New Trick Makes Combat A Nail Biter

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1079

Last summer I watched a video with a great tip on how to add more story and drama to my melees.

I’ve been using this tip for several sessions now, and it’s made a big difference.

However, this narrative tactic was tricky for me at first, especially because it’s all improv.

I’m finally getting up to speed with it now, but it’s taken several games to start doing it consistently and well.

Today I’ll share the technique with you and offer my advice on performing it based on what I’ve learned so far.

Set Up the Next Player

I can’t find the video I watched, but it referenced an article on Angry GM called How to Manage Combats Like a Dolphin.

The seed of the tip is also in RPT#303 Running Faster Combats, which is why it seemed familiar to me. Alas, if only I’d been following my own advice for the last twenty years, lol.

A common GM trap is to narrate what just happened:

“Roghan cleaves the orc in two with his great axe. Arterial blood sprays the wall. Then he swirls around and sinks his blade deep into the foe on his flank. The orc screams, falls, and dies convulsing. Two brutes down. Well done Roghan!”

This is what I’ve been doing for years. It’s a deep, ingrained habit.

And online, I see many GMs asking for help on how to describe player combat turns better.

My Faster Combat Course, for example, offers a bonus PDF exclusively devoted to visceral combat details.

I agree. Exciting descriptions do make combats better.

Turns out, though, my habit was wrong.

We shouldn’t describe what just happened. Instead, we should describe what could happen to set up the next player’s turn.

It flips our game vision from what’s occurred in the past to what’s happening in the present.

I’ll give you an example in a moment.

Faster & Better

Describing combat turns this way gives us two big boons.

First, turns go faster. My experience in the last half-dozen sessions is it cuts the dead time between player turns by half.

Second, we add delicious drama to our fights. The tip I watched only went into this a little bit, so I’ve thought about it and gone my own direction on this — Stakes — which I’ll explain.

But regardless of what approach you take with your Combat Transitions, you will be making your combats faster and more exciting.

It’s About Krug, Not Roghan

By default, I think most of us describe the effects of the last player’s turn, tick initiative, then ask the next player what they’re doing.

“Roghan cleaves the orc in two with his great axe. Then he swirls around and sinks his blade deep into the foe on his flank. Both foes go down. Well done Roghan!

“Krug, you’re up. What do you do?”

This approach jars Krug’s player to attention. And as usual, we get the same old questions.

Terry: “Ok, two orcs down. We’re winning here guys! Krug looks around for more foes. What does he see?”

GM: “Well, there’s a couple orcs — including the orc leader — attacking Sir Valiance. And Templeton and Little Phingers are duelling with the shaman.”

Terry: “Who’s worse off? Sir Valiance or the cleric and thief?”

GM: “Ummm. Probably Templeton and Little Phingers. The shaman is blasting them with spells, and two orcs are running up to help their tribe’s spiritual leader.”

Terry: <Thinks> “Is the shaman wounded?”

GM: “Yup, he’s been nicked a couple times.”

Terry: <Thinks a bit more> “Ok. In a rage, Krug rushes the shaman, but he’ll attack from an angle that doesn’t put his back against the oncoming orcs.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty typical sequence.

Each turn, players want to know the situation and how they can make the biggest and most exciting impact, pun not intended (well, a little intended).

So it takes extra details and some back-and-forth until players feel ready to decide. And this happens on almost every turn.

But we can cut all this out with Combat Transitions.

Instead of describing what just happened in great detail, we quickly mention those events, and then we transition the description to the next player in initiative.

We focus on queueing up the next player’s turn instead of dwelling on — and repeating — the past.

It’s A Baton Race

Have you ever watched or joined a baton race?

The key is the hand-off. The current weilder must pass the baton off well or the team suffers a time penalty.

It doesn’t matter how fast you run, dropped batons will cause you to lose the race.

So too it is with our combats.

We need sharp and effective transitions to win.

And as GMs, we are in the best position to facilitate that transition.

Sharp transitions from one player to the next will cut combat time down a lot, depending on how many Terry’s you’ve got in your group.

GM: “Roghan finishes two orcs with great swings of his axe. Great job!

“Krug, many orcs still live, including the leader and shaman. Little Phingers and Templeton might need your help the most as a pair of orcs are charging in to join the shaman. What do you do?”

With this basic description of the facts, from a character point of view, we trim the back-and-forth questions.

We give Terry the scoop on the current situation so our friend can make an informed decision.

We also transition from Roghan’s player Sandy to Terry in one swoop.

We call out the next player and focus on their character’s primary perceptions as an elegant way to tick initiative and cue up the next PC.

Amp Up Drama

The transition snaps the next player to attention while providing important details for them to make a speedier decision with.

We briefly acknowledge the previous player’s turn and their accomplishments, and then spend the other 80% of our transition description on facilitating a speedier turn for the next player.

However, there’s one more thing we can do to make our combats even more exciting.

We add Stakes.

In addition to describing the current situation, we also add details about the current Dangers and Risks.


I think you can see how describing the current Stakes amps up the intensity.

We don’t just say, “It’s your turn Krug. What do you do?”

No drama there at all.

Instead, we take a moment to describe threats to the party and the character currently with the spotlight.

GM: “Krug, you see Roghan cleave two orcs into the afterlife.”

(Here I’ve acknowledged Sandy’s accomplishments and switched the spotlight to Terry in one smooth transition.

This has been tricky for me, and is one of the tough parts I’ve been working hard on during sessions.

I’ve learned the trick is to frame it from the next character’s point of view.

I did not narrate to Roghan, who’s just had their turn. Instead, I switched focus to Krug.

By starting your description with the next player in initiative order, you get that swift transition and alert the next player it’s their turn at the same time.)

GM: “Krug, you see Roghan cleave two orcs into the afterlife.

“You also see the paladin being double-teamed by the orc leader and another orc. He’s just been hit and is bleeding.

“You also see the orc shaman flinging spells at Phingers and Templeton. It looks like Templeton is dazed. And worse, two orcs are charging in to help their spiritual leader and will reach the cleric and rogue in moments.

You are also wounded and need healing from last round’s attacks.

What do you do?”

(This is the Darts Technique. Imagine the character with initiative at the bullseye of a dart board.

We start our description at the outer ring, which represents the least amount of Danger to the character.

Then we narrate closer and closer to the bullseye, each ring being more dangerous.

When we reach the bullseye, we describe what seems to be the greatest Danger to character and party.

We’re following a dramatic sequence here. Follow the sequence from least to most Danger, and your description will automatically imbue your combat with tension.

The paladin seems to have things under control. That’s the least perceived Danger.

Cleric and rogue are soon to be outnumbered, and they’re fighting a spellcaster to boot. They’re in more Danger than the paladin, so we describe that next.

It’s Krug’s initiative, and he’s not engaged with any foes right now. But I know he’s down to half hit points, so I decide that a reminder about his health is the centre of the dart board — the greatest Danger to Krug right now.)


Danger serves as one side of the Stakes coin.

The other side involves communicating the consequences of success or failure.

Now we’re getting to the heart of this exciting technique!

We remind the player with initiative what could happen if they make certain decisions.

First, we leverage the Dart Technique again. We start with the lowest risks and move towards the bullseye that represents the greatest risk to character, party, and story.

Second, we make a snap decision about each Danger.

We ask ourselves: Is it more dramatic to describe the Risk of Reward or the Risk of Failure? Then we pick whichever is the greater risk and describe that.

GM: “Krug, you see Roghan cleave two orcs into the afterlife. He’s clear for now, but wounded.”

(Minor Risk here: Roghan isn’t being attacked but he’s weakened.)

“You also see the paladin being double-teamed by two orcs. He’s just been hit and is bleeding. With a good hit from the leader, he could go down next round.”

(Much greater Risk to Sir Valiance. Note we’re talking about potentials here. We leave Risk outcomes uncertain. That’s where the drama comes from.

Also note how we don’t say the orc leader will for sure defeat the paladin. We just offer it up as a possibility — a Risk.)

“You also see the orc shaman flinging spells at Phingers and Templeton. It looks like Templeton is dazed. And worse, two orcs are charging in to help their spiritual leader and will reach the cleric and rogue in moments.

“If your friends can’t stop the shaman soon, the whole party could fall from his powerful magical attacks.”

(We position this Risk as a threat to the entire party, intensifying the Stakes.)

“You are also wounded and need healing from last round’s attacks.

“One good blow from orc leader or shaman could drop you too. Your mission to rescue the Queen hangs on the precipice.

“What do you do?”

(We set up the greatest Risk and Stakes — failure of the Combat Mission.

I don’t frame Mission Stakes on every character’s turn or even every round, else it loses its effect from repetition.

However, when it seems appropriate, at least once a combat, I try to surface this Stake.)

Tip: Create A Reminder

If we don’t remember to narrate Combat Descriptions, we never reap their benefits.

So create a reminder. The more often you use this technique, the more often you’ll remember it in the heat of battle, and the easier it becomes to use.

Put a Post-It on your screen. A timed reminder on your phone. Or a flag of some kind in your initiative tool of choice.

Tip: Use Character POV

In addition to the Darts Technique of starting at the outer ring of least Stakes and working inwards towards the highest, try describing the situation according to a character’s class and race.

For example, you might give the cleric and wizard details on the shaman’s prowess and types of spell’s he’s flinging.

A warrior might focus on foe positioning and tactical advantages.

A rogue might see Stakes with sneaky opportunities.

Tip: Positive Stakes Work Too

Mix it up with opportunities to gain advantage.

Not every Stake need focus on possible negative outcomes. Callout potential boons and advantages, as well.

“You think not allowing the shaman to withdraw and focus on the battlefield instead of personal safety could help keep the tide of battle in your favour.”

It’s a bit of mental gymnastics to switch from describing combat effects of misses, hits, and damage to focusing on the meaning of those events, but it’s worth it. You’ll get better by doing it.

Combat Transitions Recap

In my experiences so far, the Combat Transition technique works awesome.

It makes turns faster and adds much more tension to fights.

It even works when the characters are winning! You can always cast uncertainty and doubt on the current situation with the Dangers and Risks of Stakes.

Note how we’ve made two big changes to our combat GMing here.

First, instead of back-loading a character’s turn, we’re front-loading the next character’s turn with details.

This cues the next player well and pushes the encounter forward faster.

Second, we’re pivoting away from action descriptions (the attacks, the dodges, the gore) to Stakes descriptions.

This replaces fairly unimportant dice and damage details, that are not only self-evident but which players are imagining already, with storytelling.

I’m using this technique every session now and trying to get better round by round. Give Combat Transitions a try next melee and let me know how it goes.