Rules and Advice
Gaming - In General
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ID: 1797


November 26, 2005, 11:17 am

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Not Just Rolling Dice: A Fight Scene


A fight scene should be more than just rolling dice and counting numbers. It should be a chance for you to roleplay.

Fight scenes are some of the most exciting scenes in movies, books, and games. They are both dramatic and captivating. However, fights in rpgs tend to degenerate into “dice fests” where people, even the die hard roleplayers, use the heavier mechanics to move their little chessman across the board and ignore much of the roleplaying we drive for. That is a pity. The excitement should not be the “winning or losing” of the battle, but should be generated by the very actions in the fight scene.

Fight scene are perfect chances to roleplay. I am not talking the witty banter and one off lines that are found in Bond Films or less realistic action scenes. What a character does in a fight says volumes about it.

A fight scene in’t just about people exchanging blows. Each move says something about the character; how the character is participating in the world, how they view themselves, and where they come from. This silent roleplaying is much more effective gaming device, as it falls into the “show don’t tell” aspect of gaming.

If the character is involved in the environment, they will use it to their advantage (moving around or grabbing things to use). Is the character something of a strategist, then they should have carefully planned moveds and results, each one setting up the next move. Is the character militarily trained; then they will be straight foreward and practical in their approach. If the character is afraid or hesitant in combat, they will be defensive and avoid the confrontational attacks. If the characters are they young and idealistic, then their moves should be flashy and impressive… showing the confidence that they feel. You can “see” this action easily in videos. However, it can also be captured in a novel or story, with just the right amount of description. You can do it in games as well.

Now in a game, you don’t get the chance to ponder and rewrite your scenes. Gamer’s scenes are done “live” with one take. While you might have a brilliant moment during a combat scene every now and again, there is now way to ensure that you can pull it off.

All it takes is a little work ahead of time. The GM is investing a great deal of time to prepare for the fight/ game. Players should invest just a bit of time and effort as well. This “work” mostly involves thinking about the character and what it would do in a given circumstance. This process is called Riffing.

Players should riff on their character or a character they might want to play when they have free time. When they’re in the car or shopping or in the shower, they can think of situations the character might be in. Determine what they would do in the situation. They can think about the dialog, the feelings, the actions, and the responses towards others in that situation. These riffs will help them better define their characters and give them “prepared” responses. Riffing is often done for roleplaying and other actions, but it is perfectly applicable for combat… if not easier when done for combat.

Think about the character in combat. What kind of moves do you think the character might do? Do they charge or feint, swing high or drop low and do a thrust, or is it a precise ballet of death or a wild mashing of targets? And there is more than just attacking, there is defensive actions, movement, and odd stunts they might do. Think about your character in terms of a movie action scene, what cool thing would the fight coreographer might set up for your character. Heck borrow things from action scenes you have seen.

Once you have done all this riffing work, you still might forget these things during the game. That is why, after you riff, you should make cue card. Taken from its television roots, the cue card is a note card that tells you what to say in a given situation. Usable by GMs or players, the cue card provide “notes” on things. When in the appropriate situation, you pull it out, rattle off the description/ dialog/ action, and move on.

When you come up with a number of things a character (or just one really good one), write them down on a 3x5 card - a cue card. Most action bits should be quite short and easy to include. In addition to description, write down the page number of any special mechanics that might be used (or the mechanics themself if short) and determine the character’s basic rolls for it. Viola, you now have a combat cue card.

Durring combat, thumb through them while waiting for your action. Select the best one for the situation and use it. Make sure to adjust your basic rolls for your current fatigue/ wound/ other modifiers.

Players will often write cards for how they take a hit, and a GM should have a generic slush pile for them to help inspire in game description. In fact, the GM should have a slush pile of attacks and combat actions as well. That way their troupe of opponents can be almost as colorful as the PCs.

Please remember that combat still needs to run quickly. Do not write a novel on the cue card, just a line or three of description will normally do. It will give you all the color and action without slowing the game down.

This is a live game. You never just read your cue card cold, you need to act it out… to roleplay it with as much skill as you can muster. You need to give it life, rather than just going through it with a monotone response. Once you start applying Cue Cards on a regular basis, this won’t be a problem. In fact, after a while, once you get into the habit of riffing and cue carding, you will eventually no longer have to use the cue cards. You will have all your cards memorized and ready at the tip of your tongue. However, this usually happen after you have a huge number of cards and an organizational system to keep tracking of them.

As a GM, you must reward good play. Give your players additional experience points/ karma/ skill checks if they add to the game and in this case, the combat experience. If the GM does not want to modify the experience reward, they can always give additional modifier to their player who truly plays combat. They can tack on an additional +1 to +4 MOD for great actions they describe. If you, the GM, properly reward the kind of play you want, you will get the kind of play you want. Make sure the reward is immediate and directed, so players know why they got extra rewards.

One final note. You, the GM, should also set the example for quality and action in your game as well. If you don’t do it, the players won’t see the point of additional description. With the entire troupe working together, the quality and excitement of the fight scenes will increase as well.

Additional Ideas (1)

I'm using something similar in my game, fate tokens. While they don't do much for roleplaying in themselves, they still add a choice other than the normal drone of dice rolling, and they act as a reward for said roleplaying. Whenever a player does something cool, like good roleplaying, a nice action in combat beyond the normal, or comes up with a good idea, the player gets a token. But obviously these should still be pretty rarely given. (I use D&D 4E, so some of these aren't universal).


One Fate Token gives you any of the following;

-Can be used as an extra/instead of an Action Point

-Can be used as an extra Saving Throw whenever (But not as a Death Saving Throw)

-Can restore one spent Encounter Power

-Can be used as an automatic Critical Hit/Success (But you have to choose this before you roll)

-Reroll a Miss/Failure/Failed Saving Throw (But not Death Saving Throw)


Two Fate Tokens give you any of the following;

-Can restore one spent Daily Power

-Can be used as an extra/in place of a Second Wind (With the same results)

-Reroll one failed Death Saving Throw


2013-07-29 09:45 AM » Link: [1797#88530|text]
Not an idea that builds upon this submission, as it is a mechanic specific and even game specific. It really should be its own submission somewhere else..

2013-07-29 10:55 AM » Link: [1797#88532|text]
Well like I wrote, it doesn't do much for roleplaying, but it is an incentive to inspire it, and some of it carries over to other systems, plus it could inspire similar creations. Don't really have more than this though, so it's not enough for a stand alone sub. Should I remove it then?

2013-07-29 01:31 PM » Link: [1797#88535|text]
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Comments ( 22 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Zylithan
November 26, 2005, 12:13
A post I really sympathize with. The suggestion is very good, but it would have been great if you could have given examples... like insert the text of a standard combat between 3 characters and 5 goblins in a complicated setting or something. I think most people are aware this is something that needs improving, bt understanding how to walk the line between too much and not enough description is not trivial.
Voted Pariah
May 22, 2006, 18:06
Moon, I finally figured out what you can do for some easy money. Compile all these articles you've done and sell it as 'Better Roleplaying for Dummies', or the like.
May 23, 2006, 4:03
Good points raised here. Combat is one area where many people do just fall into the dice rolling without a second thought, and it is high time that somebody addressed these matters, which you have so well done.
Voted Priv8eye
May 23, 2006, 4:03
Good points raised here. Combat is one area where many people do just fall into the dice rolling without a second thought, and it is high time that somebody addressed these matters, which you have so well done.
Voted valadaar
January 2, 2007, 14:49
An excellent idea! Perhaps a scroll with sample combat 'Riff' entry would be a useful link.

Rolemaster's Critical tables remind me of this idea, and some of the entries are long enough to qualify as these I think.
January 3, 2007, 1:20
Such a scroll was started at one time, it died badly.

Most of the riffs you have need to be your character. Each character will have its own personality, attribute emphasis, and skills/ perfered weapons. Thus what would be a dozen great riffs for my acrobatic blade throwing thief, will not even be worth the reading for you fighter with two swords who is strong as an ox.

As for the Rolemaster charts. You could swipe a couple of interesting ones there, but those responses are predicated on specific results. So while you could not just lift them, you could adapt them.
January 3, 2007, 8:01
That seems to be the fate of a lot of scrolls. :(

June 22, 2007, 2:20
While a character specific riff scroll would indeed most likely fail, what about that generic slush pile of riffs you suggested? Surely GMs could use THAT, and then players could also use it as a step-stone for their own riffs.
June 22, 2007, 14:55
Whether you try CM's take or not, at least one example (or few) of a riff would be nice here.
January 19, 2011, 11:55
Allow me to second (third?) that notion. Some examples would help tighten up this article and be very useful to a newbie GM.
Voted Cheka Man
June 22, 2007, 18:43
Rp combat should be fun.
Voted Chaosmark
December 11, 2008, 23:32
Bumpage! (strangely, I haven't voted on this yet)

This is Required Reading for Beginning Roleplayers. Read, learn, apply.
Voted Dossta
January 18, 2011, 12:52

I've been DMing my first campaign for a few months now, and already we've fallen into the dice rolling rut.  To be fair, I've never really had a DM who made combat super exciting, and so had no one to emulate.  You can bet that I'll be coming back to this article frequently in the coming weeks as I work to improve my gamecraft.

Winner of my patented "Smashing Sub of the Day" award.  Have an HoH!

January 18, 2011, 16:36
Look up the game "Feng Shui", published by Atlas games. It has many suggestions for running more cinematic fight scenes.
January 18, 2011, 16:34

The GM's attitude makes a huge difference in the players' style.  Make efforts to draw them out, encouraging detailed descriptions of their activity.  Remember, they have as much stake in the game as you do:  Incorporate their descriptions of the environment into yours.  If someone says "I swarm atop the table, then leap forward, grabbing the chandelier and swinging forward to deliver a powerful flying kick to the enemy sergeant!" don't be the guy who responds "Actually, this area is lit by candles on wall sconces, so you can't.  Additionally, such an attack has a -4 improvised weapon penalty and your foe gets an attack of opporunity."

This doesn't mean that you encourage munchkins trying to unfairly seek advantage, instead rewarding cool play by eliminating penalties that might otherwise shut it down.  If they don't serve to make things work better, toss 'em!  If your PCs start abusing their newfound freedom, shut them down. "I may have said you could use frozen fish as boomerangs, but the supply of ideally curved fish has dwindled."

Additionally, concrete rewards make it easy to motivate your players toward more cinematic play.  Give each player some tokens they can use to reward the other players for cool descriptions and heroic roleplay.  Keep a few yourself, and let the players know they can only use the tokens given them by others, not the ones they started with.  These tokens might represent extra "action points", bonuses to die rolls, free rerolls, or other minor benefits. 

January 19, 2011, 11:59
Good points, Wulf. This is also the first time that I've seen the token idea expanded to include the players like that. I think that allowing players to reward other players is a really neat idea, as long as you have a large enough group (mine currently boasts only two players and they would probably abuse the system).
Voted Ramhir
January 25, 2011, 12:24

Fantastic idea!!! A few 'generic' riffs would be a good idea, just to get our creative juices flowing.

I've made up small cards printed on cardstock, that say "Good cinematic roleplay. One reroll of dice". This not only gives the rewarded player something useful, it also emphasizes what it was given for. Thanks for the idea, Wulfhere.

July 17, 2011, 15:25

The idea of cue cards for players is great, I will have to try to remember that. 

July 28, 2013, 17:06
Ker-bump! An excellent article for everyone, GMs and players alike!
Voted Gossamer
July 29, 2013, 9:56
I think cue cards are a very good idea, but obviously it's going to be very hard to keep these actions neutral enough that they may be used in any situation. Still, my player hates dice, he would probably like to be able to roleplay his way through a battle. Maybe a once per battle thing would be the best, I already have my fate tokens which function pretty much the same but they are a pretty rare commodity that gets used up very quickly, so maybe this could be an additional feature. I'll definately try it out.

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