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

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