Sunday, March 22, 2020

Running Fights in Dungeon World & Stonetop

I've been working on the GMing chapters for Stonetop, and recently finished the "Dangers" chapter. Part of that chapter is a section on "Using Monsters and Running Fights." It's a distillation of procedures, advice, and wisdom that you'll find floating around the Dungeon World community, but that isn't really specifically laid out in the DW text. 
If you've been GMing Dungeon World (or any of its hacks) for a while, you probably know all of this already. I'm mostly posting this for newer GMs, or those who've been running the game but still feel uncertain when fights break out.  
Some caveats:
  •  The Multiple Combatants and Abstracting Groups sections assume that you're using an updated version of the Follower rules originally presented in the Perilous Wilds. In Stonetop, Followers can make the same moves that PCs do (like Defy Danger or H&S), but the roll either +0, +1, or +2 depending on their tags and you might have to Order Followers to get them to do things.  Expect a future blog post on that!
  • You'll see references to GM principles, moves, and agenda items that are slightly different from those of core Dungeon World. I trust you can see the parallels. It definitely assumes that the GM move "Deal Damage" has been replaced with "Hurt Them" 
    Okay, let's do this. As always, questions and feedback are appreciated!

    Introducing Monsters

    Whenever it’s time to make a GM move, you can introduce a danger and put a monster in the scene.

    Don’t worry about your monsters being “fair fights” or “balanced encounters” or something that the PCs can even defeat. Worry about your monsters making sense. Portray a rich and mysterious world, right? If it makes sense for the PCs to stumble across a pair of (extremely dangerous) thunder drakes, go for it. Then play to find out what happens.

    Exactly how you introduce a monster will depend on the situation, the monster’s tags and qualities and moves, and the actions of the PCs. “Obvious” monsters encountered in a wide-open space will give the PCs plenty of opportunity to plan and react. Stealthy monsters in a dark, cluttered space while the PCs stumble around in torchlight? Not so much.
    ------------------ 
    The PCs are up in Gordin’s Delve trying to trade off some valuables they found in the Green Lord’s tomb. Rhianna’s off talking to a contact. Vahid, Caradoc, and Blodwen are at a pub. Caradoc and Blodwen get up to leave, and Vahid sees a couple of unsavory types get up and follow.
    Now, if these guys are just a pair of local miners that Caradoc managed to tick off, then I’ll introduce a danger and let the PCs see them coming. “About halfway back to your hostel, you realize that you’re being followed. It’s those guys from the pub and they look pissed. What do you do?” The PCs have all sorts of options—they might try to lose them, or set an ambush, or talk, or whatever. 
    But if these bad guys are stealthy cutthroats who regularly murder unwary travelers in alleys and loot their corpses, then I’ll be much more aggressive about it. I’ll start by hinting at more than meets the eye. “You find yourselves in a dark, empty little trash-strewn square, and everything’s quiet. Too quiet. You feel like you’re being watched. What do you do?” 
    Let’s say they Discern Realities, roll a 7-9, and ask, “What should I be on the lookout for?” I’d say “You’re pretty sure someone’s following you, or maybe circling ahead. And these alleys are a filled with good spots for an ambush. What do you do?” Whatever it is, they’ll be on guard. My next move will probably be to introduce a danger, but softly and with a chance to react. “As you pass a dark side-alley, two thugs rush out towards you, what do you do?” 
    But suppose they Discern Realities and get a 6-, or just ignore my veiled threat and blunder on. In that case, I’ll introduce a danger hard and painfully. “Caradoc, this guy comes out of a dark side-alley and snags your right arm, twists, and shoves you face-first into a wall. Take 1d8 damage. Blodwen, you see a second guy step forward, sneering, a glint of metal in his hand. What do you do?”
    ------------------


    These two guys follow you into an alley...
    (more after the jump-break)

    The Flow of Battle

    Fighting foes is a big part of the game, but combat isn’t a distinct mode of play. There’s no moment where you say “roll for initiative” and different rules kick in. There’s no orderly round-robin where everyone takes one action on their turn.

    When a fight starts, you run the game: describe the situation, make a GM move, ask “what do you do?” Resolve their actions. Repeat. Fights are—like everything else in the game—a conversation.

    Monsters don’t Hack and Slash or Volley; you don’t roll to see if their attacks succeed. Instead, you make a GM move. Usually, you describe the attack but stop short of it connecting. Ask the player(s) in the spotlight, “What do you do?” Whatever their response, it’s likely to trigger a move. Resolve the move, and let the situation snowball from there.
    ------------------ 
    Caradoc just got slammed face-first into a building and a second cutthroat is advancing on Blodwen, knife in hand (I’m announcing trouble). “What do you?” I ask. 
    Blodwen left her staff back at the hostel; she’s basically unarmed. “I’ll give ground and back away,” she says, “looking for a stick or a rock or something to defend myself with.” That’s Discerning Realities, and on a 6- the guy’s probably gonna shank her. But she gets an 8. 
    “Yeah, sure, there’s a broken broom up against the alley wall, you could use it as a club. And a few loose bricks.” I then put her in a spot. “But as you see them, the guy comes at you, knife stabbing low like this. What do you do?” 
    ------------------
    Fights usually involve a lot of things happening at once. You need to manage the spotlight and keep everyone involved. When there’s a pause in the action, address a different character (ideally one who hasn’t talked in a bit). Describe the situation from their point of view, make a GM move, ask “What do you do?” Sometimes you’ll move the spotlight after resolving a single PC action or move. Other times, you’ll resolve a few moves that flow naturally together, and move the spotlight when they’re done.
    ------------------ 
    Blodwen Discerned Realities and spotted some junk she could use as a weapon, but I kept the spotlight on her and had the cutthroat attack. She says “I’ll twist out of the way, then dive for that broom!” We agree she’s Defying Danger with DEX (with advantage, for acting on Discern Realities). 
    She gets a 9, and I offer her a cost or a lesser success. “You can get the broom but you’ll be cut for 1d8 damage, or you can dodge clear and not make it to the broom.” She decides to get the broom, taking 5 damage in the process. “Okay, you’ve got it,” I say, “but your shoulder is bleeding from that cut.” 
    It’s been a while, so I move the spotlight to Caradoc. First, I recap his situation: “So this guy has your right arm twisted behind you and he’s pushing your face into the cold, rough brick wall.” Then I make a soft GM move (one of my monster moves, fight dirty): “He grabs your hair and pulls back, and you just know he’s about to smash your face back into that wall, what do you do?”
    ------------------
    A character actually suffers a monster’s attack when: 
    • You set up an attack with a soft move, and the PC ignores it 
    • The results of a PC’s move (like Hack and Slash) says that they do 
    • The PC rolls a 6- on pretty much any move, and you decide that they do
    Suffering a monster’s attack doesn’t (just) mean that they take damage. It means you use the monster to make an aggressive, hard move. You can, of course, hurt them. Or you can make any other hard GM move that makes sense. If your move involves the PC getting hurt, roughed up, or worn down, then deal damage as part of that move.
    ------------------ 
    “So this guy’s got my right arm twisted? But my left arm’s free? When he pulls me back by my hair, I’ll quick draw my new dagger like this and stab behind me.” I wasn’t expecting that, but it makes sense based on how we’ve described things. Hack and Slash it is!
    He rolls a 4, and I start thinking about hurting him and breaking his nose on the wall. But Caradoc invokes Impetuous Youth, bumping his result up to a 7-9 (at the cost of losing his knife). He stabs the thug and deals damage (3 of the thug’s 6 HP) but also suffers the thug’s attack. I decide to turn his move back on him. “He yells and lets go of your right arm. But then he grabs your left arm, the one with the knife, and like twists it up and over like this, kicking your legs out and smashing you down. Take 1d8 damage, and oh yeah, your knife goes flying from your hand.”
    ------------------ 
    A PC’s actions are informed by their fictional positioning—where they are, what they’re doing, where their enemies are and what they’re doing, weapons, momentum, terrain, lighting, and everything else that we’ve established about this situation.

    Fictional positioning affects whether a PC’s actions trigger a move, and which move is triggered, and whether an action is even feasible. It also affects the range of possible results, both good and bad. A strong fictional position can mitigate the bad results of a roll, and a desperate fictional position can mean that a 6- is really, really bad.

    Skillful players will look for ways to shape their fictional positioning, allowing them to trigger more advantageous moves, set themselves up for better results, or even skip needing to roll entirely.
    ------------------  
    I jump back to Blodwen, who just dove past her assailant and grabbed a broken broom to use as a weapon. She got cut, but now has some distance between her and her attacker. I describe the situation: “You grip the broom and he turns to face you, a little more respect in his eyes.” Then I offer an opportunity for Blodwen to seize the initiative. “He crouches down like this, knife at the ready—you can tell he’s waiting for his moment. What do you do?”  
    “Just like old Seren taught me. I’ll pretend to be scared and present and opening. When he attacks, I’ll sidestep and smack his wrist, then swing up and smack his face.”  
    I could say “no, he doesn’t buy your act” or maybe even tell her the requirements and say she’ll have to Parley to lure him in. But I think this guy is a big bully, not expecting much of a fight, and he gets suckered in. “Cool, roll Hack and Slash!”  
    She gets a 7-9, so her maneuver mostly works but she suffers his attack. She rolls only a 1 for damage (vs. this guy’s 6 HP), so I say that she smacks the knife out of his hand but doesn’t get the follow-up swing at his face. Because he no longer has his knife, I make his attack softer than I would have and put her in a spot. “Before you can swing up, his left hand grabs the shaft. Then he grabs on with his right hand, and you find yourself struggling over this broken broom handle.”  
    I jump back to Caradoc, who’s in a spot of his own—on the ground, no knife, angry bad guy above him. “He’s still got your left arm twisted out behind you, and he’s like kneeling on your back.” I announce trouble. “He keeps adding pressure. It feels like your arm is going break or something. What do you do?”  
    “I’ll, like, reach back with my right hand and grab his face, try to gouge an eye or tear his cheek or something.”  
    That’s just not reasonable given the position this guy has him in. I clarify the situation, then tell him the requirements and ask. “You’re gonna need to get free of his hold before you attack him. And if you want to force yourself free, that’s going to be Defy Danger with STR. You do it?”  
    “Wait, wait. I think this counts as a threat to my loved ones, right? These guys are trying to kill Blodwen, not just me. Anger is a Gift?” It’s a bit of a stretch, but sure. “Cool, I spend 1 Resolve to act suddenly and catch him off-guard. Do I still need to roll?”  
    “You’re still in a really bad position here. But I tell you what--I think catching him off guard means you can twist free and attack him at the same time. So a Hack and Slash instead of Defy Danger. Cool?” He agrees, rolls a 10+, and manages to wrench free with a yell and punch the thug out. 
    ------------------ 
    You’ll generally focus the spotlight on one or two specific characters at a time. Other players can interrupt and interject, within the bounds of what the fiction, the rules, and politeness allow. Don’t be afraid to shut down (politely yet firmly) a player who keeps stealing the spotlight, or whose character is preoccupied, or who wants to do something implausible.
    ------------------   
    Caradoc finishes off his foe and I jump back to Blodwen, who’s struggling with the other cutthroat over the broken broom handle. I show a downside and tell her “He’s a lot stronger than you, you can barely hold on. What do you do?”  
    Before she says anything, Caradoc jumps in. “I spend my last Resolve and act suddenly. I come out of nowhere and bowl this guy over. Hack and Slash?”  
    I’m tempted to say “No, this is happening while you’re fighting with your guy.” But his move does let him spend Resolve to “act suddenly, catching them off-guard.”  
    “Huh. Yeah, I guess. Roll it!” 
     ------------------  

    As a fight goes on, avoid anything that feels like “trading blows” or just a grinding away at each other’s HP. Use your GM moves and the results of PC moves to constantly shift the momentum of the fight and the fictional positioning. Even when one side rolls low damage (or no damage), look for a way to make the situation change.

    Regularly ask yourself, “Would this monster keep fighting?” Use its instinct as a guide, as well as what you know about its personality and why it’s fighting in the first place. Cautious foes in particular will look to escape violence as soon as a fight goes south.
     ------------------  
    Caradoc gets a 12 on his Hack and Slash and does indeed tackle the cutthroat. He rolls only 1 damage, but his maneuver still works. “You shove him up against the far wall and he grunts a little.”  
    I shift the focus back to Blodwen and offer her an opportunity. “Whew, you’re free. You notice this guy’s dagger at your feet. What do you do?”  
    “I pick up the dagger and calmly walk up to them. Caradoc has him pinned?”  
    “Eh, he's still struggling, but mostly, yeah.”  
    “I put his knife to his throat. ‘Stop. Piss off right now and you live. Keep struggling and I’ll bleed you like a spring lamb.”  
    I’m thinking that’s a Parley, but really, he’s got no reason to resist. They’ve clearly won, and this guys’ more of a knife-in-the-dark type than a fight-to-the-death type. “He stops struggling,” I say, “and his eyes bug out at you, Blodwen. He nods a little. Caradoc, do you let him go?”  
     ------------------  

    Foes They Can't Hurt

    Sometimes, the PCs can’t feasibly attack their foe. The monster might have a special quality (like “made of stone”) or tag (like huge) that makes them effectively invulnerable to the PC’s weapons. It might have a move (like “swat arrows from the air”) that counters attacks. Fictional positioning might make an attack extra dangerous or impossible (it’s got a reach weapon and the PC has a hand weapon).

    When you first present such a monster, convey how hard it’ll be to hurt. “It’s got this lashing, whip-like tail, at least 10 feet long.” Or, “It’s like literally a moving tree, 30 feet tall and made of wood.” Or, “She moves with the calm confidence of a master fighter.”

    If the players say that they attack in a way that just wouldn’t work, then they don’t trigger Hack and Slash or Volley. Instead, tell them the requirements (“you’ll have to get past that tail first”) or reveal an unwelcome truth (“you chop into it full-strength, and it just, like, takes a chip out of it”) or put them in a spot (“she side-steps like its nothing and her own spear flashes at your throat”) and ask, “What do you do?”

    Make the PCs work for it. They might have to figure out a way to actually hurt this foe. They might need to Defy Danger to get close enough, or Aid each other to have any chance of overcoming its defenses. They might need to use the environment to their advantage. They might have to retreat or flee because they just can’t hurt it. They might need to wait for their moment. They might need to do something drastic.

    Reward creativity and effort. If they have an idea or a move that would work—even one you never expected—then run with it. Be a fan of the player characters. But also, respect your prep and the fiction. If your notes say that this monster is hurt only by bronze, and they don’t have any bronze, don’t let them steamroll you into agreeing that it’s also vulnerable to, oh, silver.
     ------------------   
    They’re exploring the ruins near Three-Coven Lake. The room gets suddenly colder and the lanterns flicker, and (after a 6- to Discern Realities) a long, hand-like shadow reaches out and grabs Vahid. He drops his lantern and starts shaking in a fit. I address the others: “What do you do?”  
    Caradoc doesn’t hesitate. “I draw my knife and slash into that shadowy limb, trying to cut Vahid free. Hack and Slash?”  
    “No, don’t roll.” I reveal an unwelcome truth. “Your knife goes right through the shadow, like there’s nothing even there, but your hand goes numb and there’s frost on the blade. Rhianna, Blodwen, you see this happen, what do you do?”  
    Blodwen looks at her possessions and says “Bendis root! I’ve got some from my herb garden.” She drops her staff, sets down her lantern, and Has What She Needs to produce some.  
    “It’ll take a few moments to get it out and light it. You still do that?” (Tell the requirements and ask). Yup, she’s doing it. “Rhianna, what are you doing?” 
    “This is like a ghost, right? So what hurts ghosts? Iron? Silver?” 
    That’s Spouting Lore, for sure, and she rolls a 10+. “Silver. In fact, you’re pretty sure that’s why Vahid got that silver dagger last summer.” 
    “Oh. Oh! I’ll step in and pull it off of him, then attack this thing.” 
    “Cool, roll Hack and Slash!” 
     ------------------   

    Multiple Combatants

    NOTE: Some of this is significantly different from what's presented in the Dungeon World book. In particular, the DW text has you roll damage once and apply that same roll to each enemy you hurt with a single attack. I don't do that, because it means that you either drop EVERY foe you hit or your drop NONE of the foes you hit. 

    When the PCs face multiple foes (and they often will), break up the action into multiple smaller engagements—the Ranger fights one crinwin, the Fox fights another, the Marshal and his crew deal with the rest of them. This isn’t anything formal. It’s just a natural way to manage the scene.

    Unengaged foes—those that aren’t pinned down in combat—are all sorts of potential trouble. Incorporate them into your moves whenever you have the chance. Announce trouble and have them move to flank the PCs. Show a downside of being outnumbered and have them block a PC’s path. Reveal an unwelcome truth and have one come out of nowhere and smack a PC when they roll a 6-. Bad guys don’t just sit around waiting to be attacked.

    When a PC or follower engages multiple foes, make more aggressive moves than when they face a single foe. If they ignore the threat posed by multiple foes, tell them the consequences and ask. If they carry on and give you a golden opportunity, or roll a 6-, or otherwise suffer the enemy’s attack, then make your move extra hard.

    When a PC or follower’s attack could feasibly hurt multiple foes—because of the area tag, because they describe it in a way that makes sense, etc.—then they roll Hack and Slash or Volley just once for the whole group, but they roll damage separately for each individual foe.

    When multiple PCs and/or followers attack a foe at once, one of them rolls Hack and Slash or Volley and the others Aid. If a group of followers attacks a single foe (or a significantly smaller group), they effectively Aid themselves.

    When multiple combatants deal damage to a single foe, roll one combatant’s damage (usually the best one) and add +1 extra damage for each capable attacker after the first. Apply tags from all the attackers as they make sense. For example, if a PC fights two Hillfolk warriors (d8 damage, 1 piercing) riding horses (d6+2 damage, forceful) and suffers their attack, you’d probably roll damage from one horse and add +3; that’s d6+5 damage (1 piercing, forceful). Ouch.

    Clever tactics can make a huge difference when dealing with multiple combatants. Holding a chokepoint reduces the number of foes they have to fight at once. Focusing fire on a tough opponent can help drop it more quickly. Attacking a group’s flank and dropping some of them before they can react? Golden.
     ------------------ 
    Rhianna, Garet, and Eira (two of her crew) find Caradoc barely holding a doorway against six crinwin. Some turn and hiss. Rhianna says “We draw hatchets and wade in!” Her crew are archers but not warriors, so she has to Order Followers. She gets a 10 and they follow her lead. 
    Caradoc’s got two crinwin occupied, so I tell Rhianna she’ll be dealing with the other four. “How are you doing this?” 
    “I’ll take point, chopping the first one and plowing past him to get at the next. Garet’s on my left, Eira’s on my right, a step behind, each hacking at one of their own.” 
    “Sounds like Hack and Slash with Aid from your crew,” I say. “But they’re not providing advantage—they’re letting you fight multiple foes at once.” Rhianna rolls an 8. She and her crew deal their damage but suffer the enemy’s attack. 
    Rhianna rolls her 1d8 damage twice (once per crinwin she engaged), getting a 7 and a 2. Crinwin have 1 Armor and 3 HP, so the first one goes down and the second is up but injured. She also rolls her crew’s 1d6 damage against each of the other two crinwin, getting a 4 and a 3. Garet drops his, Eira’s is badly wounded but still up.  
    They also suffered the crinwin’s attack. I don’t have a particular move in mind, but I know it’ll deal damage, so I start with that. “Rhianna, each of you takes 1d6 damage from the crinwin you’re fighting. Actually, you take 1d6+1, because you fought two of them.” 
    “Really? Didn’t I cut the first one down before it could hurt me?” 
    I could tell her that it got a lick in before it went down, but whatever. “Good point. 1d6 damage to each of you.” She takes 4 damage herself. Garet takes 1 and Eira takes 5. They’re all still up, but Eira’s in trouble. I let that inform my move and I put her in a spot. “Okay, so Eira got tripped by hers and it’s on her chest, smashing her head against the wall. She looks out of it and, Rhianna, you’ve still got a crinwin in your face. Meanwhile, Caradoc…” 
     ------------------ 

    Abstracting Groups (Optional)

    If the PCs have a group of followers, then you’ll often want to abstract their actions in combat. Resolve the group’s actions with as few individual moves as possible. For example, if the Marshal’s crew of six opens fire on a horde of 20 crinwin, have the Marshal make a single Volley roll to see how it goes.

    If the group deals damage to another group, or takes damage from another group, then you can roll damage once per side and abstract the results. A group deals damage and has HP and Armor as though it was one individual member of the group. For example, the marshal’s crew of six would deal 1d6 damage, have 8 HP, and 1 Armor from the thick furs & hides they wear. The horde of crinwin would deal 1d6 damage, have 3 HP, and have 1 Armor from their agility and reflexes.

    If one group outnumbers the other, they get a +1 bonus to damage and Armor for every multiplier past 1. For example, the 20 crinwin outnumber the crew of six by about 3:1, so they’d get a +2 bonus to damage and Armor.

    Damage represents casualties. If one group loses half its HP, then about half that group’s numbers are out the action. Adjust the bonuses to damage and Armor accordingly! So if the crew of six dealt 4 damage to the crinwin with their Volley, that’d do 1 damage after Armor and reduce the crinwin from 3 HP to 2 HP. One third of the crinwin (let’s say seven of them) would be out of the action, reducing their advantage to only about 2:1. Their bonus to damage and Armor is now only +1.

    Shift the spotlight between the group and individual PCs. Switch the scale and “zoom” of the action accordingly. Foes that are engaged by individual PCs aren’t really part of a group. So if one PC ran in and attacked two crinwin while another PC Defended and drew the attention of another three, the Marshal’s crew of six would be left contending with only eight crinwin (20 to start, less 7 dead from the Volley, less 5 occupied by PCs). That’s basically even numbers, so the crinwin have lost their bonus to Armor and damage.

    A group reduced to 0 HP is routed, massacred, or otherwise defeated. The fate of individuals within each group is up to you.

    Keeping Fights Interesting

    Fights should be exciting, dynamic, and tense. The players should never feel like they’re just "trading blows" or trying to deplete a foe’s HP. Players shouldn’t get bored waiting for “their turn,” and the outcome should never be entirely certain.

    Make soft GM moves all the damn time. After every player move, describe the situation and make a soft move: say something that provokes action or raises the tension. Then ask someone, “What do you do?” Sometimes, your soft move will be offering an opportunity for a PC to act freely, or to follow up on a previous move’s success. It’s easy to do this accidentally, though, which results in the monsters seeming to just stand there and not do anything. Be intentional!

    Make your moves—especially your monster attacks—colorful, descriptive, and specific. Don’t just say, “It attacks you,” say “It swoops down at you, talons out like this, coming right at your face! What do you do?”

    Demand the same of the players. If they say “I stab it with my spear,” then reply with “Okay, cool, what’s that look like?” If the player seems uncertain, or hesitant to commit, then offer them choices. “Are you, like, running at it? Bracing yourself? Are you going for its gut or its wings or its face, or what?” If you can’t visualize the action, ask for more detail.

    Consider the momentum of the action and other elements of fictional positioning. Incorporate them into your descriptions and your GM moves. So if your soft move was “it swoops at your face, talons out” and their response was “I brace myself and drive my long spear into its gut!” and they get a 7-9 to Hack and Slash, then the results should take all that into account. “Yeah, you impale it and but its momentum yanks the spear out of your hands and they both tumble over here, next to the edge. Roll your damage!”

    Vary your GM moves, especially when a monster’s attack lands. Don’t always hurt them or put them in a spot. Lean on your monster moves to add variety. Sometimes, look at your list of GM moves and pick something you haven’t done in a while, just to keep things fresh. No matter what move you choose: if it involves roughing up the PCs, or it could maybe take them out of the fight, then deal damage along with the move.

    When a PC “whiffs” a damage roll, respect the fiction of their attack and the fact that they (probably) got a 7+ on whatever move allowed them to deal damage in the first place. The low damage roll means that it wasn’t a telling blow, but it should still change the fiction. “Only 2 damage? Yikes, you don’t pierce its hide. But it’s still disoriented a bit, and struggling for breath—looks like you knocked the wind out of it.”

    Keep in mind what other enemies are up to. The PC stabbed the monster that was swooping at him, but what are its friends doing? Use your next soft move to bring them into the action. “…looks like you knocked the wind out of it. Meanwhile, the next one is swooping down at you while you’re unarmed, what do you do?”

    Keep the spotlight moving. When one PC isn’t actively engaged, make a soft move at the current PC, then move the spotlight to the idle PC and ask what they do about it. “…the next one is swooping down at you while you’re unarmed. Rhianna, you see this happening, what do you do?”

    Give less-combat oriented characters opportunities to shine. Encourage the Seeker to Spout Lore about the foe’s vulnerabilities. Include spirits or beasts that the Blessed can interact with. Include victims to rescue, fragile treasures to protect, and puzzles to solve. Not always, and not every fight, but often enough to keep everyone engaged.

    Incorporate the environment into your description and your moves: lighting, terrain, visibility, and the fog of war. They’re on a massive staircase? Use a monster’s attack to put them in a spot and bowl them half-over the edge. It’s pitch black except for their sphere of torchlight? Have the monsters retreat and then announce trouble, “You can’t see them, but you hear their calls as they circle for another attack, what do you do?”

    Populate your battlefields with potential energy—heavy things to knock over, high places to fall off of, kindling to set aflame. Throw in some active hazards, too: raging fires, crumbling ceilings, sucking mire. Present these elements as opportunities to the PCs. Use them to answer “What here is useful or valuable to me?” Incorporate them into your GM moves, soft and hard.

    Recap and summarize the situation regularly, especially as you move the spotlight around. “Okay, so: Vahid’s, on the upper part of the stairs. His spear and the creature he wounded are over here, near the edge. Caradoc, you’re hanging off that same ledge. Blodwen, Rhianna, and Andras on the other side of the gap, with Blodwen holding the torch aloft and Rhianna and Andras scanning the skies. Caradoc, you feel your grip starting slip. What do you do all do?”

    End fights earlier rather than later. If it’s clear that the PCs will win, have the bad guys flee or surrender. If things start to drag and someone rolls a 6-, use your hard move to drastically change the situation—a new monster shows up, a PC gets captured and dragged off, a follower sacrifices themselves to save the PC and finishes off the monster. If the PCs want to flee, let them Struggle as One to escape instead of playing out individual actions.

    Finally, remember that this isn’t easy. GMing is a practice, not something you master. You’ll likely start out forgetting to do all of this stuff, and that’s fine. Reflect a little bit after each session on what was fun and exciting about your fights, and what seemed to drag. Ask yourself what you could have done differently, and try to do that next time. Keep pushing yourself to improve!

    6 comments:

    1. This is great; thank you. May I request a clarification:
      In the section on Abstracting Groups, you write "The horde of crinwin would...have 3 HP, and have 1 Armor...." In the following paragraph, you write "Damage represents casualties. If one group loses half its HP, then about half that group’s numbers are out the action" and as an example "if the crew of six dealt 4 damage to the crinwin with their Volley, that’d do 1 damage after Armor and reduce the crinwin from 3 HP to 2 HP. One third of the crinwin...would be out of the action...."
      If the horde of crinwin have 3 HP and 1 Armor, wouldn't a damage of 4 result in losing 3 HP, thus knocking all the crinwin out of the action? How do you get the figure of 1 HP net damage from a damage roll of 4 versus 1 Armor?
      Thanks again!

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. The crinwin outnumber the crew by ~3:1, which gives the crinwin a +2 bonus to damage and Armor against the crew. So the group of crinwin have 3 HP, but for that exchange they also have 3 Armor.

        Delete
      2. Oops my mistake! Thank you :)

        Delete
    2. Great mix of theory and practical examples

      ReplyDelete
    3. Fantastic - love the advice on multiple combatants fighting together.

      ReplyDelete
    4. Your examples are always so vivid :) I'm so looking forward to Stonetop.

      Since this is potentially material you're going to publish, I'll mention that I noticed a typo: "I’ll pretend to be scared and present and opening", I think should be "I’ll pretend to be scared and present *an* opening"

      ReplyDelete