A Variant Combat Mechanic
Like most new Dungeon Masters when I first started running Dungeons and Dragons I followed the example of play laid out in the Dungeon Masters’ Guidebook. This meant that I would control all of the non-player characters, monsters, and the overall direction of the campaign. This style of play was exactly what I needed when I first began running Dungeons and Dragons as it allowed me to control more of the variables of play – which I desperately needed to do at that point with my regular group ballooning up towards twenty players. As time went on, however, I began to notice that it was not unusual for me to have a player or two who were not involved directly in the active combat, be that through their own volition or through the malicious results of the dice. These players would be sitting on the sidelines, twiddling their thumbs, and continuously asking me, “Am I there? How about now? Now?”
It bothered me that these players were left on the outside of the game, often through bad dice rolls, and that they had to be content with sitting around doing nothing while everyone else got to have fun. So I started researching alternative combat methods and eventually settled on one that I call the Dave Arneson Rule.
The Dave Arneson Rule
When combat occurs any player not involved in the encounter may be allowed to control the monsters involved. If multiple players are not involved in the encounter than the monstrous group will be divided up among them as the Dungeon Master decides.
There are a couple of things that I do to speed up this process during play. First, I either print out or write down the monsters’ information so that I can hand this over to the players when they run them. The second thing I do is I give the players a strategy for their combat encounter; for example, You’re going to be playing a werewolf. I want you to only use this column for all your information, and if your hit points get below the half-way point I want you to take off. Now my job as the Dungeon Master pulls back from being involved in every aspect of the game and more into the role of a referee maintaining the combat’s resolution.
What I love about this simple rule is that it takes a lot of pressure off the Dungeon Master and allows for all the players to be involved in most any combat situation that occurs during the game. It's a fun and easy mechanic that I've been using for years. I hope some of you reading this will find it as useful as I have.