Archive for July, 2017


Threat vs. Cost in Combat

July 16, 2017

If you’re playing a gamist tactical game, there’s often a problem when it comes to balancing combat and making it challenging…. and it has everything to do with how you make things “more difficult”.

I want to lay out a few dials/tools I feel get underutilized in a lot of these kinds of games.


Cost is easy to understand – this are the things that actually negatively impact your character and have consequences going forward into future encounters.  For most games this is hitpoints, injuries, broken/lost equipment, and some status effects.

The problem is that many systems tend to treat this in a crude and simplistic way; when you want to make something more challenging, simply raise how much cost it can inflict overall (the extreme example is the classic “Save or Die” effect in D&D).  The problem here is that it doesn’t necessarily make for better tactical play when applied generally, and mostly is controlled by luck – which makes things very swingy.  A bad encounter early, can make every encounter after much, much more difficult.

So let’s talk about other things you can tweak to make for more interesting combat effects in these kinds of games…


Limitations restrict what actions a character can undertake (or, at least, bump the odds or costs of doing the action such that some are more favored than others heavily).   Limitations change how a player has to approach a situation DURING a combat, so these things can be a source of interesting play…. if done correctly.

The key to GOOD use of limitations is variety – you want to change up what kinds of limitations the players face all the time – environment, enemy type, weapons/gear the enemy use, etc.  Being forced to change your tactics and consider your options is more challenging than simply doing the same thing over and over.

Lesser Limitation

Lesser limitations affect secondary actions the character could undertake during an encounter – being unable to get to an item in your backpack, being slowed in movement, not being able to yell information to a team mate, and so on.

  • Getting slammed, pushed, or dragged from where you were
  • Slowed in movement (but not halted completely)
  • Being limited in what you can see, and ultimately who you can choose as a target
  • A normal action requires a roll/check or it takes twice as long (“You want to close the door, but you have to rush in without getting stabbed… so it’s tricky.”)

Greater Limitation

Greater limitations effectively stop the character from their primary mode of interaction in a combat – warriors can’t attack, mages can’t cast, etc.   Greater limitations need to be used sparingly, and for very short duration.  Remember: “Playing the game is fun, NOT playing the game is NOT fun.” – don’t force your players to NOT play.

  • Weapon is pinned, stuck in something, knocked away
  • Restrained or silenced from using magic
  • Unable to move from location
  • Temporarily Blinded
  • Stunned, paralyzed, etc – anything that costs your actions (also, if this would last the whole fight, it is effectively identical to being dead for this encounter, as far as gameplay experience is concerned)

Threat AKA “Virtual” Cost

So here’s a mechanic: “Whenever a Dusk Ghoul hits you, take 1D4 damage AND get 1 Hex Point.  If you are Prone while hit by a Dusk Ghoul, take 1D6 damage per Hex point you have.  Hex Points disappear after 10 minutes.”


As players find their characters getting more and more Hex points, they’re worried in combat.  And anytime they get knocked prone, they’re very worried about getting back up and keeping the Dusk Ghouls away.

High stakes, tension, a bit of strategy around avoiding certain situations.    But, if the extra damage doesn’t trigger?  Then it disappears – no healing needed.

If you want to make it even less likely to kick off, just make the trigger condition more narrow and harder to set up – “Cultists must surround a target on 4 sides before casting the Fire Pillar spell”, “After the wizard successfully hits the target, then he must change for 3 turns uninterrupted…”  etc.  This gives players more ways to disrupt a threat before it finalizes into real costs and damage.

Of course, for any of this to work, in creating tension, the players have to know what the possible/probable consequences will be.  This might be the classic, if foolish, point of villains speaking their plans before doing it – “Surround him! When the 4 of you work together, he will burn to a crisp!” or it might be a bit of internal character knowledge – “You’re not sure what they’re up to, but they’re clearly trying to get a formation where they can box in you in on every side.  You probably want to stop that.”   And of course, there’s always the classic prone on the ground when the giant is about to stomp you where the “second shoe to drop” is literal and obvious.

Flipping It – Stunts

So… I’ve laid out a lot of things to make a combat situation more challenging and perceptually dangerous without necessarily requiring as hard hit on the rules for balance in many games… but what about the players, what balances out stuff for them?

Well, stunts in combat are effectively either throwing on limitations or more damage (current or future) or a combination in some fashion.

Smart players should be looking for ways to stunt and gain advantage in a fight – reward them by applying the same logic of limitations and costs to the NPC/monsters as well.  Unlike the player characters, you can certainly rob these characters of their ability to take actions without much worry  – you’ll never be shut out of play, as the GM.  What you DO need to keep an eye on, is to make sure that you don’t end up with a go-to-method stunt that is too easy/powerful and gets used all the time.

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