Running a combat encounter can be one of the toughest challenges any GM faces. You have to pay attention to the details of stats and turn order, you have to watch the dice and run calculations in your head. To be creative and evocative with your narration at the same time requires practice.
There’s no right way or wrong way to run combat. Each group is different, and each game is different, as well. While there are no shortcuts to becoming an experienced GM, you will find that others are happy to share what they learned on their path to practice.
In fact, there a set of tips that GMs frequently offer up when asked for advice, and you’ll find them compiled below.
- Use the description to transition between players. For example, “Bob, you’ve just seen the goblin spring from the bush to stab Ralph in the back. It looks like the bard’s armour has absorbed most of the damage, but now you have a choice between stopping the spy escaping or going back to help Bob.”
- In games like D&D, “hit points” aren’t “health points” and are used to represent someone’s pool of fighting ability so make sure to describe people being put under pressure, getting tired, losing ground and similar “hit point losses.”
- Have a set of prepared simple sentences ready. For example, “Your sword glances off their shield”, “You elicit a grunt as your spear jabs into their shoulder”, “You draw your mace back up, and it has blood on the head.”
- Ask players to describe their own critical hits and kills.
- Watch Matt Mercer on Critical Role and learn from his experience.
- Watch martial arts movies to see how combat flows and moves.
- Watch Netflix with audio description on and tune into some action shows.
- Read lots of fantasy novels in which combat happens.
- Describe what just happened from the previous turn and then let the next in line player take over for their round.
- Keep the intensively descriptive and time-consuming narration for critical hits, kills or fails. This will help combat flow quickly.
- Try and include as much body movement as possible. This will help the combat feel less static.
- Dramatise misses as well as the successes. If you have one or more player who gets frustrated in combat, this is a chance to make sure their character still looks heroic in the fight.
- Give your players moments in the spotlight, even if they haven’t managed to roll well, as this will keep their attention and may encourage them to be more descriptive.
- Some players naturally pay less attention in combat, so consider describing the action as it flows around them. This could make many combats into a ‘protect the healer’ situation if the healer player doesn’t particularly like combat, but that’s okay.
- Give the players ways to active skills, powers and feats. For example, if the Fighter has a “Power Attack” move then give her a list of things she needs to do to trigger it in the game such as “Shout ‘for the temple!'” before wielding her mace.
- Make sure you know the rules as well as possible or have handy reminders in easy access. Checking the books can get in the way of describing heroic action.
Combat Description Cards
There are various combat description cards available on DriveThruRPG but Conflict Games’ 700 system neutral ways to describe combat is the highest-rated set I can find.
Creative Commons credit: Battle for the Epic Sword Rock by Blazbaros.
What tips and tricks do you have for GMs and DMs to better and more easily help bring combat scenes to life?