Roleplaying Resources

Making Combat More Exciting

2/28/01 “Drew Id”

Describe everything in as much detail as possible. A thesaurus can be your best firend here, and don't be afraid to put together a list of good words or phrases to use for later. It doesn't take long to create a list of 100 combat phrases to describe misses, hits, and wounds. Try to describe (and encourage your players) to go an entire combat without ever using the words “attack”, “hit”, and “miss”. Is that orc just “attacking” with his sword or is he spinning the blade above his head than stabbing down into the player's shoulder? Would you rather just “hit” the orc, or skewer him. Did the arrow just “miss”, or did it whiff past your head and part your hair?

When a character hits, choose a part of the enemy's body, and describe the strike and the wound, even if you don't ever use hit-location charts or additional effects. Use sounds, sights, and any other appropriate senses. Maybe orc blood smells like sour milk. Describe to the player how their sword swept across the orc's helmet and a gallon of this foul blood has sprayed onto their armor. A critical hit, particularly a fatal hit, should be a decapitation or a blow that sends a weapon clean through an enemy's body.

When a character misses, describe how they miss. Did the swing just not connect with anything? Was it artfully dodged? Did it bounce off of a well-placed shield? Was it parried by the pirate's highly skillful rapier work or clang harmlessly off of their breastplate? Also, describe what the blow was aimed for, even if it is irrelevant. How much more frightening is the goblin who is clearly aiming again and again to shatter your ankle with his club than the one that just goes for a standard chest wound. Again, you don't have to come up with rules for a broken ankle, just count the HP damage if you want, but the clarity of the description will make the battle more exciting.

Remember too that misses could still leave bruises and small cuts that are not calculated as real hit point damage, just for the sake of description. An arrow that just misses may have clipped a character's ear, leaving a tiny jagged bit of meat hanging down and slowly dripping blood into their ear. Their clothes can be ripped, their armor dented, and their shield develops a dangerous looking crack. The character doesn't even have to take a single hit point of damage to show they've been in a fight, if you just add vivid descriptions.

Collateral damage also can be included. A fight in the woods might mean that swords and arrows bounce off of trees and slice off branches. A bar brawl should lead to broken furniture and shattered plates and mugs of ale. That fireball may have set the curtains ablaze (creating smoke), and that shattered vial of acid may be slowly eating through the floor.

Onlookers and innocent bystanders don't have to be involved to be “involved”. They may be screaming, running, cheering, or even tossing pies. Just don't let them sit there like lumps.

When a character or enemy dies, don't just have them slump to the ground every time. Perhaps they drop their weapon, stagger backwards clutching at their wounds, and collapse with a long deep groan. Perhaps they stare straight into the character's eyes and grasp the character's wrist as they slide to the ground, with a look of surpirse, shock and pain.

If the enemies are not dead, how wounded are they? This is a common question in longer combats. Don't just say “slightly wounded”, or “nearly dead”. You don't have to tracks every scratch and bruise they have developed over the course of combat, but describe their general condition using these terms. The thug who is staggering, holding his sword low, and clutching a bloody jagged wound to his ribs is clearly worse off than the archer with a nasty bruise on one leg.

And in addition to all of this, the enemies should seldom be silent thugs. Perhaps they curse the characters and make racial slurs or insults. Perhaps they scream with pain or roar with rage. Maybe they call out code words to one another, indicating they have tactics prepared, or they use battlecries and songs of valor.

As with many habits, the players will follow the DM. If a player wants to describe their own wounds, let them and encourage them, provided it at least remotely matches the Hit Point damage they have inflicted or recieved. If they describe their attacks as something more than a standard action, you can just asks them how they see handling it by the rules. Many times, the “dropping to one knee and trying to skewer the orc's groin with my dagger” just amounts to a normal attack, and the “somersaulting over the bar and then diving to the floor, rolling across the room to pull the rug out from under the pirate's feet” is just a move (maybe with a tumble) and then a trip attack.