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Running Combat

 


The heart and soul of any role-playing game is the ability for characters to do things players would never dream of doing.  In the vast majority of role-playing games, this means combat.  Shadowrunning is by default a very dangerous occupation, and even the best thief has to dodge bullets and body slams sometime.  As a gamemaster it is your job to make sure this exchange of blows is both smooth and vivid.  This chapter is designed to give gamemasters tools and strategies for making combat of all kinds fair and fun.

 

Making Things Run Smoothly

The first goal of running combat is to make it run smoothly and quickly.  If a player has to wait 15 minutes between his actions he will quickly become bored.  Halting to look up rules or making sure every applicable modifier is used, will bog down the combat scenes and make them feel less like action, and more like math homework.  This is not to say modifiers should be ignored, but that that steps should be taken to remove slow downs do to looking up charts.

 

Pre-Generating your Non Player Characters

Every GM should have a stack of quick NPC sheets available to him.  There is a sample NPC chart in the "Charts and Sheets" section of this book.  For quick NPC's like Security Guards or Thugs a GM can simply write down their general stat line and simple equipment like "Pistol 9m, Armor 3/3" and be done with it.  They don't have to be exact, but keeping track of several NPC's becomes much easier when they are all on one page.

 

Any time a GM has more time available to him (like when planning the adventure) he should spend additional time building his NPC's.  They don't need to be fully fleshed out characters with character sheets, just the usual NPC notes box.  This time and effort will make the eventual combat unfold much quicker.

 

Presented in the "Thugs, Contacts and Security Guards" chapter are a series of pre-generated statistics for commonly encountered NPC's, including sample equipment "kits" and ways to scale them in power to the players.  Taking time in advance of the game to transfer these to an NPC sheet will make them more accessible, as well as help a GM memorize some of the stats.

 

If the players catch a GM by surprise with their actions, and he does not have the appropriate NPC's readily available, he should take a moment to prepare a sheet quickly.  Transcribing one stat line and making notes of each NPC's position will make the impending combat much easier to co-ordinate. 

 

If the GM does not want to "slow the game down" to do this, he can have the players make perception checks while he is writing things down, giving them additional information such as "these guys look like their armor has seen a few gunfights" or "the one on the left keeps glancing to the right".  This will give a GM time to write things down while the players still feel they are being active.  However, most players will not mind waiting a minute or two while a GM prepares.

 

Initiative

It may seem silly, but one of the things that slow games down the most is finding what the initiative order is.  Having each player character on a PC combat sheet gives the GM an easy place to write notes and keep track of the players’ initiative ranking.  Remember that this number can drop as player characters take wounds.  As combat progresses, the GM can turn to the player whose action it is and simply ask for their action, rather than having to count down through the initiative phases till someone says "that's me".  It also makes initiative ties much quicker to resolve.

 

One technique employed by many GM's is to have every NPC with the same initiative score act at the same time.  This saves time, but can also put NPC's at a severe disadvantage, as they cannot respond as quickly to the failure of their companions.  As NPC's take wounds their initiatives will drop, this can cause an NPC's to have different initiative ratings, so each NPC's initiative may need to be tracked separately.

 

Modifiers Made Easy

One stumbling block for many GM's is deciding on modifiers for the combatants actions.  They will slow the game down while they look at the modifiers chart and find the "correct" difficulty level for each attack.  This slows the game down, and can take away from the "action oriented" feel of combat.

 

To speed this up, the GM should decide on one target number for the PC's and NPC's based on range, lighting conditions, smartlink systems and other "non-changing" factors.  Then as the PC takes damage, garners more uncompensated recoil or closes the distance, the GM can quickly adjust the target number as required.  This is another great use for the PC combat sheet, as it gives easy access to the most common target modifiers.

 

It is also important to note that the modifiers presented in SR3 are not set in stone.  GM's should feel free to modify them as they see fit.  This is especially true of dodge modifiers.  If a GM feels that a shot is more difficult, he should adjust the difficulty accordingly.  Exaggerated target numbers should be avoided however, care should be taken to impose realistic (or cinematic) modifiers rather than just arbitrarily making something "impossibly hard".

 

Holding or Timed Actions

Eventually the players will want to hold their action, or time things just perfectly.  As long as you have paper nearby for notes (a PC combat sheet for instance) then these actions will not pose any difficulty for a GM.  Timed grenades or actions timed with other players should simply be noted on the sheet at what initiative pass they will go off, giving the GM control over the flow rather than needing to ask his players for additional information.

 

Making Things Cinematic

Once combat is running smoothly and efficiently, a GM should then try to make the combat more interesting.  Any action movie will attempt to do this (some much better than others) and Shadowrun fight scenes should be no different.  This isn't as difficult as it would seem, altering small details will make combat change exponentially.

 

Making Cookies without a Cutter

NPC's come in many varieties, but they are easily divided into two categories, villains and henchmen.  Anyone categorized as "thug" or "security guard" quickly becomes a henchmen.  Once a henchmen starts to garner more details (such as a special weapon, or skills) he start to become a villain.  Not all villains last more than one game session, the security rigger or corporate man would count as a villain, but are very likely to die in the course of a single run.

 

Henchmen are often referred to as "cookie cutter NPC’s" or "cannon fodder".  From bandits on the path to Lord Tolker's kingdom, to a group of mutant zombies on a space station, every role-playing game has thousands of nameless minions just waiting to wave at a group of player characters.  In Shadowrun, however, the NPC's have lives, and it is very easy to reflect this in any combat situation.  The easiest is the "Professionalism Rating" of an NPC.  By giving each NPC a slightly different level of professionalism, a group of security guards stops being a mob shooting from around a corner, and starts taking on a subtle realism level of rookies and pro's. 

 

Another way to break up the repetitive nature groups of NPC's tend to take on is to vary their appearance or equipment.  While every member of a corporate security force is likely to have the same weapons, they can vary drastically in appearance.  Simple hair colors, height, body type, ethnicity or metahuman types can mix up a group of identical NPC's and make descriptions much easier.  Gang's offer an even larger variety of choices, as their weapons, armor or clothing can be drastically different from one NPC to another.

 

Greg's runners have rounded a corner only to find 3 Lonestar officers talking around a parked patrol car across the street.  Knowing they have been spotted (thanks to an APB put out earlier), the runners pull out pistols and prepare for a fight.  Greg describes the situation, "As you round the corner a young blonde Lonestar officer scans you up and down.  A look of realization dawns on his face, as he taps one of the older officers on the shoulder.  The older Native American officer turns towards you, and barks out an order for you to halt, as he puts his hand on his side arm.  The third officer, an Ork, spins around at hearing this and goes for his gun as well."  Greg secretly decides that the two older officers have a lower professionalism rating than the rookie, as they are less willing to suffer maiming or death, than the naive "invincible" rookie.

 

In the above example, the Lonestar encounter quickly took on a more dynamic feel than a simple "three cops" encounter.  Now players can announced their target by saying "I shoot the Ork" rather than "I shoot the cop on the right".  Caution should be taken, as to much description will get lost.  Keep things to simple stereotypes that can be easily identified.  Each NPC should have one "exceptional quality" that is visually recognizable.  Instead of numbers on a character sheet, these qualities can be noted down.  Quick descriptors can like "brunette", "brass knuckles" or "troll" are much less likely to slow the game down than "Male, Day Glo mohawk, 3 foot length of chain".  This should make the NPC's less uniform, not slow the game down with a descriptive monologue.

 

Location Effects

This is the most commonly overlooked way to spice up combat.  While dodging behind doors or parked cars is easy to visualize, weather and debrise can drastically change things.  The key element here is negative modifiers.  By making shots fired more difficult to hit, combats becomes prolonged, forcing players and NPC's to become more creative with their actions.  Local weather patterns are an easy way to tack on a few modifiers, for instance games based in Seattle should have frequent rain storms to contend with. 

 

Don't simply stop at weather modifiers however.  Setting a combat in a crowded bar or street can be another great way to make things difficult until the crowd clears out (usually in a couple combat turns).  While the combatants may not care about hitting bystanders, it still interferes with their shots.  Shootouts in office buildings can activate anti-fire foam sprinklers or deep red warning lights.  With creativity any location can have an intense effect on combat.

 

Greg's players have just interrupted a very powerful summoning ritual, the magic built up over the last few days now rush from the shrine creating a level 3 background count, and a high wind in the local area.  Trash is kicked up around the combatants, and dust blows through the air, obscuring everyone's vision.  Greg decides that all ranged combat will have minimum target number of 6, and that smartlink systems will have a tougher time acquiring a target due to the amount of debris flying through the air, to use a Smartlink the character must use a simple action to aim.

 

The effect of the combat itself should also be taken into effect.  Grenades create smoke, and kick up dust.  Bullets can break fragile objects, burst pipes or even knock large pieces of art over.  These are just effects from typical attacks, weapons designed to create environment effects (such as flash or smoke grenades) can create even large effects.  But combat can also become more dangerous, not just more difficult.  Two martial artists fighting on a slanted wet roof, or within a few feet of a cliff or electric fence, is much more dynamic than simply trading blows in the middle of a hallway.

 

The chart on page XX of SR3 gives some excellent examples of environment effects that can create target modifiers, but each can vary in degrees, so feel free to scale them up or down as is appropriate to the situation.  As long as environment effects apply equally to all combatants the players will not feel slighted (although weapons like flash grenades can affect one specific group).  There is a much larger sense of accomplishment to dealing a single moderate wound in the middle of a rainy street at 2am, than there is to killing several security guards in the middle of a well lit hallway.  Locations do not always have to give negative effects; they can instead give an ornate feel to the area.  Greenhouses, cruise liners or the inside of an auto body shop will have interesting places to find cover, or none at all, but do not necessarily give negative modifiers. 

 

Hatori a Physical Adept, has tracked another Physical Adept, Sahim of the Desert, to the home of a retired Yakuza boss.  Hatori finds Sahim praying in a bamboo garden and leaps to the soft grass below his rooftop perch.  Sahim stands and draws his scimitars, as Hatori pulls his Katana from its scabbard.  The two circle each other a moment before initiative is rolled.  Greg thinks that the tall bamboo is encroaching on their movement, limiting reach modifiers.  The combatants may only use reach to lower their own target numbers, and are limited to one point of reach apiece.  Strikes have a chance to cut bamboo down, creating very sharp spears jutting up from the ground... a further hazard as the fight continues.  In addition Sahim is blind, seeing only through his magical ultrasonic sense, so Greg secretly rules that if Hatori moves more than a few feet away, Sahim will lose track of him, giving Hatori a distinct advantage against a much stronger foe.

 

Summing up Actions and Rounds

This is a fairly simple tool for making combat more fluid, precise and dynamic.  Every action should have a descriptor rather than a simple mechanical effect.  A player should never shoot an Ork for a moderate wound; rather the bullet should "tear through the Orks knee, nearly taking off his lower leg".  At the end of every combat action a GM should take a moment to describe what happened.  This does not need to be overly descriptive, but it is a great way to explain target modifiers in a more "realistic" manner.  The "wound samples" table gives examples of what each type of wound could be.  Describing the effects of player actions also keeps all the players on the same page with the progress they are making during combat.

 

Wounds taken in this way can also be used to alter player characters.  A mage who loses an eye may be forced to purchase cyber-eyes, thus lowering his magic attribute.  A Decker could take a scrape from a pair of brass knuckles to his datajack, badly bruising his skull and forcing him to get some new tech.  This is also a great way to create environmental effects for just one player.  A player with a light wound to his shoulder could be given no target modifiers, but instead suffer double the recoil modifiers.  Being creative with target modifiers can make wounds more realistic, especially if they are described properly at the end of each action.

 

Greg's runners are pinned down behind an overturned oak desk.  The thick wood is blocking bullets, but they need to make it to an exit a few feet away.  Seven the Samurai decides to make a run for it, while unloading his pistols as suppression fire.  Greg decides that Ian (Seven's Player) must make an athletics test to leap through the doorway, every success will lower the target number for the subsequent bursts.  Ian rolls Sevens athletics dice, succeeding in the test, and then gains 1 success on his pistols test for one of the bursts.  The guard he is firing at fails to dodge, and Greg describes the action, "Seven takes a few running steps from behind the desk, and leaps for the open doorway, firing a burst from each gun while in mid air.  The blonde guard is spun around and thrown to the ground by the force of a bullet striking his arm."

 

At the end of each combat round (before initiative is rolled again) a GM should sum up the previous rounds combat, letting the players know where they stand.  While descriptions of combat should be one or two sentence affairs, post round summation should be slightly more detailed, letting the players know important information.  This can also be a great time to stress what the players don't know, by mentioning key uncertainties in the dialogue.  Certain weather effects can also be changed, such as smoke is dissipating, or rain abating.

 

With Seven now safely in the hallway, the combat round has ended and Greg gives the players a quick overview of where they stand now.  "Seven is crouching at the doorway to the large office, as Slider and Hatori duck behind the bullet riddled oak desk.  The young blonde security guard lies moaning on the floor, as the Ork kneels behind a filing cabinet.  A light smoke has filled the room, most likely from the flickering lights above that have been hit by stray bullets.  It's unknown if the guards called for backup, but with this many guns firing without silencers, they may not have needed too... time is running short, help could be here any minute."

 

How to win/lose a fight

New GM's often have problems creating balance during combat scenes.  Typically the opponents need to be slightly more powerful, or slightly less powerful than the player group.  Based on the players combat skills, GM's combat skills and the realistic abilities.  Many new GM's attempt to balance encounters on paper, rather than on the fly.  Comparing skill numbers, weapons, armor and number of opponents is something most GM's know how to do, however the ability to adjust the difficulty of an encounter without changing the NPC's statistics is a little more complex.

 

Probability

Any discussion of combat needs to touch upon how to estimate the outcome of dice rolls.  It is a fairly simple matter of calculating the chance to succeed for one dice, and multiplying it by the number of dice.  While this may seem difficult at first, it quickly becomes second nature with a little bit of practice.

 

While it is possible to estimate the number of successes a character will roll, teaching the math behind it would be impractical for games such as Shadowrun.  The "rule of 6" and the "rule of 1", combined with the randomness of dice in general, make accurate gauging of dice rolls futile.  Larger target numbers are obviously harder to achieve, and thus more dice are required.  This very basic view of probability must suffice for the time being.

 

Combat Pool for Defense

To sway the outcome of any fight a GM must understand the options he has to keep his villains alive.  One of these tools is the combat pool.  Combat pool and its many uses are described from page xx to xx in SR3.  The defensive options for a GM are dodging damage, and resisting damage.  To decide which one is right for a given situation, a GM must analyze a few variables. 

 

Depending on the armor rating of the character and the dodge modifiers these can be very different, or nearly identical.  Typically the choice with the lower target number is the better selection.  However this can be altered quite a bit by other circumstances.  The main things to worry about are the number of successes scored by the attacker, and the damage code of his weapon.  If only one success is scored, dodging will be easy, but if his damage code is high, staging it down will be much more difficult.  If the opponent scored a lot of successes, even a Light damage weapon can be deadly, and overcoming his successes can be nearly impossible.

 

Seven, a street samurai is firing his Ares Predator at a Yakuza bodyguard. He rolls his 6 dice, plus 3 dice from his combat pool. His target has partial cover, and Seven has a Smartlink. He fires his weapon against a target number of 6, and rolls a 1,2,2,3,4,5,5,6 and a 6. That is 2 successes to hit the Yakuza. Knowing that Seven has a 9M damage code with his predator, and that he can fire a second time this round the Thug uses 3 dice from his combat pool to dodge, rolling a 2, 3 and a 4. This gives Seven 1 success, while the thug is still hit, he gets a good shot at reducing the damage down from 9M. The thug is wearing 5/3 worth of armor, and rolls his 6 (4 body + 2 dermal plating) against a target number of 4 to resist the damage. He scores 1,2,4,5,5 and 6, for a total of 4 successes, combined with his dodge success that gives him 3 net successes after Seven's 2 successes are removed from the thug's total. He stages the damage down from Moderate to Light. If he had used 4 combat pool dice to dodge, he would have had a good chance at completely dodging the incoming attack.

 

So while the yakuza could have used up 6 combat pool dice to have a very good chance at dodging the attack completely, he was able to rely more heavily on his body dice. There are two reasons for this. Reason 1) Body dice are rolled every time a player attacks, regardless of a dodge or not, so they are never "used up", and Reason 2) The more dice you use, the more likely you are to roll "average".  If the Thug had gotten lucky and rolled 3 4's on his dodge dice, he wouldn't have had to worry about rolling body at all.

 

Combat Pool for Offense

While dodging can cause an NPC to take less damage, proper use of the combat pool can cause the player characters to take more damage.  The process of adding dice from the combat pool to dice rolls is fairly simple, and more dice typically equal more successes.  Choosing when to add dice is the mark of a good GM.

 

If you want the players to take more damage then your NPC's should be putting themselves in a position to have lower target numbers.  By lowering the target number, the NPC can gain more successes from combat pool dice than by adding dice to a "long shot".  Squandering Combat pool dice will only get your NPC's killed quickly, because they do not have the pool left over to defend with.  While taking a long shot with a pistol isn't necessarily a bad thing, adding combat dice into it is often unadvisable.  The only time this is not the case is during the last attack of the round, as combat pool will refresh immediately after the action.

 

While a GM does not typically wish to outright kill a PC, the PC's do not always have the same issue with NPC's.  Holding back dice to dodge with is important, but so is adding modifiers to attackers’ attempts to shoot the NPC's.  By dealing even a light or moderate wound, the attackers chances to deal damage drop drastically, giving weight to the old adage "the best defense is a good offense".  PC's will typically know this themselves, and many times throw all their combat pool dice into one big opening attack, in hopes of killing, or sufficiently damaging, a threat to the point of neutralizing it's offensive capabilities, this makes going first a very large advantage, as the first attacker can set the pace of a combat scene by forcing the other side to use more combat pool for defense, and eventually overcoming them.

 

Modifiers

The last tool for a GM to sway a fight is with modifiers.  Environmental effects have been touched upon earlier, and should not be ignored when attempting to sway a combat scene in the direction of a GM's choosing.  NPC's with a way to circumvent target modifiers for environmental effects can find themselves at an advantage, or vice versa.  If the players are fighting a superior foe, lower or removing his ability to handle environmental effects can give the players a fighting chance.

 

Adding small numbers to dodge tests can make the difference between a dead combatant and a live one.  By adjusting the dodge modifiers down slightly early on (from 4 to 3 for example) both sides of a fight will take less damage, as the fight goes on, these numbers can escalate as is appropriate to end the fight.  These lower target numbers can also be a great way to allow an escape, ore move the fight to a chase scene as the NPC's dodge their way to a vehicle.

 

In the end, more dice overcome higher target numbers.  By adjusting those target numbers, the set number of dice available to both parties become much more valuable based on when they are used.  Using modifiers to adjust the worth of Combat Pool and Skill dice is a great way to influence a combat scene.

 

Chase Scenes

Eventually every group of runners will find themselves in a car with someone in pursuit after them.  A good GM can make these chase scenes just as exciting as a shootout or fist fight.  If the running group has a Rigger it is very important to include the occasional chase scene, so that the Rigger can really earn his keep.  If a group has no rigger, a chase can still make for a great scene, as long as it is done properly.

 

Distance and Acceleration

One of the problems many GM's make when running a chase scene is trying to view the action from a top down approach, as the combatants move through a large space.  By instead worrying only about the relative distance between objects, the pursuit can become much more manageable.  Acceleration simply increases or decreases the distance between combatants.  Calculate the difference in the opposing speeds, and at the start or end of every combat round, adjust the relative distances accordingly.

 

The lead vehicle is at a disadvantage, as it must weave through traffic and dodge obstacles.  As obstacles come at the combatants a GM would start by making the lead car avoid it, and then the cars behind it based on their distance from the lead car.  In the end, all actions can be described by their relation to the lead car (usually the players).  Getting away from pursuers is handled in one of two ways.  Crash/Destroy the pursuers or drive fast enough to make an escape. 

 

Stunts

Anything from high speed turns to jumping a ramp can be classified as a "stunt".  Just as character actions in a shoot-out or fist fight need well placed descriptors to keep everyone on the same page, handling stunts in a chase needs to be done with care.  Avoiding obstacles is typically a stunt, and the most commonly seen.

 

Stuns are the chase scene equivalent of environment modifiers.  Rain, stopped cars, pedestrians and anything else that can be tossed into a vehicles way forces a reaction, and typically a stunt.  Examples of possible environment effects can be found in numerous movies (especially of the buddy cop genre).  With a little imagination great stunts can pepper a games chase. 

 

Involving Non-Riggers

During chases non-rigging players often find themselves waiting for something to do.  An easy way to remedy this is with fire points.  Every vehicle should have enough fire points so that the players riding along can fire guns at other vehicles.  While pistols don't typical do a lot of damage, pistol fire can inflict negatives to the other drivers, making an escape easier.  In addition called shots to tires, or terrain, can create a variety of adverse effects for other drivers.

 

If your group has no Rigger, any character with a Datajack can drive a vehicle with a -1 modifier.  While this isn't the same a VCR system, it is certainly something for the rigger to do during chase scenes.  Multiple vehicles, such as a motorcycle or a second car, can also lead to more complex situations, giving more players the ability to participate.  Melding combat styles is another way to involve multiple players.  While the mage fights off an air elemental, the rigger drives and the Street Samurai fire rifles out the windows... all while the physical adept attempts to leap onto the hood of the car next to them.  This blending of combat styles allows the rigger to excel, but gives the entire group something to do.