“The thing that I like about action sequences is that if they’re done well, you get to know more about the character in those few minutes than you do through 10 minutes of exposition.” –David Leitch (action movie director)
So, now that we’ve looked at the mechanics of combat posting, let’s get down to the more fun part, describing what your character does in a fight. When done well, combat is more than just a break in the storytelling to determine the outcome of a hostile interaction with a few dice rolls.
Combat encounters should drive the narrative through points of conflict and beyond while allowing the players to express their characters in a more dynamic and action-oriented manner. What role a character takes in a fight, their outlook on fighting and especially how they choose to fight can tell a lot about them. Most real-life martial artists will tell you that you can get a good grasp of a person by watching them fight, and the same goes for spellcasters.
In the next few installments we’ll explore a few ways to make your combat posts dynamic and engaging.
Sort of the kickoff point of any combat encounter, initiative sets the order of actions. While it’s perfectly fine to simply post an initiative roll, the GM’s call for initiative is a great opportunity, both to touch on the character’s thoughts in those few seconds before violence erupts, and also to give an in-game reason for the initiative roll.
Think of initiative as a standoff in a Western, the moment of tension just before the mayhem when everyone is on edge.
Example: (GM calls for initiative roll)
Alanna’s eyes skipped back and forth between Donovan and the bandit leader. The paladin wasn’t one to let things go and looking at the bandits, they were all looking at their half-orc leader like a pack of wolves waiting for the alpha to move.
Initiative: 1d20 + 4 ? (12) + 4 = 16
This post includes the roll and serves to further build the tension before things kick off, as well as giving the GM and other players something to play off of.
Another good idea is to incorporate the details of the roll into the post, using the roll results as a guide to how things unfold.
Kirrah had been here before, countless times in fact. She could see it in their eyes, they were already picking their targets waiting for their boss to give the word. A lifetime of growing up on the streets left her more than ready for moments like this. They weren’t the only ones that were ready.
Initiative: 1d20 + 4 ? (20) + 4 = 24
Vinn didn’t like this at all. Donovan never budged when someone got his back up and there was probably a good chance that a fight would break out. Ever concerned for the fallout of their fights, the cleric scans the area, muttering a curse under his breath as he notices the old woman crossing the street and the little boy half a block down playing with his dog.
His attention consumed, he notices far too late that everybody is already moving.
Initiative: 1d20 + 4 ? (1) + 2 = 3
In this way we integrate good or poor initiative rolls into the story, explaining why a given character is so quick or low to act and telling a more exciting story.
Donovan swings his sword at the bandit.
Let’s face it, that’s not very exciting. If you picked up a novel that described a swordfight in those terms, you’d probably put it down a page or two in. Good combat descriptions engage the senses, using sound and sight, describing the movement involved and painting a vivid picture of the fight.
An important element that can’t be expressed enough is the cardinal rule of posting in combat.
Don’t assume the outcome of your actions.
Few things are more disappointing in RP combat than describing a devastating attack complete with a description of the vivid results, only to have to retcon it in your next post because the attack missed.
Since the GM knows details of the opponent like AC, protective spells, feats etc. that may affect the success of your attack, you should leave it to them to indicate whether the attack hits or not.
So instead of “Jovan plunges his blade deep into the orc’s gut” it would be better to post “Jovan lunges forward with a powerful thrust at the orc’s gut, seeking to impale his enemy.” The attack is the same, the intention is clear, but Jovan might miss. This also helps the GM by giving them the opening to post a description of the effects of the attack.
How does your character fight?
When describing your character’s combat actions think about their background, class, and any possible archetypes that might affect how they fight. A raging barbarian with the Beast Totem rage power is likely to have a very different approach to battle than a Duelist fighter.
What kinds of weapons do they use?
A knife fighter and someone wielding a greataxe won’t fight the same way at all. Visualize the kind of attacks you’d make with the weapons your character is using, then put it into words.
Do a little research.
Describing the fighting style of the aforementioned knife-fighter would likely use words and phrases like “quick thrust” “wicked slash” or “vicious stab”, terms that capture the visceral and mercurial nature of a knife fight. Describing a knight in full plate wielding a Morningstar is far more likely to use terms such as “tremendous blow” or “mighty backswing” to convey the power and weight of the attacks.
For ranged combat, detailing the fight of an arrow through the air, or the rapidity of the shot helps to make what is much more mechanical feel dynamic.
Look up videos of movie- or animated fights with similar weapons for ideas of what an attack with them might look like.
We’ll continue next time and move on to the flash and dazzle of describing magical combat.