This review is part of the Game Cryer Holiday Gift Guide.
Running combat in d2o/3.x systems is no task for the faint-hearted. Multiple characters, each with their own initiative, spells, delayed actions, held actions, potions, magic items … whew! It’s a lot to keep track of and it’s easy to forget who goes after whom … oh, and when does that spell take affect, again? No wonder so many GMs resort to laptops to keep track of who’s doing what and when.
But what about those of us without laptops? Luckily, Paizo.com has a solution for us, too. Called their “Combat Pad“, this sturdy magnetic board takes much of the drudgery out of keeping track of combat. Individual magnets allow you to write the names of the PCs, NPCs and monsters in dry or wet-erase pen. You can also take notes directly on the board itself and there’s a large space on provided to do just that.
The center “column” is numbered down the side allowingyou to place character/monster magnets near the number corresponding to each N/PC’s initiative roll. Is one PC readying or holding an action? Just move his magnet to the appropritate column on the right-hand side. Then once the character uses his held action, just move his magnet to the new initiative order number. No more “When did you come in last round?”
The line of numbers across the top allows you to keep track of what round you’re currently in. I also use it to note what round a spell goes off and what round it finishes. After many years of trying to keep track of it in my head or on scraps of paper, this is a very welcome addition to the product.
First of all, large notes section. It allows me to track hit points as well as combat rounds. Secondly, the rounds tracker, which I mentioned above. The fact that it’s magnetic means I don’t have to worry if the cat decides to take a short-cut across my notes during combat.
I generally use wet-erase markers (I’m always dragging my hand through what I write, so dry-erase for me ends up being one big blur) and both the magnets and the board come clean with a damp cloth or paper towel. And when I say clean, I mean clean. No color residue left. The different colors of magnets — blue for PCs, green for NPCs and black for monsters — makes it easy to tell at a glance which you’re dealing with right now. The board comes with a good number of magnets, but if you lose some or find you need more, Paizo offers an extra magnet pack.
I also like the size. While a larger board would allow for more notes, the current 81/2″ x 11″ fits easily into my game notebook. Which means I can carry it with me wherever I’m running. A big bonus, since our group tends to rotate hosting the game. And it works for more than d20; I’ve used it with my Vampire: the Masquerade game with the same success.
The price tag for this product — $16.95 — is very reasonable. The extra magnet pack is $7.95. It’s a great gift for that special GM.
Every GM has a weak spot — mine is running combats. I can manage all of the die rolling and number crunching and “who’s turn is it”, but I am woefully inadequate when it comes to describing combat so that it moves beyond “he hits you with a sword and does 8 points of damage.” I’m also “tactically-challenged” and have a hard time figuring out what the NPCs should do on their turns.
I decided to check for ideas on the web. Unfortunately, two hours of intensive searching uncovered only two articles that fit my needs:
So I’m turning to y’all for advice. How do you figure out tactics for your NPCs in combat and how do you keep combats interesting beyond “You hit and do 14 points of damage?”
As a D&D player, I’ve developed a reputation for making combat use of non-combat spells. Sure, dealing out massive amounts of damage with Fireball or Lightening Strike is a lot of fun — there’s no denying that — but I get even more enjoyment out of find ways to use other spells in a fight. Whether it’s casting Nystul’s Magic Aura on all the party’s weapons (great for intimidating opponents in low-level games) or using Animate Rope to trip an opponent, I love watching the DM’s face whenever I come up with an idea he’s never seen before.
When I started playing 3.5 ed., I discovered that familiars can carry touch spells to a target and a whole new world opened up to me. My biggest success to date is the Touch of Idiocy spell. While our opponents were camping in the woods, I sent my weasel familiar to deliver Touch of Idiocy to the group’s sorcerer while he was tending to a “call of nature”. Since we were in a wooded area, I guessed he wouldn’t notice the presence of a normal woodland creature.
He didn’t. After removing 4 pts (each) of intelligence and wisdom and 6 pts of charisma, our opponents were without their spellcaster for the entire combat, allowing us to defeat them more easily than we would otherwise. Unfortunately, this trick now only works once in awhile, as word got around and our opponents have started killing every small creature than came near them.
Other “creative” spell uses I’ve come up with:
Randall, in his blog RetroRollplaying, wrote a post about the idea of doing away with “to hit” rolls. His post was inspired by a post at Eleven Foot Pole titled No Roll to Hit: Rationale. Both Randall’s and Eleven Foot Pole’s posts focus on “to hit” rolls in 4e D&D, but I’m going to comment on dice rolling in gaming generally
I have the worst dice luck in the world — just ask any player or GM I’ve ever played with. The DM of the main D&D (3.5) campaign I play instituted point-buy for creating character stats after watching me roll 6 (or was it 8…can’t remember) sets of stats with no score over 10 in any of them…and that’s using the 4d6 method. I ran a Vampire game with a Sabbat pack that missed every single attack role — usually botching in the process.
So as you can imagine, I’m a big fan of dice-less games. I run Amber Diceless and my Storyteller games tend to run very “dice light”. In fact, my World of Darkness players used to tease me that the one game they forgot dice would be the one game they actually needed to use them! However, there are certain games I feel need to be played with dice and AD&D tops the list. Maybe it’s tradition. But a D&D game just doesn’t feel complete without lots of dice rolls.
Especially in combat. Yes, it’s disappointing to miss. Yes, it’s frustrating to come up with a great idea for an attack, then roll a 2. Yes, it can be boring and lonely watching all the other players dealing damage when your dice won’t even let you connect. Believe me, I know. I’ve gone through many combats in my gaming career (both as GM and player) where I missed every single roll.
But guess what? I wasn’t bored. Just because I missed (even all the time) didn’t mean I wasn’t involved in the combat. I respectfully disagree with Eleven Foot Pole’s statement that:
Having waited a full round of initiative and then achieving nothing is functionally identical to skipping your turn.
Sure, it is… if all you’re doing is waiting until “your turn”. Players focused on getting “their turn” miss the point of having a party. If all you have to contribute to the game is points of damage, why are you there, instead of an NPC? This isn’t intended as a snide remark, but a genuine question. What can your character give that goes beyond damage points? An important thing to remember is that role playing doesn’t stop when you start rolling dice. Okay, how did you miss? Why did you miss? Can something be salvaged from your attempt to try next turn? Did your miss unexpectedly aid one of your teammates? Missing as frequently as I do, I’ve learned to think beyond the numbers.
Granted, the responsibility for some of this falls on the already overburdened shoulders of the GM/DM. Players will be able to think beyond the numbers better if the GM gives them something more than numbers to think about. Sure, things are going to get really boring if, as a GM, all you say is, “You miss.” But if as a GM, you say “Your stroke goes past his shoulder as he reflexively jumps back. As a former soldier [if the PC is], you can tell this was a skilled counter-move — you’re definitely fighting a highly-trained opponent.” Here, the PCs blow may not have done any damage, but they’ve learned something about their enemy, something that may or may not become important later, depending on what you decide to do with it.
If you want to make every action a PC takes be useful, I have an alternate idea: rather than making every attack hit, make every attack worth something, even if the PC misses. For example, the first PC misses, but in doing so, he causes his opponent to duck into the swing of another PC’s sword. Okay, the second PC gets to inflict the damage, but the first PC also contributed to that damage. If you can stress damaging and overcoming an opponent as a team effort, the entire party can be brought into the action on every turn and not just when they happen to hit.
I agree with Eleven Foot’s concern over introducing new players. I think we do need to take the extra step to help new players learn to be good players. Especially if a brand-new player is entering a group of experienced players. But I disagree that allowing a player to hit every single time is a good way to do that. I think it sends the player the wrong information about how RPGs work. Sure, you’ve eliminated the “to hit” for your game, but what’s going to happen to that player when they join someone else’s game? Or play at convention? They’re going to be in for a shock and probably even worse frustration if they don’t know that misses are part of RPGs in general.
Now don’t get me wrong — I’m a big one for changing a system to suit your style of play. If you want to play without “to hit” roles, more power to you! But if we’re talking about bringing new players into the hobby, or making automatic hits the default standard, I think we need to take a closer look at why we want to eliminate hit rolls and find another way to solve those problems.