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


Dungeons, Dragons and, Beginnings

Since I started this blog or overall the idea for writing anything its always been in the back of my mind to write about one of my all time favorite hobbies, D&D. Just today Gabe (Mike Krahulik) from Penny Arcade posted a write-up about his ten year anniversary since he was paid to play in his first session. Reading it over it brought back my own memories of following along in his journey as I was also at the time reacquainting myself with the hobby after a long hiatus. For people who were familiar with Mike and his feelings on D&D prior to this game we got what we mostly expected from that first episodes, he seemed to treat the whole thing largely as a joke via naming his character Jim Darkmagic, of the New Hampshire Darkmagics. Tycho (Jerry Holkins) and Scott Kurtz definitely approached their characters with a somewhat more serious attitude as they already had a long history with the game at this point. The difference in the approaches I think illustrates something important about the game itself wherein a variety of personalities and viewpoints can occupy the same table without it being an unplayable mess. Real life groups of friends or colleagues share this dynamic of conflicting but also complimentary views on life and how to approach it. I’ve often told my players when they are making their characters or deciding on their party’s overall goals that while keeping everything homogeneous might be easy it can also be somewhat boring. Personality conflicts can help characters grow and change over time as they come to understand the world from different viewpoints.

At roughly 26:45 in that first episode we reach the point where Mike rolls his first ever d20 in a tabletop roleplaying game and I have to say the results of it are one of my favorite things in all of the recorded D&D I have listened to since. They’re looking for an Orc they know only as “Irontooth” which is about as classic a first quest for D&D as you can get, which is great. On the stairs as they descend their DM Chris Perkins tells them that they are stepping on small animal bones to which Mike quips, “Maybe we should check to see if any of them have iron teeth.”. As a side tip for DMs pay close attention to how Chris handles this joke, instead of laughing and just letting them continue he turns it into a moment where he can introduce Mike to one of the subtle joys of this game by asking him for a perception check. After some back and forth Mike says the following:

“So I’m actually rolling because I said I wanted to look and see if they have iron teeth?”

Everyone confirms that is whats happening and he goes through the process of learning to do the math for the first time. Scott even points out what Chris did by turning Mike’s joke into a teachable moment as well which I deeply appreciated. As the dice gods are want to do they gifted Mike with an impressive 19 on his first roll modified to 20 with his perception. Mike then continues:

“Okay so what? I’m like able to look and see…”

Chris then explains what the result of the roll it,

“You’re able to take a look at the bones and you are able to see, you don’t see an iron tooth, but you’re pretty sure that these scattered bones were kinda left here deliberately and that they have been gnawed on. That something lives down here and it basically feeds on animals and scatters their bones on these stairs. And you also notice as you’re going down the stairs that you’re stepping on a few of them and making soft crunching noises.”

Jerry chimes in with his interpretation that it seems to be an alarm system of sorts for whatever lives down below. He then wants to roll his dungeoneering skill to see if his character can glean any additional information from their surroundings. His roll reveals that most likely the creatures who live here that are clever enough to make this type of alarm system are goblins. What follows is a Mike connecting the dots from how his offhand observation and joke led to them gaining some actually helpful intel on what they faced below.

Mike, “Okay so we saw the bones..

Jerry, “You saw the bones.”

Mike, “I saw the bones and I investigated them and was able to determine that they’re some sort of alarm, they crack when I walk on them. Then you (Jerry) were able to deduce what ate them.”

While its only voice and we can’t actually see the look on Mike’s face I have to imagine that it was at this point that he became actually interested in the game before him as something more than a reason to sit around with his friends for a couple hours. It reminded me so much of my fathers first interaction with the game years ago where at each step he would ask if he could do something and I told him, “You can do whatever you want to.” Each time he heard that there was a small blip of surprise when he wasn’t limited by some mechanical barrier or me just simply saying, “No.” Like every time he reached towards some preconceived barrier it would simply fall away revealing some new horizon to explore. Watching new players realize that the only limit to what they can do is their imagination is fascinating and rewarding every single time. Sure it leads to some ridiculous things like crazy acrobatics or attempting literally impossible feats but if not in D&D then where? What Mike learned in that moment is I think what eventually hooks people into playing at all beyond that first session, the sheer possibilities. From then on everything he did he knew had consequences, good and bad, which instantly makes the things you do matter. The worst thing a game can do when one of its central pillars is freedom of choice is make you feel like the things you say and do ultimately don’t matter. From the smallest character quirk up to life and death decisions, all of it can significantly affect and inform you and your characters journey through an adventure.

Its hard to quantify exactly why D&D has exploded so incredibly in popularity over the last decade especially after its tumultuous early life with controversy. What Mike experienced in that moment though I think is an important example of at least one of the major reasons. The depth of a given experience can be as important as the overall quality or uniqueness of it. Movies and books allow us to experience other places and events through the imagination and prose of their creators. Choose Your Own Adventure books and text based games like Zork took the concept and added the depth of interactivity where beyond interpretation your experience could also be distinct from someone else. Video games have done the same thing for visual mediums by placing you the player as the central actor and narrative driving force in a story that reacts and chances to the things you do within it. The limitations of both mediums are apparently even though they are slowly being done away with. The surprising thing is that some 47 years ago a game was created which did all of the above with little more than a pencil, some paper, a handful dice and a combined 112 pages describing how to use them.

I was watching Moneyball the other day and Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane had a line after watching tape of an unlikely minor league player hitting a home run, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” I’m not a huge fan of baseball but I still love that and several other movies about the sport. In the end I can’t help but agree with Billy. Looking at the breadth of experiences, joy and creativity that D&D has provided over nearly five decades, even if you aren’t a fan or just don’t actively participate, I ask, how can you not be romantic about it?

  • Non-Washable