How Do You Describe Combat?

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Every GM has a weak spot — mine is running combats. I can manage all of the die rolling and number crunching and “who’s turn is it”, but I am woefully inadequate when it comes to describing combat so that it moves beyond “he hits you with a sword and does 8 points of damage.” I’m also “tactically-challenged” and have a hard time figuring out what the NPCs should do on their turns.

I decided to check for ideas on the web. Unfortunately, two hours of intensive searching uncovered only two articles that fit my needs:

So I’m turning to y’all for advice. How do you figure out tactics for your NPCs in combat and how do you keep combats interesting beyond “You hit and do 14 points of damage?”

9 responses to “How Do You Describe Combat?

  1. I think my Eureka moment was when I realised that NPCs are fallible. When you get the minis out, draw markings on the map and start rolling dice you’re heading towards a wargame. Wargames are all about winning. Both sides make best use of their resources to force the other side into defeat. As a GM, I often find myself trying to think of ways of making best use of the NPCs resources. Optimising their moves and so on.

    However, as soon as I do that, it becomes about the dice and the mechanics and not what is happening. In a wargame, every chance you have to attack you use. For some of my NPCs, they might use a round to gloat or set fire to a minion they’re tired of or throwing themselves out of a window. Those are extreme examples but the principle is still the same.

    Also, I got into the habit of describing each and every move – even misses. You have to force yourself and it feels odd to begin with but it is a habit that can be formed and doesn’t, in the long run, extend combats too much.

    Hope all that ramblings helps!
    .-= Rob Lang´s last blog ..Nothing says raw punk like Geodesic Gnomes by Dyson Logos =-.

  2. I play in Play-By-Posts and over the internet. I use text chat, rather than video or audio. So I have a lot more leverage with description than in tabletop gaming, where people have to actually sit down and listen you, word for word, describe stuff.

    I also play D&D 4e – the attacks are abstract enough that I can have the enemies do whatever stunt I want them to (a slam attack that dazes can be a kick to the face, or a punch to the gut, or even a clothesline) depending on the attack. I describe the enemy’s attack, any effects on the surroundings, and any physical effects the PC might feel upon being stricken. I take it like I’m writing a (rather sparse of style, at times) novel or fanfiction.

    As for tactics, I use the creature’s personality and mental stats to determine this. A creature should know how to use its own abilities well, but sometimes they don’t, or they can’t foresee the advanced tactics their powers might afford them. (For example – an enemy that can control the air, might not understand it can use this to steal the breath of a living creature and suffocate them – instead, they might be more inclined to shooting gusts of wind and throwing people around.)
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Creative Skill Use In 4e =-.

  3. i tend to describe finishing moves, otherwise i leave it up to the players to describe their actions. I know its not heavy RP, but it helps finish fights faster and get to the meat and potatoes.
    .-= mike´s last blog ..DNDGD Preview: Glorinus Male Human Invoker =-.

  4. Two tips I would give:
    1. Let your players shoulder some of the load. You can do this one of two ways. Either, they get to describe how they attack and then roll or they can roll and narrate the result.

    In the first instance, if the attack roll succeeds, the attack goes as planned. If the roll fails you can insert what in their description went wrong.

    In the second, you get to tell them if the attack is successful and the players know how much damage they have done (the degree of success) so they can narrate how their attack goes.

    The nice thing is also that you can hand out bonuses/penalties easily with either of these. For instance, if the player describes his attack in a way that is really interesting and creative, they might get a bonus to the attack roll for that round. If the player instead does a really great job narrating a successful attack roll then they can have a bonus next round.

    The second tip is to remember that hit points are an abstraction for many things besides the physical ability to sustain damage. Instead of taking a physical wound, maybe the fighter’s helmet was knocked askew so that he is less effective, or the evil knight is toying with him tiring him out, etc.

  5. Well, tactics are something you just learn from experience. If you have someone in your group who likes that sort of thing, work with them to learn the basics. The last campaign my wife ran, I usually statted out the creatures and gave tactical advice. She was getting pretty good by the end of the campaign.

    Description depends on what your group likes. We tend to go for very cinematic description, with light gore.
    .-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..New Magic Item – Guardian Totem =-.

  6. I had the same problem when I first started DMing a year ago, I think I got much better since and here are some ideas that hopefully can help:

    My favorite thing is to collaborate with the players, how I do this in combat is I the player’s ask a lot of questions about their character when we first start a new game. Not all at once, but as they come to mind. What does there weapon look like? what kind of visual effect does a spell have? Does the character have a particular fighting style?

    This slows down combat but in a good way I believe as it encourages both the players and the dm to collaborate on painting the scene together by attempting to answer these questions. I most often ask these sort of questions either when the player character slays a monster, or if they are trying to do something really cool.

    Sometimes I ask the player to describe it and often add my own descriptions on top of that, I’ve also had multiple players help describe a scene. This all really increased the role playing aspect in my 4e games as players began to think outside the cards more often and ask questions about things they could improvise in game. These all led to even more combat descriptions by both the players and dm.

    This method worked best for me because all the descriptions did not solely lean on me, but even better is that I learned a lot more about describing combat from my players all bringing cool new takes to the table.
    .-= kaeosdad´s last blog ..Mysterious Alien Dice Revealed!!! =-.

  7. If you need ideas for how to colourfully describe hits (and even misses) I’d suggest reading some fantasy novels. Good authors always have good ways of describing combat, so read some books and take notes during the combat scenes.

    This might not be as easy as it sounds. Some people get flustered during the heat of battle and simply can’t think of creative descriptions quickly. If this sounds like you, try this: come up with a list of “mad-lib” style hits and misses beforehand, and post this list on your DM screen for easy reference.

    Sean is right about tactics being an experience-based thing. However, I recently read a blog post about the book “Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition for Dummies”, and apparently there’s some decent combat advice in there.

  8. I discovered a good link on how to incorporate tactics into combat when you’re not using a grid for movement: Abstract Tactics from I Fly By Night. (I wrote my thoughts on it here, too.) It primarily deals with how to add mechanical significance to tactical choices when you don’t have the explicit positioning of a grid, but in the process of talking about that it covers a lot of the high-level ideas and manoeuvers that people in a real fight employ. It’s worth a read just as a primer on thinking of the larger picture in a fight, which would help a lot in making your NPCs take more interesting actions.
    .-= d7´s last blog ..Breaking radio silence with a basket of links =-.

    • Thanks everyone for your very useful comments. I appreciate all of your help and I’m sure my players will, too.

      @Rob — Thanks for the reminder. I tend to forget that NPCs make mistakes, unless they fumble/botch a roll. I need to remember they can make error judgements, too. I get so tied up in trying to figure out the “right” response, tactically, that I forget about the NPC’s personality and goals once we start rolling combat dice.

      @Wyatt — Yeah, I need to remember to look at the NPC’s intelligence stat as well as the physical ones. Thanks!

      @Mike — I don’t usually have a problem with PCs; my players are very good at describing what they do. It’s me that falls down on the job. I have a hard time coming up with ideas of what to do in response to the players’ actions.

      @Armstrong — Thanks for the reminder that successful attacks don’t always have to deal wounds. I like your images of tipping the helmet askew, impairing the opponent’s actions. 😉

      @Sean — I’m pretty good at the stating out. I could definitely use someone whispering tactics in my ear, though 😉 . Unfortunately, my fiance, who’s really good at that stuff, is also a player, so I can’t really pick his brains for ideas during the combat.

      @kaeosdad — Thanks for the tips. I’m definitely going to give them a try at my next session.

      @Dave — I’m definitely in your second category. I like the idea of the “mad libs” combat descriptions. Definitely got to give that a try. I’ll have to look into the 4e for Dummies book.

      @d7 — thanks for the link. I’ve printed out the post and have been re-reading it. I definitely need the help in making my NPC’s actions more interesting.

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