I mentioned in an earlier post how combat can slow down a game if you don’t know the rules. You end up going back and forth between the table and the book, taking time to look up rules and make decisions. Combat certainly doesn’t have to slow down play, though. You get familiar with the rules, you make decisions on the fly and correct them later, if needs be. Combat in the Conan RPG was designed to smooth and fast-paced, even fluid.
The more I play the game, the more this becomes obvious. There are a number of rules that help this along, but they may not always be readily apparent. In fact, some things I kind of had a knee jerk reaction to–disliked off the bat–actually made more sense when I looked at them again. The beauty of the designers’ thoughts don’t always come across like they should once put to paper. Sometimes, they require further review. Sometimes, you have to see things in play before it all comes together.
Lots of Moving Pieces
One concern some have with the Conan RPG or the 2d20 System is the number of things involved in a single round of combat. In the Conan RPG, players and GMs have a number of actions to choose from, Talents and how those interact with their rolls, Momentum Points, Fortune Points, the Doom Pool, and more. First, don’t try and keep track of these points on sheets of paper. Take the advice the book gives and make use of tokens to represent the different types of points.
Next, understand that these points are meant to be fluid. There is supposed to be an ebb and flow of all of them. The players should not try and horde their Momentum or Fortune points. Indeed, Momentum points actually drain away at one per round. So, smoke ’em if you got ’em, folks. These should be something you’re trying to gather and spend as quickly and as often as possible even if only to make your already awesome characters more awesome. The cool thing about using them more in the beginning, when you’re just learning the game, is that you become more familiar with the different things you can use Momentum points for, the costs, etc.
That’s pretty much true with all of it. The more you use the different actions, displays, points, etc., the more quickly you will learn. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning by immersion.
If, on the other hand, you try to take it too slow, and learn one step at a time, you will end up missing out on how the game is meant to be played. This takes a lot away from combat in Conan. If you only have a smattering of understanding and you learn how to hit and block, but none of the other options right upfront, it can lead to less exciting and entertaining rounds of combat. For some people, this can ruin a game.
What About Moving Pieces on a Board?
Conan and a lot of other games seem to somewhat pride themselves on being able to be run using Theatre of the Mind and not requiring miniatures or a grid. The Fate RPG is all Theatre of the Mind and made to be quick, simple, and descriptive. There’s nothing wrong with that. While this is cool and even the way I learned to play, the benefit of miniatures or any other sort of markers on a board to represent location, placement, and movement cannot be denied.
Think about it. We are playing a game that makes use of our imagination. It gets all the right synapses firing (hopefully). Meanwhile, our brains manufacturing information is a well documented phenomenon. Maybe the GM doesn’t give a particular detail and we kind of fill that in. Maybe their interpretation of close, soon, awhile, and other arbitrary terms is different than the players’. We’re dealing in non-absolutes. That’s okay. Because it is a game of creativity and improvisation, Game Masters are encouraged to use statements such as “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…”. I lean more heavily toward the former over the latter as “but” still bears a bit of a negative connotation with it. It could also have to do with one of my favorite English instructors and his teaching that introduced me to the “Big…Cosmic….But.”
Anyhow, most of the time, Theatre of the Mind works out just fine. Some details might get jumbled, but it’s okay. There are times, however, when things are way off. “Um, no, THAT assassin is already dead.”
Years ago, when I started teaching my children to play roleplaying games, I figured this would be an issue for them. Of course, I also worried they would be in the middle of a game and pull a purple dragon out of their character’s pocket or something. It really wasn’t as bad as I had feared. Hell, my wife is far more game breaking than the kids. Ask her about pretty much any character she has played…ever. It just works out for her. But, I digress.
Confusion happens at the table and can slow things down, especially during combat. This happens as much or more often in playing with adults than as it does in playing with kids. Maybe it’s because us old folk have more preconceived notions. Maybe adults believe they already know what is coming–even on a subconscious level–so, they and their brains fill in gaps more often. Playing online through something like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds or just Google Hangouts or Discord with no board, I see this happen a lot more. people get distracted by their homes and background noise, play on their phones while it’s not their turn, etc. However, using something like a virtual tabletop in those instances, they can look back at the screen and get their bearings a little quicker–not always, but most of the time.
In playing in-person games, gathered around a table, I have found that miniatures, grid maps, even just looseleaf paper or a whiteboard with dry erase markers can help keep everything straight and everyone on the same page.
In using these sorts of game aides, however, I have explained to my players that the minis and maps are really there to provide orientation and approximation. There’s lots of things that aren’t there. If you add details I don’t to the scene, so long as they are not contradictory to already established details, I’m going to run with it.
Some Things Just Make Sense
Admittedly, when I first saw the rules for Reactions in combat–dodging and parrying–I wasn’t a huge fan. The way combat works in the 2d20 Conan RPG, an attacker needs only roll a single success to strike their target. So, out of 2d20, just one of the dice needs to come up lower than the attacker’s attack skill expertise. From there, they roll damage. The defender’s soak will potentially lessen the damage or they can sacrifice armor, but it seems like a quick way to go when you can’t even defend. It isn’t your skill or level or even gear that stops your character from being damaged in Conan as it might be in other games.
True, you can have better gear to help reduce the damage your character is dealt in combat, but other than that, you don’t have much control in protecting yourself.
However, you can choose for your character to dodge or parry–React–to an incoming attack. This allows you to roll against your attacker…more or less. Whoever gets more successes wins. So, if you get more successes defending than the attacker does attacking, you don’t get hit. There’s a little more to it than that and you can find out how it works by reading up on Struggles on page 98 and Reactions starting on page 116 of the core book.
Here’s the thing, though, it costs to be able to React. In fact, if costs Doom. If you decide to have your character react, you’re adding to the Doom pool which can and will be used against you.
Wait. So, to protect myself, I’m going to be putting myself in greater danger?
That’s exactly the point and it fits in perfectly with the theme of the Hyborian Age.
Think about it this way. First, when you’re in midst of combat, it is hectic. It can be quite difficult to move out of the way of an incoming blow. Second, if you don’t have a weapon made for parrying, it can be difficult to parry. Note: there are weapons with the Parrying Quality. Third, for every bit of good luck the characters in Conan’s world run into, there is a reciprocal amount of bad luck. In short, it is a dark and harsh world and combat is meant to be deadly.
Another thing to keep in mind is that healing in the Conan RPG can be relative quick and easy as long as no one suffered Harm.
Another aspect of this is Momentum. This just makes sense.
Your characters are moving quickly, building up speed and ferocity with each blow, working in a perfect orchestration of death as they work together to vanquish their foes. The book really tries to get this point across, but glosses over or fails to explain other factors such as what they’ve done there with Reactions.
Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Players
Having just gone through all of that and even shown some RPG player aides that can help players along during combat–especially during the earlier stages of learning–there are some other things to consider. As a GM, you should be somewhat familiar with the villains, creatures, and other NPCs and hazards you are going to be throwing at the player characters. If you have to keep turning to the book to look it up, you’ve blown it. Write out the important stuff on a notecard or even print out/copy the sheet of that enemy for quick reference during a game. Just as you want the players to be able to move through their turns and actions quickly, you should be able to do the same. Once you’re familiar, you might be able–but, while still learning the game, I highly recommend against trying–to wing it.
Another part of this is knowing your players. It’s not fair to ask you to remember all of the PCs’ Talents, weapons, abilities, etc. on top of all the stuff you are already responsible for knowing and remembering. And, if you’re playing a demo game or a one-shot with a group you’re unfamiliar with, you are not going to necessarily be familiar with the players at your table. However, if you are playing an ongoing game, you will get to know your players, their habits, etc. You should know how Momentum and Fortune can be used as well as what they can do to add to your Doom Pool. Go ahead and entice them to dwindle their resources while bolstering your own so they can do cool stuff now and you can provide cool challenges later. This enticement is much easier when it already suits that player’s typical style of play.
Making it Cool
Combat in the Conan RPG offers a number of options. On the other hand, there aren’t so many options like with that other game’s feats, allowing some players to believe they’re stuck using specific moves only at certain times. Combat here is supposed to be dynamic and cool. It’s one of the reasons they use general areas and distances rather than five-foot squares. Instead, for the most part, the moves are more generalized. The economy of Fortune Points comes into play as well. You can earn those for doing cool things and players should be encouraged to do so here.
The Rule of Cool should be in full effect during your combat scenes in Conan. Make it fun. Make it entertaining. And, make sure your combat helps the story. If your players are just hacking and slashing their way through a 2d20 combat, something has gone wrong.
One example is my daughter was playing and made an awesome roll on a ranged attack. She then rolled a lot of damage…a lot. There were no 3’s or 4’s and even a couple of 1’s along with 3, which was under her focus. It was insane and she was fighting something with like 9 Vigor and did 18 damage. I quickly glanced at Displays and there was nothing fitting. I made one up on the spot based on what has already been published. She quickly handed over two of the 4 Momentum she had scored, and we did something cool. At my table, that is what combat is about–being cool and moving the story along.
One other concept I’ll throw out here is the concept of non-rolled combat. Yup, I am talking about combat where you don’t roll. Look, if it’s not important, if failure would stop the game, or if failure isn’t interesting, why even roll? Answer: don’t. You just play through it. People say what they’re doing. Hopefully, they do so descriptively.
Some games have rules for faceless mooks. They allow you to mow through goons more quickly and easily. Those goons might be there to slow you down. They might be there to wear you down. However, they could also be there to give you a warm up, let you shine a bit. I say: why not? There’s no reason, on occasion, on their way to fight bigger bads, charging forth through a gathering of cultists, the characters can’t just have a little fun. Let the players describe what they are doing making their murderous way toward the main objective. Mind you, some players aren’t going to like this, because they want to roll. Some players won’t mind. In my opinion, it should be used rarely. But, different groups are going to have different preferences.
Remember Your World Should Be Alive
As mentioned in an early post about living, breathing game worlds, you should remember that while the focus in a series of combat rounds can and probably should be on the characters and NPCs involved in the combat, the are having an effect on the world. Does one of them accidently knock down an oil lamp and set a tavern ablaze? If a pit trap opens up, it doesn’t just fill itself…or does it?
Blood splatter across the walls or seeped into the ground will be there for awhile. They don’t have crime scene clean up crews like we do in modern days. And, what about those places you’re not involved in combat in? Has there been combat there before? Recently? I once had a player get knocked to the ground in an inn (leave me and my tropes alone!) and to find all sorts of interesting things on the dirty floor including teeth from various species.
Combat in the Conan RPG Need Not be Slow
I have heard a number of people complain that Combat in Conan RPG is slow. It certainly can be. I found that out the hard way. Once I started playing more and using a few tricks I have picked up over three years of roleplaying, combat got fast. I mean, it got fast enough we can kill a lot of people–including players–pretty darn quick. Combat isn’t the sole focus of the game, though, so we’re not going to spend all of our time doing that. It it were slow, the players would lose interest quickly and we’d be playing a new game right quick. A little bit of familiarity and creativity can go a long way in speeding up your Conan combat.