Combat can be both a time of high excitement and high stress, especially during a boss fight or new challenge.
In our duet, some of my very favorite moments have happened in combat. However, it’s also the occasion that’s most likely to create stress and misunderstanding.
In this post, I examine why combat can sometimes incite out-of-game conflict between the two people playing. I also work through some strategies for avoiding it if possible and dealing with it if it occurs. At the end of the day, avoiding combat-induced conflict comes down to trust and communication between the player and DM.
In-game combat doesn’t always lead to out-of-game conflict, and it may or may not be something you face in your own duet. I also recognize that different DMs and players have a wide array of preferences for their roles in relationship with one another.
My baseline assumption for this post, and for duets is general, is that the player and DM both have a high level of investment in the worldbuilding. Instead of a player vs DM situation, the two people playing are joined together in the storytelling, with the DM fostering and representing the world that the primary character and their party are taking on. This creates a player vs world scenario, the DM being neutral but also rooting for the PC.
Why combat can feel like an exception (in a bad way)
We’ve discussed the importance of collaborative worldbuilding in duets and how central the DM-player balance of trust is in allowing that shared creation to happen. The problem is that combat generally has the highest potential to flip that relationship of shared responsibility on its head and make it feel like the DM is working against the player.
For me, as someone who really doesn’t like conflict, feeling that switch coming on can be stress-inducing. On top of that, I’m worried about something happening to my character and the people she cares about.
Combat also creates the potential for more things to go wrong, especially as you start balancing multiple characters at a time. It involves more rules, which can be confusing, and it’s often the point in the game when you’re making the highest number of decisions in a short amount of time.
How to Avoid It
One of Jonathan’s favorite pieces of advice, in appropriate situations, is “Communication!” It’s said very slowly with a smile and an arm gesture making a circle overhead.
We’ll keep that as a baseline solution for all of these situations, as we work through ways and spaces to have that conversation. The goal is to (re)establish the trust between the two of you when in-game situations create feelings of strain or tension so you can focus on having fun together.
If you, DM or player, recognize that you’re going into a situation that will feel stressful while you’re there, go ahead and talk about it before.
One thing I’ve noticed for us is that my character being upset can pretty easily look as though I’m upset, which starts to make Jonathan feel worried or stressed, and it just spirals from there.
So, as the player, if I know before getting into character that she’s in a heightened emotional state, I’ll go ahead and clarify before we sit down to play: “Iellieth is pretty worried about this,” or “She’s mad at x-person because…”
Telling him ahead of time protects the natural flow and movement of our game and both of us while playing.
Major conflicts that you know are coming provide a perfect opportunity for having a conversation before play. If you’ve been following our weekly emails or socials, then you know that in our duet, we recently fought an adult green dragon who had acquired significant amounts of magical items and power over time.
In this fight, we actually broke one of our own guidelines: “don’t kill the primary character.” We’ll have a whole post on that soon, since it’s such a unique situation, but what could have felt devastating was ok because we had suspected that might happen before and discussed it, so it wasn’t a surprise and, out-of-game, we knew that we’d be able to work something out.
A Helpful Resource
One resource that’s been really beneficial for these conversations is from Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, “Different Kinds of Players” that talks about various play-style preferences. Given our recent series on character personalities, I thought this seemed rather appropriate, though I will echo his caution about not putting someone in a box. I would recommend the video to both the DM and player in your one-on-one game since the DMPC(s) will likely bring out the DM’s player-type too, and we want everyone to enjoy the game!
Taking a Pause
In How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily have a pause feature that they’ll engage when they’re in an argument to take a break away from what they’re fighting about and pay attention to something else that’s more important or fun.
If you didn’t have a chance to have a preemptive conversation and you see conflict arising for whatever reason, call a pause and take a quick break. Besides getting a chance to stretch, move around, and grab a snack, this lets you talk about what’s feeling stressful and clarify if you’re frustrated with one another or simply doing a really wonderful job of relaying in-character emotions (or perhaps both).
If you or your partner are trying something new, either because you’re a relatively new player, your character just gained a new ability you’re trying to understand, you just started playing multiple characters in combat, or you’ve been doing something wrong that you’re having to adjust (this was us recently), be kind to yourself or them and be prepared to move slower through combat and perhaps talk about it more as you do so.
Players, don’t be afraid to ask for help or let the DM know that you’re having trouble. DMs, same for you! If you’re using a more complicated villain for the first time or trying out a new tactic or fighting style, you can be open about that with the player. I know we all want to maintain the integrity of the game, but protecting DM-player trust, on both sides, is a necessary component of that larger picture.
If things don’t go so well and you do walk away from a combat angry or frustrated, after you’ve had a chance to reflect, talk with your partner about what went wrong and work toward a solution for the future.
We’ve written previously about our disastrous eight giant rats encounter where I almost stopped playing, but after that experience, we talked about why it was frustrating and how we could avoid that in the future. Jonathan adjusted the way he did initiative rolls and, since I was a new player, reminded me that the characters could take a short rest and use hit die.
That combat and resultant conflict also opened the door for us to be mindful of taking breaks if needed.
Talk about what you want to work on
Similar to reflection, be honest with one another about what you’d like to try during combat. For example, I would love to do a better job at RPing characters reactions, which is something we both really appreciate in Critical Role, but I recognize that it’s going to take time for me to improve, and Jonathan’s good at reminding me that I’m going to be somewhat limited in my ability to do that while running four people.
We want to continue this conversation about running multiple characters in combat, since that’s likely going to be the case for DMs and players in a duet campaign, and we plan to discuss the special situation of PC death as well. But I hope for now this has been helpful if combat-induced conflict is something you’ve had to deal with in your games. (I’m sure it’s just us.)
We’d love to know in the comments below if you have any other tips and tricks for talking about combat with your partner or questions where we could continue the conversation!
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