Theater of The Mind: Combat

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of smaller posts regarding Theater of The Mind style D&D games and ways to make them more engaging if not more cinematic during their action and more evocative in their scenery. ToTM games can be tricky for all involved but for the DM especially because of the need to keep the details of a fluid game state coherent for the table. At the forefront of this challenge can be combat especially if you don’t use a battle map or other even informal manner of tracking what is happening. I have personally played in games where combat has stalled for ten minutes or more while a player and DM have hashed out differences in where one of them thought they had moved. Sometimes through no fault of anyone what a player says can be taken by the DM to be something completely different because everyone is looking at a battle through their own lens. Even a well realized and thoroughly described battlefield can morph slightly over a half hour as certain details are forgotten or misinterpreted. There have been occasions where I have ret-conned a feature from an area because mid-combat I realize it doesn’t make sense or would inadvertently turn my battlefield into an Escher reject. This is something I think I’ll touch on again in another post.

The other part of combat that we all show up for is the action, the swinging of swords, firing of arrows and exploding of fireballs. The question is how do we make each players turn more interesting than a roll of the dice, hit/miss, okay-next-person-go sort of routine affair?

The answer: Continuity.

I cannot emphasize enough how much continuity of action and reaction can immerse you in something like tabletop combat instead of having it feel like a very slow match of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. If this is how combat is at low levels in your games then it will only get worse as time goes on as things that are currently bags of hp become bigger, bulkier bags of hp. The skills and piles of dice may change but the conversation is the same, you hit and you get hit until you die or they do.

Before I get any further into this I want you to watch a video and additionally recommend that if you have any interest in film you should watch everything this channel has ever produced. Specifically though let’s start with this –

Among all of the very interesting information in this video there was one point in particular that really changed how I DM combat and it was talking about the difference between how Jackie films his action. Since Jackie Chan is a capable fighter there is no need to use fancy camera moves or other workarounds to make the combat appear real, there is a level of realism you can’t achieve with trickery. Following up to that point they talk about how Action and Reaction are kept together in a frame to allow the viewer to experience it all as a single moment instead of chopping it up to cover for inadequacies. We can apply this to combat in D&D in a very similar way by breaking down what happens in a turn and telling individual stories for our players as they fight. Let’s look at a sample turn you could find at any of our tables –

“Jane, you’re up.”

“Awesome, I’m going to draw my mace and swing it at this goblin in front of me.”

“Roll your attack.”

“Lets see, 12 pluuuuus 6, 18!”

“Excellent, you hit!”

“14 bludgeoning damage.”

“Ooof, quite a whack but looks like he’s still standing.”

Now there is nothing wrong with going through combat like this and in fact it was exactly how I did it for quite some time while using ability descriptions to let players or myself add a little flair to it. Of the things I did like about 4th Edition the descriptions that came along with almost every action you took in the game I thought helped elevate turns in combat. Although like anything else the twentieth time you read the same description it can get a little stale so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. Nowadays I have moved on to something more akin to choreographed action which merely means that every action I order the player narrate will logically follow into whatever happens next. Most of the time these narrative descriptions will not have any mechanical effect but I do sometimes allow them because the Rule of Cool, but we’ll get to that some other time.

Now we’ll take a look at what my combat usually looks like these days, using the same scenario above –

“Lets see, 12 pluuuuus 6, 18!”

“Excellent, you hit! How much damage?”

“14 bludgeoning damage.”

“You draw your mace and swing in one smooth backhanded motion, the goblin barely has enough time to get his shield up to deflect the blow. You feel the flanges of your weapon dig in and splinter part of his shield and knocking him off balance.”

[We’ll shorthand the dice rolls here.]

“Now the goblin, light on his feet he recovers from the hit and spins, you see the flash of steel as he does, with your upward swing leaving you exposed the goblin’s curved blade finds purchase on your midsection. The cut isn’t deep but it stings.”

The idea here is to help make combat a little more personal by providing believable Action and Reaction for your players, even if you are doing all the narrating. While it may be hard to expound on an entire fight at the drop of the hat the way combat works in tabletop games gives you plenty of time to consider each move. Descriptions can vary depending on how hard a hit is by the amount of damage inflicted and misses of course can be anything from a complete whiff to a blow successfully defended. There is no need to get overly descriptive with every swing or fired arrow but it’s amazing how even a little here or there can raise the stakes of your combat. Eventually combat in your games can become about the narrative and less about managing numbers on a sheet. The abstract nature of how hp works for both PCs and NPCs I think that sometimes hamper the inherent drama of combat. Being at half hp as a numerical value doesn’t really have the same impact as the totality jabs, cuts, bruises and close calls you can have through a more narrative driven experience. A critical hit against a PC while numerically impressive is more memorable when they think back to a blow they narrowly managed to deflect that otherwise would have decapitated them.

If you’re nervous about being able to describe these things on demand or worry about having the necessary vocabulary there are plenty of player made resources like this available around the web. Many of them found by searching for 5e or tabletop combat descriptions. My best advice for working this into your game is to start small and expand, there is no need to jump straight into elaborate explanations of combat actions. Simple actions are a good place to start and will help you build a solid foundation for describing each action and reaction in way that they flow naturally into one another. Lastly get yourself some visual aids and use this as an excuse to revisit some of your favorite action movies but this time pay close attention to how fights play out. Take time to pinpoint offense and the correlating defense and narrate them in a sentence or two. Once you become comfortable with the discrete actions that make up an overall fight describing them on the fly becomes much easier.

It may also help to have a discussion with your players and see if they prefer to describe their own actions or if they are okay letting you narrate. Either way is great but it’s just one more avenue for them to become more involved in what happens during combat. It can also allow characters who are more straight forward mechanically to have something to think about between turns, a way to add some flair to their hack and slash. Even if they opt to have you narrate what they do I have yet to meet a player who doesn’t enjoy listening to their dice rolls being translated into epic action by the DM.

Well, I think that’ll do it for now, hopefully this provides some inspiration or direction to DMs and players alike. I think these are probably mostly going to be stream of consciousness posts for a while so the editing will be minimal. Sorry about that but if I keep them going I’ll try to condense them down a bit more and maybe do a pass or two before putting them up.

Naturally if you have any suggestions for future topics or critiques/comments about this post be sure to let me know! And as always, whatever way you and your players enjoy your games is the right way to play them. No advice that I or anyone else gives you should be taken as the absolute gospel on how anything should be done.

Until next time, happy rolling.

  • Anthony

Like Ms. Black Intended

On a personal note it’s been a long week and today just couldn’t come fast enough but with it finally here how about we talk about some things that will help us collectively unwind.

First up I was delighted to see the news that there is a new Ni No Kuni game in the works as I was quite a fan of the first two. Not perfect by any means but immensely entertaining and very reminiscent of classic JRPGs with some modern aesthetics and mechanics.

Looking around for more information I ran into this article over at Gematsu which gave some details about it and my luck this week has apparently continued, unabated –

Level-5 and Netmarble have opened the official website for Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds, its massively multiplayer online RPG due for iOS and Android in 2020 in Japan.

I generally try to not to be too down on a game series I enjoy going in a new direction just because it may no longer appeal to me but I feel at least a little bit justified here. It’s not so much that they’re shifting focus on a core mechanic to something new or exploring a new area, story or even changing leads. It’s combined, in my opinion, two of the worst ways to enjoy RPG’s, as an MMO and exclusively on mobile. Before I get knocked for being an elitist or something by looking down on mobile gaming I play my fair share of games on my phone and have enjoyed many of them. Unfortunately as fun as they can be there is generally nothing to be gained by porting a full game to mobile for anyone other than the developer or publisher. It makes the game more accessible and immediately puts it into an arena where borderline predatory micro-transactions are par for course so monetization becomes much easier. In addition to this development costs are lower on almost every front so it’s hard to argue with why they do it from a profitability perspective. For us as players however it seems like we mostly lose as we can no longer enjoy the games on larger displays without using sketchy third party emulator programs and are now subject to the monetization I mentioned. Mechanically I have yet to find anyone who actually enjoys using the game controls on a mobile device and instead just finds them varying levels of usable or not monstrously uncomfortable or awkward. As it turns out a medieval rack would probably be cheaper than a chiropractor but, is it worth it?

The whole switching to an MMO thing is another rant that I wont subject you to right now but suffice it to say they’re just not really at their best in this format. I’m sure there are probably one or two out there that pass for half decent approximations but I have a hard time believing they aren’t just shadows of their fully realized siblings. Naturally I can be wrong about any of this but to date I haven’t seen much evidence to the contrary.

I guess I’ll be left hoping that if the mobile game is successful enough maybe they’ll return to full releases in the future, until then I hope a new audience of people can find some enjoyment in the series.

When it comes to content that is based on properties I love or in some cases grew up with and in a few rare cases both, it’s hard to not look at it with an exceedingly critical eye.

This week I, and many other people, saw Netflix confirm that it was in fact producing a live action Resident Evil show and then I read the actual tweet–

When your heart swells with good news and then you die immediately from a lurking aneurysm in your brain.

Now for all I or anyone else knows this show could end up being amazing but I have an unfortunate feeling that we’re in for a story which will be meaningless to longtime fans, confusing to newcomers and packed with references that just annoy everyone. I’ve spoken about this before when talking about games that are adapted into other media, specifically movies and TV, in that there is a delicate balance which must be struck by the writers and directors. They cannot be so in love with putting their own stamp on it that they ignore the established fiction nor can they rely too heavily on merely turning in a copy of someone else’s homework. Choosing the Wesker kids as your stars to me feels like someone suited up, when dumpster diving in RE lore and dug up this idea while proclaiming, “No one else would think of it!”

It’s true and you might be right but there could very well be good reasons for that.

Resident Evil is indeed a legendary property in gaming for many reasons, and to a lesser extent well known for both the good and very, very awful things that came out of the movies but the Wesker kids moving to Raccoon City is not one of them. My gut tells me that they should have started with one of the baseline stories that really cemented RE in the pantheon of all-time greats and used that solid base to branch out into some of the lesser known characters and stories. As Capcom proved last year with the incredible Resident Evil 2 Remake release there is plenty of hunger for seeing those classic stories done up right for fans old and new.

I hope it turns out fantastic but for the moment I am at best, pessimistic.

Last but not least and very quickly, this game looks fucking wild and I am incredibly curious–

I’ll leave it there for this week. I hope you’ve been well and have a relaxing couple days ahead of you.

Stay safe and happy gaming!

  • Anthony

It’s Been… One Week

Since we did this last and as it can be with establishing new traditions or in this case re-establishing an old one we’re here again on another Friday to look at some interesting things in the gaming world from over the last week.

First up is one that I just ran across today with a lot of other people –

A Chinese indie developer by the name of Game Science Studio has taken everyone a bit by surprise with this very early look at their game Black Myth: Wukong. Ostensibly based on the myth of Sun Wukong also known as the Monkey King, a trickster god from Chinese lore who features heavily in contemporary stories all around the world today. Everything from movies like Forbidden Kingdom with Jackie Chan and Jet Li to video games like DoTA and League of Legends have characters based on the Monkey King. The trailer itself demonstrates a wide range of abilities by the player character like his ability to take different forms, supernatural strength and command of the elements. Souls-like gameplay aside one of the more shocking things are the graphics including the environments and animations that are simply amazing. I have yet to see any information on when or where the game is intended to be released but if it’s on console it’s probably a safe bet that it will be on the upcoming generation.

At any rate, its got my Jade Empire whiskers wiggling and with my recent enjoyment of Ghost of Tsushima still fresh this seems like an excellent next step in games based on eastern history and mythology.

I can’t honestly tell how I really feel about this, either warmly nostalgic or the that tingling chill up your spine from childhood trauma, either way Battletoads 2020 has officially landed.

Love it or hate it this game series helped birth one of the most storied developers in gaming history, Rare and with it a bevvy of beloved titles.

Last time I mentioned looking forward to checking out Lovecraft Country and I finally got around to watching the first episode this week and I have to say, if you’re not hooked in the first five minutes or so, I can’t help you. Lovecraft for me, and probably for a lot of people, has always been a little bit about trying to find sanity in insanity. Watching characters try to keep a grip on anything that connects them to a world they once knew while desperately trying to come to grips with a universe that is relentlessly mad. I love it, I really do. It hits that sweet spot that monster-of-the-week shows like X-Files fits into with a healthy dose of The Outer Limits to really bring the weird. This style of story intertwined with the perspective of life as an African-American in Jim Crow America and the fact that it is produced and directed by Misha Green and Jordan Peele makes the whole package even better.

Also there is apparently a companion podcast called Lovecraft Country Radio. If you liked the first episode then probably a good bet you’d be into that as well. I know I thoroughly enjoyed the companion podcast to Chernobyl when I finished that so I’m looking forward to doing so here as well.

Overall it was a great start and I can’t wait to see more.

On a more personal note I still have a couple of mini’s to paint and I’m hoping to get to it finally this weekend in between playing a little more of the Avenger’s beta for the last weekend that it’s open. I’m still having fun with it and I think I’m happy with my decision to play it at launch. I’ve got a few other posts in the works and I’d like to get a second one out before the weekend is over but we’ll see what happens.

Short and sweet today, I hope you’ve had a good week and enjoy the weekend ahead.

Stay safe and happy gaming or whatever it is you choose to unwind with.

  • Anthony