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January 18, 2011, 4:44 pm

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Descriptive combat


How to make combat interesting and more than: "Well, I’m going to hit him with my sword."


Combat, it’s nearly the staple of memorable role playing anecdotes and the climax of many adventures. Yes, interactivity and story telling are completely necessary too, but if you try to run a game with no combat for more than three sessions straight you’re likely to get players that are so edgy and action hungry that they’ll start a riot to relieve the monotony.

However sometimes the combat scene just isn’t exciting and the climatic end fight seems like a poorly retold boxing match. Take the following example of combat between a fighter and an Orc.

(Note, dice rolls are included only to provide a clearer example of play progression.)

GM: "You see a large Orc charging out of the darkness towards you, roll initiative."

Player: (rolls) 18!
GM "k, you go first action?"

Player: "What’s he wearing for armor? And what about his weapon? Is he armed?"

GM: "He’s wearing chain mail and carrying a two handed battle axe."

Player: "How tall is he? Does he look like a warrior or a vagabond?"

GM: (makes intelligence roll for the player) "he stands approx 7’ tall and looks to carry the axe with skill, he approaching to fast for you to make out any other details."

Player: "I’m going to stab him with my sword."

GM: "RTS" (roll to strike)

Player: (rolls) "14+3=17"

GM (rolls) "you hit. Damage?"

Player: (rolls) "15"

GM: "Okay the Orcs now trying to strike back at you with his axe."

Player: "I’m going to parry with my sword" (rolls) "12"

GM: "You fail, he hits you in the shoulder doing," (rolls) "8."

Player: "Damn! I’m going to try to smash him in the face with my elbow since he’s so close."

GM: "k rts"

Player: (rolls) "a 8…"

GM: (rolls) "You fail as he steps back dodging your blow."

Combat continues…..

Does this look familiar to you? Unfortunately this is the standard rut far too many long running games can fall into, with simple, bland, (if any) descriptions of the enemy or the fights interaction.

While it might speed up game play, (especially in online chat rooms where typing takes a while) in the end it leaves combat as bland non descriptive occurrence that’s barely memorable over the long term let alone exciting.

Providing a good description sometimes speeds things up by giving players ready information is the opening line. In the previous example if the gm had described the Orc better the player would have known the weapons and armor he was carrying as well as an approximate build and skill of the enemy; thus preventing the question & answer session that ensued dragging the game down.

Making the game exciting is not just the player or the game masters' job, but both. The game master for her end needs to describe the enemies with more detail than "a large Orc," or "a mean looking filthy gang member."

They need to give some description to the combat effects as well, rather than say you hit, put some detail behind the blow. (After they tell the damage altering the description accordingly) If it’s a good strike let your words represent it, if the enemy is angered by having a solid blow land between their legs describe it!

For players remember to put some life into your characters actions, don’t just swing the sword at the enemy put some detail into your blow. When you take a hit have your character respond accordingly.

In the end combat is a dance of words as intriguing and as detailed as the establishing description of a landscape, or main villains looks. As long as either the gm or player keeps up the in depth descriptions the other will eventually rise to the occasion to match.

After all no one like being out done with cool maneuvers in combat and having the npc or your character do something cool and descriptively enthralling will inspire everyone else at the table to do the same.

Let’s take another looks at that combat scene replayed with some description tossed in.

GM: "You see a large Orc charging out of the darkness towards you, his chain mail shining in the torch light and a large rusty battle axe gripped in his hands as he closes the distance with a few quick strides."

(Makes intelligence roll for the player)

"Your well trained eye immediately notices his 7’ tall muscular frame is covered by a multitude of scars across his arms and his grip on the battle axe is firm and comfortable. Roll initiative."

Player: (rolls) 18!
GM "You manage to ready yourself for combat and turn to face the approaching creature with scarcely seconds to spare!"

Player: "Swaying to the side I draw my sword and thrust it towards his abdomen hoping to impale him as he approaches.

GM: "RTS" (roll to strike)

Player: (rolls) "14+3=17"

GM: (rolls) "you hit. Damage?"

Player: (rolls) "15"

GM: "Your sword point skips across chain links before burying itself several inches into his stomach, the Orc grunting in pain at the wound as he attempts to slam the axe into your shoulder."
Player: "Stepping back and pulling out my blood slick blade I try to parry his chop with my sword, bracing myself against the blow." (Rolls) "12"

GM: "You raise your sword a fraction of a second too late as his axe crashes down against your shoulder plate, raising sparks and inflicting..." (Rolls) "8 to your armor."
Player: "Damn! Staggering slightly under the blow I quickly step forward a half a pace and attempt to smash him in the face with my elbow."

GM: "k rts"

Player: (rolls) "an 8…"

GM:(rolls) "The Orc seems to see yor blow coming out of the corner of his eye and steps back, your elbow sailing past his jaw by mere inches, the tip of his tusk snagging for a fraction of second against your leather sleeve."

Combat continues…..

Notice how much more intense and intriguing this was, more like an excerpt from a fantasy novel than corporate meeting notes? How much easier is to picture the two combatants dueling?

When done correctly a little more detail in the combat can not only enhance the players interest, but also provide the other players who are waiting for their actions something exciting to listen to (or read in the case of online rping) rather than sit impatiently for their characters turn.


Making It Happen

Now the question remains: "How do I get my group to do more descriptive combat? NPC examples are nice and all, but is there something else I can try as well?"

This is where it gets tricky. Some groups after two or three encounters with the gm using descriptions will begin to do so themselves, other groups will be more reluctant and have a difficult time with it. Here's a couple easy tips to help with that headache:


The flashier the description the better your chances

If the players' description of a combat maneuver is suitably dynamic and fitting then let them have a small bonus towards its success. (The bonus would vary depending on the rule system used, but a +1-2 bonus is the rough idea) This gives them a direct incentive towards giving the combat some flair and trying their best to make a decent description. After a short while of this players will hopefully begin doing it as second nature.

You could also try giving them a small penalty to the combat maneuver if they don't do a description, but that can come across as heavy handed, so it usually works better if you let them know the enemies will also gain the bonus whenever you give them a descriptive combat maneuver.


Taste Victory

If the above concept fails, or you simply want to give a nice incentive for good descriptive combat, the GM can hand out small edible “tokens” for an especially well done description. (M&M’s and Lifesavers work well or small pieces of dried fruit or nuts for those of us without a sweet tooth). This gives everyone at the table a tangible incentive to make combat more detailed. Optionally. aside from being edible, every x # of tokens earned can equal X amount of experience points to give in-game rewards towards making a good combat encounter, rather than simply an appetizing one.

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Comments ( 12 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Chaosmark
December 12, 2008, 13:53
A good lesson to keep in mind. This goes hand in hand with Moonhunter's Not Just Rolling Dice: A Fight Scene. Read! Learn! Apply! Have fun!
December 12, 2008, 14:09
I was somewhat inspired by his article and someone mentioning a few examples would have been nice for clarity. (Might as well lead by example eh?)
Voted Cheka Man
December 12, 2008, 14:28
Useful to make battles fun.
January 18, 2011, 14:39

This is exactly how I would like my combat to go, but how do you get there?  I have worked on narrating actions of NPCs and the reactions of enemies that the PCs are engaging, but I have only managed to get a few interesting bits from my players.  Trying to inspire is great . . . but what else is there?

I suppose I could try awarding XP for stunts, but that seems cheap and will probably wear off after awhile.  I suppose my question becomes: what tricks do the GMs on this site use to encourage better combat roleplaying from their PCs?  This article does a great job of showing us the goal.  Now where's the rest?

January 18, 2011, 16:22
Update: Added in a couple suggestions on how to encourage your group to make combat descriptive.
Voted Dossta
January 19, 2011, 11:50

The update is definitely helpful, thanks.  Will be trying some variation of the tokens at our next game.  Revoting now. . .

January 27, 2011, 23:32
I've found gummi bears to be pretty popular with most people, or honey roasted peanuts. (Individual chocolate chips or mini marshmallows work well too and are relatively cheap by the bag full.)

If you're running a combat heavy session though switching to nuts/dried fruits is highly recommended to prevent that sickly sweet feeling in players stomachs from cutting the adventure short. (Banana chips work great for something sweet, yet not overly sweet even when consumed in bulk.)
Voted Ramhir
January 27, 2011, 19:47

I'm going to try the attack bonus option. I'll let you all know if it works out. Thanks, Silveressa.

January 27, 2011, 23:27
Excellent, I'm eager to hear how well it works for you.
Voted Kassy
August 7, 2012, 7:59
Only voted
Voted Murometz
November 10, 2012, 16:07
If we're gonna be an rpg support site, subs like this one are crucial. Good tips for forum rp'ers as well.

Taste Victory!! Love that.
Voted valadaar
April 11, 2014, 8:20
A good article with good examples and I agree with Muro. In fact, forum RP is perhaps the best place for such detail - I've found as combat draws on in tabletop, description can frequently fall by the wayside.


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       By: Almar

While setting up camp for the night, the PC's are aproached by another group of adventurers who seem nice enough. The road is somewhat dangerous and the other group suggests camping together. The two bands split watches, one adventurer from each group watching at once. The night goes by without incident, the next day the PC's travel with the other group as they are going the same way.

The group consists of Hordel the ranger, who is skilled with the bow. Hordel is a quiet man who speaks little but appears quite skilled. Dremar is a barbarian who is a little excentric, he seems to be an excasive drinker and thiunk that battle is the solution to everything. He appears to be a stout and powerful fighter with his greataxe. Ferrin is the leader of the group, a rouge by trade. He is daft and witty, speaking with the PCs often and asking many questions. He fights with finesse with his rapier. Preminitat as a cleric but he will not say which god he worships. He uses his spells to empower and heal his party and fights with a club. He sticks close to Ferrin. Ferrin is a great talker and tells much of himself and his party, but asks even more about the history and capabilities of the PCs. He tells of some adventures his party has had, and they seem like an interesting group of mercenaries. Hordel is quite and has little interest in speaking with the PCs, he ignores most questions. He spends a lot of time with Dremar and sometimes Ferrin. Dremar seems to not care about any questions ansked to him, nor does he seem to know the answers. He seems battle hardened and is a simple man. Preminitat rarely starts conversations but will speak with the PCs. However, some of his accounts of the party's history seem to condradict those of Ferrin.

The Party spends another night and day with Ferrin's group. One of four things can happen on the third night.
1: While eating dinner around the fire, Ferrin gets into an argument with one of the PCs when he/she mentions the discepincies between Ferrin's stories and Preminitat's.
2: Hordel gets mad after repeated questioning about his life from the PCs.
3. Preminitat gets mad after repeated questioning from the PCs about what god he worships.
4: One of the PCs rejects the offer of a drink from Dremar and he takes it as an insult.
All of these scenarios result in a battle between the parties. If Ferrin's party is defeated and still lives he swears vengance. His party may then cross paths with the adventurers again.

Encounter  ( Locations ) | November 15, 2003 | View | UpVote 0xp

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