The Rambling Roleplayer’s Handy Tips For Descriptive Combat

Let’s just jump right into it. Here are some descriptive combat tips I’ve been thinking about for the last few days:

  • Be brief: a sentence or two is all that is necessary. Even just shouting “By Crom!” before you roll to hit is more exciting that doing nothing. Be creative.
  • Describe spell casting: Still taking only a sentence or two, describe what casting your spell looks like and/or what the effect looks like. If the spell lists components, briefly describe how those components are incorporated in the casting.Magic can look however you imagine it to look and a signature color or pattern or even a sound can be a great way to add a personal touch. Is your fireball purple? Does your magic missile look like an arrow or your wizard’s personal sigil?  Is the effect of your sleep spell accompanied by a haunting lullaby? Be creative.
  • Create movement: Move around and use the environment when possible. Back up a stairwell while fighting (so that maybe in a later round you can swing down from a rope that’s up there for some reason), kick over braziers, jump on tables, swing from chandeliers, dive behind barricades. Be creative.
  • Build on the descriptions of others: As both players and game masters, look for ways to incorporate what has already been described into the unfolding narrative. Did your goblin roll a 1 to hit? Maybe he tripped over the chair that someone kicked over last round. Be creative.
  • Use “to hit” results to inform the narrative: Rather than make players roll athletics checks each time they want to do something relatively simple, like jump on a table, just assume that they can reasonably do such a thing. Then if they have a particularly high or low to hit roll, incorporate the intended action into the description of the die result. If the player rolled a one while jumping up on a table, maybe he or she actually broke the table in half and is now prone. If he or she rolled a critical hit, maybe the maneuver was so impressive that the foe is temporarily taken aback and has disadvantage on the next attack. Be creative.
  • Be Creative!: Combat is a big part of most roleplaying games, and it often takes up a lot of the time you spend at the table. Don’t make the mistake of mentally partitioning your game time into “combat time” and “roleplaying time.” Combat is a great place to be creative and add personality to your character, whether its by engaging in witty banter with your friends (or foes), or describing your character’s unique approach to a situation, or even how the situation makes your character feel. Roleplaying doesn’t have to stop at the initiative roll!

Here is the grain of salt: be reasonable regarding what your character can and can’t accomplish, and remember that the point of all this narration and description isn’t always to gain a mechanical advantage – it’s about telling a cool story and giving your mind’s eye something to look at. If a player or non-player character’s intended actions would result in a significant mechanical advantage then other skill checks and dice rolls should probably be involved, otherwise the rule of cool should prevail. If the swashbuckler want’s to swing from a chandelier to leap over some foes and end up behind them, you should probably just let him do it, because in the grand scheme of things it sounds cooler and is way more fun than calling for a dexterity check that fails and causes falling damage. I know that intuitively a lot of the things I’m proposing sound like they should involve skill checks, but if the end result is largely cosmetic or provides nothing more than a minor combat boost then is there really a point to roll those extra dice or add that possibility of failure? Probably not. If you feel like you must call for skill checks, consider making failure interesting instead of just being a failure. For example: that swashbuckler from above? Let’s say you call for a Dexterity check or an Athletics check and he fails. He can still more-or-less accomplish what he wants to do (land behind his foes), but maybe he dropped his sword, or didn’t quite stick the landing, or – better yet – maybe he knocked a candle out of the chandelier and now a curtain is on fire.

The bottom line is that if you make your players roll skill and ability checks to succeed (and potentially fail) at all of the cool things they think about doing in a combat then they are going to just stop doing those things, and you’ll be back to: “I roll to hit with my long bow” instead of “I use the kite shield as a sled and go skidding down the stairs, crashing headlong into the advancing orcs!” The trade-off involved in getting more descriptions that sound like the last one and less descriptions that sound like the first one is well worth it.

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