Sunday, May 15, 2022

Foragers at worlds end

 Everybody has their own method for handling foraging and hunting. I prefer to find the middleground between realism and simplicity. It's easy to confuse complexity for realism. Our living world is a highly complex fractal of perspectives, so the more intricate you make your gaming system the closer to realism you get, right?

 This way of thinking makes two mistakes. First, it assumes realism is necessarily better. This is a flavor thing and I don't think I need to make comment on it. More importantly it argues from a mistaken position; that approximating reality requires many moving parts.

This is a bigger subject than I can fit in my brain currently. My own personal philosophy is that reality functions as a system of just-in-time rulings, much like a game of d&d. A wizard behind a curtain does it until you look, and then he quickly evaporates leaving only the panelboard for us to see. Rather than recreating the panelboard we only need to recreate the effect. If we have a reasonable facsimile that everyone at the table can agree is smooth, doesn't interrupt the flow of the game, and limits explanation and confusion, and reproduces the feeling and effect we want for this particular game, then we succeed. Let's move on.

What the Wilds are

The land outside human settlements is wild, untamed, and dangerous. It is inimical to intrusions from civilization and will resist in the most Yin way possible; be evading your assault. Chaos maps to the Yin principal; that which is dissolving, in shadow, inscrutable, evasive, destructive, consuming, passive. Law maps to the Yang principal - active, hierarchical, possessive, enforcing, knowable, penetrating, reductive. Yang reduces Yin to simple systems; it's what our science attempts to do by breaking the complexity of reality down into categories and then assuming those categories can be understood separately from each other. Yin is holistic; from the one comes the ten-thousand young, all interconnected by the source - it is unknowable. The land outside human settlements is, at its core, unknowable. The act of clearing a hex and setting up a stronghold is an act of 'taming' the Yin into Yang; it becomes map-able. But the Yin always tries to subvert your dominance in the form of monsters.

Finding Food

Nature is abundant and all giving, but it does not tolerate attempts to understand it. If you look for food you will find it, but there are risks.

Searching for Food

Takes a 4 hour watch or all day, depending on how you manage time. Everybody makes a Save. Those who fail find d4 rations worth of food, those who succeed find d6. Those who fumble incur a mishap; they accidentally ingest a poisonous plant, they're wounding while hunting, they get lost, gored by an elk, fall into a ravine, disturb a nest of hornets, etc. There's probably a d100 table writing itself right now. Those who get a critical success on a 20 find the maximum amount of food and can choose another teammate who is also rolling and increase their failure to a success.

Druids, Rangers, halflings, and frontiersman-types automatically find d4 food, d6 on a failure, and d6+6 on a success. They still suffer mishaps if they fumble because nobody is perfect.

Obviously, different locales will have different types of food and different difficulties in finding it. In a desert I would limit checks to only those who are familiar with the desert, as well as Druids and Rangers (not halflings). They can only ever find d4 rations.

While they're searching you should also roll an encounter for each group. Woe be to the ones who are attacked alone and lost. Hope you have a winding horn.

What Kind of Food is Found?

I would make d20 tables for every biome, if you care that much. If you're running a world that's vaguely European the list of familiar edible plants should be easy. There's about two dozen that are extremely common and easily identifiable. On high rolls I would say they caught rabbits, woodchucks, red deer, hedgehogs, raccoons, boar, or whatever else, as long as they're sufficiently equipped.

Working Together

Players that go into detail coming up with a good plan are more likely to succeed. If they spend time looking for tracks, finding deer trails, laying snares, or inquiring to locals about what plants are edible, I would more likely just give them the check rather than require a save. I might still check save to see if they fail utterly and get a mishap. The point is that if they're playing smart no check is needed, except to avert disaster.

But What about Starving?
The PCs are considered capable and competent. Any redneck with a gun can catch a deer. But if you over-hunt an area and abuse the Yin principle it fights back. Secretly roll some d6s. This is the maximum number of rations that can be extracted. If they push this boundary they get an automatic encounter as the Yin seeks to restore balance in Chaos. Druids will have a nightmare or omen foretelling the will of the Yin before it happens and will be aware through diegetic responses from the environment when the land is being abused. ("You look to the clouds, they look foreboding. You find a dead crow. The berries look like blood.")

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

DOG WIZARDS towns & villages

 Attempting to save one of my favorite generators from the flaming wreckage of Abulafia. I'll update it and add more as if I have time. 

Friday, April 8, 2022

Thanatology in the Last Lands - part one


Sleep thought from the other day: vampire native form is black mist. They possess bodies which decay at normal rate. Must suck blood to keep body fresh. More blood = younger and stronger

Some games have vampires possess living human bodies.

I like corpses because they have a shelf life, dissolve into goo, and have an excuse to force vamp to drink blood

Also image of vamp w/o fangs biting & sucking blood like a remora is fun

They can't cross running water because it'll wash their mist body out thru orifices

Also they have to return to grave soil at morning to refresh. Store your rotting meat suit in a coffin of vermicompost. Back up bodies in giant urns of fermented sludge.

Raising dead requires installing a new soul. There's different ways of doing this but jewels are compact and effective. The more valuable the jewel the stronger the soul it can contain. Djinn and Efreeti are basically incorporeal so they can be captured too by a sufficiently potent sorcerer.

Easiest source of souls is captured children, but they're the least competent. Thus skeletons sing nursery rhymes, play hopscotch, pelt PCs with stones (harmless but annoying), and run away cackling when they're caught.

Adult souls are more capable but they can be confused by death, especially if they died unexpectedly or in great anguish. Unless regularly subdued they eventually go mad and turn feral.

Unwilling souls lose their memories, will, and the majority of their prowess, though they may retain bits. Thus undead servants can be raised to perform menial tasks based on their living profession.

Souls of scholars can organize libraries, sort texts, and act as scribes, though they're mindless and incapable of understanding any of it, being basically automata, so they can't combine ideas or interpret materials.

Souls of warriors make okay fighters, but fall short of living warriors. The benefit is that they're fearless, never tire, and feel no pain.

Undead peasants, porters, sailors, and smiths can pull plows, tie down cargo, adjust sails, and produce works, but their quality is shoddy at best. They don't tire or require supervision though, although they don't know to switch tasks on their own so you're liable to return to the forge and find a thousand horse shoes and a bored skeleton counting ants in the corner.

Willing participants are best and rarest, they maintain their memories and capabilities in death but their personality is erased. Never possess a corpse with it's original soul. Just trust me on this.

Fragments of personality may occasionally bubble to the surface. Nothing important. They may start imitating past activities in a harmlessly mindless way, organizing snail shells by color and size, staring at stars, counting hair follicles on a scalp, staring uncomprehendingly at a page in a book, or playing a game of mock chess with themselves using rocks. All done totally silently. Without orders they'll wait around patiently until something triggers them.

Skeletons have the soul crystal imbedded in their skull, the cavity of which is filled with gelatinous ichor. The top of the skull is replaced with riveted steel. Many necromancers keep desiccated mummies around as backstock. They're nice because they don't fall apart or rot.

Shamblers are walking corpses and have soul crystals embedded in their exposed hearts which swell and pump black ichor through their veins, animating them. They decompose in time if not taken care of, albeit slowly. If kept in a cool dry environment they can last centuries.

All undead go feral if their master dies, if they aren't given orders for too long, or if the incantations subduing them aren't refreshed often enough.

Souls trapped in undead bodies suffer great agony. They don't know what's happening to them and they seem to be living in a hellish prison and tormented by terrible visions mixing their past and current unlife. The suffering caused generates serious karmic defilements in the caster, twisting their karmic alignment towards chaos. The rebirths of powerful necromancers are invariably in the worst hells.

Thus they are motivated by self preservation to find the secrets of eternal life, to cheat reincarnation, or to transmit their souls to demons or other necromancers on the promise of safe keeping or installing into a fresh body. The worst kinds of lich are a sorcerer and apprentice pair that pass their souls back and forth for eternity, cloning or capturing new bodies with each iteration, and growing forever in knowledge. 

Wraiths, ghosts, shades, shadows, specters, voidlings, etc are confused dead souls which, due to unsatisfactory burial, incompleted obsessions, or other types of clinging failed to successfully transfer into the Mouth of Death. Without realizing the nature of their state dead souls often fixate on their old life and become trapped on this plane when the Mouth of Death gate closes.

Thus they wander, trying to live their old life, slowly going insane with frustration. Often they become violent or vengeful. These spirits can be manipulated by evil sorcerers, used as slaves or guardians, or sent as agents to inflict disease and misfortune.

All undead feed on life essence, often in the form of spiritual essence, flesh, organs or bodily fluids.

For information on the nature of the afterlife, attachment, and rebirth, read "the Tibetan Book of the Dead". I recommend the Jung commentary. I'll do another segment on how that plays into my campaign world.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Palladius: On Husbandry, c. 350

 Found this great section on medieval peasant farming practices, from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Book I, C.5. Lands fat or lean, thick or rare, dry or moist, and not without defects, are good for divers seeds; but my advice is to choose the fat and moist. Its work is least and its fruit is best. And next the thick and rank is best; but eschew the thick and dry and let it alone.

C.24. Till all the field or all the field is lost; wheat sown thrice in too fat land will, wonderful to say, change into other grain....

C.27. To till a field one must have diligence and leave no part unsown; but plough it up altogether. A little well tilled will repay expenses well, so undertake as much as you can easily do.

C.33. But after it is burnt do not go near it for five years; and after that you will see that it, as richer land, will grow and thrive.

C 40. I am unwilling to make him who is a favorite foreman over the field; and why? For he will deem his work is well howsoever it may be.

C.65. And it is good for pipes to lead from it (the cistern) each to carry drinking water, the liquor of grace above, a thing celestial.

C.72. One should also take care about an oil-cellar; to warm it the pavement below should be perforated and raised. So that smoke cannot harm it, make a trench under the fire, and heat the well protected house from winter, keen and cold. Now I would like to write on the husbandry of stables.

C.73. Toward the south you set the stable and the stall for horses and neats and get the light from the north, and close it tight to keep out the winter cold. In summer take care to cool the house and in the cold weather make a fire near the beasts; it will help the oxen and make them fair if they keep near the fire.

C.108. Set the dunghill wet so it may rot and be odorless; also set it out of sight; the seed of thorn will decay and die in it. Assess dung is best to make a garden with; sheep's dung is next; and after that the goat's and neat's; also horses' and mares'; but swine's dung is the worst of all this lot.

C.114. One plants thorns; another sows seeds; but (for fences and garden walls) seeds of bramble and hound's thorn do well; and gather that as ripe as necessary.

C.145. The bee-yard should not be far away but aside, clean, secret, and protected from the wind, square, and so strong that no thief can enter it.

C.165. Make ready now each needed instrument; look to the little plough and the large one also; sharpen the edges and plough up where the land is moist; still more tools should be prepared as the mattock, axe, pickaxe, saws long and short, also crooked knives for vine and bough, and scythes and hooked sickles.

C.266. And crooked sharp-backed scythes; and bring forth also the little crooked knives to take away a branch in young plants, the hooks that cut the ferns, bills to dig up briars, rakes, crooks, adzes, pitchforks, and double-bitted axes for the thorns.

C.67. There must be marking irons for our beasts, and tools to geld, and clip, and shear; we also need leather coats to wear with hoods about our heads; and we must wear boots, leggings, mittens; all this is good for husbandmen and hunters; for they must walk in briars and in woods.

Book IV. C.25. Now sow hollyhocks and armorace or arborace which is wild radish; and now plant origan in its place; now (sow) leeks, beets, lettuce, capers, savory, colocasia, and cresses; let all now sow marigolds or radishes; and bless them; trust in God that all shall grow.

C.32. Asparagus is sown about the first of April in wet and fat land in small ridges made by a line, so that seeds which fall a half or three feet are left; and spread on it a sheet of dung and weed it well, and cast straw on it till spring; then it may be taken off

C.98. Now graft pears, sweet or sour apples, service trees, quince, plum, and mulberry trees. On March 24th this should be done. Pistachio is now grafted to grow in cold lands; and pine seed is sown.

Book V. C.1. Medicago should be sown in April in prepared beds; it is taught that, once sown, it will grow for ten years and be cut annually four or six times. It dungs lean lands and fattens up lean beasts and cures the sick ones. An acre a year will suffice for three horses.

Book VII. C.5. One ox's work with a little help from man will take up all the harvest in this wise: they make a square cart on two wheels and board it up in a certain way widening it toward the top so that toward the top it is broad. Its jaw in front which gathers up the wheat should not be high but even.

C.6. That instrument should be bent upwards and toothed so close that the spikes of grain will not pass them. And at the back fix two shafts as a dray has in front, and yoke to it a meek ox that will draw and stand and turn and make it go forward. And all the grain will fall into this cart

C.7. These teeth will force in the ears that are in front; the drover notices how low and high the grain is which is going in and leaves the chaff behind. Thus shall an ox in a few days gather up the whole harvest; this cart is to be used in plain field lands where chaff is of no use.

Book VIII. C.3. Small onions should now be sown in cold and wet places; also radishes and orage if you can water them, and basilicon; lettuce, mallows, beets, leeks should be watered now. Now sow turnip and rape in wet lands; they rarely thrive in rotten lands but in wet lands and fields.

Book X. C.23. Gith (cockle) is lastly also to be sown in this moon; cresses and dill in temperate lands or radishes in dry lands will grow quickly; parsnips and caerefolium may also be set out; at the first of October sow by hand lettuce, beets, and also coriander seeds; rape and turnip it is now indeed good to sow.

Book XI. C.38. The apple is planted in hot and dry land. At the first of November quince and service-berry are set in seed beds to multiply. And they do the same with the almond tree. Pine is to be sown now, and fruits to be kept for preserves, as has already been taught of each.

Book XII. C.3. For Columella affirms that a field which has been fallow has proved more profitable for wheat than the fields where the yield has been beans: sow six strikes to the acre of rich land; less is sufficient in poor land; but in firm land the bean will grow and it hates weak and lean soil.

C.45. This moon in dry places and cold regions the wild pear should be planted to be grafted; citron, olive, pomegranate, service, medlar, carob, mulberry, cherry, fig, almond, and walnut, as the craft has been taught before, are to be renewed in seed plots.


From: Palladius, On Husbandrie, trans. Barton Lodge, Early English Text Society, Vol. XXIV, No. 52, (London: N. Trubner, 1873-1879), reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 38-41.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, September 1998

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Orcs are Larva

 If you are working and cut your finger and instead of healing that small cut goes sour and you lose that finger we say it was the work of orcu. Barrow blighters. They are the counter part the mockery of men. Where men relish the sunshine and fresh air they only know cold and damp and dark and cruelty. They live in tribes like our peoples, but know neither chieftain nor council, instead 

they wrestle amongst each other perpetually, those who can't defend themselves die, they would rather leave their wounded sick and old. Occasionally one especially strong and cruel orcu is able to whip together a few tribes in to a bloodlust to raid settlements for food or slaves or iron, the on only thing they hate more than each other is creatures which go about in the day.

Speak an archaic version of black tongue which consists only of curses, orders, and words for constructing poisons and their cruel machines of war...they know only nothing of healing or agriculture, but are clever at building cruel machines that belch smoke and dig their slimy wormtunnels deep in the earth, building with stone, of diverting water and toppling fortress walls from below, and laying cruel traps that maim instead of kill, of chains and tools and black vicious blades, they make a crude pig iron, soft so that it bends, or hard as diamond so that it shatters leaving razors in the wound. They do nothing themselves but capture slaves to work for them, preferring to manage and oversee and devise and demand. Dwarves they make overseers, if they don't eat them instead, humans they like for drudge work, no elf has ever been taken a slave for they waste and die within days if placed in chains or locked away.

Sunday, March 27, 2022


 Post-progress society

Three biomes: rocky desert, jungle, tundra.

Choose a planetoid as location. One like Ceres is good.

Planets orbit swings around wildly, with the weakened sun careening through the sky senselessly.

Seasons in chaos, asteroid rain, occasional blow-outs of transdimensional energy resulting from

AI government organized by nanobots keeps humanity from developing tools that could destroy life. Steel minds governed by invariable oath of ahimsa, their hubs spread about the world. Worshiped as wizard-gods in a number of fragmented religions and petty folklore, as the purpose of the millions of minute changes their ectoplasmic sentience effects upon the biome of the dwindling planet is beyond the rudimentary calculations of the human mind. The result of these changes is often in line with the ultimate beneficence to the remaining dregs of humanity as the terrible inhospitality of the barely terraformed micro-planet forces the AIs into an endless series of micro-corrections resembling mercurial inhumanity.

A certain allotment of food is provided from deposit cylinders and most menial labor is performed entirely by robots, nanobot liquiforms, mutants, or voluntarily by humans to have something to do

Shelterpods for living are mostly uncomfortable dumps but free

Free clothing is thermal skintight nano-webbing of various colors. Many wear it under flashier handmade clothes.

 carefully calibrated happiness-to-destruction quotient maintains karmic equilibrium to maximize free time and minimize suffering. nanobot web attempts to maintain its own neutral karma through minimum contamination and efficient use of resources

The basics are provided to all and work is unnecessary unless one chooses to do so. Some gather together in philosophical communes, or spend their lives playing complex social games. Most choose to live simple, minimalist lives tending pleasure-gardens, reading dusty tomes, developing skills, being quiet and contemplative.

A small number live as adventurers. These are the people who would be sociopaths, despots, politicians, capitalists, and generals of our world. Since nobody buys their shit they roam around fucking each other over, causing mayhem, and being chased from calm harmless villages.

An insignificant fraction dedicate them to uncovering the mysteries and histories of the planet. They live in far-flung reaches hiding from the wizard government.

Most acute wounds can be cured by healing machines, which reside in temples presided over by priests. Various geases on behalf of their philosophy are required for service. Sometimes they re-construct your body & put you into service as payment. Viral/bacterial disease infections are viewed as necessary for evolution and immune-system training is a common practice. people undertake diseases voluntarily in order to perpetuate evolution and reduce negative karma for others.

Advanced tech lies around everywhere, but the origin and understanding of it is non existent except by the wizards (AI government) or sorcerers (human scientists).

Micro-cults are everywhere, everybody believes something different. wars are fought as sport.

Humans tend to keep their population small. Childbirth is considered holy and women are respected as priestesses.


How something works is never really explained, or there's a bunch of competing explanations. All this tech is seen from the eyes of an ignorant simpleton. No infodumps.

All paragraphs are 4 sentences or less.

No descriptions. Everything is in terms of verbs and adjectives.

Nothing is what it appears to be.

Weird cultures:

Sherpanthwe believe it is their goal to lead others across the lands, extremely great guides, goal is to die in an adventure

Orfichiums replace all parts of their body with live snakes

Zur-dir men beetle helmets, extremely buff, sexless, hosts for brains in jars

Haltzagog vicious little gray men with slight luck bending. Liver prized as immuno-builder, second brain prized for temporary esp and powerful hallucinations

Most animals are humans genetically modified beyond recognition to replace the desolate ecosystems.


Max Bedulenko


Saturday, March 26, 2022

Making Combat Meaningful

TLDR; I discourage players from just attacking and encourage them to say what their goal in fighting is, so combat is handled like a multi stage puzzle/trap where the various mechanisms are ever in a transient state of being revealed and dissolving.

if my battles don't feel like this i'm failing

 I don't like long drawn out conversations with NPCs. My players rarely go very deep and the times they do I'm often caught off-guard. I do my best world-building secretly, behind a curtain, pouring over old maps and working out complicated historical battles. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my NPCs, but often I think that might be the problem. We only have so many hours to play this game and I know if I let myself go the whole session could become a conversation with one interesting dude who wears a mushroom for a hat, has a fu-man-chu mustache and rides a sapphire lizard.

The players aren't here for that, and I don't like to encourage that kind of play. If you want to have a game that goes deep into lore come smoke cigarettes with me on the porch and play 'draw the map and talk'. This game is about wresting jewels from fiends in subterranean cesspits and making damning deals with petty gods that might actually be some kind of trans-dimensional AI housed in a quivering hunk of meat.

So instead we act out the first bit of the convo, where I introduce the NPC and say what's memorable about them. Then I cut to the point and describe the gist of what's going on in omniscient narrator style. If the players do something cool or interesting I might jump back to first person and act it out, but mostly I want to get to what the game is really about.

A big way that I do this is with combat. I want to invoke a particular style with my combat. You know in old science-fantasy novels, Vance does this a lot but also in the battle at the end of Dune, when the fighting-men come in and just kill guys? They leap up with their swords and blasters and there's three options 1. die, 2. miss, 3. mortally wound. The author starts you out with fifteen fleshed out heroes and kills ten of them by the middle of the book. The heroes generally get one free miss before they are cut down.

So combat is fast, hard, and gritty. I don't waste time on flowery descriptions. I ask what my players are doing and encourage them to make tactical decisions and plan amongst themselves. The monsters are smart -- they're planning too. I play them nearly as smart as I would play my very own PC. I try to gauge how smart the players are and aim just short of that. Of course, it depends on the monster. Ogres are going to hide and jump out to throw big rocks. Goblins are going to skulk, flank, shoot poisoned arrows, and flee at the first sign of trouble. Orcs blitzkrieg suddenly, creating chaos, using hit-and-run tactics, and are most likely to ambush with burning oil and use prisoners as shields. Skeletons hang back and throw stones, and if the players charge they run out of sight and wait to ambush. Zombies march tight formation and fight like a steam-roller of flailing limbs, focusing on grappling armored opponents.

Combat is deadly, monsters are smart. They look for the weak link and strike there. 

But they're also living things themselves. If they see you first they'll hide or get to higher ground. They take pot-shots from a safe distance. They build barricades or set ambushes. If it looks like they can't win in a couple rounds they beat a fighting retreat and re-group.

My player's aren't advanced. Most of them have never played D&D before. I give them lots of warnings upfront to think about the game world as being real--what would you really do. This often has the effect of making them scared. They do what they'd really do. So I usually send some hirelings along to harass and ridicule them when they're being pansies. Nothing gets the players motivated than a potential mutiny four days from civilization. Suddenly they all turn into dictators. So that's how that happens.

Combat almost never lasts more than three or four rounds because things are always moving. Each round is a pick or push "the monsters are doing this what are you going to do to stop them?"

They're moving to flank you guys, they have bows. You see more coming around the corner.

The wizard starts casting a spell. The magic-user says he thinks it's a fireball. His warriors move into phalanx position, there's no clear shot.

The troll grabs the hobbit and hoists him up into the air. He moves to shove the hobbit into his mouth where he'll start taking automatic damage if you don't stop it.

the orcs are chasing you, hurling spears. The attacks are at a -2 because of the chaos, they all miss, but it's pushing you towards the ledge--in a moment you'll be driven into a corner if you don't think fast.

The wizard launches his fireball--into the pillar, knocking it clean down. The room starts to rumble, bricks are falling from the ceiling. They'll start to fall on you guys next round if you don't figure out how to protect yourselves.

I encourage the players to push back. They talk amongst themselves and come up with a loose plan, or some of them go rogue and start acting on their own. 

I clarify with them and state repercussions: "so you guys are moving back, trying to hide behind the pillars, the fighters are trying to draw attention to themselves -- okay it works, the goblins are going for the fighters with their daggers drawn, the melee will be met next round but it's eight goblins against two, what now?"

But I give them a chance to change their decision once they start to see what might happen:

thief: "I want to run to help him"
me: "Okay so you run over to him and start lifting him up, but he's wearing platemail so he's heavy. The troll sees you and he's there in a bound, lifting his club to strike"
thief: "wait, shit i forgot--I thought I'd just be able to drag him away, I want to run to the door instead"
me: "Okay, so you wanna leave the fighter there and run away like a coward, well the troll sees him and lumbers over"
thief: "shit, sorry dude!"
fighter: "I hate you."

I warn the players when they put themselves in danger. When they come up with a plan, I tell them what might go wrong, or what the monsters will see, or what they're thinking. If they say they want to do something, and doing it won't really change anything, I just say they do it and tell them nothing changes. Or I push back.

team: "we want to try and run up and scare the ogre to see if he'll topple off the cliff"
me: "you all run up screaming, waving your swords. the ogre looks down. he smiles. you can taste his breath. he's not scared at all."
team: "we should run away."
me: "you run. he chases you. he's much faster. you can either make it to the bridge or duck off down the corridor. what now?"
thief:"let's go to the door."
fighter:"no, go across the bridge. I'll cut the ropes and try to swing across."
mage: "you're a fucking idiot"
me:"you can do it fighter, but you'll have to make a saving throw vs paralysis to see if you survive"
fighter:"fuck it, i'm doing it, i only have 1 hp anyway"
thief:"if you die i'm building a statue in town for you. if you live i'm going to shit on your chest while you're asleep"
fighter: "yeehaw! bitches! I rolled a 17!"

and I don't pull punches. We use d6s for health and hits. I roll damage and attacks in the open, where the player's know it's not me. That means you can take maybe one hit per HD. You feelin' lucky punk?

dm: "you're surrounded by bandits with crossbows. the bandit leader has the wiseman around the neck. he says 'give us the gold!'. Honestly, if you can't think a good way out of this you're probably fucked"
fighter:"I tell the bandit leader no fuck you and I try to cut his head off"
dm: "are you sure? you've got like a dozen crossbows pointed at you. you could try something else."
thief: "dude, what are you doing."
fighter: "no fuck him, he's a asshole. I stab his face."
dm: "throw your attack then"
fighter: "4 I miss"
dm: "he parries your blade easily. the bandits all fire the crossbows you knew they were pointing at your face. That's twelve attacks." *clatter* "you get hit six times for 23 damage"
fighter: "avenge me!"
mage: "fuck that we run"
thief: "can i steal his magic sword before we go?"
dm: "if you're willing to risk three of the crossbowers getting free shots at you."
thief: "nevermind."

The question is what are you willing to risk?

We don't show up to the table to throw dice. How many games have you done this?:
*clatter* a miss
*clatter* a miss
*clatter* a miss
*clatter* you hit
*clatter* one damage

Fuck that. If nothing is happening, why are we rolling? When you miss, you fail. Something changes. The attack doesn't just miss, it fails. You lose something. The enemy advances, or re-positions, or you put yourself in a bad position. Another element is added to the combat. It isn't about tracking squares on a game-board, it's about tracking an ever unfolding situation.

On the other hand if the players come out with a great plan, act confidently, make it fun, or do something interesting or unexpected, they gain the advantage. If they surprise me, the world itself it surprised. If the players fight smart I'll force the monsters to make a morale check even if there haven't been casualties. The monsters can tell when they're outmatched. They don't want to fight--they want and EASY target. The sick, small, and old antelope are the ones that get eaten. Most monsters are merely territorial. They'll fight to defend their thing, but they'd rather run away and save their own skins. This is especially true with chaotic monsters, like orcs and ogres. Lawful monsters like hobgoblins are more likely to stay on account of social conduct and expectations. Monsters are even worse than the worst parts of humanity. They're cruel and clever but stupid and mean and selfish and greedy. Selfish first, greedy second, clever third, and cruel when they have the edge.

dm: "the goblines come up, they've got their hands raised, one is waving a white flag"
thief: "i throw the camphene bomb."
fighter: "hell yeah"
cleric: "they're surrendering."
fighter: "i shoot my crossbow."
dm: "you guys are attacking?"
cleric: "this is fucked up."
mage: "I throw my dagger."
me: "okay, they totally weren't expecting this. Roll against AC 9"
*dice are resolved, most of the attacks hit*
me: "ok, you murderate the fuck out of the goblins. they're all dead. do you search the bodies?"
fighter: "yeah, i want my money back"
me: "you find they're armed with poisoned daggers. they were going to trick you and stab you in the back when they had the chance."
fighter: "an ambush!"
cleric: "good job guys."
thief: "no thanks to you."

If it all fails, let the dice fall. If they choose not to heed your warnings, they suffer the consequences. You told them the danger. You even offered alternatives. "swinging on the vine is super dangerous, the other option is to slide down the hill into the water, but that might slow you down." You were up-front and worked with them. Sometimes their plans work out. Sometimes they die horribly.

If your combats are long and drawn out, try implementing some ideas here. That's why you're a REFEREE. You're fair-ish, sort of impartial, and mostly chaotic neutral. The more you act as the eyes and ears and common sense of the players, however twisted, blind, and stupid they are, the meaner and more vicious the world can be in return. If the players have a good idea about their odds, what exactly the risk is, they can make worse decisions. Try to make every single one of those decisions count. Encourage that behavior. Because the payout is worth it.