Generally speaking, I don’t believe in telling people how D&D ‘should’ be played. There are different DM styles and different game styles, and that’s OK. Even now, I’m really offering a tip, not an instruction. But if there’s one easy way to improve combat, it’s this:
Stop describing every hit and miss.
Sacrilige! I hear some of you say. Many players love describing the swings and misses of their sword blows or the targeted shots from their crossbow. And I really don’t want you to stop doing something that stops you having fun! But I have three reasons for writing this post today.
1. Describing every hit and miss might be fun for you, but it can get pretty tedious for everyone else.
Let’s say you’re playing with four other people: three players and a DM. If each of you spend 30 seconds describing your turn, you only have to wait two minutes for your turn to come round. If you spend about three minutes on your turn – which really isn’t that long – you are waiting more than ten minutes for your turn to come round. That’s a long time.
2. Describing every hit and miss is a fundamental misunderstanding of how hit points work.
I covered this in my ‘rules you never knew’ series. Let’s reread how the Player’s Handbook defines hit points (p 196):
Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.
A hit is not necessarily a wound, and it would be kind of ridiculous if it were. Imagine someone being blasted repeatedly with magic missiles, yet they somehow stay standing. It starts to feel a bit silly, right? Just because someone has been hit does not mean they are bleeding out.
The Player’s Handbook also says this on the next page (emphasis mine):
When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.
For many players, this is a fundamental shift in thinking.
Here’s an example. Imagine a fighter is fighting an orc (15 hp). The warrior ‘hits’ for 5 damage, reducing the orc to 10 hp. According to the Player’s Handbook, the orc shows no sign of injury. Maybe the fighter catches the orc off guard, or flexes her swordsmanship, or gives the orc reason to think twice about its next move. But the orc is not visibly wounded.
If the ranger fires an arrow at the orc and deals another 8 damage, that’s another matter. The orc is now on 2 hp. But again, this is not necessarily a ‘direct hit’. The orc is showing ‘signs of wear, such as cuts or bruises’, but it’s not unconscious.
If the wizard now casts magic missile and hits the orc for 1d4+1 damage, the orc is unconscious. This might ‘feel’ wrong because the ranger was the one who did the most damage, but it’s the ‘killing blow’ that matters.
3. Cut back on superfluous description and the special hits become more cinematic.
Don’t get me wrong, your character is important. But we don’t need to know about it every time they swing a sword. Very often in fiction, when it comes to good description, less is more.
So, which hits matter? I would suggest three only:
- First blood (half hit points);
- Knockout blows (0 hp);
- Critical hits (which very often end up being one of the other two hits).
Every other ‘hit’ is just a hit. Save the description for when it matters.
DMs, this goes for you, too! Even more so, in fact, because you field so many more enemies on the table.
At first it might feel a bit weird to just say ‘7 damage’ and move on, but if everyone at the table does it, you start to notice some cool things happening. Your turn comes round faster, combats don’t drag as much, and those special moves stand out as cinematic flourishes. Try it out.
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