The GM nightmare: combat
by Ellen "sepdet" Brundige 7/96
I've been a decent roleplayer for years, and I've run combat in dice-happy systems since I was first weaned on D&D. I like to think I'm pretty good at keeping players interested, entertained, and carrying them through adventures without dictating their steps too much or (on the other hand) letting them lose momentum, getting bogged down by too much attention to detail or lack thereof. However, combat has always scared me, no more anywhere than on a MUSH, where the typing is thick and fast. I'm not a combat machine; I don't think well in combat terms. I have to work hard to keep track of where everyone is, what they're doing, and what's happening with my own NPCs. Also, of course, I have to stick by all the rules of the game system (such as there are), which my sievelike memory is not well-suited to remembering. Nevertheless, I'm starting to run combats now, and I've actually carried off a few enjoyable ones. So now's the time for me to write out what I've been doing, before I'm actually a pro, as a guide both to myself and as handy hints for other new GMs trying to run and stay on top of action-heavy scenes.
Organization is the key:
* Preparation o Preliminary outline o Know Your NPCs o Know Your PCs
* Running the Scene o Mood o Speed/Tempo o Avoid Repetition o Precision in Poses o Use Names o Avoiding Spam o Mop-Up
* Appendix o Co-GMing o MUSH mechanics: what to use and how
Preparation (Getting your act together)
I can't emphasize preparation enough. I've GM'd a few scenes which were great, once we finally got started, but my poor players' nerves were frayed because everything wasn't ready to go when they arrived. Don't start a rock concert an hour late! Here's how I get ready, if I possibly have time (a must for combats):
Sketch out the general setting and your NPCs' appearances, enough to get physical features. Writing descriptions actually helps me crystallize my ideas for each NPC and location, and so I'll be preparing for the scene while actually writing the @descs I'll need to code anyway.
Outline the way you expect the scene to flow. Walk yourself through the area and scene mentally. Imagine the beginning, middle, and resolution of the scene. Try to think of different options and directions the characters might head for, and have a plan for dealing with them. Does this all seem obvious? Yes, but it's too easy to skip this part and then get stuck flailing when the cameras are rolling.
NOTE: Do NOT force players to follow your outline!
You've heard it before, you've had it happen to you. Players are ingenious at thinking of things you haven't, and they'll always find a way to step right out of your neat little outline. Don't think of it as derailing a train. It's just creativity. If you artificially influence characters to stick to your script, it will show, and it may be uncomfortable. Puddleglum's tinyplot guide says it. White Wolf's storytelling chapter that they stick in every single damn manual says it.
Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibilty.
Keep chanting it as a mantra, when you wish they'd go the way you thought they would. Remember the wisdom of George Lucas. I can't remember the exact words of the particular interview, but I recall he emphasized one significant point which made his movies so attractive. He spent tons of time on the details of every single ship, but, unlike many science fiction flicks of his day, he resisted the temptation to do long pans showing off his gee-whiz hard-work special effects and models. They whiz by too fast to notice the dents, scrapes, and dirt for the most part, or the little figures of the pilots inside. But your subconscious mind does pick them up, it does add to the vividness, and this will hold true with your players as well. So don't despair if they don't seem to be paying much attention to the details of all your hard work. They notice, believe me.
Preparation continued: NPCs
Non Player Characters, that venerable bit of roleplaying jargonese we inherited from D&D, are the moving parts of the scene, and the most important part of your job. Know them well, or go down in flames.
Give them defining features and quirks so that you can keep track of them all easily in your head. I use catchy names and try to include clues to all their important abilities and quirks in their descriptions. That may sound contrived (rather like those arcade martial arts games with opponents who act like they look), but it will help you get a firmer grasp on your NPCs, and if artfully done won't seem too fakey to the players.
Write up tiny stat sheet summaries plus shorthand info on what your NPC's gifts and abilities can do--you won't have time to look them up in mid-combat! Yet stay as brief and consistent as possible, always writing the stats/info in the same order, and trying to fit it onto one or 2 sheets PRINTED OUT. Yes, if you have a brain like mine, you still need a GM screen. You may end up altering details on the fly when the scene actually gets going, and you may not even look at most of the sheet, but somehow writing it out helps me get it all into my head. And it's a nice thing to have in emergences.
One more tip: use a hilighter pen to mark special abilities of each NPC--don't be embarrassed. I refer to these more often than the actual stats and numbers, which are just general figures to give me an idea of my characters' strengths and weaknesses.
'Example NPC crib sheet
Slipknot Rank 3 galliard homid Strength 3 Perc1 Rage 8 Dexterity 2 int 1 Gnosis 4 Stamina 5 Wits 1 WP 4
Body levels __ __ __ __ __ __ penalties -1 -1 -2 -2 -5 (incap)
Howl of Banshee WP roll diff 8 if friend, 6 if foe or flee. 1 turn/success Persuasion (makes people amenable to him)
Slipknot is a horrifying skeletal charicature of a crinos with transparent green skin stretched viscously over visible black muscle and sinew; his skull-head grins evilly with a glitter of tooth and dead white bone. He moves like his reptilian totem, an almost playful slithering step that rattles and clatters with every stride.
special ability: Boneshards break off and attatch themselves like teeth, burrowing into flesh, burning. He doesn't dodge. What's a few bone splinters between enemies?
At the end of the NPC crib sheets I mentioned above, I make a quick reference chart of common combat rules and moves. In D&D, it's "to hit" and saving throw tables. In White Wolf, this happens to include what initiative is based upon (wits +alert, I think?), health levels, and especially a table of damage for things like knives, guns, claws, bites, and punches. On garouMUSH, we tend to use creativity and improv more than dice, but the numbers still provide ballpark figures to go by. Also, I do still use dice where I can in combat, to help me vary the effectiveness and...well...coolness...of maneuvers by both PCs and NPCs. (A fairly dorky character once stunned everyone including myself, in a recent combat, by a really lucky roll that blew off the head of one of my most dangerous NPCs before she'd gotten to strike a blow. It was great drama.)
Oh yes, one other reason for dice. I hate killing people's characters. But depending on the universe you're playing, death may be a real and nasty possibility, and it breaks the spirit of the world too much if life-or-death situations aren't. So, when someone's character has acted stupidly, or is just in a really dangerous spot where there's no way I can get around it, I use dice and let the fates decide. It's more arbitrary, but I just can't decide "I am now going to kill this well-loved character whom someone may have slaved upon for years" in cold blood. Many GMs on GarouMUSH disagree with me upon this point. :)
Preparation Continued: Know your PCs
While the characters are in cautious "creep up, scout, and investigate" mode at the outset of a scene, you may have been wise enough to pre-code mood-setting emits and @descs. In that case, you won't have much to do yet, and can use this breathing-space wisely to get ready to rock. Ask (or check using a gmwand, if the MUSH allows you to) each character's strength, perception, dexterity, stamina, and general abilities and toys. If you use the wand, I think it's polite to warn them, just in case someone has a hidden toy/secret that they don't want anyone else to see--they can page you relevent info, in that case. I don't feel too guilty about spying on characters' stats, though, because my memory's so bad I've forgotten them by combat's end. Then, if I'm really on the ball, I either copy this to a textfile and print it out quickly so I have a crib sheet to all characters in the room, or I at least copy them down shorthand on a paper.
You'll then be braced for the fact that Joe Boxer may whip out a flaming broadsword of death, or Peewit Spoonhead may use Sense Bad Guy to discover where your NPCs are hiding. (Also, if you notice a gift you've never heard of, like "Explode 20' radius", you'll have time, perhaps, to look this up or ask the player about it before it becomes critical.) Remind characters that if they haven't mentioned they are carrying Magic Goodie #4 or packing silver _before_ the combat starts, then they aren't carrying it. Otherwise you may have the "But I whip out the Arc of the Covenant you didn't know I had in my hip pocket, and all undead wither in pain!" effect.
Preparation, last step: Final run through!
You will also have to do a mental run-through again as the very last step of your preparation, after you've made everything else up, as a dress rehearsal to make sure it all holds together and makes sense. Walk yourself through the whole scene from the characters' perspective, trying to think what you'd do in their shoes, and what you've forgotten to consider.
Lights, Camera, Action!
There's a reason why we call these things scenes. It's live-action entertainment, very close to being in a film. However, you're a director who only knows half the script! Here's the components I've found that go into pulling it off as smoothly as possible:
Mood comes first. It lets your players get into the spirit of the scene. They'll roleplay better, and so will you, if they've got the idea that they're creeping into a scary unknown, a wondrous pocket of the world, a foul obscene travesty of a torture pit, or a hopeless, dirty, hunger-ridden wasteland. There's nothing more distracting than having one character laughing or--contrarily--being serious and over-dramatic, when it doesn't match what's happening. Little details like scent, sound, noise will help get them in the mood; your words on the screen are the equivalent of a movie soundtrack.
If you don't have a knack for when to speed up and slow down, it's hard for someone else to teach you; mostly, it just takes practice. Don't rush the characters when they're just getting there and trying to figure out what's going on; in the MUSH environment, with things whipping by on the screen quickly, it's easy for folks to get confused. But, on the other hand, if they start futzing around or seem stuck, give them a lead, a hint, push, or just have something dramatic happen they'll have to react to. (e.g. If they're not going to the cave where the bad guys are, have one pop out from behind a stalagtite and try to sound the alarm).
A more advanced technique is to deliberately keep things going so fast players have to stay on their toes, and more than a few may be confused until it's all over. That's the way real combats can feel, and some of the best action movies are those which keep throwing more and more stuff at the heroes so that they never feel quite safe; it's theFugative effect. But this is a hard technique to master, and will frustrate characters if you push them too fast.
I am often reminded of a recent Babylon 5 episode, where the climactic battle against the Earth fleet is finally won--just--and they have about five seconds to breathe. Then they realize another fleet's jumping in, and you think, oh my, they'll never make it. Finally, they detect a third on the way...oh my gods, well, that's it. But the third fleet turns out to be the cavalry, and the second fleet turns tail and runs. This whole sequence is expertly paced and utterly gripping, even though the cavalry motif was old even in Homer, when the goddess Athena bailed out Odysseus just as the suitors found where he'd hid all the weapons and were about to cut him to ribbons.
One room of creeping through caves is enough, thank you very much, as is one attack by ickies from the ceiling. Repetition doesn't work too well online. "All right, I sniff for wyrm, same as the last three f-ing rooms!" Keep the total number of rooms you have to a minimum, by the way--rooms in MUSH terms are not so much one physical place as one place where a continuous action occurs. It breaks things up less to have a "mountain" room and then emit as they creep up the trail, reach the woods, and find a campsite, than to make the players go through all the exits and rooms of each--no matter how pretty the @desc, you should never have a room where nothing important happens. Remember, every time players move from one room to the next, it slows down RP for a moment (no one can pose until everyone's in the new position).
Precision in poses
Be specific, and encourage players to do likewise. Where is that sound coming from? How does that bane attack...not just with claws, but with its left pincer sweeping down in an arc to try to slice a smiley-face on Cracks-the-Cake's tummy! Using left and right flank, front and back to keep track of where people are is a tricky technique to master smoothly. Too often you end up with five players all merely saying they're "attacking" one foe, when there's really only room for one or 2 opponents, and you have no idea how to pose a response because you don't know where anyone is. It's not just placement that matters, though that's important. Give your players enough detail to easily visualize what's happening and what the NPCs are doing/using.
One area where you should be repetitive is consistent use of names. I occasionally try to get elegant and say "Bane X lunges with maw wide for the lupus Get's throat", only to have people page me, "Which Get? there are two!" I hate it when that happens. :) Use names; it's easier to pick them out of the spam.
Oh, yes, while we're at it. Spam (as you probably all know) is extraneous and often humorous remarks, either pages or actual character comments, that take up screen-space. Normally, they add fun and release to RP. In a fast-paced scene like combat, they can not only be distracting but also hide the more important poses and pages of the fight. When the combat starts, cut the chitchat. Good players can work tiny one-liners and great poses into their actual combat poses. After a while you can loosen up on the reins, if it looks like everyone knows what's going on and is following the scene easily. But at first, keep spam out.
Sometimes you have NPCs or surprises hidden when characters first come to a scene. If they're searching and scanning (which they often are), keep their caution in mind; reward it if necessary. (E.g. "You catch a scurry of movement out of the corner of your eye...") But surprises do happen. In these cases, it's good to have NPCs set dark or otherwise hidden (say, behind a dark exit) until the PCs would actually first catch sight of them. It's hard to RP being ignorant of the bane hiding up in the ceiling if you walk into a room that lists "Ceiling Bane" in its contents!
GMs tend to bail in exhaustion as soon as the last critter goes down. So do some players. But some dedicated souls (not to name any Strider theurges, of course) always tend to the mop-up: healing people, investigating bodies, hiding evidence if, say, the cops are coming, making a successful retreat, examining cool stuff the NPCs leave behind, asking questions of any NPC survivors. Plan to have answers ready for them, about these goodies, and the bodies. Plan to be asked questions about injuries and how much certain folks can be healed. Plan to write up in +news, if you're on GarouMUSH, what the cops would find if it's a mess they might stumble upon in the city. The mop-up and triage often seem to take as long as the fight, but it's a necessary cool-down period. Take a long breath, let it out...and be proud you made it through the battle! The PC's goal may be to win the fight in one piece, but yours was to pull it off excitingly and smoothly.
I find co-GMs to be very helpful in a scene that's open to any PC that happens to come along, not just a specific group you can plan for ahead of time. Co-GMing is also a good idea for newbie GMs (like myself) so that we have a second brain staying on top of the action and coming up instantly with ways to resolve stunts the characters pull. But co-GMing takes a little extra preparation. You may want to divy up players, NPCs, or scenes ahead of time. You'll definitely need a talk-through of what you expect to happen, and what you expect each other to be in charge of worrying about as it unfolds. You can't suddenly have a whispered discussion about the power of an NPC or the way a scene is going, once it starts. MUSH mechanics: what to use and how
You don't really need to know more than how to @emit actions as they unfold, but coding can improve--or get in the way of--a scene. In general, use as few rooms as possible. Don't use +details, because players forget to look: use objects instead, because the players do need @descs to know things are there. If your GM body is going to be in the room, puppets are unecessary (and it saves on spam if you don't use them). Just @emit which of your NPCs is doing what.
I find an unspammy version of paging everyone to be helpful, rather than using +mp/here to generate a list that starts "You paged Jim, Kacky, Ben, Flo, Quin, Bing, Frat, Spoon, Tick, Fry, Corin, Slotop, and Peewee: 'It's dark. You can't see.'" Instead, I pose "GM pages: <blah>" which shows up on everyone's screen concisely. Sometimes I code a command to do this.
Further ways to keep spam small and scenes organized are to always and consistently page and pose (e.g. dealing with all your PCs in the same order, action first, then reaction). Also, you may find pack-relay useful (I'm not always sure I do). This means having groups of PCs working closely together to all page their poses/attempts to one fellow, and that one player makes a summary of the poses for all of them and poses it. If that player's on a Mac, of course, no problem, just cut and paste. If not, it may be slower to go through the relay than to wait for everyone to get out their laboriously-crafted individual poses.