This is a bolt-on system for other systems with combat. I think it can work well with more traditional turn based systems but also with a looser, more storygame-applied approach.
It comes in three steps. Each step can be fiddled with and dialed back or forward based on how it slots in with the main mechanics.
This idea is free to take and fiddle with in any way you want. If you want to think of this as a document, you can consider it CC0, which puts it in the public domain. You can use it without crediting me, but I’d love to hear about it if you do!
- Objective Declaration
- Achieving The Objective
The most important part of the system. At the beginning of combat, an objective must be declared. Even if you don’t adopt anything else from this approach, making sides declare an objective before the fight begins can help focus and narrow the scope of the fight—and identify why the groups are fighting in the first place.
Multiple methods can be employed here, depending on the needs of the core rules and the table desires.
Secret GM: The GM writes down the adversary’s objective on a note card without telling the players, before folding it closed and handing it to the group. The players discuss their objective, keeping discussion short. They write down their objective on a note card and place it with the adversary’s objective.
Secret: The GM writes down the adversary’s objective on a note card without telling the players, before folding it closed and handing it to the group. A single player, typically whatever character is leader or tactician, writes down the player’s objective without telling anyone and folds it closed.
Open: An open discussion about the objective happens among the entire table. Objectives are selected for both the adversaries and the players as a group.
If the game system has a method for discovering secrets or reading other people, actions can be used to try and suss out the enemy objective.
Roleplay should be encouraged—sentient enemies won’t fight silently for an objective, acting like a hivemind. They will need to issue orders and direct their forces to seize the objective. If using the fully secretive method, the player might tell the others what their objective is. If this happens, the enemy likely is able to overhear and can work to stop them.
Objectives should be clear and easy to determine if they are achieved. If you can answer an objective as a yes/no question, it’s probably good.
An objective should be the entire reason for the fight. Ask: if you achieve this objective and nothing else, would you consider it a victory? A tougher objective is harder to achieve, but an easy objective might leave you with a hollow victory.
Kill everyone probably isn’t a great objective, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid one. Sometimes that’s just the goal.
Changing your Declaration
Swapping out your objective for a new one mid-fight is definitely going to happen as new opportunities arise. Just follow the same procedure as before, and make sure to remove the old objective note card from the table.
Achieving the Objective
The moment you achieve an objective, someone should declare it. Remember—if the objective isn’t a yes/no question, it’s probably nebulous and hard to pin down.
If secretive methods are being used, the GM and tactician will need to remember the objective and declare it complete or not. Secret objectives (and keeping the folded note cards visible to everyone) can be used for a sense of fairness, so that everyone knows that the objectives aren’t changing in the middle of a fight, or if they do it’s declared.
If everyone is in agreement that an objective has been achieved, move to the resolution. If there’s a disagreement, discuss it and narrow the objective if needed.
Once the objective is achieved, move into resolution mode.
The fight is over. The side that achieved the objective narrates the end of the fight. If it’s the players, everyone should add in details and share the spotlight.
During the narration, there’s a set of guidelines to follow. Not all of them are always appropriate, but the first one usually is:
Enemies cannot be killed during the narration.
The objective is firmly secure.
If the PCs are facing a threat greater than them they escape with the objective.
If the PCs are stronger than the enemy, the enemy flees.
Difficult or obviously beneficial things cannot be achieved during the narration.
The key factor to remember is that securing the objective is the only sure thing. As the GM, you might need to clarify or make a ruling that something in the narration is too far and the player will have to walk it back. If they still want to pursue it, they’ll probably end up in another combat.
Players will probably have fun with this part when they win. Let them lean in to their victory, and gently remind them if they go too far in narration.
When the enemies win and as the GM you need to narrate the outcome, follow the same principles. Create a new situation where the players are back in control, but the thing they were going for is lost to them. They might still be able to push forward—even against the exact same foes, but it should be a clear break and new objectives should be outlined if another fight breaks out.
With this system of resolving to narration after an objective, the only real way for combat to move to a complete slaughter is if both sides choose to take the objective of kill everyone. A fight like that won’t be resolved with narration, but it will be incredibly memorable, bloody, and violent.
The PCs are in a dungeon, trying to get across a crumbling stone bridge. A group of goblins are trying to stop them by using picks in an attempt to break the bridge and send the adventurers into the dark pit below.
PC’s objective: Get everyone across the bridge.
Goblin’s objective: Strike a devastating crack through the stone bridge.
Let’s look at this one from two sides. Say the fighter manages to barge through the goblins and actually make it to the other side with a mighty charge. The objective isn’t complete yet, because that’s only one of the characters.
The GM decides the goblins need three successes to get a crack through the bridge. After a few rounds of tense combat with the fighter holding their ground but no one else able to make it, the goblins succeed.
Now the GM narrates the outcome. They can’t kill anyone, and there’s nothing the PCs can do to stop the bridge from cracking at this point. So, the GM narrates that the bridge begins to crack, and the party has to retreat back from where they came, but the fighter is stuck on the side with the goblins. They shout at her to surrender and throw down her weapons. The GM ends the narration at this point. A new combat may begin, in which objectives might be selected.
A more conversational tone regarding things that could jam up with the system.
Couldn’t you just make incredibly easy objectives and achieve them immediately?
Yup, but remember—only that objective is truly secure during the narration. You cannot use the resolution phase to give yourself new advantages. You have your objective, but that’s it. If the objective isn’t worth it, it’s probably not going to seem like a true victory.
How do you decide what is too much or too little? In the example above, couldn’t the objective have been “get the fighter across to the other side”?
This is tough and probably just requires practice and more detailed guidelines for setting objectives. Getting just a single warrior across the bridge might be enough to send the goblins running! But they’re probably not taking many casualties and can plan a counter-attack against the adventurers now.
Unless you’re using the completely secretive approach, you should help the PCs come up with an objective that works.
What about things that aren’t sentient, like undead?
They probably still have some kind of objective they’re trying to achieve, it’s just “programmed” in. If they’re defending a throne room, their objective might be “kill everyone in the throne room.” At the least, it’ll probably make you think a bit deeper about what they’ve been created to guard.
Fight or flight. They probably want food or for you to get away from their offspring.
So this is mostly about contested ground, then?
I don’t think it has to be. You might encounter a group of street thieves in an alley. Their objective might be “grab the mage’s coin purse.” And if they manage to get a hold of it, that’s it, the fight’s over, and they’re on the run now. Instead of just sitting there in awkward initiative order, you could start a chase through the city streets!
What about things like multiple objectives?
I think the system still works. Pick your most important objective or the one that has the most weight and then just try to achieve the other ones during the combat normally. If you manage your main objective, you can narrate the end of the combat, add some spice to the story, and then keep pushing towards what else you need to achieve.
What if it’s clear that a fight wouldn’t end when an objective is secured?
There can still be a lull in the fight, where one side has achieved something and the other side is forced to back off for a moment to regroup. This kind of back and forth could make for a tense and climactic battle that doesn’t just feel like one massive slog through the initiative order, but rather a push and pull between two forces that refuse to give up.
And that’s it. If you add this system to a game or even give it a shot, I’d love to hear about how it went. If you have thoughts about this or supplemental ideas, please leave a comment!
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