Combat Roleplay: Teach Your Players to Narrate the Action
From Tony Medeiros
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #670
- Step 1: Set the Example
- Step 2: Identify Player RP Levels
- Step 3: Encourage Player-Driven Combat Description
- Ask Players to Narrate
- Focus on Highlights
- Cinematic Combat Generator
- You’ve Leveled Up Your Roleplaying
- Campaign Logger Android Testers Needed
- Murder Hobos: Season II Kicks Off
- Meet New Kent
- Ancient Pathway Revealed
- Trouble In Town
- GM Comments
- Relationship Map
- Map Creation Session
- Sample Relationships
- Family Links
- Background Links
- Shared Experience Links
Do you struggle to get your players to roleplay and add flavorful description to their actions in combat? In today’s article we’ll give you the tools you need to excel in setting an example, identify your players’ roleplaying levels, and give them the confidence and guidance they need to narrate their epic combat scenes.
Step 1: Set the Example
Start by assessing how you roleplay. Every GM has a comfort level along the theatrical continuum of roleplay. Most game masters are more comfortable with the third person approach when describing action and portraying characters.
However, roleplaying games are more enjoyable when you get in character. Think of your favorite characters from books, movies, and series and how they jump off the screen or page. They do this because their personalities and stories are rich and layered. Their actors don’t hold back in facial expressions, dialogue, or emotions. The greatest of actors become their characters and bring you to love them.
Why not give the same effort to your NPCs when you roleplay? As GM, set the example. Just like actors are inspired by their award-winning peers your players will be inspired to greater heights of roleplay when you go all-in for your NPC performances. All it takes is practice and courage on your part.
Start in combat. Narrate short, action-oriented sentences. Include who is acting, their method of attack, and the location and severity of the attack. More on this later, including a cinematic attack description generator to get you started.
Step 2: Identify Player RP Levels
Now that you’ve resolved to be a great roleplayer for your players it’s time to understand where each of them falls on a roleplaying scale. Identifying this will help you teach them to level up their performances. The key is understanding their roleplaying level from two perspectives:
- Comfort Level: How comfortable, willing, or excited is your player to roleplay?
- Skill Level: How convincing or smooth is your player in their delivery?
Each of your players fits into a different tier within each these perspectives. Starting with combat, identify their roleplay effort and quality. Observe your players for this in your next game and make a note of each player’s current roleplaying tier.
- Tier 1: Too shy, not creative enough, frozen when asked to come up with combat descriptions.
- Tier 2: Average or inconsistent roleplaying effort and skills in combat.
- Tier 3: Fantastic player-driven narratives and descriptions in combat.
- Tier 4: Tremendous roleplaying in virtually all scenes and situations, in and out of combat.
Once you understand your players’ current level or tier of roleplaying in combat situations, you’re better able to help them level up to a higher tier – including the “4-star” tier of tremendous roleplaying throughout the entire game session.
Step 3: Encourage Player-Driven Combat Description
With your players’ roleplaying abilities measured, how do you help your players level up their roleplaying? How do you get someone to move from Tier 1 to 2, 3 to 4, or even take someone all the way on the epic journey from Tier 1 to 4?
Similar to actor performances you want to elicit story-rich and emotional reactions from your players. Do this by putting their characters in emotionally charged situations.
Combat is a great starting context where anyone can improve their roleplay – nothing’s more emotionally charged than fighting for your life!
Here are three approaches to encourage your players to roleplay in combat:
Ask Players to Narrate
Ask players to describe or add to your basic description of their attacks and attack results. Use simple, welcoming questions or statements that encourage story collaboration. After all, isn’t every combat a story and roleplaying opportunity?
Example: If a player rolls enough damage to finish off an enemy, you might say “Your strike finishes off the zombie lord. Would you like to describe its death scene?”
Or you might say after a dramatic pause (and some math) “Well done! Go ahead and describe how you finish off the zombie lord.”
Focus on Highlights
Ask players to narrate only major combat events.
Ask only for descriptions of critical hits, critical misses, knockouts, kills, critical or outstanding spell results, or tremendous skill or ability checks or tests.
Include High-Definition Detail. Ask players to include specific weapons or spell names, how the weapons were used (slashing, pounding, firing), wound locations and severity, furnishings, terrain or other items in the environment, and other razor-sharp details in their combat narrative. Encourage cinematic-action-scene-style descriptions.
- Increase description length and frequency for combat highlights (see above).
- Minimize combat description verbiage for normal or typical attacks and damage.
Example: The player finishes off the zombie lord. When the GM asks her to describe its death scene at her hand she says, “I drive my fiery sword through its skull, and then kick his broken body up against the undead deity’s shrine. The candles and vials of blood fall and crash all over him!”
Remember, all GMs can benefit from these tips. Choose one and commit to using it often in your games. Then master another until all three become a part of your GM toolkit. Set the example so your players mirror your own roleplaying style and improvements.
Cinematic Combat Generator
Want some ideas to get your playgroup’s RP juices flowing? Here is a tool to help GMs and players quickly come up with creative ways to add flavor to their attacks and roleplay in combat. This table is especially helpful for new or reluctant roleplayers on either side of the table.
Each column includes connecting narrative text (in quotes) and encompasses the results of who is acting, their method or style of attack, and the location and severity of the attack.
To use the Cinematic Attack Generator, roll 1d20 for each column or choose and combine one or more results from each column. Reroll if you get odd or undesirable combinations.
Narrate the generator result by combining the results from each column. Use the suggested connecting words at the top of each column as inspiration. This yields an easy-to-say attack description.
Here are some example results:
Rolls of 1, 11, 18, 1 and 3 yield “I drive my sword through its skull and it sprays blood in a wide arc!”
Rolls of 7, 16, 8, 2 and 5 yield “I skewer my arrow through his ribs and he screams in agony!”
Rolls of 19, 18, 20, 3 and 1 yield “Kraen arcs his fire spell into the zombie lord’s eyes and it convulses with a sucking sound!”
|d20||Attack “I…” or “Character or NPC Name…”||Weapon or Tool “my / his / her / the…” or “it / him / her… with…”||Wound Location “in / into / through” and/or “its / his / her / name…”||Result Consequence “and he / she / it…” or “causing him / her / it / NPC or creature to…”||Result Description “in / in a / like / like a / with / with a…”|
|1||Drive||Fist or Punch||Arm||Sprays Blood||Sucking Sound|
|2||Swing||Claw||Shoulder||Screams||Sack of Stones|
|5||Jam||Boot, Foot or Hoof||Knee||Moans||Agony|
|7||Skewer||Rock or Stone||Stomach||Whimpers||Shame|
|8||Crush||Spear||Ribs||Screeches||Across the Room|
|10||Rip||Dagger||Heart||Spits or Spits Up||Savagely|
|13||Pierce||Hammer||Arm||Bleeds||All Over Him/Her/Itself|
|14||Pound||Axe||Shoulder||Collapses||All Over [ally]|
|15||Burn||Staff||Neck||Stumbles||All Over [enemy]|
|19||Arc||Jaws or Teeth||Face||Grovels||Horror|
Add on to the table and embellish narrations further based on your playgroup’s roleplaying tiers and preferences – especially as part of outstanding gameplay, for climactic moments, or when anyone levels up their RP tier.
Consider using the table as inspiration in scenes and roleplaying opportunities beyond combat. Practice narrating these and similar descriptions aloud with confidence, as a player or GM. This will help your entire playgroup develop its roleplaying skill and comfort levels.
You’ve Leveled Up Your Roleplaying
You’ve now learned how to take your roleplaying skills another level and how to teach your players how to be roleplaying stars.
Want more ideas like these? You might like my Leonine Roar articles: Secret #1 to Great Fantasy Writing and Roleplay, Fear of Death: Creating Unforgettable Character Death Scenes, and How To Use Story Glue: Cast of Characters & Memorable Moments.
You might also like the great Faster Combat exclusive bonus, the Combat Descriptions swipe file.
What tips do you have to encourage and improve the roleplaying in your playgroup, in and out of combat? What do you do that gets your reluctant roleplayers to join the storytelling fun?
Brief Word From Johnn
Campaign Logger Android Testers Needed
RPT Patron Jochen Linnemann is making an Android app version of the Campaign Logger, my session note-taking and campaign organization tool. And he needs some testers for feedback and bug-finding.
If you’d like to test out the app you need:
- A fairly modern Android device (at least supporting Android 4.2)
- A G+ account
To be a tester:
- Join the JL Gaming Apps google community
- Contact Jochen by writing a short message in the community or by G+ chat
Murder Hobos: Season II Kicks Off
Last Friday we began the next season of my D&D 5E game. The campaign started as a playtest intended to end after the Basic Set module, Lost Mine of Phandelver, came to completion. However, everyone is enjoying the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, so I’ve expanded the adventure into a larger sandbox game.
Last season ended with the PCs killing the drow villain who was manipulating the Cragmaw goblin king. Season II opened up with the party resting after that epic battle at a hidden lake. It’s a crisp and misty late spring morning and the party decides to head back to town.
Along the way they see a tipped wheelbarrow on the side of the road. Roots, berries, and firewood litter the area. The party finds tracks and deduces a large giant-ish creature has taken the wheelbarrow owner into the wilderness. The group follows.
Meet New Kent
After a few hundred yards the PCs come to a simple one-room shack, a henge of standing stones, and a ridge with about a dozen sheep lined up along it. The wizard’s owl familiar Ash spies a large creature hiding behind a tree nearby.
As the PCs split up and approach by stealth the creature jumps out, revealing itself to be a large troll. Spreading clawed hands it says, “Hello! I am Kent.” Then it turns to the row of onlooking sheep and says, “Oh great judges, what say you? Should these interlopers be rendered to Bovidae, or should they be spared this fine spring day?”
One sheep bleats, which the troll takes as a vote for murder. Another sheep, the only one with a bell, releases a large quantity of methane. “The Judge has spoken! I hear you oh great decider. It’s time to be sacrificed to Bovidae!” And with that, Kent the Troll attacks.
The battle is short. The troll is burnt with a flaming orb cast by the wizard Six, arrows from Roscoe the rogue, and wolf bites from Vargulf the druid. The creature cannot regenerate, and the PCs whittle him down. Then the mage thoroughly roasts the troll’s body while the druid and rogue help revive the shepherd who was dropped by the troll before the party’s attack.
The shepherd is simple and poor. He cannot remember his name, so he decides his name is New Kent. He knows nothing about the henge and offers two sheep to the party as thanks for saving his life. The party has a healthy meal of mutton out of one sheep and ask the shepherd to take care of the other. They also come to an agreement that New Kent will keep an eye out during his wanderings and report back to the party if he spots anything strange.
Ancient Pathway Revealed
After a rest the group investigates the henge. It’s similar to the one discovered recently about 30 miles away, and has the same runes marking the stones. Vargulf the dwarf was not with the party last time, and he translates the runes for Roscoe and Six. The henges are portals. Each stone will activate a destination to another place or a higher fey dimension if the proper ritual is used. Unfortunately, the stones reveal no clues about the activation ritual.
While the druid puzzles over the runes, Six and Roscoe dig up coins, jewelry, and a magic scimitar within the henge. They also find the remains of many fallen warriors. The scimitar’s blade also bears dwarven runes that read Burning Death. Six says the blade will cause foes to ignite.
Trouble In Town
After saying goodbyes to the sheep and shepherd, the group makes it back to Phandelver. Palpable tension permeates town. The Blue Diamond trading coster has nearly finished its palisade. Bodies dangle from gibbets in town square. The streets are deserted. Shop windows are shuttered and doors closed. Anyone the PCs meet is skittish and tense.
The group learns the Blue Diamond have brought in paramilitary to help guard their compound. And the Manor, which the group cleared out only weeks ago, has been taken over by tough mercenaries called the Second Chancers. This murderous lot has bullied the Townmaster into extorting merchants, hanging criminals, and intimidating the local miners who come to trade.
Several folk have come to the party’s priest for help. Loved ones or friends are in trouble or have disappeared. The group agrees to help these people in the morning. But first, some heavy drinking must be done to calm nerves after recent events in Spider’s dungeon.
Though Roscoe and Six seem to have a good night at the Stonehill Inn, Vargulf ends up drinking too much. He wakes the next morning bound by silk rope in a dark cavern, a bone naga hovering over him. The naga appears to have been imprisoned or trapped for some time for she asks Vargulf questions about recent events in the area. She wants to know the history, information about what communities exist nearby, and who’s powerful and important.
Meanwhile, the rogue and mage wake up with pounding heads and concern over their missing friend. Six finds Vargulf’s tracks, which lead down the Triboar Trail. A few minutes out of town it appears Vargulf passed out or was attacked and then hauled away into the scrub. The PCs follow the trail to a mound with a ruined stone building or temple atop. The tracks lead into a dark stair down.
Bracing themselves, Roscoe and Six descend just as the druid changes into a tiny lizard and escapes his bonds. Chaos ensues and the bone naga, her two yuan-ti slaves, and her bulette-riding warrior minion run through windy tunnels and cramped caves fighting desperate battles. Early on it looks like the three PCs are out-matched. Spells and arrows fly, fireballs erupt, and summoned creatures help tip things the group’s way. After a long, hard-fought battle involving several skirmishes, the party emerges bloody but victorious.
We end the session there, with healing potions distributed and admonishments to Vargulf and his carousing.
Only three players could make the session. I polled my group a few days before game night, so I knew in advance what the head count would be. From my stint on the other screen side this summer playing a warlock character, I realized I appreciated it when a GM says to me, “Hey, here’s the situation, and I’d like you to do this.” It’s clear communication and gets me to fun gameplay faster while helping out the GM.
I prefer having a full table for season openers and finales. So due to the low player count, I had prepped four 5 Room Dungeons to keep the small group busy for the night. And at session start I said, “Hey guys, I’d like to save some stuff for season opener until we have a full group. So my plan is to throw a bunch of quick quests at you while you’re in town. Is that ok?”
The guys had no problem, we had clear direction, and it worked quite well. Normally, I try to be organic and mysterious with hooks and plots – whatever that means – but just being up front worked awesome and it was low stress for me. So I feel more confident about doing that again.
The lesson here for me is you don’t need to take on the burden of complete simulation and freedom of player choice. Sometimes direction is good, because everyone wants to see each other and the game succeed, and players just want to play and have fun, so a little GM direction is ok if it facilitates more gaming.
We’re set to play in a couple weeks, though schedule conflicts loom ahead, so I’ll see if I can stave those off in advance.
Have a game-full week!
P.S. I have a GM challenge for you next session: Have an NPC betray the party but because he had no choice.
How did you do with last week’s GM Challenge? Give each player at least one compliment while playing for their ideas or actions. Unfortunately, I forgot to do the challenge during Friday’ session. So I’ve pasted this week’s challenge on my GM screen so I don’t forget.
Thanks to Roleplaying Tips’ awesome new Patrons: Erich T. Wade, Alan Witt, Vorona, Arne Babenhauserheide!
A Guide to PC Relationship Maps
From Phil Nicholls
Adventuring parties, much like the tabletop groups they mirror, work best when their members are drawn together by shared relationships and a common goal. Use a relationship map to establish the links between the characters, strengthen the party’s bonds, and enrich your roleplaying.
My first encounter with a relationship map was during the character generation process for Hillfolk, the game by Robin D Laws using the DramaSystem rules. To set up the dramatic interpersonal conflicts that drive the game all players were required to link their characters to all the others in the game.
Such a complex web is beyond the needs of the average RPG, but the principle of personal connections can be applied to a few characters to create a solid group dynamic. This will drive inter-party relationships and provide moments of humour or drama within the ongoing plot.
A great example of this is the series Firefly. All of the crew have some sort of relationship with Captain Reynolds as well as links to some of the other characters. These connections might be positive or negative, but all serve as believable motivation to keep the crew together.
Map Creation Session
Create the relationship map as part of the character creation process. You can use pre-created characters to help drive the map or create the map to ease character creation. Whichever comes first, the relationships created should bind the party within a network of personal links.
The process of creating the relationship map involves all the players sitting down together. Players begin with a blank piece of paper with their name written in the centre. The GM should take part too, with all the player names in a large circle to use as a master copy of the map.
First, the GM must decide how many relationships each character is required to have. More links result in more complexity. Three links per player is a good balance of complexity and depth for groups of five or six players.
Next, have the players roll initiative to determine who starts the process. The winning player then picks another player, adds them to their sheet and draws a line connecting the two names. These two players then agree upon the relationship between their two characters. The active player should start the process, but both need to agree on the nature of their characters’ relationship.
Once a relationship has been decided, the involved players and the GM update their relationship map with the relevant characters, a line connecting them and notes about their relationship.
The next player in initiative order then repeats the process, adding a new relationship to the map. Once everyone has taken a turn repeat the process until the desired number of links are created.
You can roll on the tables below or just use them as inspiration when creating your characters’ links.
- Foster siblings
- Distant cousins
- Aunt/uncle and niece/nephew
- Shared divine ancestor
- Twin souls
- Reincarnated lovers
- Apprenticed to the same master
- Slaves who escaped from the same owner
- Students at the same academy
- Competitors in the same sport
- Drank in the same tavern
- Grew up in the same village
- Served in the same Military unit
- Shared dream of heroic glory
- Worship the same cultural hero
- Worked together as adults
- Members of the same church
- Swore an oath of friendship
Shared Experience Links
- Fought in the same Battle
- Besieged in the same city
- Escaped together from raiders
- Jilted by the same lover
- Travelled together in the same merchant caravan
- Met on a pilgrimage
- One rescued the other from bandits
- One caught thief stealing the others coin pouch
- Both fled the same dragon
- Visited by the same divine messenger
- Referenced in the same prophecy
- Adorned with the same mystical tattoo
- Rivals for the same lover
- Once dueled each other
- Family Feud
- Warring Clans
- Both seek the same object
- Your sword killed my Father!
- I know your secret!
- Incompatible philosophies/religious beliefs
- Infuriating personal habits
- You drink too much!
- Slight of honour