RP Tools: Combat Arenas From The Hobbit
Let’s continue from last time, when I talked about the Lord of the Rings.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from re-thinking about these combat scenes.
An Unexpected Journey
Escaping the goblin tunnels: Probably the least interesting fight of these movies. The dwarves just roll around a lot, ever downward, falling on themselves etc. Later they run out of the tunnels and climb trees to escape the worgs, and only manage to flee thanks to the sudden arrival of giant eagles. Can’t say I learned a lot from this.
The Desolation of Smaug
Dwarves in barrels, rolling down the river: An excellent scene. This entire battle scene happens on the move, while running, since there’s no other choice – the river sweeps the dwarves, which are the prize everyone is after, orcs and elves alike. Moving between the bunks is a great way for the elves to show how graceful they are – and as we remember from the oliphant, it’s fun to let the players show off. Most of the movement is made by stepping on the dwarves’ heads, which gives a new, and quite strange, tactical arena – the dwarves having to guide their barrels in order to allow Legolas to jump from one side of the river to the other, in the right time, and despite the changing landscape of the river. From the dwarves point of view, this battle is even stranger, since they can barely fight with weapons (do they even have some on them?), and they can mostly affect the scene by trying to navigate the barrels according to the river’s natural obstacles, trying to use them against the orcs.
The Battle of Five Armies
The orcs storm Dale: Even more than in Minas Tirith, the fight in Dale’s streets felt urban. The civilians were in danger and had to be cared for, and so a lot of Bard’s actions were made to try and defend the citizens (including his own family). This was especially evident in a scene that also highlights two other excellent qualities of the urban arena: when he jumps on a cart and rolls down a street to plunge his sword into a troll, since the city streets are full of various elements that can be used; Also, it isn’t a coincidence that most interesting cities in Tolkien’s world are built on a slope (with the important exception of cities that get destroyed in dragon fire). It really was a common theme in ancient times, since it’s easier to defend a higher spot, and that means that a lot of cities should have angled or complicated streets, that can be used, let’s say, for cart acceleration.
Legolas fights Bolg on Ravenhill: A collapsing tower, what a wonderful combat arena. The fight starts with Legolas using an enemy to change the landscape by forcing the troll to knock the tower down. Necessity is the mother of invention, and he didn’t have a lot of other options, since on the other side of the chasm was his loved one, about to be murdered by Bolg. After he starts running on the tower – now bridge – Bolg notices him and comes rushing toward him, instead of, for example, lifting the she-elf and threatening to kill her. That’s because some main enemies should have too much pride or honor, so they’ll want to face you in person (thus leading to dramatic duels).
The tower itself is an arena that keeps getting smaller, breaking further and further with every action – and that’s a trick that both combatants notice and try to use against the other, by breaking the ground from under their opponent’s feet. This gives Legolas another chance to show off his elven grace, by stepping over bricks as they fall down, trying to get to a more stable footing. Legolas is also losing weapons one by one, because he’s running out of arrows, and then he has to let go of his sword, and that leaves him with only some daggers. That’s interesting, and adds a new dynamic to the fight, forcing him to attack and defend in new ways. Throwing his sword to Thorin is another excellent point – although the two are fighting in different locations, they can affect each other and help each other, because there’s some accessibility between them.
Thorin fights Azog: Again, Azog could have sent a thousand orcs to kill Thorin, but he wants to face him himself. Yes, a main villain should be smart and cunning – and Azog is definitely both – but that doesn’t mean he’ll never risk himself. The main villain can also be too prideful, like we see here. Azog wants to be the one that personally makes sure Thorin’s legacy falls, that he‘ll be the orc that deals this horrible blow on the dwarven race. Azog switches weapons to a sort of flail-thing, especially for the fight on the ice, and that serves the scene by allowing Thorin to show that no-one messes with a dwarf when it comes to engineering – he uses the breakable ground in order to make Azog fall into danger, simply by dodging. Then Azog makes a similar trick, proving you don’t mess with an orc when it comes to Strength bonuses, when he pierces through the ice with a single thrust and stabs Thorin so he can’t move anymore. A great fight.
Let’s summarize with the two main lessons all of these movies taught me:
1. You never just fight. Every combat has a meaning in the story, or it arises naturally from what happened before, or it’s part of a huge battle. Therefore, most combats have a goal, that isn’t just “defeat all enemies”. Even in the final duels: Legolas tries to save Tauriel, and Thorin wants to kill Azog specifically. (This is also a bottleneck for the whole battle, since he’s the general in command of the orcs).
2. Terrain is super important. It should be malleable, either because it’s already crumbling (like most buildings in Middle Earth, so it seems), or because it’s a breakable ice field, or because it’s a rushing river. All combatants should be able to affect change on the environment, whether by purpose or by accident (using Advantages and Threats), or by cleverly using other combatants. A dynamic combat scene is a fun combat scene.
Next time: So many possibilities! Not sure yet, but maybe about GM-made personal items – how to create them and what makes them a unique mechanical and story reward.
Was this too long? Too short? Comment and criticize below.
Based on the original Hebrew post, from the game theory blog Play in Theory (משחק בתיאוריה).