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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Cinematic Combat - Get into it!

Cinematic Combat - Get into it! (Andrew Smith)
Cinematic Combat - Get into it! (Andrew Smith)

There is a good reason action movies are so popular. It’s fun and exciting to watch two sides duke it out, in a battle of skills and weapons. Games make liberal use of combat to ramp up the intensity of game play.

In order to facilitate combat in a game, there needs to be mechanics behind it and it helps to add a bit of random chance. This is where dice, skill and situational modifiers come in. However, if you never look beyond the numbers and look at what they represent then it will be boring. No questions asked, combat takes time and if there isn’t some flair to it, then it will drag on and on.

It's good to stretch your legs
It's good to stretch your legs

The fastest way to add flair to a fight scene is to get off your bum and pretend you’ve got a sword or gun or whatever in your hand and swing away. Make fun little sound effects. Encourage others to join you -- yes it’s silly, but man is it fun.

If you aren’t much for acting and/or lack props, then describe your action. Do more than say, “I attack the goblins.” Say, “I swing my sword downward at the little buggers!” It’s not much, but it helps keep people (especially the DM) aware of what you’re thinking and equipped with.

On top of describing your actions add a little bit of gusto to it. If a giant roars before slamming his club down into the ground, give a good healthy “RRRRAAAAAWWWWW” and pound your hands onto the table. Yes neighbors may be annoyed, but they’re probably loud too, so whatever.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when a thing shows up, describe it. If a creature is attacking with a bunch of slimy tentacles, use some adjectives. “The dripping tentacles lash out at each of you!” Know your monsters. Understand what they are and why they are there.

Instead of calling the undead a zombie, tell the players, “a gaunt figure with rotting skin shambles ceaselessly toward you.” Players won’t know exactly what it is. To them it could be a Zombie, a Wight or something altogether different. By defining it as a zombie, it removes the horror and majesty. I can quantify a zombie; a shambling corpse however, can hold surprises. Don’t look too deep into that.

This works for items too, keys don’t have to be metal and key-shaped. They could be rocks, metallic glowing items or fancy passphrases. Change things up and if you have some sort of prop to represent the key then pop it out and hand it to your players. Props give players something to focus on and let their minds wonder more about the item than trying to picture it in their head.

3D terrain and monsters can spark the imagination
3D terrain and monsters can help spark the imagination

Speaking of props! Got some cool monsters, got a nifty fight scene in your head, what else can you do to keep your players interested? Awesome 3D battlefields! You can make some cool terrain out of cardboard like what theDMsCraft does. It doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s cheap and man, when you bust out awesome 3D terrain you will see your players' eyes light up. It is really cool, fast and fun to make. Heck even finding a cool rock to add to the battle gives the fight a sense of depth.

Another way to make battlefields awesome is have them interactive. In one particular extreme I had a bridge that was being ripped apart by magic forces. As the players ran across it, chunks of the bridge would rip up randomly with everything on them and start floating away. The players would then have to leaping from stone to stone to cross. I used little pieces of cut out cardboard for the bridge and kept scissors close by to break the pieces up even more.

If that’s too much work, then change the battle situation. Goblin reinforcements show up flanking the player character’s front line, making them turn their front or having the players in back get attacked. One of the fighters could be grappled by a frustrated Ogre. This forces the players to think fast to free their friend. A grenade lands in the middle of the room. People dive for cover or get blasted by the explosion. Change it up! Keep the players on their toes.

If you have cool ideas or stories on interesting combats please leave a comment below or on my facebook page! See you for the next blog. In the meantime, have fun adventuring!


Don’t feed the Yao Guai, that is all.” - Three Dog, Fallout 3

Andrew Smith is one of The Spokesman-Review's IT gurus and resident dungeon master.