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To start, try giving the players somewhere interesting and interactive to fight. Make it as chaotic as possible. Taking your example, why don't the horses join in? They might get panicked and kick out, or run out into the middle of the fight. Their whinnies might then wake the grooms, who'll run out to see what is going on. Now you have two more things for your PCs to deal with, while still killing the soldiers and escaping on time.

If you hide the enemy's HP from the players, you can effectively control when it dies. It doesn't hurt to have them die from something other than a sword blow every once in a while either, ie a horse trampling it, and section of the roof collapsing etc.

Also, I never let my players know whether or not a certain die roll will result in a hit or a miss. They roll, tell me the number, then I tell them whether or not they hit. That way, you can control how often they hit their target. In short, waive some rules in order to move the combat along.

Something else to consider, have the enemy do something more interesting than adopting a defensive position. Being conservative may extend their life spans, but it doesn't make combat any more fun. If the enemy is jumping around, ducking, rolling, anything. As long as its doing something other than swinging its sword. This is why I don't like to run RPGs in settings without monsters/magic, because human soldiers generally don't do anything like that.

Lastly, if you are energetic, your players will follow suit. Avoid saying things like, "thats a miss" or "thats a hit". Instead, use colourful language to describe whats happening. Envision the fight, say, "You lash out with your sword, but the soldier catches it on his shield," roll to hit/damage for the soldier, "Trying to catch you off guard, he lunges towards you with his own sword, catching you on your shoulder. You take 4 damage." if its a hit, or, "but you dodge it just in time." if its a miss. Stand up and imitate what the soldiers are doing, slowly raise your voice to create drama. Call players by their character's name, ie "Mirnis, what do you do?" If you roleplay, you'll find that your players will start saying things like, "I'm going to try to tackle the soldier to the ground" or "I'm going to smash the soldier with my shield." As much as you can, reward your players for roleplaying during combat and avoid saying no.

For more tips, I'd recommend the 4th ed DM's Guide, it provides a lot of information on encouraging roleplaying, how to make games fun for your group and what it tells you should apply to most RPGs.

Hope this helps. :)
 

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Well, you see, we don't often play the damn big dashing heroes comin' in to save the day.

Usually, my PCs are powerful compared to most NPCs, but when compared to a Noble, well, then sucks to be them (authority equals asskicking in my games). So, usually, they'll get the NPCs to fight one-another and come in to claim the spoils.

In fact, most PCs we play are manipulative bastards, or bastards period.

So plotwise, it's usually more about intrigues, seduction, blackmail, treason and trust more than acts of bravery.
Well that sounds awesome!

You should share how you accomplish this in a campaign, as I struggle to include political intrigue and infighting with the NPCs.
 
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