Tabletop Roleplaying: Combat For Someone Who Hates Combat

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.

Combat Tracker

Combat Tracker 1

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?

The Controller

Those are some rad glasses, let me tell you.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.



Music In 4d4 Time

One-Winged Angel. Dancing Mad. The Extreme. Clash On The Big Bridge. Vamo Alla Flamenco. Chocobo. Esper Battle. Final Fantasy is a series defined by its music as much as anything else, to the point where a chief complaint many had with Final Fantasy XIII is that it had no crystal theme or victory fanfare. When you load up a Final Fantasy game, you expect incredible music from start to finish, and anything less than that is unacceptable.

That is an expectation I placed on myself when I started running my d20 Final Fantasy game back in 2003, and while I don’t know if I’ve succeeded thus far, no one can accuse me of not trying.

As of this second week of February 2012, we have had 235 formal sessions of Final Fantasy Omega, with probably another 25 or so uncategorized solo sessions that didn’t get an official number on them. In those 250+ sessions I have played 546 unique tracks of music, according to my sounds directory. At least 60 of those are recordings I did for the big arena tournament, because there is always a tournament in Final Fantasy games, and I felt compelled to record myself giving professional wrestling-esque introductions for every team and person competing. If I had any shame, that could have been embarrassing.

What started as a way to make my players excited when they used big attacks, like playing their character’s theme song when they hit their limit break, evolved into something a lot more detailed than I ever anticipated. The party members have their own musical cues and themes beyond their one theme song. For instance, summoner Naoko Kyuudou’s theme song is Ryoshima Plains from Okami, mixed so part 1 leads quickly into part 2’s drums. Okami’s soundtrack has a very strong Japanese feel to it, signature flute and strings over staccato beats and a bunch of other instruments that I would recognize instantly but could not begin to name. I’ve used other pieces of music from Okami for important things to Naoko — a few of her summons have music from Okami, as does her uncle, an important NPC (not EVERY character has their own theme music, it just feels like that). I now follow Rei Kondoh to find more work she’s done, so I can mine from those soundtracks for more Naoko-specific plot ideas.

Another character has an acoustic-guitar focus, from when he picked Bur Said by Cusco as the theme for his abandoned home. I’ve used that a time or two since. Another has a growing focus on the militaristic drums and rising strings of Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work in Final Fantasy XII and Valkyria Chronicles. The first character there has a piece of music done by Hitoshi Sakimoto with acoustic guitar, and it is the theme for the closest thing they have in common.

I have built a villain solely around Liberi Fatali, the opening theme from Final Fantasy VIII, and the dozen or so versions I have of it from official releases, covers, and remixes tracked down online. One single aspect of my main villain is built around the soundtrack to NieR, the most captivating music I’ve heard in a game in the last five years, because the otherworldly vocals fit that mood perfectly.

My players don’t have the same ear for video game soundtracks that I do, because they’re not insane. But I know I’ve done a good job with music when I can slightly modify a theme and get private messages from all three of them going “Oh shit what have we done?!”

The best gift a player can give his GM is crippling fear and abject terror, and if I have to mix Powder with Gangrel’s WWF theme music to make the theme for Anima to get that fear, I will. Because when it works, when I can set a song playing and see all three of them scrambling to find a way out of the immediate area, that means I’ve done my job well.

And they hate me for it.


Attacking The Darkness

Every week, I inform my friends and family that I am the master of their futures and their very lives are in my hands. Whether they live or die is solely my discretion, and my faintest whim will determine the course of their future.

And then we roll some dice and hit things.

Wednesday nights are Gaming Nights around here. Back in 2003 I started a Final Fantasy d20 gaming campaign, custom-built (read that: shamelessly stolen) from various d20 rulebooks and my own fevered imagination. We started with two players, grew to four (and two games!), then went down to three when one of my players decided he had better things to do, like go be a lawyer or something. We miss you, Taylor! Though we understand you have about no time left in the world anymore.

My players are my best friend from high school who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2003, another really good friend who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2004, and the girl I moved here to Kansas City FOR, and who I married in 2008. The player who ended up leaving the game was another one of my best friends from high school who moved out here to Kansas City with me in 2003. Aside from gaming, we have maybe two things all in common, one of which is a susceptibility to mind control.

There is a list, somewhere, of things that no one wants to read about, and stories about your gaming sessions are no lower than #4 on that list. So I’m not going to just recap sessions each week here, because no one wants to read that who isn’t already playing in the game. So instead I’m going to try and find interesting things to talk about as far as game design, how I run things, special extras either I or my players have done, stuff like that. We’ll start with music, because this will frame a lot of the later posts.

Final Fantasy games are big on music. Most every character in a game has a leitmotif, there are special battle themes and city themes and mood themes, so forth, so on. When I started planning Final Fantasy Omega, I decided I was going to make music a big part of the game, so I told everyone to pick their character’s theme song, because it would be used for their Limit Break (big super signature attack). I would also have themes for the villains and cities and everything.

We’ve since moved the game online, where we log into IRC every week and type out our dice rolls and character chatter, since the youngest of us is 29 (me!) and everyone’s getting old and lazy, and the player who left still played for a few years after moving to Nashville from KC. I can still do music, though, by setting up a sounds directory in IRC and then using commands in-session to play music.

The sounds directory has, at the time of this writing, 489 items in it. Many of these are tracks that I have played only once. It’s not enough to say I have themes going for certain characters — I’m limiting composers to specific character arcs so I can have a consistent unifying theme for that character and anyone related to him or her.

Most of the music comes from video game soundtracks, so expect this space to talk a lot about music.