Combat in tabletop RPGs is often boring. It’s a bit ironic. One might think that the point where tensions boil over, swords start swinging, and bullets start flying would naturally be exciting, but I’ve heard many players lament how their games seem to slow to a crawl or lose tension during action sequences, and that the fighting is their least favorite part.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Combat isn’t inherently boring. It’s just that games (even ones that are very mechanically focused on fighting) don’t automatically provide the things that make combat scenes interesting or exciting—that stuff has to come from the GM and the other players, and it’s not generally in the rulebooks.
This post is about what you, the GM, can do to make combat scenes in your game more interesting.
The Anatomy of a Mediocre Combat Scene
A boring combat scene starts like this: the bad guys are here, roll for initiative! It can take place anywhere but most commonly happens in a kind of large, flat, mostly empty room. As it proceeds, the combatants approach one another and form little clusters where they stand around taking turns hitting one another. When all the folks on one side (usually the baddies) have all been biffed to death, combat ends.
I’ve been in games where there wasn’t really much more to it than that—we went back and forth saying who we attacked, noting whether we hit and how much damage we did, and then at some point it was over. The players spent a lot of time between turns looking at their cell phones.
This won’t do. You've gotta spice it up. There are four basic ingredients you need:
- Vivid Detail
- Real Stakes
- Interesting Choices
- Dynamic Action
Right off the bat it’s worth saying that while a lot of GM advice focuses on adding vivid descriptive detail, when it comes to combat scenes, in my experience, it’s actually the least crucial of the four ingredients listed above. Spicing up the scene with fancy descriptions of what’s happening in combat only goes so far, especially if what’s happening is still just a bunch of folks standing in clusters taking turns whacking one another. In fact, long descriptions can slow things down even more. If you’ve got all kinds of dynamic stuff going on in your combat scene (which is what the next sections will focus on), you honestly don’t have to go into too much detail about it. If players have multiple things to worry about or consider doing, the picture they form in their head as they evaluate the situation will often be plenty vivid.
There are a few techniques you can use to enhance the action or retain player interest, though:
Let the players narrate their own actions whenever possible, but add your own detail at the end. They know what they think is cool, and you can tie it into the rest of the scene. Your job is to make things flow by adding the bit that connects the effects of that action to whatever follows it, e.g. by opening up an opportunity for the next character to act.
Be creative with what counts as an attack. There are only so many ways to describe hitting or getting hit with a sword. Add physical comedy or irony or a small chain of events instead of basic strikes. E.g. instead of “She winds up and hits you with the warhammer really hard” try “You were expecting her to swing the warhammer but she caught you off guard by just heaving it forward at you. The impact doesn’t hurt, but getting pushed backwards into her companion’s spear does.”
Keep the story going during the battle. Sometimes adding to a combat scene means adding stuff that isn’t combat. Let the baddies talk and reveal information, make the fighting uncover clues, tell the players what their characters notice (without necessarily making them roll) and let them ask questions, etc. Some GMs are so good at this that it’s easy to forget that big parts of plot-heavy sessions technically take place during a very long battle.
Some of the best writing advice I ever got was this: “Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.” This point is as valid for GMs as it is for writers.
The core of a good scene is an interesting question, and the purpose of the scene is to answer that question. In order for the scene to have any tension, it’s important that the answer isn’t obvious and that it has consequences for how the story goes on. In bad action movies, the question is often “will the main character die?” and the audience already knows the answer. In order for a scene to have emotional stakes, you want the characters trying to accomplish something that they could believably fail at and the story would go on and their failure would mean something.
In a boring combat scene, the question is just “Who will win this fight?”, or even “How long will it take us to win this fight?”
The worst version of this is when there just happen to be enemies around. “A bunch of orcs jump out of the bushes! Roll for initiative!” In this situation, the player characters either fail and die or they run away or they win. So the story either ends suddenly or goes on almost as if nothing had happened.
In a good fight scene, the characters aren’t just fighting, they’re fighting over something. Often the best stakes are medium-sized. The loss of a well-liked NPC is usually a lot scarier than the end of the world.
As a GM, there are a lot of ways to add meaningful stakes. An easy way is to establish something that the antagonists want to destroy that the players have an incentive to protect. A town, a caravan, a batch of priceless eggs.
Maybe the antagonists are creating a bigger threat or an advantage for themselves. They’re constructing a weapon or waking a demon that won’t end the world, but will make the upcoming fights a lot harder. Maybe they’re trying to start a war or a conflict that will give them a political advantage.
Chases and races are great for setting up stakes. Will those scoundrels get away with the artifact they’ve stolen? Will the crooked city guard catch us noble artifact thieves? Who will reach the well of power first?
A few more notes about setting up stakes:
- It’s good to have a spectrum of partial success and failure states. Maybe the players can’t save every villager from the attacking bandits, and the question is “How many, and who?” This sets up interesting choices.
- Mechanically speaking, clocks and counters are the GM’s best friend. Make a clock for the destruction of the sacred shrine or the progress of the race to the clocktower, and tick segments at narratively appropriate times.
- It’s okay to have fights that only end when one side has destroyed the other, but it’s often more interesting to set up situations where the players can succeed without killing the enemies (or kill all the enemies but still fail).
- A fight scene can have multiple sets of stakes, especially for characters with different concerns. One PC might be driven to capture captain Calhoun, while another just wants to keep the boat from sinking.
While stakes add tension and give the players reasons to care about how the battle turns out, even a scene with well-developed stakes can sometimes devolve into a bunch of characters standing around biffing one another. That kind of action can get stale pretty quick. For one thing, the situation doesn’t change much from moment to moment - the next section will focus on how to make scenes more dynamic. But another reason why standard combat scenes can grow tiresome is just that there’s not much for the players to consider doing on their turns. Especially in games with traditional combat mechanics, most player characters have a handful of basic attacks or abilities that they can use and many of them are variations on “damage the enemy”. Choosing which enemy to attack, or whether to burn a spell slot for extra damage isn’t going to stay engaging for more than a round or two.
Here are a couple ways to give the players more interesting stuff to think about:
Make the environment useful or dangerous.
It doesn’t matter how much you describe the setting, it’s effectively no different than an empty room if there’s nothing there to interact with. When in doubt, add something to fall off of (or to push an enemy from). Or a river that might sweep you a ways downstream, or a trap to trigger, or more enemies to alert. Put a scene in a factory that has levers that reconfigure the environment dramatically. Make some things that provide cover, or areas that are harder to move through (and put the archers on the other side). Use stored kinetic energy, i.e. ways to accomplish things or change the situation dramatically by interacting with the environment (exploding barrels, an enormous and obviously breakable aquarium, a sleeping giant). Let both sides threaten each other with those dangers.
Try to avoid dangers that are most likely lethal, and focus instead on things that tilt the balance of the situation. Falling off a ledge and having to climb back up is better than disappearing into a bottomless pit.
Make sure your environment features opportunities as well as threats (many things are both) - a prominent chandelier to swing from is just as good as a banister to fall off of.
If a player asks whether something is present in the scene that you didn’t picture, it probably should be - ask them why, because they likely have a cool idea you can run with.
Engage with the stakes, present dilemmas and think in terms of risk/reward.
Some of the best situational moments are directly connected to the scene’s stakes. Put your characters in a race with inter-vehicular combat, à la Mad Max: Fury Road, and make it clear when there’s an opportunity for a player to board and try to hijack an enemy vehicle, provided they can muster the courage to jump across the gap. Anyone who falls (or gets thrown) off their vehicle isn’t necessarily dead, or even entirely out of the race, but they’re going to have to find a way to catch up.
Sometimes dilemmas will come up naturally, but it’s good to emphasize them. A sentence or two of narration between turns can highlight the obvious choices that are available, e.g. “The orc you’ve been sparring with is definitely starting to slow down, but it seems like Wilfred is in quite a bit of danger behind you...”
Other times you can use situational or environmental threats or opportunities to create choices with different levels of risk and reward. “Boris’s strike goes wide and he tumbles over the edge - he’s hanging on with one hand. The pirate who took the treasure map scoffs and starts making off across the gangplank toward her ship. What do you do?” or “The paper golems are advancing quickly, and they’ve backed you into the shrine you’re supposed to protect. Their faces are blank in the flickering light of the hanging oil lanterns...”
In boring combat scenes, the only difference between the situation before a player’s attack and after it is how much HP their target has left (and not even that, on a miss). I’ve seen combat where the players tune out when it’s not their turn because they know that when it comes around to them the only noticeable narrative difference in the situation (if any) will be which enemies are still standing.
The solution is to make every action in the scene feel dynamic, and there’s a simple principle for how to do that: everything that happens must change the situation in a qualitative way.
Keeping that principle in mind (and following the advice from the previous sections) will go a long way toward keeping the action going, but there are a couple more general tips worth bringing up:
Focus on the visible consequences of player actions.
If a player hurts an enemy (or even tries to), that enemy should react in some way. The riot cop who was handcuffing your friend is trying to point his taser in your direction you after you beaned him with that rock. The giant shakes you off and starts wildly flailing after you poke his eye. The guard is visibly favoring one leg after catching an arrow to the knee. A lot of this can be achieved through narrative detail. In games with crunchier combat systems you may want to throw in mechanical effects where it makes sense and doesn’t feel too much like breaking the rules (e.g. halving the movement speed of the aforementioned guard).
Hits can damage armor and disarm or displace enemies. Having people tumble and move around (especially in response to solid blows), or break other things in the scene (e.g. tables and glass) can make it feel like there’s more going on.
Missing a dice roll should put the player in a noticeably worse situation: maybe their weapon is caught, they’ve been forced into a place where they’re surrounded or they’ve created an opportunity for the baddies to prepare a more devastating attack. Tick a clock segment and explain how the failure advanced some looming threat. This is basically the PbtA philosophy but you can import it into any game.
Focus on how the consequences of what just happened change things for the next player. Player interactions make it feel like the characters are all in the scene together, rather than engaged in separate skirmishes.
Change the scenario in broader ways.
The fire is spreading and it’s about to cut off half the room! A third party has arrived and it’s unclear who’s side they’re on! The goblins have stopped fighting and are trying to escape with a character that got knocked out! The giant woke up and everybody should probably run away! We tripped the magic security system and everyone’s weapons teleported to the armory!
The stakes can change half way through a scene, and so can the threats, opportunities and everything else that affects how the characters fight over whatever it is they’re fighting over. This can happen as a direct consequence of a character action or you can just throw a curveball if it seems like things are getting stale. In a PbtA game, you can use a failed roll with no obvious direct consequences as an opportunity to suddenly flip the script.
One Final Tip: Give Peace a Chance?
I have one last secret trick that players love: if there’s an obvious way to resolve the scene’s stakes without combat (or without more combat), go for it.
Violence is troublingly prevalent in tabletop games, and sometimes it’s presented as the inevitable consequence of disagreement or as the most obvious solution to most problems. Before you start a scene with combat, it’s worth asking if it’s what you actually want.
One reason why combat might not be what you want is just that even if you have ways of making it fun, you pay an opportunity cost if there are even more fun or interesting things your players could be doing with that time at the table. Sometimes this means finding sneaky or diplomatic ways of avoiding a confrontation. Sometimes this means getting back to the story that was in progress before the fight started. I’ve been in campaigns where every tense situation (e.g. a pickpocketing incident) resulted in a drawn out, unnecessary fight to the death. If it seems like things are slowing down or the stakes are easy to resolve without further violence, have the enemies give up and retreat, or call for a truce, or have friendly reinforcements arrive and arrest them.
Finally, it’s worth noting that a lot of the above advice applies to non-combat scenes as well. Keeping an eye out for opportunities to add vivid detail, real stakes, interesting choices and dynamic action to any scene will add a lot to your game. If done well, you can make every session exciting and action packed, whether or not the swords are ever drawn.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to add your own tips or share the best combat scenes in your games in the comments.