Previously I described how you can think about, set up and envisage the combat encounters you place in your games. That post had a large focus on mechanical aspects like “How challenging is this combat?” and why you want to throw one in, such as a consequence for a poor decision, to drain a players resources, to make them think or because the tactical combat the game supports is just fun by itself. One of the biggest barriers to players and the DM enjoying combat in any RPG though is a much more nebulous one: Connecting the mechanics with the fiction.
Consider a really basic scenario, where a fighter in full plate is being shot at by four goblins with bows and the first two miss by a large margin on the dice (needs 16+ and rolls a 2 and a 4), one misses by a very narrow margin (got a total of 15!) and the other critically hits the fighter (rolls a natural 20!). Mechanically in the likes of DnD this is extremely easy to adjudicate as “They missed three times and one managed to critically hit!” but describing combat like this is – how shall I put this – rather boring. Narratively you’re not really giving the player any indication what’s really going on, particularly if they can’t see your dice rolls.
Below is how I would describe what happened above, which will hopefully give you some ideas for how to make combat feel more like a living part of the game. Additionally, roleplaying doesn’t have to stop with a combat encounter: Indeed, sometimes a fight is the best time to engage in some meaningful roleplaying for both monsters, NPCs and PCs.
Firstly when I talk about “The fiction” I basically mean “What actually happened in the game world”. One great way to merge mechanics and fiction together into a coherent narrative, is to consider the degree of success or failure. In the above example, two of the goblins missed so badly the broad side of a barn was probably entirely safe from their attack. You can narrate the situation like this:
One of the goblins pulls back on his bow, but sends the arrow flying wildly off to your left and into harmless air. The second goblin manages to fair no better, firing his bow but the arrow thuds into the ground several feet in front of you.
Here what you have done is brought a purely boring and mechanical “I missed” situation into something that feels alive. There is now a visual image for why the goblins missed and the sheer degree of failure, even without a single idea of what the roll was, is clear to all of the players at once. What you’re doing with a very simple one sentence description is turning mechanics into the games fiction, but it also enhances and enriches the game. Let me show you how by looking at the case where the goblin who very narrowly missed is described:
The third goblin aims his bow carefully and lets loose an arrow in your direction, which soon turns into a loud whizzing sound as it streaks past your head and narrowly misses your ear!
Here we’ve actually told the player something important mechanically: That whatever it was the goblin rolled, it was incredibly close – but not quite enough – to hit his defenses. This kind of description I find is the best method for telling players what is happening, without having to be especially overt about it. For example, the goblin may have rolled a 10 and has a +5 attack bonus, which means he narrowly misses the fighters AC of 16. If you are like me and you roll your dice in the open, you might not want to communicate the precise attack bonuses of the enemies (EG does a 15 vs. your AC hit?). Instead, description can do that for you and if your players pay careful attention they can infer the goblin got in total around 14 or 15.
If you do this consistently you can blur the lines being the roleplaying fiction being created and the mechanics of the game. For example, let us say that the goblin actually hit, but very narrowly this time: He got a 16, which is just enough to hit the fighter. In this case you might describe a minor scrape, or maybe a glancing blow or similar. Here is where this approach pays off, simply due to this description the wizard who might have a reaction to add some AC to the Fighter on a hit, decides to chime in and say “I use the force of Mystra to provide a protective sheen on the fighters armor, deflecting the blow!”. Sure, it’s just +2 AC, but because of your consistency (we hope) in description the player doesn’t have to ask or guess that, he knows it’s only a narrow hit. So with the +2 AC the glancing blow/narrow hit suddenly becomes a miss, sparing the fighter some hit points.
Likewise, especially brutal or clear hits can be easily communicated in the same way, so that you don’t even have to worry about the whole “Will +2 AC save my friend” discussion in the first place. I would often describe a critical like this:
“The arrow from the last goblin is aimed really well, so well in fact that it finds the most narrow weakness in your armor and goes practically straight through! You can feel it lodged deep in your actual flesh and blood rapidly begins to seep through into your underarmor.”
Here I’ve taken a bit more time to describe what was happening than the previous statements, because a critical hit is a rarer occasion (or at least, it hopefully is) you can take more time in describing it. This doesn’t only apply to critical hits of course, but if a blow is suitably solid (that is hits by a wide margin) you should make the degree of success much less marginal. For example:
Misses by 5+: “The sword is swung at you clumsily and without a lot of direction, with you trivially avoiding being hit”
Misses by 3+: “The opponent tries to slash you across the chest but you’re able to raise your shield and deflect the blow easily enough.”
Misses by 2 or less: “The sword strike is well directed and difficult to dodge out of the way, so you use your shield to catch it at the last moment – preventing a nasty blow!”
Hits narrowly (Exact AC or 1 above): “You attempt to parry or block the blow, but they are just good enough to get by your defenses and slash into you drawing a deep cut!”
Hits beyond 3+: “They trivially bash your shield out of the way and then slam down into you, cutting through your armor and deeply into your flesh!”
And so on.
Note that it doesn’t matter what kind of game we’re talking about here either. Just because these examples are from DnD doesn’t mean you can’t easily do this in Shadowrun, Vampire, Promethean, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents or any other system. Anything that uses dice where you have a degree of difference between failure and success can easily be turned into descriptions like this. For example in a brutal bar fight in Night’s Black Agents, where an agent is fighting a ghoulish vampiric servant, when the Agent clocks the ghoul on the head with a bottle of whisky by rolling a 6 on a d6 (modified to 8 after two points in weapons was added) that is because it was well above the creatures hit threshold of 4. The more dramatic the difference, the more dramatic and possibly longer the result of the description should be.
In fact the more rare or exceptional a situation, the longer your descriptions should actually be and here we need to have a very important discussion.
When do you use description?
It’s important to realize that if you want combats ticking along at a decent rate, you shouldn’t go into long exacting speeches about what happens every second of a combat. Despite what I advocate in this post, it absolutely is okay just to go “You hit!” or “You miss!” if you want to keep things moving along. Generally speaking keep descriptions short, to the point and not overdrawn. Only give longer descriptions to things that are especially relevant or important, like the blow that knocks a PC unconscious or a critical hit. As a rule of thumb, spend no more than a sentence or two at most on typical mundane misses or hits. Anything that does something important, dramatic or interesting should get the majority of time.
It might not seem like a lot, but a sentence every time for a lot of rolls can really add up: Especially on multiple attacks. A good rule for this is to make all of the attacks a creature is doing, figure out what they did and then describe them in a bunch. For example if your party is fighting a Marilith or something with a lot of tentacles in Trail of Cthulhu, consider making all your attacks/damage rolls then describing the overall situation:
“The creature stabs and slashes at you repeatedly, with several of the whirling blows landing and causing deep, painful wounds.”
Ultimately the player gets the same overall idea, but with less precision as to what each individual blow or attack did. Considering that some monsters may attack more than four times in a single turn at times, this is a pretty useful way of condensing down what can be exhausting narrative. Remember the idea is to make the game world come alive and feel more like an actual battle, not an impromptu lecture on the dynamics of swords being able to penetrate plate armor or similar.
Use those free actions to talk!
Something else that can be useful in a fight and equally as entertaining as pure narration, is to have enemies talk to the player characters while they fight. For example, if you narrowly miss the cultist holding the idol of Cthulhu and he manages to plunge it into the reliquary to open it, instead of describing the miss – talk about how the cultist reacted like so:
“The cultist reacts to the bullet whizzing past him with absolute glee, raising his hands with the idol and declaring ‘FOOLS! YOUR INABILITY TO AIM HAS BEEN YOUR DOWNFALL!! MUAHAHAHHAHAHA’ before he jams the idol right into the hole in the reliquary, causing the terrible object to open and unleash the ancient being trapped within”
Here you’re establishing some personality of the cultist, which sure, is just “Crazy” but you are able to use this to begin further interactions. For example in a fight if NPCs or monsters talk to the PCs, you can frequently make for interesting roleplaying moments or present unique solutions. For example a ghoul that goes on about delicious salted meats and is attacking the guy with all the provisions in the party, might spark someone to suggest “Why not chuck the food out to it?” If you then have the ghoul immediately disengage from a fight to go get it, you’ve just established some interesting roleplaying and given the players an incentive to chat to enemies.
Likewise some immature rapport can add a lot to a fight, with an insulting Yuan-ti or crazed sorcerer yelling strange things at the PCs making a fight much more memorable. In the same way that you can communicate concepts like “You missed narrowly” through a description of what physically happened, consider having the pirate yell “Ha, ya just missed me you blind sea cow!” as an equally valid way of communicating the same information. Just be prepared for some particularly cutting insults back :O
In summary, if you add some description to your games and are consistent about it you can make a big blur between storytelling and mechanics. This is pretty good because it helps establish in the players minds more what is going on when say, a 20 is rolled or when a miss is by a small/large margin in particular. Not to mention that you don’t have to stop roleplaying just because a fight started, if you have enemies that can communicate with the players you can start opening up some really intriguing and interesting possibilities!