What do you mean, ‘THEY cut the power’? (or, Running realistic enemies in combat)

Combat is an essential, probably integral, part of most roleplaying games. It accounts for anywhere from about 1/3 to 3/4 of all encounters in any given session of the most popular games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, and other games such as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. With combat being such a large part of most games, there is surprisingly little official writing on how to run enemies realistically, or plausibly, in combat. Some adventures do a very good job of detailing specific “if-then” scenarios for groups of enemies, but those are generally for certain instances and not applicable on a large scale. In the absence of a good idea on how enemies will act and react in combat, enemy actions in combat generally tend towards two extremes: chaos, with the enemies making no coordinated efforts and each enemy acting on his own, or confrontational GMing, with the enemies focus-firing the healer, then the damage dealers, etc, regardless of enemy type. While those two extremes certainly exist amongst enemies on a realistic scale, I think it is important to make different enemies act differently, differently enough that your players can tell and appreciate the plausibility of those differences. A major goal of any of my games is to make things plausible, and this helps. Remember, this post details only with tactics used by enemies, regardless of their stats. I should also make a note here that for today’s post, I will only be dealing with generic humanoid adversaries, specifically humans.

The first thing I want to do before explaining how to run realistic combat is to break enemies into broad categories. Most of these are applicable to a lot of humanoid races, but I will delve into racial-specific things you can bring in in a future post.

So, back to categories. I’m a wargamer by upbringing, and an Army officer by trade, so when I think of categories of enemies, I primarily break them down based on “professionalism,” or “level of training.” While we could apply any number of different names to these levels, I’m going to go with names pulled from one of my favorite wargames, Horse and Musket: Untrained, Green, Regular, Veteran, and Elite.

Untrained

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Untrained enemies are those enemies who have received no formal training in combat. They may have picked up a spear or pitchfork in defense of their home, or gotten handed a pistol by a senior member of their new gang, and they may have even figured some things out about fighting by watching others, experimenting with their weapon, or even being in some fights themselves. They are not, however, a trained, cohesive fighting force, and it shows on the battlefield. Untrained enemies are essentially the chaotic, uncoordinated combat encounters that I described above as one extreme. They may very well be deadly individual combatants, but they do not fight as a group. They will usually attack the nearest visible enemy, or the nearest unengaged enemy, depending on their motivations, but they will rarely, if ever, coordinate their efforts above that. Any leaders amongst this group will be the deadliest fighters, and will not spend much of their time giving orders. If a fight goes badly for them quickly, self-preservation may start to take over and individuals may begin to run.

Green

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Green enemies are those who have received rudimentary training as part of an organized force and have a basic understanding that they are better when they coordinate their efforts. These can be local law enforcement officers, a village militia, or a unit of fresh conscripts out of their initial training. Some horde-type enemies can also fall into this category if they have some semblance of organization. They will fight with the most basic tactics, never executing more than one or two simple “maneuvers” against the players. Fantasy or medieval enemies in this category will be able to form up into a simple rectangular formation and walk at the enemy, or hold them off. Firearm-armed enemies can concentrate their fire on a single target if it’s the closest thing, or if given an order to. These enemies are normally accompanied by a more experienced leader whose main job it is to corral the Green enemies and keep them going in the right direction. Expect a leader in this group to be giving a lot of orders, not all of which are obeyed immediately or correctly. The death of the leader of that group can be a panic-inducing event, and can cause a significant portion of those Green troops to flee the battle.

Regulars

Regular enemies are trained members of a (normally) permanent, professional fighting organization. These are your regular army squads and most mercenaries. I would hesitate to ever classify anything below professional armies as Regular (so town guards would fall into the Green category). These enemies have the deadly combination of being formally trained, being competently-led, and having had previous fighting experience. Grouping enemies under this category has the potential to turn even average enemies, stat-wise, into a danger to the party. Regulars know the components of their unit as well as their strengths and weaknesses; they will attempt to cover their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. If they are ranged combatants dealing with melee enemies, they will focus on those melee enemies to try to wear them down or kill them before they are reached, and they will fall back while firing to maintain distance. If they have an armored component, such as an armored vehicle, supporting them, they will treat any anti-armor or high damage-dealing enemy as priority threat #1, and will immediately focus fire that target to eliminate its threat. They understand and have been trained in tactical maneuvers. Ranged enemies will utilize cover to hide behind and fire from, and they will actively utilize suppressive fire or melee attacks to pin players down while other enemies move into a single flanking position to deny the players’ use of cover or put them in a disadvantageous position. However, they will generally still each individually fire at the closest threat to them. These enemies are led by some sort of professional officers or sergeants whose main job is to make tactical assessments and give orders. These leaders should be support classes who can buff their subordinates and possibly give them free movements or actions. Killing these leaders may have a morale impact, but it will not be as significant as with Green troops; Regulars have a chain of command, and leadership will devolve to the next highest-ranking enemy. Regulars may not fight to the death if they don’t need to, and they still have the potential to be broken by poor morale if the fight turns quickly against them.

Veterans

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Veteran enemies are essentially upgraded Regulars. They are Regulars who have been hardened and honed through months or years of combat into a crack unit. They have not necessarily received any specialized training, but instead have become more lethal and proficient through experiencing many battles and surviving, learning on the job. They may have unique equipment or quirks that they have picked up along the way, like being particularly good at killing magic-using enemies or at fighting certain races. Veterans will use more advanced tactics to deal with player characters. For example, Veterans will not conduct simple fire-and-flank tactics from a single angle. They may establish a base of fire to pin the players down and then begin moving two separate flanking units to try to hit the players from two different sides. Veterans will fall back and regroup to try to draw the players closer and into a more advantageous position. Veterans should be experts at reading the terrain of the battlefield and using it to their advantage. Veterans have also served together for a long time, and so will coordinate well with other nearby enemies; Veterans should be able to make assessments about greatest threats and occasionally choose those targets to “focus fire” on in small groups, though not the entire unit. Veteran leaders are generally a mix of half support-half combat, as they buff their nearby allies like a Regular leader, but have deadly combat skills to match; they will stick to their strengths, however, and will not put themselves unnecessarily at risk since their main job is to lead. The death of the leader, however, will have only a minimal impact, if any, on Veterans. They are well-trained and battle-hardened enough to accept their leader’s death and simply move on to the next person in the chain of command and continue fighting.

Elites

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Elite enemies are the top tier of groups, and should be used sparingly. They are Veterans who have been selected and given specialized training to be the best of the best in their organization. These are your royal guards and your special forces. This is where you pull out all the stops in the enemies’ tactics and throw everything you have at the players. Elite enemies will understand the terrain instinctively and use it to their utmost advantage while trying to turn it against the players. Elite enemies will prioritize the players in order of threat and will pick out a target that they need to focus on. They will either all focus fire that individual target, or will each have a target that is their primary focus, regardless of almost all other circumstances. Elite enemies have a mission and they understand it, and they will not stray from it except in the most extreme situations. Elite leaders are deadly combatants with buffing as a secondary trait, and their deaths will have no impact on the morale of the Elite troops. Elites will make constant assessments about whether or not they are winning or losing the fight, and will attempt to withdraw and regroup for another day if they think they have reached the point where victory is impossible.

Those are my five categories for enemies: Untrained, Green, Regular, Veteran, and Elite. I hope some of the things I’ve included here are helpful in running enemies in combat. In a future post I’ll probably expand on this, addressing racial-specific abilities and more extensive groupings of types of enemies into the five categories.

Shoutout and special thanks to D&D Duet (Instagram) for the idea to write this post. Check them out for great content on D&D and running 2-person roleplaying games.

…Now We’re Here (or: Reversals, Part 2)

In Part 1, we discussed throwing Reversals at your players, knocking them off their “high horse” as it were and regressing their power level or resources in order to provide a new challenge or to change things up. Reversals are not an endgame, however.

Captain Marvel GIF by Marvel Studios

 So, congratulations, you’ve beat up your players. You stole their gear, blew up their stronghold, got them arrested, or some other relatively major setback which threw them into an uncomfortable situation where they no longer have an advantage in power level over most things they encounter. Now what? You can’t just leave them there to fend for themselves (well, you shouldn’t in my opinion); you need to provide them an avenue by which they can turn the tables back on their enemies.

 (Side note: here is where I know some of you may differ with me; “the players should have to figure it out on their own!” you’ll say, “it’s their own fault for getting into that situation in the first place!” Yes, while a lot of times, as we discussed in Part 1, the players are responsible for their own fate by their action or inaction in the face of warning signs or direct knowledge of an upcoming reversal, I firmly believe that our job as GMs is to facilitate the fun of the players at the table. No one comes to an RPG looking to get punished repeatedly for bad decision-making; there’s enough of that going on in the real world. Players are there to have fun, and if people aren’t having fun because of things you as the GM are doing, then you’re just being a bad GM.)

 How do we go about setting the players on the road to their own Reversal against their enemies? I think it’s important to work backwards, as you would do in a lot of story plotting. By this point in the campaign, you should have a pretty good idea of what your players and their characters want, as well as a good idea of how they are likely going to respond to their latest reversal. Brainstorm what you think their desired end state is in regards to this reversal: in the example of my wife’s Age of Rebellion character (example 1), I knew she would ultimately want to break her brainwashing, and in Edge of the Empire (example 2), I knew the players would want to steal back the item and hopefully take down the pirate group at the same time.

 Once you have the players’ likely desired end state in mind, work back to how the players would be able to accomplish said goal, if there were no restrictions at all. In example 1, I knew that my wife would need to get access to the same or a similar chemical formula used to help condition her, and essentially “reprogram” her brain to “overwrite” the brainwashing. In example 2, I knew the players would need to have a large fight, both on the pirate ship on which they were currently being held, and in space amongst the various ships of the pirate fleet. In both instances, the ability to carry out either one of those plans was far outside the capability of the players. That is normal, after all, the players just suffered some pretty serious setbacks. So now you have identified the gap that the players need to be able to cross to go from their current situation, to be able to achieve the desired end state.

 The next step in the backwards plan is to try to figure out what you can credit the players with in order to try to bridge the gap you just identified. Some players come up with elaborate plans and put in a fair amount of legwork to try to enable their success, only to have the dice rolls work against them. This was the case with the Edge group I run for. They acquired a Letter of Marque from the Empire to go after the pirate group, they acquired allies from two different pirate groups that also had an interest in seeing these pirates go down, and they conducted a fair amount of research and prep work, including double checking information to ensure it was accurate. When rolls went against them, they were never able to get to the stage of the plan where they called in all of their allies. They were captured, but they had also put some work in that would help, though I don’t think any of them realized it.

 Near the beginning of the campaign, they had liberated a Wookiee slave named Gracuck. Gracuck was an agricultural engineer by trade before he had been enslaved, an intellectual, not a fighter. The players could have simply left him as such, but over the year or so that I’ve been running for them, they have made a deliberate effort to make Gracuck a useful member of the crew, including teaching him how to pilot their ship, and how to fight with vibrosword, blaster, and bowcaster (fairly well, actually, they rolled well on these checks). They never asked Gracuck to come along on any missions, but they had, over time, turned him into a fairly formidable Wookiee who was not going to sit by and watch as his friends, to whom he owed a life debt, were spirited away by pirates. Gracuck had dropped the players off prior to their assault, and was waiting for certain signs that things had gone according to plan. When it became obvious that things had not gone according to plan, and the players were captured and taken away by the pirates, I had Gracuck do several things behind the scenes, and made several rolls. He activated a tracking beacon and followed the pirates. He then contacted the Empire and the two pirate groups with him the party had made arrangements and told them of the situation. One pirate group backed out, but the other group and the Empire both agreed to stand by their agreement with the party and join the fight. They followed Gracuck’s tracking beacon to the pirates’ location. Finally, Gracuck allowed himself to be captured, placing the tracking beacon aboard the pirates’ flagship as well as giving the players an escape route by the ship being onboard the pirates’ ship in the hanger bay.

 It may seem like I “gave” the players a lot by having all of this occur, but in reality, I simply gave them credit for all the hard work they had put in prior to the reversal. I believe Gracuck acted entirely within his character based on the time they had invested in him as a member of their crew, and the rolls fell the way they were going to fall in terms of which groups would come to the players’ aid. When you put the players in a helpless situation, they will often focus on what they can do currently to alleviate it, but it’s important to not let their previous work go to waste just because an encounter went sideways on them. Make your gaming world a living, breathing place where events keep on going without them, where their allies will make moves to try to rescue them or help them out of their bad situation. When Gracuck arrived aboard the ship and they were all brought before the pirate leader, they were still bound and without weapons. When the Empire and other pirates jumped in and started firing, it caused chaos on the ship, but the players still had to fight to break out of their restraints, grab weapons, and overpower the pirate crew in a close-quarters battle that was by no means certain. Giving the players credit for their preparation and hard work does not mean they get a free pass out of a bad situation.

 Sometimes, though, players won’t have preparations or hard work that is directly applicable to the situation they find themselves in. Does that mean these players are SOL? Absolutely not. Remember, our job as GMs is to facilitate the players’ fun. Sometimes, players will be able to figure their way out of the situation on their own; they will be able to ask the right questions, attempt the right rolls, and deduce information they need to without the GM having to intervene. My wife was able to cleverly subvert her character’s conditioning and work around the system to start figuring out the information she needed to eventually break free of it. That may not always be the case. You put the players in this situation, so you owe them a way out. If the players can’t get to the solution on their own, be prepared to guide them down the path. Have an idea in your mind of how they can get out of the situation, and then reward them with scraps of information that lead them down that path when they make rolls. Don’t be tied to giving certain information only for certain types of rolls; instead, try to give out information regardless of what type of questions they ask or what types of rolls they make. For example, if the players are lost in the woods and trying to find their way out, and you intend them to have to make a Survival check to notice some tracks, don’t be tied to that check as being the solution. If one player makes a Survival check and fails, but another wants to roll Perception to notice something else and they roll well, I encourage you to give them the information from the Survival roll as well. Tell them they not only notice what they were looking for, but they notice the tracks as well. Don’t punish them for asking the wrong questions or making the wrong skill check. Remember, we as GMs have all the information, and it’s too easy to forget that the players often have little or none.

 Once the players are on the right path, they should be heading for success. Your ultimate goal is for them to have fun, and hopefully for their attempt at recovering from the reversal to succeed. This is a time to probably pump the brakes on some of the more difficult encounters. Don’t make it easy, but don’t absolutely crush them; it’s no fun for players to go from one gut punch to the next. In the end, everyone comes to the table to have fun, and it’s our job to ensure that no matter the ups or downs of the games, that they do so.

Started from the bottom… (or Reversals, Part 1)

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A common problem in roleplaying games, and in storytelling in general, is how to keep raising the stakes. As characters advance through their stories and the plot of the game, they pick up new abilities and new weapons, and also usually get “better” at playing. The GM must find new ways to challenge the players in order to keep things interesting. This is usually less of a problem in the Star Wars roleplaying game than in Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, since increases to Wound Threshold (hit points) are rare and weapon damage is high, making a squad of Stormtroopers just as dangerous to a high-XP (high-level) party as a low-XP party. However, the abilities accumulated by the players does make them more powerful over time, necessitating ever-increasing stakes.

 While throwing larger, more powerful, or more numerous enemies at the party is always an option and standard RPG progression, I would also recommend a major reversal at some point, or several minor ones. What I call “reversals” are events which change the power situation or power relationship that the players find themselves in and force them to react, while depriving them of some resources that had previously made them powerful or able to do certain things. Flipping things on their heads and cutting the power level of the players, even if temporarily, is a great way to return to those tense moments of low-level play and encourage the players to think outside the box and pursue options they would not have previously considered. Reversals need to be carefully done, however, to avoid alienating your players and sucking the fun out of the game.

1. First, and most importantly, the reversal has to be plausible. The most effective way to do this is to give the players a chance to see it coming in advance, and have the nature of the reversal be a direct consequence of their action or inaction. In our Edge of the Empire game, the players were hired to steal an item, as well as a large sum of money, by one of their regular job-givers. His representative on the planet betrayed them once the item had been stolen, ambushing them and taking the item for herself, as well as their ship.

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I would have considered this a cheap trick had I just sprung this event on them, so I gave them an opportunity to spot the betrayal coming: halfway through the job, the representative came to the players and told them their employer had changed the bank account to which he wanted the money transferred. A successful Discipline (Insight) check by one of the players discovered that the woman was lying, and that their employer had made no such request; the woman was trying to take the money, implying her future betrayal. While the players transferred the money to the original account, they did not alter their plan to steal the item, a plan which the woman knew, enabling her to ambush them later and steal the item. Had the players adjusted their plan, or informed their employer of his representative’s betrayal with the money, things could have gone differently, but they did not, and recognized their mistake when it was all said and done.

 2. Second, the losses need to be damaging, possibly even severe, but not derailing. In our Age of Rebellion game, we made a “deal with the devil,” as it were, throwing in with a seemingly-disgruntled Imperial Intelligence officer who had been a long-running antagonist in the campaign. In the end, she (of course) betrayed us, and my wife’s character was imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately brainwashed. All of the allies, networks, and equipment she had built up were lost or scattered, and she found herself bound to carry out her orders from the officer without question. Again, this could have gone very badly, but I made sure that several things were clear: most of her allies were probably still out there somewhere, the battle in the Sector was going badly but not lost, and the only things she could not do were to directly violate her orders. My wife quickly latched onto the last part in particular, and began her subversive campaign to undermine her orders without disobeying them, while secretly researching a way to break herself free of the “conditioning.” It changed the dynamic of the game drastically, putting her in the situation of a double agent without the benefits of the allies and network she had built up previously.

 Sometimes, the dice can take things out of your hands as a GM and the players are handed a reversal you did not necessarily plan for. Players can be critically wounded or even killed, or the players can end up in a hopeless situation that you had no intent of them being in. You can (and should, in my opinion) handle these the same way as a planned Reversal. Two sessions ago in our EOTE game, the players, still pursuing the treacherous representative and the pirate band she belonged to, stormed the pirate stronghold intending to steal the item back and then launch an attack on the pirate fleet. They had gathered two powerful groups of allies, had a fairly solid plan, and started off rolling well. They fought tactically, maximizing use of grenades in the initial fights, but when they reached the central chamber of the stronghold, the rolls went against them. They missed often and got hit severely. One player was knocked out, another lost his eyes (Star Wars has a critical injury table for critical hits), and a third, a Droid Tech, had his prized droid companion destroyed. This could have been a TPK situation, but I find those distasteful and anticlimactic if they serve no narrative purpose; capturing is far more interesting. So, the pirates offered a chance to surrender, which the players took, and we moved on. Two characters had suffered potentially derailing occurrences during that fight which I felt threatened the possibility of them having fun in the future: our Wookiee warrior character had permanently had his eyes sliced out by a vibrosword, and our Droid Tech had lost his droid. I had not planned for these things to happen, but I knew I needed to ensure the players’ fun was not crushed by these losses, so in the next session, I had the pirates’ surgeon, wanting to “learn” on a Wookiee subject, implant one cybernetic eye on our Wookiee, while the pirates’ techie brought the Droid Tech the memory core of his droid, empathizing with his loss. The players were still very much in the hands of the pirates, imprisoned and with no weapons, but those two in particular had not suffered the complete loss of things which, in their minds, were central to their characters.

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 3. Lastly, you need to have a plan and provide an opportunity for the players to affect a reversal of their own. I’ll explore that in Part 2.

Knowing Your Players

Last March, I introduced three of my closest friends to Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire Star Wars roleplaying game. For two of them, it was the first time ever playing a TTRPG, and for the third, it was the first time playing in an extended campaign. My wife rounded out the party as the fourth player, and the most experienced. After character creation, I had them come up with their initial backstories, and then we started playing a few days later. About 5 or 6 sessions in, after noticing some body language from different members of the party during different types of encounters, I began to worry that people weren’t having as good of a time during some parts as others. I worried that I was not doing a good job as a GM. I realized that while my wife and I had been playing RPGs for two years and knew what to expect and what we wanted out of a game, the other three did not. It was my fault for not engaging them about this beforehand, and I knew I needed to rectify it. Having never played the type of game we were going to play, or never roleplaying at all, they did not know what to expect or what they wanted out of the game until we had already started playing. I was running the game I wanted to run and what I thought they would like, but I was missing the mark.
To get back on course, I developed a short questionnaire and sent it out to them. They filled out their responses and sent it back, and their answers helped me a great deal in understanding what each of them liked and didn’t like in the game, what they wanted from the game, and what they expected. In the future, I will use this prior to starting a new campaign, or after the first session or two if the players have never played. I’ve posted the questionnaire below, and recommend using something like it before or early in the campaign. I had definitely made assumptions about the players and what they wanted prior to starting, and it helped me adjust the game to what they wanted to play while still fitting in a game that was interesting for me to run.
The last part is important: both sides must be satisfied with what type of game is being played. The game isn’t all about the GM or DM, but neither is it all about the players. The players need to be interested in the game and story and want to play, but so too much the game attract the GM, since ultimately he or she is the one putting in the game prep work. With that in mind, I hope the questionnaire below can help you or someone you know prepare their campaign or just get inside their players’ minds a little bit. Have you used a similar questionnaire prior to campaigns?
1. Rank the following in order from 1-4 based on how important they are to your enjoyment of the game (1 is most, 4 is least):

-Roleplaying (conversations, negotiations, decision-making, making character choices, etc)

-Story (an overarching plot, or minor plots, driving the action forward)

-Combat (straightforward)

-Non-combat encounters (situations where rolls are required or players must plan and/or figure something out to overcome an obstacle…this includes stealth, puzzles, skill challenges, etc)

2. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is “Totally scripted sequence of missions, linear plot progression” and 10 is “Total sandbox, no overarching plot,” what type of game would you prefer to play?

 

3. If you were to, for example, play a Lord of the Rings roleplaying game, would you prefer to play as members of the Fellowship of the Ring (Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, etc), as characters near or following close to the Fellowship and having tangential or incidental contact with those major characters (eg Riders of Rohan or Minas Tirith soldiers at the major battles), or as characters in a different part of the world, dealing with separate events or dealing with the events in distant ways (eg Rangers in the North or Dwarves of Erebor during the War of the Ring)?

 

4. What is the ultimate goal for your character in the game? What do you realistically want to be able to accomplish with/for them?

 

5. Which of the following do you most agree with regarding combat?

-Enemies and NPCs should act realistically based on their race/organization/skill level/goals (this includes focusing fire on dangerous enemies, retreating/regrouping when necessary, and focusing on their own objectives sometimes at the expense of doing damage)

-Enemies should act as meat shields for the party to kill (won’t go for killing blows, won’t focus fire, won’t retreat)

-Important enemies should act like the first option, minions should act like the second

 

6. What session/event/encounter have you enjoyed the most and why?

 

7. What session/event/encounter have you enjoyed the least and why?

 

8. If you could change one thing about the game, what would it be and why?