How Can You Make Combat Flow?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1158

Recently, I’ve been talking about crummy combats. They kill entire campaigns if you let them.

And the remedies I’m seeing out there don’t really make a dent.

You can shave a few seconds by rolling attack and damage at once, but we want to cut our combat length by at least half so we can squeeze more story and roleplay into each session.

You can force players to act fast with a countdown, but that can give them anxiety and doesn’t solve their analysis paralysis.

You can also handwave the rules, but I contend players need consistency to help them plan turns faster and better.

When you run combats well, however, we combine fun challenges with fantastic stories that change your world.

For example, I recently shared a framework for running combats fast called 3 Round Combat Plans. That will help ensure you run fun challenges that don’t suck up two hours of boring gameplay.

Then what I do is wrap three story layers around it.

The three combat story layers give me fantastic tales that change my world.

Here’s what to do.

The Three Story Layers of Fantastic Combat

We want to run combats fast so we can chew through a lot more fantastic gameplay each session.

We also want combats to flow, as perceived time is just as important to the fun factor as actual time consumed.

And we want combats to be meaningful. They must be important to our adventures and campaigns, else we’re just playing a wargame.

To accomplish all three things, we turn to combat storytelling.

And we do that by dividing combat into three story layers, like rings on a dartboard.

Layer 1. Plotline — Your Adventure Story

Let’s start with the outer ring first. We want to tie our combats to the bigger picture of our adventure or campaign plotline.

What we do here is consider the Stakes.

To do that, we answer these questions:

  • Why are the characters fighting?
  • What happens if the characters win?
  • What happens if the characters lose?

Even if you improvise a melee, you can run these questions through your mind as you set up, roll for initiative, and wage war on the PCs.

For Q#1 we want to tie our combat to a greater purpose.

Hold the line. Reach the inner sanctum to stop the cult ritual. Get past the guards without raising the alarm.

In essence, we’re talking about Combat Missions.

Layer 2. Round — Your Combat Story

Armed with a purpose for our combat and the consequences of success and failure (don’t forget to see win-lose through the eyes of foes, too) we want to weave a tale for each round.

As minutes roll role by, players will be motivated by a sense of greater purpose imbued by your Adventure Story.

But as we work through initiative and reach the top again, players get lost in the mechanics and tactics of melee gameplay.

So we want to give every round a great story to remind players to roleplay, to think of the bigger picture, and to give your group a sense of progress.

Every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Told in that order.

Our Combat Story begins at the top of the round.

It ends with the last action of the round.

And the middle consists of everyone’s turns.

To tell your Combat Story you….

  1. Frame up the current state of the fight at round top
  2. Go through our normal procedures for fast and flowing combat
  3. Finish each round with a summary….
  4. ….That feeds into the updated story at top of the new round

For example, we might end the round like this:

“The beholder laughs from behind her line of minions. ‘That was a terrible performance. I thought this would be a challenge. Hack faster guards — I’m getting bored!’

“Only two guards are down. The others are inflamed by their mistress’s taunting and lean into their attacks.

“You also notice the beholder starting to back away towards the exit.”

With this 5 second summary of a round, we remind players they face a tough challenge still.

We’ve also provided a high level summary of where the battle’s at.

And we’ve amped the stakes up a bit with the main foe starting a retreat as per our 3 Round Combat Plan.

Round end and round start merge with our story to create flow.

We inform players of the current situation so they can get their heads out of their character sheets for a moment and see the bigger picture.

And we summarize the current combat state (in this case with a body count) to let players know their progress.

Layer 3. Turn — Your Character Story

However, as dice collide and numbers fly around, even the Combat Story will start to fade until the next initiative count.

And we want Combat Stories to feel personal for each player.

Based on games I’ve played the last few years, my turns as a player are efficient.

I plan my next move in advance. Once I know the rules, I have dice in hand, ready to declare my action when the GM focuses on me.

Declare. Roll. Declare. Roll. And I’m done. My turns take seconds unless there’s a complication or if I have questions.

Then I wait — sometimes a long time — until it’s my turn next.

I find this quite frustrating. My efficiency is rewarded with less spotlight time and long waits.

When I GM, I don’t want my players to be frustrated. And I especially don’t want to penalize good players for being organized and smart.

Enter the Character Story.

The Character Story rewards players with quick GM storytelling.

It calls out to the world the impact (or lack of impact) their actions had on the battle, and potentially, the Stakes.

And it keeps combat flowing smoothly.

We again turn to our basic story model of beginning, middle, and end.

This time though, we tell the whole story at once, after the results of a player’s actions and rolls are known:

  • Frame up the situation and what the character attempted to do. (Beginning)
  • Describe what happened during the player’s turn and any impact of the character’s actions. (Middle)
  • Frame up the final situation for the current player and transition to the next player. (End)

There’s a bit to unpack there.

First, please note the beginning and end merge to help transition smoothly through each turn.

This is another way you’ll make combats flow.

And second, rather than start each player’s turn on the back foot with mere history, you empower players to think forward by cueing up their situation based on the previous player’s turn.

This validates the previous player and gets us our storytelling objectives of Spotlight, Events, and Impact.

For example:

Roghan: “I hit! 37 damage. Take that, sucka!”

GM: “Awesome job. You were facing three minions and losing a lot of blood in the process. You take a big swing and cleave one of their heads clean off.

“The other two minions glance at each other, as if contemplating flight. Good job, Roghan!

“Little Phingers, an ugly head rolls to a dead stop at your feet. Haha! Another guard down.

“But you also face multiple foes and the thought of halfling for dinner seems to have them salivating.

“What are you doing?”

Again, five seconds of narrative on your part.

But what a difference it makes.

As a player I’d feel great because of the spotlight, the story being told about my character, and my role in the melee.

I no longer feel alone.

It’s Your Turn

Those are the three story layers of combat.

Always be telling a story.

Transition between encounters by setting up the initial combat Stakes and letting players know what’s in it for them and why this fight will be meaningful. Tell your Adventure Story.

Then transition between rounds and keep players engaged. Tell your Combat Story.

Last, transition between player turns to keep players interested and combat flowing smoothly. Tell your Character Story.

I found this takes a lot of practice.

First, you need to do it every combat, round, and turn to develop the habit.

Then you need to find the words. That’s often the tricky part.

The good news is this is what I teach in the Wizard of Combat program. And more.

We want combats that not only take half the time, but have twice the story too.

More news coming about this on Monday. I will have a special offer for you.

Until then, have a great weekend!

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