Playing Fair: Combat Consequences

Now that I’ve started running Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) rather than just playing it I’ve been thinking about trying to challenge myself when it comes to GMing by stepping out of my comfort zone. L5R is, from my limited experience with it, the ideal system for doing this in because it can easily throw many of the conventional gaming tropes out the window, replacing the black and white Good vs Evil of Western fantasy with complicated situations that can often boil down to no win scenario’s. The driving force behind this is the code of Bushido, the principles that are meant to guide every samurai but which often come into conflict with one another. Perhaps the best description I’ve heard is that L5R is a game where everybody is trying to be a paladin despite the fact that they’re just normal (and thus flawed) human beings. We’re only two sessions into our campaign but the group has already been placed into a sticky situation, investigating the destruction of a monastery on the (disputed) edge of their territory. I’d say more but I know some of the players occasionally read this plus it wasn’t really the point of this post.

The other aspect of my GMing style that I’ve started to reconsider is combat, namely the challenges that I put up in front of the players. Over the years I feel like I’ve worked myself into a position of holding back too much and rarely placing parties into a position where characters are going to die. The logic behind this has always been that I don’t want to kill PCs outside of dramatically appropriate moments but I’m beginning to wonder if by holding back in the combat I’m also preventing the creation of those dramatic moments, the ones where the death of a character forces the group to completely change direction, retreat in a panic or decide that they’re going to abandon their mission to hunt down the bandit group that killed their friend.

My second motivation to change is that I want my players to spend a bit more time considering whether they should be getting into a fight. I’ve had some experience with this during a past Firefly campaign. The group, on their way to deliver cargo they’d been smuggling, were ambushed by a small gang who, in an attempt to intimidate the party, drew weapons. Wanting to keep things a little tense I had the players roll initiative, with the three more combat capable characters all beating the gang members. So come the first round the players, assuming they were already in a combat, opened fire and killed or downed almost all of the gang. As I pointed out to the players afterwards they had initiated the combat, fired first then disappeared leaving a number of bodies in a densely populated space port, all because the gang had drawn weapons to try and intimidate them. Not exactly something they could explain away as self defence.

So to conclude this rambling post I think I want to achieve two things, more even and challenging combats but also situations where leaping into combat provides consequences and the players need to think more about why they’re fighting, not merely that they an. As always I’d be interested in hearing the solutions other GMs have found for this issue, especially given the deadly reputation of the L5R system.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Fair: Combat Consequences”

  1. I think I’d dispute the Space Port scenario not being self defence – if someone draws a weapon, especially a firearm, you’re entitled to think your life may be in danger! However, there are still a lot of other options, that PCs rarely take.

    I’ve had a bit of a discussion on Nearly Enough Dice and also over at GMS Magazine about that kind of thing. I agree it’s an issue, and actively a problem in some games, but I’m not sure I know what the solution is…

    Just anecdotally, in one L5R campaign I played in, an awful lot of encounters that in standard games would have been resolved by a fight, we instead espoused Bushido and gave the enemy the chance to kill themselves honourably…

    One suggestion that’s just occurred to me – have a few games where the PCs don’t have Plot Armour. They can die at any time. Let the dice kill off a few. Then, when they are at the “maybe we *shouldn’t* get into this particular fight…” stage, give them back the Plot Armour – but *don’t tell them*.

    1. Yeah I’m intending on removing the plot armour with the L5R game and instead making more situations where they have the option of avoiding the fight if they act right. Their current situation is an interesting example of that, depending on how they act they could easily get into a fight and some of the outcomes could trigger a lot of larger events in game if the campaign goes on long enough.

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