Spicing Up Combat

“I take two swings with my axe.”

“Okay, roll your attacks.”

“17 to hit, and… 15 to hit.”

“All right, 17 hits, roll damage.”

“12 points of damage.”


Does the above sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve all been there. Toward the third or fourth round of combat DM and players alike can become lazy in their descriptions, defaulting to the drudgery of a numbers exchange. Contrast what you read above with this:

“I shake the blood out of my eyes and growl, “where d’you think you’re goin’ lassie?” and I swing my axe down aiming for her spear arm…. 17 to hit.”

“The orc chieftainess leaps backward but not before your axe rakes through her leather armor. She roars in pain jabbing her spear toward you but you dodge and go for your second attack.”

“Aaargh! I leap into the air and try to cleave into her chest… 15.”

“Her eyes widen and she pulls her shield up, knocking your axe sideways just before you would have shattered her collarbone. You breathe heavily, the axe gripped tight in your hands, ready for her retaliation.”

Orc Mom
“Fierce Protectress” by Drinke94 licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I don’t know about you, but this version is much more exciting to me. I also know that coming up with twelve different ways to say “she slashes at you” during combat is difficult. So, I would like to share with you a few ways to keep combat sessions from turning into monotonous slogs and hopefully you will share your ways with me in the comments.

Have Descriptions Handy

Before the game, think about the type of attacks the enemies and players could make. If the enemies have spears and shields write down a few descriptive verbs on the sheet next to their AC and attack bonus. Words like jab, heave, thrust, gouge, strike. If one player casts spells think about the effects of those spells: for burning hands, the flames blaze into fiery ropes, searing the flesh of the enemies. Maybe the blight spell drains the color from the victim as their skin ages two, three, ten years, leaving them wrinkled and gray.

If you spend a few minutes jotting down descriptive verbs, when the intensity of battle drives all creativity from your mind you can quickly pull from your list and keep those descriptions from become trite and stale.

Check out Linestorm Writing for a list of verbs to get started.

Encourage Player Creativity

This is a big problem I have had as a player. I want to do cool things as my character. I want to slide under my enemy’s legs for a surprise chop like Gimli, I want to scale trees and flip off of branches onto enemy mounts like Selina Kyle, I want to use hunger of Hadar to simulate the dark Jean Grey.

Dark Phoenix
“dark phoenix” by  Peterjon Smith licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But, even though D&D is a game of fantasy and creativity, there are rules that must be obeyed so that one player can’t go wild and destroy all the enemies single-handed, leaving nothing for her fellow players to do but sit and watch. (I get this.)

I have no problem with making sure the game is balanced and fun for all. But occasionally, I think the DM should throw rules and balance to the wind and let the players be awesome. That’s a major reason why we play D&D, isn’t it? To feel cool and powerful in a reality that’s separate from our own mundane one where we may not feel very cool or powerful?

This can be as simple as making the DC for a skill check fairly low for a character who you believe would have reason to be practiced in that skill, or when a player asks if he can grab the enemy and piledrive him, let him do it and just take the normal amount of weapon damage for the attack so that he isn’t penalized for being creative.

Request Player Narration

Often, players aren’t sure how much they can or should narrate their character’s actions. Talk about this with your players. Let them know up front that you would enjoy and appreciate their narration insofar as it makes sense to the game. For instance, the player might not know if their attack hits, so saying “I chop the goblin’s head off” might not make sense after the DM evaluates the roll against the goblin’s AC. However, the player can describe how they attack. “I wipe the sweat from my forehead, gritting my teeth against the pain in my leg. Exhausted, I bring my sword up towards the goblin’s neck.”

Another player and I recently tried to up our combat descriptions in a game in which we’re both players. It was way more fun thinking of creative things to do on my turn and how I would narrate those things. Even though this type of narration does take a little longer than the standard “I take my two attacks on [X]”, I found that it made the game seem more real, fresh, and cinematic and was well worth the additional length.

Make Your Voice Exciting

Kapow
This image is in the public domain. 

Comic books routinely employ onomatopoeia to bring fight scenes to life. You can, too. Also, try adding in your own sound effects. Practice by listening to and mimicking recordings of arrows whistling through the air, the thud of a landed blow, clang of armor. And remember, you don’t have to be perfect. Laughing about a particularly awful sound effect can provide a nice break from the intensity of battle.

Additionally, adjust the volume and speed of your voice when you’re narrating. Speaking quickly helps maintain a feeling of urgency, tension. Highlight the struggle of the characters through inflection. The best advice I have in this regard is to write down a short passage, something similar to what you would say in a game, and record yourself. Listen to the playback and ask: would you be excited by this narration? Are the words rendering the scene vividly in your mind?

The next step is to look at yourself in the mirror while you deliver the same description. Does your face and body language match your voice? Can you hunch your shoulders to accentuate the barbaric monster, maybe squint one eye? You’ll probably feel silly, but I promise your players will appreciate it. This is also one of the best motivations for DMing for a single player. You can test out things that make you feel uncomfortable in a lower pressure environment and hopefully build some skill and confidence.

For those of you who have found your combat scenes a little lackluster, I hope these tips will revamp your experience and help you take your game to the next level.

How do you keep combat fresh? Leave a comment with your response!

2 thoughts on “Spicing Up Combat

  1. VolsungsSword

    I think this is great advice! So often in my dnd games as a player, combats often become stale the longer they go on, and I think a lot of the blame for this usually goes to the DM (and I’ve had DMs that deserve some blame for speaking near monotone). But putting more emphasis on the players to do their part and continue to be descriptive is a great point! I imagine descriptive excitement probably builds if both players and DM are striving to follow the points you make.

    Liked by 2 people

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