Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kinetic, Combat That Moves You

What happens when a fireball hits?

Sounds like a silly question, no? Characters lose hit points, stuff burns, 6 sided dice are rolled for damage and saving throws are attempted. But what happens?

Does the impact of a fireball, which we know fills in a given space with its flames, have impact? Does it knock people down and blow doors off their hinges? If fired in a house with glass windows (perhaps in a temple with stained glass or other post-medieval locale with glass) does its detonation cause all the pretty colored scenes to shatter into so much prismatic sand and razor sharp shards of shrapnel?

One element of my games that my players really seem to enjoy is the cinematic, fast paced and very visual nature of combat. More so than the mechanical elements, I work very hard to describe scenes of combat and other action packed moments in a way that enables the players to 'see' what is happening. I embellish quite a bit and let my players do the same. If someone wants to swing a sword to parry an attack and then with their second move spin around and come up swinging into the opponents kidney area, well by all means. If a guy wants to leap from his flying mount feet first, drop kick an enemy off their mount and somersault back into their own saddle, I say, "You go for it brother-man!" (Or lady-sister if appropriate).

I've been in a lot of RPG battles as a player and I've run a hundred times as many as a GM. Most battles I've been in have been rather boring. Most, though not nearly all, are very much affairs of the dice. I roll to hit, I miss. GM rolls to hit and he hits. He rolls damage. I roll to hit, I hit...rinse, repeat. Nothing really interesting or jarring. Ways to make combat or similar action challenges more exciting include...

Changing up the terrain, weather conditions, transportation method, etc. I've said it before and I'll say it again - Environment, Environment, Environment! Fight on horseback, leaping from rock to rock in a lava flow or while swinging on vines in a jungle. Ever fight aboard a sinking pirate ship? How about in the middle of a sand storm in a vast desert? Try it. It definitely adds spice and makes players think on their feet in order to survive both the situation and the battle.

Add special effects. I once described the following to players coming down a hill at night..."You see sudden flashes of light in the distance, some of which zip back and forth like fist sized fireflies. You hear what sounds like quick movements of small birds or dragonflies and a few yelps of pain. What you want to do?"

The party ran over to get a closer look. The lights and fireflies were magic missile volley being traded by the two group fighting in the valley, each representing a nearby Kingdom. The sounds the PCs heard were actually arrows and injured warriors.

Don't forget to have things go boom, boing or buzz. A fireball might miss you and you take no damage but in certain compressed spaces the force of the blast might send a character through a door or window.

Try talking faster or in a more urgent tone as combat amps up and don't be afraid to jump from PC to PC regardless of initiative if it fits the layout of the scenario and the battlefield. The fastest guy, PC D, still moved first but since PC A is near PC B when the floor beneath PC B erupts into a geyser of dirt and rock you may want to go to her quickly and than leave again when she makes a dramatic roll, movement or decision.

Describe how an attack rattles their teeth, shakes the ground, causes everyones' clothes to flutter in the rushing wind of the blow's backdraft.

Watch a lot of Anime. Japanese Animators and Manga Artists know how to make fights look and feel awesome. There are plenty of D&D-esque titles to choose from, most available at Borders, Barnes & Noble or your friendly local comic book shops.

Simply put, combat, IMHO, should be kinetic. It should move and move you. Swoop down, leap up, charge across the field and swing into action.

Barking Alien


  1. Interesting... I was going to do this last night, but my players never did anything that let me add them to the Wave. Probably scheduling, and I knew about it, but it would have been fun. Fortunately it was the first session, so we didn't have a long cliffhanger or anything. It was going to be set in a zero-g section of the Gigastructure.

  2. You were going to do what exactly? A game with kinetic combat? Cool. Can you explain how in more detail? That would be really neat to hear about.