Balancing combat in GURPS can be challenging, especially for new GMs. Running combat encounters is much easier when the GM knows how to abort a battle that is overwhelming the player characters.
Sometimes, the players deliberately bite off more than they can chew; in those cases, it makes sense for the battle to carry a lot of risk, and the GM is justified in letting the players suffer the total party kill that they have brought upon themselves. But most of the time, TPKs emerge by accident; the GM miscalculates what the PCs can handle, and the resulting carnage is a serious disappointment. GMs therefore want to minimize the risk of accidentally annihilating the party.
There are some obvious ways to bail from combat if an encounter is too deadly: having the NPCs suddenly pull their punches, adjusting stats on the fly, or fudging dice rolls. However, these actions can leave both the GM and players feeling cheated. It’s nice to avoid a total party kill, but it’s better to not put the players into that situation in the first place.
Fortunately, there are also ways to escape from combat situations that don’t undermine the narrative of the game. This post will discuss some of those techniques for GMs to end the combat without breaking the game’s immersion.
Negotiating a Cease Fire
Not every combat needs to continue until one side dies or passes out. One side may recognize that the other side wants something other than their death, and can offer to negotiate in exchange for safety. Or, the participants may be governed by a code of conduct (or legal norms) that accord privileges to those wishing to negotiate a stand-down.
In Pirates of the Carribbean, Jack Sparrow is captured at gunpoint when he remembers that the pirate code entitles him to parlay. He invokes his right to negotiate with the captain and is guaranteed safety until the negotiations are concluded. Jack is not out of the woods—and in fact his negotiations do not end well—but he averts his nearly certainty death at the hands of the crew.
The GM should make sure that his or her players know negotiated surrender is an option. But, the GM can also take the initiative in calling for negotiations. When the NPCs are firmly in control, negotiating for their goal is less risky than chancing a lucky shot from the PCs. As a result, the NPCs may have an incentive to de-escalate the situation and make the PCs bear the burden of their loss in the terms of surrender.
To set up a negotiated settlement, the GM should think through what motivates the NPCs. If the NPCs are simply cannon fodder for adventurers, then negotiation isn’t likely. However, if the NPCs have their own goals, pressures, and responsibilities, then there is room to negotiate a solution that moves the NPCs closer to their objectives.
Changing the Environment
Most new GMs think about the combat environment as a constant: once the space is set up, the characters make the action happen. But, the environment doesn’t have to be fixed. A power outage can cause the lights to go out, letting some characters escape, or the ledge suspended over a chasm can crack, threatening the safety of the characters standing there. Even something as simple as the passage of time can have an effect: when the sun rises, undead may have to retreat to the shadows.
If the PCs are truly overwhelmed, the GM can strategically change the environment to give them the initiative or provide a route for escape.
Changing the environment works best when the GM doesn’t save it for emergencies only. If the GM only changes the environment when the PCs are up against the wall, it feels like a cop-out. But, the GM can make environmental changes regular parts of the combat experience. Mist and smoke can obscure the battlefield as combat goes on; the walls can start to crack from the force of repeated impacts. Rivers can flood, fires can spread, reinforcements and allies can show up, and mana levels can ebb and flow. Having the environment change every round or two of combat makes battles feel more dynamic.
A savvy GM will mix up the impact of environmental changes. If the environment always benefits the players, it feels gimmicky. But if the changes sometimes benefit the opposition, they makes combat feel more uncertain and tense. Some environmental changes can be neutral, forcing both parties to adapt their tactics; others can be curve balls that change the whole dynamic of the encounter.
The GM can also gain credibility when changing the environment by linking environment changes to combat events. A boulder is unlikely to appear out of nowhere and cut off the pursuers—but if the characters were setting off explosives, suddenly the resulting avalanche is a creative effect of their actions.
Shifting the Threat
When one threat is poised to wipe out the party, the GM can breathe life into the encounter by shifting the threat to an even greater danger.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the party seems doomed when they are surrounded by goblins deep in the mines of Moria. But, when the goblins hear a noise from the depths, they run away in a blind panic and leave the party to their own devices. Why? Because it turns out that goblins are not the worst thing in the dungeon—not by a long shot. The dungeon is also inhabited by a Balrog, a demon that so outclasses the goblins that they will flee for their lives even in the face of overwhelming victory against the party. With the goblins dispersing, Gandalf is free to lead the group on a wild race to escape the Balrog and find safety.
This trope of shifting the threat occurs in many works. For instance, in Jurassic Park, the protagonists are trapped by velociraptors in the Visitor Center, and they seem doomed until a T-rex breaks in and takes out the raptors. A variation of this trick occurs in Star Wars IV: A New Hope; the Tuscan Raiders that have captured Luke are scared away by the sound of a desert creature (that turns out to be a ruse played by Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Shifting the threat is a little bit of a deus ex machinca, so it needs to be used with care. It works best when the now-vulnerable antagonists have reason to think that the new threat is more dangerous, and it keeps the tension high if the PCs face greater risk as well. Note that the risk doesn’t have to be the same: the Balrog is threatening as a magical creature, while the goblins simply posed a mundane threat. What matters is that the stakes feel raised.
A little bit of foreshadowing can also improve how shifting the threat is received. The tyrannosaur is set up as a dangerous predatory early in Jurassic Park, so the T-rex’s attack doesn’t come out of nowhere.
To prepare the game for a possible shift in threat, the GM can think about who or what else is involved in the game world. Are there mutual opponents that can intrude? Do the antagonists have their own rivals that may interfere? Setting up these kinds of interconnected plot lines also makes the world feel three-dimensional, which enhances the atmosphere of the game.
Playing into Overconfidence
Finally, the antagonists do not need to go for the killing blow right away. Villains are frequently victims of their own hubris. They stop to gloat, to share their plans for inevitable victory, and to force the protagonists to watch their triumph.
If it fits with the personality of the NPCs, this option can be used to end a combat scene without a TPK. The player characters can be surrounded and lectured by the antagonist, who accidentally reveals a secret that the PCs can exploit. Or, the PCs may simply have enough time to catch their breath, recover a fatigue point, and overwhelm the opposition with a surprise all-out blitz.
Antagonists will frequently choose to capture the main characters and lock them away rather than killing them outright. GMs can easily use that option in order to end the combat and steer the campaign into a jail break scene. Depending on the genre of the game, it may be appropriate to include an interrogation session or an attempt to torture the PCs for further information; in other genres, the PCs may discover additional captives that can be allies in their escape attempt. Sometimes, the PCs may be able to bribe a guard to help them sneak away; other times, the captors are simply inattentive or overlook crucial details. Any of these options creates interesting possibilities for the game to advance.
Summary: Keep the Story Going
These four techniques to abort a combat scene all give GMs the ability to adjust on the fly if an encounter is too challenging for the PCs. The important thing is that all of these methods keep the story going. By adding twists to the situation, the GM can make the story more compelling. Having these techniques in your back pocket is a far better solution than simply fudging die rolls.