Combat tends to be a big part of the story in most roleplaying games. To make sure they’re as interesting as can be, I occasionally look at the way other media handle physical engagements, in order to imitate the things I find they do best, the things they get right. Well, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies have some excellent scenes!

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s put aside any opinion about the movies themselves – I don’t intend to claim they’re good, bad, or whatever – and instead let’s focus on the ways in which they present combats, in order to absorb the best practices into our own combat scenes.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from re-thinking about these combat scenes.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The fight at the gates of Moria: A monstrous tentacle creature rises from the lake and brings an end to a calm puzzle scene (how to open the door?) with a tense moment that also propels the party forward, making it clear that “you won’t be returning through here”. A nice GM trick, but beyond that, the main lesson is not every monster is combat. This monster can’t be beat, either because it’s of too high a level compared to the party, or because the GM just declared it’s undefeatable (perhaps the GM even regards it as a “hazard” by the game rules). It has a narrative goal, not a challenge one – it pushes the plot, it does not provide an obstacle to be overcome.

The fight in the room with the well (fool of a Took!): The goblins are massacred at the entrance, one by one, but then the troll enters, and the beast is so big, it kinda fills up the room. Now that the enemy is right in the middle of everything, the less combat-y half of the party are in a lot of trouble, since the fighters simply cannot protect the hobbits from such a big creature in such a small area. There are several pillars in the room, and the hobbits try to hide behind them – but the troll breaks them while fighting, increasing the tension, and making it so that hiding just once behind a pillar is not an ultimate solution that will keep you safe until the end of the combat.
Additionally, there are two floors in the room, and so the fighters can use the height advantage to jump on the tall creature, reach its head, and kill it with one disastrous blow (especially since it looks like it kinda ignored all the previous attacks).
This is easily doable in Savage Worlds, but actually harder to do with Pathfinder or D&D (these systems are not, actually, very good for imitating the style of LotR, despite the common claim that “D&D is based on LotR”).

The chase through the mines: The troll is defeated, the fight against it is over, but the fight as a whole is definitely still going on. Lots of goblins rush down the columns as the party runs forward; then the Balrog itself appears and Gandalf stops it (let’s call it a story event that had to happen, Gandalf is totally an NPC in this adventure); then the party rushes down crumbling stairs as goblins fire arrows at them. Mechanically, you might want to look at each of these parts as a different encounter; for example, having everyone reroll initiative for the scene on the stairs, instead of using the same initiative from the fight with the troll. From a storytelling perspective, these are all parts of one continuous thing, keeping the tension high from the second the bucket fell down the well all the way to the party escaping into daylight. A “dramatic action scene” isn’t the same as “an encounter” – and it’s something that’s especially important to note in systems like Pathfinder and D&D, in which there’s a clear mechanical difference between “combat” (we’ve rolled init, we’re acting in turns) and “not combat”.

 

The Two Towers

The Battle of Helm’s Deep: A cool large scale battle, and in the next part (The Hobbit) we’ll see some nice examples for things you can do with PCs during a huge battle scene. For now, let’s focus on the larger scale: the goal for all of this fighting isn’t just to “kill all orcs”, but to stop them from entering the keep, for as long as possible. It’s a fight for survival – everyone is trying to just keep the enemy at bay for as long as possible (and until reinforcements arrive, even though they don’t know that’ll happen). For example, Aragorn throws Gimli into the orcs rushing into the gate, thereby delaying them from breaching it – but only delaying, since eventually they succeed. In a large scale battle there are bottlenecks, and that’s where the heroes can influence things.

The Ents attack Isengard: The PCs don’t do a thing, lots of Ents just hit lots of orcs and erase the factories of Isengard off the map. It’s okay having a fighting scene with only NPCs, if it’s cool and short. The players can just sit back and ride the moment. Literally, in this case.

 

Return of the King

The battle of Minas Tirith: the mother of all large scale battles. So big, it’s actually three separate arenas: outside the walls, in the city streets, and inside the palace. The characters are separated across all of these arenas, each with their own tasks, and generally speaking, it’s the things they’re best at. The activity going on in the palace is actually a discussion, but it’s critical to the larger battle, because the leader of the city issues horrible commands and must be convinced otherwise. A bottleneck doesn’t have to involve actual physical fighting. Outside of the city, Legolas gets a whole oliphant to show off how cool he is, and it’s totally worth it, which means there should be a huge oliphant so it can be felled. Éowyn, meanwhile, is locked in a duel with the Witch-king himself, showing him she’s no man, and showing us there’s room for a dramatic duel even in the middle of a battle, but it really does have to be dramatic. For example, with the Witch-king himself. (Also, it’s another bottleneck)

 

Next time: I’ll move on to the combat arenas from the three Hobbit films. Say what you will about that trilogy, these movies have some great combat scenes that we can learn a lot from.

Was this too long? Too short? Comment and criticize below.
B
ased on the original Hebrew post, from the game theory blog Play in Theory (משחק בתיאוריה).