Combat description is hard. It’s really hard. It’s also really important. It’s also really hard.
In addition to the music, to the stress of an encounter, to the moods and attitudes of the players and the GM, combat descriptions are one of those things really essential to selling a fight. There’s something so deflating, so heartbreakingly boring about the phrase, “I attack the Goblin with my sword.” Boring combat dialogue can make fights sound monotonous and predictable, can take the ‘wow’ factor out of any contest of might and wits, and can reduce your fantasy playground into a bunch of numbers and tally marks bumping into a bunch of evil numbers and tally marks.
But combat description is hard. I’m not bashing anyone that struggles with it. It’s really, really difficult to come up with good descriptions fast enough and smoothly enough to make them work in a game world. They have to sound cool, and you have to say them really smoothly and clearly. And it’s daunting to attempt, too; Combat description that takes too long or is interrupted by lots of stuttering and stammering is sometimes even worse than not having any in the first place.
Sure, you can practice one or two cool ways to say “I hit the goblin with my sword,” but you attack twice per round and you didn’t expect the GM to also throw a Mind Flayer into the mix, not to mention all your descriptions had something to do with you ‘weaving in and out of the shadows‘ but you’re out of the cave now and there are no shadows to weave in and out of. GM’s don’t have it any easier, as they have to account for interesting ways to depict every action any of their PC’s could possibly throw at the opponents, as well as anything opponents could throw back.
So how do we mitigate this? In my experience of playing and running all sorts of tabletops for 5+ years, there are two ways that work best. There’s Time, and there’s money. I’d recommend Money, but I’ll explain both.
This works best for GMs (who usually have to worry more about combat descriptions than players anyway) and for PCs who use mostly martial attacks.
For GMs: Pull up your favorite audio or video podcast that uses the game system you run for, or a game system in a similar setting (Sci-fi, fantasy, Zombie Apocalypse, etc). Wait for the players to engage in a combat encounter. After a PC spends their turn performing some kind of action, whether it’s casting a spell, interacting with the environment to deal damage, firing a gun, or punching a hooker in the mouth, pause the podcast. Spend the next few seconds trying to figure out how you would describe that action back to the player to make it sound interesting. Unpause, then listen to how the GM of that game did it (Or if they did it; You’ll notice that many GMs only add descriptions to about 50% of attacks). Reflect on your performance: Did you do well? Did you think up something fast enough? But don’t spend too long reflecting, as the next attack is coming right up. Keep doing this for the entire combat encounter.
For players, the only recommendation I have is to watch a lot of fight choreography. If your character uses a melee weapon, study actual moves and combat techniques used by that weapon. Study stances and fighting styles. Footwork. Feints. Ripostes. Kicks, judo throws, counters. If you don’t think it’s relevant, you’re probably wrong.
Doing this will allow you to develop a library of words and phrases through which you can fuel your own descriptions. This is different from the stilted nature of coming up with lines for certain situations because with enough knowledge of your character’s fighting style, you really start to understand how they would react in the situation. You stop trying to imagine how they would move, and start describing how they should move.
But Time is Time, and Time takes Time. Time takes a lot of Time. These methods involve patience and careful study. It’s a big investment. It’s a lot of Time. Not everyone has a lot of Time.
I don’t usually recommend Money over Time. This is an exception for a few reasons:
- It’s a pretty small amount of Money versus a pretty huge amount of Time
- They both end up building the exact same skillset in basically the same way
- Magic-Users don’t have much of a choice.
As with most things in DnD, people sell things that you can buy to help you out. If you ask me, the best things out there for combat descriptions are made by Conflict Games. They’ve got cards with written descriptions to a PDF with thousands of player-created descriptions split into Blunt, Slashing and Piercing categories, to a GM screen with 40+ categorized descriptions that is currently on sale for 100% (!!!) off. These are what I’ve been using after I stopped having the Time to commit to Time.
Wizard PCs have pretty much their only solution (That I’ve found) locked away in Money as well. It’s actually not even out yet. It’s a kickstarter for a deck of cards (Also by Conflict Games) that give descriptive dialogue for every spell of every type an average person can think of. For $25, it’s certainly on the low end of Tabletop accessories out there, and probably the best thing about it is that after you’ve been using it for a while, you won’t need it anymore.
These cards and screens, similar to the Time options, allow you to build a library of phrases and keywords that make you better at coming up with your own descriptions. They are training wheels that you will, eventually grow out of. So why use the training wheels? Because it’s a lot faster than throwing a toddler on a bike and waiting for them to learn by themselves. It’s also a lot faster than giving a toddler a book on riding bikes and letting them figure it out for themselves. It’s also not a lot of Money.
Put the Time in. Put the Money in. Say goodbye to the dark days of “I hit the Goblin with my sword.” You and everyone else at your table will be glad you did.
Featured Image Via Flickr / Dagny Mol