Running Combats Without A Game Master

Sentinels When my gaming group and I see that a game is going to fall through because some people didn’t show or the Game Master wasn’t feeling it that night, we default to a card game called Sentinels Of The Multiverse. One of the biggest draws of this game is that it is cooperative. No one has to run it, the enemies actions are controlled by drawing from a terrain deck and a villain deck, determining what happens and what damage is dealt based on the card drawn. This is great fun and provides an evening of entertainment that has everyone sitting on the same side of the table and cooperatively enjoying a game. It occurred to me recently that the type of combat utilized by this game could be drifted to tabletop role-playing games with some interesting results – combats without the need to ‘run’ them.

 

Benefits

There are multiple ways this system could be utilized, and I’ll cover a few possibilities in a minute, but let’s talk about the benefits of running combats without heavy interaction from the Game Master:

  • Small Groups – I currently live in a small town in Mississippi, and getting a dedicated gaming group together is hard down here. Getting to play, even harder. Having a GM PC in the party lets me play and enjoy the game, as well as provides more support to a small party who, depending on the game, might otherwise be outnumbered.
  • More Prep, Less Delay – Setting up a system where the enemies are almost self-run is going to mean a lot more prep work, but it also means less time taken at the table. The combats made to run themselves allow the Game Master to do less while running the game.
  • No More Fudge Debate – Setting up a combat beforehand means that it runs without you attempting to manipulate it on the fly. If the results are determined before the players are ever at the table, then the combats run without considering current circumstances. You won’t be accused of going easy or being too hard on players.
  • Hey, I Get To Play! – If you are running a GM PC in a game, creating a combat beforehand means you can play without feeling like you need to hold back to ensure the players fun.

John, you say, that all sounds awesome, but how in Baator do we make a combat run without the GM doing it?  First off, it will all depend on the game you are running. Setting up a combat to auto-run in anything is going to be different in each system. Savage Worlds is going to run very different than anything using Pathfinder or D&D 4e, and very different with something like Fate. Here are a few general guidelines to follow and a few bare bones systems.

 

General Guidelines

  • Automatic combats mean imagining the flow of action and setting it up beforehand. You should not try to anticipate everything that will happen, but try to determine how the enemy/enemies will most effectively work or what their battle strategies would be beforehand.
  • Automatic combats are not going to be as svelte and strong as carefully modulated combats. Understand and embrace this up-front. If you wish to maintain a sense of control while the combats still run, implement a system that allows you to take control as needed.
  • Make sure the enemies powers/abilities/options are utilized. This may mean more work up front, but it is what you will need for an effective combat.
  • Use Conditionals for some powers: If HP is below 1/2, the enemy drinks its healing potion.
  • Of course, named enemies trump mooks and will require more work. Know when an auto combat isn’t as useful.
  • The key to any automatic combat is to set up some way to randomly determine what the enemy/enemies do and to make sure that it is fairly effective in it’s implementation at the table. I.E. Easy to use, smooth, and doesn’t require a lot of second guessing.
  • Using a random option means accepting what it gives you, unless, as stated above, you use a system that lets you take control every so often.

Ok, with some of those guidelines down, let’s talk about actual systems to do this. I would absolutely love to be able to write out a structure for this that works in every system, but I do not have the time to do so or the knowledge of what systems are going to be used with something like this. So, I’ll provide the bare-bones of some systems and let you take it from there. Please feel free to implement this idea and post it anywhere you would like for whatever games you play. With that said, on to the systems.

 

Option 1 – Write It Up Beforehand

GiantOctopusfrom PathfinderSRD One option for running a combat without much Game Master intervention is to look at all of the character options and write out a plan of action beforehand. Taking this entry from the Pathfinder SRD for Giant Octopus, a creature with multiple attacks whose combat could take an incredible amount of time, you could set the attack up as a combat against a crew of PCs on a ship and lay it out like this:

Giant Octopus, Pre Setup Combat

General Strategy
The octopus will grab the PC’s ship, keeping some of its tentacles engaged in holding onto the ship. The Octopus is looking for food and is seeking to grab everything off of the ship that is edible. It waits in camouflage on the bottom of the sandy seafloor to ambush passing ships and can be spotted to make the fight easier.

Preemptive – If a PC makes a DC 23 (15 +8) check, they spot the oddity on the bottom of the sea floor. The octopus will still pursue the ship if they change course, but the attacks will be at –2 as the ship can be positioned to more easily fend off the octopus’ attacks.

90 HP (Assuming about 10 –12 rounds of combat where each tentacle doesn’t attack all the time, then repeat)

  • Initiative: Roll at time of combat. +4 Improved Initiative
  • Round 1:
    If not spotted, this is a surprise round for the octopus. It grabs onto the boat and heaves itself up onto the deck, raining water down and immediately grabbing anyone around. The octopus uses attacks against crew members, but also grabs onto PCs. If no PCs witnessed the initial attack, one phantom round occurs where the Octopus has attacked and grabbed many crew members, then this round begins.Tentacle 15, Tentacle 24 , Tentacle 26, Tentacle 15, Tentacle 27, Tentacle 21
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 23
  • Round 2:
    The Octopus likely has a few crew members in its tentacles. It is capped at 4 attacks.
  •  

    Tentacle 24, Tentacle 15 , Tentacle 26,
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 23

  • Round 3:
    The Octopus has probably been hit a few times and the sails are beginning to get in its way. It drops anyone currently in its grasp and wraps tentacles around the main masts, trying to pull them down.
  •  

    Grapple 36 (17 +19). Roll a Strength Check +9 against DC 26 to see if the sails come down. If sails come down, PCs who are caught under it are at –4 for the next round.

  • Round 4:
    If the main mast is down, the Octopus resumes attacking everyone in sight, attempting to bite them whenever possible. If the main mast is not down, the Octopus attempts to down it again. Roll a Strength Check +9 against DC 26 to see if the sails come down. If sails come down, PCs who are caught under it are at –4 for the next round.
  •  

    Tentacle 13, Tentacle 30 , Tentacle 31, Tentacle 22, Tentacle 21, Tentacle 20
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 28

  • Round 5:
    The Octopus likely has a few crew members in its tentacles. It is capped at 4 attacks.
  •  

    Tentacle 24, Tentacle 25 , Tentacle 13,
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 12

  • Round 6:
    The Octopus is raging and attacks everything in its immediate area (PCs and NPCs who retreat are not targeted)
    If the Octopus is below 1/4 hit points, it skips round 6 and goes right to Round 8, trying to escape.
    Tentacle 31, Tentacle 24 , Tentacle 26, Tentacle 12, Tentacle 29, Tentacle 19
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 30
  • Round 7:
    The Octopus likely has a few crew members in its tentacles. It is capped at 4 attacks.
    Tentacle 15, Tentacle 22, Tentacle 19
    If one grab attack was successful, Bite 16
  • Round 8:
    The Octopus attempts to hide inside the cargo hold. It grabs the grate off the deck and tries to rip it off. It does not drop anyone in its tentacles, but whips them about and into the deck for standard damage.
    Tentacle 16, Tentacle 25
    Grapple 37 (18+19) Roll a Strength Check +9 against DC 22 to open the grate.
    If successful, the Octopus drops everyone, sprays an ink cloud (30 foot radius) over the deck and tries to slide inside. It incurs Attacks of Opportunity as it does so. Anyone caught by the Ink cloud does not get the Attack of Opportunity.
  • Round 9:
    If inside, the Octopus is in cramped quarters and can only make 2 attacks against anyone who attacks it inside. It can create massive damage by pulling on the masts and removing support beams as it freaks out and tries to escape.
    Tentacle 26, Tentacle 15
    Grapple 32 (13+19) Roll a Strength Check +9 against DC 30 to pull masts and supports down.
  • Round 10:
    If inside, the Octopus is in cramped quarters and can only make 2 attacks against anyone who attacks it inside. It can create massive damage by pulling on the masts and removing support beams as it freaks out and tries to escape.
    Tentacle 20, Tentacle 16
    Grapple 36 (17+19) Roll a Strength Check +9 against DC 30 to pull masts down.

If the masts come down, the ship is destroyed and the octopus escapes into the water, but the PCs are left on flotsam.

Once you’ve got the general strategy for the combat figured out, roll up a couple of extra attack rolls and damage rolls as well as any other rolls you think you might need. When you are ready to go, you just have to pull out the tables and go down the list. Your combat will probably need tweaked along the way, but you’ve got a strong foundation for it and plenty of room to improvise within. You won’t have to spend the entire time running the combat and rolling to determine what happens next, just push forward through the list and make the encounter go much more quickly.

Tentacle Damage Rolls (1d4+2 +grab)

5

5

6

3

6

3

3

5

6

6

5

6

4

4

3

6

4

5

4

5

5

4

6

5

4

5

3

4

6

5

3

6

4

5

4

3

Bite Damage Rolls (1d8 +5 +poison)

8

7

9

8

7

9

8

6

9

8

9

13

7

11

12

9

10

8

9

7

10

8

6

10

 Grab Rolls For Grapples (1d20 +19)

29

27

37

39

39

25

23

36

31

22

28

27

30

33

28

25

21

23

32

31

Additional Attacks Of Opportunity (1d20 +11 From Combat Reflexes)

13

28

19

15

23

17

26

17

24

30

19

12

15

19

23

16

28

19

23

21

31

24

20

19

 

 

Option 2 – The Deck

Pulling completely from the idea behind Sentinels of the Multiverse, and favoring games that have more flexibility in the rules for enemies, you could create a deck of cards that has the enemy combatant’s actions on it and draw them from the top of the deck. Divide up the enemy combatant’s actions into basic attacks and special attacks, then roll beforehand and write the results on each card. With one or two stack of cards before you, you LegacyCardcan pull from them when the enemies attack or have an action, determining what they do on each turn randomly and preventing the need to constantly roll as the game moves on. This can be as simple as pre-rolling a bunch of basic attacks and drawing the cards so you don’t have to roll and resolve each turn, or it could be as complex as putting all of the basic and special attacks together and drawing randomly to determine when the really nasty attacks go off.

The Deck method requires a lot more customization and requires you to allow for much more randomness. You can’t be sure that a BBEG’s spread attack will go off when all of the characters are grouped together. If you are okay with a bit of fudging, you could play it more like a hand of poker, pre-rolling and writing the results of attacks on cards, then drawing out 2 or 3 at a time and playing them when opportunistic.

Every game will be very different in what stats it needs tracked or how damage is calculated. This makes it very hard to give a good example, but here is a template that you can modify to make your own cards for use with a Deck method. It’s not hugely pretty and it is in .doc format for easy editing.

Simple Deck Template For Modification

SimpleCardTemplate

 

Other Options

There are many other ways that you could use with a pre-created combat that will run itself at the time of the game. Setting up lots of charts for the actions with their rolls already done and rolling off of the chart will speed things up. Using the deck method and building much more complex options into the cards can spice things up. I.E. Poisons the character with the lowest HP, does X damage to the two closest characters, etc.  Ultimately, this comes down to the game you are playing and how its combats go. Not all games are going to have a smooth version of a self-run combat, but most combats can be improved by taking the mechanical fiddly bits out of the action and figuring them out beforehand. Sitting down with the question “How do I get my combats as close as possible to running themselves for this game” will help you come up with some tips and tricks to improve or speed up your combats.

So, would you leave a combat up to random chance that a card deck system would provide? Have you created combats beforehand and run them in your games? What factors would you be comfortable setting up beforehand to make combats run themselves?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer.
You can find more of his writings on gaming over at http://gnomestew.com.
For web-design projects, check out http://beezenwebdesign.com.

Comments
  1. 77IM     | Reply

    Have you seen the way monster abilities in the 13th Age frequently trigger based on the natural result of the attack roll? Many abilites trigger if the monster rolls high (or rolls low… or rolls an even number… or whatever the triggering ability says), so they practically run themselves.

    The only thing the GM has to decide is who the enemy should target each round, and you could come up with several good, objective heuristics for that. E.g., the targeting conditions you can program into NPCs in the Dragon Age video games: target nearest, target enemy with least HP, target a spellcaster, etc.

    I’ve played board games like this. There are some where you roll and if you get a certain result you have to move the ghost, or minotaur, or whatever. Usually they have braindead simple algorithms like “move towards the nearest PC.” Didn’t the Mutant Chronicles board game work this way?

    1. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

      I haven’t checked out 13th age yet, but that sounds really nifty. I just picked it up on Amazon because of your comment. It intrigued me enough to add to my gaming list. Thanks!

      I never played Mutant Chronicles either, but it is on one of my friends lists of “If you ever see this at a convention, but it for me!” lists.

  2. MuadMouse     | Reply

    A very interesting article. I’m intrigued by deck mechanics in general because they offer random results with the option of forcing variety (assuming used cards are removed from the deck).

    As I read your piece a thought occurred to me of making a combat deck for Dungeon World. It would consist of a core deck of basic actions, such as “inflict [adjective] damage to [body part]”, “maneuver for -1 forward vs attacks” and “Upgrade damage die by one step”, supplemented by creature-specific specials, such as spells, behaviours and special attacks. You could mix in some environmental events too. Every time a GM action comes up, just draw a card and execute. Used cards end up in the discard pile, making changes in tactics more likely.

    Actually making the cards and balancing them out is more than I’m likely to bother doing, but I’ll have to see if I could seduce one of my more card game oriented friends to come up with a prototype to play around with. In the meantime, I might just tap Paizo’s Critical Hit and Fumble Decks for occasional inspiration.

    Great, I have an AD&D game to prep for and now all I can think about is action decks. Dammit, John…

    1. John Arcadian - Post Author     | Reply

      Thanks. I’d love to see you make even a rough version of something like that for dungeon world. I was going to produce a full deck for a savage worlds villain for this article, but time kept running out on me. Well, more accurately I kept running up against issues with the rules and trying not to hack Savage Worlds into a totally new game that was much like Sentinels.

      I know there are a few games like that. Dragonstorm comes to mind: http://rpggeek.com/rpg/1347/dragon-storm

      and I also found this one:
      http://www.dashindungeons.com/

      Great, I have an AD&D game to prep for and now all I can think about is action decks. Dammit, John…

      Inspiration is a horrible thing when there is not time enough to equal it.

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