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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
damage opponents suffer can be as detailed or vague as befits the gaming group's
tastes, playing style, and campaign style.
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.
in “The Lords of Bloodstone”
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.