All too often, combat in the game consists of little more than "I hit him with my sword", <roll><roll> "I do 7 Hit Points of damage". With the dramatic opportunities that combat presents in Dungeons & Dragons, this monotonous approach fails to enliven the game, or fire the imagination. Role-playing need not stop when combat begins, as this article demonstrates.
Combat is full of sensations. Describe the grunts and cries of combatants, the thud and clash of weapons, the expressions on the faces, the moves opponents make, their actions and reactions, the sounds and smells.
No combatant is ever completely aware of everything going on around them in a fight. A good GM trick is to occasionally, secretly, tell one player that their character notices something another character doesn't, such as a pit they may be about to step backwards into, a hidden sniper drawing a bead on them, an opponent blindsiding their unsuspecting friend, and so on, and give them a round or two to do something, even if only to quickly shout a warning. This trick can bolster the sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the players surprisingly well, and adds more dynamism to the conflict.
Only psychopaths and other miscreants enter combat at the drop of a hat. Use of force should be appropriate to the situation, and bear in mind the character's outlook on life. Like people in the real world, the inhabitants of fantasy worlds are almost always aware of the possible consequences of their actions, and whether their actions run counter to morality, local law, etc. Lethal force should only be used when faced with little recourse, unless the character is a deviant, or a native of a particularly violent culture, or race, such as an orc.
For example, someone using a knife in a barroom brawl would be considered a sick thug, unless their assailants were also brandishing such lethal weapons. Characters who behave in violent fashion, or react with disproportionate force, should expect to be reviled, hunted, imprisoned, or executed, by local authorities, relatives and allies of their victims, and so on. Consequences are something every character should expect.
One of the most overlooked aspects of any combat, and the first that should be born in mind, is the actual location of the fight. Considering the characters' surroundings for a moment can add a whole new dimension to a conflict. Ask yourself such questions as:
Are there potential obstacles or obstructions that can be ducked behind, jumped on, off, or over, interposed between the attack and target, or that might impede a combatant, such as boulders, tables, pillars, trees, or balconies?
Are there perils in the surroundings that might harm, kill, or otherwise inconvenience an incautious or unlucky combatant, such as a cliff-edge, open pit, lava flow, un-triggered trap, or patch of ice?
Does the environment in any way prohibit the use of certain weapons, or make their use more difficult? Some weapons, for example, require considerable space to be swung effectively, such as greatswords, so a fight in a short, narrow corridor would make their use very difficult. Similarly, fighting in close formation may make it hazardous to use some weapons, as an ally may occupy the space needed to use them. Weather conditions, such as powerful gales, thick fog, etc. can make the use of missile weapons problematic at best, and even melee combat can be effected if you can't see any opponent more than a yard away, or if a lot of flying debris, sand, etc. makes life difficult.
With a good grasp of the environment comes the ability to bring it into the conflict. Imagine how it can be used to the benefit and/or detriment of the combatants. Opponents can be forced towards perils, boulders can be used as cover, and so on. A Fumble on any roll during the combat may also involve the environment somehow, such as a trip or blunder into an object, suddenly finding oneself maneuvered to the brink of the lava flow or a missed attack resulting in the weapon getting stuck in a tree or pillar.
The presence of bystanders during a fight is also often overlooked. Crowds often gather to watch fights, and may goad the opponents on, and even place wagers on the outcome. Not only can bystanders get in the way, they can easily be hit by stray shots or blows, taken hostage or used as shields by nefarious individuals, or even enter the combat themselves on either side, or against both, the classic example of which is the local military or law enforcement attempting to stop the conflict and incarcerate the combatants.
Firing into any melee, whether bystanders or involved or not, is a difficult and dangerous proposition, due to the continual movement of the combatants. Missed shots may easily hit an unintended target, such as an ally. See page 124 of the Player's Handbook, and pages 65-66 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
Aside from intelligent bystanders, there are always cases of animals becoming involved somehow. Herd animals may stampede, posing a threat to everyone, while a predator may leap unexpectedly into a melee, in the hopes of taking a wounded individual on the periphery of the fight. Certain motive plants can also provide an added element to a fight, especially if they are not recognized as such from the onset.
The sword the character bears is not their only weapon. Try and add the occasional unarmed strike into a combination of blows; it is more interesting, and can surprise an unexpecting opponent. A swift kick can force an opponent back, giving the character room to maneuver or flee, while a solid punch can stun, and a head butt can bring you in so close that your opponent cannot bring any weapon larger than a dagger to bear. In the interests of encouraging such swashbuckling flair, a good DM will ignore the ruling that such attacks provoke Attacks of Opportunity, because although the attack was an unarmed one, the character is still actually armed.
The character should also exploit the environment of the fight. Many objects, such as chairs, rocks, ropes, nets, wall hangings, or pots of oil, may be used as impromptu clubs, missiles, entangling implements, incendiaries, and so on. For instance, rugs may be pulled from under assailants, barrels of oil spilled to create slick patches, or chandeliers shot down to fall on assailants below. Even an unskilled or unarmed combatant can be terribly effective if they make intelligent use of their surroundings.
The majority of weapons can be used to perform a variety of strikes, in a variety of ways. Give some thought as to what form an attack takes. Is it a thrust, a lunge, a wild swing, an overhead blow, a feint, or a backhanded swipe? A weapon can even be used in unorthodox ways: a strike may be made with the flat of the blade, possibly subduing or intimidating an opponent; a staff may be used to thrust; a subdual blow can be made with a weapon's handle or pommel; many melee weapons can even be thrown if the situation is desperate enough. Although the DM may penalize such unorthodox weapon usage as noted on page 124 of the Player's Handbook, he should also be prepared to give appropriate bonuses to Intimidate Skills checks, for example.
Consider how a combatant can be taken out of the fight quickly without necessarily being gradually bludgeoned or sliced in a protracted melee. Opponents can be disarmed, tripped, pinned, grappled, thrown, knocked out, entangled, or knocked over, for instance.
Combat Skills such as Cleave, Dodge, and Spring Attack just beg to be used descriptively, and should be used with frequency and panache. Simply state you are using the Feat, and describe how the character attempts to pull it off.
Few combats should ever be to the death; only the most deeply stupid, insane, frenzied, or foolishly courageous combatants will continue fighting when badly wounded or outclassed. A hasty retreat is a key survival strategy for practically every living being.
Particularly bloodthirsty or lethal maneuvers, such as attempts to slice an opponent's head off, pierce their eyes, or eviscerate them should be rare, and used only when dramatically appropriate. Should players continually attempt such maneuvers against every opponent, they should expect all the NPCs they attack to fight them in like fashion.
The way that some combats are conducted, it is hard to imagine the combatants doing much more than standing toe-to-toe and trading blows. In truth, combat is fluid, and continually in motion. Bear some thought as to how the characters move about, and how this can be used to advantage or disadvantage.
Do they try and outflank an opponent, or move to a better attacking position? Do the combatants circle each other warily? Do they attempt to close in, or move away? How do they dodge: duck, sidestep, roll, or leap? Do they press an opponent, forcing them back, or yield and give ground? Do they charge or leap into a fight, weapon raised high, calmly walk forward, or wait for their opponent to come to them?
Once again, the environment is very important when considering the motion of the various characters. Chandeliers or ropes may be swung from, sails slid down with a dagger, pillars ran around, tables dived under, jumped on, and so on. Although anyone can roll, leap, or dive, characters with the Jump and Tumble Skills can be made particularly impressive by use of motion, cartwheeling, back flipping, somersaulting, or going into elaborate springs and rolls.
Combatants who find themselves on the ground may be in peril if their opponent is still standing, and may be forced to roll or flail wildly in an attempt to avoid being struck, and provide themselves with the moment needed to regain their feet.
Motion in certain environments can add a whole new dimension, quite literally, to a fight. Airborne combats, for example, can feature attacks from above, below, diving attacks, swoops, and so on, while underwater combats also occur in three dimensions, but slow down motion, and make non-thrusting weapons far less effective.
Just because the action has started, it doesn't mean that the talking has ceased. Characters should engage in appropriate dialogue when fighting, hurling expletives, insults, and imprecations at opponents, shouting warnings and encouragement to colleagues, screaming battle cries, engaging in the cut and thrust of witty repartee with like-minded antagonists, and so on. Just as players speak the words of their characters when role-playing any other situation, they should do so here.
The damage opponents suffer can be as detailed or vague as befits the gaming group's tastes, playing style, and campaign style.
Never simply state the amount of Hit Point damage inflicted by any blow—describe it. Small amounts of damage comparative to the character's Hit Points might be cuts, nicks, grazes, bruises, etc. while heavy damage can result in bone-crunching impacts, or deep gashes, causing blood to flow.
A battle can take a serious toll on the surrounding environment, and the effects are worth thinking about. Use of fire in any form may ignite combustibles, and cause a hazard. Attacks that miss their intended target may hit something else, thereby damaging it, and the use of items as cover, fighting platforms, etc. will almost certainly result in them being damaged. A fight will practically always leave signs of its occurrence, even if only in the form of splashes of blood.
Combat in “The Lords of Bloodstone” campaign can, and should, be as gripping and exciting as any fight scene in an action movie, and if given as much thought and effort as possible, will take its place alongside any other role-playing scene for a sense of character and drama.