In case you haven’t been following me long, I GM and play in a lot of role-playing games. Perhaps that’s an understatement. I spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking about tabletop RPGs. They consume a frankly incredible amount of my waking moments, and it’s a rare day that goes by that I…
Whee, roleplaying talk!
1) Well, the first and final goal of any fight should be to make the game more fun for everyone. I guess this is fairly obvious, but as a GM… looking back from the game table at the sheets of notes and stats you spent hours preparing and saying to yourself “no, a combat right now would not enhance this game” can be both heartbreaking and difficult.
After that, the fights in my group’s more serious and long-running games (most of which are Exalted-based) tend to fall into two major categories: show-off fights, and fights that exist to build/release tension.
Showing off fights are just that, a chance for the characters to use their awesomesauce charms, interact with the environment, and generally just be super nifty. They’re very much rule of cool, a chance to enjoy the fun of rolling butt tonnes of dice for big numbers. Usually they’re versus mooks, automatons, or other people who don’t matter much. The morality behind them tends to be black and white, and if the PCs would normally object to killing such opponents then they are assumed to be left unconscious but alive at the end.
Tension fights are against established character NPCs or vast titanic monsters, and they use the uncertainty of combat to enhance the story as a whole. These are fun from a mechanical point of view, because you have to work a lot harder at strategy to take down a tougher opponent. They are also a lot more draining. Quite often, differences of opinion will be bantered back and forth between the NPCs and PCs during a big tension fight, with the unspoken rule being that might makes right. If the PCs deal a big blow as they also make their debate point, it carries a certain extra weight because they’re clearly giving it their all. If the PC/NPC tension doesn’t exist, then there should be something else at stake to make the PCs reach those emotional highs and lows, like say the giant big bad is trying to crush some innocent villagers in between combat turns, and the PCs must both fight and protect the weak.
2) Our group averages about one fight per session, which usually feels right. In sessions where there are two fights, it’s almost always one show-off fight and one tension fight. Some sessions have no fights at all. I prefer fights whenever the energy level at the table and the turns of the plot intersect to create a great fight opportunity, and sometimes that’s a bit less or a bit more than the GM planned. As mentioned above, one of the hardest things about GMing is letting go of a planned fight because it doesn’t work when the session actually plays out, and making one up on the fly can be just as difficult. Even just reading the mood can be tough, so usually our GM will ask us if they are unsure. “I have a fight planned here, are you guys up for it?” works wonders, especially if it’s late and we know the fight will take an hour or more to resolve.
3) For most games, our group is PC-death-free, something we’ve all more or less agreed is appropriate. We play story-centric campaigns, and when the GM’s worked it out so the three PCs will become the holy trinity that save the world and their three cultures at the end of the story having one of them bite it halfway through in a mook fight is hurting the story and hurting everyone’s enjoyment. A character who “dies” in a fight is rendered unconscious or unable to act, and will probably need some medical attention once it’s over.
This changes in games where PC death or the threat of it is an important part of the story, like say Call of Cthulu. The possibility of the dice killing your character creates a sense of powerlessness in the player, something that works wonderfully to enhance the atmosphere of CoC. In Exalted, where the power fantasy is half the fun, our group finds it takes away from the game.
The way NPC death is treated varies from game to game. Generally, players are not penalized mechanically for pulling their blow and capturing rather than killing a defeated foe. Some important NPCs are given the same death-immunity that PCs have, until their importance in the narrative is over, unless the players deeply object. If the GM has been doing their job right, the players will usually understand why the bad guy got away, even if the characters are left frustrated.