In 2012, Michael Sullivan posted this essay to the Amber Mailing List. It is reprinted here with his permission, with only some minor formatting changes.
I got a couple of requests at ACNW to explain my techniques for running combat, which I kind of uncomfortably demurred from doing because I don’t really think of myself as having techniques per se. Nothing I’m terribly good at putting into words, at least. But it’s 4:30 on New Year’s Eve, I’m not going to do work, and this seems like a reasonable way to kill some time. So here’s my best shot at it:
1. DON’T ARBITRARILY USE “ROUNDS”
Most of us have some D&D or other RPG experience in which there is a strict approach to battle: the GM goes around the table (or in some particular order) and asks everyone what their next action will be. That action is resolved, and the NPCs take one action, and then what’s your next action?
One of the ways that battles in Amber can feel more exciting and, whatever, visceral and cool is that you can forsake this approach. Don’t ask for player input until the players have meaningful input to give. Like, if the player says, “I want to attack Julian,” then you can go ahead and just describe what happens until something materially changes in the fight. Don’t just say, “Okay, you attack for a while and he parries and ripostes and it goes on for a few seconds, now what?” Keep going until there’s some reason to expect that the player might change his chosen action. Like:
a. You’ve badly wounded Julian and now he’s trying to retreat.
b. Julian has badly wounded you and maybe you want to reconsider this
plan of action.
c. Morgenstern is getting in on this action.
d. The player has some kind of choice to make that will affect his
success or failure.
You do NOT have to go around the table. Even in a large battle, it’s okay to do some short “player A,” “NPC B,” “player A,” “NPC B” back-and-forths. You should eventually give people the opportunity to switch targets and whatnot, but it doesn’t have to go around the table, and you can generally build a better tempo if you don’t restrict yourself to such an arbitrary flow.
2. DON’T SHY AWAY FROM DESCRIBING THE PC’S ACTION
A big component of my style of running combat is that a player might say something like, “Okay, I’ll try to kill him with my sword,” and I’ll transcribe that intent into a more specific action, like, “You throw yourself into a low thrust for the guy’s thigh; he jerks his leg to the side and hammers the haft of his sword down on your back. You twist and take the blow on your shoulder, then flip your sword around in a backhand cut.”
If the player wants to get descriptive himself, that’s cool too, but if he doesn’t, I just take over the description for him. I feel like this adds immediacy to the combat.
3. AMBERITES ARE COOL
I try to put everything in the frame of, “You’re a bad-ass.” Whether the PC is being successful or not, what they’re doing should demonstrate their skill, experience, and raw physical ability. If the PC is failing to do what they want, it’s not because they just straight up fail, or because they prat-fall or something, it’s because they try something awesome cool, and their opponent does something even awesomely cooler.
So, putting points #1 and #2 together, you may be taking the narrative reins for a while, describing how the combat goes (both people’s part in the combat) until such time as the circumstances change enough to warrant more player input. That means you have some significant time to pound home the badassitude of the player.
4. HAVE AN AESTHETIC
I like the fact that Amberites are superhumanly strong. My aesthetic comes probably considerably more from superhero comic books, Matrix-and-later-era sci-fi movies, and an ad from the Shield (TV series) in which Michael Chiklis dives through a fence to tackle some dude, than it does from Zelazny. But whatever your aesthetic is, have one.
Like, I think melee fights LOOK COOL. I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time imagining fights that would LOOK COOL just for my own enjoyment, because I am apparently a nine year old boy. I sometimes make sound effects. Seriously. Feel free to point and laugh.
I think that having these kind of imaginary fights gives me a lot of ability to describe combats that are in my own dialect of iconography, and that comes through and makes my fights more vivid.
5. FIGHTS ARE BETTER WHEN THERE ARE OTHER GOALS
The most boring, least interesting fight you can have is one in which both parties just want to kill each other. All of the best fights I’ve run have had other goals. Like, the parties just want thing A. Party B is trying to escape, not win the fight. Party A is trying to keep Party B out of a particular space, or away from a particular person. The fight is a delaying action. The fight is a running battle. The fight is part of some kind of mass combat, like a war. The players are protecting refugees. A player jumps between two NPCs, trying keep them from killing each other. Somebody is trying to raise the alarm, someone else is preventing it.
Having something like this really opens up the options for both players and antagonists. Look at it this way: as soon as there’s another goal besides just party A wants to kill party B, then at the very, very, very least, you can ask the following question: “You can prevent your opponent from doing thing X, but at risk of injury or death to yourself. What do you want to do?” That (and its subvariants) are inherently more interesting questions than, “Your opponent is trying to kill you. Do you want to stop him”?
6. CONSIDER THE TERRAIN
The most boring, least interesting fights are those in wide open spaces on flat ground. Put people in constrained environments (whether they’re constrained because there are walls around them or constrained because there are spaces to fall into or constrained because there are trees everywhere or whatever it may be).
And then USE that terrain. Don’t just offer it as a resource and see if the players take it, force it on them. Push them up against the walls, have then smash through doors, fall out windows.
7. BLOOD IS COMPULSORY
Amberites heal fast. This is license to wound the shit out of them. Nothing communicates, “You need to take this shit seriously” better than a vividly described wound. Not, like, “He scratches you on the arm.” Go with, “He plunges his sword between the two bones of your lower arm, and out the other side. Arterial bleeding, and — yeah, you just heard the crack of your tibia. Or radial or something, your anatomy textbooks seem a little vague right now for some reason.”
8. OFFER THE PLAYER IMMEDIATE OPTIONS
So, okay, you’ve been doing the other stuff so far. And this is where I fall down in offering a real “technique,” because I don’t know quite how to make this happen — it just does, for me. But the point is, you’ve got this vividly described scene involving this badass fighting these other badasses. In an interesting location. With, hopefully, something at stake besides just a general interest in murdering each other. The player starts you off with, “I’m gonna attack so-and-so.”
You take off and running, leading up to the next time you’ll take player input, and that input ends up looking something like, “So there you are, you’re both filthy at the bottom of the stream bed, you’re jamming his face into the mud, feeling increasingly rare bubbles of breath filter through your fingers out of the shallow water, and he’s got the point of his dagger jammed into the bone of your right thigh — he’s digging like he’s gonna find gold in there. The situation is, you’re pretty sure that you can just keep this up and you’ll kill him. What you’re not sure of is whether he’ll have killed you in the same time. Do you want to stay the course and give him what time he can to saw off your right leg, or do you want to let him up, but also get his dagger out of your flesh?”
Or similar. The point is, you give the player some options, some suggested courses of actions (it’s also fine if they think up some options on their own), and those actions are non-abstract. Real. Grounded. It’s not, like, “Do you go 60% offensive and 40% defensive?” The player understands starkly what is at stake for this decision.
And something about the previous 7 points helps me personally get to this point #8, which I guess is the really important part. And I think that this is, again, that I’m a nine year old boy and I think about totally kewl fights and jump around the house and make sound effects — like, putting the fight into the reference of this kind of thing that I can vividly imagine helps me see how to set up a player choice where the player has a meaningful, immediate, important decision to make where the consequences are easily understood. But I’m not sure that it would help other people set up the same kind of choices.
Which is, to get back to the starting point, why I kind of mumble and beg off when people ask me how to run combat. I’m not trying to be modest: I’m as arrogant as it comes. But there’s some kind of internal alchemy where this kind of fight description leads to me being able to come up with good player choices, and that alchemy feels personal and non-repeatable.
So, finally, what I’m saying is that if you want your players to remember their combats, lead them through a vivid scene to a decision with real consequences. Make them understand how they came here and what’s at stake. And then make them choose. This is how I get to that point, but however you get to that point, I think your players will be happy when you arrive.