This is far from a new or original thought. There is a ream of good advice on how to help this happen, so I am really treading old ground here. Still, a few thoughts:-
Villains - the party are fighting somebody or something. Try and make those someone or somethings compelling. My NPCs are notoriously mouthy. They insult the party, pick holes in their technique, philosophise and try and get under their skin. I try to make them deliberately provocative for two reasons:
- It is much more satisfying to bring an end to a tormented soul longing for true release or a gloating badass than a bunch of numbers.
- It is always possible the characters will be provoked and take actions they wouldn't have thought of taking without that stimulus.
Situations - this covers a multitude of sins, although I'm thinking here of the "where" and "why" of the battle. The honest answer is, of course, you're playing an RPG and heroic last stands, distracting ambushes and cunning assaults are all part of the territory. I don't doubt that there are GMs out there capable of making a trip to Tescos into a rivetting adventure, but let's just assume that most of us are going with the standard fantasy trophes and have certain expectations. Those expectations should include:
- Terrain - an open room may be what the players think they want, but it should not be what they get. In an ideal world, a simple room should ring huge alarm bells. Terrain can offer cover, unusual battle tactics, traps for the unwary, places to hide for a moment, stuff to use. If it's outdoors, there can be insects, mud, venomous bushes, irritating flocks of birds, pollen that makes you sneeze, elemental pools of fire inexplicably appearing, flowers that eat your soul and the strong possibility of attracting other things to the scene. Indoors offer most of the same options, but with a different skin on them. A room full of parrots who all shout for help, a kitchen has herbs, spices and knives the party can improvise with, a beautifully adorned sitting room is packed with breakable treasure and so on.
- Reason - what is the purpose of this particular battle? Mechanically it is because you want your players to earn XP and advance. Creatively, it needs to be part of the story and preferably related to something the characters have said or done. PCs need to feel as if their actions change the world around them. There should, therefore, be consequences to the ways in which they behave.
Open Design's Courts of the Shadow Fey offered some fantastic examples of this. Here, the players could only interact with certain NPCs after they had earned enough status to do so. Their ability to interact with the world of the Shadow Court directly impacted on whether they could finish the adventure at all. Earning status could be accomplished in several ways - diplomatically, by undertaking quests, by dueling other courtiers, seducing courtesans and so on. The status system was organic and elegant and I'm planning to use a similar mechanic in The Lost City.
However - all of this takes work. It also requires that the players and GM all buy into the world and care about it enough to want to win through. I think in some ways, this kind of immersion is easier in a PbP. Because of the lag between posts, players have time to respond in character. This is great, because it lets me take cues from them, feed them back and enlarge the process as we go along.
To return (finally) to the issue of dynamic battles. I have two combats running at the moment that feel particularly vibrant and interesting to me for different reasons.
Halls is coming to the final rounds now. The characters are really fighting for their lives. They're down a lot of surges and healing is shortly going to be useless unless they have powers that bestow temporary hp. The enemies are fewer, but can't be reasoned with and are also aware that if they go down, so does their Archdevil master. A corrupted mountain spirit is bashing holes in the floor and making the terrain horrible as lava pours up from below. The PCs are depending heavily on each other and as they've been together a long time, are making a good job of it.
Tombs I have been using their current watery battle to explore some interesting group dynamics. Their optimistically lecherous wizard has been making eyes at both the tiefling warlord and the newly arrived paladin beauty. He's desperate to impress one or preferably both of them without letting on that he already has a succubus girlfriend. It's noticeable that he hasn't summoned her recently. The remainder of the party are rolling their eyes at this silly triangle and trying to get everyone to concentrate on the job in hand.
It's nice when it works like that.