More often than not, combat turns into an hour-long session of frantic dice rolling, rules debates and simple statements like “you hit, roll damage”. Sound dull? Unfortunately, this description applies too often to one of the most critical aspects of the game.
Combat is more than just numbers, threat ranges, and the occasional bit of banter. Combat is the GMs best tool to energize the players and get them involved with the game. It takes quick thinking to creatively describe the fight, but there are tactics you can employ to ease the load. Describing combat is easiest when you break down the action into interchangeable parts, the combatant and the action, followed by the effect. You can describe a successful sword strike in countless ways, describing a different action and effect.
For example, a lone hero is locked in mortal combat with an ogre. On the first round of combat, the ogre hits the hero once with his club for minimal damage. If this happens round after round, it is good to mix it up a bit with your descriptions. So, it might go something like this.
“The ogre pulls back and slams his club down in a vicious chop, that only lightly grazes your shoulder.”
“The ogre swings his club wide forcing you to jump back a bit to avoid most of the blow, however it still clips your arm.”
“The ogre jabs you with the end of his club, using it like a blunt spear. Fortunately, little strength was behind the thrust that lands in your gut.”
None of these has any real combat effect other than to deal some damage but it adds great flavor to the fight. Here the combatant is an ogre. The action is described as a slam, swing, or jab while the effect is described as a “light graze”, “clipping”, and with “little strength”. Each part is interchangeable while still describing the exact same outcome. A thesaurus is your best friend in describing combats, giving you a lot of options for the same action. I sometimes have a cheat sheet with me of various verbs and adjectives that I want to use to describe the struggles.
Remember to use the dice as a guide for your descriptions. The descriptive difference between a miss, bare miss, hit, and critical hit should be noticeable. For example, a sword swung at a goblin might be described in many different ways depending upon the dice rolls.
“Your swing goes wide, with the goblin no where near your blade.”
“The goblin hastily ducks to avoid your well placed swipe. It just barely missed his scalp.”
“Your blade digs into the squirming goblins flesh, cutting a fresh line of blood across his chest.”
“Leaving his defenses wide, your blade dives deep into goblin flesh, bursting forth from the other side of the screaming creature.”
Not only are these attack rolls, but damage rolls as well. Had the critical killed the goblin outright, a decapitation might be in order. Had it only nicked the goblin, a slight ear wound could have been appropriate. This sort of description is for more than just attack rolls. Every time a spell is cast, undead turned, or tumble check made is a good opportunity for description.
“Speaking the spidery arcane words, a ball of fire erupts from your outstretched finger.”
“Calling down the power of Pelor, two of the wretched zombies turn and flee from your divine grace.”
“Dancing through the enemy ranks, none manage to halt your progress or bring arms to bare.”
Finally, descriptive dialog between the GM and players is key to an exciting, breathtaking and memorable fight. However, it is good to know when to use it all and when to dial it back a bit. Sometimes another goblin to kill is just another goblin to kill. Not all of them require a lengthy soliloquy before death. Too much detail and description can over sensitize the players to it, making it a bit dull and repetitive. Killing the gate guard should be quick and simple. Fighting the dark keeps evil king should be a fight to remember, full of all the detail and description that you can muster.