25
Nov
09

Flavorful Fighting: Breaking the Illusion of Suck

Rolling badly can suck for immersion when you have a really long streak of failed rolls. (This is one reason why computer games use streak-breaker algorithms.) Suddenly your trained warrior can’t hit the broad side of a barn! Even worse, the bookworm magic-user is making you look bad by kicking more ass than you are. This can be seriously disempowering to players with traitorous dice.

The problem here is color text—or, rather, the lack of it. Adventurers don’t just stand there and swing their swords at immobile monsters, like trainees whacking away at a wooden post! Combat is full of movement and action, and the DM—or the players—can use their descriptions of a fight scene to turn even poor rolls into dramatic maneuvers that don’t make the PCs look like chumps.

Here are some basic methods for translating those bad rolls into cool moves:

* By the Skin of Their Teeth: Describe how the target of an attack only barely escapes harm. Perhaps the PC hacks chunks of wood out of an opponent’s shield, or the opponent staggers clumsily backward to evade the PC’s sweeping blade. This is a good way to indicate that the PC is facing an inferior opponent!

* Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down: Instead of trying to score a hit on the target, describe how the PC is actually maneuvering the target into position to be hit by a fellow party member. This can range from distracting the target with fancy bladework to feigning incompetence to lure the target into overextending himself.

* Don’t Point That Thing at Me: If a melee is getting crowded, you can always blame a missed attack on the chaos of battle! Either the attacker or the target may be jostled out of position by the press of bodies or slip and stumble in a pool of someone’s spilt blood.

* Ow, That Really Hurts: Losing hit points has no actual effect on one’s fighting ability, but it’s still a convenient explanation for misses. A cut on the PC’s brow drips blood in the eyes; a blow to the head results in dizziness; lacerations or cracked ribs cause spasms of debilitating pain.

* Danger, Will Robinson: When facing a superior foe, play up the target’s superiority! The PC’s blows are easily dodged or casually turned aside by the target’s exceptional armor, skill or magic. This is a helpful way to make it clear to the players that their characters are outmatched, giving them a chance to either step up or get the hell out of Dodge.


2 Responses to “Flavorful Fighting: Breaking the Illusion of Suck”


  1. November 25, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    100% agreement.

    One funny aspect of D&D is that it uses this abstract combat system to speed up play, but then you’ve got to slow down play again to (a) imagine and then (b) narrate this stuff.

    I wish there was some sort of approach that had SOME of the tactical richness of 4e, but where combats didn’t take an hour or more to play out.

    Eric, when you’re GM’ing, do you give miscellaneous modifiers to stuff like flanking, use of the environment (high ground, etc.) and so forth? I can’t remember the last time my character rolled a d20 in anger, I’m blanking on this.

  2. November 25, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    “One funny aspect of D&D is that it uses this abstract combat system to speed up play, but then you’ve got to slow down play again to (a) imagine and then (b) narrate this stuff.”

    I dunno, I always try to do the same imagining and narration even in games with more complex combat systems; such systems may need less of it, but it’s still there. So there is a real time savings.

    “I wish there was some sort of approach that had SOME of the tactical richness of 4e, but where combats didn’t take an hour or more to play out.”

    Ideally this would be accomplished through the use of on-the-fly modifiers, as you note below.

    “Eric, when you’re GM’ing, do you give miscellaneous modifiers to stuff like flanking, use of the environment (high ground, etc.) and so forth? I can’t remember the last time my character rolled a d20 in anger, I’m blanking on this.”

    I’ve done so on occasion, when I remember to do so. I went through a phase where I avoided it because I was making an effort to play “by the book”, but of course the book specifies that you should give out modifiers on the fly, so now I plan to do so more often.

    Last session, Pete described his character Martin as charging aggressively into the fray. Dased on his description, I asked whether he wanted his description to have mechanical impact on play; giving a penalty to hit but a bonus on damage, for example. He declined. In retrospect, I suspect the proper old-school approach would be to dispassionately gauge some appropriate modifiers based on the description and apply them without asking. (Unless the player describes something that seems silly or dangerous, in which case I feel it’s appropriate to give fair warning; I’m here as a neutral arbiter and a cheerleader, not a malicious adversary.)


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