I recently ran a game that had a far too long and not fun combat in it. The party size is a little bloated, and I had planned out a combat with lots of combatants (mostly mooks who got taken out very easily, but a few actual threats) that became very un-fun. The mooks didn’t get creamed like I expected, one character decided he wasn’t going to participate in the combat based on character reasons, other characters didn’t make the most of their multiple attacks, some rolls went awry, the main baddies got taken out by a sacrifice play early in the scene, and the combat just went on longer than the players or I wanted. We pushed through and finished out the combat but I kept thinking there were ways and reasons to end it sooner. So here is what I’ve come up with.
1. If the combat you are running is no longer fun, for any reason, and there isn’t a reason that it is necessary to finish it right, then end it early.
Ok. We’ve all been there before. For some reason, any reason, the combat just isn’t catching the players anymore. There are many reasons that a combat could turn un-fun. It could go on too long, it could provide no challenge to the players, the gaming session might be at the ending time and people are anxious to leave, etc. If it isn’t fun, and you can’t find a good reason to keep it going, then end it early.
2. End it on a good note
While you should end a non fun combat early, you don’t want to abandon it without resolution. The players will feel more cheated by that, than by having to finish out a boring combat. Just saying "Hey, this isn’t fun, let’s move on to the next thing" won’t usually cut it, even if the players are bored out of their skulls. If you find yourself wanting to end a combat early then work it into the story, change the dynamics, or provide some appropriate exit. However you do it, do it without letting the players know that you are doing it. One of the Game Master’s best tools is actually looking like they planned whatever they improvised. Even if whatever you changed was pulled out of your ass, make it look as planned as possible.
3. Tweak a factor of the enemies to make the combat quicker
In the system that I run the easiest way to make a combat quicker is to lower the hit points of the enemies. In another system it might be making the enemies easier to hit. Find whatever factor of the system you are running and, if possible, lower it. Yes this is fudging. It’s the same as intentionally failing a saving throw. Make sure not to do this with something visible to the players. If the players see that a 15 that didn’t hit an enemy before hits now, they’ll feel a little slighted. Don’t worry if you’re group isn’t into this, there are other ways to change a situation.
4. Enter stage left – Exit stage left
Introducing some new element that is designed to interrupt and end the combat quickly is fairly easy. A new combatant might appear and take out some of the enemies that the PCs are having issues with. A sudden de-railing of a nearby train may make enough chaos to end the fit. If your new element fits into the story, excellent. You might even set this up as a just in case element beforehand. If the combat becomes un-fun you can trigger the element and interrupt it, if it doesn’t then nothing happens. If you do this, make it look planned. Have some reason for the NPC to be there, or for the train to derail. Roll some dice before you do it to give the impression that there was a random chance it happened. If you can’t find a way to fit an element like this into the story then make it a complete non-sequitur. A mining crew might break into a dungeon that the PCs are exploring. It will be a WTF moment, but it will seem less forced than other deus ex machina might.
Rather than bringing a combat interrupting element into a fight, you might arrange some way for it to be an exit creating element. A sudden change in the dynamics might have the PCs running from an overwhelming force. Enemies might run because they realize the PCS are an overwhelming force. Some element coming from off-stage might make the escape possible.
5. "Shit, I miscalculated."
If you really need to ditch a combat, you can always ask one of the player’s a question about the damage they did on their last attack or pull on a puzzled face and ask for a moment to look over something. Once you’ve done this, and brought up in the Players minds that something isn’t quite right, you can then proceed to end the combat. "Sorry guys. I miscalculated this guy’s saving throw. You actually got him with that last attack." I don’t recommend fudging of this level unless it is necessary to end a very un-fun combat.
Ok, free bonus on this one, because it just popped into my head.
It’s the classic way to defeat the un-killable enemy in any movie. Blow it up. Very few things can survive a great big explosion, and boring combats have no immunity. If you can introduce the concept that an explosion could occur, then the reason to fight goes away. Maybe the self-destruct was activated and the PCs have a reason to run. Maybe the villain springs an un-encountered trap and massively decreases their own hit points. Maybe there just happen to be an errant grenade rolling around on the battlefield. You can trigger an explosive to seemingly defeat an enemy, but have it provide the ability for the BBEG to make an exit. The key to this tactic is in how you introduce the explosive into the combat. Make it look realistic and make it look planed.
Remember, un-fun combats can happen. Watch for player cues to see if a combat is dragging on or becoming tedious. Changing something on the fly is always tricky and sometimes hard to justify as a GM, but an un-fun combat can prevent you from getting into something truly fun farther on in the game. So, have you ever had this situation? How’d you get out of it?