Doing Your Part as an RPG Player to Create Cinematic Combat Encounters
Salutations, nerds! Today we’re looking at combat in a tabletop roleplaying game and how you as a player contribute to describing them and fostering a more cinematic experience. I can imagine some of you reading this tentatively thinking, “But isn’t this the Game Master’s job?” And actually you’re right — to an extent. Players possess some degree of agency when it comes to how their RPG characters fight is perceived. Now the discussion becomes how to get those cool moves across without being an attention hog.
What does combat say about an RPG character?
Before you can do anything else you need to know the answer to this question. Is your character a rage machine who bashes through everything indiscriminately? Or would you characterize your character more as a precise instrument making cuts where they are needed and moving right along to the next target? Does your character fight at range or up close and personal?
Close your eyes and imagine your character fighting. We’re going to use one of my fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons characters as an example — lightfoot halfling bard Kenna Hollythorn from our Scarlet Sisterhood campaign. Kenna had to be quick because of her size so she did a lot of swinging up onto enemies, running along limbs and generally setting herself up for better angles. Mobility goes a long way when you don’t have reach, after all.
Starting off strong
Use your first few actions in a combat situation to set up the visual reference for how your character moves in a space. When your character makes their first swing talk about how their steps are hard enough to shake some of the leaves free from the nearby trees and how they spiral down from the branches, or how your character’s sword is almost impossible to see because of the speed and deftness with which they wield it.
After this people will naturally continue to imagine your character moving in the way you already described. You’re setting a precedent for the way your character approaches combat that carries forward as long as you remember to sprinkle in a little bit of description as you go over the course of the combat.
Don’t lose sight of why you fight
Remember the stakes! If you’re killing rats in a basement it makes perfect sense for your character to just be having fun and showing off. While there are definitely some types of character who continue to make jokes in a real life or death struggle not all of them will. If the combat your character becomes embroiled in is particularly difficult or desperate describing how they respond to the struggle can be extremely helpful.
Describe your character’s dialogue through heavy breathing. Talk about how the blows come more heavily as the fight wears on and fatigue begins to set in. Fight harder if there’s something you care about on the line! Desperation is always compelling to watch and participate in.
A note on dialogue
In a real fight typically people won’t be talking to each other. It’s all happening too fast and there is too much to focus on. But you aren’t in a real fight and there’s a reason people sass at each other so much in the movies.
(We’re not going for a real fight. In real combat people aren’t going to be chucking fireballs around either.)
Of course, strong silence is always an option. But what your character does or does not say in the moment of combat is also an excellent opportunity to characterize who they are as a person. A character who talks a lot of trash in the middle of combat is going to give off a very different vibe than one who simply gives off an intense stare.
A lot of this depends on how a Game Master sets and presents a combat scenario but I have every confidence the lot of you can pull down a little bit of extra effort to make those combat encounters something special. Good luck, have fun and of course, stay nerdy!