Monday, August 29, 2016

Combat Descriptions

A lot of my early Role Play experience came in the form of AOL chatrooms. The free form nature of the rooms aside, one of the clear dividers between the great players and the good ones was the ability to describe what the character was doing while selling the scene. This skill was particularly important when it came to combat as well. Turns out, "I hack him with my sword" isn't very riveting. Do it eight times in a row with dice rolls in between, and it's even less so. As a GM - and sometimes as a player - combat description can be the difference between a really fun and fluid scene, and a slow, mechanical crunch. Today I want to talk about that, and how to keep it going.

Movie Combat, Not Real Combat
First, let's cover something: there is a reason that movie combat exsits and is so different from real combat. That reason? It's a lot more entertaining. In Rocky IV they hit like 90% of their power punches, because it's super dramatic watching a boxer hit the other boxer and drive him back. In real life, if two heavy weights hit 90% of their power punches over the course of a 10 round fight they'd both be vegetables by the end.

Authenticity is what you want in your fight scenes, not realism. An authentic fight will feel realistic, even if it doesn't look like one.

Spice It Up, Mix It Up, and Add A Flourish While Doing It!
Remember what I said about "I hack at him with my sword" being boring? It is. It especially is when that's all you have. Try to change it up. Say how you hack at him. Explain how you get to where you hack at him from.

Don't be afraid to add some extra embellishments either. "You lock blades and move his sword high then kick him in the gut for some distance. Before he can react you slash your sword down at an angle, marking his thigh," is a lot more entertaining and gives us a feel of the fight and how it is going.

Even if that sounds too complex, even something like "I duck under his blade, and slash at him while regaining my feet" does more for the scene.

Spice it up. Give it some flavor. Don't be afraid to give a flourish.

Don't Forget The World You're In
Saying your character jumps 30 feet in the air, spins 4 times like a ballerina, then comes down like a razor-bladed spinning top of death is great...if you're in a super hero or high octane action anime game. If you're in a more classic High Fantasy world or a more serious game, not so much. The idea is to spice up combat, not to break the world or the feel of the game. It's no good for your horror game if everyone acts like a Terminator once combat happens and you lose that feeling of dread.

Spice it up. Don't change the recipe.

A Sense of Flow
Back when I talked about spicing things up, did you notice something about the descriptions? They described a fight in motion, and mentioned the opponent. This is something you want in your game fights. The more you can work the actions into each other, the better the fight will be. There's nothing wrong with not doing it, but think to yourself for a second. What's more visually entertaining? A fight sequence in Final Fantasy where first person A attacks, then person B attacks, then someone else attacks? Or a fight sequence in a movie or tv-show with things going back and forth?

You can do the second one in your game. You can do it because you can keep a running narrative for the game as you describe the actions that are going on. It's not hard, just remember the description for the previous attack and - if possible - try to work it in.

An Orc attacks Player A and hits.

The orc gives out a roar of outrage and rushes you, spiked club in hand. It swings once and you duck, but it catches you with the butt on the way back, staggering you.

Player B gets their turn. They attack the Orc on A.

You rush in before the Orc can get a clean hit on A. You intercept a blow meant for A's head with your shield, then turn and thrust your sword. The orc knocks it away from a killing blow, but still takes a glancing hit on the side.

Player A gets their turn. They join Player B.

Recovering from the head blow, you move around B's shield and join him on the attack. Together yu manage to drive him back before you find an opening and jam your dagger into his rib cage.

Then just keep going with the fight. Paint a picture. Make it epic.

Don't Be Afraid To Use The Environment
You can also use the environment. Did someone just get missed while fighting in a tavern? Have them roll across a table and out of the way. Someone get a low damage attack in? Have them just miss, but catch the person offguard with a flagon of ale. Put these things into the description and pay attention. Odds are your players will try to use the environment in their attacks for advantage. Let them. Go nuts with it. In the end, you'll have a much more fun scene.


  1. That is one of my weak points as a GM because I keep forgetting to describe fights while I'm busy with keeping an eye on initiative order and all the crunch...
    I bought myself a magnetic whiteboard and that helps with keeping everything in mind. I probably should write a memo to myself about describing on top. The tip about using the environment I like in particular.

    1. Use the descriptions to keep track of initiative. Instead of going "Ok, 18, Mark." then "17, Sarah" have Mark do his attack, describe it, and transition that into Sarah's situation.

      "Over by the bar you see Mark break the chair over the brute's head, but you can't see what happens next as the blonde barbarian that was charging you comes into arm's reach. What do you do, Sarah?"

      Or use the character name to keep the prompt in character. The tricky thing is you want to sell the scene without guiding the action. At the same time, keeping everyone rooted into the action can shape player turns in really fun ways.