Four Tips for Helping the Inexperienced Combatant

I talk a lot about people who aren’t comfortable with combat situations—since I am one, and since I’m currently in the process of running another one (and let me tell you: there’s nothing quite like having a hyperpowered character and next to no practice, while being surrounded by other players who Don’t Get how you Don’t Get It, to throw off the old confidence). But I’ve recently had a success with my current new player, that’s shown me one good way, in four parts, to get a newbie with a comparatively low-combat-efficacy build that first “I can do this” moment.

  1. Help them find an objective. I don’t just mean “win the battle”, mind, particularly if they aren’t the main powerhouse of the party. Look instead for something that plays to their skills, and doesn’t require keeping too many tricks straight—stay alive for a certain amount of time, annoy a given antagonist into incompetence, find out what’s powering this particular magic item… you get the idea. If you’ve got experts, they can handle actually bringing down the opponent. For instance, the first character I felt comfortable fighting with had a two-part battle plan: 1. Don’t let anyone score on my teammates with a ranged attack, and 2. if hitting the opponent, hit hard.
  2. Don’t put the pressure on immediately. While the experienced may love that life-or-death rush, the less experienced are trying to balance that with remembering how the base mechanics work with remembering how their specific mechanics work with trying to find something in the situation that hits their Cool buttons. Focus first on the ones that know what they’re doing; it gives your newbie a chance to get thoughts back in order, and lets the old hands demonstrate how it’s done.
  3. Make sure they know what their fallbacks are. To use a video game analogy, think about your average fighting game, and how a beginner will discover that the character they’re flailing around with has A Move—something that almost invariably works—and then spam that while trying to get used to everything else. If you can find A Move for the newbie’s RPG character, that gives them something to do when they can’t think of anything else—a simple attack action that usually does the job, a when-in-doubt defense, a useful buff, that sort of thing.
  4. No pressure, part 2—if you’ve got optional mechanics, let them stay optional, and serve as more a source of amusement than an “I’ve got to grab this”. This… okay, I’ll be honest, this is where I fall as a player a lot of the time; I overestimate the opponent, and decide that I absolutely need to cram together every Aspect worth tagging or stunt the snot out of everything or ensure I’m exploiting Laughter/Fears and combat conditions and all that, or… whatever the local equivalent is. Probably contributes to my own combat-avoidance as much as anything else.

Dealing with the discomfort caused by whatever the major mechanic is can make or break a player—moreso in RPG combat, given the all-or-nothing results they often have. If there’s something we can do about that, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.


  1. Shinali says:

    An example with Samar, who is a healer-crafter-sorcerer not a combat monkey. She’s very squishy, but could dodge an eruption while standing on the volcano (well, with a good enough stunt and roll). I literally have an index card with “do this first, then if you want to protect self, do this; if you want to protect friend, do that” on it (it also tells me how to roll initiative and damage, and what my sword and armor do).

    Samar’s usual M.O. in combat has been:
    1) activate persistent dodge
    2) stay back and talk a good game (I so need to use that charm some time)
    3) stunt like mad using aikido and bits of other real world martial arts that I’ve taken [This bypasses a lot of the complicated mechanics - charms and damage] I know these well enough to describe them and my character is exceptionally good at them. (By the numbers: “I stab it” gets me 8 dice, and my basic description of an aikido move gets me 12 dice)
    4) use preset technique list from index card or stab it until it stops moving
    5) dodge like it’s going out of style
    6) if all else fails, and Samar gets hit, use the I-ignore-damage class feature. Really funny when the tank and the person who can dodge intangible concepts get hurt worse than Samar as a result.
    7) failing that, self-heal and keep hold of the healy stone.

    Now, this setup is nice, and has changed my combat game from “ahh! he’s stabbing at me, what do I do?” to actually doing damage to opponents if people walk me through mechanics. But being hand-held is frustrating, and I needed that time when I succeeded without asking or without only relying on stunts. That was Friday night.

    Without the whole story here, this is the events that mattered in my combat confidence:
    1) I was being stealthy, but I have no stealth, so I stunted (using a minor visual effect of an irrelevant spell no less) and went unnoticed.
    2) I forgot to set up persistent dodge (how I dodge even if I can’t use a charm to help dodge), but I used my perfect dodge (how I dodge volcanoes) instead as the need arose (and stunted just to taunt the opponent).
    3) I had a plan to strike the opponent’s armor/mecha. It didn’t do what I wanted, but it did something, and it meant I used medicine (healer, remember?) in lieu of actual combat techniques.
    4) We were underwater and swimming lends itself to stunts.
    5) I didn’t make my move until about halfway through session (after I had already done stealth and a should-have-been-impossible dodge), so my confidence was high.
    6) the GM knew my plan and was encouraging it, so I felt that I wouldn’t have the rug pulled out from under my feet unexpectedly.
    7) I used the others to distract the opponent, and I helped the others either as distraction when stealth was impossible or assisting them in their goals, so even after the strike I felt useful, not just a spectator.

    So, now I would summarize my simplified combat gameplan as:
    1) dodge
    2) real world martial arts/sword work
    3) stunt

    This is a lot more manageable, and I feel more in control with it (and with more of the jargon than I thought).

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Friday Knight News - Best Laid Plans Edition: 7-SEP-2012 | Game Knight Reviews
  2. Impractical Applications (Battle Plans) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply