How To Add Story To Any Combat

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1040

Smashing until one side runs out of hit points gets tired fast.

In Faster Combat I teach you to add story to the fight. When melee gains greater meaning, players get more engaged.

While adding story, be sure to make the stakes known before the battle starts.

Now players will think about the stakes and choose tactics with care.

However, you should also add another element to further build story.

This element speaks to the story of the combat itself.

Add a Combat Gimmick

Pick a dramatic effect or gimmick for your fight.

The gimmick must speak to how the combat is fought and what happens because the gimmick is present.

We know the PCs are 99% likely to win. Else we’d be making new characters after every melee.

So the combat story isn’t about whether the party emerges victorious.

We also know combat is about the strategic drain of party resources so future fights in the adventuring day become more difficult.

So the combat story must come from different tensions.

And one fantastic tension comes from adding a Combat Gimmick.

Mike Mearls spoke about this in a podcast with Sly Flourish.

Mike used an example from pro wrestling.

The week before, our hero suffered an ankle injury. In this week’s bout, we wait with bated breath to see how the hero will handle this challenge.

Can the hero even use his trademark flying kick to finish off the villain with that bad ankle?

Will the villain target that foot and will the hero be able to fight through the pain or compensate somehow?

In this example, we know the hero is probably going to win. The ankle gimmick is a build-up for a good ending.

So the story comes from how the bout gets fought. How does the hero prevail? That’s the hook. That’s the mystery.

And that’s the Combat Gimmick.

Examples of Combat Gimmicks

The River of Death

On the stage we place a lethal hazard.

How will this affect the battle?

Can the PCs emerge unscathed?

Will foes force PCs to adopt new tactics?

For example, we put some fire giants on one side of a river of lava. They block progress deeper into the dungeon.

The PCs not only have to cross the boiling river, but they must also face the giants while doing so.

You enhance the gimmick further by adding large rocks. The giants have gathered them so they can create big splashes, burning foes on the other side or while crossing.

You build the story set up further by giving the PCs a fragile treasure in the previous encounter. How will the party preserve their delicate treasure?

The Nemesis

Rivals have the stolen MacGuffin. Then they ambush the PCs.

Once the party realizes they’re battling their hated rivals, the stakes become known.

But such a battle becomes about more than just winning with these guys.

It’s about getting satisfaction. The players will want to humiliate these foes for past misdeeds. Your group will want not just the last word, but an epic last word.

So the story here is about how the players will get their satisfying revenge.

The Character Moment

Vargulf the druid fears orcs. Even half-orcs make him nervous.

And wouldn’t you know it, but the next encounter is full of the vicious bastards.

Can Vargulf overcome his fear and join the fray? Will his fear put his friends into greater jeopardy? Will the Vargulf change and grow?

Add a character element as your Combat Gimmick. A fear, flaw, vow, desire, or backstory element.

You make the fight personal for a character so the entire party can get behind their friend and help them on their personal journey.

What’s Your Next Combat’s Gimmick?

Hopefully you see the power in these combat tweaks.

Let the dice roll. The outcome of the battle favours the party, as it often does.

But what else is at stake?

And what feature gives this combat a special narrative for the group?

Think about your next planned combat and what story set-up Combat Gimmick you could add.

Do you have any great examples of Combat Gimmicks you’ve used? Please shoot me an email and let me know about it.