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Fighting to the Bitter End

Last night, operating on little sleep and always prepared to let my players take the initiative, I ran a straight-up fight scene. Their supplies dwindling and trade goods gone, the PCs needed some portable wealth, and fast. (Coinage hasn’t yet been invented in this world, so everything is trade goods.) Half the active PCs were pirates, who we knew had no compunctions about killing because they started play by sacking a small ship and killing its crew. Also, the PCs didn’t need a lot of wealth, just enough to stretch to the big climax a couple game weeks down the road, so I expected them to hit a small trade vessel.

Instead, they decided to go after the Ajini fleet that recently invaded from overseas, whereof nothing is known. The fleet consists entirely of rowed war galleys, while the ship at the PCs’ disposal is a small courier sailboat—good for light trade and great for sailing in contrary winds, but unsuited to battle. The fleet is manned by a few thousand soldier-sailors in heavy bronze; the PCs don’t even own a breastplate. In short, a suicide mission. But, as Joe observed, options are running out; the PCs are desperate and have no better ideas. The plan was to find an outlier, grab everything they could, and split, before facing an entire army. Fleeing rowed galleys under sail is grossly unlikely, but, as I said, I want to do all I can to encourage my players to take the initiative. Besides, killing off half the remaining PCs this close to the conclusion is bad form, so I let them sneak up on the beached fleet and encounter just two sentries, letting a deus ex machina in the form of monstrous, ship-devouring slicks of black, tarry water interfere with the pursuing fleet.

Even these two guards proved almost too much for the PCs. Outnumbered nine to two, with roughly comparable fighting skill, their arms and armor proved an enormous equalizer, especially with the aid of some very uncooperative dice.

We’re using the Over the Edge system, in which combat is generally brief and bloody, especially if handguns are involved. But arm the PCs with daggers, arm their opponents with shields (penalty die to attack them), breastplates (-1d to damage), and spears (a bonus die to combat, thanks to superior reach combined with their relative invulnerability), and the fight dragged out enormously! I set a good, long time limit of ten or twelve rounds before the main body of soldiers could reach the fracas, and they nearly made it. With two rounds to go, two NPC pirates scored lucky shots—honestly, no fudging involved—and the PCs barely made their escape. With fifteen minutes to go before the end of the evening, I might add, having spent half the night in this silly brawl. Most game systems tend to make combat unnaturally harmless, so as to permit players to engage in frequent, lusty battle; had we been using one of these systems, we would have been there all night. More to the point, I don’t think the PCs would have escaped, and then I’d have had to kill a few. Suckage all around.

I’d forgotten an important maxim of RPGs: fights take longer than you expect, even if you allow for them to take longer than you expect. Even if you use a bloody system. Perhaps that’s why I’ve stopped building adventures around combat. A good time to relearn this lesson, rather than in a climactic battle that ends up taking three weeks.

My players learned an important lesson, too: don’t neglect your combat skills, even in a diplomacy-heavy campaign. You may not be fighting every encounter, or even every tenth encounter, but when you need to fight, nothing will substitute for robust fighting skills, and the price of losing may not bear consideration.

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