“I rolled a 17. Does that hit?”
“Yeah. Roll for damage.”
“Okay, that’s… 8 points of piercing and 6 points of radiant damage.”
“Okay, next player…”
Sound familiar? Combat starts and the game suddenly becomes just a long drown out battle of dice rolling, especially when all your flashy powers are used up. It feels sterile and players can quickly become bored if they’re just waiting to roll above a certain number. How can you keep combat fresh and keep the players engaged?
Let’s take the following scenario:
GM: “Okay, it’s the Orc’s initiative. Does a 17 hit you?
SARA: “Nope, but its close. AC is an 18.”
GM: “Okay. That’s a miss. Rob, you’re up.”
ROB: “I’m going to make a sneak attack. I have a 21.”
GM: “Well, that definitely hits. Roll for damage. “
That was all well and good, but lets put a little spice on it. Just because combat has started doesn’t mean the story ends. What does this combat look like?
GM: “Okay, it’s the Orc’s initiative. They advance with a savage snarl, bearing their yellow teeth in a sickening grin. Their notched axe swings downward toward your head. Does a 17 hit?”
SARA: “Oof, almost! I have an 18 AC.”
GM: “Okay, so you step aside, moving your head out of the way of their axe. It crashes into your armor and you feel the shock of it reverberate through out your who body. You’ll have bruises to show, but your armor stops it from doing you any serious harm. Okay, Rob. You’re up.”
ROB: “Screw this Orc! I’m going to sneak attack. I rolled a 21.”
GM: “That’s a hit. So as they continue to circle around Sara, intent on following up that first swing with a death blow, you creep up behind them. They don’t notice your short sword glinting in the moon light…”
See the difference? This combat gives a clearer picture to the players as to whats happening. Its so much easier to engage when you can see what the enemy is doing. How does the monster attack? If it fails, why? If it succeeds, what does that look like? Where does the weapon hit? Give it all vision!
Don’t forget about the senses, either. It’s easy to describe what the players see, but what do they hear? What do they feel? Maybe they hear the labored breathing of the Orc after it has fought for a while. They catch a whiff of the unwashed hides it wears when they venture close. Their feet become heavy as they get bogged down in the muddy ground around them.
There are some techniques you can use to pull the players into this too. My favorite is having them describe the death stroke. Let’s go back to that earlier example for a sec.
ROB: I roll 18 piercing damage!
GM: That’ll be enough to kill them. What does that look like?
ROB: Uhhh… Okay, so I’m behind them, right? Before they notice me, I grab their shoulder as I shove my short sword through their back, up to the hilt.
If a player kills an enemy, let them describe it. You don’t have to do it every time, but I would at least do it on a crit. They might be hesitant at first. Once they get used to it, they’ll look forward to the opportunity to describe how their character shines. It’ll be fun for them to add to the narrative.
Give them more than hit and miss. Give them a battle scene they won’t forget. If they’re still talking about it when the blood is cooling on their blades, you did a good job.