This is part 6 of 6 of the series: Run Better Battles

Barking at Your Players: Advanced Combat Narration

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Hello Clarice. I want to play a game.

Imagine we’re going to add a new mechanic to Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition. Or Pathfinder. Or whatever. It works the same in any edition of D&D. It’s a new, defined combat action. Like Dash and Attack and Cast a Spell and Dodge. But it’s one only monsters can take. That’s important. And it’s a free action. We’re going to call it Charge Up. Here’s how it works: as a Free Action, once per turn, a creature can use the Charge Up action. If they do so, at the end of their turn, they become Fully Charged. And they remain Fully Charged until the end of their next turn. Neat, right? And just to make sure we get all the nitpicky rules out of the way, a creature can’t use the Charge Up action if they are already Fully Charged.

The only other stipulation is – and we have to make this clear – the GM must declare that the monster is taking the Fully Charged action. Ideally, they use narration to indicate the monster is pumping itself up. Going super senpai. Over 9000! Whatever.

So, at any time during their turn, a monster can freely Charge Up. And then, at the end of the turn and for the duration of one round, they become Fully Charged. And then the charge dissipates. Simple, right?

Now, here’s the other half of that: take monsters with big, blammo signature abilities – dragons with breath weapons, for example – and add a conditional to that big, blammo signature ability: they can only use that ability when they are Fully Charged.

How does that change the game?

No. You can’t interrupt the Charge Up or Fully Charged thing. The creature can freely do it. And if the creature doesn’t use it, it just dissipates. No harm, no foul. Except the creature can’t hold the charge over two turns, so a dragon couldn’t Charge Up in Round 1 and then breathe fire in Round 3. They’d lose the Fully Charged status in Round 2 if they didn’t use it and wouldn’t be able to Charge up again until Round 3. But aside from that one particular case of a creature locking itself out of a signature ability for one round if it chose not to go through with a Fully Charged attack, nothing changes. The only thing that’s different is that the monster – and therefore the GM – has to decide one turn in advance before he can unleash its blammo ability. And the creature has a strong incentive to follow through. And the GM has to announce that plan to the players.

So, what changes?

While you ponder that question, I’m going to wrap up this Long, Rambling Introduction™. That’s right, suckers. I tricked you. Just like Jason Meyers, who I quoted at the beginning. This was just the introduction. Yeah, this isn’t a hacking article. I’m not really building a new mechanic. Look at the feature art. It’s Professor Angry, not Scientist Angry. This is How to GM, not Hack Your Game.

But I COULD hack your game here.

The exchange above was actually part of a discussion that happened in my super awesome Discord that has recently become more super awesome because I revamped the whole thing to allow the now two hundred users to have multiple conversations about various different topics in several chatrooms. And now it’s more active than ever. And it’s open to all Seriously Not Hated tier Patreon supporters.

All right, sorry for the plug.

We were talking about narrating combat. It started with someone lamenting how terrible his players were, then I came in and gave a bunch of general advice about how to narrate combat when your players won’t, and then I talked about some of the other, advanced things you can do with combat narration to not only make your even better but also to make the game better AS A GAME. And the end result was my revealing the above thought experiment.

So, we’re going to talk about bringing some real life to your combat. How to narrate your combat. Especially when your players won’t.

Why Won’t My Players Describe Things?

If there’s one complaint that I hear all the time from GMs, it’s that I’m a major asshole. Which is fair enough, but it’s still hurtful and I wish people would learn to just not read things from people they don’t like. But if there’s two complaints I hear all the time from GMs, they are the asshole thing and that players don’t like to fail and why don’t they like to fail? Okay, hold on… that’s not it… but I have to write that article someday. Hold on. Let me count these quick.

If there’s seventeen complaints that I hear all the time from GMs, one of them is that their players just won’t describe stuff. Especially in combat. That is one of the top seventeen things I hear from GMs all the time. The most they can get out of their players is “I attack the goblin with my sword, 17 to hit.” Or worse, “I attack with my sword, 17 to hit.” Or even worse, “I attack, 17.” Or even worse, ” 17.”

So, there I was the other day, sitting in front of my computer, making a list of things that GMs complain about, when one of my Discord members started complaining about number 17 on the list. At first, they weren’t entirely clear. And I am masking their gender and identity partly because I don’t know if they are male or female based on their username and partly because I don’t remember who the hell it was. I can’t keep track of this crap. Anyway…

At first, they weren’t totally clear. I thought they were having trouble with action declarations. And I totally agreed. At the very minimum, a player MUST state – or imply – what they are trying to accomplish and how they are trying to accomplish it. Clear as frigging day. So, if a player says, “I attack, 17,” I smack them and they lose their turn. The minimum action declaration for an attack at my table includes the target of your attack and the weapon or implement you are using. “I attack the goblin with my sword,” is the only one of those declarations above that I actually allow.

Speaking of whoring, here’s my tip jar

So, I agreed with whoever and said, “yeah, you’ve got to get your players to at least identify their target and the means by which they are attacking. Otherwise, they haven’t met the basic rules for declaring an action.” And the person was like, “but that’s not enough.” And I was like, “yes, it is. And I provided a link to my article on Action Adjudication because, obviously, I’m the only authority worth a damn. I also pointed out that you could find the same rule in Chapter 5 of my book on pages 58 and 59, get your copy today. Man, am I ever becoming a whore.

Eventually, I worked out what the problem was. The problem was that this GM – like many other GMs – wanted some flowery purple prose from their players. “I attack the goblin with my sword” wasn’t enough. They wanted, “I lunge forward, dodging the goblin’s attack, and I swing my longsword in a wide arc, slashing at the goblin.” Which they also referred to as “role-playing in combat.”

I’ll skip the part where I point out that role-playing is making choices, it’s not acting, and it’s not prose. Flowery speech does not a role-player make.

Now, some players will do that crap. And those players are usually annoying as hell. Because they have very little sense of when to STOP doing it. Every attack becomes a damned Shakespearian soliloquy. And it gets old. Fast. But, obviously, no one wants to deal with that crap for every attack on every goblin in every round of combat. But, yes, in general, I agree that it would be nice if the combat narration sounded at least a little less mechanical and a little more, well, narrative. I’d be happy if the players would just remember to tell me what weapon they are using and to vary the verb once in a while. “I slash the goblin with my longsword,” or “I stab the goblin with my dagger,” or “I impale the goblin with my spear,” or “I bash the goblin with my maul.” That’s about the best you can expect from most players anyway and, frankly, I don’t need more than one declarative sentence per action with no extraneous clauses.

But this GM wanted more. Lots of GMs do. Many GMs strain against the overly mechanical feel of combat in role-playing games. Because the game is supposed to be about story and narrative and all that crap. A thing called a ROLE-PLAYING GAME shouldn’t feel like a GAME, it should feel like a STORY.

Okay, okay, I kid. But I do think GMs make a lot out of combat feeling too mechanical because the solution always involves lots of flowery description and prose and demanding the players write a poem for every swing of their axe. And there is nothing good about that.

A battle should be fast and tense. Which means any narration should be snappy and blunt. I’ll come back to that in a second. Because, finally, I have the GM a useful piece of advice: “if that’s what you want the game to sound like, well, isn’t that YOUR job? YOU’RE the narrator!”

Seriously. This is generally how I do it:

Bob: “I attack, 17.”
Angry: “I’m sorry, what?”
Bob: “Oh, crap. I attack the goblin with my longsword. 17 to hit.”
Angry: “No. You had to redeclare the attack, you reroll the die.”
Bob: “I attack the goblin with my longsword.” *sigh* “13 to hit.”
Angry: “You hit. But barely. Damage?”
Bob: “5 slashing damage.”
Angry: “Bob charges the goblin and catches it with a swing of his sword. The goblin tries to dodge backward, and it gets grazed. Just a flesh wound. It readies its dagger to counterattack, but before it can, Carol…”
Carol: “I got a 20! Crit.”
Angry: *sobs*

Now, this isn’t news to any of you. You’ve all read my excellent article about how dolphins run combat. Basically, you view the mechanical part of the game and the narration part of the game as two different levels of play. Narrate the situation, resolve the action, narrate the result. When the player declares their action, that’s the transition between narrative mode and mechanic mode. And the reason it feels gamey is that you only see half the transition. The half that they say. The other half is in their head. The player takes your narration – about vicious goblins ambushing the party – imagines their character in that situation, and decides how their character would react. That, by the way, is the role-playing part. “My character would run forward to meet the goblin and attack it with his sword.” The stuff that comes out of the player’s mouth is now game speak. Because once the character has made the decision, we have to resolve the action as a game action. It’s YOUR job as the GM to take the resolved action and turn it into part of the narrative. And to transition to the next player. Right?

And that’s why, if you’re frustrated with the level of description your players are providing because it’s making the combat seem like a game, you’re really just complaining that the players aren’t doing your job for you. And, no, your players aren’t disengaging from the combat as a story just because they aren’t poets. Though different players do engage with the game differently. Not every player is driven by the narrative. And that’s fine. But if YOU are – and if SOME of your players also are – well, then, it’s YOUR job to provide that. That’s why you get to sit behind the screen and make the big bucks.

But – and I warned the GM I was talking to about this – but – and this is where the advanced advice comes in – but, once you start doing that, you’re going to discover why the players don’t do it more. It’s hard to come up with forty ways to say “attack” in every damned combat. But that’s good because you really don’t want to anyway.

Fast and Blunt

In D&D, 5E, the average party of four PCs has four to six combats a day. Let’s say five. And each combat lasts about five rounds. If combats are fought against an average of three monsters apiece and everyone attacks every round, you are going to be describing 175 attacks at every single session. 175 slashes, bashes, stabs, and impalements. Even allowing for different weapon types, how many different ways can you say “attack?”

And here’s something else to consider: the average person speaks about 100 to 110 words a minute. But, if you’re being creative and thoughtful at the same time, you tend to speak slower. So, let’s cut that down to 75 words a minute when you’re narrating. And even that is probably pushing it. So, it takes you 0.8 seconds to say a single word when you’re narrating. My little description of Bob’s attack was 37 words. So, it’d take me about 30 seconds to say that. That means I spend 90 minutes of every session adding narration of that caliber to every attack. Even if I do get my narration speed up to the normal human average because I think on my feet, I’m adding an hour of time to the game for that crap. Holy crap, right?

Yeah. The fact that combat is mostly repetitive and the fact that that description actually substantially slows things down is why I don’t actually do that for every attack. Some attacks get that sort of full descriptive treatment, but most don’t. Many get something more like “Bob slashes the goblin; it reels backward but keeps fighting. Carol, what do you do?” Some get “Bob grazes the goblin. It barely notices. Carol?” And some get even shorter descriptions. But I’ll get to that in a second.

The point is to vary things up. Every minute that you – as the GM – are narrating is a minute that the players aren’t actually playing the game. And, I hate to break it to you, Mr. or Ms. GM, but the players aren’t there to listen to you weave a narrative. They are there to make choices and play out the results. Even the ones who like a good story. So, while your job is to bring the world to life, it’s to bring the world to life in the briefest way possible.

This is especially true in combat because become is supposed to fast and tense and exciting. It’s not supposed to feel like sitting through an English literature class. So, your narration needs to be tense and exciting and fast too. Now, tense and exciting require some actual narrative. “Bob hits and does 13 damage, now the goblin hits and does 6 damage, now Carol hits and does 2 damage…” is not tense and exciting. It’s fast, sure, but it’s just math. Just games. That’s bad.

So, the key is to focus on short, punchy description. But not all the time. See, it’s also good sometimes to linger on things. To take your time once in a while. For example, when you fight undead in my game, you feel pretty grossed out. I make sure of it. Trust me. In my last home session, my players were just fighting some standard zombies and skeletons and one of my players complained about how gross it was while another said they felt like they needed to take a shower after the game. And your gods save you if I find out you’re an arachnophobe. Because I will put a swarm of spiders in the game and they will get everywhere. I relish that kind of thing, to be honest. The ability to make my players feel emotions in combat. Dread, horror, discomfort, excitement, fear, anger, vengefulness. You can’t do that short and punchy.

I tend to have these patterns when I narrate a combat. It’s not like I consciously follow a rule. It’s just a groove I’ve settled into. The first round of combat, I tend to be very descriptive. But it quickly drops off to very short descriptions after the first round. However, if there’s an exciting or decisive event – like the players land a critical hit or miss with a really powerful attack – I ramp up the description accordingly. And once a round, I make sure I do get in one medium-length description. And when I say, “short description,” mean really short and not descriptive at all. But, I also don’t mean game speak. Because…

Emotion is Better than Description

Engagement isn’t about narration, it’s about emotion. It’s about making the players feel like they are IN the action. Being descriptive isn’t the only way you can do that. In fact, often, being too descriptive at the wrong moment can ruin engagement. If a player lands a decisive critical hit, yes, play that up. Describe the crippling blow. But, also, don’t linger too long. Because players get bored with narration quickly and listening to too much narration reminds them this is just a bunch of people talking about pretend elves.

So, consider this:

Carol: “I bash the goblin with my mace. I hit AC 17 for 7 points of damage.”
Angry: “Solid hit! He really felt that! He’s bloodied! Dave, you’re up. Want to finish him off?”

There is nothing remotely descriptive in what I said there. It’s almost pure emotion. It’s exciting, it’s rewarding, and it passes the momentum to the next player. And, let me tell you something, it puts the players IN the battle. It gets them pumped. They are feeling something of what their characters are feeling. And that’s the real key to engagement.

The nice thing about pure emotional descriptions like that is that they are always short and punchy. They keep the energy and emotion up without needing a lot of words. They are great workhorse descriptions to maintain whatever emotions you’ve built with the occasional long and medium descriptions. Especially if you use them to emphasize the same emotions your long descriptions were building.

Dave: “I attack one of the zombies with my sword. 13 AC for 3 damage.”
Angry: “A graze. Doesn’t even slow it down. Alice, the wall of zombies is still advancing. What do you do?”

That’s a little more descriptive, but it’s still not precisely a proper narration. It’s just a couple of words. But if I’ve been talking about the inexorable advance of the zombies and how attacking them is like attacking a slab of meat and how they don’t wince or even notice as they’re being dismembered, their jaws slack and their empty eye-sockets vacant and unchanging, yeah… that keeps the right tone.

See?

And that’s really the trick to narrating combat. Don’t expect the players to fill in the narration; you have to do it. Use strong narration sparingly to establish the mood at the start of the fight and to punctuate decisive events. Use medium narration occasionally throughout the combat to keep the mood up. And use short, emotional, and fragmented narration most of the time to maintain the pace without losing the feeling. And, of course, switch consciously between narration and resolution like a dolphin.

Oh, and don’t worry about being repetitive. Using the same words over and over doesn’t make you seem stupid and uncreative. Players don’t notice the repetition. But they notice what you’re repeating. If the goblin is always dodging and nimble, the players won’t notice that you keep using the same words as if you can’t think of anything else to say. But they will notice that the goblin is nimble and dodgy. So the goblin will feel like a goblin.

Which brings me around to the advanced, advanced advice…

Information is Better than Emotion

When it comes to running a descriptive combat, most GMs are focused on helping the players “see” the combat in their “mind’s eye” or some bullshit like that. They want to “bring the action to life.” They are afraid that combat is “too mechanical” and “too gamey” and they want to make sure “it still feels like part of a story.” And the advice I have above will help you do all of that. But it’s really bad for your players. Because, like it or not, combat is a game. The whole game is a game. There are challenges to overcome. And the players have to figure out how best to face those challenges. They aren’t just trying to experience a story, they are also trying to complete a quest, overcome an obstacle, defeat a foe, and win a game. And if you move too far toward “making it not feel like a game,” you’re obfuscating the issue for your players. You’re making their decisions harder.

Fortunately, there is a way to get what you want and also improve the game experience. Since you’re going to be doing all of this narration anyway, why not use the narration to convey useful information.

Now, I’m not saying to mix game speak into your narration so the players never get confused as to what has an actual game effect and what doesn’t. You should do that too. Do not describe an attack that leaves a goblin with most of its hit points intact as “running it through” and if you want to have a goblin knocked back by a powerful blow, make sure you also point out that it quickly rebalances itself and darts back into the fight or else the players will wonder why you didn’t move the mini. Do not let your narration confuse what’s happening in the game.

I’m also not saying that you should modify your narration to take into account all of the game mechanics. You should do that too, obviously. Give some sense of how badly the monster got hurt by the blow based on how many hit points it lost compared to how many it has. A blow that does 4 damage would cripple a goblin and graze an ogre. Make sure you convey that. And if the monster is nimble and lightly armored, describe misses as dodges. If the monster is heavily armored, describe misses as bouncing off its shell. And if the monster has a shield, describe misses as blocks. This is amateur-hour type stuff. And I shouldn’t HAVE TO say it. If the players can’t make reasonable guesses as to the stats of the monsters based on your descriptions, you suck at description. If the players can’t remember what equipment the monster has, you suck at description. Fix it.

But, have you ever noticed that the only tactical decisions players make in most combats is which attack to use against which target. And once a player settles into a position and picks a target, they tend to just stay in that groove until their target is dead or some emergency pulls them away. Like their hit points drop too low, for example. Have you ever seen a player take any sort of a defense action? Or even reposition unless their target moved first? Very rarely do you see players think about anything other than what attack to use. And very rarely do you see them consider anything beyond how many resources they have left and which attack is the most powerful.

And that brings me back to the question I started this whole article with. What if monsters had to declare that they were using a powerful ability NEXT round on their CURRENT round? What if the dragon couldn’t breathe fire without warning the players to expect a breath weapon in one round? When the dragon started inhaling – started charging up – what would the players do?

They might ignore it and just keep doing what they are doing, but they would be making a choice to ignore it. They would be betting they can handle the attack. Or that reacting to the incoming attack isn’t worth losing the chance to attack. More likely, they would spread out to minimize the number of heroes that could get caught in the blast. Or the cleric might take that moment to cast some sort of energy resistance spell. Or they might even – *gasp* – use a consumable item like a potion of fire resistance. Preemptively. Because they’d shift their thinking from “what attack should I do next” to “okay, I’m about to get blasted with fire, do I have a response to that?” The point is, they would start thinking reactively.

Now, I KNOW there are people who are already making a beeline for the comments section saying, “but that will make things too EASY if the players can see the monster’s biggest attacks coming and then respond to them.” Those people are idiots. Because they are missing the point of the whole game. It’s not about how easy or hard a combat is. You can always scale up your combats. As a GM, if players are having an easy time with your fights, just USE THE DIFFICULTIES SETTINGS IN ENCOUNTER BUILDING TO SCALE UP! But you usually don’t have to if the fights are interesting and dynamic. Players don’t get bored with fights that are too easy just because they are too easy. They get bored with fights that are too easy because the players feel like nothing they do matters. They will win the fight no matter what, so why are they are even at the table? What’s the point? If your choices don’t matter, you don’t have to show up. And that’s what makes fights boring.

If the fight is easy because you made all the right choices, you drank the right potion at the right time, disengaged and dodged to protect yourself from the right attacks, and then unleashed your best abilities at the proper moment, that’s a good fight. It feels good. You feel like you earned that win. And D&D doesn’t offer that kind of win often because the only choices most players make are “what attack do I use” and “when do I need some healing.”

If you look at combat systems in video games, one thing you’ll notice is that players get a lot of information about the enemy, and you can react to that information. Enemies wind up their attacks and have visible wind-up animations. And you can decide whether to land a blow in that time or whether to dodge roll. Maybe you think you can take the hit. Maybe you’d rather play safe. That’s a choice you can make because you have some idea of what’s coming. And it’s the choice that’s important, by the way. This isn’t just a matter of letting players roll to dodge against powerful attacks. And that’s why a game like Dark Souls can be very difficult but can still be called fair. And it’s what makes combat systems in action games in general fun. You have choices and those choices are driven by information.

The example mechanic I gave is an example of telegraphing. Now, telegraphing these days is usually used in the context of video games. And it means that an opponent some shows what they are planning to do next. It’s a wind-up animation. It’s the dragon taking a deep breath before it has to breathe. Or it’s Bahamut in Final Fantasy IV – or FFII if you’re American, over 35, and correct – counting down the rounds before it used Megaflare. But let me tell you where I first heard the phrase telegraphing. It was back in 1992 when I was learning how to fence – the sword fighting sport, not the erecting of barricades – and the coach was showing us videos of other fencers to demonstrate how they gave away their next move somehow. We were learning that for two reasons. First, if you can spot an opponent telegraphing their move, you know how to counter it before they’ve even started the move, which increases the amount of time you have to react. Second, if you’re aware of your own telegraphing, you can put a stop to it and not give your opponent an advantage OR you can use it to your advantage by actually establishing a telegraphing pattern on purpose and then changing it up once you train your opponent to see it.

Now, I am not encouraging you to trick your players with telegraphing. I’m just telling you that it has actual combat applications. It isn’t just about video games. But in the context of a video game, it’s there because it empowers players to make interesting tactical choices. If the player can’t see the dragon’s breath attack coming, he’ll just keep hammering away at the dragon and take the fire on the chin. Because what else can he do? I mean, sure, smart players stay spread out during dragon fights. But that’s a choice they make in round one and never again. Players who can see the dragon’s breath coming one round in advance have more choices.

Me? In my narration, I like to telegraph the big moves a round in advance. Yes, it means my monsters sometimes get locked into bad moves because the players counter their action, but that also makes my players feel smart. And tactical. It makes them feel like they are earning their wins. And in more complex fights, the decisions can get pretty ugly anyway. For example, when fighting a dragon and his two ogre slaves, do you spread out and leave the wizard defenseless to avoid everyone getting blasted with the breath weapon or do you stay together to protect your squishies from the ogres and take the breath or do you try to make sure everyone is engaged with ogres so the dragon can’t breathe without hurting his allies too?

So, telegraph. You don’t need a special mechanic like “Charge Up,” though there are a lot of possibilities that such a mechanic could entail. And don’t let your telegraphing be interrupted by an attack because you want the players to make decisions other than attacking. Telegraphing makes your game better and it gives you something to narrate other than a blow-by-blow account of 175 attacks between five PCs and three monsters chipping away at each other. Telegraph.

And I’m going to end by sharing a particularly advanced form of telegraphing that works very well for groups of intelligent opponents, one that might also train your PCs to do something else they never do in combat. It’s called barking. You need to start barking at your players.

Now, this is actually a video game design term. As far as I know – and I admit I didn’t actually research this or anything – as far as I know, it doesn’t come from anything else. In video games, the NPCs have a tendency to speak out loud. A lot. In a stealth game, if you make a noise, an enemy might say “what was that noise” before he started to make his way to your position. And if you conceal yourself and his search doesn’t turn you up, he might say “just the wind, I guess” and head back to where he came from. In combat, especially in military shooter games, the NPCs to tend to communicate between themselves a lot. They will shout things like “try to flank” or “grenade out” or “taking fire” or whatever. Things that soldiers might actually say to each other during battle. To communicate. Because, unlike computer-controlled NPCs or monsters in a table-top RPG, real-life combatants aren’t all sharing the same brain.

There’s no reason for NPCs in games to talk to each other, to share information, to give instructions, or even to talk at all. They are all being operated by a computer. By the same computer. Every NPC knows exactly what all the other NPCs know. Well, they don’t always. Depends on how the AI is programmed. But you get what I’m saying. The reason for these barks is that they tell the player what the NPCs are thinking. Which allows the players to react to what the NPCs are going to do. It’s a form of telegraphing.

When you have a team of intelligent monsters on the battlefield in your tabletop RPG session, do you – as the GM – talk to yourself? Do the monsters have conversations amongst themselves? Do they should tactics? Does the leader ever say “crap, they have a healer? Bob, George, take that guy down!” Does anyone ever say, “I’m hurt, someone help me.” Most GMs don’t bother having their monsters communicate. And then many GMs wonder why the players don’t communicate in combat. Or, at least, why they don’t communicate in the right way. Because no, your players should not be having team-based tactical conversations during a battle. But they should be saying stuff. Short stuff. Like, short, six-second blurbs of communication about needing help. But why should they? They never see the enemies do it.

Moreover, if the enemies don’t talk amongst themselves, the players can’t overhear their plans and know what they are thinking. Which is a shame because telegraphing is a super-useful thing and also makes the enemies feel more alive. More real. If only there was some kind of action that any creature could freely take on their turn in combat that allowed them to emit a short, audible chunk of linguistic communication. Say, six seconds worth.

Well, maybe we can have a future hacking article on inventing such an action. Because, man, that would be even more useful than one about Charging Up and all the interesting mechanics that could hang off that.

62 thoughts on “Barking at Your Players: Advanced Combat Narration

  1. Good article. Love the bit about barking – I rarely do it in combat but all the time just prior to combat to relate something to give them some info.

    Telegraphing is also great – one of my favorite things to use are moving energy storms, whirlwinds, or floating globes of blades (etc). I always – ALWAYS!! – put an arrow on them to show the direction that the thing is moving – and after it finishes moving, I adjust the arrow. It is always aimed at perches, hiding spots, going around corners. I make it known that the big bad controls it, and is aiming it at where it believes people to be. Folks have to use their teleport, jumps, disengages, etc. And terrain is always more difficult, hazardous, and roundabout. BUT THOSE ARROWS – they turn something from a screw job into an obstacle course, by having the next direction they drift totally telegraphed.

      • Is that a thing? I don’t often have a name for the things that I do – it just seems like a good idea to me. If there is a name for it, I guess that is good, because someone else thought it important enough to name. Most of the design principles that I use I picked up here or at someone else’s table, and some of them are just based on experimentation and seeing what works.

        • Yeah. It’s an older feature of some tactical table-top games. I don’t think any RPGs bother with facing anymore. Essentially, when you move, you also set your orientation so that it can be determined whether things are coming at your front, behind, or from the side. Vehicle combat rules often use facing because weapons mounted on vehicles can often fire only into limited arcs of fire and vehicles have a large turning radius, so they have to move forward a certain amount for each facing change. It was an optional rule in some older D&D combat engines.

          • Wow.

            I didn’t realize that facing rules weren’t really a thing. Been playing this combat stuff since 1979.

            I’ve got this rule about shields only covering 270 degrees centered on the shield shoulder and flanking for advantage awarded to one attacker positioned 180 degrees opposite a second attacker.

            No wonder many of my players are confused about the facing of 2D counters and minis. I’m old!

          • 3.5 also KINDA has it with maneuverability rules. It isn’t relevant for flanking or backstabbing or stuff like that, but it restricts the sharpness of turns a creature can make while flying or swimming.

          • Got it – something like that, but only applied to effects. Suppose you have a cloud of poisonous gas. If it is not simply sitting there, if there is (say) a wizard using gust on it to push it at the PCs, I add an arrow. Not just facing, but showing which way it will end up moving on its next turn.

            I do that for nearly all of my area of effect zones.

            The characters themselves do not have facing rules.

  2. Ok so that came at really useful time. I’m just preparing a tree with 3 sets of roots, branches and trunks that’s not multiple trees. So thinking about telegraphing for the different stages adds something to that and also to the choices the players will get. As they beat it down and a skeleton in it’s heart appears do they leave the area to deal with the twig blights they hear coming or stay and kill the next stage quickly. In the throes stage where the skeleton with spells pops out to cat do they attack it or hid until it’s reabsorbed into the heart of the tree. Choices choices, so a really handy article. The narrative and emotional descriptions is a good reminder too.

  3. I had never thought about the lack of communication between my monsters. Thank you, Angry. I’m going to add it right away.

    This could be a new way to interest players in learning the languages of their opponents. Knowing Orcish could become a tactical advantage for a fighter, because now you can understand what your opponents are planing to do next!

    On the other hand, if the monsters are all speaking languages the players don’t know, it’ll mean a lot of “the orc yells something like ‘glub-bub shnarrk!’ and his buddies all turn to attack your wizard.”

      • TheAlexandrian.net has a bunch of Lorem ipsum in different-dounding languages for just this type of thing. Pick a spot on the page and start reading.

    • I like to prep a few phrases in different languages so that the fantasy languages each have a distinct sound from each other. Klingon for orcs, Russian for dwarves, Tolkien’s Sindarin for elves, Norwegian for giants, Dothracki, that sort of thing. You don’t need to actually translate what you are planning to say, just a few distinct phrases, your players (probably) won’t memorize what you say and question you on it, but they will notice that the Orcs sound different than Giants. My orcs tend to say “Today is a good day to die” a lot.

      • That’s a really great idea! Especially since you can prepare it in advance:-)
        Anyone have any ideas what draconic or primordial sounds like? I guess, for English speakers, the further it is from the European languages, the more exotic it will sound..

        • I always use Dovah from Skyrim for Draconic. No idea about Primordial; I always imagine it to be much more natural sounds, like the crackling of a fire or the burbling of a stream, than actual words although that doesn’t necessarily make sense as players can learn to speak it.

        • Instintively, I think Draconic would sound German – harsh with a lot of strong gutteral consonants. Primordial is harder to pinpoint, maybe Japanese? It just needs to sound completely alien to the players.

    • Dwarves and orcs speak German while both deny their languages are at all the same. Elves speak French. Halflings speak Dutch which is basically English except the words and grammar are different. Everyone else speaks Japanese. Adjust according to the languages you know. If your players happen to speak those languages, they’re in luck, as their characters just happen to know the languages they represent.

  4. This reminds me a lot about the article Angry wrote about speed factor initiative, which is an approach I enjoy using a lot, (it is certainly an added level of complication but to me is worth the depth it brings).

    This article on advance combat narration brought me to the realization that a large part of why speed factor initiative works for me is the telegraphing it provides, since the monster’s intended actions are announced at the beginning of the round. To me, telegraphing also makes combat feel more like it’s integrated with the rest of the game, more in line with the ‘GM describes, players decide, actions resolved, GM describes’ cadence and less like a combat minigame where you ‘swoosh’ off to fight and come back to the normal flow of events once combat is done.

    It’s the difference between Final Fantasy combat and Skyrim combat, and I much prefer the Skyrim model.

  5. This is a really cool idea. I’m going to run the first session of a Savage Borderlands campaign next week and I think telegraphing attacks will really help make it feel more like Borderlands. Thank you!

  6. Having your NPCs bark orders in their native language is a good way to get players to think about whether they want to spend time/resources/spell slots on learning them.

    Also, if, despite Angry’s admonishment, you still want your players to describe their actions, you need to be willing to change the possible outcomes based on what they describe. Which is just a variant on describing an approach. If players know they can achieve different outcomes (and face different risks) by choosing different approaches, they will start experimenting.

    Different approaches could kill or merely disable, damage valuable treasure, be discreet or violently intimidating, for example.

  7. I think some players expect the GM to narrate their actions. As a GM I’m a little uncomfortable with it, because it feels like I am overstepping my bounds when I am describing what their characters end up doing. Keeping an eye on the players to make sure I have their agreement they usually look happy.

    Yes, enforcing players to be more specific, and being more brief narrating emotions instead will help my feeling, thanks. It forces players to contribute more, and reduces the need for GM describing PC actions, so that the actual narration doesn’t feel intrusive. I suspect some players are more happy with me taking care of it for them, though.

  8. Telegraphing seems like such an obvious thing to do. But I feel like I haven’t even been doing it!

    I’m sure there have been times where I built up certain attacks or actions, but really I haven’t made the conscious decision to implement something like that.

    I can even imagine using this as a specific mechanic for boss monsters. Making them feel more epic and like a puzzle to be solved in the moment.

    But one of the interesting things is that by making an attack more obvious you can afford to make it more powerful. You’re giving your monster a disadvantage. Which is actually pretty awesome! Just like in games the more telegraphed your attack is the more it’s going to hurt.

    It’s a fantastic idea and I’m going to be sure to use it!

  9. It’s nice to see I’m already on the right track as far as “longer descriptions in the first round, short descriptions thereafter, with some medium-length ones every now and then for big hits or misses”. Your point about striving for emotion and information are well-taken. A lot of times, this desire for unique descriptions all of the time, like all DMs are Doc Emrick, seems to ignore the fatigue factor that sets in, even for players.

    I’ve never had my NPCs or monsters bark at each other. That’s something I’m going to try having them do now.

    I also like the idea of announcing when a big attack is coming. I’m pretty unsatisfied with the “Recharge X-Y” mechanic in 5E. First round is the breath weapon… And then who knows when it’s coming again. The only indication that it’s back is if the DM announces that it’s been recharged and then it most likely gets used again that round. There’s no sense of agency or tactics involved with it. It just happens to the players literally at random. I’m going to consider using Charge Up/Fully Charged in the future and see how the players react to it.

    • Suggestion: Start with the relevant/big powers on cooldown. Roll refresh at the END of the round, not the start. Telegraph it if it recharges. Minimal change to the system for the same impact.

      • That sounds like an excellent plan to start. Conveniently, I’ll be starting a new campaign shortly, so I can slide this change in during the Session Zero and call it a day.

  10. “If [player] choices don’t matter…” they get bored.
    Weird thought. Does our inability to put the dense knot of feats, traits, features, and spells into our working memory create the illusion of choice?
    Look at the behavior. Don’t we just get into a combat groove and repeat for the whole fight?
    What if the leveling up paradigm wasn’t popular because we enjoy growing our characters; but because gaining new feats puts older ones out of working memory. It creates some vague sense we could have done something else.
    Well maybe not.
    And games like Dark Souls or earlier D&D have different kind of leveling up. We get the choice to swing the sword again, but this time not die!

    • If you have a variety of terrain and monsters, there shouldn’t be too much groove. Or the groove is complex enough that it doesn’t repeat much. Which is maybe another way of saying, if someone’s grooving, throw a zombie at them or something.

      • Lemme try again. Having re-read the article, maybe the groove of ‘pick a monster, stab it’ is what you mean, and moving your monsters around doesn’t help that. Have you tried having the monsters be un-groovy? Let them do unusual things with terrain and interactive bits, try to model for your party by example. Your goblins can throw dirt in the fighter’s eyes, or roll rocks down from top of a hill, or upend a table in a tavern. That might help?

  11. I used to try to be creative in my descriptions of attacks. But there were only so many was I could say, ‘attack.’ A funny side note is that I devolved into saying “It attacks your face.” which became a stable in my campaigns and all my players’ characters always became very scarred (if they chose to go with it).

  12. If a Monster would open with their “Ultimate”, would you telegraph the attack before the battle starts?
    Because there’s not really a reason for a dragon NOT to start off with a big fuck-off breath attack in order to not get injured. Breath Attacks regenerate in about 30 seconds at the most, while healing wounds takes quite a while, and wounds are painful. So using your ultimate move in the first turn of combat seems to be the logical solution.
    Now, if I basically narrate “You failed your stealth check. The dragon awakes. It looks at the group, reels it’s head upwards, and you see flames sprouting from it’s mouth and nostrils. Roll initiative” and then the dragon beats all of their initiatives, then the group has no chance of actually using the telegraph. Even if it just beats out a few people, at least those don’t get to react.
    Or do you think this is OK since they lost initiative?

    • Thats an interesting question I hadn’t considered.

      The way I see it what players do when you telegraph a charge up, and their reaction when flames are at their face are 2 different things.

      as an dnd 5e example of what I mean – pretend the wizards fireball spell required a turn to charge up, and the enemy wizard is casting it.
      Someone on the team with arcana yells out “he’s charging up a big spell, watch out!” or they notice that this spell is taking much longer to cast – whatever.

      The players can spend an action to hopefully totally remove themselves from the danger.
      Or they can wait until the fireball goes off and hope that they make their reaction or dex saving throw and live thru whatever damage they end up taking.
      Or both if their original action to get out of the danger zone was stupid.

        • This puts to mind a game with a magic system where attack spells are basically all cantrips, but you can charge them up into more powerful version by taking more time and straining yourself. Your daily stamina, rather than spell slots, would decide how strong you can be each day or at once. Wait an extra turn to unleash Firebolt? You get a devastating Fireball! You get interrupted by a solid hit? You don’t lose ressources, only waste time.

          Offensive casters would become more than just magical gunman. Or maybe a sort of ‘Elementalist’ class that channels planar energy could work like that? With CON as casting ability?

          Heck, they wouldn’t even have ‘spells’, just a list of effects with different cost of strain they could pile up together, with a maximum number of strain they could assign per turn.

        • This reminds me of the most terror I ever induced in my players.
          I usually played the party cleric, but our usual DM was away and the timing worked out for me to DM a one-shot with our characters. I decided to have the party meet a cleric on the road to heal them.

          Naturally, my players assumed the worst and initiated combat with his bodyguard/son. After three full rounds of combat, through which the cleric continued to use his actions to pray, the players fled fearing an ultimate spell attack.

          In reality, the cleric was a pacifist – a trait I assigned to reason him out of joining the party long-term.

          Signaling is powerful, especially when misinterpreted!

      • Well I meant the “You see flames in it’s nostrils” kinda like “It’s charging up it’s breath attack”, i.e. it gets ready to breath flames by “igniting” it’s flame liquid gas flamesac whatever.
        But yeah, keeping the “rule” like “At the end of a turn, a creature can prepare to do this one thing next round. It can’t not do that thing next round and the players realize it’s doing something that will be a thing next round” would actually work quite nicely.

        • Thanks Angry!

          NTrixner, I guess I did miss the whole point of your comment – the fact that an ambush would mean the players didn’t see the telegraphing – or even if they did it would be during a surprise round where they can’t act.

          Angry already addressed it – it simply wouldn’t be fair (and now these are my thoughts inspired by past not-my articles) unless the characters had a really really good reason to believe to that a certain bad guy with a certain charge up is here, aware of them, and ready to use it the moment he gets a chance AND is likely to sneak up on them. Maybe a beefy bugbear bad guy with a power slam.
          Maybe they experienced his power slam a few times in normal combat, and village people complain about all their ambushes.
          Maybe they have 1 or 2 ambushes from bugbears before they see him again too.

          That way the players still have a choice in how to prepare in advance.

          Maybe they have something that they know can interrupt his power up now – or they set up a trap for his next raid, or something.

          You could make it impossible to stealth while “charging up” – or just pick any reason to not use the surprise round mechanic.

          Then again there’s the simple “don’t do it” – your the DM, and bad guys are busy people – you never have to put yourself in a position where the “charge up ambush” is mandatory.

  13. Hey Angry,

    All your advice is good. I use it to analyze past sessions and how to improve, but ideas that are new to me, like telegraphing / charge-up are reallt nice too.

    Thank you for your 10+ years of articles. Who needs a game design ckass when they’re an angreon.

  14. How about not making it automatic for everyone in the party?

    Each member’s passive perception vs foe’s passive deception to see the windup, then the passive arcana/nature/etc of those who saw the windup vs foe’s stealth to see the “tells” that let the party member know what’s about to happen. Maybe give advantage (+5) if the party member is looking right at the enemy.

    Passing the first says something’s about to happen, and passing the second gives an explicit telegraph. What will the player(s) do with the information? Can they ‘bark’ in time? Will they yell “Duck!” or “Run!”? This feeds into the “click rule.”

    I get that this limits the enemy to using their Ult until round 2 unless the party was unaware of the enemy.

    It also gives the DM a reason to think of/make up and Ult for the foe. Did they bring poison arrows? A scroll? An albarest?

      • Unnecessary complexity, indeed! I tried to KISS by making it passive. Without playtesting, it’s all a thought exercise.

        I thought the point was both NPCs and players barking. I wanted to define who for the players could bark. Or did I just completely miss the point?

        • I could see that being useful to allow characters with expertise on a particular beast to see a telegraph on a move that normally wouldn’t be clearly telegraphed.

          For instance, maybe a beastmaster ranger with favoured enemy “Beasts” would spot that the bear is about to charge – an insufficiently dangerous move to telegraph normally.

          However, I would adjust this using character traits rather than rolls, and make it clear why the character spotted it.

      • That’s better!

        The only counterargument against simplification was rewarding the players who made choices that favored those skills when they built their characters. I made this a cardinal rule after Angry pointed it out, acknowledging their choices and how they worked in their favor.

    • Wouldn’t work on a general note. But there’s things like casting spells that could allow for this to work. A player who doesn’t have much knowledge about magic will go “Oh crap he’s doing a lot of gestures, big spell incoming!” while a wizard will be like “He’s… casting goodberry?”

  15. I really like the idea of a charge up mechanic. If i’m going to be telegraphing anyway, my players would probably appreciate a marker next to the monster’s name in initiative, to signal that it’s more than just flavor text.

    My main concern though, how would this interact with Popcorn initiative?

    If the group is fighting, say, a group of dragonborn knights, but their all share the same pool of actions, could a knight charge is breath, get called on again later in the round, and use it?

    If not, what if he goes late in the first round, but gets called on early in the second, before the party can react?

    Conversely, the party could make the knights go first to see if they charge up, and the try and delay the ones that do from acting in the next round, like a draconic game of hot potato.

    Seriously considering this for my next campaign.

    • I would imagine that the simple solution would be for you, the person running the bad guys, to not undermine your own telegraphing by having said bad guys act like that.

      • Well yeah, but I was more so asking for a way of enforcing that mechanically.

        I think I’ve got it though: using a charge move also requires a creature to use the “wait” action first.

        So in the first round, a knight would telegraph his breath at the end of his turn like normal. But in the second round, he would just wait when called, ensuring that he only gets to use it once the party has gotten a chance to react.

        I haven’t actually gotten to use popcorn initiative yet, so forgive me if I’m missing something, but I think that covers it.

  16. I’ve used a similar system to the charge mechanic for years except rather than having it take a round to charge I announce it at the start of the round. This makes it so that a semi-random selection of PCs get a chance to act first and they often have to try and find a way to save the party.

    The biggest downside I’ve noticed is that in many systems the same stat that determines initiative is already quite powerful (particularly in modern settings), adding a significant buff to it can make things go pretty wonky. But it’s slightly offset by the fact that any character can delay their action to move up in the initiative order. And I’ve done a few other things to pump up the other stats effectiveness over the years.

  17. One thing I struggle with is that hit points are a representation of overall ability to fight, including luck, stamina, and physical wounds. Yet the main descriptions I hear and use myself involve only physical wounds (You slash him on the arm with your sword). How do you all work other descriptions into combat?

    • I think your players have to be on board with it. You can say things like ‘You dodge the blade, but twist your ankle in the process, -8 hp’. Or ‘The spider’s leap misses you by a hair’s breadth! Your luck is going to wear out soon, lose 8 hp’. But unless they’re prepared for it, it sounds like ‘oh I missed the attack roll but screw you anyways.’

  18. An interesting effect of combat narration I discovered with narrating attacks, while sitting on the other side of the table, was that hearing the GM narrating misses as the characters not being good enough (e.g. losing our footing and tripping/slipping to explain a melee attack missing and misfiring or having bad aim to describe a ranged attack missing and not being “good enough” at spellcasting for our spell to work/have better heal/damage rolls) despite those things being our peak specialities made combat feel terrible.

    I noticed that even though it’s mechanically the same, the narrative of our characters failing at the execution our best actions felt much more disheartening than that of our opponents overcoming or withstanding those actions. Watching the excitement of myself and other players, I noticed it sapping all the momentum and energy away from the table. It also changed the way successes felt, because when we hit were were like “hey I didn’t suck this time” versus the response of “I finally got them pinned down” when the narration indicated that they were hard to hit (dodgy, armored, etc) despite our skill and the response to our successes driving the emotional momentum of the fight. Now I make a point of describing failed attacks in terms the enemy’s reaction (they block, dodge, parry, etc.) because of the way it makes players feel, with some exceptions for characters using things they are actually non-proficient with.

    • That’s a really good point, thanks for sharing. I definitely have been doing more ‘You miss!’ than ‘It dodges!’ I’ll have to change that up.

  19. “People will complain that telegraphing will make encounters too easy” If there’s something that I’ve learnt from videogame RPGs, is that making the BBEG spend a round dumbly laughing at the player(s) is a perfectly valid choice (specially if said BBEG has multiple turns per round).

    And if there’s something that I personally HATE is getting hit by shit I didn’t know would be there, and had no way of knowing about it. Looking at you, Muttons from XCOM 2.

  20. The ‘Charge Up’ action always resulting in a fully charged state seems too limiting to me to want to have it as my only “charging” mechanic (i.e. I don’t want every creature to have the same one turn on, one turn off rhythm). But it does make me want to adapt the visual & physical dice pool system you’ve suggested for time management to it.

    I’m envisioning making an index card labeled “Dragon” with just an empty circle on it to leave on the table; announcing “the Dragon is taking a ‘charge up’ action to place two dice into its ‘charge pool’ and placing dice in the circle on the card; and enacting a mechanic such as “the Dragon’s breath weapon dealt damage equal to the dice in its charge pool then empties that pool”. Then varying the pool limits, “charge up” action results, and pool use effects for different monsters.

    Lots of added complexity, but potentially with gameplay payoff.

  21. I’ve never used any of these in practice, but years ago I came up my own list as a thought experiment. This was back in 3e days, before Primordial was a language, so I had four different elemental languages instead: Farsi for Auran, Arabic for Ignan (because djinn/efreet), Yiddish for Terran (it seemed like a good “earthy” language) and Hawaiian for Aquan (because it was the most bubbly-sounding language I could think of).

    I decided on Nahuatl (Aztec) for Draconic, because it has to sound believable coming from the mouths of kobolds and lizardfolk as well.

    I can post the rest of my list if anyone’s interested.

    JWilliams, what do you use Dothraki for?

  22. Remembering though, CR is calculated by assuming that the monster will use their most powerful attacks first, and whenever they are available to the monster. Having a dragon (for example) unable to use its breath weapon in the first round would throw off the CR calculations SLIGHTLY.
    In saying that, it’s not a big problem at all, and there are certainly easy workarounds. I can already hear people telling me how you could narratively describe the dragon as being *already* charged up when intiative is rolled, and yes, fine, you could. It’s probably the solution I’d actually go with myself. It’s not helpful from a design point of view to say “you can just narratively [anything]”, though.
    I like the charge mechanic, however fast-and-loose it may be at this stage.
    Which does everyone else feel is preferable? On one hand, changing the way the monster is (generally) intended to be played? Or allowing the monster to start the fight already charged – with the players aware of that condition?
    Or am I missing a really obvious other solution?

    • I can tell you categorically this is false. In 3.5, it is false. Because PF simply modified the CR system in 3.5, it is false in PF. For 5E it is false. False false false. The only modern edition I can say with certainty that is false for is 4E. But I’m also pretty sure it’s false.

      • My mistake; I’d actually picked this up from misunderstanding something that you’d written in your monster building article:

        “At the same time, we also always assume the creature will be using its best option. So, if I have a little goblin wizard with a ray of frost cantrip (3 (1d6) cold damage) and a dagger (1 (1d4-1) piercing damage), we assume it will use its ray of frost every round. The damage output is 3. It will only use that dagger in an emergency. Or not at all.”

        I was taking the guidelines you were laying out as if they were hard rules. Mea culpa.

  23. Telegraphing the enemy’s actions is something that I’m sometimes really good at doing and other times, not so much. It mostly has to do with how familiar I am with the enemy (and to an extend the game system). I think a lot of the telegraphing I do comes out in the lead up to the encounter. For example, the party was traveling by sea galleon and when they came into the bay, they noticed an eerie fog over the water. The crew commented that it was unseasonable for fog like this. And then it got thicker. Then, they heard scratching/scraping sounds coming from the hull, but not from inside the ship. The fog rose higher off of the water, almost reaching the gunwales, and then the first skeletal hand of the undead climbing up the ship was seen. The players had like 5 rounds to get into a position, or investigate, or prep, for what was certainly going to be a combat encounter. And they absolutely took advantage of it. Overall, it was one of my better telegraphs.

    As for combat narration, one thing I find is that many GMs and players seem to want to narrate the action BEFORE the action. If Alice wants to attack a goblin with her short sword, she needs to resolve the attack/damage roll first, and THEN describe how it looked. This is basically what Angry was saying, except he had the GM do the narration. I think with the right group of players/GM it can work either way.

    Combat can be tedious to do this all the time, though. As was said, how many ways can you say, “I attack the goblin and do damage”? It gets repetitious. I do like to have the players describe their spells. And in Savage Worlds (my system of choice) this is pretty much required, since the powers are more generic in their descriptions, leaving the trappings up to the players/GM.

  24. As I’m reading and rereading, I recall somewhere Angry wrote that combats generally are decided by the third round if not sooner, and that DMs should consider narrating entirely away mopping up rounds

    Does this help limit the description fatigue?

    I’ve found this third round decision to often be true in play. Decision does not mean utter defeat, just that the question of who will prevail has been answered on the DMs side of the screen.

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