Saturday, 9 February 2013

Some tips on describing combat in a roleplaying game

Artwork (c) Jeff Easley
Game mechanics and rules are all well and good – after all, they decide what you can and can’t do and if you do or don’t succeed. Most role-playing games don’t work without them. Asking for the players to make dice rolls is a regular occurrence, especially when the players get involved in combat of one form or another. In fact, in a lot of games, any conflict is most likely where the most amounts of dice rolling is going to take place. You’re probably going to be rolling dice to decide on hits, parries, dodges, damage and any other number of eventualities that happen during combat. In high adventure games this is a certainty.

But with all this combat comes a slight problem, and that problem is this – when fighting the battles, the game sometimes changes from a detailed narrative to simple number crunching and bookkeeping. The combat becomes the game; i.e. the rules mechanics are continually the forefront of the chatter as the conflict is decided.

So, after a long time detailing the game world with eloquent narrative, detailed descriptions and interesting NPC/PC conversation, the game suddenly shifts into numbers and tables, dice rolls and results. ‘Rules-speak’ replaces ‘Game-speak’ – this can stall the otherworldly atmosphere you’ve created.

How to avoid this?

Rely on the game

Many games already have their own detailed combat tables but these tables describe the effects of combat and not the actual event itself. Certain games, such as Rolemaster or Warhammer Fantasy Role-play, have random descriptions that describe small slices up to amputations, head ringing blows up to concussions, even beheadings if the roll is high enough. At first this sounds great – finding out what kind of damage you have done can be exciting as the fight progresses, but once the characters are of a certain skill then only a few of the higher-end critical descriptions apply. There are only so many times you can read out the same entry for every foe slain.

To counter this, change the description slightly. Some descriptions are simple, at any rate such as ‘Cut deeply into arm, +5 hits’ or ‘Shot to head, +10 hits, stunned 2 rounds’, so they’ll be easy to build upon. If the description calls for a beheading, just tone it down to a throat-cut. If an arm is lost, then make it a hand, or lop it off at the elbow, or at the bicep. As long as the effect of the wound is the same as it is written on the table, the details of how it happened do not need to be repeated.

For example, taking the entries above, lets say a PC hits a foe in the arm and rolls the ‘Cut deeply into arm, +5 hits’ description. As well as explaining the effects (if it is in your house rules to detail the condition of enemies in combat) you could say, ‘your sword cuts into his upper arm and he howls in pain – fresh blood splashes down your blade and stains the carpet scarlet’. A little bit of narrative helps visualise the combat and also helps to prevent the encounter from turning into a dice-fest.

Now, lets take the second entry ‘Shot to head, +10 hits, stunned 2 rounds’, and let’s say it is the PC that has been hit. As well as detailing the effects of the critical, you could add ‘the bullet slams into your left temple and for a moment there is bright light and pain, the blood pounds in your ears and the room spins out of focus’. At this point, the player has no control over what happens to his character so you have free licence to describe the incident as you wish.

Remember - don’t go overboard with your descriptions. Combat, depending on the situation, can be fast and furious. Simple one- or two-line descriptions as in the examples above are all you’ll need. Long-winded details such as ‘your sword swings with a flash of steel like lightning, cutting through the armour of your foe and then into the flesh, followed by a scream as the wound bites deep, the enemy staggering backwards from the pain and the shock, the blood splashing…’ and so on will slow the game down. Also, in a long combat, you won’t be able to keep the narrative going before you start to repeat yourself and then the effect will be lost.

Of course, you can’t always rely on the game to supply the details of the combat.

Gamesmaster’s control

Combat is ultimately under the direct control of the GM. The players, for their part, can describe the tactical moves the PC’s are making but the results of their decisions, the description of the fight and the movement of the NPC’s is controlled by the GM. Each player makes their dice rolls to determine their success – it’s up to the GM to describe the results of these rolls.

a) Initial Confrontation

When the PC’s and the intended threat first face off, the GM must describe the environment and the reaction of the NPC’s. A lot of encounters might begin with numbers, weapons, who looks like they’re in charge etc, and then the battle commences with surgical precision. ‘They look like a threat, lets fight them’ kind of thing. By adding a little description to the encounter, such as what is in the immediate vicinity of the characters and the appearance and the emotional reaction of the NPC’s, the GM can already begin to add detail to the encounter.

For example, let’s say three PC’s have wandered into an Orc camp. There are two ways the GM can describe the initial encounter:

The straight report – ‘You find yourselves walking into a small clearing where five roughly-dressed Orcs are camped. There’s a fire in the middle, and the Orcs see you, gather their weapons and attack.’ This is a straightforward way of beginning the fight. It gives details of the vicinity and the rough appearance of the Orcs, and the fact that the PC’s should get ready to defend themselves.

The detailed report – ‘You crash through the thick vegetation to find yourselves in a small clearing. A blazing fire burns in the centre and silhouettes five figures standing casually by it – Orcs. They are dressed in a variety of rusted breastplates and broken chain mail, dirty and unkempt, and as you appear they turn to face you. There’s a moment of shock as they stare at you, evidently not expecting company, and as the shock fades they draw their rusted swords and run forward, faces contorted with rage’. As the combat is not yet joined then you can afford the long description. What this longer detail tells the PC’s is that the clearing was well hidden, the Orcs are not expecting trouble (an advantage they could capitalise on) and that they aren’t very well prepared for trouble, what with their mess of armour and old weapons. Although some of this detail will not aid the PC’s in the fight, it gives the encounter a sense of identity and helps imprint the visualisation of the scene in the player’s mind.

b) Conflict

When battle is joined the GM has to think fast. Not only are they responsible for the actual mechanics of the fight, they must also quickly insert little snippets of detail to bring the combat to life. There’s no need to detail every tiny moment of the fight, but small sentences during combat, with larger descriptions inserted to heighten the more important parts of the fight.

For example, PC #1 hits Orc #1 with his sword. The rolls dictate that the PC hit the Orc, that the Orc tried to parry but failed, and the blade hit the Orc in the chest, robbing him of three quarters of his hit points. The GM could, to speed things up, simply describe the results of the rolls. Preferably, they will go into more detail determined by the drama of the moment.

So, if the PC hits an Orc foot soldier as part of the ongoing fight, the GM could say ‘you swing your sword (perhaps even miming the move) and cut down at the Orc, who lifts his blade to intercept but fails, and you slice him across his chest, sending him staggering and howling’. This is enough. You could go into detail regarding the arc of the sword, the flash of steel, the ripping of armour, the spray of blood, the face of the enemy… this is all very good, but you must remember that combat, in most cases, is fast and bloody. Describe the action but don’t dwell on it unless the player is impressed with what they have done.

On the other side of the coin, lets say the PC has hit the Orc Chief, or is cutting down the last Orc of the fight. Then the GM can add a bit more detail as this is obviously an important part of the conflict. It is here that you can wave you arms about, contort your face, howl as the enemy does – ‘You swing your sword overhead, hacking down at the Orc Chief (mime the action here) who, already wounded, tries to lift his sword to intercept but he reacts weakly (mime here). Your sword slashes him down the chest, slicing armour, cloth and flesh (indicate the body area where he has been struck on you r own body), and he staggers back, his faced shocked and pained (contort your face) and he crashes onto his back and lays still’. As this moment is a dramatic moment, either the defeat of an important NPC or the end of the battle, then the GM can go into a bit more detail to represent the turning point or the winding down of the conflict. Physical representation by miming the moves or expressing the features of the NPC’s add an extra dimension and helps the PC’s visualise the fight.

c) Resolution

The fight is over – for better or worse. Now it’s time to wind things down, let the PC’s catch their breath. If your descriptions have been enough to help visualise the fight and the combat has been fast enough then the players will be emotionally tired. It’s time to gather your wits and review the situation. Who’s injured? Who’s dead? What has been broken, or lost? Describe the blood, splattered ground, the pain of wounds, the sweat, the tears, the deep breaths of exertion. Don’t just run the fight – you’ve described the initial encounter and detailed the fight but your job is not over yet.

For example, let’s say the PC’s are victorious but one of their number is seriously wounded. Describe the scene after the fight, with Orc corpses littering the clearing. Maybe one has fallen dead on the fire and is cooking with an acrid stench. Their blood will stain the ground, the weapons and the PC’s. Any wounds suffered will slowly be realised as the adrenalin wears off – cuts and grazes and slices and gashes will bleed and ache, limbs will ache with exertion, heads will hurt with the shock of it all. The badly wounded PC might be crying out in pain, clutching a badly mangled limb, crying for help. This will be up to the players to act out, but the GM should make them aware of their injuries and their state.

On the other hand, the GM might be of the ‘high adventure’ ilk. Perhaps the game is played with an abandon, so that when the enemy is defeated the PC’s all walk from the fight with puffed-out chests and a knee-slapping bravado. Still – that’s a group preference and not considered in this article.

Player control

a) Initial Confrontation

Using the examples under the Gamesmaster’s control heading, the players can have a hand in the description of the fight by actually narrating their actions instead of the GM. This solves two things – 1, the GM has some of the work taken off them as the players shoulder some of the action and 2, it gives the players more sense of control over their PC’s.

So for example, let’s say the three PC’s have just burst through the foliage to see the five Orcs. Instead of the player simply saying ‘I draw my sword and attack’, he could add a bit of detail, such as ‘I stop and stare, shocked (mimes a surprised look), and grab hold of my sword’. This is a small detail but every little bit can help to the final image of the encounter. Remember, the player will be reacting to the GM’s description. Be careful, mind – don’t interrupt the GM as he sets up the scene with premature descriptions. This can disrupt the flow of the narrative. Wait until the GM pauses for input or asks you your response before deciding on a course of action

b) Conflict

The GM might be of the ilk that describes the combat and the players roll the dice – although this takes the pressure off the player, it’s always best to add your own little bit of narrative. Instead of saying ‘I hit the Orc with my sword’, embellish it a little. Say ‘I swing my sword overhead (mime the action if necessary) and cut down at it’. If you parry a blow, mime the action and say ‘I’ll knock his sword away with a clang!’ or something. Try not to simply roll the dice and say ‘I got him’. Roll the dice and say ‘I slash at him (mime the action) with a roar – argh! – and throw my weight behind it’.

Again, be careful not to go overboard with your descriptions. Detailed narrative of the intricacies of holding a sword, the rippling of muscles and a slow motion slash might be entertaining to you, but there are other players and a GM to consider and bullet-time miming might slow things down a bit. Also, don’t go over the top with the physical manoeuvres your PC might attempt. Back flipping over the enemy, landing square behind him and pirouetting into a slice might sound great but when you barely scratch him with your attack, or the GM adds all kinds of modifiers to the dice roll for the action, you’ll soon realise to keep it simple. Unless the action has a tactical advantage or it is part of the PC’s fighting skills then leave it out and concentrate on what you can do.

c) Resolution

So, the fight is over. The enemy lie dead, but what wounds have you suffered? How do you feel? How long did the fight last? It’s all well and god looking at your character sheet and noting that you’ve taken several hits, but how do those hits physically manifest themselves? Act the part of a wounded person – that slice across the arm might count for five hit points, but it’s still a slice across the arm. You’re in pain. You’re hurt. Five Orcs just tried to slice you up – you’ll be trembling from the encounter, and as the adrenalin wears off you might get the shakes or cold flushes, depending on the demeanour of your character. You might be the stoic type, bind your wounds with a grimace and do your best to appear defiant. You might collapse under the strain and want to be left alone for a while. If you’re badly injured, you might need help, writhing in agony. The point is, act out the aftermath, role-play the condition of your character. That loss of hit points means something, the stats of your character mean something, the attitude of your character means something and it can all be used to describe how your character acts after a major fight. It adds a dimension of reality to the whole proceedings and can be very rewarding.

Different kinds of combat

Below are several short ideas of descriptive things to remember when running certain types of combat.

a) Fist and kicks
The slap of flesh, the shock of impacts, the thump of fists, the grunts of pain, the bruising, cuts and scrapes, the dizzying blows, the winding punches, the staggering falls, the crash of furniture, the cracking of bones.

b) Hand weapons
The clash/ring/flash/gong/rattle of steel, the swoosh of swinging weapons, the cries of pain, the fear of expression, the splash of blood, the stench of offal, the slipperiness of the ground, the ache of bones, the slicing of flesh, the cutting of limbs, the white light of stuns, the roar of anguish and defiance.

c) Missile weapons
The crack/bang/explosion of weapons, the swoosh of arrows, the shock of impact, the surprise of being hit, the penetration of missiles, spraying of blood, the sharp pains, the splinter of bones, the screams of agony, the tenseness of aiming, the clouds of dust of near hits, the whistle of bullets and shells.

d) Energy weapons
The flash of light, the screech of energy, the heat of near hits, the melting of flesh/bone/metal, the cries of pain, the crash of explosions, the smell of burning, the haze of smoke, blinding bright light, the hiss of decompression, the shouts of conflict.

e) Vehicle combat
The screeching of tyres, the roar of engines, the thump of impacts, the crash of metal, the speed of aircraft, the spiralling of star fields, the brightness of explosions, the thump of concussion, the shaking of vehicles, the cries of shock/anguish/surprise, the blare of horns, the wailing of sirens.