At first glance, it would seem that combat doesn’t need additional tension. After all, it’s one party up against another, each with the express goal of making the other party hurt, or die as the case may be. Few things can really be as tense as something like that in real life, but on the table, combat can draw itself out to the point that it’s outlived its welcome.
So what does a GM do to make sure that combat won’t end up boring?
- Establish multiple objectives - A fight with only a single objective is the norm, but occasionally having multiple objectives makes things so much more interesting. Taking out the bad guys while recovering a data module and keeping the only scientist who knows how to decode it alive in the same fight is definitely going to keep your players on their toes.
- Add a time limit – Time is a great means to apply pressure. Counting down turns before something potentially catastrophic happens is an excellent way to force people to bring their A-game to the table.
- Change the environment – Forcing players to adapt to a dynamic environment is always fun. Aside from being able to slap on some modifiers that help or hinder players, altering the environment can encourage daring tactics from either side. Great examples of this include a ship in a violent storm, pitching back and forth, or even a skirmish on the back of a giant monster.
- Turn it into a different Contest – Maybe in one moment when the enemy has something they need, they make a mad dash to safety instead. Suddenly the fight becomes a chase, mixing up the type of conflict so that you end up testing more than just attack rolls is a good way to go and make players suddenly pay attention.
- Add another party - Bring in the police, constables, a rival adventuring party, or a rampaging bear. Adding a new party in the middle of a fight is a great way to mix things up, even as all sides try to take stock of the situation, and work harder to remain the only guy standing.
Depending on the system, combat may have a tendency to get boring after a few turns of the “I hit, you hit” pattern. Next time you run a game, toss in a few complications and see how it makes even a fight with mooks that much more interesting.