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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views, General Gaming » Episode Preview: Keeping Role-playing in Combat

Episode Preview: Keeping Role-playing in Combat

It’s a common lament:

Once the minis come out, the role-playing stops

And it’s very often true. Many games — GURPS, HERO, Savage Worlds, DnD4e — start life as any other role-playing game, but once combat starts, in-game time slows to a crawl and what we do looks more like a tactical board game.

Is there a way to keep on role-playing during combat?

I think there is, but often it’s an uphill battle, and success needs to be measured in small portions.

Don’t think combat role-playing is going to be at the level of a social encounter. I think you need to set your expectations for role-playing during combat low. Don’t think that you’re going to have an intense and personal role-playing scene in the heat of battle.

Encourage dialogue. I’m not talking about metagaming dialogue, like “hey, Bob, you keep attacking and I’ll go around and flank him.” No. I mean smack talking between combatants or maybe witty repartee. If you, as the GM, do this, it will encourage your players to do the same.

Allow for characterization and tactics to conflict. Don’t forget that your PCs’ disadvantages, drawbacks and hindrances can be applicable during combat as well. If someone has “always protects innocents,” have a bad guy way in the back grab up an innocent bystander and put a sword to their throat. Maybe going after that guy at that moment wouldn’t be the best tactical choice, but a good role-player, depending on the disad, might throw tactics out the window to rescue the bystander. Perhaps you’ve got an overconfident character, with a bad temper. Have the BBG trash talk him from the rear, trying to coax the PC to charge him, thereby cutting him off from his companions.

If your game has an RP reward mechanic, use it to encourage combat RP. If the bad-tempered character does take the BBG’s bate, throw him a benny for playing to his characterization rather than sound tactics. It *is* a disadvantage, right? Bennys and like are a great way to encourage bad, but otherwise interesting choices.

Keep combat quick. At some point, if combat drags on long enough, even the best role-player will descend to the “I swing. (roll) I hit” level of role-playing. You can shorten just about any combat system by having the bad guys give up or run away. If victory looks inevitable to you, it probably looks inevitable to your bad guys too.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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3 Responses to "Episode Preview: Keeping Role-playing in Combat"

  1. EngeNo Gravatar says:

    And this is why I like playing a game with Disads (and bennies for that matter). It helps to make so many more interesting choices.

    Great article, Stu! Thanks!

  2. tentagilNo Gravatar says:

    Something I’ve found as GM that seems to help encourage RP in combat was tracking all hit points myself and only describing damage to the players but not telling them how much they have taken. Not being able to see how close to zero they were took away some of the meta game. The fact that I describe every hit and miss instead reading off power names and tossing numbers at them also helps encourage them to do the same.
    RP during combat is still lighter then social interactions, but the more I hide the mechanics from the players, the more they seem seem to get into the narrative and speak to it instead of just rolling dice and thinking in terms of stats and math.

  3. Anthony SandersNo Gravatar says:

    As a group, our group excels at keeping at least some role playing while in combat, whether that be taunting each other in character (my paladin smacks her shield against her plate mail and laughs every time our barbarian gets hit saying, “that’s why they make ARMOR!”), When it is my turn behind the screen, I encourage role playing in combat by not allowing the players to use numbers to describe their health status to each other. Currently, I am GMing my two daughters and their friends in a group of six children with ages ranging from 10 to 15. Keeping them role playing during combat has been a challenge, but well worth the effort.

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