My players think I am a vicious son of a bitch. I don’t know how much that is the typical playful banter between D&D players and GM where they assume I am out to destroy their characters, or how much that is a reflection of my style being different from what they are accustomed to. I am NOT a sadistic or vindictive GM though. I am on the player’s side. We are all here to have fun and tell a good story. I want them to succeed and come across as big heroes as much, or maybe more than they do. The catch is that a good story requires sacrifice and danger. My heroes are going to bleed before they win.
D&D often has a way of killing any tension or excitement in combat by making it overly technical, slow, and well.. not dangerous. If you follow the advice in the DMG for how to build encounters your characters will rarely be in any serious danger – especially if they are good at gaming the system. Combat that is not dangerous is not as meaningful or fun. So how do I fix this?
#1 Wounds & Vitality. Hit Points are just about the worst possible way to measure damage in combat. There is no difference between a character with full health and one with a single hit point left. They are identical in abilities. The Wounds & Vitality system originally developed for the Star Wars RPG is way better. It tracks physical health (Wounds) and energy (Vitality) separately. You lose vitality as the combat wears on and you get more and more tired. But Wounds can be lost even if at full Vitality any time an enemy critically hits. It means that from the very first attack in combat you are in danger. Wound pools are small and the moment you get wounded you take a -2 on all rolls from that point forward. This single change will instantly make your combats go from ho-hum to ‘oh shit!’.
#2 GM by Feel. I am not a rigid GM when it comes to the numbers. Who cares if the monster entry says it has 10 hit points, if it makes the fight more interesting I’ll let that thug keep swinging till he’s at -15 or whatever, until he’s made an impression. Conversely if a character gets in a dramatic critical hit that would make an epic killing blow I won’t spoil it by insisting my NPC still has 2 hit points left. Fudge the numbers for drama’s sake. Your players will thank you. Fights should be punctuated by a certain frequency of hits and damage, risk, and victory. Get a feel for the rhythm and bend the facts a little till reality matches what is fictionally appealing.
#3 Vivid Description. Don’t bore you players with 10 minutes of description for each round of combat, but don’t let a round go by without at least one or two descriptive comments about the progress of the battle. It makes an impression on players when a hit doesn’t do 6 points of damage, but instead puts a crimson gash in their femoral artery. Don’t shy away from gore and learn to make your descriptions proportional to the drama of the scene.
#4 Make ’em Pay. You players will be happier about a victory that was difficult to achieve. Don’t hand it to them. Make them work for it. Make them expend concrete resources in the form of health, spells, scrolls, potions, damaged gear, reputation etc… If they take risks (as they should) reward them with drama. A character who leaps across a chasm will be much happier if they barely make it, hanging on by a fingertip, than if they clear it by 40′. Make it seem like success was unlikely and they will be thrilled. Furthermore, reward them with interesting failure periodically. A character can’t get up and make an exciting come back if they weren’t knocked down the first time.