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Game Master Tips: Make Combat Challenging, Not Impossible

A quick article on finding a balance between your complete control over a roleplaying game as the Game Master and your interest in not being punched in the face by your players.
This article is over 9 years old and may contain outdated information

The players only control their characters. The GM, on the other hand, controls everything else, from the monsters and villains to the NPC that schleps luggage for a living. The entire world is at his disposal.

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It is within the GM’s power to throw an elder dragon at a group of fledgling adventurers, send tanks through a shadowrunner’s front door or surround that tiny freighter with a fleet of Star Destroyers ready to blow it out of the sky. And if the GM says the party dies, then congratulations – the party is dead.

Most likely, so is that gaming group. Taking that little bit of power the players have out of their hands is one of the best ways to make sure they will never come back to the table.

The best games are challenging, but not impossible. You want your players to look at the game and go “Man, this is going to be tough – how are we going to do this?” not “We can’t do this, better just go home.”

Facing The Impossible

Bad Example: Invisible Stalker

The PCs approach the secret temple with its secret guardian. The guardian gets a surprise round and immediately kills one of the players, who didn’t even get a chance to react or respond to the threat. The PCs roll to try and see it, but fail because its Stealth is so high because of its invisibility. After another PC death, the rest of the group tries to run, but the guardian has a higher movement, follows them all and kills them. The campaign ends.

I have seen this specific example played out right in front of me, though we were saved by a miraculous NPC who showed up (and violated another Cardinal Rule in the process) instead of actually dying.

The group had no way to fight the temple guardian. It was invisible, but its invisibility couldn’t be disrupted, and not only made it impossible to see, but impossible to track via footprints on the ground, with scanners or with the Force (it was a Star Wars campaign). It also conveniently avoided our explosives, grenades and other area of effect weapons.

We tried to escape, but it destroyed our speeder, and the map was oriented so we all would’ve had to run in the same direction to get away from it. Even then, it moved faster than we did and acted first.

This sort of encounter is frustrating and just plain not fun. Impossible obstacles just turn players off from playing, because there is nothing that they can do to stop it. It’s the GM equivalent of bullying the elementary school kids.

Better Example: Sneaky Git

The PCs approach the secret temple with its hidden guardian. It gets a surprise round and immediately knocks out their faithful NPC companion. The PCs realize something is amiss, but they can’t see it! Fortunately, one of the PCs has a scanner with them that has a motion tracker in it – between that and the footprints on the ground, they at least have an idea of where the creature is and who it’s about to crush.

After a rough fight, they manage to drive the guardian away – they don’t know where it went, but from the black blood staining the temple stairs, they know that they’ve wounded it and need to be on their toes.

In that example, there is a challenge that has to be overcome: the PCs can’t see their opponent. But it gives them a chance to think creatively and realize they have something they can do, letting them take actions instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching – or dying.

That being said…

Don’t Go Easy On Them, Either

Make sure to challenge the players. It is okay for an encounter to be easy – that’s expected sometimes, and can even be used to lull the players into a false sense of security. But if the players aren’t challenged, they are going to get bored, which is the opposite of what you want them to feel during your sessions.

The grenade-toting madman with a shotgun may wreak havoc on large groups of minions. That’s fine – unless the entire campaign is large groups of minions. Then that grenade-toting madmen just strolls through the entire game, blowing up everything and not having to think, just throw.

This will tie into other tips as well (like avoiding repetitive encounters), but make sure that your players are properly threatened without being completely outgunned.

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I used to be the support manager for Gamer Launch/GameSkinny.