Over in the Suggestion Pot, Gnome Stew reader renner asked us to write an article on this topic:

How do you handle a narrative combat? Mainly, if you are used to miniatures and maps, and don’t want to use them anymore.

Prior to D&D 3.0, the majority of RPGs used narrative combat — IE, combat that’s largely descriptive, with a sketchy map if a map is used at all. From D&D 3e’s launch onwards, battlemap-driven combat, complete with minis, grids, and tactical movement, has become much more common and popular. (For simplicity, I’m going to call the latter “tactical combat” from here on out.)

My GMing experience is primarily with narrative combat, although I’ve run my share of campaigns with tactical combat, too. As a player, my experience is pretty evenly mixed. I like both styles for different reasons, and this article won’t be about the merits of one approach over the other.

When the gnomes were kicking renner’s request around on our mailing list, DNAphil had this to say:

Here is where you need to think of combat as dramatic and not tactical. Narrative combat exists more in description and less in maps. I like to use a simple map, drawn on a white board, not to scale. Just something to give the players their barrings. In narrative combat, when you finish a player’s turn or full round, give a recap of the action that has just happened. Think of it like a movie. Wave your arms around, make crazy sounds, describe it so the players can feel it.

Finally, in a narrative combat, give your players more leeway with what they want to do. In a tactical combat, you move X squares and your gun reaches Y yards away. In narrative combat, you may have movement rules, but if a player is just outside their range, let them have it, its not like you have a detailed map to scale.

As an overview of the high points of narrative combat, and the ways it differs from tactical combat, this is excellent — Phil knows his stuff. Using Phil’s comments as a jumping-off point, here’s my take on narrative combat.

Get Everyone On the Same Page

Being on the same page with your players is critical, especially if your group is used to tactical combat — switching to narrative combat can take some getting used to.

It seems obvious, but make sure your group knows going in that the game you’re going to run will feature narrative combat, and if necessary explain what that will mean: No tactical grids, no round-by-round tracking of position, no miniatures, and overall a greater emphasis on roleplaying over tactics.

Use the Tools at Hand

If you’re running a game that’s built for narrative combat, the rules should cover not only how combat works but how to make it enjoyable — use those tools. Once your group knows how combat works, they’ll see that pinpointing where PC A is relative to NPC X doesn’t matter so much, and shift their focus elsewhere.

Many games don’t really address narrative vs. tactical combat, though, instead assuming you’ll pick whatever works best for you. With those games, you’ll have to choose what you want to emphasize about narrative combat in play.

Dramatic and Cinematic

Narrative combat tends to focus more on the drama of the scene, and is often more cinematic than tactical combat. This isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of room for both of those elements in tactical combat, just that in my experience they’re backgrounded. In narrative combat, they’re foregrounded.

Like Phil said up top, play up these aspects of the scene. Use evocative descriptions and encourage your players to do the same. Let players who like to describe the results of their PCs’ actions themselves to it with a flourish, and for those who prefer to have you describe what happens, do it with gusto.

Describe with Precision

If nothing is precisely mapped, everyone has to rely on your description of the combat when deciding what to do. Just because you have a clear vision of the battlefield in your head, don’t assume that your players do.

Sketch out the area on a whiteboard, a sheet of paper, whatever you have at hand. Point out spots that afford cover, dangerous hazards, and whatever else the PCs would know about the area.

To Map or Not to Map?

While drawing a sketchy map of the battlefield up front is almost always a good idea, updating that map as combat progresses is a slippery slope. If you update it every round, you’re now edging into tactical combat territory — and giving up the flexibility that makes narrative combat so much fun.

But if you never update the map at all, or refuse to map anything as a matter of policy, that’s even worse. You can’t be sure your players know what’s going on without mapping things out at least occasionally, so don’t forget that a battle map — however sketchy it may be — is still a valuable tool.

Play Loose

Phil mentioned this, and it’s a great point: In general, play a bit looser than you would with a battlemap and minis. If some aspect of combat needs to be decided and there’s no obvious answer, give the PC(s) involved the edge or the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t ignore the rules, but don’t dick your players over by worrying about how many feet apart everyone is at every moment — and, conversely, don’t be drawn into arguments over precise positioning and the like. In narrative combat, that stuff takes a distinct backseat to just having fun.

Cool Stuff Should Happen Often

One of the things I love about narrative combat is that with the focus shifted off the minutiae of tactical movement, counting squares, precise positioning, etc., it’s a lot easier for cool stuff to happen.

I always find that when the constraints of the rules are less obvious, as tends to be the case with narrative combat, I and my players tend to try more wild stuff, do things that just sound cool, and generally relax and have a different kind of fun. Encourage this.

Give bonuses for doing cool things, hand out action points for awesome descriptions, and generally reward your players for using the narrative aspects of combat to make the game more fun for everyone.

Learn as You Go

Like any other aspect of GMing, if you’re transitioning from a tactical combat-driven RPG like D&D 3.x and 4e to a system that uses narrative combat, expect everyone to make the occasional mistakes.

In play, handle them however makes the most sense at the time: retcon something if it doesn’t require redoing whole rounds of combat, or say “We’ll table that one to discuss after the game” to avoid getting bogged down. It’ll get easier with time!

What Else?

This is a big topic, and I’m sure there are things I missed — what else would be good for renner, or any other GM trying out narrative combat for the first time, to know?