Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A LOT can Happen in 5 Seconds!

GM: "A zombie steps out of the shadows and closes in on you; roll for initiative."
Player: "I rolled Great."
GM: "You get to act first."
Player: "I attack the zombie."
GM: "You hit. Roll for damage."
Player: "5 points of damage."
GM: "The zombie is hurt, but continues to move. It attacks you."

Has this type of combat scenario ever been disappointing to you? Now, before I begin, let me begin by saying that I'm NOT accusing anyone of badwrongfun. So long as groups are playing tabletop RPG's and having fun, I'm thrilled! However, if you're like me, you might like a little more description, and well, action, in your combat scenes.

I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of simply reporting dice rolls during combat. Even as someone who loves vivid, descriptive combat scenes, I can slip into this trap myself.

So, how do I try to make sure that the combat scenes are just as descriptive and roleplay-focused as the rest of the game? Well, I have a few things that help me that I thought I would share. I'm going to share the examples as they work in my game just for a point of reference, but the ideas will work with just about any tabletop RPG.

Intent vs. Outcome

One of the most important things that helps me visualize the fight scene is to understand the goals and intent of everyone involved in the fight. Blood, Sweat & Steel uses simultaneous actions combat, so players must declare their intent before rolling to see if they get their action. By comparing their intent with the outcome, it becomes a bit easier to visualize the Exchange.

Grognor: "I don't have time to waste on this puny bandit. I charge in with my axe and try to overwhelm the little welp, bringing my axe down upon his head!"

GM: "Ok, that sounds like an aggressive attack. Go ahead and subtract 1 from your Melee Weapons Check, but you get to add +2 to your Total if you win the Exchange."

(Grognor gets a Great [+2] Total, and the bandit gets a Fair [0] Total. Grognor wins the Exchange with 2 Successes, plus the additional 2 Successes for winning the Exchange while attacking aggressively, for a total of 4 Successes. This is a Serious Wound.)

GM: "Grognor wins the Exchange with a Serious Wound! So, what happens?" (In BS&S, the winner of the Exchange gets to describe the Outcome.)

Grognor: "The bandit did not expect me to be so quick! I close quickly on him, his eyes wide with fear. He tries to sidestep my first swing, and I narrowly miss, but I continue my momentum, spinning completely around and catching him in the stomach with the flat of my axe. The sound of his ribs cracking can be heard echoing in the great hall!"

Grognor wanted to cleave the bandit's skull, but since he only scored a Serious Wound (-1 for the rest of the fight), he had to adjust his description to match the outcome.

Describe the entire Exchange

Reminding players that they get to describe a full 5 seconds of action usually encourages them to embellish a bit and throw more detail into their description. I really think that this makes the fight more exciting and fun for everyone at the table, because in a game that uses "theater of the mind", better descriptions give everyone more to imagine.

The players should feel free to pretty much describe what happens in a given Exchange however they like, so long as the description fits the outcome. For example, it wouldn't make sense to describe cleaving someone's arm off when you only did 2 points of damage. But when it comes to everything that happens before the successful strike, have fun with it! Let the players get inside the heads of their characters and imagine the things they would do in a fight, so long as the description matches the mechanical outcome.

Use Results and Modifiers to Create your Description

Once the player knows the mechanical results of the Exchange, it's fairly easy to imagine how the Exchange plays out. One mechanic that I believes helps better combat descriptions is to use a system with wound types rather than hit points. If the player knows the severity of the wound, it's much easier to describe what happens.

For example, in BS&S, there are 4 types of wounds with increasing severity and effects. By knowing the nature of the wound, it becomes easier to create a description that matches it.

Minor Wound: -1 to physical actions on the next Exchange only.

Serious Wound: -1 to physical actions for the remainder of the Scene (fight). Target makes a Gut Check vs. a Fair [0] Difficulty. Failure means the target is Dazed on the next Exchange.

Critical Wound: -1 to physical actions until healed (base time = 1 week). Target makes a Gut Check vs. Good [+1] Difficulty. Failure means that the target has the Dying condition (target must be stabilized or healed by the end of the next Scene or they will die).

Traumatic Wound: 'Taken Out', -2 to physical actions until healed (base time = a month). Target has 'Dying' Condition. Gut Check vs Great [+2] Difficulty means that target is killed instantly.

By knowing the relative severity of an attack, I believe it's easier to describe the action and the outcome of the Exchange. Not all game systems use this approach, but I believe that you can even use this approach with a hit point system. If your target has 20 hit points and you score 10 damage, that's 1/2 of the target's total, which is a pretty significant attack. The abstraction of hit points may make it a little more difficult for players to describe, but the door is wide open when it comes to interpreting that amount of damage.

At any rate, scoring a successful hit on your opponent is an exciting moment, so make the most of it and describe the entire Exchange as you imagine it!

This approach won't appeal to or work for everyone, but if you are looking for ways to make your fight scenes a little more exciting and fun, these are a few methods that work well for me. I hope you'll give this approach a try and see if it works for you! :)