How do I ditch combat mechanics?

In my ongoing journey of GM enlightenment, I’ve came to realize that I want my players to achieve what they reasonably think they can achieve. Long story short: how do I simplify combat so that it is quick, meaningful, and impactful? I’m talking about going as far as ditching most combat mechanics entirely. I’m very intentional with my GM-ing choices, and I’m not sure that combat rules have earned their way into my game.

I’ve run many one-shots with great success, and I find myself toying more and more with the idea of ditching combat mechanics. I’ve ran these one-shots with many game systems, but the most influential ones have been Delta Green, Traveller, ICRPG, Dungeon World, and FUDGE/FATE. For an idea of what I run my games like, I think my highest priority as a GM is maintaining tone (while making sure everyone has fun, of course). I do this by carefully curating my music selection before sessions, keeping the game moving along, letting my players contribute by implementing their ideas, keeping the rules simple, and calling for rolls only when resolution is needed. These all contribute to my eternal struggle as a GM; which is by definition, a tragedy.

I want to run combat in a similar way to how you would handle regular action resolution. One of the biggest influences on looking into this was an article from Mythcreants. Read the article. It’s a real gem if you GM anything like I do. FUDGE calls this "running combat by story elements" (rather than conventionally running by "alternating turns"). Some individuals call it "narrative combat" (though looking that up only yields forum posts of D&D players asking how to narrate combat).

I think this mostly comes down to communicating with your players and knowing their in-game intentions at all times. This is how I deal with non-combat moments, where I’m always doing a round table for everyone to narrate, act, or reveal their actions and thoughts. I often subconsciously do this in combat as well, where I do a round table to make sure I adjudicate everyone’s actions in accordance to what they’re expecting and wanting.

I just want to say that I’ve tried running a one-shot like this before, which I think went well. I ran Modiphius’ Conan 2d20, but I reskinned all the characters into using SKILL+STAT rolls for action-resolution ala Traveller. I think I asked for too many rolls in that game, and I think I could have communicated with the players more, but it was still successful. Everyone had fun, and it was a step in this direction.


Conventional fight

Last week’s session had us fighting a handful of skeletons. Before the fight, we prepared an ambush outside the room, since the door was bulging and looking like something was trying to get out. We opened the door and nothing happened. Only upon having one character enter the room did the skeletons magically appear out of nowhere. The RAW D&D GM ruined our well layed-out ambush with initiative order, even after having done a great job roleplaying the setup and our in-game concerns. The skeletons rolled a high initiative, and killed the character even though he entered the room with extreme caution. The ambush and positioning of our characters had no in-game effect. The combatants traded blows until one side was defeated.

How it could have gone

This is how I would hopefully GM this:

I telegraph/foreshadow that there are likely monsters in the next room. The players roleplay and start setting up an ambush. I get excited because I wasn’t expecting that. "Guys, that sounds AWESOME". Most of them clearly describe where they are, and what they want to do if/when the monsters pop-out. I probably have to clarify the intentions of 1-2 players because they’re being quiet and haven’t expressed them yet. They open the door, but nothing comes out. The rogue cautiously enters the room to investigate, but suddenly the bones on the floor animate into skeletons. I ask the player what his intentions are. Oh, he wants to get back into his ambush position and warn the party? No problem. Roll me an easy reflexes roll, since you were ready for this exact situation. Oh, you rolled poorly? No problem. You get out, but the skeletons are tight on your tail. Fighter, why don’t you roll your sword-fighting skill to hold-off the skeletons as you guys intended? Oh, you rolled poorly? No problem. You block the teaming skeletons in the room, but you and your escaping rogue end up taking a hit or two. Both of you take a wound that will make physical tasks harder. Ranger, you’re telling me you’re firing off arrows at this mass of skeletons, hoping to help the fighter hold the line? Make a bow roll. Oh, you rolled poorly? Looks like some of the skeletons managed to push past the fighter…

Sorry, it’s wordy, but I assure you the end-result is supposed to be fluid, quick, and should allow my players do the badass swing-from-the-chandelier moves they want to do.

I have additional concerns with throwing out combat mechanics, though: magic and damage+healing. Stripping away all the combat mechanics strips away everything balancing the magic in the game, too. I plan on doing a freeform kind magic, but I’m afraid it has the potential to be dangerously overpowered. I think to mitigate this potential, I need to carefully work with any players wanting to perform magic so that what they envision will fit into the game’s tone and power-level. Damage and healing is in the same boat. If I’m throwing out the rules for it, how do I ensure characters see the gradual physical consequences of combat without straight-up dying. It needs to be simple and intuitive.

This long post begs for some more direction for your answers. Who out there is running games like this? What does it typically look like? What kind of success have you seen? What challenges has this style brought to you? What resources have you read or watched on this topic? How have you gotten this GM-ing style to the level that you have it today?

I’m about to run a short campaign for one of my groups, which will be the Lost Mines of Phandelver D&D module. I will be playing a custom ruleset that looks pretty much like FUDGE. I will be applying what I’ve learned from my ICRPG games to put pressure on the players and ratchet up the stakes. These players novices to RPGs, but are good roleplayers and are open to working with me.