Does Combat Improve the Story…

I read a post from Fern Kali of Ballgowns and Battleskirts blog about a game of Exalted.  The game seemed heavy with combat but brilliantly that combat just added layer and layer to the story.  Then I was talking to a friend the next day who was upset because they were running an Adventure Path that was just pointless combat after combat.  I had been thinking about writing a blog about this very subject and these two things convinced me that now was the time…

The official “Why have combat?”

I have read a lot of role playing games (RPG) in my time.  The varied responses to the question posed above is largely unanswered in many of them.  The ones that do attempt to answer it are largely awful responses with one or two games really nailing it on the head.  The worst responses I have ever read come from some of the largest names in the RPG industry and it is for this reason that I think combat is used so poorly in games in the current environment.  You see, many of these games see combat as a way to reduce resources of the players.  They plan it to run your characters out of spells, potions and ammo or like things.  Why?  Well because it will make the climactic battle all the more exciting – or so they think.

This concept is ludicrous.  What compounds the idiocy of this approach is that the “encounters” as written have massive amounts of backstory written by the deluded designer that the players have no chance of ever discovering.  Imagine several paragraphs of how and why the manticore came to be in this particular location that is interesting and logically thought out.  Then imagine the fact that there is NO possible way the players will ever find out that information.  Just what is being achieved?

The good games offer up combat as a way of furthering a story.  Even non-intelligent creatures can offer up interesting bits of information that further a games ongoing narrative.  Take a look at games like Call of the Cthulhu where combat is rare but always tells something about what is happening in game.  These games only tend to write information in their products about information that the players can derive in game.  After all, space is tight in these books – putting in pointless material is a little ridiculous.

An Example…

In Fern’s blog she talks about travelling with a mysterious figure with a mask.  Her own character’s patron had asked her and her companion not to engage with this person but they now found themselves travelling with them.  There is an obvious air of mystery surrounding them.  That mystery is highlighted as the group enters a combat.  The combatants attack and the masked figure begins wielding impressive powers and protecting the pair.  The response in character deepens the mystery around the masked figure but increases their trust.  Further on the masked man takes his mask off in combat and more is revealed.  Each combat that happens is like peeling back a facade.  Each segment reveals something new.  It reveals some answers and prompts new questions.  This description is a great example of how combat can work with story to heighten the overall game.

Combat offers story
The famed cloak tailor must have returned to town…

But my players love combat!

I have players that also love to test their character builds against the baddies.  Combat is one of the major things in nearly all games and that comes out of where RPG’s were first born.  RPG’s came from tabletop war gaming where miniatures are pitted against one another in pure combat.  Combat is OK to include and if your players just love that side of it – play for it.  But if you can encourage a bit more awe and involvement by tying in story reveals because of the combat the players will go wild for your game.

Does that mean all those modules that offer up resource reducing combat are useless to me?

Absolutely not.  I am going to say that it takes a bit of work but even the worst of the worst modules can be saved.  If they are the type of module that has all this background material that could never ever be discovered in the way the module was written, change it.  Think about how this information could be shared.  Say the manticore I used as an example above was captured in the forest of Nifhelm and transported across the desert to the great Mage Bogglebert.  This is all great information but nothing in that description allows me to tell the players that.  So say I added just a few tweaks like;

  1. There is a corpse of an elf that seems to be wearing garb of the elves of Nifhelm, a wood way over the deserts to the east.
  2. That corpse lays under a pile of camel bones, wood from cart wheels and iron bars from a cage
  3. Among the clothes of the elven corpse they find a piece of parchment that crumbles when touched leaving only two parts of a wax seal.  Placed together the seal is of the Lich Bogglebert – once a great Mage in these parts…

See how that makes the combat so much more interesting.  It offers up information that the characters can act on – or not.  It is up to them but it will also make the players feel like the world is alive and tangible.  The trick here is to make sure you have read the material and spent a little bit of time writing a few short notes to enable that transfer of information.

I want to build my own encounters like this.  How do I start?

That is really cool.  Use your combats to provide as much information as a social encounter.  Making your own adventures make it that much easier too!  Start not with the “what” of combat (i.e. the combatant) but start with the “why”.  Come up with the information that is going to be provided in the combat.  Then think about the combatant and then work out how you can convey that information with that combatant.  It could be like a corpse of an unfortunate victim.  Maybe the combatant is an intelligent braggart who wants to boast about his/her achievements before killing the party or perhaps the information is hidden among the encounter area.  As long as you already have the information you want to convey you can find a way.

Note that this information may be red herrings, mcguffins or anything at all.  It can be used in random encounters as well as planned ones.  Have a little list of cool hooks and how they may be discovered randomly on hand – it will work out brilliantly.  Don’t forget, that information may be just something small, like the capability of a companion or as large as world saving information!

A little bit of forethought makes for a brilliant game

Overall, think about your combat and inject purpose into it.  Don’t even assume that there has to be conflict and allow yourself to be surprised by the players.  One of the players slaughters a donkey of theirs and then uses the meat to get closer to the manticore.  Some animal handling checks are made and the manticore allows them into the lair and they find the information – just as good a story as beating it down and finding the clues.  A lot of modules set things up for combat just to deplete those resources.  Be a fan of the play and work with what they want to do.  Be just as enamored of their approach and delight in the fact they love your games because they find cool stuff.  Even in fights!  Sometimes they will even like the story bits over and above the loot they have just netted.  Remember to just love the game.  Make it surprising and meaningful and your games will stick in players memories for years to come.


  1. I really like the group I play _Exalted_ with; Bells (who plays my character’s twin) and I don’t particularly enjoy combat, so the GM does make it more story-driven. To begin with, he’d occasionally throw a fight at us just because we hadn’t had a fight that week and he thought we’d be bored without one, but we convinced him the strength of his storytelling meant we really didn’t care if there wasn’t a fight, and would actually rather go weeks without a fight than have pointless ones.

    I’m really glad you liked that post! I find combat hard to write, so challenged myself to do it well there. Very glad it came out ok 😀


    1. The strength of story in all of your games is fantastic. Your posts keep making me strive to be a better GM


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