In our Suggestion Pot, Sektor asked:

Perhaps a list of interesting combat tactics to use during an encounter? It could really beef up sessions, trying to get beyond the ‘You swing, you hit’ situations.

I see two questions there: what are some interesting things I can have happen in a fight, and how do I get beyond boring hit/miss attacks? (Yes, I’m interpreting a bit.) I’ll start with the second item.

Combat in RPGs is already heavily abstracted from reality. Many books have a section that explains how even a simple attack roll is really a complex series of thrusts, parries, ripostes and other back-and-forth attempts to both attack and defend. The job of the game is to turn that complex interchange into something simple that can be represented with a minimum of die rolls; the job of the GM is to turn those simple die rolls into an interesting fight. The best way to do that is with description. IMO, description is the one single thing you need to make a fight interesting. Anything else beyond that is icing on the cake.

The GM usually describes more action than the PCs, so it falls more heavily on you to set a good example. I don’t know of any ways to get good at description except by practice, so just start describing the combat with more detail than you did before. Instead of “you hit”, say “you hit the orc in the leg.” Work your way up from there with things like “you swing low, but the orc jumps over your blade just in time and counterattacks with a blow to your shield arm.” If you find yourself repeating the same descriptions over and over, try brainstorming some new ones between sessions and glance at your list when you get stuck.

You don’t have to be the only one describing things either. Players should also feel free to embellish the action. It will help get them more into it and take a lot of the burden off you. A lot of players (and GMs) don’t realize that combat is still role playing and they shut down the descriptive part of their brain. If your players don’t catch on, explicitly let them know it’s OK for them to describe the action too. Just remember that descriptions do not become mechanical effects, i.e. an orc hit in the leg doesn’t necessarily suffer movement penalties. Games like Feng Shui specifically encourage players to embellish combat to the point that if a PC wants a specific piece of furniture available that you haven’t described, like a chandelier to swing from, the GM should allow it to be there. That’s assuming it’s appropriate to the venue, of course.

Once you’ve got your descriptions in hand, you can start working on the other aspects of your fights. First, pick the focal points of your encounters, like the evil wizard or big dragon and think about their strengths. What will they try to do in a fight? Now think about weaknesses. What will they try to avoid? Once you have those two things in place, you can start to pick out minions, locations or other preparations that will help the central figure be an effective (and thus memorable) combatant. Take a page from the MMOs (or D&D 4e) and think about your combatants in terms of combat role. The Evil Wizard’s best attack is a fireball and he’s weak in melee. He needs minions to keep the PCs away from him in order to maximize the amount of time he can use to chuck fireballs. Likewise, the minions need to be hard to get past, but they’re all clumped up and probably aren’t that tough individually. They are likely to get wiped out by an area spell, so either provide a healer/buffer or someone who can counterspell the PC’s area spells. Note that this type of strategic thinking can both make your fight more interesting and harder, especially if your PCs aren’t used to it.

Sometimes it’s more interesting to have a focal point be a location or other aspect of the combat environment rather than an opponent. A fight in a chamber with a reverse gravity field, in the caldera of a volcano, or shootout in a china shop are all possibilities. Also consider altering the environment. A fight in a “regular” tavern can be a lot more interesting if it’s flooded, covered in grease, collapsing and/or set on fire.

Another possible focal point of the fight is to have a goal. Most fights seem to be straight up brawls, but just defeating your opponents over and over again is boring. Have the PCs fighting for an object that gets taken back and forth between the opposing sides, try to prevent fleeing mooks from sounding the alarm, or try to win a race to the exit of a collapsing cavern.

These are just some of the highlights from a list I helped write a few years ago. If you’re interested in a more list-like approach, you can find that article here: Ways to Make Combat More Interesting, via the Treasure Tables Wiki. If you have a favorite trick you like to use to spice up your fights, let us know in the comments.