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

My Memory Is Your Memory

Mi casa, su casa. My house is your house.

A phrase meant to make someone feel welcome, to tell them that they’re free to treat your home as their own because you’re their guest and they are, based on this phrase, an amazing host. One who is there to accommodate your every need.

So what does this phrase enshrining that ever so important kindergarten lesson about sharing have to do with rolling dice with your friends a few times a month? Well, like the title states it has to do with memory and more specifically a memory aide we all came to love in school; notes. Notes are important for a number of reasons but chiefly among them is because the ability to remember everything that we experience is an exceedingly rare thing. Even if we don’t forget an event entirely it’s easy to mis-remember small details which even minimal notes can help avoid. A name, location or short description can help spark a complete recollection of an incident where just trusting your raw memory can leave you scratching your head.

Anyone who has spent time playing D&D, who doesn’t have a photographic memory, can attest to just how important notes can be to maintaining an adequate recollection of game continuity. D&D and especially long running games that may span months, years or decades even have the additional wrinkle of forcing you to remember what is effectively a second life. All the little details of your ordinary day communicated through little other than verbal roleplay and the occasional use of handouts or miniatures. Overall it’s very little to help us recall what can often be hugely expansive worlds with multi-layered and tangled stories that cover large periods of time.

A game journal of notes has been for a long time the accepted remedy. Now you might be asking why I bothered writing this up since that seems to be all there is it to it, right? Yes and no, a couple months back I came across this post on Matt Colville’s subreddit from a DM who was having trouble with a couple players who refused to keep notes of any kind. This results in them constantly asking to be re-filled in on details from previous sessions either by asking the DM, other players or in game NPCs. I want to stop for a second and make absolutely clear that I have no problem with players needing to be reminded of certain details, as a DM I also need to be reminded occasionally so I can’t very well hold that against my players. I don’t think anyone else should either, when I get to my opinions on this coming up it’s important to remember that it is a game that we play for fun so being too strident on any particular rule is a quick way to kill the vibe, man.

So, why is this a problem? Unless your players are running a character that suffers from Anterograde Amnesia there is little precedent for them constantly bothering NPCs to remind them about things that have happened. This isn’t 50 First Dates: Faerun. From a meta perspective this is effectively just interrogating your DM by proxy which means you’re just annoying me with an extra step involved. Outside of the game this is just wasteful because unless you’re teenagers with a lot of free time then the hours you squirrel away to be able to play these games with your friends are valuable. Scheduling and starting on time is already a challenge without wasting thirty minutes at the top of every session revisiting what you’ve already done. This is over and above the normal session recap because inevitably these questions will continue to crop up all through the game. In any productivity analysis one of the biggest killers is the phrase, “It’ll just take a minute…” which may be true but by the time you finish doing all the things that only take a minute three hours have passed and your day is wasted. A four hour session can very quickly become little more than two to two and a half hours of actual play if you’re not careful.

If a player can’t be bothered to take notes because they themselves don’t care then it can help to remind them that they are not the only ones affected by the lack of note taking. D&D is often referred to as a game of Co-Operative Storytelling which is absolutely is but that also means that at some point or another everyone present must participate. Hard to do that effectively if you can’t remember what has happened previously.

Personally in my view of it, like some people in that thread, is that your notes are your memory in the game with some leeway because of the reality that things will be missed and not because of malice or laziness. In my home game we’ve recorded every session of it for our own amusement and I have stated in the past that I’d prefer that my players not use the recordings in order to take notes after the fact. My main reason for this is that using them effectively grants the characters a photographic memory which while convenient for them it sort of removes the ability to forget naturally. Much like missing a hint about a trap, failing a perception check the act of honestly forgetting something can lead to good storytelling opportunities. As a DM I don’t do this out of malice or to punish my players but because it serves as a natural possibility in this world that I have designed for them to play around in. I want them to have the chance to be surprised by something that happened long ago and then resurfaces. If it doesn’t happen that’s fine too but there should always be the possibility which is hard when your players can never forget. It’s also important to remember that the outcome of this is not always bad, that person you did something nice for so long ago? They might show up in your time of need to repay that debt. It can also provide players with the incredible feeling of a “Lightbulb” moment when they happen to remember something no one else did in a moment when they’re stuck for a plan.

One possible solution to this problem I saw suggested was making players roll for the requested information to see if they could recall the details. Sadly while this mechanizes the out of game problem it leaves the overall issue alive and well. Whether you are having this discussion in or out of character it’s still eating up time and bogging down the game, even worse you’re adding time to it by including a series of dice rolls. I understand why some DMs would choose this route as it saves them from having to tell a player “No” and instead shifts the blame for their lack of memory to the dice. It’s a nice way to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation but the other players at the table are still stuck sitting there waiting to move on.

The most consistent piece of advice I, or anyone else, can give to DMs and players is that communication is paramount above all else if you want to maintain a healthy, long term game. In the spirit of that if you ever have this problem at your table be sure to sit down and discuss solutions, I’ll be damned if there has ever been an issue that some fix couldn’t be devised, this is no exception.

If you’re a player who hates taking notes then its time to see if there is someone else at your table who doesn’t. For instance while it may not perfectly represent the characters memory I wouldn’t have a problem with one player using another player’s general notes for a session. In any group you can probably find one person who loves or is at least ambivalent about note taking so let the group use those if they want. Optimally the group will always be together anyways and will generally share most information they get between everyone. It may require a little editing to remove personal details, observations or otherwise before being passed out but if they’re being taken digitally that should be a minimal amount of work. I’m sure there are also players out there who have trouble taking notes while simultaneously assimilating what else is happening at the table and it can be frustrating to feel like you’re missing things while trying to ensure that you don’t forget an important detail. Nothing wrong with being sensitive to players who want to be attentive in the moment instead of focusing on keeping notes.

I’ll keep saying it because it will always be relevant but no solution will work 100% of the time for every table so be open to new ideas even if they run contrary to your original feelings on the matter. Even writing this I find myself reconsidering my stance on my players not using our recordings to supplement their notes. I don’t think I’ll change my stance on it, yet, but it certainly reinforces the fact that opinions and rulings can always change in the face of new evidence.

The pop quiz will be on Friday, I hope your notes are complete.

Until then, happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable


Why Are We At This Table?

I ran across this thread over on the /r/RPG board and it reignited some thoughts I’d been having on D&D when DMs ask how to engage their players at the table. Or more troubling when they have players who just don’t seem to care about the game itself, the story or their involvement. Like the thread I linked I’m sure this would mostly be considered an edge case that won’t apply to most RPG gaming groups. The part of the discussion that I want to address is I think the more important but less talked about portion: Player responsibility.

Anyone who has played D&D for any length of time can tell you that the list of responsibilities the Dungeon Masters have sometimes borders on the absurd. It can run the gamut of being a writer, amateur game designer, artist, sculptor, actor, referee, rules dictionary, god(s), judge, jury and everyone’s favorite, executioner. I’m sure there are more hats I’m forgetting but I think you probably get the idea. I know how this sounds coming from someone who is a DM but it does take a certain special kind of mentality to willingly take all of that on for no other reward than entertainment for you and a few friends. I’m also not writing this to bitch about how much work it is to be a DM, like I said it’s purely voluntary so the only person you have to blame for the work is yourself. The people who take up the mantle of DM or GM do it because they love it and no other reason is needed. What I think gets overlooked in all of this when it comes to discussions about why or how games can fall apart either because of bad DMs or bad players is the largely unspoken social contract between everyone at the table.

If you glanced through that thread up top I think you’ll immediately pick out a common theme regarding that DMs frustration, his players just don’t seem to care. About anything beyond as he said, “Checking the quest board for something to do.” He opines on several occasions that he just wants his players to get involved, to have goals and motivations to go out and do something in the world he has built. I think any DM can probably sympathize with that sentiment based on players they’ve had who don’t seem to really be invested in what is going on at the table, they just seem to be… there. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, passive players are definitely an archetype. They want to be there and participate in their own minimalist way, they’re happy to be swept along wherever the group or story takes them contributing where and when they feel up to it. I may never wish for a table full of those types but I certainly don’t mind having them join a game. Ultimately they are a neutral force at the table and occasionally a positive one but rarely are they a detriment or an outright obstacle to the other players or their DM.

The problem for our frustrated DM is in part I think an unwillingness by some of his players to live up to their end of the contract by being co-operative storytellers in a game like D&D. I’d liken it closely to reading a choose your own adventure book in so much as when you sit down and open up to that first page you have, for that moment, resolved to read it through till the end. For better or worse as a metaphor we DMs are that book, when you sit down at our table with your character you have resolved to see our story and your part in it through to whatever conclusion it comes to. If you don’t care to keep turning pages and instead just stay where you are then the experience grinds to a halt for everyone including your DM. You have choices to make along the way certainly, you can affect what path you take to get there, your chances at success and consequences for your failures but ultimately you are there to participate. If you don’t enjoy the book or its main plot points you can certainly choose to put it down and never pick it up again. If players at your table aren’t having fun then its in their and the rest of the groups best interest that they speak with their DM or just politely quit. Not every group, setting or character will be a good match and letting it fester will just ensure problems down the road. If you do stay then you share in the responsibility of finding avenues to invest yourself in the story and help it move forward. In the same vein DMs are also responsible for providing players those same opportunities to engage with a good story tying it together. Players can disagree about how they proceed but ultimately they must proceed, think of it like the improv comedy concept of, “Yes and…” or maybe more appropriately, “Yes, but…” if you wish to propose an alternative. If enough people at the table aren’t willing to play along then realistically the game will just end.

I will take just a moment here to acknowledge that I think the DM in that thread did make a few of his own mistakes when putting the group together by not catching these red flags to begin with but for now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. No one is perfect, in the end this whole debacle will be a learning experience for him and his players.

A lot of these issues can be ironed out prior to actually starting a game by having a discussion with your players about the kind of game they are hoping to participate in. The players described in the post do not seem to be purposefully malicious in their disinterest merely that they have decided individually or as a group to play without regard for the overall narrative. West Marches style games operate this way and maybe have been more their style, where it is essentially built upon the act of checking a bounty board and choosing a quest or just setting out into the wilderness to see what you find for an evening. There is very little or no narrative at all tying the separate sessions together, it’s just a way to hack ‘n slash your way through the dark places of the world for loot and experience. The responsibility of ironing out what kind of game the group is looking for does fall pretty squarely in the lap of the DM but once the players agree to sit at the table they shouldn’t need to be forced to take part in the game.

There is an old adage I think that fits well here, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Unless explicitly stated otherwise by players it’s pretty universally agreed that forcing your party to do the things you want them to do is bad form for a DM and will usually implode your game. In my view it is equally bad form as a player to sit at a table and then refuse to engage or even attempt to investigate any plot hooks that your DM lays out for you unless that was the agreement prior to starting. There are bad DMs out there just like players. This puts everyone in an awkward position as the DM may feel that they have no other choice but to railroad their players into the main plot or trick them by changing an unrelated side quest to intersect with their BBEG. Naturally if the players didn’t engage with the plot prior to this then there is little to no chance they’re going to be willing to do it now. In the end no one in this scenario is happy or having any fun.

Bottom line is that most if not all of these problems can be fixed by keeping open communication lines between players and DM. That reality however shouldn’t overshadow the fact that if you as player take a seat at the table you should make an effort to engage with the world that your DM has created for you.

Happy rolling!

  • Non-Washable