There are many feels, opinions and perspectives about combat in the tabletop game world. I am going to mention a few surface concepts that I keep in mind when doing combat in tabletop rpgs. If you want more in depth discussion about you can sweet talk me into by leaving comments below.
In the games I run I want combat to feel tense and impactful. An element of danger should pervade each combat and there should be some element or information imparted. Sometimes the message is simple like, know where your AC, HP and attacks are. Other times the combat is an opportunity for characters to display their power or ingenuity. Some combats are to impart narrative lessons or dramatic tension.
As such my general concern with combat is the narrative purpose. What does the player and audience learn in this combat? For broadcasted games especially narrative focus should be maintained for each combat and the GM should interrogate the encounter with basic questions.
Is the party just starting out and your podcast is on episode 1? Welcome to your tutorial fight! Show how your basic combat should be structured because for players and listeners the first combats cement structure like when an author begins writing with a certain perspective. The challenge is to be clear and consistent.
Has your party gained new abilities? Some combats are filler for very good reasons. They inform the players and audience of how any new abilities or updates work with in the game world. These combats show what it means when a wizard casts fireball or the new magic item of awesome is activated. Keeping these combats short and punchy tends to help keep pace and tension in good spots.
Have you just revealed a plot twist or narrative turn? These types of combats are high risk high reward for players and GMs. Done well players can be emotionally affected by every roll of the dice and each combat action. Tension is high. Character lives maybe on the line. The core of a player or character are being tested to the max of their wits and skill. When these combats occur, the GM must be solid on the mechanics of a fight and cognizant of timing, gameplay, plot, and critical details. Juggling all those ideas at once is what separates the good from the great.
Is this combat at the narrative high point or low point? This is a question of planning and timing for combats. You want fights with important characters to happen at narrative high points and you want to keep long combats away from narrative troughs. There is a reason to keep combat away from narrative low points and that is because mechanically, the gears and guts of how combat works is slow and turn based. A long combat at a narrative trough is not likely to push the tension back up. These combats should be punchy morale boosting combats.
You could be thinking, Chris, that sounds like a ton of work! Isn’t combat about the GM trying to kill the party? Yes and no. I am actively trying to kill the party as much as the encounter calls for. Part of how I know I am providing a great game experience is by getting positive feedback from players when bad things happen to their characters. I could use the rules to kill characters at any point in time. In gritty and bloody scenarios, I may do just that but that is because my players signed off on that style of game. Combats should be tailored to your players and your style of game. Being clear and honest at the beginning will help keep away unwanted player’s vs the DM vibes.