Saturday, March 14, 2015

How To Roleplay During Combat

Most roleplaying games have some form of combat. While you're going to see a lot more battle in Warhammer 40,000 or Pathfinder than you might see in Call of Cthulhu there's always the potential for things to devolve into bullets and brawls. Some players feel that when you sit down at a table there are actually two different games being played; the role playing (where you interact with NPCs, put on voices, and act the story out) and the combat (where you roll dice and fire off numbers).

Just because you've rolled initiative is no reason to stop roleplaying though. As I mentioned in The Difference Between Roleplaying Games and Just Playing Make Believe combat is prime time for roleplaying. In fact you might even be overlooking some of the great opportunities you have to develop character and story.

Combat Is About More Than The Fight Itself

I don't know how many of you read my author blog The Literary Mercenary, but this week's post was Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes. In the event you didn't immediately click the link to see what brilliant advice I had for the authors among you I'd like to illustrate rule three from the list.

"The fight should be about more than just the fight."

It should be about me. Obviously.
I'll give you an example. Say one of the PCs who joins the party is a big man with a bastard sword over his shoulder. He claims he used to be a town guardsman, but has since gone freelance. He's reticent, though not unfriendly. When combat breaks out and he pulls steel though he becomes a whirlwind of death. He wields that weapon with grace and power, fighting in a style that is worlds removed from the cut-and-thrust drudgery one typically associates with military training.

The narration of how this character fights tells you things about him, and insinuates others. For example, it suggests that if he was a guard he was greatly over-qualified for the position. The fighting style might be foreign to the region, suggesting that he is either better-traveled than he looks or else had an exotic teacher. Other details like how he reacts to being hurt, and how he feels putting steel into other people, tell you more about him. Is he a dishonored knight? Was he a child soldier? does he come from a long line of dangerous warriors? Is this his first kill, or does he look like he's done this before? Who knows, but these are all things that you simply will not get to see in any situation outside of combat. Not only that, but if you have a really good group they're going to pick up what you're laying down, and what's discovered in combat may bleed into post-combat story (as it should).

Danger Reveals Character

Have you ever been sitting in a booth talking with friends who assure you they'd take a certain action when the chips were down? They'd stand up and tell cat-callers to show some respect, they'd offer help to someone who looked hurt, or give back money that they found because it wasn't theirs? Did you ever see them get the chance to put their money where their collective mouths were, and it turned out they did something else entirely?

Combat is like that taken to the extreme.

When the dice come out it's time for your characters to make literal life-and-death decisions. It shows what is important to them, and the choices they make will reflect who they are. Sometimes this might mean doing things that are dumb, or taking unnecessary risks, but it can bring a lot of flavor to your game.

For example when the cleric is down to one hit point and he has the chance to save himself with his final healing spell, or a shot to save the party by healing their warrior, what does he do? If the bard and the druid have become lovers and someone harms the singer will the druid immediately rush to his side to help, even if it puts the rest of the party at risk? The paladin has a firm code of honor, but will he stick to that code if violating its principals would let him save his companions?

This is stuff you are not going to get except in six-second rounds of drama.

Set Dressing

While completing personal plot arcs and making noble sacrifices is all well and good, you can't do that in every combat. What you can do though is figure out something dramatic for your character to do in order to help the rest of the table better picture the fight that's taking place.

Maximized burning hands, metal edition.
I talked about a lot of this in Dungeon Master Alchemy: Turning Stats Into Story but it bears repeating. When it comes to combat you need to ask yourself what your character is doing, and how that jives with his or her typical actions.

I'll give you some examples to show you what I'm talking about. Eric Blood might look like just another Ulfen thug, but he prides himself on his focus and control. He has rogue levels, and the sneak attack represents his pinpoint accuracy. So during a normal fight Eric might dance around his opponent to get a better position, using his longsword with skill and style.

Let's say he's fighting someone he hates though. Someone who's wronged him, and whom he intends to kill in a loud and nasty fashion.

Suddenly Eric's whole tone shifts. Blows become vicious, crippling things instead of just strategic attacks. He tosses aside his shield, and draws a dagger so he can get close and personal. When he stabs he twists the steel, making sure it comes away bloody.

In this situation nothing changed except for replacing a shield with a dagger. He's applying the same modifiers to his attacks, and doing the same weapon + sneak attack + stat damage. But the numbers fade into the background when they represent something different.

There are a lot of ways you can do this. Say you have a wizard who typically focuses on shaping the battlefield and helping her companions. When it comes time to throw evocation magic around her voice booms, and raw power crackles through the air. When she digs deep into her spells and unleashes necromantic energy the incantations feel chill, and whispers can be heard even through the roar of battle. Alternatively, say you have a barbarian who treats battle as sport, laughing and hurling insults at foes. When her rage begins though she focuses down entirely, and that smile is replaced by a hard, implacable mask. Perhaps you have a monk who, when his allies are threatened, adopts a strange, serpent-like style that results in crippled, weeping foes instead of the usual insensate-but-whole enemies.

The list goes on and on, really. The prayers your cleric offers up, the sensation of one type of healing magic over another, the grip your character has on a weapon, or even the language your character uses when fighting are all helpful ways to paint a picture of what's happening during a fight. Not only that but if everyone is involved in weaving this tapestry then there will be less attention wandering and fewer side conversations to distract from your RP.

In Order To Make This Work...

While it's totally possible to fully integrate combat into your RP there are a lot of roadblocks you need to overcome in order to make it easy for everyone. These roadblocks include:

- Being unsure how combat works/having no idea what you're going to do.
- Taking an inordinate amount of time to complete your action.
- Playing with a DM who doesn't match the group's participation.

In short the reason combat becomes a drag is because players (and sometimes DMs) let it drag on instead of keeping it tight and fast-paced. This is particularly true at higher levels where players can take more actions and do more powerful, more complex things. However if you want to minimize the chances of your combat becoming a slog you should do a few simple things:

- Stay focused. Sure going to the bathroom in the middle of a combat when it isn't your turn sounds fine, but you're going to miss everything the other players do, and have to be brought back into the loop. Stay off your smartphone, don't doodle on a sketch pad, and don't hold a conversation with your neighbor about that movie you saw last night.
- Roll all your dice at once. Roll your d20 + your damage dice at the same time. If you hit your damage is already there, and if you miss it doesn't matter. This saves a LOT of time when you get higher in level.
- Keep the RP going. Maybe you couldn't think of anything grand for your round, but don't just roll some dice, shake your head, and let the next person go. Say something, or give a bit of narration so you don't break the chain.
- Know your abilities. While there is a LOT to figure out in order to run through combat quickly you will save a huge amount of time by having your action in the pipe so all you have to do is pull the trigger instead of looking up three different things and re-reading eight passages. If you need to look something up do it when it isn't your turn if possible.
- Don't argue with the DM. One of the main sources of combat slog comes from debating a rule in the thick of things. Don't. Ask your question, read the rule aloud, get the DM's opinion, move on. If it's an issue work it out when combat is over.

There are other things unique to each table, and those have to be fixed on a case-by-case basis. The point is that combat is not a huge time sink meant to draw you out of RP and bog you down in numbers. It should be an opportunity to RP under extreme conditions, and to get your pulse pounding with some truly high adventure!

As always thanks for stopping by Improved Initiative, and if you'd like to support me then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and pledge today! If you pledge during the month of March you'll also receive a free book! Lastly if you want to make sure you get all of my updates then you should also follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

1 comment: