm not the only one.

  5. @demonillusionist - you are right. It might make for a very easy way to divide up encounters in a book or also categorize encounters in a delve style book.

    Not sure how to do that with the commenting system actually, but I would like to figure it out. If you know, send me an e-mail and educate me, otherwise, I am stuck exploring the net.

  6. @demonillusionist - ah! figured it out. That makes it easier I think. Just had to shift from registered users to anyone... easy enough. Thanks for bringing that option to my attention.

  7. I like the concept, with capture the flag and king of the hill striking me as the most interesting. But I suspect many traditional D&D players will be very traditional in the "kill everyone killable, burn everything burnable and loot everything lootable" mold and will resent and resist changing that style of play.