There are many reasons I count myself lucky that one of my players co-GM’d a few sessions with me. One of those is that he taught me about combat testing encounters and NPCs as part of game prep. What is this? Simple, you run a mock combat with the opponents you plan to use in an encounter, vs. the PCs. This will not only help you GM better–it can be a lot of fun.
Combat trials cut down some of the on-the-fly GMing, which isn’t one of my strengths, although I have improved. At least I don’t go into a panic now when I realize I need to change something in the current encounter, but the less I have to do the better for me and my players. When I do a trial run, I see the “Oh shoot! Nobody can hit this guy!” moments well before the sessions and can figure out if one less minion group or changing out the weaponry will make the encounter right for my group. I can have as many do-overs with varying set-ups, numbers, and weaponry as I see fit.
It will also alert me to other potential problems: Does a given NPC really belong in this encounter? Will combat drag on so long that everyone will be bored with dice-rolling? Do several of the encounters feel like repeats? And using the actual PC stats combined with my knowledge of how my group operates, I can figure out where it’s worth having a tiered encounter where someone not a combat monster can dispel an enchantment or slice a droid’s memory. There’s always going to be some on-the-fly GMing in most sessions, because we have players, who will always make that left turn at Albuquerque.
Trials have another advantage when you are new to a system, or even to GMing, period: Familiarity, which in this case, breeds Good Gaming, not Contempt. Of course, you will find out if your latest BBEG is as badass as you hoped, and if not, you can revise her–and your players will never know BBEG Mk. I was a pushover. You will learn more about the capabilities of the player characters, too, which means you can tailor future sessions’ encounters better, not just the one you are testing.
I have also learned a lot about my favorite games’ mechanics by testing encounters for my own games, for this column, and for my fellow GMs. Several times, I didn’t get why everyone said a given talent, skill use, etc. was “useless” or “must-have,” until I used it in a trial. And these still help when you are the player, not the GM or amateur developer. One of my fellow gamers and I ran an M&M “danger room combat” with our PCs just so I could get more comfortable with some combat actions and maneuvers that I either always seemed to have trouble with or avoided using because I didn’t understand how they worked–and I was tired of feeling like I was slowing the game down. But in a one-on-one trial, outside a game session, I could ask questions, get them answered, and even be talked through whatever I was having trouble with–multiple times, even–and not bog the game down.
While trials are easy to run solo, since they are Roll-Play Only, I like to do my tests with at least one other person (unless it is for a session they are playing), usually to run PCs. Why? Because it is more social to me, mainly, even if we aren’t doing role-play beyond “(N)PC yells some insults using Scathing Tirade talent.” The partner also provides another set of eyes, since I supply them with the opponent stats. So even if I miss an error on the sheet, or forget I removed/added a talent, there is someone else to catch it. While having everything correct isn’t a big deal in a game session, if I am posting homebrew stats, I want those done right before they hit the internet. Also, my partner may have an idea for “fixing” an encounter problem or a statblock that I never thought of.
The most important side effect of playing out a trial combat with a partner, to me, is that I get some extra practice GMing. Even though I am no longer a newb GM, I still have a lot of areas I want to improve. Chief among them is running encounters, particularly combat, more smoothly and without hesitation. GMing tests with the Star Wars Rebels Inquisitors, for example, gave me a lot of practice in deciding what my NPCs would do as well as adjudicating/narration dice results without a lot of hemming and hawing. This exercise also went well enough that the player I worked with suggested we consider it for a night when we wouldn’t have a full gaming group.
Finally, combat trials are fun. You get an extra hour or so of gaming in, while doing your prep, to boot. These trials have become my favorite part of game preparation and scenario writing.