Believable Battles

Before getting into today’s topic, I want to apologize about my absence, Life got really hectic with losing work and having to move and a whole bunch of other things, but it has settled and thus I am back and ready to resume posting. Also, an announcement that I have also been providing weekly content at Aboard the Airship‘s blog. There is a lot of material here, so check it out and let them what you think.

We all know the old days of RPGs on the computer and consoles where NPCs only had one thing to say, as parodied with Times are Tough guy from RPG World. Things have grown since then, where we now have NPCs who grow to take on lives of their own like Knights of the old Republic had with HK-47 or Planescape: Torment had Morte, but that is because those NPCs have complex dialogue systems that allow them to get multiple lines of dialogue. Granted, even with limitations as far back as the SNES days, Final Fantasy let NPCs have multiple lines of dialogue if they were important enough as Final Fantasy showed us.. But what about those one off types you encounter in the towns? They still only usually say one or two things, in some cases still to this day.

Imagine that in a tabletop game and your players will look at you like you’re crazy, as it destroys pretty much any level of immersion into the game. However, we still do this in other ways with our NPCs, such as the way they fight. Enemy behaviour in video games is similar, where they will be scripted to execute one of a selection of attacks based on however many variables like their health, their magic points, the amount of enemies and their positions (if we’re dealing with tactical combat games like FF:Tactics).  In a lot of tabletop games, NPCs fight like they have nothing to lose because to the Gamemaster they are little more than cardboard cutouts with no real backstory. They will gladly fight to the death instead of running away to fight another time, though some game systems tried to remedy this by adding morale checks. Other times, you’ll have situations like in the Counter Monkey tale of the Leaping Wizards where you can see just how stupid some adventures are written to create encounters that players can win.

There are different levels of awareness in opposition. In D&D type games, this could be represented by an intelligence stat, however you could even just abstract it to the type of enemy it is. Is it an animal? They would generally have limited capabilities for tactics, focusing on things like smacking the person who did the most recent damage to them or the closest person or whatever sort of criteria you may want to choose for them to be focused on in their limited minds. Same way they would probably do things like avoid fires and any intentional damage that they might do to themselves. They may run at the first sign of resistance, unless there is a reason to stay like protecting their young. These are creatures operating on pure instinct using what is essentially the ‘lizard brain ideology of psychology, which is the human limbic system that controls basic elements like fight or flight, feeding, fear and freezing-up, and fornication.

A smarter creature might be able to start with an ambush or even use hit and run tactics. Dart out of a bush, move into attack and back into the bushes. They might be able to use traps or terrain advantages such as leading characters to bottlenecked areas or having them go over compromised ground.

As we get into smarter enemies, you begin to factor in ideas like waiting and planning rather than just reacting to a situation that falls into their lap. Their sort of tactics could include building fortifications or ways to bypass your fortifications, as well as picking the moments to attack when you’ld be at your weakest such as sleeping or even doing things stealthily. These are where I’d say Tucker’s Kobolds could fit in, for example.

You could probably add a level above that, where you look at creatures that can make full use of the terrain and other groups of enemies. Those who can delay their own self-interests and make use of the tools around them to eliminate their enemies. I personally would see this being like people who would realize that by weakening this wall, you could cause lava to flood the area and burn the opposition alive. They could also be the ones who might supply information to goad another group into attacking and then coming in to clinch the battle afterwards.

After figuring out what battle strategies they are capable of coming up with, you can then decide how they will use those skills to implement them. I would also suggest once you start getting into the higher levels of awareness, you also begin to think about how the elements outside of the creature, such as family and friends and the desire to live and see them again, will factor into the decisions that will be made. Some people may choose a heroic last stand where they go down in a blaze of glory to protect their loved ones from a really bad thing, but the majority will think about the fact they want to live because of those close to them and will use that desire in their planning. To quote from Blackjack’s Guide to Bitter Gamemastering,

I decided one session to try GMing without NPC sheets and instead use NPC descriptions. With this change I also made the conversion from plot driven runs to personality driven LIVES. Many interesting things began to happen. First off, my NPCs fought to the death a lot less often. When I thought of a security guard as a B:4 Q:5 S:5 C: 3 I:4 W:3 piece of paper it was a lot easier to let him get wasted. When I thought as him a Jim from Renton with two kids, a dog named Sammy, and a bracelet for his wife’s birthday in his locker, things changed. The Yakuza soldier who normally would have stood in the middle of the street blazing away at the runner’s van before getting run over suddenly started hiding behind stuff and taking more reserved shots. I really liked the feeling of depth and character I got from GMing this way.

Now, he does go on to say that if you have players who don’t have a full set of morals and enjoy killing anyone who gets in their way like they were in an action movie, then you’re going to  have to come up with a way to trick them into seeing your  NPCs as more than just cardboard cutouts. This is his version of a solution for that problem.

[O]ne day, they hooked up with an NPC who went by the street name of Kill Em’ All McKay. McKay needed assistance with a hit on a small gang living in an old apartment complex. As the runners walked up the staircase they encountered a teenage boy who, upon seeing them, turned and ran. One of the runners reacted by mowing the kid down with an SMG. And then, with great drama, Kill Em All McKay, he who is feared by God himself, responded to the action with complete horror and revulsion. “You shot a kid! A goddamn kid!!!”. The boy, who was not entirely dead, proceeded to drag himself with one arm, crying, screaming, and trailing blood, into his mother’s apartment. And, to top it off, his little sister, aged seven years, boldly waddled into the hallway holding onto her blankie and, thorough a river of tears, screamed at the runners for hurting her big brother. The runners mellowed a bit after this.

And, another of Blackjack’s articles gives us another example of why thinking about those who matter to the NPC is important, beyond just how the NPC themselves will act in the face of danger.

The runners have just succeeded in extracting a scientist from a random megacorp and are now leaving via a stolen helicopter on the roof. As they leave a detachment of fifteen corporate soldiers pour onto the roof, weapons deployed, yet hold they their fire because they have been ordered not to harm the scientist. The runner piloting the helicopter decides to react to the sudden appearance of troops by launching a salvo of APMs at the roof. Fifteen killed, no survivors.

Now let’s review the scenario. Granted, the runners had no idea the guards were not going to open fire so the response was at least partially reasonable. Had the guards opened fire the helicopter probably would have been destroyed. The runner eliminated the enemy, thus removing the threat. Or did he? Let’s do some math: 15 guards. I’ll assume five had no family or friends. That leaves 10. I’ll give half of them a spouse, a kid and two friends. The remaining five I’ll give two friends as well. That leaves behind 30 people who are going to be very upset at what the runners did. Odds are at least a few of them are going to want to get even…. …Some may hire runners, some may charge at them with a knife, some may try to blow up their cars, etc. Through the runner’s action he has unleashed a pandora’s box of threat. If the runners did this on a regular basis, the whole world would soon be after them.

So what should the runners have done? I don’t know. Fire one missile and take out a sacrifice guard. Maybe just point the missile tubes at them, that alone would make most of them seek cover. The point is that the runners must realize that every action they take is not without consequence. Some consequences are petty..some are down right deadly.

Using these above tactics will help you build some richer and more realistic combat encounters, varied by the sort of opposition you choose to have your characters face. The little critters who may not do much beyond attack or avoid all the way up to NPCs with various sob stories to go on like:

I was eleven years old. When I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the sixfingered man and say, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”


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