Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How to GM Abstract Combat Part 3 - Initiative, Combat for the Non-Combat GM

Part 2 can be found here. This is Back to Basics.

Initiative is a simple matter, it is for the Player (not the PC), to act or re-act. The matter of GMing Combat for non-combat GMs or GMs who may have different values for combat as their players brings us back to being a Good Listener and having the presence of mind to act and respond to the players actions and add dramatic context.

Who Goes First (Initiative)!

In order to have Initiative, in real combat, one cannot wait for all the information to be in. One moves with an incomplete idea of what is happening. Most players are not really comfortable doing this (I'm not comfortable doing this!), they want to be informed, so when they ask for information - they've spent their turn observing and getting an idea what is happening. NPCs work with the same instructions, the GM typically has an objective to the NPCs and thats what he uses.

This may be upsetting to some, but consider those who jump in with barely a clue and how little they go on (and I've been sent into many scouting missions where I really have no clue what I'm doing). Typically when we know there is no other allies in the area and we "Shoot" before we even think, that gives us the fastest reaction time to a sitaution and it has been the source of both survival and friendly fire in Judgement and Decision Making Studies. This can even happen in Melee!
  1. Action vs Asking - Action - Players declaring Actions go first. Asking - Players asking Questions go after all players who just Act. "I attack the Leader!" may be considered asking if the GM calls that the leader is not easily apparent.
              Ranged Attacks vs Melee Attacks - Depending on the amount of movement in the Battlefield, Ranged Attacks may be resolved before Melee Attacks. 
  2. By Specificity - The most specific "Attacking the Red Plumed Legionaire", "Striking the Weapon Hand of my nearest Attacker..." go before more general statements. Ideally the statement is easily apparent facts, like if there is a Plume on the Helmet vs a Value judgement like "The most expensive helmet", "Fanciest Sword", etc...
            The trick to this is making observations before the character gets into combat, requiring the Player to pay attention, then Applying the observations on combat.
            Assumptions! - making assumptions is ok, and in this style the GM should encourage this since its speeds up play and lets the Players really add to the scene. Let the Assumptions just modify the Roll, to keep the pace moving. Poorly informed Assumptions can be a hindrance, while those right-on are a bonus.
            Conditions! Conditions are like Assumptions, "I attack the apparent leader, or who is the greatest Threat" will slide down in the turns. Resolve those with the least or no conditions first. 
  3. By Simplicity - The Simplest action, is not necessary the simplest statement. "I attack the Leader" requires knowledge of who is the leader unless it is self evident, this may slow down the character if the GM calls that a character needs time to observe. If its as simple as "Attacking the nearest Opponent", this would trump the "Attack the Leader".  The player may need to carefully word his ideas before the next cycle to make sure he gets the better initiative. 
  4. By Coordination - Coordinating with Another PC or NPC is typically the last. Sometimes just matching with this faster moving NPC or PC will mean its only in the Next Cycle of turns will the PC get to match and Coordinate with the other Character.  
The next part will go into Details.

Handing Interruptions

To keep it simple, consider interruptions as a Change in the Order of Initiative. Given how much faster an Action has to be in order to Interrupt another Character (PC/NPC), the GM may just call for a penalty to the roll.

The Fighter, Interrupting the Wizard, would have a penalty to the Action he plans to use. The more timing sensitive, the bigger the penalty. The consequences is that more skilled characters will try to Interrupt other Character by being able to accept penalties to their skill. This penalty should scale against the Skill of the Character they are Interrupting complicated by how many conditions and assumptions the Character is making to perform this action. 

Interrupting a Wizard, where the PC needs to know which character is the Wizard, move close enough to affect that NPC, and Time the Attack will have a lot of penalties. Greater Penalties if the Wizard is more skilled than the Fighter. 

Any Change in order is more penalties. The GM can just yes BUT. 

GMing Combat for the Non-Combat GM

Not everyone is a Combat GM, and some GMs dont emphasize it as much as others and every GM has a different source of enjoyment from combat. I have changed a lot in this regard, I've moved away from Map to Narrative, from Complete Information to Asymmetric and I will have some discomfort playing in games which want Symmetric and Perfect information in combat. Still, we do this to have fun. That people have different values and I can adapt and get into the mindset that is fun for the group, and not just myself.

What a Non-Combat GM has to keep in mind with combat is the Audience. I would love the focus to be chaos, economies of Attention, classical combat rules of thumb, or decision making and problem solving but when we have fun we must pay attention to the players and pace them in the details and the value they place in a given Combat scene. Put it simply - We ask them to fill the scene with their character actions.

This is asking the play what his character is doing, and interpreting it with a generous amount of essential assumptions they would have factored in if they knew - and to narrate the action with these assumptions. So I ask my play what he is doing, and fill in details that highlight aspects of the character in the situation when I respond to him. Its basically Yes-And/But, I listen carefully and work with what they say, new information is worked in as the world and NPCs respond to the character's actions.

The same virtues that speeds up play, Good Faith and letting the PC factor assumptions that would be plain to them. Don't let details or challenges overwhelmed the Player and PCs, IF their characters are warriors they are performing at their strength. If there are meddling details, introduce it one at a time, dont throw a whole lot of problems per turn - it just demolishes the momentum of the Players narrative. So in reiteration, make it easy for them to respond but challenge them with one more detail that makes the situation challenging or dramatic.

Examples: stuff you may add as the turns of the combat progresses

  1. Perceptive members of the party notice movements in the Periphery, maybe someone is circling, using the opportunity to escape, a trap is being set. Give a hint, if the Player does not get it check his stats if a more direct simple explanation would be reward his character's ability, the players caution, initiative or forethought into the situation. It doesnt have to be even stats that give you reason, it could be motivation - the character's irrationalities or disadvantages. 
  2. Ask the players where they allocate their attention. Its as simple as filling details where their attention is placed. If they are looking for the boss, they see the boss and you describe him. Those who watch the rear notice those who try to flank or sneak up on the group. Those supporting and aiding their allies, grant them better chances of success (and my house rule is that all those who aid, suffer the consequences along with those they aid) and have the consequences of such to suffer and gain. 
  3. Character who are social, dramatic, or non-combatant will notice non-combat opportunities - Threats to be emphasized, or made with every successful turn, Incentives to talk for their enemies, words of succor for their allies, or thinking through context of the Violence. Consider it a challenge as a GM to note that Violence has context and that if the player finds and manipulates that context he would have put his non-violent character to good use. 
  4. Other than attention, be  mindful of the PCs objectives and "buttons". Push those buttons - Honorable characters are implored, those with Duties have the consequences of failure hanging over their heads, those who are paid have costs they are willing to pay and unwilling to pay, those who fight with no thought to it have things they have taken for granted because of the violence. 
  5. Strategic Goals - if you read a lot of sun zi you will note that violence is not all there is, and that there are moves and actions that Check an opponent with minimum effort and risk. Make it up, or Make it complicated.  

For the Combat GM, and you are a student of Conflict and Violence then the Game is your own reward and its intellectual and physical pursuit your own nourishment. I dont need telling from me when are already fans of the subject and continue to study and explore it. All these things will seem natural, but of course we have to consider the Non-Combat or Violence people who play and accommodate their satisfaction. They should have as much fun, and  we listen and are open to how this can happen.

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