I run a tabletop RPG campaign from time to time. We game online, using IRC for most everything, and we meet once a week on average. We’ve been gaming for about eleven years now, all in the same campaign, and just wrapped Session 355 last night. So we’ve been doing this for a while!
One of my players hates combat. She hates that the dice can unravel a huge plan of hers in one ill-timed critical miss, she hates that she’s on the spot with little planning if something does go awry, and she hates that there’s so much out of her control. She’s much more adept in the social situations of gaming — we famously went five months without a single dice roll — and I wouldn’t dream of having her drop from the game. But the other two players get a lot out of combat, both in the challenge and the creativity. What is a GM to do?
I haven’t seen a lot written on this subject. The games I’ve played are either fairly combat-focused (D&D, Pathfinder) or treated combat the same as everything else (Vampire, Mage). I don’t think anyone’s insinuating that if you don’t want to have combat, go play another game, but I didn’t find much relief in the books on my shelf. Fortunately, I have two other resources — nearly thirty years of playing games of all types, and three very smart, very resourceful players.
That tiny image there (click to embiggen) is something I implemented about 50 sessions ago, and it is the Omega Combat Tracker. Our game is based off of Pathfinder, with elements brought in from D&D4E. We’ve spent the last few sessions having our combatophobe run the tracker during battles, and it’s fantastic. Here’s how it works.
Initiative Order: I’d think you guys know what this is.
Initiative Score: This is not a number that ever changes, unless someone holds action (in which case, their initiative score changes to where they acted). That’s why it’s good to track it.
Damage Taken: This is more valuable than current HP totals. It lets the villains be tracked in the same way (“We’ve done 400 HP of damage so far, he’s GOT to be close!”), and it also means that I can’t look at the tracker and see that a character is in single-digits HP and then go easy on them. Now that my party has easier access to resurrection magic and there are plot ways to bring someone back, I’m more comfortable with this.
Primary Attack: They can make their own notes on how the other side is fighting. Is there a ranged guy? Get someone in his face. Is there a magic guy? Get someone in his face. Is there a dragon? Get someone you don’t like in his face.
PD/FD/RD/WD: Physical/Fortitude/Reflex/Will Defense. We have a new system here, built around speed of combat since we play online. The players mark their own defenses in, so I can check and see if a roll I make has hit without waiting for them to confirm. After they hit one of my enemies’ defenses, I mark down what that defense is, and from there they know what it is when they make their rolls.
Resistances: This way, no one casts Bufu on the guy who absorbs ice. Easily tracked.
Status Effects: Status Effects are the bane of my existence! They can swing a battle in either direction, but there’s always something to track and remember. Here we mark down the status effect, plus how many rounds remain on it.
Temp Negative/Notes: These should probably be combined, but in the past they’ve included “hanging off the side of a stone pillar,” “falling,” and “on a motorcycle.” All in the same battle, no less.
Dailies/Encounters Used: One element of D&D4E I really liked was breaking down abilities into three categories — abilities you could use all the time (At Will), abilities you could use once per battle (Encounter), and abilities you could only use once a day (Daily). Sure, it’s kinda video-gamey, but that works perfectly for the game we’re running here. This way we can mark down what people are using during the fight.
I ran the Tracker when we first started out, but I have a lot to do as a GM. Our combatophobe has taken over, and she’s been great — asking people what type of ability they used, marking down status effects expiring, making notes on the defenses (that “>31” there is her note of missing on a 31, so any rolls of 31 or lower just register as misses, no need to confirm with me), that sort of thing. Organizational skills.
But there’s not really any gameplay there, is there? That’s logging stuff. That may give the player something to do, but what about the character? What potential use does a character have in combat if the character does not, or cannot, fight?
Persona 4 Golden is pretty goddamn close to a perfect game. It also has the exact kind of character I need in Rise Kujikawa. Rise is a Controller, a concept seen in Persona 3 as well with Mitsuru and Fuuka. The Controller narrates the battle, calling out weaknesses, enemy types, and attacks. She can scan an enemy to determine weaknesses so the party doesn’t waste time on ineffective attacks. As she levels up, she gains new abilities — restoring some small amount of the party’s HP/SP after battles, finding treasure locations in the dungeon, and boosting the damage of the All-Out Attack.
How can this work in a tabletop setting? I’m still figuring that out, and the player and I are driving to Chicago in a few weeks so we’ll have sixteen hours of total driving time to hash out ideas. But I can think of a few things right now, all abilities that may not even require dice, and will be based off of her existing stats:
- Cast a low-level regenerative healing spell on the party.
- Take the brunt of an attack that would otherwise kill a party member.
- Increase the power of Dual Techs (her guidance allowing the others to maximize their own abilities)
- Get a brief glimpse of what the next attack is going to be (give characters a chance to prepare for an attack that could wipe a few of them out)
- Call out weaknesses or gaps in the enemy’s defense
- Heal a crippling status effect as a one-off to keep someone fighting
There’s still a chance for player input in the battle, while removing the threat of dice unmaking a plan.
More than that, though, it’s about the players. If I wanted nothing but challenge, I’d be wargaming. If I wanted nothing but story, I’d be writing. If I wanted nothing but time with my friends, I’d be doing something that didn’t involve 1-3 hours of prep work per week. I want the game to keep going and I want all of my players to be happy, so I’m trying to build a system to allow a player to participate in combat without actually participating in combat, and I hope it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll just try something else.
You know, I should probably play Persona 4 Golden again. For research.