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Spicing Up Combat

In our Suggestion Pot [1], 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 [2], via the Treasure Tables Wiki [3]. If you have a favorite trick you like to use to spice up your fights, let us know in the comments.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Spicing Up Combat"

#1 Comment By Sektor On May 30, 2008 @ 4:55 am

Thanks, Adam!! Your post really got me excited to try out some stuff (especially the goal-oriented combat tip).

I used to try to describe each attack action like you said, but pretty soon gave up on it because: A) the time describing is time added to the combat (which I try to minimize) and B) the originality of my descriptions quickly wore thin.

However, now that my combats are better streamlined, I can again try to squeeze in some extra seconds for the sake of flavor. Furthermore, your advice to make a list of short descriptions to fall back on is something I’m definitely going to try.

Again, thanks for the creative spark!

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 30, 2008 @ 6:39 am

One thing I did when my descriptions got repetitive was to ask the player what his character was doing, and use the dice roll to interpret the results. Don’t do this for every single swing, but at least once per player per combat.

Player: “I’m going to go for his throat.” (Dice indicate a hit, but minor damage.)
GM: “You slash at his neck, but he ducks and you miss. However, you do graze his thigh as you lower your backswing.”

For tactics, I try to think in terms of synergies. A balanced party of the four food groups (Tank, Sneak, Medic, Blaster) is much more powerful because of their synergy. Another element to abuse the characters with is environment. A lizardman fight in the swamp should be disastrous for an unprepared party, although the same lizardmen in a dungeon corridor are a breeze.

To echo Adam’s comments, the GMing Wiki is a great resource; poke around in there from time to time.

#3 Comment By Puck On May 30, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

[disclaimer: not a DM]

as a player, i’ve found that, when dealing with crunchier RPGs (D&D in my experience, though there are many out there that i haven’t encountered), there is kind of a culture *against* this kind of creativity and visualization in battle. i’ve tried to get into it and do cool moves and things (which wouldn’t, on paper, make any difference), only to have my DM raise the DC of whatever i’m doing!

@Adam: i like what you said about the GM “setting a good example.” i feel like players will start to get more into it and add to the description (making your job easier and more fun) if you show them that it’s all right.
@Kurt: i like the (pretty realistic) balance that you described between a goal (“slicing the throat”) and the extent to which it’s achieved in relation to the dice.

#4 Comment By Swordgleam On May 30, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

In terms of rewarding players for spicing up their descriptions, don’t forget about the handy tool of action/bonus/drama/hero points.

I really like the idea of fights having a goal besides just “kill them all.” Trying to take enemies alive is always trickier, and therefore, more fun. I’ll have to think about adding some other combat goals into games I run.

My campaigns are usually high magic, and most of the big bads have a variety of spells at their disposal. I like to have the party make rolls to notice any effects that don’t directly target them – for example, the wind picking up the round before an evil mage envelops the fighter in a cyclone, or only the party’s rogue noticing that an enemy berserker seems to have just gotten three inches taller.

Having certain players realize things that other players don’t changes their tactics, and adds more teamwork. If that raging berserker is going after a party member who doesn’t notice his new strength, his teammates who did notice now have to choose between helping their suddenly outmatched friend, or finishing off their own opponents.

#5 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 30, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

I feel like “battle patter” is one of my DMing weaknesses (or, at least, an area in which I’d like to improve), so I’m glad to see it brought up here.

Mine is a chat-based game, and I don’t like to waste the group’s time with incidental or random encounters. Any fight they get into is plot-related and intended to challenge them – so it’s imperative that I make those fights dramatic.

With a willing group of players, collaborative combat description eases that burden. You may still have some players who give you “I attack” every round. One cheat I use is to consult critical hit charts for flavor text, even those from other games, to add flavor, especially for the killing blows.

(Which reminds me: lightly off-topic, but you’ll want to establish and maintain your game’s “violence rating” early on. The first couple of fights I ran were PG-13, then I described a minor villain’s death in a gory manner and threw everyone off. Something to think about…)

#6 Comment By brcarl On May 30, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

I have not had much luck with colorful attack descriptions. The groups I play with seem to mentally switch once “Roll initiative!” is announced. Trying to work in actual role-play / plot progression during battle fares even worse.

I have had better luck with making the situation more interesting, though. The trick here is making things challenging without a) forgetting that one thing that the PCs can do to completely undo your “extra efforts,” and b) make things so tactically hard/overpowering that the PCs get trounced through no fault of their own.

I would love to simulate the tension-filled action scenes you see in the movies, but the system I’m playing with right now (D&D 3.5e) doesn’t seem to support that very well. Anything involving chasing seems particularly hard to make interesting.

P.S.: Nice to see you posting to the Intertron again, Martin R! 🙂

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 30, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

DarthK: Nice ‘signpost’ idea for the ‘violence rating’!

BRCarl: Savage Worlds has a nice, non-visual chase mechanic that could probably be translated to other systems.

#8 Comment By Samgenius On May 31, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

One of things I do to encourage description is when an opponent is down to 1 HP I give the PC targeting him next an automatic hit as long as they describe the killing blow. it can be a little graphic but it gives the PCs an I rock feeling and gets them into description.

#9 Comment By TheMeager On May 31, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

An easy way to keep players interested in combat is to amplify the difficulty of the fight and play for keeps. Once the players see a character lose their life (or limb) permanently, they will take a keen interest in what happens next.
Characters should be expendable, and no punches should be pulled. If a character unfairly cheats death, through no cunning of their own (or their fellow players), the game will no longer be perceived as “for keeps,” at least subconsciously. This pseudo-fear of losing a character is fun, and should be cultivated.
It can be difficult to do this to the characters of people you know and sometimes) like. They will often act angry when their characters have to deal with realistic mortality. However, while this seems bad in the short term, they will certainly be captivated by the new, more interesting game.

Generally, the simpler the system, the easier it is to embellish combat. You can continually lead players into making interesting combat decisions by having the players’ opponents dogpile their characters, as real brawlers would, and by making your scenery rife with chairs, tables, rivers, chests, masts, and other interesting things, and sending the players and their opponents flying over these things throughout combat.
Use this new, swashbuckling combat scenery to describe things smashing, bleeding, and fracturing. The more gruesome, the better.
If that over-the-top brawling does not inspire Errol Flynn tactics, I don’t know what will.

#10 Comment By Amory On May 24, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

Sweet ideas i guarantee my gameplay will become much more interesting for both me and my PCs

#11 Comment By Pruneau On May 30, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

Great article! I find I use descriptive combat most of the time, I haven’t really thought about that, it’s just that when the fight unfolds, I see images of it in my imagination, and I describe what I see. This tends to cause the players to start adding to the description, it seems. I have to say this is one of the best groups I’ve had, totally focused on having fun, no rules buffs. That helps a lot, of course. The fact we play MRQ II which uses hit locations and combat maneuvers helps a bit as well.

We recently had the party fight a bunch of trollkin after totally messing up trying to set up an ambush with a 4 horse cart – an hilarious scene – and the dark troll leader shot his sling at one of the PC’s. I had been describing the troll and trollkin with prepared slings , and when I described how he let his sling bullet fly, the player rolled and described how he tried to evade. I went along, and checked for the horse standing just behind him, which got hit in the head (I fake-rolled for location but went for the head anyway cause it fit the situation) which seemed right and got quite a laugh.

In retrospect, there’s a lot of laughing when we play – I’ve had groups that were way more serious about it – and I think that’s a very good sign. I tend to go along with some weird stuff, I tell you! As long as we’re having fun and the atmospehre remains relaxed, everything goes.