Non-combat combat. A weird combination of words, I’m sure, which is exactly why I want to talk about it today. First, let’s break down what I mean by it in the context of roleplaying games.
Combat, in roleplaying games is a remarkably common affair. A group of goblins show up, the adventurers draw their swords and axes and a few minutes later, there’s bloody corpses everywhere.
What it also is, is a very regimented affair. The goblins show up, everyone rolls for initiative. One by one, everyone takes their turn to perform whatever actions they’re allowed and when everyone’s been, the turn rolls around again. This has a noticable effect on players, who know that when Initiative has been rolled, shit just got real. Initiative means there’s things on the line and people are going to die.
Which brings us to non-combat, which is generally safe, a little freeform and lower-takes than the life-or-death of combat.
So why not combine both?
That’s right, today we’re talking about introducing combat mechanics to ratchet up the tension in non-combat situations.
So, first of all, let’s figure out what makes combat so tense. In my opinion, it’s a combination of learned behaviors and the inability to complete an given exchange. Given that combat has some very rigid rules, knowing that it starts means knowing that you’ll have to abide by certain rules that are, generally, less forgiving than the natural back and forth. It also means rationing what you want to do and planning to accomplish your goals in an efficient manner.
Compare that to the regular flow of a roleplaying session where you can plan and execute at a pace that suits you, without constant counterplay by your opposition. In combat, for every turn you take, your opponents get to take one. That’s why Action Economy is so important to keep track of in many games. But that doesn’t happen in regular play.
A secondary factor is hit points (or whatever your system’s equivalent is). Usually, hit points go in one direction when not in combat: up. Healing, resting, increasing attributes, all of these happen outside of combat and are a net positive for character. In combat, it’s the other way around. Most of the time, hit points are going down at a steady rate.
So why am I talking about this?
Simple, sometimes you need or want to ratchet up the tension for a non-combat situation, like an investigation, chase or anything in between. Instead of playing it out like a regular scene, why not run it like combat. If you system supports it, all the better. If it doesn’t, assign each side hit-points as appropriate and let the players run things like it was combat.
You’ll be surprised at how effective of a method this is for generating tension.